The Coptic Church: a Brief History

6th-century icon, one of the oldest known in existence, of Jesus and the Egyptian St. Menas. Image is from Wikipedia.

6th-century icon, one of the oldest known in existence, of Jesus and the Egyptian St. Menas. The image is from the Wikipedia page on Coptic Art.

The name Copt derives from the Greek word for Egyptian. One of the first Christian churches, the Coptic Church was established in Alexandria, Egypt in the middle 1st century, only a decade or so after the death of Jesus. According to tradition the apostle Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark, founded the church.

Most Egyptians were Christian until the 10th century, when Islam became dominant. Today, about 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christian.

As one of the oldest Christian churches, the Coptic Church laid a foundation for the development of all Christian denominations. The first Christian theological school was founded in Alexandria in 190 and it was in Egypt that the Christian monastic tradition first developed. The Egyptian desert was the place to be for early Christian monks and contemplatives. Patriarchs of Alexandria, heads of the Coptic Church beginning with St. Mark, were very influential in the development of Christianity in general, presiding over the first three ecumenical councils in the 4th and 5th centuries.

At the 4th Ecumenical Council in 451 at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy, a district of Asian Istanbul), the Egyptian Church split away from the larger Church over the nature of Jesus. The Roman Church held that Jesus was of two natures, human and divine, and that these two natures were complete and distinct within the one person of Jesus. Based on the writings of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, the Coptic Church understood Jesus to be of one unique nature, both human and divine. The disagreement was largely semantic but was the basis of the first division in the Christian Church.

The modern St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria is the most recent in a series of previous churches built on the site, according to tradition, of the original church founded by St. Mark in the 1st century.

Click to see tours to Egypt.

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