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Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity - Christianity Under the Roman Emperors


The Religion Under the Romans Home Christianity Under the Byzantine Emperors

Christianity Under the Roman Emperors


Christianity was first preached in Egypt by the Evangelist Mark about thirty years after the Crucifixion. He had sailed with Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts xv. 39), and thence probably went on to Alexandria. There he appointed, as the first of a succession of bishops, Ananiah, a Jew. The succeeding bishops seem to have been Greeks; so we may suppose that in Alexandria the religion made less progress with the Jews. Indeed, how fast Christianity spread during the first hundred years, among the sceptical Greeks of that city, is unknown. But at the end of that time we find full proof of how largely the Egyptians had embraced it by our finding the extent to which Egyptian opinions were received among the Christians. Egyptian mysticism, which had found such a ready entrance into the Greek and Roman Paganism, was not harmless when it came in contact with Christianity, whether it appeared in its own dress, or concealed under the guise of Alexandrian philosophy. From the very first we hear of it as an enemy to be shunned. The Apostle Paul wisely advises Timothy to avoid the antitheses of Gnosticism, or "the oppositions of Science falsely so called" (1 Tim. vi. 20). This Gnosticism was one of the forms in which we shall presently see mysticism uniting itself to Christianity in Alexandria. The Alexandrian opinions also appear in the Canonical Epistle to the Hebrews. There Jesus is no longer the Teacher of a new Religion, as in the gospels, but he acts as a mediator or advocate before the judge on behalf of mankind, as in the writings of the Son of Sirach, and as we have seen the Egyptian lesser gods acting (in page 51), not as a mediator to persuade the sinner to repent, but to persuade the judge to forgive the sin. And his death is no longer that of a martyr to the great cause of regenerating his fellow-creatures, but it is somewhat of an atoning sacrifice, made to propitiate the judge, a doctrine which is shown on the sculpture in Fig. 70, page 51. These Alexandrian opinions were probably held by Apollos of Alexandria and Barnabas of Cyprus; and it was against some such "philosophy and vain deceit after the traditions of men," accompanied by a "voluntary humility and worshipping of angels," that Paul warns the Colossians (ii. 8; ii. 18; iv. 10). Soon afterwards were added to the Gospel of Matthew the first two chapters, giving to Jesus a miraculous birth, without an earthly father, chapters of which we have historic information that they formed no part of the original Gospel, and which receive no support from the Gospels of Mark or John, or from any of the Epistles. The first two, chapters also in Luke, the poetical chapters, though they allow Jesus to be the son of Joseph as well as of Mary, equally show their Egyptian origin. They give the circumstances attending his birth almost as if they were copied from the Egyptian sculpture in page 18, where we have seen the annunciation, the conception, the birth, and the adoration of the child, who afterwards became King Amunotph III.

In the year A.D. 160, a hundred years after Mark had landed in Alexandria, we find four bishops governing as many Egyptian churches, which had adopted Christianity in some form or other. But whenever we hear of these Egyptian Christians, they are by the Greeks called Heretics. Numbers of them had readily consented to be baptised, and to fling away the belief in their old gods. But their new religious opinions had very little in common with the religion preached by Jesus and his apostles. Their Persian conquerors, though too tyrannical to win many minds from Polytheism, may yet have helped to undermine the belief in gods whose statues the). had broken. The Greek conquerors, whose ridicule gained weight from their greater refinement, had further weakened the faith of some minds. Thus the Egyptians may have been somewhat prepared by their own doubts, though in a less degree than the Greeks and Romans, for the introduction of a new religion. But on the other hand, if the Egyptians had fewer theological doubts, they had more religious earnestness; and Christianity made its way, not only because the nations were opening their eyes to their intellectual errors, but because they were rising to an aim after more moral purity. Of the Pagan nations best known to us, the Egyptians were the most real believers in a resurrection from the dead, in a day of judgment, and in a future state of rewards and punishments. Through these doctrines a wide door was open for the entrance of Christianity. Having been polytheists, they readily received Jesus Christ as a god in the place of some of their own; and that he should have been put to death by his enemies, could present no difficulty to their minds, as the), had always been taught that their own god, Osiris, had died by, an equally cruel death. Horus, the son, during the latter century, had risen to the rank of judge, and to be thought more of than Osiris, and hence Jesus was soon thought more worthy of worship than our Heavenly Father. A dying god was one of the great facts in their religious philosophy; and though they rejected their own gods, they could by no means so easily reject their old opinions. However, the despised Egyptians, on owning themselves Christians, and submitting to baptism, were at once received as equals in the society of the Greek Christians. They were raised, not legally, but socially, from slaves to be freemen. That any of the Greeks, their masters, should take the trouble to preach to them, to persuade them, to try to win them over to their own views of religion, was an honour which they had never before received; and as they owed it to Christianity, they cannot but have been led to look upon Christianity with favourable eyes.

The new religious opinions, however, of the Egyptians had very little in common with the religion of the Apostles. They took such parts of the Gospel as suited their views, and could be fitted on to their old religion; but these rays of light they mixed up and buried under such a mass of superstition, that the Apostles themselves would not easily have recognised their own doctrines. The Christianity of the Egyptians, thus corrupted by the old Paganism of the country, shows itself in Alexandria first under the name of the Gnostic heresy. Gnosticism, that is, science or knowledge was the proud name given by its professors to a confused mixture of Greek philosophy and Egyptian superstition, to which they made no difficulty of adding Christianity. We learn something of it from the writers who oppose it, and something of it from their own sculptured gems, and something, even, from the Alexandrian coins of the emperors. As it was founded on a union between Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish opinions, it probably took its rise in Heliopolis, which was the most celebrated school before the building of Alexandria. But afterwards it spread from Alexandria to all the countries where Greek was spoken.

The peculiarities of the Gnostics very much show themselves in the attempt to explain the origin of evil--that never-failing source of difficulty to philosophical reasoners. They held the Eastern opinion of two equal and co-eternal Beings, the one the author of good, and the other of evil; that between these two there was an unceasing warfare, as between light and darkness, life and death, spirit and matter. These are the "oppositions of science, falsely so, called," against which the Apostle Paul warned Timothy. The Gnostics held that matter was essentially evil, and consequently that God could not be its author. Even the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon says that God did not create death. The Supreme God and the Creator of the World were with the Gnostics two different Beings, and the latter was looked upon as the God of the Jews and the author of the Mosaic law. In this scheme, the Being with whom men have chiefly to do, either in this world or in the next, is the Creator of the World, the author of evil; and we see its connection with the old Egyptian opinions, by the engraved figures on the coins and gems. On Fig. 92, an Alexandrian coin of Hadrian, we see the Serpent of Good and the Serpent of Evil, both so, common on the Egyptian monuments. The former is well distinguished by his swollen chest, but it is the latter, the Serpent of Evil, that wears the crown of Osiris as judge of the dead. On a coin of Antoninus (Fig 93) the Serpent of Evil is represented as Serapis, having the head of an old man with a basket on the top, as the great god and judge, while on. the engraved gem (Fig. 94) the same serpent has a glory round its head, and is entitled the Spirit of Evil, and underneath it is written the magical word, Abrasax, hurl me not, an Egyptian word, which the Greeks made use of, as believing that the evil spirits were better acquainted with the Egyptian language than with the Greek. From thus representing the creator of the world under the form of a serpent, some of the Gnostics were named Ophit, or Serpent-worshippers; and in giving to this Being the name of Jao, a word written on his shield in Fig. 95, they declared him to be the Jah, or Jehovah of the Jews.

Fig. 92

Fig. 93

Fig. 94

Fig. 95

Another favourite doctrine of the Gnostics was that of ons, or spiritual beings, which proceeded from the Almighty, or, rather, into which the Almighty had in part divided himself. These were seven in number, of whom one was the Christ, who came down and dwelt in the body of Jesus. This opinion of a, god dividing himself into several persons, or characters, was part of the old Egyptian mythology, as we have seen in page 12; and these seven spirits, or ons, we met with in the Greek translation of Isaiah, in page 62. The Gnostics, classing them with the Almighty as eight persons who together made only one God, worshipped them under the name of the Ogdoad, which is, the earliest system of plurality in unity that we meet with among Christians of any sect. As the everlasting God was himself Eternity, so these angelic beings which proceeded from him were called ons, ages, or limited periods of time, a name which seems to deny that they are of equal rank with the Eternal Being. And in the Epistle to the Hebrews, a book which shows much acquaintance with Alexandrian opinions, the Almighty is described as God who made the ons or ages (chap. i. 2). A later sect of Gnostics raised the number of ons to thirty.

As the hostility of Matter to Spirit was the cause of all evil, the aim of Gnosticism Was to purify its followers from the corruptions of Matter; and this Was to be done by making them more perfect in Gnosis or mystical knowledge. And hence some thought that the body was to be kept under the practice of self-denial, and by a rigid system of discipline; While others who had persuaded themselves that their knowledge was everything, despised the distinctions of the moral law, and, justly or unjustly, were accused of gross vice.

These speculative and mystical opinions, which show themselves among the Christians in the form of Gnosticism, and among the Jews and Greek Pagans in the more modified form of New Platonism, took their rise in the School of Heliopolis, where the opinions of Jews, Greeks, and Egyptians had freely mingled, and had each made some change in the others. We have spoken of the changes introduced into Christianity by this mixing together of races; but the change in the old Egyptian religion shows in itself in an approach towards the worship of one God. It was to be brought about by the help of various subtleties, without rejecting the old Polytheism, and chiefly by means of the doctrine of Plurality in Unity, by which, as We have before seen, they, readily divided one God into several persons, and equally readily united several Gods into one person. Plutarch tells us that they worshipped Osiris, Isis, and Horus, under the form of a triangle, of which Horus was the shorter side. Of these representations of the Egyptian Trinity, we have many small specimens in our museums (see Fig. 96). He further tells us that they held that everything perfect had three parts, and, therefore, that their god of goodness made himself threefold, while their god of evil remained single. On an Alexandrian coin of Trajan we see a winged sphinx, With three heads, leaning on a wheel, representing this threefold divinity (see Fig. 97). It reminds us of the Greek Cerberus, and which we might almost suppose to be the wicked Typhon, the accusing hippopotamus. Who was one of the Cabeiri, if such an opinion did not contradict the rule quoted by Plutarch, that the god of evil remained single. It reminds us also of the living creatures of Ezekiel, chap. i., each of which had four heads and four wings, except that the creature described by the prophet had a wheel for each of the four faces. And indeed the same sphinx, leaning on a Wheel, was made use of by the Gnostic Christians to represent Jesus Christ, as in the engraved gem, Fig. 98, where we see the White horse of the Book of Revelation vi. 2, "And he that sat on it had a bow, and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer," trampling down, as we see, the Dragon, or serpent of Evil, while the figure of Victory presents to him the crown or diadem of royalty. An Alexandrian coin of the 11th year of Domitian represents another vision of the Book of Revelation--namely, the Spirit of Death, in the form of a serpent, riding on the Pale Horse (see Fig. 99). As this was made after the Book of Revelation was written, so also may have been the gem, Fig. 98.

Fig. 96.


Fig. 97.

Fig. 98


Fig. 99

In the Book of Revelation, however, written in the year A.D. 69, we find many traces of the Gnostic or at least Egyptian opinions. One as in the seven spirits which were before the throne of God, in chap. i. 4, and which are again mentioned under the form of lamps, chap. iv. 5, and as eyes, in chap. v. 6. In page 80, we have shown that the writers of the Septuagint introduced these seven spirits into Isaiah xi. 2. Another Egyptian figure is in the war against the Dragon, or serpent of evil, in chap xii., which is represented several times on the sarcophagus of Oimenepthah I., made perhaps B.C. 1200, and mentioned in page 43. The description of heaven, in chap. v. 5, the Jude on his throne, the four-and-twenty elders around the throne, the four living creatures with animals' heads, the Lamb standing before the throne,, and the book-roll, would all seem in scenic effect to be copied from the Trial Scene described in page 41, though in its purpose it is very unlike. The horses' tails ending in snakes' heads we see on the gem, page 99.

The learned Greeks of Alexandria, whether Pagans or Christians, by no means held the superstitious Egyptian opinions, though certainly Greek philosophy had been not a little changed by having been cultivated for four centuries side by side with astrology, fortune-telling, priestly oracles, the Eleusinian mysteries, and the ceremonies in the great temple of Serapis. But the cold criticism and scepticism of the Museum, may have driven many minds to feel more pleasure in credulity. Clemens shows some love of mysticism in his fondness for the sacred power of numbers, and Origen in his finding am allegory or second meaning hidden under the simple history of the Bible. And the praiseworthy wish to convert the Egyptians to Christianity led to describing the new religion in terms as near as possible to the old Paganism.

Clemens, in his words, though not so much in the meaning of his words, goes a long way to meet the opinions of the Egyptian Christians. He writes in favour of Gnosticism, Science or Knowledge, and though he is far from meaning the "Science falsely so called," spoken of by the Apostle Paul, which now goes by the name of Gnosticism, yet he cannot but have given some countenance to it, by adopting the language of his mystical neighbours. He describes every good man as having it in his power to rise from being a slave, to become a faithful servant of God, then a son, and at last a God walking in the flesh. Such words were understood figuratively, as they were meant, by the Platonic Christians of Alexandria; and it is only in sound that they agreed with the opinions of the Egyptians, who had accepted a belief in Jesus by considering him sometimes a god who had been put to death like Osiris, and sometimes a son of God in the same sense as their own Horus. But these words,, though at first used figuratively, coloured the opinions of those who understood them literally.

If the Platonic Christians fancied that they were in any degree bringing over the Egyptians towards their own opinions by thus going forward to meet them, they were very much mistaken. The attempt to bridge over the gulf which separated the two opinions, did less to win the polytheists to Christianity than it did to make the Christianity of the country polytheistic. At the same time this concealing the difference between the two classes of believers, was very much driving away from Christianity the Jewish converts, who, like the Egyptians, though in an opposite direction, were equally straightforward in holding their opinions, and in the manner of expressing them.

Soon after the time of Clemens and Origen, the Alexandrian opinions again moved a step further towards the Egyptians. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, after first writing against the Gnostics, who said that there were thirty persons in the Godhead, then writes to defend the new doctrine of a Trinity against Paul, the Syrian bishop, who said that God was One and undivided, and that Jesus was a man; and then again, Dionysius writes against Sabellius, Bishop of Cyrene, who, like Paul the Syrian, said that God was One and undivided, but, unlike Paul, added that he had appeared on earth in the form of Jesus. Against these opposite opinions Dionysius defended a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in so doing he by no means comes up to the Egyptian standard. He distinctly denies to Jesus any higher rank than that of the, first of created beings. His Trinity may be called the Arian Trinity, and is important as it marks one of the steps by which the Alexandrians were slowly fitting their mysticism to the Egyptian polytheism. The only advance which the Egyptians in return made towards the Greeks, was in the sect of the Docet, who were willing to get over the difficulty of a dying God, by their doctrine of apparitions. The said that Jesus died only in appearance, and hence their name of Docet, or Seemers. In the same way the Egyptians, five centuries earlier, had told Herodotus that Helen had been carried to Troy only in appearance, and that her real body had never been there. But the Greeks did not accept this view of the matter.

For the persecution of the Christians, both Greek and Egyptian, which began with the third century, we must seek all explanation in the state of the country in the years before the Egyptian rebellions. The Greek Christians had courted the Egyptians, had preached to them, had in part educated them, had raised them in their own eyes, and had made common cause with them, and thus, made them discontented under their foreign rulers. This religious stir the government tried to stop, and the persecution of the Christians was as much political as religious. The Greeks, or the Roman government, which was very much in the hands of the Greeks, would probably never have been roused into intolerance unless the peace of the country had been threatened by an increased activity of mind among the Egyptians. The rebellion which followed made a vet further change in the religion. When the rebellion broke out, the union between Greek Christians, and Egyptian Christians was broken; and when the rebellions were over, the Egyptians no longer acknowledged by the Greeks as their religious partners.

From the death of Alexander Severus, in the year A.D. 235, till the accession of Constantine in A.D. 323, Egypt was torn to pieces by civil wars between rival emperors, by the invasion of the Syrians, and yet more by repeated rebellions of the native Egyptians against the power of Rome. While the disturbances continued Greek opinions were going fast out of favour with the Egyptians; the Greek mind was losing its, supremacy, and Egyptian Christianity was henceforth to be for the most part under the guidance of Egyptians themselves. It was at the end of the third century, during the years of trouble, that the worship of the Persian Mithra, the god of the sun, was introduced into Egypt. In the Persian system of two gods, one good and the other wicked, Mithra was the god of goodness. The symbol in his worship best known is the figure of a hero, in Phrygian cap and trowsers, mounted on a sinking bull, and stabbing it in sacrifice to the unseen god, while a dog licks up the blood from the wound (see Fig. 100). This new worship received little favour in Egypt or Alexandria, and its ignorant followers were as wickedly accused of slaying their fellow citizens on the altars of the Persian god. The only part of this religion that gained a cordial welcome was the doctrine of Manicheism, a doctrine so closely akin to Gnosticism that it was hardly new. It was the doctrine of two supreme principles equally eternal and self-existent. One was mind and the other matter, one causing the happiness and the other the misery of men, one living in light and the other in darkness. This opinion, like the Antitheses of Gnosticism, had its rise in the difficulty of explaining the origin of sin, and of understanding how a merciful Creator could allow the existence of evil. The ignorant, in all ages of Christianity, have held the same opinion in one form or other, thinking that sin arose from the contrivances of a Devil, whom the All-powerful was not powerful enough to overcome, or else from the wickedness of the flesh itself. The Jews alone proclaimed that God created good, and God created evil. But the Jewish converts were now declared heretics by the more superstitious converts from Paganism, who were every year making the, standard of orthodoxy conform more and more to Egyptian ignorance, and less to Greek intelligence. Hence Manicheism and the belief in a Devil took deep hold of the Egyptian Christians.

Fig. 100

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