The last post on facing the world stirred some interest, so I thought I might share an excerpt from the draft of the book I mentioned at the end of that post…
When St Mark left Egypt to continue his missionary travels, he appointed Anianus to care for the young church in his absence, and when St Mark was martyred in Alexandria in 68AD, Anianus assumed the leadership of the church. He is thus considered the second of the 117 Popes of Alexandria, although the title “pope” did not come into usage until the time of Pope Heraclas in the third century. Interestingly, it is likely that this title, ‘Papa’, which is simply a term of endearment akin to the modern ‘Daddy’, was used in Alexandria some years before it was applied to the bishop of Rome. For many years after that, there was always one bishop and twelve presbyters or priests in Alexandria. When a bishop died, the twelve priests would elect his successor from among their number, and whenever a priest died or was elevated to the bishopric, another suitable man was ordained to take his place.
What did the coming of Christianity mean for the inhabitants of Alexandria? It is almost certain that the significance of the conversion of Alexandrians to Christianity had the same significance for them that it had for people throughout the Roman world, indeed, the pagan world: Christianity turned the world upside down. This phenomenon is most lucidly described by Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, and it helps to explain why the pagan society was so violently determined to exterminate this new religion.
If you visit the archaeological remains of ancient Pompeii near the Italian coast you will find there a Roman temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. What is an Egyptian goddess doing in the heart of the Roman Empire? In fact, the Romans were really quite tolerant of religions other than their own. Their standard procedure on conquering a new land with different gods was to absorb their religion into their own. The conquered Egyptians were encouraged to continue worshipping their ancient gods, and the Romans either equated those gods with their own Roman gods or else added them to their own list of gods. But Christianity was different. Christians insisted that their God was the only god, and that there can be no other real gods except Him. The Romans saw this denial of their gods as blasphemy and even called the Christians atheists – those who do not believe in the gods.
If that were the only problem that pagan Romans had with Christianity, they may not have been quite so aggressive. But there was a deeper difference that threatened the very society of the pagan world, and this difference was absolutely intolerable. To understand this difference, we need first to briefly sketch the pagan view of the universe. For them, the universe consisted in a hierarchy, a set of levels, with the gods being at the very top, and krill and algae at the very bottom. As you go down the levels, you find lesser gods, then the descending social classes, followed by the higher animals, and so on down to the simplest of life forms. Within the levels of humanity, we have again the most important, rich and powerful (e.g. the Roman Emperor) at the very top, and the poorest and the slaves at the very bottom. This hierarchy was considered to be the way things should be, the natural order of things. So long as it remained in place, society could be prosperous, for the gods would be happy and everyone would be in their proper place. Everyone belonged in their level because that is what they were worth. A king is a king because he is a superior human being to all the others. A slave is a slave because he is inferior to everyone else, irrational, unintelligent, ruled by base animal emotions and desires, only a very little removed from the higher animals that come just below him in the order of nature. But only upset this balance of nature somehow, say by someone leaving their proper level and rising to a higher one, and the whole order of nature would be upset. The gods would not tolerate this unnatural state of things and something would have to be done to restore the balance of nature. From this thinking arose the idea of human sacrifice or tragic death, the death of the one who upset things would appease the gods and restore the natural balance once more.
And then, along comes Christianity with its unspeakable idea of the humble God. Pagans furiously hated Christianity because it suggested that a God could descend to earth and take the position of a lowly human being. Not just take a human form for a little while, an illusion temporarily perpetrated in order to allow the god to get his business done among the puny humans, but God actually became a human being, a full and normal human being, with real flesh and bones, one who needed to sleep and eat or else he would die. And He did not become an Emperor or a King, He did not even become just an average human being; He became a lowly carpenter, and then worse still, a homeless wanderer who relied on others for food and drink and shelter. This was the ultimate unbalancing of the natural order of things! This was intolerable!
What is worse is that the Christians would not stop there. They introduced corrosive ideas into society. Ideas like the equality of men and women, when every pagan knew that women were by nature inferior to men, for women are ruled by their irrational emotions but men are logical and rational. Even worse was the idea that slaves and Emperors are equal! Not only would such beliefs destroy society if they spread, but they might even give slaves and women strange ideas and make them difficult to control. No, this new cult of so-called Christians could not be tolerated. The good of society, the prosperity of the empire, depended on exterminating them with their heretical and dangerous views. And so pagan Rome tried on at least ten documented occasions to wipe Christians and Christianity from the face of the earth, or at least from some large part of it. We shall explore this era of persecution further in the next section, for it has had a lasting effect on Coptic Christianity.
Thus did the earliest Christians often have to hide their Christianity from their neighbours. They would meet in secret to pray and celebrate the Eucharist, for fear of being discovered and prosecuted. They developed secret signs by which they could nonetheless recognise each other. It is likely that the sign of a fish (see box) was an earlier symbol of Christianity than the sign of the cross. When a Christian met someone on the street and wanted to find out if they too were Christian, they might nonchalantly trace out the shape of a fish in the dirt with their foot. If the other person was a pagan, they would probably think they were thinking of dinner, but if they were Christian, they would understand this secret sign and reveal their own identity as a Christian.
Why would anyone hold on to a faith that put one in such danger? Why would the early Christians insist on following the Carpenter from Nazareth when it was likely to cost them so much? Imagine living in a secret community of Christians where every now and then news would spread of yet another member who had been found out, arrested, tortured and killed. And yet, in spite of this atmosphere, Christianity in Egypt and throughout the pagan world continued to grow and spread at an astonishing rate. How can we explain this? Of course, we do not have direct access to what went on in the minds and homes of those early Christians, but some of their writings have survived, and they give us some idea of their mindset. It seems that they were convinced that Christianity gave them Truth, a truth so powerful, so convincing, so fulfilling, that it was worth dying for. That is the truth that eventually came to be embodied in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we explored in chapter XX. The Truth that God is love, that love is the most important guiding principle of our lives, so important that we must do more than just practice it, we must become it. This Truth made far more sense to them than the hierarchical universe of the pagans. It offered those who were of low social station hope and gave them value, and so the pagans often criticised the Christians for allowing these dregs of society to join their community. But even for those of higher social status, this Truth made sense of the world, and it fitted reality far better than their pagan beliefs. It was from among this educated upper class that Christianity in Alexandria produced its first Christian scholars, as we shall see in the next section.
But there are also some very important lessons for us to learn in twenty-first century western society. It is worth remembering and reminding our society that the values we cherish most like the equality of every human being came to western society directly from the teachings of Christ. And as western society gradually falls away from Christianity, it is worth asking whether it will be find enough good reason to continue to hold on to such values, or whether it will descend again into the selfish thinking that is our fallen human nature. Perhaps, as Christians in this modern world, we have a responsibility to work hard to spread the eternal Truth of Christianity to a world that is slowly falling into forgetfulness?