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Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity

Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity is the title of a book by Otto Meinardus, a renowned scholar on the history, practice, and theology of the Coptic Orthodox Church. His work is widely accepted as the standard reference book for all inquiries into the development of this particular expression of faith. Upon reading it, I could only agree.

My strongest agreement, however, is expressed in its description as a reference book. When I asked a well read friend to recommend me a book with which to understand the Coptic Church, he immediately thought of Meinardus. While gladly loaning me his copy, though, he added, but this is a book you must eventually buy for yourself. I didn’t understand this at the time; like with most books I wished to read it, profit from it, and then give it back to its owner. Rarely if ever does a book get read twice – why should anyone ever purchase?

Upon my reading I discovered why, though the jury is still out if I will eventually buy it for myself. The first half of the book is a comprehensive survey of Coptic history, beginning not even with Mark—believed to be the founder of Christianity in Egypt—but with Jesus. The Gospels tell the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod. While the Gospel details are few, Coptic legend-slash-history thoroughly establishes their itinerary, proceeding even to sites hundreds of kilometers from Palestine in Upper Egypt. At each significant place of their travel there is a church dedicated to the event. These churches have an ancient history, lending credibility to antiquity of the tradition.

Meinardus does not judge. Though he comments often on this progression, he generally presents the details and leaves the historical queries to other works. His treatment of subsequent Christian development is similar. He tells the tales that surround the preaching and martyrdom of Mark, and of the first communities of Christians that began the transformation of the Pharaohnic character of Egypt. Elements of this story involve the miraculous, which does not stop with the end of the apostolic age. Meinardus continues to list the traditions surrounding the acts of prominent bishops and monks, and especially the martyrs from the eras of persecution. Monasteries and martyrdom are among the pillars of Coptic Christianity, and Meinardus provides a window into the worldview of the church.

He also delves into the development of theology, which is easier to document. Treatment is given to the great Christological debates which divided the early church, but proceeds into the production of Coptic canon law. The great figures who wrote these documents and the ancient liturgies, so obscure to Western readers, are given their names and accomplishments in print. Meinardus has respect to the cloud of witnesses which has gone before, and honors their legacy.

Yet not all the names are obscure. Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy and compiler of the Biblical canon of Scripture, was the pope of the Coptic Church. Cyril and Gregorius are not as well known, but are still familiar names to students of church history. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was Egyptian, as was the Thebian Legion whose memory is enshrined in many European cities for their refusal to deny their Lord and subsequent martyrdom. Coptic Christianity, in fact, lies behind much of the history of Christianity in Europe, as their monks and missionaries carried the Gospel throughout the continent, and to Ireland especially. Many people are aware of the vital role played by the Irish in the Christianization of Europe; less known is that the origin is Coptic. Meinardus supplies the names and stories of the Egyptian contributors.

Meinardus continues the story into the middle and modern ages, describing the interactions of the church with Islam, during both its tolerant and repressive epochs. Less detail than I desired was given to the question of why the church declined over time, but this is a difficult issue to address; histories are written of triumph and progression—who records the record of loss? Nevertheless, Meinardus provides a window into this near-unknown era, and understanding of the history will take many readings simply to establish familiarity. This becomes easier as modernity approaches, and Meinardus describes Coptic dealings with successive Turkish, French, and British empires. Special attention is given to the deep revival of the church during the 20th Century, which continues to this day. A blog post all its own is necessary, however, to do justice to this phenomenon.

All that is listed above was both interesting and worthy of owning as a personal record, though the story in its broad strokes may be told elsewhere. The second half of Meinardus’ book, though, both establishes and possibly condemns it to serve as a reference book. From here on Meinardus becomes a list-maker, as nearly every monastery, church, and saint’s shrine is given a place in his text, complete with details of the relics therein. I read the majority of the book while I was staying at Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun, which is home also to additional historic monasteries established as early as the 4th Century. It was fascinating to read the history of where I was. The other chapters were a chore to read, however, simply because I have no context to appreciate them. If I anticipate a future visit to such-and-such village in Upper Egypt I will open Meinardus and read of the churches there, but otherwise, what good does this information do me?

I hope, however, to visit such-and-such village. I imagine that our work will take me throughout Egypt to discover the many different facets of Egyptian life, Christian and otherwise. To view the foundational facts will require reference to Meinardus, and for this his book seems essential to own. I would recommend the first half of the book to anyone interested in Coptic Christianity, but I will likely in time find better, or at least equal, books to recommend. As a reference book, however, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity will likely stand alone. It is recommended to anyone desiring to study Coptic Christianity, and for long term life in Egypt, if there is a desire to honor its Christian heritage, it is a must.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity