The Coptic Church or the Church of Alexandria is called "See of St. Mark;" on of the earliest sees: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome.
How Was Christianity Introduced to Egypt?
St. Mark is considered the founder of the Coptic Church. However, evidence indicates that Christianity was introduced into Egypt before St. Mark, though undoubtedly, it must have been on a very small scale. The following are some interesting points on this subject:
- The Book of Acts refers to the Jews of Egypt who were present at the Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Upon their return home, they must have conveyed what they saw and heard about Christ and their relatives.
- The same book mentions an "Alexandrine Jew named Apollos" who arrived at Ephesus… He was described as an eloquent man with sound knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. He preached with great spiritual earnestness and was able to demonstrate from the Scriptures that Jesus was the expected Christ (Acts 18:24028). It is quite possible that Apollos was a member of a small Christian group of Jewish origin who lived in Alexandria.
- St. Luke addresses his Gospel to "His excellency Theopilus," a Christian believer from Alexandria.
- The Coptic book of Sinxarum (the day of 15 Bashance) records the preaching of Simon the Zealous in areas of south Egypt and Nubia.
St. Mark The Founder
The Copts are proud of the apostolicity of their church, whose founder is St. Mark; one of the seventy Apostles (Mark 10:10), and one of the four Evangelists. He is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as the first of their unbroken 117 patriarchs, and also the first of a stream of Egyptian martyrs.
This apostolicity was not only furnished on grounds of its foundation but rather by the persistence of the church in observing the same faith received by the Apostle and his successors, the Holy Fathers.
St. Mark’s Bibliography
St. Mark was an African native of Jewish parents who belonged to the Levites’ tribe. His family lived in Cyrenaica until they were attacked by some barbarians, and lost their property. Consequently, they moved to Jerusalem with their child John Mark (Acts 12:12; 25; 15:37). Apparently, he was given a good education and became conversant in both Greek and Latin in addition to Hebrew. His family was highly religious and in close relationship with the Lord Jesus. His cousin was St. Barnabas and his father’s cousin was St. Peter. His mother, Mary, played an important part in the early days of the church in Jerusalem. Her upper-room became the first Christian church in the world where the Lord himself instituted the Holy Eucharist (Mark 14:12-26). There also, the Lord appeared to the disciples after His resurrection and His Holy Spirit came upon them.
Young Mark was always associated with the Lord, who chose him as one of the seventy. He is mentioned in the Scriptures in a number of events related with the Lord: He was present at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, and was the man who had been carrying the jar when the two disciples went to prepare a place of the celebration of the Pasch (Mark 14:13-14 ; Luke 22:11). [He was also the same man who fled naked before the Crucifixion (Mark 14:51, 52)]. Accordingly, the church insists on calling St. Mark "Theorimos," i.e. the beholder of the Lord, in order to prevent counterfeits of some historians.
St. Mark And the Lion
The lion is the symbol of St. Mark for two reasons.
- He begins his Gospel describing John the Baptist as a lion roaring in the desert (Mark 1:3).
- His famous story with the lion, as related to us by Severus Ebn-El-Mokafa: Once a lion and a lioness appeared to John Mark and his father Arostalis while they were traveling in Jordan. The father was very frightened and begged his son to escape, while he awaited his fate. John Mark assured his father that Jesus Christ would save them, and began to pray. The two beasts fell dead and as a result of this miracle, the father believed in Christ, and died shortly thereafter.
Preaching With The Apostles
At first, St. mark accompanied St. Peter on his missionary journeys inside Jerusalem and Judea. Then he accompanied St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their first missionary journey to Antioch, Cyprus and Asia Minor, but for some reason or another he left them and turned home (Acts 13:13). On their second trip, St. Paul refused to take him along because he left them on the previous mission, for this reason St. Barnabas was separated from St. Paul and went to Cyprus with his cousin Mark (Acts 15:36-41). There, he departed in the Lord and St. Mark buried him. Afterwards, St. Paul needed St. mark with him and they both preached in Colosy (4:11), Rome (Phil. 24; 2 Tim. 4:11) and perhaps at Venice.
St. Mark’s real labor lays in Africa. He left Rome to Pentapolis, where he was born. After planting the seeds of faith and performing many miracles he traveled to Egypt, through the Oasis, the desert of Libya, Upper Egypt, and then entered Alexandria from its eastern gate on 61 A.D.
On his arrival, the strap of his sandal was out loose. He went to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler – Ananias – took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud "O one God." At this utterance, St. mark rejoiced and after miraculously healing the man’s wound, took courage. The spark was ignited and Ananias took the Apostle home with him. He and his family were baptized, and many others followed.
The spread of Christianity must have been quite remarkable because pagans were furious and sought St. Mark everywhere. Smelling the danger, the Apostle ordained a bishop (Ananias), three priests and seven deacons to look after the congregation if anything befell them. He left Alexandria to Berce, then to Rome, where he met St. Peter and St. Paul and remained there until their martyrdom in 64 A.D.
Upon returning to Alexandria (65 A.D.), St. Mark found his people firm in faith and thus decided to visit Pentapolis. There, he spent two years preaching and performing miracles, ordaining bishops and priests, and winning more converts.
Finally he returned to Alexandria and was overjoyed to find that Christians has multiplied so much that they were able to build a considerable church in the suburban district of Baucalis.
In the year 68 A.D., Easter fell on the same day as the Serapis feast. The furious heathen mob had gathered in the Serapis temple at Alexandria and then descended on the Christians who were celebrating Easter (Christian Pasch) at Baucalis. St. Mark was seized, dragged with a rope through the main streets of the city. Crowds were shouting "The ox must be led to Baucalis," a precipitous place full of rocks where they fed the oxen that were used in the sacrifices to idols. At nightfall the saint was thrown into prison, where he was cheered by the vision of an angel, strengthening him saying, "Now your hour has come O Mark, the good minister, to receive your recompense. Be encouraged, for your name has been written in the book of life…" When the angel disappeared, St. Mark thanked God for sending His angel to him. Suddenly, the Savior himself appeared and said to him "Peace be to you, mark, my disciple and evangelist!" St. Mark started to shout "O My Lord Jesus" but the vision disappeared.
On the following morning probably during the triumphal procession of Serapis he was again dragged around the city till death. His bloody flesh was torn, and it was their intention to cremate his remains, but the wind blew and the rain fell in torrents and the populace dispersed. Christians stole his body and secretly buried him in a grave which they had engraved in a rock under the altar of the church.
During the schism which burst between the Copts and the Melkites, the first kept the head while the body remained with the latter. On 644 A.D., a soldier sneaked into the church where the head was buried. He took it away to his ship under the impression that it was a treasure. Later, when Amro-Ebn-El-Aas (leader of the Arab troops) ordered the ships to sail off Alexandria, that particular ship could not move. Eventually the soldier had to confess and Amro handed it back to Pope Benjamin.
The saint’s body did not remain in Egypt, for it was stolen and taken to Venice by some Italian merchants. They built a huge cathedral in St. Mark’s name, believing that St. mark was their patron Saint. In 1968, part of his relics which is now kept in the new Cathedral in Cairo, was offered to the Egyptian Pope Cyril (Kyrillos VI) from Pope Paul VI).
His Apostolic Acts
St. Mark was a broad-minded Apostle. His ministry was quite productive and covered large fields of activities. These included:
- Preaching in Egypt, Pentapolis, Judea, Asia Minor, and Italy, during which time he ordained bishops, priests, and deacons.
- Establishing the "School of Alexandria" which defended Christianity against the philosophical school of Alexandria and conceived a large number of great Fathers.
- Writing the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, which was modified later by St. Cyril to the liturgy known today as the Liturgy of St. Cyril.
- Writing the Gospel according to St. Mark.