The origins of the ancient Coptic Church of Egypt
The Coptic Church of Egypt is the earliest Christian church in the world, going back to around 42 AD. According to Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, as well as Coptic traditions, Saint Mark the evangelist, who wrote the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, was the founder and first bishop of the Church of Alexandria, even before the Church of Rome was established. In his landmark History of the Church, written in Greek about the year 310, Eusebius writes: "Now, they say that this Mark was the first to have set out to Egypt to preach the gospel, which he had already written down, and the first to have organized churches in Alexandria itself "(Eusebius, HE 2.16.1). This information is supplemented by Eusebius’s Chronicle, where he places Mark’s arrival in Alexandria in the third year of Claudius’ reign, which would be AD 41-42 or 43-44. This is no more than ten years after the date fixed for the death of Jesus, traditionally held to be in AD 33.
Meanwhile, the traditional Egyptian account regarding the history of the early Coptic Church agrees with Eusebius on Mark’s role as the founder of the Alexandrian Church. However, Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa’ gives a slightly later date to Mark’s arrival in Alexandria: "In the fifteenth year after the Ascension of Christ ( c. AD 48), the holy Peter sent Saint Mark, the father and evangelist, to the city of Alexandria, to announce the good tiding (Gospel) there ".1 The History of the Patriarchs attributed to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa is actually a multi-generational compendium of Egyptian church history that relies on several early Coptic sources, and was redacted and translated into Arabic in the eleventh century.
More information on Mark’s life in Egypt is found in the Coptic account recorded by Sawirus, which is believed to have come from an earlier source. This source, known as the Acts of Mark, gives more details about Mark’s activities in Egypt, including the account of the evangelist’s martyrdom in Alexandria. The Acts of Mark has collected some early oral traditions and set them within a larger narrative, describing the details of Mark’s mission and martyrdom in Alexandria. While the exact date of composition for the Acts of Mark is uncertain, these traditions are traceable at least to the late fourth or early fifth century. The Acts incorporates two streams of tradition within a single narrative. The first stream concerns Mark’s founding of the church in Alexandria. The second stream concerns Mark’s martyrdom, and provides an explanation for the establishment of his martyr church on the outskirts of Alexandria.
Detail, painting of Mark the Evangelist. Public Domain
The document was originally written in Greek and Coptic, and was rendered into several other languages. The main line of the story in the Acts of Mark goes like this: when the apostles were sent out in their missions, Mark received as his lot the country of Egypt and its surrounding territories. He went first to Cyrene, (in Libya) (a second version makes him a native of Cyrene) where he did a lot of work to convert many to the Christian faith. While in Cyrene, Mark received a vision that he should go to Alexandria.
He arrived in Alexandria the next day and came to a place called Mendion. As he was entering the gate of the city, the strap of his sandal broke, and Mark looked for a cobbler to fix it. As the cobbler was working on the sandal, he injured his left hand and cried out in pain, ‘God is one.’ Mark healed the cobbler’s hand in the name of Jesus. To show his gratitude, the cobbler invited Mark to his home for a meal. There Mark began to preach the gospel of Jesus, telling the man of the prophecies related to Christ. The cobbler said that he did not know of these writings, though he was familiar with the Iliad and the Odyssey and other things that Egyptians learned from childhood. The man was eventually converted, and he and his whole household were baptized, and many others besides. The cobbler’s name was Ananias (the other version has Anianus). Eventually, some pagan ‘men of the city’, angered by these conversions, sought to kill Mark. The evangelist decided to leave Alexandria and go back to Pentapolis, in North Africa. However, before leaving he ordained for the church Ananias (Annianus) as bishop, along with three presbyters (Milaius, Sabinus, and Cerdo).
The Healing of Anianus by Cima da Conegliano (Wikipedia)
After two years absence, Mark returned to Alexandria to find that the Christian community there had flourished, and a church had been built in a place called Boukolou, near the sea. However, the pagans of the city were very angry at Mark for all of his mighty works. That year, Easter celebration occurred on the same day as a festival for the Egyptian god Serapis (April 24). Incited, pagan groups entered the church, seized Mark at the service, put a rope around his neck, and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria, until his flesh was falling.
The death of Saint Mark. c. 1412 and 1416. Public Domain
That evening they threw him into a prison. During the night Mark was said to have been visited first by an angel and then by Jesus himself, receiving words of encouragement. The next morning (April 25), the pagans took Mark from prison and dragged him again through the city until he died. They then built a fire in the place called Angeloi and tried to burn Mark’s body on it, but according to legend a great storm arose, and the pagans fled in terror. Finally, the faithful took Mark’s body and brought it back to be buried in the church, in the eastern outskirts of Alexandria.
The Martyrdom of St. Mark by Fra Angelico (Wikimedia Commons)
The tradition of Mark’s martyrdom at Alexandria spread all over the Roman Empire, especially in Italy, and many Christians travelled to Egypt in order to visit the evangelist’s tomb in Eastern Alexandria.
"The most important of the early Christian holy places in Alexandria was undoubtedly Boukolou, where, according to the Acts of Mark, the earliest Christians had their place of worship and where the saint met his death and was buried. Here was erected the martyrium of Saint Mark, attested from the late fourth century on. … Epiphanius refers to is as ‘the church of Baukalis,’ which I take to be a corruption, or variant, of Boukolos. … there is no doubt that the memorial to Saint Mark was located in the north-eastern part of town (‘in the eastern district,’ ‘beside the sea, beneath the cliffs’), probably near the site of the present College of St. Mark run by the Christian Brothers. By the fourth century, when our documentation begins, the area in question was outside the city, a place for ‘cow pastures.’ But in the first century this area was the main Jewish neighborhood, described by Josephus. 2"
One of the earliest testimonies relating to the martyrium of Saint Mark in Alexandria, apart from the Acts, is found in the poetry of St. Paulinus. St. Paulinus of Nola ( c. 352-431), south of Rome on Italy’s west coast, was ordained a priest at Christmas in 395 and became bishop of Nola in 409. As well as being prominent Christian poet, he provides the earliest external witness to the tradition about Mark’s martyrdom in Alexandria. In one of his poems he mentions Mark’s conflict with the cult of Serapis in Alexandria, a conflict that led to his imprisonment and death:
"On you, Alexandria, Mark was conferred, … so that Egypt would not stupidly worship cattle under the name of Apis; (the holy animal of Serapis worshipped in Alexandria) … Satan has also fled from Egypt, where he had taken countless forms and countless names appropriate to different monsters. Thus he fashioned holy Joseph into Serapis, hiding that revered name beneath a name of death.” 3
Marble bust of Serapis wearing a modius (Wikimedia Commons)
Eventually, in the ninth century, according to a legend, two or three ambitious merchants from the Italian city of Venice were able to smuggle Mark’s remains from his tomb in Alexandria. In 828, Mark replaced St. Teodora, the first patron saint of Venice, where a new basilica was built for him.
Featured image: Mark the Evangelist symbol is the winged lion, the Lion of Saint Mark. Canvas painting, circa 1516. Public Domain
- [History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, p. 140.]
- [The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, Editors Birger A. Pearson & James E. Goehring, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986. Birger A. Pearson, Early Christianity in Egypt, p. 153.]
- [The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, translated by P.G. Walsh, Newman Press, New York, 1975, p. 134.]
By Ahmed Osman