The Copts have featured repeatedly in media reports about Egypt. Before the recent revolutionary events the reports have been about murderous attacks on Coptic churches and homes by Islamic fanatics, unhappily in line with similar attacks on Christians in Iraq, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries. There were some uplifting follow-up stories from Egypt—Muslims (including leading imams) not only loudly condemning the attacks, but forming protective patrols around Coptic churches. And Muslims and Christians joined together in interfaith celebrations on Tahrir Square. But there have been attacks on Copts since then.
Who are these Copts? Certainly they are correctly identified as Christians. They are also correctly described as constituting some 10% of the Egyptian population and as the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they are also described as “Orthodox” Christians. That is a more iffy term. The Patriarch of Constantinople, for one, would not agree that the Coptic church is “Orthodox”. I may as well delve once more into the esoterica of eastern Christianity. These are fascinating enough in themselves. They also shed light on the general relations between theology and popular piety, and between theology and politics.
The Coptic church in Egypt is commonly described as “Oriental,” a geographically confusing term. It is grouped with a number of other churches in Africa and the Middle East who share one important characteristic—they are not in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople. In addition to the Coptic church in Egypt, these include sister churches of the latter—the churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and churches resulting from Coptic missionary activities in other African countries, and, very significantly, the Armenian church. There is also a scattering of related churches in Iraq and Syria (some called “Assyrian”). Theologically, all these churches are often called “Monophysite” (literally in Greek, “of one nature”). They don’t like this term. They prefer “Miaphysite” (literally, “of a compound nature”)—both adjectives refer to understandings of the relation between the divinity and the humanity of Christ. The least controversial designation of this ecclesiastical aggregation is “Non-Chalcedonian”—all these churches have rejected the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon.
That gathering occurred in 451 C.E., generally regarded as the last in the series of ecumenical councils—that is, councils attended by and accepted as authoritative by both the Greek and Latin branches of Christianity. Chalcedon was supposed to end once and for all the many Christological controversies of early Christian history. These were inevitably entangled in political rivalries, not only between Constantinople and Rome, but also between the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. The different theological positions were extraordinarily complicated in themselves, an additional complication arising from the fact that the key terms (such as “nature,” Greek physis, and “person,” Greek prosopon) were awkwardly translated into Latin (natura, persona), not to mention Syriac (the language of the Antioch patriarchate). One can cut through all this confusion by saying that Chalcedon established a middle position between two views equally condemned as heretical. The Monophysites asserted that Christ only had one nature, the divine one—which came close to seeing him as a divine being like a Greek god visiting the world of men. The Arian heresy, which saw Christ as essentially a human being somehow adopted by God, had already been condemned at the first ecumenical council, the one held at Nicea about a century before Chalcedon. But a supposedly similar view, emphasizing the human side of Christ over the divine, was condemned as the Nestorian heresy. Its alleged author, Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople 428-431, claimed that he was misunderstood. Maybe so. But one position of his, which extremely offended the mainline Orthodox, was his rejection of the term theotokos, “Mother of God,” applied to the Virgin Mary. He suggested, Christotokos, “Mother of Christ,” instead. This doesn’t sound to me as if he had been misunderstood. Be this as it may, the Nestorians were persecuted in the Byzantine empire. Some of them fled to Persia, whose Sassanid rulers at first welcomed them as refugees from an empire with which they were in intermittent conflict. The Nestorian Church of the East engaged in successful missionary activities in Persia, all over Central Asia, and into India.
Needless to say, Chalcedon did not end all these controversies. Indeed, it created new ones. Its conclusions, called canons, were a mixed bag of high theology and practical legislation. Among other provisions it prohibited bishops from engaging in commerce and the carrying off of women under the pretense of marrying them. Canon 28, the last one, had the most important political consequences. It asserted that the Patriarch of Constantinople had equal status with the Bishop of Rome. Leo I, the incumbent of the latter office, signed off on the whole bag of canons—with the exception, naturally, of canon 28. Here was the core of the mounting dispute between the Greek and Latin branches of Christianity, finally leading to the complete schism between them about six hundred years after Chalcedon. Despite all the obscure philosophical differences and the very un-philosophical political interests, Chalcedon achieved one significant result: It preserved the central paradox of the Christian message—that God in Christ took upon himself the human condition in order to redeem it. If either the divine or the human aspect of this mysterious incarnation is underplayed, its redemptive power becomes implausible. Thus Chalcedon, repetitiously and pedantically, defined Christ as being both fully human and fully divine.
Back to the Copts: They claim that their church was founded by the Apostle Mark in Alexandria as early as the middle of the first century. Leaving aside the role of Mark (which is hard to establish), the early date is very probably valid. Thus the head of the church carries the melodious title of Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark. The current incumbent is Pope Shenouda III. The Byzantine authorities, which had little tolerance for any Christian churches not under the control of Constantinople, set up an imperial (“Melkite”) patriarch in Alexandria with exactly the same title. It is not surprising that the Copts were not greatly upset when in the seventh century Arab armies incorporated Egypt in the burgeoning Islamic empire. Copts, along with Jews and other Christians, became dhimmis under Muslim rule—second-class citizens, but protected and given far-reaching rights as “People of the Book”. All the same, there were great benefits connected with conversion to Islam, and the Christian population of Egypt shrank over time. Today the great majority of Egyptian Christians are Copts. They can rightly claim to have the most ancient roots in the country. While their spoken language is now Arabic, their liturgical language is the vernacular version of ancient Egyptian as it was spoken around the time of Chalcedon—a remarkable cultural survival.
Knowing something of the history of the Copts helps the understanding of their present situation. It also provides lessons on the relations between theology and popular piety, and between theology and politics. We may assume that the fine points of the Chalcedonian formulations were of little interest to ordinary Egyptian Christians, who were attached to their peculiar ceremonies, or to the imperial authorities, who were concerned with the political unity of the state. Yet the fathers of the council, perhaps more instinctively than intellectually, managed to articulate effectively some core propositions of the Christian faith, however strange their language sounds to modern ears.