What may have begun in first century CE as a Jewish sect would, by the second century, undergo a metamorphosis and become a missionary movement. Alexandria became the focal point for the new and emergent Christian faith that found its adherents in a host of Greek-speaking centres throughout the Mediterranean.
One of Christ’s early followers, the writer of the Gospel of St. Mark, had travelled to Alexandria around 60 CE. The bishopric of Alexandria, where St. Mark was the first pope, emerged as one of the major powers in the Christian church and played a leading role in the development of its theology and worldview.
By actively evangelising and proselytising, Christianity became a universal religion whose appeal broadened to people from all walks of life. It also began to diverge from its Jewish roots and heritage.
The English word pope is derived from the Greek word Papas, which means father. St. Mark’s symbol, which is the winged lion, is the founder of the Church of Alexandria. As the first bishop, he is honoured as the founder of Christianity in Africa.
Alongside the episcopal church, an alternative form of Christian practise evolved in Egypt during the third century. It was a monastic movement devoted to austerity. Its most famous proponent was St. Anthony the Great: an Egyptian hermit who later became known as The Father of All Monks.
St. Antony was among the first to have gone into the wilderness of the desert in approximately 270 CE. He spent the last forty-five years of his life at Der-el-Memun, offering instruction and advice to those who visited him.
By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monasteries and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. It became a movement in itself.
Christian ascetics dedicated their lives to seclusion and worship. It would be a tradition followed by generations upon generations of monks and nuns. St. Antony the Great is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism.
The Coptic Church
In Egypt, the Christian church, despite periods of Roman persecution went from strength to strength. By the year 400 CE, the vast majority of Coptic-speaking Egyptians considered themselves Christian.
But soon, a theological dispute emerged about how the Church should distinguish the human Christ from the divine Christ. Underlying the dispute was a struggle for power and influence between the bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome and Jerusalem. The climax of the theological dispute came to a head in 451 CE when a majority in the council decided that it favoured the ‘two natures’ doctrine.
The Coptic Church, however, chose to continue to adhere to a ‘One Nature’ doctrine. A formal schism followed. Alexandria then became the seat of two sets of patriarchs. Nevertheless, the Coptic Church not only retained the loyalty of most Egyptians; its influence on Christianity all throughout Africa continued to be a remarkable one.