Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Origins of Christianity in Egypt [Part One]

Rising like a beacon from the eastern shores of Alexandria, the Martyrium of St. Mark was the embodiment of Christiantiy in Egypt.  It was the most important landmark in all of Christianity in the pre-Nicene period yet no attempt is made in the surviving literature to even attempt to explain the origin of this massive structure.  Clement of Alexandria, writing from the late second century simply assumes that this large stone structure, fully equipped with a veiled inner sanctum was already functional by the time St. Mark brought the final edition of his gospel to the city c. 70 CE.  The tenth century Coptic historian Severus of Al'Ashmunein preserves a tradition that St. Mark actually found the financial means to build the church on his own.  This seems highly unlikely given that it was located in what must have been the most expensive piece of land in the densely populated Jewish quarter of the city. 

All of our early sources agree on one thing - this was the only building in all of Christian Egypt.  It must have been a massive structure because of the scale of the conversion even as witnessed by Clement at the beginning of the third century.  He tells us that the message had already brought "over to the truth whole houses, and each individual of those who heard it by him himself."  Severus goes so far as to make explicit that until the end of the third century, Christians outside of Alexandria "had celebrated the liturgy in caves and underground places and secret resorts."

Yet as Roger Bagnall has noted, the total Christian population in Egypt in 250 CE was likely to have been in excess of 100,000 souls (Early Christian Books p. 20).  One might even argue that these numbers are rather conservative.  How could a community with this size have functioned with just a single building?   The answer must be that the 'Church of St. Mark' was rather large.  Yet how and why would it be reasonable for Clement to have held that such a building was already established since the time of St. Mark? 

There can be only one answer and it is rather incredible at first blush.  The Christian community must have inherited its Church from a large building associated with the Jewish community living in the region called 'Boucolia' (Τὰ Βουκόλου) in the first century CE.  The writings of Clement scream out the answer but almost no one has heard what it has to say. The Christians of Alexandria must have taken over the great synagogue mentioned in the writings of Philo which stood as the beating heart of Jewish community until the revolts of 115 - 117 CE.

We know very little about these so-called 'Trajanic revolts' after the name of the Emperor who ruled at the time they swept through Egypt, north Africa and many other parts of the Empire.  All that is clear is that by the time the dust settled there were no more Jews living in the region where their great synagogue once stood.  Did Christians simply take over the building in the aftermath of this Egyptian holocaust and rededicate it to their patron saint?   It is perhaps the least controversial explanation of how this massive church seems to have simply 'fallen from the sky' into early Christian history in Egypt.  Yet there are few additional details to consider.

It isn't just that our earliest sources say that there was just one church in all of Egypt.  There seems also to have been a remarkable autocratism inherent in the structure of the Egyptian Church which separate it from all of its rivals.  Even though we have come to imagine the Roman Church as this autocratic force in history, it is curious to see that it seems to have been founded on two thrones - one associated with Peter and another associated with Paul.  Even though the canonical Acts of the Apostles does its best to paint some sort of picture of an original apostolic harmony between the pair, it is equally plausible to argue from the same evidence that the apostolic age ended with a rift between two separate communities associated with each apostle. 

To this end there are always conflicting stories about the succession of apostles in Antioch and signs of two competing apostolic thrones in Rome down into the third century.  In Alexandria by contrast we see no rival apostolic traditions, no challengers to the authority of St. Mark from the very beginning.   Moreover within body of the Egyptian Church no man could take the title of bishop or 'episkopos' for the whole of Egypt save for the representative of St. Mark.  The episkopos of the Alexandrian See of St. Mark was quite literally the 'guardian' or adoptive father of all who believed in the authority of the Evangelist.  There were no middlemen or 'fellow bishops' until the third century when the community was coming under the influence of foreign beliefs and practices.

The native custom of Christian Egypt was to have an Alexandrian centered faith which placed the Church of St. Mark as nothing short of a second temple of Jerusalem or a precursor to Mecca.  That some Christians felt a duty to visit the shrine of the Evangelist in Egypt is clear from the surviving evidence down through to the late Byzantine period.   It is impossible of course to now determine what the 'ancient demographic' of most of the pilgrims were to use modern American parlance.  One would presume that many were Egyptian but the site seems also to have attracted a number of 'foreign' visitors too. 

Indeed already from the time of Arius, the notious rebel cleric famous for his resistance to the 'reforms' of the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea, we hear of ascetics living in the environs of the shrine.  It would be difficult to imagine that these 'virgins' who accompanied the heretic presbyter of the church just decided on their own to 'flop' at the martyrium.  There must have been an established practice for some time that holy men wanted to live in close proximity to this holy site. 

And then there is staggering number of these ascetics - seven hundred - living in the environs of the Church of St. Mark in Alexandria who were eventually expelled with Arius at the dawn of the era of Nicaea.  As Christopher Haas notes that both Alexandrian asceticism and the Evangelist's martyrium continued to flourish side by side:

until the time of the Sassanian and Arab conquests, when both the shrine and its neighboring monasteries were burned.  Besides this link between ascetics and Saint Mark's Martyrium, it is worth remembering that many of Alexandria's earliest ascetics retired to the suburban regions just east of the city.  It was here that some of Alexandria's most extensive cemeteries were located, known today by the names of Chatby, Ibrahimiya and El Hadra.  As we have seen, in the middle years of the fourth century, these tombs became the herimtages of numerous Alexandrian ascetics.  The necropoleis in and around Boukolia continued to appeal to ascetics until the founding of Alexandria's suburban monasteries toward the end of the fourth century. Saint Anthony himself considered settling in the region of Boukolia before he withdrew to his inner mountain.  Boukolia also served as a recruiting ground for monasticism, as seen especially by the conversion of a young shepherd named Macarius, who murdered one of his comrades along the shore of Lake Mareotis and then fled to the desert as a hermit.  Given this context,  it is not surprising that Arius, the presbyter charged with the pastoral oversight of this region, was noted for his ascetic demeanor and even a style of dress characteristic of early Egyptian monks.  At the time of his excommunication, over seven hundred virgins were expelled along with him — a graphic testimony to the appeal of Arianism among Alexandrian ascetics. In addition, there is also the testimony of Bishop Alexander, who,  in a letter to his namesake in Thessalonica, speaks of Arians "troubling us in the lawcourts by the pleas of disorderly women whom they have duped and also discrediting Christianity by the way in which the younger women among them immodestly frequent every public street" — precisely the same immodest ascetic behavior addressed by the Alexandrian canons. [Alexandria in Late Antiquity p. 272]

The image that we have of the Church of St. Mark in the early fourth century is that of a kind of 'hippie commune' where ascetic followers of the representative of St. Mark "block up the gates, and sit like so many demons around the tombs." 

Indeed the other worldliness of this setting is almost difficult to imagine.  The massive physical structure of the church itself towering over a complex of official residences for various monks, presbyters and church officials and then set in a massive landscape of cemeteries and the physical remains of the former glorious Jewish quarter of the Common Era. The most important Christian landmark itself was literally situated on top of not mere 'graves' but the dead remains of Alexandrian Judaism.  This must have been a powerful metaphor in itself.  Christianity was literally seen rising up 'in glory' out of the ashes of the Law and prophets.  Yet this wasn't the only scriptural metaphor which would have come into the minds of believers. 

In order to properly imagine ourselves standing in front of the epicenter of Egyptian Christianity, we have to also hear the relentless pounding of the sea against the walls of the city and rocks which dotted the shore.  Even to this day the waters of the Chatby region are so violent that underwater examinations can be undertaken but once or twice a month.  So it is that in our earliest descriptions of the Church of St. Mark the pounding rhythm of the Mediterranean figures prominently in the imagery. 

Severus writes again that when St. Mark "found means to build a church in a place called the Cattle-pasture" he built it "near the sea, beside a rock from which stone is hewn."  For those who lived in monastic cells in the Chatby complex, it would have impossible not to connect this image with the relentless noise of the sea dashing the rocks scattered on the shore.  Indeed we should think that the words from the gospel were even originally being alluded to here:

As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation (θεμέλιον) on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation (θεμελίου). The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.

I don't think we should stop here and merely argue that this passage from the gospel might have been understood to be connected with Mark's 'building' of a church in Alexandria.  I think we can even call our earliest Alexandrian witness - and the first to mention the Church of St. Mark - in support of the idea. 

Clement of Alexandria whispers to his hearers at one point in his writings that the concept of 'building on a foundation' (θεμέλιον) has a deep mystical signfiicance which is only known to 'gnostics' who have been initiated into the mysteries of perfection.  He references the words of the 'divine apostle' which not only contain a reference to himself as a 'wise master builder' but which declare that he has also "set the foundation and something else is built thereon with gold and silver, precious stones."  Clement explains that what the apostle is really speaking about is not some abstract theological concept but "the gnostic superstructure (built) on the foundation of faith in Christ Jesus." 

Of course Clement never once reference the name of his 'divine apostle' anywhere in this section of his work.  His identity is deliberately obscured throughout Clement's surviving writings.  It is customary for us to assume that Clement 'knew' that the apostle was named 'Paul' merely because his many of his Catholic contemporaries did.  Yet there is something unquestionably evasive about Clement's writings.  There are only five times in the writings which have come down to us where the names of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are explicitly mentioned even though he makes several hundred anonymous references to gospel passages.  Clement also seems to go out of his way to avoid the referencing the name of this apostle.   

Could all of this be explained by the fact that Clement is deliberately sheltering his community's traditional association with St. Mark?  A recently discovered text in the monastery of Mar Saba suggests exactly this motivation for Clement's obscurity.  He advises a certain Theodore with respect to a certain apocryphal text that one should never concede that it was "written by Mark, but should even deny it on oath."  Yet as we shall demonstrate shortly, the idea that the Alexandrian community had some 'secret text' which helped navigate Biblical waters and reveal their secrets is plainly evident from the writings of Clement and the earliest Alexandrian figures that followed him.

In other words, Clement felt reluctant to extol the authority of the Alexandrian Church and the apostolic authority on which its claims rested so he did so clandestinely, through lots of allegories and 'flowery' hidden language.  Instead of saying that the Jesus's message was properly preserved in the Church of St. Mark, Clement shrouds himself in ambiguity and speaks of a 'gnostic superstructure built on the faith in Jesus Christ.'  Of course Clement would certainly have known that the gospel declared that a rock was the firmest and surest of foundations to build a physical structure upon.  Clement also makes specific reference to Jesus being the rock mentioned metaphorically in Scripture.  Yet he couldn't make this proclamation 'out loud' because of the age he was living in, one in which the Alexandrian Church would ultimately find itself a victim of a full-scale Imperial sponsored persecution which would force him to leave the city he had learned to call him.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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