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§ 9. Christianity in Egypt.


In Africa Christianity gained firm foothold first in Egypt, and there probably as early as the apostolic age. The land of the Pharaohs, of the pyramids and sphinxes, of temples and tombs, of hieroglyphics and mummies, of sacred bulls and crocodiles, of despotism and slavery, is closely interwoven with sacred history from the patriarchal times, and even imbedded in the Decalogue as "the house of bondage." It was the home of Joseph and his brethren, and the cradle of Israel. In Egypt the Jewish Scriptures were translated more than two hundred years before our era, and this Greek version used even by Christ and the apostles, spread Hebrew ideas throughout the Roman world, and is the mother of the peculiar idiom of the New Testament. Alexandria was full of Jews, the literary as well as commercial centre of the East, and the connecting link between the East and the West. There the largest libraries were collected; there the Jewish mind came into close contact with the Greek, and the religion of Moses with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. There Philo wrote, while Christ taught in Jerusalem and Galilee, and his works were destined to exert a great influence on Christian exegesis through the Alexandrian fathers.

Mark, the evangelist, according to ancient tradition, laid the foundation of the church of Alexandria. The Copts in old Cairo, the Babylon of Egypt, claim this to be the place from which Peter wrote his first epistle (1 Pet. 5:13); but he must mean either the Babylon on the Euphrates, or the mystic Babylon of Rome. Eusebius names, as the first bishops of Alexandria, Annianos (a.d. 62–85), Abilios (to 98), and Kerdon (to 110). This see naturally grew up to metropolitan and patriarchal importance and dignity. As early as the second century a theological school flourished in Alexandria, in which Clement and Origen taught as pioneers in biblical learning and Christian philosophy. From Lower Egypt the gospel spread to Middle and Upper Egypt and the adjacent provinces, perhaps (in the fourth century) as far as Nubia, Ethiopia, and Abyssinia. At a council of Alexandria in the year 235, twenty bishops were present from the different parts of the land of the Nile.

During the fourth century Egypt gave to the church the Arian heresy, the Athanasian orthodoxy, and the monastic piety of St. Antony and St. Pachomius, which spread with irresistible force over Christendom.

The theological literature of Egypt was chiefly Greek. Most of the early manuscripts of the Greek Scriptures—including probably the invaluable Sinaitic and Vatican MSS.—were written in Alexandria. But already in the second century the Scriptures were translated into the vernacular language, in three different dialects. What remains of these versions is of considerable weight in ascertaining the earliest text of the Greek Testament.

The Christian Egyptians are the descendants of the Pharaonic Egyptians, but largely mixed with negro and Arab blood. Christianity never fully penetrated the nation, and was almost swept away by the Mohammedan conquest under the Caliph Omar (640), who burned the magnificent libraries of Alexandria under the plea that if the books agreed with the Koran, they were useless, if not, they were pernicious and fit for destruction. Since that time Egypt almost disappears from church history, and is still groaning, a house of bondage under new masters. The great mass of the people are Moslems, but the Copts—about half a million of five and a half millions—perpetuate the nominal Christianity of their ancestors, and form a mission field for the more active churches of the West.


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