Christianity Under the Byzantine Emperors
When quiet was re-established in Egypt by the Roman armies, after more than sixty years of civil troubles, it was found to be no longer the same country that it had been under the Antonines. The framework of society had been broken, the Greeks had lessened in numbers and still more in weight. Greek toleration of all religions and of all modes of thought then gave way to Egyptian more bigoted earnestness. The bright days of Egypt as a Greek kingdom ended with the rebellions against Gallienus, Aurelian, and Dioclesian. The native Egyptians and the old superstitions then rise again into notice, as Greek civilization sinks around them. The building of Constantinople, and the removal of the scat of government from Rome to that new Greek city, yet further lessened the numbers, and thus the rank of the Greeks in Alexandria. Among the Christians, the more superstitious Egyptians, whose religion was still polytheism under a Christian form, as being now the more numerous, are able in their turn to call the Greek Christians heretics. Then began the celebrated Arian controversy, as to whether Jesus Christ were a God or a created being; and the same intolerance, which ten centuries earlier would not allow the Libyans to eat beef, is now uneasy at there being two opinions about the miraculous birth of the Saviour. The opinions of Arius were tile same as those of the late Bishop Dionysius, that Jesus was the First of Created Beings. But what was orthodoxy before the rebellions, while the Greeks were able to treat the Egyptians as slaves, was heresy since the Egyptians had found out their weight and power; and the young and able Athanasius, a Greek deacon in the Alexandrian church, rose into importance by taking the Egyptian side in the controversy.
It was not in the first instance seen that the dispute was in reality a political struggle between the Egyptians and the Greeks, but it took the form of a religious argument as to whether Jesus was an uncreated being of out, substance with God, or was inferior to the Father. The quarrel in Alexandria unsettled the faith of the world, so much was that city a guide both to the east and west in matters of religion; and the Emperor Constantine was persuaded to call a council of bishops to meet at Nica, in Asia Minor, to settle the question. Unfortunately the decline of civilization, and the increase of ignorance during the last two centuries had been as great in Greece and Italy as in Alexandria. The civil wars between rival emperors, the licence of the soldiers, the inroads of the barbarians, and the progress of despotism, had crushed free thought and genius everywhere. The Roman or western half of the known world was wholly without a writer of any kind, except in the ranks of the prejudiced theologians; and in the Greek or Eastern provinces what little learning or cultivation remained was chiefly to be found in Alexandria. Hence when the creed of Christendom was to be settled by the votes of the bishops, after Egyptian superstition had already gained a strong footing in Alexandria, any purer or more simple views of Christianity, stood little chance of holding their ground in an assembly of divines summoned from yet wider and more ignorant provinces.
At Nica, as is usually the case in an assembly of divines, the more superstitious talked down and frowned down the more reasonable. The Emperor sided with the Egyptians, which may be explained by what we have before seen, because Greece and Rome had been used to look up to Egypt as their teacher in religion; and he had lately, on building Constantinople, received from Alexandria fifty copies of Church Lessons, for the use of his new churches. The Egyptian opinions, supported by the eloquence and earnestness of the young Athanasias, the spokesman of the Egyptian bishops, prevailed. He drew up the celebrated form of words, now known by the name of the Nicene Creed, as a statement of the opinions which the Egyptians contended for; and the Council ended their labours by ordering everybody to receive it as thc true Christian faith.
The controversy was by no means at once settled by this decree. When Constantine saw that the quarrel was more political than religious, he took the other side of the question, and joined the Greeks; and Egypt continued almost in rebellion on a point of controversial theology during the reigns of Constantine, Constantius, Julian, Jovian, and Valens. For forty years Athanasius, the darling hero of the Egyptians, was able to defy the power of the Emperors, and after his death peace was restored only on the accession of Theodosius, who took the side of the Egyptians, and allowed them in their turn to persecute the more enlightened Arian Greeks. From that time forward the Christianity of the superstitious Egyptians became the Christianity of the majority in Alexandria, and after a time, with very few variations, the Christianity of the greater part of the world.
The aim of the Nicene Creed was to require everybody to acknowledge, that Jesus Christ was a God, in such clear and forcible terms as to turn out of the Church all who would not follow the Egyptians in the mystical opinions which they had introduced, so that there should be no escape for those who believed in one only God, and who gave any whatever lower rank to the Saviour. It declares that there is one God, the Maker of all things, and yet that the one Lord Jesus Christ was not made; that he also was very God of very God, and was yet crucified by Pontius Pilate; that he had been previously incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and made man, although of one substance with the Father. All this carried with it no contradiction to the mind of the Egyptians. They were used to being told and believing that two Gods could be one God. They were used to hear of a God being put to death, as they had always held that Osiris, though a god, had been put to death. They were used to hear of children being born of an earthly mother, and having no earthly father, as they held that many of their kings were so born, being incarnate by the god Amun-Ra. But Athanasius did not introduce into his creed any Egyptian mysticism to support it, nor did he try to explain away its inconstency by any play upon words. The Nicene Creed does not mention the Trinity nor the two natures of Christ, but leaves the contradictions stated in the boldest terms. The well-known Athanasian Creed, in which an explanation of the difficulties has been attempted, is supposed to have been written two or three hundred years later, and the name of the great Alexandrian bishop has been given to it, either dishonestly, or because it was thought to represent his opinions. This later creed states that though "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, yet they are not three Gods, but one God." This is the Egyptian doctrine of plurality in unity, which is represented in numerous sculptures, and explained in pages 12 and 98. It then asserts the two natures of Christ, that he is both "perfect God and perfect man." This was meant to get over the difficulty of a dying God which had been ridiculed by Xenophanes, in the case of Osiris, five centuries before the Christian era; when he told the Egyptians that if Osiris was a man they should not worship him, and if he was a god they need not lament his sufferings. But this Athanasian Creed, though setting forth the Egyptian opinions, was an offspring of the Latin church, and it is very doubtful whether it would have been wholly approved of by Athanasius. The Egyptians had raised Mary, the wife of Joseph, almost into a goddess, at least into "the mother of God," who had imparted no portion of human nature to her son; they denied the two natures of Christ, and clung faithfully to t he words of their own Nicene Creed, which declared that he was "of one substance with the Father."
It was during these years of civil trouble and political agitation that Christianity, or at least a form of religion which called itself Christian, spread over the whole of Egypt. That large class of the population which a few years before formed the priesthood of the old temples, were now Christian monks. They were all zealous supporters of Athanasius, and all earnest against the Arian opinions of the Greeks. For their use, three Egyptian translations of the Bible were made, one into the language used in the western half of the Delta, called Coptic, a second into that of the Eastern half, called Bashmuric, and a third into the Thebaic, for the use of Upper Egypt and Nubia. They readily fitted the old temples to the new religion. Their opinions had undergone but small change. On the rock temple of Kneph, opposite Abou Simbel, they painted the figure of the Saviour, with a glory round his head upon the and thus it became a Christian church (see Fig. 101) The great court-yard of the temple of Medinet Abou, at Thebes, was is used as a cathedral church dedicated to St. Athanasius. In some cases, they removed from before their eyes the memorials of the old superstition, by covering up the sculptures on the walls with mud from the Nile, and white plaster. In other cases, they contented themselves with making a slight change in the sculpture, as at the temple of Asseboua, in Nubia, where they painted the figure of the Apostle Peter over that of the old god of the temple, and the sculpture now represents King Rameses II. presenting his offerings to the Christian Saint (see Fig. 102).
By the burst of enthusiasm in favour of Athanasius, the Nicene Creed became the received religion of all native Egyptians, and beyond them of those Alexandrians who aimed at rising into importance by taking the popular side in the quarrel. Arianism, on the other hand, even when supported by, the weak government of the Emperor, lost ground rapidly, and it soon took refuge in the fortified camps of the Greek soldiers. A church was dedicated to the Arian bishop George, within the walls of the strong castle of Babylon, opposite Memphis, and another at Ptolemais, where the Greek garrison collected the toll of the Thebaid, and where the modern village vet bears his name, and is called by the Arabs Geergeh, St. George became a favourite saint with the Greeks in Egypt, and in those few spots where the Greek soldiers were masters of the churches, this Arian and unpopular bishop was often painted on the walls, riding triumphantly on horseback, and slaying the great serpent or dragon of Athanasian error.
At this time a marked separation was taking place between the opinions of Constantinople, the chief seat of the Greek Church, and those of Egypt and Rome. The more civilized Constantinople held aloof for the present from the more, superstitious Egypt as its religious guide. But the case was far otherwise with Rome. Since the building of Constantinople, and the removal of the seat of government to that city, no political quarrel separated Rome from Egypt. Pagan Rome, ever since the union of the two countries under Augustus, except when interrupted by the rebellions, had been eagerly copying the superstitions of Egypt, and Christian Rome still followed the same course.
When in the reign of Constantine the country was quiet, thc intercourse between the Egyptian and the Roman churches was renewed under still more favourable circumstances, because the city of Alexandria had become more Egyptian and less Greek than ever it had been before. Constans, the next Emperor of Rome, openly gave his support to Athanasius when in rebellious disobedience to Constantius, his own sovereign; and the opinions of Athanasius, received the support of the whole Roman church.
At the end of the third century Hesychius, of Alexandria, had published a new edition of the Greek Bible with a corrected text, and such was the credit of Alexandria, as the chief seat of Christian learning,, that all distant churches sent there for copies of the Scriptures. When Constans wanted copies of the Greek scriptures for Rome, he sent for them to Alexandria, and received the approved text from Athanasius. In this, a matter of learning belonging to the last century, the Roman Emperor acted wisely, but in the matter of religious opinions the case was far otherwise.
Alexandria in the fourth century was very different from that Alexandria which had earned its high character for criticism and scholarship, though the change, in the eyes of the Roman church, was a change for the better; and they were equally pleased to import from the same city Alexandrian manuscripts and Egyptian superstitions. All Christendom was copying the monastic institutions of the Thebaid. Italy and the West acknowledged Egypt as their best instructress in all ecclesiastical matters; and the approval which they, gave to the ecclesiastical institutions could hardly have been yielded so cordially, unless they at the same time gave a full approval to the religious opinions.
As the Egyptians excelled all other Christians in the practice of self-denial and fleshly mortification, so their religion was naturally thought the most pleasing to God, and their theological views the soundest. Natives of Italy, not content with living in their own monasteries under the strict Theban rules, flocked into Egypt to place themselves under the severe discipline, and to learn the opinions of the ignorant Egyptian monks. As these Latin monks did not understand either Coptic or Greek, they found some difficulty in regulating their lives with the wished for exactness; and the rules of Pacomius, of Theodorus, and of Oresiesis, the most celebrated of the founders, were sent to St. Jerome at Rome, to be by him translated into Latin, for the use of these settlers in the Thebaid. The two countries shaped their opinions so nearly in the same mould, that when St. Jerome visited Egypt he found the church there holding what he called the true Roman faith. Two at least of these teachers of monastic discipline were clearly Egyptians, not Greeks. Their names, Pachomius, or Pa-chem, a priest of the god Chem, and Oresiesis, or Hor-se-isis, Horus the son of Isis, even without the evidence of the foregoing pages, might have led us to suppose that the source of their theology, both for themselves and for the, Theban monasteries under their rule, was as much Pagan as Christian.
The closeness with which Western Europe followed, Egypt may be seen even in smaller matters. St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, calls Jesus "the good Scarabus, who rolled up before him the hitherto unshapen mud of our bodies," thus giving to him one of the names and characters of the god Horus, who is pictured as a scarabus, with a ball of mud between his feet (see Fig. 103). The ball, which usually means the sun, would seem to have sometimes meant the sins of mankind; and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys are often represented as rolling the same ball before them. St. Augustin also, during the greater part of his life, was a Manichan, and held the Gnostic opinion of a god of goodness and a god of evil; and he was so far an admirer of the Egyptians, or at least of their practice of making mummies, as to say that they were the only Christians who really and fully, believed in a future resurrection from the dead.
If St. Jerome, when noting the religious agreement between Rome and Egypt, really fancied that in anything whatever Rome had been the teacher, he had read history to very little purpose. But Rome and Egypt then held the same views of Christianity, which have since been known as the opinions of the Roman church, and which were at the time rejected as too superstitious by many of the more learned bishops of Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Syria, who for the time held back from the Athanasian opinions.
Hence arose the separate establishment of the Greek church, which for a short time was Arian, and which from political causes has ever since been disjoined from the Roman church. Political causes also, arising from the disturbed state of the world in the fifth century, presently separated Egypt from Italy; and then the Coptic and the Roman church ceased to hold so exactly the same opinions. As Greek intelligence offered every year less check to Egyptian ignorance, the Coptic church became yet more superstitious; though, fortunately for Rome, that city was no longer in danger of being led to follow.
The churches of Constantinople and Greece, with the Greek churches of Asia Minor and Syria, did not, as we have said, at first move towards the Egyptian opinions quite so fast as Italy and the west. But the change from the earlier faith was presently quickened in the East by political circumstances. On the death of the Emperor Valens in A.D. 379, Theodosius, a general who hail been born in Spain, and brought up in Western Christianity, was made Emperor of Constantinople and the East. The disturbed state of his dominions called for the strong arm of military despotism; and Theodosius required the church to give the same obedience to his simple will that he received from the army. He at once dismissed the Arian patriarch of Constantinople, and ordered all the clergy to be turned out of their churches if they would not receive the Nicene Creed. He summoned a council of bishops to meet at Constantinople, for the purpose of having the Nicene Creed declared to be the creed of the church of the whole world. He did not summon to it either the Egyptian bishops or the Western bishops; they already held the Nicene faith. He summoned only the Eastern church, and in that council, under his orders, the Nicene Creed was reenacted forty-five years after the Arians had been allowed to re-enter the church. The Council of Constantinople also added to the creed the clauses which declare the Holy Spirit to be a person who ought to be worshipped equally with God and Jesus, leaving the Nicene Creed very nearly as it is now read, and thus for the first time establishing the Trinity as now understood by the so-called orthodox Christians.
The book trade of Alexandria gave the Egyptian opinions a great importance in the Christian world. All the oldest and best manuscripts of the Greek Bible now remaining were written by Alexandrian penmen, that of Paris, that of the Vatican, that of Cambridge, that of the British Museum, and that from 'Mount Sinai, now in Russia. In Alexandria were made the Ethiopic version, and probably the early Latin version. The Armenian version and the old Syriac version were corrected in Alexandria, from the most approved and earliest Greek text.
These are strong proofs of the rank which that city held, and of its power to guide the opinions of foreign Christians. Nor were corn and books the only products which other countries received from Egypt, either as tribute or by purchase.
About the middle of the fourth century there was a general digging up of the bodies of the most celebrated Christians of former ages to heal the diseases and strengthen the faith of the living. The tombs of Egypt, crowded with mummies which had lain there for centuries, could of course furnish relics more easily than most countries; and Constantinople then received from Egypt a quantity of bones, which were supposed to be those of the martyrs slain in the Pagan persecutions. The Archbishop, John Chrysostome, received them gratefully, and though himself smarting under the reproach that he was not orthodox, according to the measure of the superstitious Egyptians, he thanks God that Egypt, which sent forth its corn to feed its hungry neighbours, could also send the bodies of so many martyrs to sanctify their churches. And Gregory, of Nazianzus, a little before had remarked that Egypt was the most Christ-loving of countries, and adds, with true simplicity, that, wonderful to say, after having so lately worshipped bulls, goats, and crocodiles, it was now teaching the world the worship of the Trinity in the truest form.
Fig. 104.--Isis Rising Heliacally.
Who are we?
Tour Egypt aims to offer the ultimate Egyptian adventure and intimate knowledge about the country. We offer this unique experience in two ways, the first one is by organizing a tour and coming to Egypt for a visit, whether alone or in a group, and living it firsthand. The second way to experience Egypt is from the comfort of your own home: online.