Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 6. Origen and Demetrious.
Today, the Coptic Church is synonymous with the Copts and forms the foundation of their identity out of which everything else flows,
The Coptic Church is the institution where the Copts looked for law, societal norms, and for so many centuries, education, so how did that become to me?
Of course, over the centuries multiple events and persons led to that development, one of those events and perhaps the first, is the story of how Pope Demetrious consolidated and expanded the Coptic church and as unfortunate byproduct, Origen, one of the most brilliant minds in Early Christianity was banished and excommunicated from the Coptic Church
It’s a story of how creativity and free thought clashed with tradition and a growing church trying to build a unified vision and a set of belief
And just like a modern day silicon valley start-ups --- the ingenuity and the abstract thinking of the founders, slowly gave way to more principled, and a more organized institution that will come to dominate the lives of the Copts
Before we go on to Pope Demetrious and his clash with Origen though, let’s briefly explore the wider geopolitical scene with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus
So remember last week when the clemency of Marcus Aurelius toward Cassius’ family and supporters was the highlight of his trip to the East?
Well, Commodus, his son and our next emperor first act was to round Cassius family up and kill them
That wasn’t the worse thing he did either, just the first, by the end of his 12 year reign, he truly believed that he is Hercules, crippled the Roman economy, and tried to rename Rome and all the months of the year to correspond to his name
In Egypt, the repressive cycle of taxation and land abandonment plus the loss of life of the Bucolic rebellion dealt a serious blow to the grain productivity
The Egyptian grain supply was no longer sufficient to feed Rome, and a new supply had to be procured from North Africa, in modern day Tunisia
While the grip of the Romans were slipping, and misery abounded in Egypt, the Coptic Church was being transformed by Pope Demetrious
In the Eighth year of the reign of Commodus, Pope Demetrious was elevated
The Story of his election in the Coptic tradition goes like that
In the year 188 AD, an ordinary person from a Coptic farmer stock, both illiterate and married, goes and visits Pope Julian who was sick and dying
Pope Julian, just prior to the visit had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and said that the man who would bring him a bunch of grapes in the morning would be patriarch after him.
And so it was, the Coptic farmer had just found some grapes that were out of season, and took them to the patriarch on his deathbed. Pope Julian at once told his companions about his dream and died shortly afterward.
Pope Demetrious was then elevated, and earned the nickname, the vinedresser
Whether the events transcribed as told in the Coptic tradition, or in some other way is not as important as some of the details presented in the story
For one, Pope Demetrious is identified as a Copt, which is a first in our history
This is not to say that the prior popes were not Copts, but they were most likely, Alexandrian Greeks, which as we saw in the prior episodes more of a class and legal distinction, rather than an ethnic or a nationalistic one, but we can’t definitively say one way or another
Opposite to that, Pope Demetrious was seen by the Egyptians as one of them, at least from the 5th century historian perspective, when that Coptic tradition was written down by an Egyptian monk named Menas
When Pope Demetrious was elevated, Clement of Alexandria was at his literary peak, writing and circulating his Christian teachings trying to Christianize philosophy and rationalize Christianity
We don’t know much about their relationship, it does seem that Clement was too entrenched in the Alexandrian theological scene for Pope Demetrious to try and put him under the institution of the church and likely they both prospered in their respective circles of influence
That dynamic changed significantly when Septimus Severus visited Egypt and began a brief, but intense period of prosecution that led to Clement leaving Alexandria and opening the door for Pope Demetrious to put the circle of Alexandrian philosophers and teachers under the guidance and the supervision of the Church by formally appointing Origen as the dean of theological school of Alexandria.
Origen, a young brilliant philosopher and teacher of the time, gave Pope Demetrious the intellectual pedigree needed to be able to consolidate all the Christian teachings under the church
While Pope Demetrious, through the authority and the legitimacy of the throne of St. Mark, gave Origen, a wide audience and added weight to his teachings
Thus, the Coptic Church via Pope Demetrious efforts began to consolidate and guide the intellectual circles of Alexandria
However, the arrangement only worked as long as Origen was able to retain his academic freedom, and wasn’t ordained as a priest or a bishop. Therefore, maintaining a balance of power.
Despite the intricacies of that relationship, the union between Origen and Pope Demetrious would last for close to 32 years, thereby entrenching the association between the school and the church
But eventually they will break and in their subsequent infighting, Origen will be banished from Alexandria and excommunicated from the Coptic church leaving behind a legacy of controversy
I will go back and explore how and why the break happened, but to be able to appreciate the changes happening in Egypt at the time, I think it is worth it to explore the state of the wider events of the Mediterranean first
Commodus, through his complete failure to govern, gets assassinated on December 31st, 192 AD.
What follows is a time of complete chaos known as the year of the 5 emperors.
The first emperor is Pertinax, a senator, ex-governor, and an army general who gets elevated to the imperial title first, but killed within 3 months by the troops posted in Rome to serve as his body guards
Then those very same troops auction off the office of the emperor to the highest bidder, which turns out to be another senator – Didus Julianus
If only Didus Julianus knew his history, he would have known how Otho, only a 100 year or so before him, also tried to buy the imperial title, but only lasted for 3 months
Just like Otho, Didus Julianus lasted less than 3 months, and before he was executed, every notable Roman general with access to respectable number of troops declared himself emperor
So, Clodius Albinus was emperor in Britain, Septimus Severus in Central Europe, and Pescennius Niger in the East with the support of Syria and Egypt
The closest general to Rome, was Septimus Severus, who marched on Italy and took control of Rome
He then offered Clodius Albinus, the title Caesar, and likely promised him succession
With his flank covered diplomatically, he was able to concentrate all his efforts on fighting Pescennius Niger
Septimus Severus then clinically dispatched with Pescennius Niger and then renegaded on his promise to Clodius Albinus, and also defeated him becoming the sole master of the empire
In the struggle, the decreasing importance of the Egyptian grain became evident. As Severus, as soon as he took control of Rome, instead of trying to secure Egypt and its grain, he concentrated on North Africa and securing the grain from there
It was no longer possible to starve Rome by controlling Alexandria, as Vespasian intended to do in the last century
Severus was able to secure all of his empire by 197 AD, and immediately after, he went to war with the Parithian empire, in modern day Iran
The war was a success, and on his way back he took a tour of the eastern provinces, including Egypt around 202 AD
In his visit to Egypt, several important reforms took place that played a pivotal role for Egyptians
The most important of these reforms is the institution of self-governing councils for all the nomes capitals and Alexandria, thereby treating Egyptian cities as equal to Greek cities throughout the empire
The change initially was very welcome, and local pride pushed wealthy inhabitants to clamor to be in the council of their local city
The councils also took on a lot of the responsibilities of what used to be obligatory liturgies, making life easier for land owning farmers and middle class city dwellers in the process
Nonetheless, after the first generation, and the breakdown of central governance that will mark the next century, serving in the council came to be seen as unwelcomed burden, and cities decayed, until Diocletian reformed the whole system
Shortly after Severus visit, a Christian prosecution broke out in Alexandria.
While Eusbious personally holds Severus responsible, and reasonably so, as Severus, like all the emperors before him, didn’t have a positive outlook about Christianity and tried to prevent its spread
It does seem, however, that the Persecution was driven by the prefect and the local administration in Alexandria due to its short duration, and the fact that is subsided with Severus still in power
The two most important results of that persecution is that Clement left Alexandria, and opened the door for Pope Demetrious to assert his control of the School of Alexandria
And that Origen’s father was martyred, therefore raising the profile of Origen and his family as suffering Christians
Origen was only about 17 years old at this point, so on account of age, he didn’t formally become the dean of the School Alexandria until he was in his late 20’s
But nonetheless, it does seem he was actively teaching Christian principles and gaining fame from a very young age
As Euspious implies that many of the famous teachers of Alexandria have escaped from the persecution, and as a result Origen became the de facto leader in teaching Christian principles in Alexandria
Only in 215 AD, that role was formally recognized by Pope Demetrious and gained the additional legitimacy provided by association with the bishop of Alexandria
Two additional very important developments happened as well around this time
The first of those, is that with the new importance and independence of cities in the heartland of Egypt granted by Severus, and the spread of Christianity into the rural population, Pope Demetrious either out of necessity or an exceptional vision ordained for the first time, three bishops to tend to the affairs of Copts outside of Alexandria
While he was ceding some of his authority, as those bishops could and in time would challenge the authority of the bishop of Alexandria, he was also claiming for the Coptic Church, the whole of Egypt, and eventually Libya and Ethiopia
Those bishops will in time grow in numbers and influence, and with the resentments of the upper class to serving in the city councils, they will instead compete and strive to be bishops.
Those bishops will then go on and represent the interests of their cities and their rural surrounding areas
And not just the religious interests, but the secular and political interests as well. So, over time and especially after Constantine and the rapid spread of Christianity, the archbishop of Alexandria would come to be the head of an institution that can claim rightfully to represents all of Egypt
And it all began with Pope Demetrious looking toward the affairs of the Egyptians farmers and cultivating them as a powerbase in opposition to the popular mantra of the day of ignoring them as hopeless, uncivilized, fickle group
The second development was born out of the need for those bishops to be effective missionaries
To evangelize successfully they needed to teach and reach out to the Egyptians farmers in their native tongue, which was by this point, only a spoken language as demotic and hierglophyics had been for the most part forgotten, so a new written language had to be devised
So, the Coptic language was developed and became a very effective method in conveying the bible and written Christian materials to the uneducated Egyptian farmers
Now, to be completely fair, Coptic wasn’t developed over night, but over centuries with multiple attempts in creating something similar prior to Christianity, but none of them endured or had any significant usage
But only with Christianity and the Coptic church it was fully developed and gained widespread usage
To create Coptic, the people who devised is, used the Greek alphabet, plus 6 or 7 letters depending on the dialect from demotic to express the spoken language of the Egyptians
As we with most languages, the development of Coptic was a continuous evolution, so it’s not necessarily easy to give an exact date when it was devised
Nonetheless, there is a preserved papyri from as early as 275 AD in a mature form of Coptic, only 40 years or so from the death of Pope Demetrious
I have a posted a picture of that papyri on the podcast Facebook page for those who are interested
And thus, through the ordination of bishops for the cities of Egypt, and the development of the Coptic language, the Coptic church began to dominate the religious and secular lives of the Egyptians
But the battle for the minds of the Alexandrian intellectuals was only in its opening round with the union between Origen and Pope Demetrious
As mentioned earlier in the Episode, that union was highly effective for a long time, but around 230’s AD toward the end of Pope Demetrious 45 years long reign, cracks started to appear
The problem started with Origen intellectual interest in exploring deeper matters of theology
His explorations were problematic on two fronts, the first, is that they distracted from the primary function of the theological School of Alexandria, which was to offer elementary education of basic Christian principles to those interested in the faith
The second, is that his writings which some has survived until today, were highly speculative and complex, which was beyond many of those around him including Pope Demetrious – Especially, if we hold on to the tradition, that he was really illiterate
And just like today and really any age, when fear and rejection of what we don’t understand is the most natural response, Origen’s theology was a source of tension in his time and for generations to come
So eventually, Origen’s changed the school structure, he divided the teaching into basic instructions, led by his student, Heraclas (Yaraclas) – Remember his name, he will come back to our story
And advanced studies, led by him personally.
It does seen that after this reorganization, the relationship between Pope Demetrious and Origen took a dive
And Origen responded by leaving Alexandria and taking an international tour mainly in Palestine and Arabia where he preached and taught regularly
The story could have ended there and the controversy would have ended, but unfortunately, Pope Demetrious went on an intense letter-writing campaign, writing, through scribes if he was truly illiterate, to his colleagues in Jerusalem and Caesarea admonishing them for allowing Origen, a layperson, to preach while the bishop was present
They responded by supporting Origen, and citing multiple examples where a lay person preached when a bishops was present
Pope Demetrious then tried another strategy, sending a conciliatory letter via a delegation of deacons to Origen himself, asking him to come back to Alexandria
Origen came back briefly, but seeing that essentially nothing has changed, he left for the final time to Caesarea in Palestine
In Caesarea he was ordained a priest, and was able to set up another theological school, where he able to teach and explore the deeper theological matters that interested him the most
Pope Demetrious reaction to his ordination as a priest was fierce, not only because of his tense relationship with Origen, but because another bishop had intruded on his authority and ordained an Alexandrian lay person
Perhaps as a testament of to the international influence of the Coptic Church at this junction, Pope Demetrious excommunicated Origen, and was able to get the church in Rome to do the same as well
But the bishops of Palestine and Arabia stuck with Origen and essentially ignored the Alexandrian and the Roman churches
Shortly after, Pope Demetrious died after more than 42 years as head of the Coptic Church
He was followed by Pope Heraclas (Yaraklas), Origen’s former student and protégé, who headed the School of Alexandria after Origen’s departure
Pope Heraclas would also uphold the excommunication of Origen, and with Origen out of the picture, the School of Alexandria became an inseparable part of the Church
For the next century, the Coptic Papacy would be filled exclusively by the deans of the School of Alexandria
And thus, the Coptic Church was able to put the Christian intellectual elites under its wing
Origen continued with his school in Caesarea for a while after, until another persecution that led to his death
But even after his death, his school survived and prospered, eventually producing Euspious, one of the most important Christian historians
The divide over Origin and Pope Demetrious would never really disappear, even until now, Copts still take sides and debate who was right and who was wrong
In that spirit of that debate, I am going to go ahead and try to address some of the historical questions surrounding the story of Pope Demetrious and Origen
The first and perhaps most important of those is, did Origin fall into heresy?
From the various sources addressing Origen, I believe that the historian, and Irish bishop Hansen work in the Coptic Encyclopedia addressed that question best, according to Hansen, Origen was a devout churchman all his life; he championed the Christian church in his books, encouraged its martyrs, preached to its congregations, and on more than one occasion was called in to reconcile heretics or to convert the misled. In his own day he was regarded by most of his friends and followers as a great Christian teacher and philosopher, and this deserved reputation lasted long after his death. It would be quite wrong to call him a heretic.
By the standards of his own day he was not only orthodox but a defender and upholder of orthodoxy. It was only long after his death that serious accusations of heresy were brought against him.
Origen wasn’t only excommunicated in Rome and Alexandria, but eventually also in a church Council in Constantinople. But those excommunications were highly political in nature, rather than being based on theology
Now to be fair, if we examined his writing through our 21st century eyes, not everything he wrote is right or fits with Orthodoxy. But then again, we will have in our side, thousands of years of theological work and church councils which Origen didn’t have.
The back and forth arguments can have its own podcast and there is also out there valid arguments why he was a heretic, I have just presented, the view I am most comfortable, and convinced with
The second question is, did Pope Demetrious excommunicate Origen because he castrated himself?
Historians are divided whether Origen really castrated himself or not, but they are not divided that the excommunication had little to do with Origen castration. After all, Pope Demetrious and Origen have been close associates for more than 30 years before their break, and the castration only became an issue after their relationship deteriorated
In his writing, Origin implies that he would against such practice, but Eusebius accepts the castration as true. There is really no way of finding out if it happened or not, but given the surrounding events, it would probably made no difference one way or another
Finally, what does the early Coptic sources say about Origen?
Unfortunately, Origen is either completely skipped over, or condemned as a heretic
In the History of the Patriarchs, a valuable historical book that traces to the 5th century but was edited and added to up to the 13th century, Origen is addressed a man who learned the science of the pagans and abandoned the books of God
In the Synexerium, the liturgical book of the saints lives, Origen is mentioned as a “quote”unquote an opposing man who wrote forbidden books and was excommunicated by Pope Demetrius
This is not to say that the view was universal thought, there was many Copts who defended Origen and his thoughts
In the 20th century, the view started to change significantly under the learning renaissance started by Pope Shenouda. A monumental book written by Fr. Tadros Malaty addressed many of the controversies and the teachings of Origin in great details. A google search will lead you to a free English PDF version for those interested further.
As always, feel free to reach out on the usual social media avenues for questions or feedback.
Next week, our story will take a bloody turn, when Alexandria will be full of dead young men, and Egyptians will become Romans, at least on paper.
Also in our next episode, the Coptic Church will face growing persecutions, and under the fire of martyrdom, the Copts identity will start to take shape.
Farewell, and until next week
The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt by" Christina Riggs (Editor)
A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
Origen. Lectures in Patrology. The School of Alexandria, Book 2 by" Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty
Coptic Biblical Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt by" E. A. Wallis Budge (Editor)
The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by" Pat Southern