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Early Egyptian Christianity from its Origins to 451 C.E.

The history of Christianity in Egypt, particularly in its earliest stages, has long been an enigma. Specific information regarding the origins of Christianity in Egypt is virtually nonexistent, and legends abound, especially because the papyri are replete with second- and first-century sources regarding the region as a whole. Concrete information referring to Egyptian Christianity surfaces only in the late second century, presenting the scholar with a situation where much of the agenda has already been set.

In this proficient and comprehensive study, C. Wilfred Griggs presents an interpretation of the history of Christianity in Egypt that offers one possible solution to the problems surrounding its origins. Following Walter Bauer, he understands the history of Egyptian Christianity as the struggle between a loosely structured local Christianity versus a more stringently organized "Western Christianity" (defined here as Christianity in the Asia Minor-Greece-Rome sphere of influence) (p. 7). Griggs then equates this Christianity throughout with Catholicism. The tensions caused by the "imposition of Catholic ecclesiasticism upon Egyptian Christianity" towards the end of the second century lead in the "succeeding centuries to the natural, if not inevitable, result," the emergence of an Egyptian Coptic Church after Chalcedon (p. 229).

In accordance with this argument, Griggs attempts to reconstruct the history of Egyptian Christianity in the first two centuries on the basis of New Testament, papyrological and archaeological evidence. With the majority of modern scholars, he dates the arrival of Christianity in the region before the end of the first century. This Christianity developed "eclectic tendencies," i.e., it resembled the original Palestinian form more closely than the "Western" form, which arrived in Alexandria around 189 C.E. With bishop Demetrius. Arguing from the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, Griggs concludes that Demetrius' followers did not consider the earlier Egyptian forms of Christianity to be Christianity at all, which explains the conspicuous silence of the sources.

The "infusion" of the more stringently defined "Western" Christianity gave rise to the emergence of orthodoxy and heresy. In the following period the Cathechetical School in Alexandria not only emerged, but became doctrinally aligned with the Western Church and was brought under tight control of the bishop. At the same time a native Coptic, non-Alexandrian Christianity continued to gather strength along the Nile, following traditional practices and beliefs later on described as heretical, most notably the teachings of Basilides, Valentine, Hieracas, and Origen, the latter himself the focal point of the tensions between an emerging ecclesiastic hierarchy and a more independent, non-clerical understanding of the Christian congregation. During the same period, the third century, faced with an increasing power of the Alexandrine see, the Egyptian Christians "whose religious heritage had accustomed them to freedom and autonomy" began to seek "a more successful method for returning to more freedom" (p. 102): monasticism.

The fourth and early fifth centuries witnessed in essence the continuation of these tendencies. Athanasius led Alexandria's attempts to subject the Egyptian hinterland, represented here by the Melitians, into accepting ecclesiastical unity, and to push a new, less Scriptural, interpretation of Catholicism against a more conservative, Origenistic understanding of Trinitarian concepts as represented by Arius. Vital for the success of the Alexandrian see was its capacity to gain the support of a substantial portion of the monastic movement. This was only possible because of the move towards a consolidation of the loosely organized monastic life, headed by Pachomius. Though monasticism continued to be relatively independent, and the supremacy of Alexandria over its hinterland remained tenuous, Athanasius and Pachomius provided "the organizational framework for a national Egyptian Church ... A major move toward doctrinal limitation and unification was taken ... All that remained was for strong and autocratic personalities to arise in both the monastic and ecclesiastical realms ... and the early undifferentiated Christian religion of Egypt would face a certain demise" (p. 156). Shenoute and Cyril proved to be exactly those persons.

However, Alexandria's fate would have been different had it not been for the ensuing struggle for dominance caused by the rise of Constantinople. Alexandria's and Antioch's unsuccessful attempts to gain control over Constantinople, coupled by Alexandria's need to choose between its ties to its own monastic movement and Constantinople on the eve of Chalcedon, finally led to its separation and the eventual creation of the Coptic Church - a conclusion that would have benefited from more clarification.

One could argue that Prof. Griggs subjects the history of Egyptian Christianity perhaps too stringently and thus all too predictably to his theory: the struggle between a doctrinally conservative, native, loosely organized Christianity against a doctrinally innovative, foreign, and more stringently structured Catholic Christianity, a struggle leading almost inevitably to separation. One could further argue that his interpretation might have gained from at least some attempts to tie the history of the Church more closely to economic, social, and political aspects of the region, or from the use of some less conventional sources, such as, for instance, the seldom discussed canonical collection specific to the region.

However, Griggs' task was a formidable one and he cannot reasonably be expected to do more than he claims to be doing. His book certainly fills a lacuna. Although perhaps not always inspired, his discussions of such immensely complicated topics as Gnosticism or the Arian controversy are always lucid and clear, based on a solid and very wide-ranging knowledge of the primary, as well as the most significant (if at times somewhat dated) secondary sources. In other words, especially with an improved index, Prof. Griggs' book is one of the best examples of a perfect "textbook," in the best sense of the word: comprehensive, precise, challenging and immensely informative.
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Author:Elm, Susanna
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:933
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