THE COPTIC IMAGINATION AND THE
J.A. (Bobby) Loubser
Can any investigation of the Bible in Africa ever be complete without a consideration of its use in the Coptic Orthodox Church? The word “Coptic” is derived from kibt or kubt, an Arab name for Egypt, deriving from He-Ke-Ptah, an ancient name for a settlement on the Nile. Today the name “Coptic” indicates the Christian tradition that took root in North Africa since the earliest phases of Christianity. Legend has it that the evangelist Mark founded the Coptic Orthodox Church in the year 69 CE when preaching the Gospel in Alexandria. This was the beginning of a tradition that has left deep imprints not only on the history of Christianity in Africa, but also in Western Christianity in general.
There is a popular perception that Coptic Christianity is not really “African” since it finds its base in the Arabian world in distinction from the “African” world. If this definition of what it is to be African is accepted, large populations north of the Sahara will have to be regarded as “non-African.” This also raises the question whether the Nilotic, Kushitic and Semitic peoples of Sudan and the Horn of Africa are to be considered “African” in the narrower sense of the world. In this chapter “Africa” will be understood in an inclusive, geographic sense. To use the latter definition makes sense for several reasons. One of these reasons is that “Africa” is not a self-contained entity, but a rich diversity that is implied in the ancient name itself. To the people of the ancient and classical worlds, Africa and Egypt were almost synonymous. Another reason is that a significant part of African reality was shaped through interaction of the rest of Africa with the civilisation in the Nile valley. When considering the Coptic tradition, it makes even more sense to include it in a definition of what is African. The Coptic tradition is much older than the Arab tradition in Africa, for the Arabs only conquered Egypt in the seventh century CE to begin a programme of Islamisation. Further, the Coptic tradition gave rise to the spread of Christianity to Ethiopia