The Copts and Christian Civilization
by Aziz S. Atiya
Occasionally, the Copts have been described as a schismatic eastern Christian minority, a lonely community in the land of their forebears. They have been forgotten since they chose living in oblivion after the tragedy of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) which was followed by a new wave of persecution inflicted upon them by fellow Christians and Byzantine rulers. Though they were not unknown to mediaeval and early modern travellers from Europe, Western Christendom appears to have lost sight of the Copts until 1860 when a Presbyterian mission came to convert them to Christianity, and the Coptic archbishop of Asiut asked them the rhetorical question: "We have been living with Christ for more than 1800 years, how long have you been living with him?"
However, since the rediscovery of the Copts and their Christianity, interest has been intensified in the attempt to explore the religious traditions and the historical background of this most ancient form of primitive faith. Scholars of all creeds were stunned as the pages of Coptic history began to reveal the massive contributions of the Copts to Christian civilization in its formative centuries. This brief essay is intended to outline the major segments of these contributions and show the need for the rewriting of numerous chapters of early Christian history.
But let me first define the term Copt  and introduce you to some of the relevant data about that community. In all simplicity, this term is equivalent to the word Egyptian. It is derived from the Greek "Aigyptos", which in turn is a corruption of the ancient Egyptian "Hak-ka-Ptah", i.e., the house of the temple of the spirit of Ptah, a most highly revered deity in Egyptian mythology; this was the name of Memphis, the oldest capital of the unified Upper and Lower Egypt.
When the Arabs came in the seventh century, Egypt became known as "Dar-al-Qibt", home of the Copts, who were the Christian Egyptians to distinguish them from the native Muslims. Ethnically, the Copts were neither Semitic nor Hamitic, but may be described as the descendants of a Mediterranean race that that entered the Nile valley in unrecorded times. As such they are the successors of the ancient Egyptians, sometimes even defined as the "modern sons of the Pharaohs" . Traditionally, the Copts kept together in the same villages or the same quarters of larger cities until the dawn of modern democracy in the Middle East during the Nineteenth century, which rendered their segregation quite meaningless. Numerically, it is not easy to give a precise estimate of the Copts. Whereas the official census tends to reduce their number to less than three million [6% of the population] for political and administrative reasons, some Copts contend that they are ten million [20% of the population], which may be an exaggeration. A conservative estimate may be set between six and seven million [12-14% of the population], until an authoritative and factual census conducted by the church reaches its completion.
The wider circle of Coptic obedientiaries who are not ethnic Copts, however, includes at least twenty million Ethiopians, more than five million other Africans, and another million of mixed racial origins in other continents. Doctrinally, therefore, followers of the Coptic Alexandrine Christianity must be reckoned in excess of thirty million, making the Coptic Church one of the largest units in Eastern Christendom. [All the figures in this essay reflect the populations of 1978].
The origins of Coptic Christianity need no great elaboration. Saint Mark the Evangelist is its recognized founder and first patriarch, in the fourth decade of the first century. During the first two centuries, there was a continuous admixture of paganism and Christianity in many parts of Egypt. But the fact remains that Christianity must have penetrated the country far enough to justify the discovery of the oldest Biblical papyri in Coptic language buried in the sands of remote regions in Upper Egypt. Most of these predate the oldest authoritative Greek versions of the Scripture in the fourth and fifth centuries including the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Alexandrinus, te Vaticanus, and the Codex Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus , which constitute in all probability four of the fifty copies of the Bible ordered by Constantine the Great after he declared Christianity the official religion of the state by the Edict of Milan in 312 A.D. Fragments of those papyri dating from the second century, both Coptic and Greek are to be found in numerous manuscript repositories in the world. The most monumental collection is the Chester Beatty Papyri , now in Dublin, Ireland. These manuscripts have been dated by the classical scholar V. Wilcken at about 200 A.D. Another staggering papyrus collection, this time in Sahidic and Sub-Akhmimic Coptic dialects, numbering fifty-one texts, thirty-six hitherto unknown, most Gnostic or apocryphal, was discovered far up the Nile Valley at Nag-Hammadi in the 1930's . The importance of this discovery, which is regarded by scholars studying its contents as peer and parallel to the Dead Sea Scrolls, lies in the fact that it was found in the remote regions of Upper Egypt. All this proves beyond a shadow of doubt the depth of the penetration of the new faith among the Copts.
Other Articles by Aziz S. Atiya
- 1 - Coptic Music by Aziz S. Atiya
- 2 - Canticles by Aziz S. Atiya
- 3 - The Oral Tradition by Aziz S. Atiya
- 5 - History by Aziz S. Atiya
- 6 - Cantors by Aziz S. Atiya
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