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Script


  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 11. Church and State.
  • Last time we stopped with Constantine becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and Arius and the Orthodox Church reaching a theological stalemate
  • Just to make sure everyone is in the same page, Arius and Arianism we are talking about has nothing to do with the Nazi’s. They are spelled differently and have no relationship whatsoever with each other.
  • Now with that out of the way, in our story, theological controversies will come up again and again until Egypt is conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century
  • So, I think it would be helpful if we establish some common threads for all the controversies to see how they played a vital role for Egypt’s society as a whole, and not just in some elite religious circles
  • First, Theological controversies are like a forest fire. Sure, you need an initial spark or a problematic theological idea , but there must be social, economic, and political factors to turn a faulty theological idea into a forest fire with a destructive impact  
  • And if we continue to follow the forest fire metaphor, the more you let it grow, the more it will be more difficult to put down and at some point, the only way you can combat it is to start a fire in the opposite direction – That is, at some point, church councils, and diplomatic letters between bishops are no longer effective, and the imperial government has to intervene and use things like censoring of bishops, confiscation of property , exile, and even violence
  • But as we will see, imperial force alone is usually not sufficient to settle theological controversies, only when combined by theological legitimacy then it’s highly effective
  • The source of that legitimacy is traditionally a coalition of bishops or a church council for most of the Christian empire, but in Egypt, cultivating monastic support was just as important
  • Repeatedly in the history of the Copts, the Bishops of Alexandria are able defy the imperial theological agenda and not only survive, but achieve a theological victory. The most impressive of these victories will come shortly with St. Athanasius v. the Constantianian imperial family
  • The struggle had deep geopolitical roots that turned it between a disagreement between an Alexandrian priest and his bishop to an empire-wide struggle that shaped the politics of government for many years   
  • The first root of the problem is the lack of clear relationship between Church and State. Starting with Constantine and going forward, the local bishops were not only a religious authority, but also a civil and a political one
  • Which in itself isn’t a problem as Pagan emperors before Constantine have intermingled religion and state for a long time and so did their local administrators but the hierarchy and the relationship between them was clear
  • So if Diocletian wanted to sack a problematic pagan priest, no one questions his authority to do so
  • But Constantine was so hesitant to condemn bishops and preferred that they are condemned by church councils instead, and in the same time bishops pushed back when they felt local administrators interfered in church matters and were generally supported by Constantine. This was a new precedence that was being set.
  • So questions like what happens if one council of bishops condemns a priest, but another reinstate him? And who can remove bishops and how can one go about doing so? Were unanswered and in flux.
  • If we take the point of view of an average citizen of the empire, the new world Constantine was creating had huge implications  
  • if your neighbor cheated you in a trade or violated a contract, or even if you wanted to appeal your taxes, can you go to the bishop to resolve your dispute? What if that bishop held different beliefs than you? And what if your neighbor was religious man but you are not?
  • The answers to these questions were being decided upon during the 4th
  • But at this point in our history generally speaking, the church hierarchy served as an informal means of governing and capable administrators worked with them to maintain the peace, but with time they will become more and more intertwined
  • The second of these issues, is that The Great Persecution especially targeted church leadership and many of the bishops were absent, either because they went into hiding or they were imprisoned or killed.
  • As a result the local churches priests and deacons became the de facto leaders of their community and their congregation looked to them for guidance and as the final word in theological matters
  • Also, the Schism started by Meleitus that we discussed in Episode 9 meant that the authority of the bishop of Alexandria was challenged, not only by local priests but via a rival church
  • But perhaps, the biggest issue that lead to the Arian controversy was the lack of a clear hierarchy among bishops
  • The bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were always in a leading position due to the political and cultural importance of their cities
  • Next came Carthage, Nicomedia, and Ceaserea. And, of course, Jerusalem was important due to its symbolic history.
  • In a few years of our narrative, the bishop of Constantinople would also play a major role.
  • But, their relationship at this point was informal and not based on theological solid ground and with little formal rules to govern their interactions or whose theological judgment comes first. In the upcoming struggle, it wasn’t just esoteric theology in question, but what is the hierarchy of the bishops of the empire.
  • The struggle began when Constantine decided to intervene and solve the Arian problem by getting everyone in the same room and have them agree on what should be the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the trinity. In other words, hold a universal church council.
  • Constantine was moved to action by the bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius. Arius and Eusebius had developed a relationship and as we will see, without Eusebius Arianism would have died quietly.
  • Eusebius of Nicomedia was an influential bishop and was part of the Palace governing machinery and in Constantine circle. He eventually became one of Arius most ardent supporters.
  • His position in the palace didn’t give him any additional theological weight as far as the other bishops of the empire were concerned, but he was ambitious and very adept at palace intrigue, so generally speaking, his theological ideas ended up shaping imperial policy
  • As a minor side note, Eusebius of Nicomedia is a different person than Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous church historian and one of the major historical sources for this period. Both of them supported Arius and were close to Constantine and the imperial family, but Eusebius of Caesarea was more or less a passive supporter of Arius
  • Anyway, through the influence of Eusebius of Nicomedia, Constantine sent a friendly letter addressed to both Pope Alexander and Arius urging them to solve their dispute peacefully and in a Christian manner
  • Despite the tone of the letter, Constantine’s clearly either wasn’t interest in the theology or it was simply beyond him. He was a soldier emperor raised by an Inn keeper daughter and a Soldier father, not a Greek philosopher or a Christian theologian. His motivations were simply to keep the peace and govern efficiently
  • Regardless, the letter had no effect which prompted Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, just a year after his victory over Licinus and 20 year after his father’s death in Britain and starting his journey as an emperor  
  • The Council was originally planned for Ancyra, but Constantine wanted to attend, so it was moved closer to him to Nicaea
  • Constantine's objective was simple.   Peace and unity in the Church for the prosperity of the State. He probably envisioned the bishops coming together and negotiating some sort of a compromise where everyone is happy.  
  • Someone should probably have told him that theologians don’t compromise. Especially, Coptic ones.
  • In the minds of the Coptic bishops and clergy attending it was a matter of the right faith or the wrong one. Not a political issue to be negotiated over to make everyone happy.
  • This dogma of unyielding theology would shape the history of the Copts in unmistakable manner. It will be become clearer and more influential as we move along in our narrative, especially in a century from now with the events of the Council of Chalcedon.
  • The Council started with a moving speech from Constantine where he starting by preaching unity and ended by burning the petitions addressed to him by various bishops who accused each other of misconduct
  • Then 18 bishops who supported Arian presented a faith statement or a creed, but it caused an uproar among the 300 or so other bishops in attendance and it was torn up
  • Next, Eusebius of Caesarea presented a comprise creed, but the Anti-Arian party led by Pope Alexander and his protégé and deacon Athanasius wouldn’t compromise and introduced very specific terminology that is free of all Arian thought
  • The words introduced were that the Son, Jesus Christ was “quote: begotten, not created, of the same substance of the Father unquote”
  • After the introduction of that terminology, the bishops were in four camps. Extreme Arians led by Arius himself, and Eusebius of Nicomedia, Moderate Arians led by Eusebius of Caesarea, Moderate anti-Arians led by the bishop Ossius of Cordova in modern day Spain who probably presided over the Council, and the Extreme anti-Arian positon led by the Coptic Pope Alexander
  • Those names would be with us for a while, as the Council of Nicea was just the first battle in a long war
  • The anti-Arian side eventually won the day in Nicea and didn’t give even an inch in theological ground but nonetheless, Constantine had to intervene and pressure many of the Arians bishops to sign it, as well as offer his own interpretation of the words “of the same substance” to appease some of Arian bishops
  • By the end of the day, all three hundred and eighteen bishop present s agreed to the creed except three of them. Who were promptly exiled and removed from their see by Constantine.
  • And it does seem, the rest of the Arian bishops weren’t persuaded by the theological argument but rather decided to retreat and live to fight another day. Like I said earlier, to eliminate a popular heretical thought, you needed theological legitimacy and imperial enforcement
  • And as they couldn’t get the theological legitimacy, they shifted the battle to imperial policy
  • In addition to deciding on the creed of Faith or the Nicean Creed as it will come to be known. The Council published several cannons dealing with thorny issues of the time
  • The cannons in interest for the Egyptian church and the Copts are the assigning of the Easter date calculation for the universal church to the Bishop of Alexandria as well as several cannons to try and solve the problem of the rival church in Egypt established by Meleitus
  • And unlike the theological matters where Pope Alexander wouldn’t compromise, he gave away lots of ground to reconcile Meleitus and his bishops back to the Alexandrian church
  • The council effectively allowed Melitius to keep his position as a bishop as well as allow the clergy and bishops ordained by him to be restored to their positions with the consent of the Bishop of Alexandria who still kept the exclusive future right to ordain bishops in the province of Egypt
  • While in theory this was supposed to solve the problem, it essentially kept a small coalition of clergy in Egypt who didn’t consider themselves to be under the Bishop of Alexandria and repeatedly acted against him, especially once St. Athanasius comes into our narrative
  • And with that, the council wrapped its business and everyone returned to their homes hoping that the Arian controversy have ended, and the Peace of the church restored with another impressive achievement for Constantine
  • if it was only that easy!

Coptic Encyclopedia, The story of the Church of Egypt (E.L. Butcher)

  • Now, it’s time to formally introduce St. Athanasius
  • Athanasius was probably born in the late 290’s AD and grew up in the shadow of the Great persecution
  • By the Edict of Milan at 312 AD and the subsequent toleration of Christianity Athanasius was a young teenager who caught the attention of Pope Alexander and was probably enrolled in the Theological School of Alexandria
  • Supposedly, Pope Alexander watching the Seashore of Alexandria from his window, saw a group of teenagers playing and reenacting the act of baptism
  • Intrigued by the sight, he summoned them and after talking with them, he recognized that the baptisms performed by one of them were valid
  • The boy who performed the baptism was Athanasius, who was kept as part of Pope Alexander court and quickly rose through the ranks to become his secretary and protégé
  • By the time of the Council of Nicea, Pope Alexander was getting older and it became increasingly clear that St. Athanasius was not only his heir, but the major influence on the Anti-Arians position of the Alexandrian church
  • In other words, for the Arian bishops, Athanasius elevation to the patriarchy of Alexandria would be a major diplomatic loss as it would effectively guarantee that a major cultural and religious center of the empire would be anti-Arian
  • Their loss came about 3 years after the Council of Nicea in 328 AD, where Pope Alexander passed away and Athanasius took the helm
  • In those 3 years, the Arians bishops led by Eusebius were working hard in two fronts. The first, is to ordain new bishops who shared their views in vacant sees or to replace bishops who were removed for various political and moral reasons
  • The second was to build a communication network among the meletian dissenting clergy as a resistance movement to the Alexandrian bishop
  • So shortly before Alexander’s death in January 328 AD, a local council was assembled in Nicomedia, the seat of Constantine court as this was before Constantinople was established in the pretext of reintegrating the meletian bishops
  • And since neither Pope Alexander or Athanasius were present, the Council made minor moves toward reintegrating the meletian bishops to go along with its pre-stated public goal but perhaps more importantly executed a brilliant political move by readmitting Arius and those who supported him in the nice sounding slogan of preserving unity 
  • And because Constantine was present due to the Council location and endorsed its decisions, it had an added weight, and the elderly Alexander couldn’t just ignore it as a local affair
  • So he wrote a letter to Constantine explaining why he can’t and wouldn’t admit Arius to the Church but he is happy to accept the Melitian bishops back as already decided in the Council of Nicea. He gave the letter to Athanasius to take to Constantine
  • But on April 328 AD, Alexander passed away and St. Athanasius went back to Alexandria to the assembly of 54 bishops to decide on the transition
  • In the Coptic sources, the transition was smooth and easy. St. Athanasius hesitated on taking on the responsibility and the honor, but the people and the clergy gathered and demanded that he becomes the patriarch
  • But, in the non-Coptic sources, the bishops assembled included meletian bishops who wouldn’t accept Athanasius as a bishop
  • Things were at a stalemate for a couple of months until a group of bishops who supported Pope Alexander took Athanasios, maybe against his wish, and unilaterally consecrated him as a bishop without the approval of the meletian bishops present
  • In response, the Meletian bishops consecrated their own patriarch. And now, we see the beginnings of Athanasius, he who is against the world.
  • Since day one of his patriarchy he faced enemies on all fronts. Inside Egypt with the Meletian clergy and outside Egypt with an increasingly influential coalition of Arian bishops. And if that wasn’t enough, in a bit he would have the imperial government with all its might coming after him.
  • Now, I would like to end this week with a small background on the sources for the next part of our story, as it is a bit controversial to say the least
  • Athanasius was a prolific writer and we can almost create a narrative solely based on what he wrote and what survived of it
  • Not only his work survived, but since his ideas and theological thought eventually would win the day, he became a Christian and National hero after his death and naturally we got plenty of other sources confirming what he wrote   
  • You would think that the availability of St. Athanasius writings would makes things easy
  • But it made the task of creating a narrative hard since he was such a polarizing figure, that in his time, similar to modern political controversies, it was very hard to get to the bottom of things and separate allegations from facts
  • So, for the modern historians, the choice is either to take the writing of Athanasius as the most authentic of the sources and firsthand account of what happened or to not treat his writing as authentic material and embark on a detective-style history telling
  • So, we get a range Edward Gibbon calling him quote “A superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better that the degenerate sons of Constantine for the government of a great monarchy “ to Eduard Schwartz assessment that he quote “a Politician through and through who could not narrate the fact”
  • For the record, Edward Gibbon was known for his six volume anti-Christian narration of Roman history, so his praise of St. Athanasius is despite his general dislike of Christianity
  • And Eduard Schwartz have published seven studies just on the history of Athanasius
  • So what does a Podcaster trying to give a narration as close to the truth as possible do?
  • Well, there is no easy answers, sometimes I will present both sides as is, sometimes I will present what I think what most likely have happened.
  • Generally speaking though, I lean on the side of accepting what St. Athanasius wrote as authentic and factual.
  • And with this disclaimer, I will end the episode for this week. Next week, St. Athanasius will begin his time as Patriarch of the Copts and earn the name Athanasius Contra Mundum. E. Athanasius who is against the world. A badge of honor as far the Copts is concerned.
  • Farewell, and until next week.

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire by" Timothy D. Barnes
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
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