Coptic Christianity is the indigenous form of Christianity that was established by the apostle Mark in Egypt in the middle of the first century CE (approximately 60 AD) The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Its leader is the Patriarch of Alexandria, also referred to as the Pope of Alexandria, a position not to be confused with that of the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome. The current incumbent is Pope Shenouda III.
By some accounts there are approximately 50 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are found primarily in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, but there are significant numbers in Sudan and Israel, and in diaspora throughout the world. However, as applied to the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia, which before 1950 was a part of the Coptic Church of Egypt, the word Coptic can be considered a misnomer because it means Egyptian. The Eritrean Orthodox Church similarly became independent of the Tewahedo Church during the 1990s. These three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches.
The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom St. Luke the Apostle addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by St. Mark, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith. In the second century Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into local languages.
In the third century, during the persecution of Decius, some Christians fled to the desert, and remained there to pray after the persecutions abated. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was reorganized by the saints Antony and Pachomius in the 4th century. It attracted the attention of Christians in other parts of the world, who came to Egypt to see what was happening. Many took monastic ideas back with them, so monasticism spread throughout the Christian world.
In the 4th century, a Libyan priest called Arius started a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 CE) was convened to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. In the year 381 CE, Pope Timothy of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:
"We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in one Holy Universal Apostolic Church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen."
Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" (Christotokos). When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of St. Mark, the Pope saw the danger and quickly acted to try to correct Nestorius but Nestorius would not repent. The Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency meeting and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of St. Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of St. Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, would still not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431 CE), presided by Pope Cyril. It confirmed the teachings of St. Athanasius and confirmed the title of the Holy Ever-Virgin Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Athanasius had said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis kai Mia Hypostasis tou Theou Logou Sasarkomeni). Also, the introduction to the creed was formulated as follows:
"We magnify you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firminess of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen."
The Orthodox faith is considered to have prevailed at the council. Unfortunately, Cyril died soon afterwards. Dioscorus, the archdeacon of Alexandria (considered a saint by the non-Chalcedonians but a heretic by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) was elected as Cyril's replacement. The Nestorians took the opportunity of Cyril's death to revive their campaign against Cyrillian Christology.
Due to the continuing controversy over Nestorian versus Cyrillian Christology, a council was called at Chalcedon, which abandoned Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. The council was rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire: Copts, Syrians, Armenians, and others. From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the "Melkite" or Imperial patriarch, and the non-Chalcedonian Coptic one. Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Church followed their lead. The Coptic Orthodox Pope today is Pope Shenouda III, while the Greek Orthodox Melkite Patriarch is Petros VII.
The Chalcedonians sometimes called the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that it teaches monophysitism, which it regards as a heresy. They have sometimes called the Chalcedonian group "dyophysites". A term that comes closer to Coptic doctrine is "miaphysite", which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibility in the Incarnation.
Since the 1980s theologians from the two groups have been meeting in a bid to resolve the theological differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused by the two groups using different terminology to describe the same thing. In 1990, the Coptic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making rebaptisms unnecessary. In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox agreed to recognize the sacrament of marriage as celebrated by the other. Previously, if a Coptic and Greek wanted to marry, the marriage had to be performed twice, once in each church, for it to be recognized by both. Now it can be done in only one church and be recognized by both.
In the Coptic Church only men may be ordained, and they must be married before they are ordained, if they wish to be married. In this respect they follow the same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Copts traditionally speak the Coptic language, and the scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet.
The name Copt is an Arabic rendering of the Coptic word for Egyptian, gyptios.