Alastair Hamilton, The Copts and the West, 1439-1822. The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (Warburg Studies – Oxford University Press: 2006), 338 pp. + maps. Hardback. ISBN 0-19-928877-1. Price: £85.00.
Although highly priced for the general reader, this scholarly and very readable work fills an important gap in Coptic studies and draws together a number of historic strands which are only alluded to briefly in other works. Hamilton sets the parameters of his investigation between 1439, when the Copts were invited to attend the Council of Florence and the rather arbitrary date of 1822 when Champollion had made significant progress in deciphering the Rosetta Stone, for which his knowledge of Coptic was key component.
Those who have detected the European graffiti on the walls of Saint Anthony’s monastery or noted that our knowledge of the history of Coptic monasteries is frequently amplified by the accounts of European visitors, will readily appreciate the value of the contacts between the cultures over those four hundred years. Hamilton readily admits, however, that “The European discovery of the Copts tells us much more about the Europeans than about the Copts, and my book is fundamentally Eurocentric.” Hamilton shows that this is not simply “the long dark tunnel” of Coptic persecution – a sort of Coptic Dark Ages – but the preservation of a vital, literate and creative society sandwiched between two periods of cultural renaissance of the 12/13 and the 19/20 centuries.
Hamilton’s book is divided into four parts. The first briefly traces the historical background from St. Mark to the sixteenth century with some examination of the rise and growth of monasticism, the rise of Alexandrian Christianity during the Conciliar period, the Christological disputes and the Muslim Conquest. His reference to the great Coptic grievance over the construction and repairs of churches during the Ottoman period, has a familiar and contemporary resonance ! Desite their dhimmi status he shows that the Copts emerge as an integrated part of Egyptian society and that the political and economic influence of Copts in the 18th century paved the way for the Second Coptic Renaissance in the 19th century.
The second part deals with Catholic missions: attempts by Jesuits and others to obtain the submission of the Coptic Pope to his brother in Rome. Links with the West stretch back further to the time of the Crusades and Egypt was often attacked by the Franks or their allies. In the sack of Alexandria in 1365 b y King Peter of Cyprus, the Copts suffered as much at their hands as the Muslims. It is also easy to forget that St. Francis himself established a Franciscan convent in Damiette in the thirteenth century. The Coptic Popes were not averse to dialogue with Rome but when pressed to repudiate their spiritual antecedents or to ratify one-sided acts of union, they stood their ground even if, with typical Middle-Eastern courtesy, it took the form of wily procrastination. The impressive commitment of the Jesuit missionaries – often men of scholarship and dedication – faced with many and various hazards, still left them empty-handed at the end of their endeavours.
With the trickle of converts, however, we detect the first stages in the establishment of a regular Catholic presence and the move towards the eventual establishment of a Coptic Catholic Church, the history of which largely lies outside this book’s timeframe.
Part III “Knowledge of the Copts” and shows that the Catholics were not the only Christian influence from Europe, as early travellers from Britain and Germany, introduced Protestantism and set themselves up as hostile to Catholic influence. In this section we meet with those intriguing and intrepid characters who seem to populate seventeenth century Europe, men like the German Dominican theologian, Johann Michael Vansleb or Wansleben (1635-1679) who was a keen observer of Egyptian life, although at other times susceptible to obscure and spurious explanations such as the mating rituals of the Nile crocodile. The career of Eusèbe Renaudot (1648-1720), the French orientalist and author of the monumental Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum (1713) and his collection of Eastern liturgies is analysed as well as his critical comments on the work of the earlier missionaries.
Part IV covers the study of the Coptic Language and gives special attention to the German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher (c. 1601-1680), who studies in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Coptic paved the way for later students and published the first Coptic Dictionary. The epoch of manuscript collecting once begun gathered momentum with a frenzied ruthlessness, and the contribution these Coptic manuscripts made to Biblical scholarship is a positive consequence of this process.
The author concludes with an extensive Bibliography which itself is worth acquiring for its own merits.
Barbara Yorke, The Conversion of Britain. Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c. 600-800 (Pearson/Longman: 2006). 333 pp. + maps. Paperback. ISBN 0-582-77292-3. Price: £19.99
Professor Yorke is Prtofessor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester and an acknowledged expert on the Anglo-Saxon period. This book is one in a series on “Religion, Politics and Society in Britain” and recognises that throughout British history religion has been a potent and influential force.
Britain in the two hundred years under consideration, the early Middle Ages, was populated by four distinct peoples: the British, Picts, Irish and Anglo-Saxons, giving it both cultural diversity and a mixture of languages. By 600 the British and the Irish had long been Christian but the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and Picts had just begun.
Having introduced the sources, both written and inscriptions she reviews the political settlement in the post-Roman empire, with some consideration of then social and economic position of each group. The Conversion of Britain follows through from Pre-Christian religion in medieval Britain an d the transition to Christian beliefs. A valuable section examines the role and influence of bishoprics and monastic communities and examines both lay and ecclesiastical culture as well as the cult of saints. The impact of Christianity on death and burial, marriage and sex, war and peace, sin and penance, kingship and politics, medicine and magic and kingship and politics shows how each aspect of life was influenced by Christianity. Six appendices offer a timeline of people and events, king lists and Northumbrian royal genealogies.
Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, The Real Holy Grail. An Orthodox Response to Dan Brown’s Deceptives in Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code (Orthodox Research Institute: 2007). 170 pp + illus. Paperback. ISBN 978-1-933275-14-7. Price: US$15.95.
The popularity of best-selling novelist Dan Brown, must rest on the fascination of a secular world in religious mysteries about which their ignorance is prodigious, as his literary style is – at best – pedestrian. Supported by over-hyped publicity and a coalition of entrepreneurs anxious to make a fast buck he has used a mishmash of religious themes as the basis for his novels. Sadly even the elect are deceived, so it is appropriate that this detailed response – one of many from concerned Christian pastors – approaches matters from an Orthodox Christan position.
Metropolitan Bishoy is not only the General Secretary of the Coptic Holy Synod and an experienced and long-standing spokesman for the Oriental Orthodox Churches in ecumenical dialogue, but he is known to take an energetic and pro-active response to heresies, old or new.
In challenging Brown’s genre of faction from both a sound theological and an historically informed position, the author exposes the errors and dangers propounded by Brown and others like him; who have little regard for truth and whose hostility towards Christianity underpins their motivation in deliberate distortions of Christian Belief and Practice. We hope it will also provide a resource to assist priests and pastors in responding to future attacks.
The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, Translated Texts for Historians, Translated with an introduction and notes by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, Liverpool University Press, 2005; ISBN 0-85323-039-0; Volume I – General Introduction, Documents before the Council, Session I. Hardback, 366 pp.; Volume II – Sessions II-X, Session on Carosus and Dorotheus, Session on Photius and Eustathius, Session on Domnus. Hardback, 312 pp.; Volume III – Sessions XI-XVI, Documents after the Council, Appendices, Glossary, Bibliography, Maps, Indices. Hardback, 312 pp.
What a pleasure to take up this wonderful three volume edition of the Acts of the Council. Dr Richard Price is Lecturer in the History of Christianity at Heythrop College, and each time I have heard him speak it has been illuminating and even exciting. He is certainly no dry as dust academic, and this entirely scholarly edition of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon reflects his own enthusiasm for his subject.
Michael Gaddis, Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University, provides the majority of the introductory essay, and it has to be said that on a first reading there were one or two moments when I feared that the tone would be resolutely anti-Dioscorean. Such fears were raised by descriptions of the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 as “Robber Council”, a polemical charge too easily laid against that council. But also in the passage where Gaddis writes, “In a final act of arrogance he anathematized Pope Leo – the last and the worst of the misdeeds that would be charged against him at Chalcedon”. Likewise the description of Chalcedon as being based on “moderation, reconciliation and consensus” doesn’t ring true to anyone who is not a natural supporter of that council.
I suppose that Oriental Orthodox grow used to such unwitting biases, and to be fair the introductory essay contains a great deal of use, and very little that jars. Indeed after reading through passages such as these it is encouraging to find a considered criticism of Chalcedon in the section of the introduction produced by Price. Though Price takes the view that Chalcedon was essentially Cyrilline, he also describes Chalcedon as a ‘Pandora’s box’, and says that the re-instatement of Theodoret and Ibas ‘gave plausibility of the charge that the Definition, while pretending to honour Cyril, had in fact betrayed him’.
Price’s edition of the Acts themselves, and accompanying documents, is based on the Greek text published by Schwartz, with supplementation from the Latin version, which sometimes better represents the original Greek text. But he has translated it into a most readable English which allows the student of these events to follow the complex proceedings with ease, and even enjoyment.
One of the advantages of this edition of the Acts is that it is complete, and therefore allows for a more comprehensive study than facilitated by the partial edition found in the Ante-Nicene Library edition. This latter is often used by disputants against the Oriental Orthodox but this new complete edition shows the weaknesses of that earlier one.
It contains, for instance, the discussion about the blasphemous and heretical Letter of Ibas to Maris the Persian, and reports the Roman legates reading it, and on behalf of Leo of Rome stating that, ‘..from the reading of his letter we have found him to be Orthodox’, and then Anatolius of Constantinople saying, ‘I judge him worthy of the episcopate’, and then Maximus of Antioch insisting that, ‘..from what has just been read it has become clear that the most devout Ibas is guiltless of everything charged against him, and from the reading of the transcript of the letter produced by his adversary his writing has been seen to be orthodox.’ Yet of course at Constantinople in 553 the bishops gathered together read the same letter and in horror wrote, ‘In the third place the letter which is said to have been written by Ibas to Maris the Persian, was brought forward for examination, and we found that it, too, should be read. When it was read immediately its impiety was manifest to all.’
There is much more of interest in these volumes, and they will be useful sources for reflecting on our own Oriental Orthodox response to Chalcedon. A new paperback edition has now been produced by the Liverpool University Press and this will make this valuable resource even more affordable.
Peter Theodore Farrington