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Philip Jenkins

Christian History from a Coptic Angle

Rich, tragic, not without hope.

Very unfortunately, Samuel Tadros has been blessed in the timing of his excellent survey of the past and present state of Egypt's Coptic Christians. Just as the book was appearing last summer, that community suddenly found itself facing pogroms and mob attacks resulting from the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Anxious to find current information about the Copts, the media often turned to Tadros, giving him ample opportunities to develop his argument. I'm sure he wishes that his topic could have remained in decent obscurity much longer than it has.

Egypt's Copts rightly claim descent from the land's earliest inhabitants, the Egyptoi, whose language was that of the Pharaohs, and which still survives in Christian liturgies. They also occupy a unique position in Christian history. I sometimes fantasize about writing a History of Christianity from the Egyptian perspective. Without Egypt, we miss so many critical turning points in the making of the Christian faith. Ideas and language derived from Hellenistic Egypt are strongly marked in several early Christian writings, including the Gospel of John, and in texts like the Epistle of Barnabas. The 3rd century was the era of Origen, certainly a candidate for the title of the most brilliant and daring scholar in Christian history. Egypt was the main home of the monastic movement, which would transform the faith worldwide, and lay the foundation for the making of European civilization.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, the patriarchs—popes—of Alexandria were pivotal to the church debates that established Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come. This was the era of Athanasius and Cyril, who were so crucial to the events at Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Finally, Egyptian Christians of this era contributed powerfully to creating the Christian visual imagination, as they developed the tradition of icon painting. In the 6th century, Severus of Antioch complained that "Alexandrians think the sun rises just ...

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