Greeks and Muslims played key roles in shaping this community and its language.
The Copts of Egypt have been in the news so much over the past few years—mostly because of persecution—that many readers have become familiar with their story, culture and beliefs. Pope Francis met with the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, Pope Tawadros, in May, and the two signed a joint declaration on Baptism.
But Leo Depuydt has uncovered a few surprising facts about this group of Near East Christians. In the Biblical Archaeology Review, Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown University, points out that the term “Coptic” is not originally Egyptian but Greek. That’s because once Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, the Greek language, used initially by an elite minority in the country, gradually seeped into life throughout society. “Aigyptos” was the ancient Greek word for Egypt, and “Coptic” derives from the same word, “but with a detour through Arabic,” Depuydt writes.
It’s fascinating to think that by the time Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus, the last of the Greek rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra, had died less than half a century earlier, and Egypt was now a province of the Roman Empire.
Tradition holds that St. Mark the Evangelist founded the Church of Alexandria in the year 33, soon after the Resurrection of Christ. The Greek language perdured in Egypt, and the Roman rulers encouraged its use, especially as the administrative language. A fully developed, fully standardized way of writing Egyptian with Greek letters, augmented by a few demotic signs (a cursive form of hieroglyphs), emerged around the year 300, Depuydt writes. “That is what we call Coptic,” he says.
Although Christianity spread steadily, it wasn’t until the conversion of Constantine that things really picked up, and Egypt was not a majority Christian country until about 450. From this time through the 9th century, Egypt was dotted with churches, great thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen made their mark, and the Desert Fathers gave the Church the gift of monasticism. The Patriarchate of Alexandria initiated the first great schism of the Church when it rejected the definition of the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ has both a human and divine nature in hypostatic union.
But the golden age of Coptic Christianity was to meet the challenge of the spread of Islam. “Christianity found itself returning to minority status after just a couple of centuries,” Depuydt writes. While the invaders found the locals to speak either Greek or Coptic, by about 1500, almost everyone in Egypt spoke Arabic.
Nevertheless, to the present day, the clergy are able to read Coptic, though no one speaks it anymore. There are probably fewer than 500 books of classical Coptic literature in existence, but they are important to an understanding of early Christianity. They include lives of saints, and apocryphal Gospels that speculate on Jesus’s childhood and the lives of Mary and various apostles.
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