Early African Christianity: Egypt

Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part I

By: Dr. Vince Bantu

The sentiment among an increasing constituency of Africans and African-descended people across the globe that Christianity is a Western/European/white religion of oppression is, at a minimum, historically inaccurate. While Christianity has been perverted into a mechanism of tyranny by many Western nations, it is a lamentably under-emphasized reality that the Gospel took firm root in Africa, the Middle East and Asia long before even the idea of the West—let alone, Western Christianity. For the sake of the Gospel, it must be understood that Christianity is not the cultural property of any single racial or ethnic group but has always existed as a chosen nation comprised of every nation, tribe and tongue.  Because many non-Western people groups have been made to feel culturally alienated from the Gospel, it is imperative to explore the neglected history of non-Western Christianity. 

In the case of African Christianity, the story begins with Egypt. The Holy Family sojourned to Egypt as refugees in the first years of the life of our Lord Christ. The Coptic (or Egyptian) Church holds to the tradition that the Apostle Mark was sent to evangelize North Africa and came to Alexandria in Egypt by way of Libya. Many ancient church historians from the fourth century onward corroborate this story and attest to its oral transmission. Egypt’s Christian community likely grew originally among the Jewish community in Alexandria throughout the first two centuries. Countless early Christian artifacts, structures and documents—including the earliest extant biblical fragment—come from Egypt attesting to the immense importance of Egypt for Christian history. Egypt produced one of the earliest and most prominent schools of theological education—the Catechetical School of Alexandria—led by church fathers such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria.The first attested use of the term “pope” was made in reference to the Egyptian patriarch. The Egyptian church was unique in its elevated reverence for its pope as well as the tightly unified ecclesiastical structure. The foundation of the Apostle’s Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity were defended principally by the Egyptian popes Alexander and Athanasius.

Suffering for the cause of Christ and martyrdom is another prominent theme in Egyptian Christianity. This is evidenced by the fact that the Coptic liturgical calendar continues to use the Great Persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian as its starting point. Like several of his predecessors, Athanasius experienced exile and suffering for his defense of orthodoxy solidifying this theme of persecution as an enduring theme of Coptic identity. The call to suffer for Christ found significant expression in the development of ascetic and monastic communities—another defining feature of Egyptian Christianity. Both the solitary (or eremitic) and the communal (or cenobitic) forms of monasticism were developed by Egyptian figures such as Anthony and Pachomius the Great. With Pachomius began much of orthodox Christian literature being composed in the indigenous Coptic language. Especially after the life and ministry of Shenoute of Atripe—the most significant Coptic author in history—Egyptian Christianity became expressed through and associated with the Coptic language. 

After the time of Shenoute, the Egyptian church was excommunicated by the dominant Roman church centered in Constantinople and Rome. The Council of Chalcedon defined the person of Christ as existing in “one person in two natures,” a theological innovation of the Roman pope which, for the Egyptian church, betrayed the essential unity of the humanity and divinity of Christ. The Roman church, supported by the empire, imposed their theology on Egypt for two hundred years by means of political, ecumenical and military coercion. During this time, the majority of Egyptian Christians became disenchanted with their Roman Christian rulers and their distinct theology became a significant marker of identity. After the Muslim Conquest in the seventh century, the Copts became double minorities; ostracized by their fellow Christians in Constantinople and dominated by Arab Muslims in their own land. Yet despite centuries of oppression, the Coptic Church has persevered and maintained an indigenous, African Christian faith that is synonymous with Egyptian identity and is rooted in the very origins of Christianity. 

Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.