Egypt-Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church

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Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church, by Theodore Hall Partrick. Greensboro, NC: Fisher Park Press, 1996. xiii + 187 pages. Bibl. to p. 213. Index to p. 226. $14.95 paper. Reviewed by Anne Dammarell

In the minds of most, Egypt's tradition of Christianity mingles with memories of Athanasius, the theological giant who championed Nicene orthodoxy, and dusty visions of monasticism. In Traditional Egyptian Christianity, Theodore Hall Partrick pulls the thread of Egyptian Christianity from out of a community of Hellenistic Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, along the rocky history of Arab, Turkish and European influences up to the present church, rich in renewal.

Anyone interested in early Christianity should pay a visit to Egypt with a copy of this book tucked away in a suitcase. Saint Mark the evangelist, tradition claims, brought Christianity to Alexandria in the first century AD. Although nothing remains of the ancient museum and library where scholars met to exchange ideas, one can still walk about Alexandria today knowing that it was here that Clement of Alexander and Origin persuaded second and third century Hellenistic intellectuals that Christianity was not pure superstition. Monasticism originated in the silence of the Egyptian desert during the third century as Christians sought solitude and safety. Among them were two young men-Paul, who fled religious persecution, and Anthony, who rejected his inheritance out of religious conviction. Their monastic life style allowed Christians to demonstrate "the heroic character of their faith" (p. 29) and eventually spread northward, having a profound effect in the reformation of Western Christianity. Wadi Natrun, a monastery northwest of Cairo dating from the fourth century AD, lives out that tradition today. The chapel of the White Monastery still stands in Suhag in Upper Egypt as a reminder that in the fifth century a complex of buildings housed over 4,000 monks and nuns. Even the present-day Coptic calendar reveals an ancient origin. Because Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians so severely in 303 AD, the Egyptian Church redated its calendar to begin "in the years of the martyrs" to coinicide with his reign.

Partrick chronicles the scanty documentation of the early days of the Coptic Church to its blossoming as an ecumenical leader challenging Rome and Constantinople. …