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Early Christianity in Egypt

About two months ago, in May, I was feeling pretty burned out; I had just finished my manuscript on How Jesus Became God and my brain was reasonably fried. At that point, I had trouble imagining being able to come up with posts for the blog for a while, and so I asked if anyone had any questions they would like to have answered. And so once again I have learned my lesson: Be careful what you ask for!

Since then I’ve been answering the questions I received (the long series of posts on Matthew were ultimately from one of the questions). I’m, maybe, half way through the list. And questions keep coming in. So I think what I’m going to TRY to do now is simply answer the remaining ones, one question at a time, one per post (unless I get carried away again, as I did with the Matthew question).

Feel free to keep asking questions if there are any that are burning on your brain; but realize that it may take a while for me to get to them (unless there is one that is SO interesting that I feel like breaking rank and going for it right away…..)

QUESTION:

There seems to be an Egyptian influence on early Christianity (while we often focus more on what happened in Rome)…What is the significance of what happened in Alexandria and Egypt generally regarding early Christian origins?

RESPONSE:

There has been a lot of thinking done on this very question – from the time of Eusebius, the “Father of Church History,” down to through the early twentieth century and on till today. Eusebius, as was his wont, insisted that the church in Egypt from the beginning was “orthodox,” i.e., that it subscribed to the “acceptable” theological views in opposition to all sorts of heretics from the beginning; and Eusebius actually provided a list of bishops of Alexandria (the main center for Egyptian Christianity) that went from the apostolic times down to his own day.

 

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Paul’s Chronology
Would Matthew and Paul Have Seen Eye-to-Eye

20

Comments

  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  July 9, 2013

    Thank you for addressing this question. I don’t know the answer either (surprise) and I do think that there is much mystery regarding Christian thinking in areas far from Paul’s influence, not only in Egypt but to the East and elsewhere.

    Even though most of the non-orthodox teachings were declared heretical by the established church, there were those persons with deep belief in what was not ultimately accepted. I can visualize the photo I’ve seen often of the bones of the monk in his casket clutching to a precious document which was considered heretical. I guess it was very important to him and probably was all that he had to learn about Jesus. I would like to think that God understood !

    Seems like there’s much more to learn about all of this.

  2. Avatar
    Keith Collura  July 9, 2013

    I have a simple question.

    Since stoning was a common punishment from Hebrew scriptures were the Jews allowed to execute these punishments themselves or did they need approval from Roman rulers when they felt someone violated god’s law and should be executed? If they did this without Roman rulers then why couldn’t they have killed jesus without the trial of Pontius Pilot?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013

      The consensus today appears to be that Romans reserved the right of capital punishment to themselves.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 9, 2013

    You have never seemed burned out to me with your writing of this new book for the public, the writing of the new textbook, your daily blogs, your new Teaching Company course, your out of town lectures and so on and so forth. I do well just to read a lot of what you write. Keep going. Ron

  4. Avatar
    dennis  July 9, 2013

    Did an ” orthodox ” set of beliefs exist in Egypt , or anywhere else for that matter , prior to Constantine’s Edict of Toleration ? My understanding is that the contemporary non-Christian view of the Christians was that they were unpatriotic provokers of the wrath of the non-Christian gods for their obstinate refusal to due homage to them . Such an atmosphere might well make anything like a ” church council ” risky , and prior to the establishment of Christianity as the Empire’s state religion ( and therefore backed by state power ) , what was to prevent the holders of different beliefs from , in effect , thumbing their noses ( Oh yeah , sez who ? ) at church ” authorities ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013

      There were no ecumenical councils, but authors from Ignatius to Irenaeus to Hippolytus to Tertullian and onward were considered by the later orthodox of the fourth century to be their fore-runners, and so are called today the “proto-orthodox”

  5. Avatar
    raskel  July 10, 2013

    Bart:

    This maybe an imprecise question/ but/ is there any evidence that what we might call Orthodox Christianity or Proto-Orthodox Christianity existed before the third century? Just because a writer says they are Orthodox/ does that imply that they understood that term the way someone in the Byzantine Empire in the Eighth Century would? Orthodoxy is often taught as a “compromise” position–if it was (not saying it is)/ this would suggest a later synthesis. Orthodoxy also tends to be what the historical victors call themselves. . . I am not a real scholar/ but I would be shocked if early Christianity was not much different than belonging to the New Age movement today. Not in terms of beliefs but social organization. It seems like the adoption of Christianity by the Empire created certain changes in the Church as well.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013

      Here’s what I just wrote to another query: There were no ecumenical councils, but authors from Ignatius to Irenaeus to Hippolytus to Tertullian and onward were considered by the later orthodox of the fourth century to be their fore-runners, and so are called today the “proto-orthodox”

    • Avatar
      dennis  July 10, 2013

      Thanks , raskel . That was the point of my question which you developed better than I did . Particularly liked the analogy to today’s New Age Movement .

  6. Avatar
    CalifiorniaPuma  July 10, 2013

    Fascinating. My Coptic In-Laws would strenuously argue that their “evidence” of Mark as the forefather of the Egyptian church—a corpse—was stolen by Medieval Venetians and now rests in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. You’ll forgive me if, in the name of maintaining family tranquility, I choose only to smile politely instead of share your insights with them.

    By the way, do you know of a good book available that catalogues the various relics of Christendom?

  7. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  July 10, 2013

    Non-topic question: I heard Daniel Wallace mention in an interview that the NIV’s next edition will include/change to Jesus getting “angry” (instead of “pity” or “compassion”) in Mark 1:43. Have you heard anything? Thanks.

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  July 10, 2013

    I’ve always thought that the gospel of John may have originated in gnostic Alexandria but cannot account for the very simple Greek. Assuming that Greek was a 2nd or 3rd language for the author, is there a good case that can be made for the mother tongue of this author???

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013

      I don’t think “simple Greek” means “Greek as a second language.” A lot of people write simple English who have never learned a foreign tongue.

  9. Avatar
    dikelmm  July 15, 2013

    Where does the idea of the “Holy Spirit” come from? Is it in the Hebrew Bible, from Roman, Egyptian or some other source?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

      Yes, the “Spirit of God” is certainly in the Hebrew Bible, and that’s where the “Holy Spirit” probably has its origin.

      1
  10. Avatar
    Steefen  July 16, 2013

    I have to say your answer is incomplete and disagree with Bauer to a certain extent.

    Eusebius commended the Therapeutae as being upstanding Christians. That is the qualification I would make to the answer you’ve given above.

    Steefen

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