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Condensed History of the Coptic Church from Pentecost to the Catechetical School (c. 33-180 A.D.)

Pentecost and the First Egyptian Christians

Little is known about this early period in our history, and the only Biblical reference made of the Egyptians appears in the book of Acts, right before St. Peters famous sermon:

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine (Acts 2:5-13).

What became of these people who were present is unknown. It is possible that they were among the three thousand souls added to the church that day (v. 41). What we know with almost all certainty, is that the first converts to Christianity in Egypt were JewsÜ since it was the Jews who would make their way over to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Also, Alexandria was the home to the largest population of Jews in their Diaspora, and was known to be a melting pot of both Greco and Eastern cultures and religions. The concept of God made manifest in the form of the Logos, or as a revealer is not a concept that would seem foreign to the Jews. One need only read the works of Philo, an Alexandrian Jew noted for his philosophical genius, to see the parallels between the Christian understanding of the 2nd Person of the Trinity and the Jewish philosophy of the Logos.

St. Mark the Evangelist

There is a tradition that St. Peter and St. Mark first visited Egypt together sometime prior to St. Marks independent visit(s). Little literature has been found to confirm this fully.

Eusebius, an early Christian historian, writes that St. Mark first visited Egypt on his own in the third year of the reign of the Emperor ClaudiusÜ this could be anywhere from AD 41-44. As Dr. Otto F. Meinardus points out, his stay could not have been very long, because we know that in the year 46 he was in Antioch, and the year after he was in Cyprus. St. Marks whereabouts are known from the year 46 to 50, and then only for various parts of the year 58 to 62. So for virtually all of the years of 50-62, history does not give St. Marks whereabouts, nor from 62 to 68. The Coptic Orthodox tradition is that St. Mark died in Alexandria on Easter Day (May 8), 68 AD. This long period of his disappearance in history compliments the Coptic tradition. More specifically, the Coptic tradition holds that St. Mark visited Egypt, and after staying there for some time, he had to leave. Before leaving, St. Mark ordained Anianus as Bishop for the people, and was happy when he returned years later to find that the Christian community had grown significantly.

Most of us are already familiar with the story of Anianus conversion; however, we will retell it for the sake of continuity. St. Mark had been traveling for some time, and upon arriving in Egypt, his sandal strap was torn. He took it to a cobbler (Anianus), who while repairing it struck a nail into his hand and cried out, Oh the one God! St. Mark was amazed that he called out to the one God, since this man was not a Jew. Naturally, the great Evangelist healed him and took advantage of the opportunity, questioning the man on his belief, and then expounding to him the fulfillment of the prophecies and the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ the Logos. Anianus and his household believed and were baptized, and they hosted St. Mark during his stay in Alexandria. The church grew, and as mentioned, Anianus was ordained Bishop for it when St. Mark left for Occident.

After returning from the West, we are told that St. Mark spent time in the Pentapolis (the Five Cities) before returning to Egypt. The Pentapolis was later established and confirmed as being under the jurisdiction of the Alexandrian Patriarchate (Council of Nicea, 325AD). The Christians rejoiced to see him, and St. Mark rejoiced that they had increased dramatically in number. St. Mark wrote his Gospel during this time, the first of the four canonical ones.

The popularity of the Christians grew, and this upset the pagans living in the city. So much so, that in their fury over the rumour that Christians were going to physically overthrow the pagan gods, masses of them swarmed around the Bucolia (the first church in Alexandria which was originally a barn), demanding that St. Mark be given to them. This occurred on the eve of the feast of the Resurrection, 29 Baramouda, (May 7), 68 AD, which coincided with festival of Serapis, the ancient Egyptian god. St. Mark was tied to a horse and dragged around the city, then thrown into prison for the night. An angel appeared to St. Mark, healed him, and told him that he would receive the crown of martyrdom the following day (30 Baramouda, May 8). Indeed, St. Mark was dragged once more around the city the following morning, tied to the horses by his neck, until he joined the ranks of the heavenly, surrendering his soul to his Redeemer on the Holy Feast of the Resurrection.

The pagans tried to burn his body, but the Lord did not suffer for his body to be further abused. Great rains fell upon the earth, and the believers took his body and buried him.

St. Marks head was severed from his body during his torture, and it was the tradition that a newly ordained successor of St. Marks See, was to kiss and carry the head immediately after ordination. The new Pope would take the head around the church in procession, and vow before the altar and the congregation his commitment to shepherd the flock in the footsteps of the first Pope of Alexandria. His relics were briefly in control of the Melkites (Byzantines coexisting in EgyptÜ see writeup on the Council of Chalcedon), but were returned to us after the Arab conquest. Later in history, his body would be stolen and taken to VeniceÜ not returning to Egypt until 1968Ü 1900 years after his martyrdom.

St. Mark is also said to have authored his Liturgy while at Alexandria, this Liturgy is used in its Coptic form today, and attributed to St. Cyril the Great (24th Patriarch of Alexandria) who translated it from Greek to Coptic.

The First Successors to the See of St. Mark

The successor to St. Mark, was naturally St. Anianus, who had been ordained a Bishop. St. Anianus did not follow the tradition of carrying the blessed head of St. Mark, since he was ordained by the Apostle himself. History tells us nothing of the reign of Pope Anianus, other than that he shepherded them for relatively peaceful years.

All we know of the first 10 successors is that they had peaceful rules, they were loved, meek, gentle, and good teachers. This is hardly a surprise considering the fruits that came from the Coptic Orthodox Theologians.

The first successors were:

  • Pope Anianus (68-83)
  • Pope Abilius (83-95)
  • Pope Cerdon (95-106)
  • Pope Primus (106-118)
  • Pope Justus (118-129)
  • Pope Eumenius (129-141)
  • Pope Marcianus (141-152)
  • Pope Celadion (152-166)
  • Pope Agrippinus (166-178)
  • Pope Julian (178-188)


The history of Christianity in Egypt is incomplete without at least mentioning the Egyptian Gnostics, concentrated in Upper Egypt and made popular by discoveries in Nag Hammadi.

The Gnostics were not fully unanimous in their beliefs, but common dogma included salvation through knowledge, and their heterodox views of dualism. To them, evil and good had equal power in the world. This could mean that there is a god of evil and a god of good, and these two are in continual combat with each other. Furthermore, some Gnostics held that the evil god was the one who made human beings by capturing souls and forcing them into bodies. Some Gnostic texts are of value for a moderate understanding of some views on spirituality of that time, but their heresies were opposed by the fathers of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. Gnosticism did not die in Egypt until at least the fourth century.

One should be cautious when studying the history of the Church of Alexandria written by non-Orthodox authors. Churches not in communion with Alexandria tend to exaggerate the strength of the heretical Gnostic movement, seeing the presence of those heretics as a weakness in our church. We humbly remind those authors that it was our very own fathers who objected to and refuted them. It is also worth noting that there are perfect Orthodox Christian forms of ‘gnosticism’.

“But the Lord, in His love to man, invites all men to the knowledge of the truth, and for this end sends the Paraclete. What, then, is this knowledge? Godliness…” (Saint Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter IX)


You know that he who knows himself knows God…” (Letter 3 of the Letters of Saint Antony the Great)

Hellenization of Alexandria and the Establishment of the Catechetical School of Alexandria

  • Alexandria was the centre of universal learning from as early as 288 BC when the seventy rabbis gathered together to translate the Old Testament into Greek, commonly known as the Septuagint.
  • The Ptolemies (a family line of Greek rulers of Egypt) hoped that they would be able to Hellenize the Egyptians, and they were only partially successful. The indigenous Egyptians were proud of their heritage and refused to abandon their method of thought. As a result, Egyptians lived in continuous revolt, leading to much bloodshed. The Greeks overpowered them, managing to Hellenize Alexandria, but the domain of Upper Egypt and most of the small towns around Alexandria remained fully Egyptian, learning only the language of the Ancient Egyptians, called Coptic in its modern form. These people would later flock to St. Shenoute the Archmandrite, who is the personification of Coptic nationalism; a Copt who denounced all Greek influence on culture and language.
  • The School of Alexandria existed since 323 BC when it was founded by Ptolemy, the same ruler who invited the rabbis to come and work on the Septuagint. Adjoined to the school was the famous library of Alexandria, which was the largest in the world until its destruction (by burning) during the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the 7th Century.
  • Because of this revolt, the rulers of Egypt saw it necessary to have a mixed cultureÜ hence the melting pot concept mentioned previously. The School of Alexandria was established, and it was hoped that this would bridge the enmity between the Egyptians and Greeks. This was extremely successful in Alexandria, and the Egyptians flocked to the great school. These Egyptians were often mistaken for Greeks.
  • It is said that St. Mark founded a catechetical school in Alexandria, which was meant to teach the pagans and Jews about Christianity, and this is considered by the Copts to be the beginning of the Christianization of the Great School of Alexandria. With the rise of Christianity in Egypt, Christians had a great need for a great school, as the educated elite of Egypt would only be convinced by men as intelligent as themselves. Hence, in the year 180 AD, the School of Alexandria became the centre of not only secular learning, but of theology and spirituality. Teachers at the school were versed not only in philosophy, but in the mysteries of salvation. This school would become the cornerstone of Orthodox theology, shaping the definitions of the Orthodox faith for four centuries, but leaving a legacy shared by all Apostolic churches until this very day.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

August 17, 2012