Saturday and Sunday in the Coptic Church

The problem and early history of the Coptic Church regarding the Sabbath.

By ERNEST L. BRANSON, Superintendent of the Middle East Union Mission

This presentation was a term paper prepared by Elder Branson while attending the Theological Seminary. The writer spent six years in Egypt (1938-1944), and during that time he was able to study the present Practice of the Coptic Church regarding Saturday and Sunday ob­servance. He also spent some months in Ethiopia, where he interviewed church officials and investigated current teachings and practices. 

The observance of a weekly rest day or days in the various Christian churches has been dealt with at great length by many authors. However, not so much is known about the teach­ings and practice of the Coptic Church in this mat­ter. It is the purpose of this study to trace the history of the observance of Saturday and Sunday in the Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia from early Christian times to the present day.

The material gathered in this paper will be of interest to anyone making a study of the process whereby the first day of the week superseded the seventh day in the Christian church. The change came about very early in the West, but in the Cop­tic Church it was much more gradual, and even today Sunday stands On a different basis than in the Western and Greek churches.

Definition of Terms.—Saturday is used in re­ferring to the Old Testament Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, which was retained by certain Christian churches. Sunday refers to the first day of the week and was sometimes called the Lord's day and the Christian Sabbath. The Coptic Church answers primarily to the church in Egypt. The word "Copt," or "Coptic," comes via the Arabic, from the Greek word for Egypt, which was taken from Hakaptah, the old religious name for Memphis, one of the ancient capitals.' The Ethiopian Church is counted as a branch of the Coptic Church, for both churches accepted the same coun­cils, and the bishop, or abuna, of Ethiopia has been and is today appointed by the Coptic patriarch of Egypt.

It is not intended in this investigation to study the theological merits of these two holy days, ex­cept as such statements throw light on the customs of the church.

Review of Sources.—For the history of the church in Egypt a number of reliable books are available. The existing old Coptic manuscripts are now scattered throughout the great museums of the world, but fortunately Toga Mina, of Cairo, has copied many of them and printed a French translation entitled Martwe D'Apa Epiina. Later Jacob Muyser extracted and organized statements from this book, which dealt with Saturday and Sunday in the Coptic Church and literature.

The Portuguese, who went to Ethiopia in 1520 and later, have left us very detailed accounts of that church. The first of these reports, printed in Portugal in 1521, was lost and only discovered in London in 1935. The British Museum has re--printed the original with an English translation, and this is a very valuable addition to current knowledge of the Ethiopian Church.

Early History of Coptic Church

Apostolic Background.—Within a period of about a hundred years, or between 30 B.C. and A.D. 60, Egypt was visited by several men who changed the course of her national life for many centuries. The first was Caesar. Caesar's rule was hated, and this political feeling affected the country's at­titude toward the imperial church later. After a time all Egypt became Christian. Tradition says that Jesus with His parents sojourned briefly, but the founder of the church was John Mark, the evangelist. It seems that Peter the apostle accom­panied him to Babylon, an important commercial city known as Old Cairo today some think that Peter's first epistle was written from that city, and he mentions Mark in I Peter 5.3

There are legends stating that the apostle Mat­thew preached the gospel in Ethiopia.4 But the only positive record of Ethiopia in apostolic times is the story of the conversion and baptism of the eunuch by Philip, the evangelist, as found in Acts 8:26-39. The Ethiopians claim that the church in turn converted his mistress, Queen Candace, and all her household, and that she caused a large church to be built in the capital city of Axum.5 However, Christianity was not generally accepted by the Ethiopians until about three hundred years later.6

Alexandrian Philosopher, A.D. 200-300.—To­ward the close of the second century a celebrated Christian college was founded in Alexandria, known as the Catechetical School. Influential pa­gans conversant with Greek philosophy (some of whom may have been connected with the famed Alexandrian museum and library) were converted to Christianity, and some of them began to teach a mixture of doctrine not found in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. One of the most prominent among these educated pagan converts was Clement, who became head of the theological school. He taught that Christianity was the heir not only of Hebrew and Christian thought but of all the past, including the philosophies of Greece and Egypt.7

This Clement of Alexandria made the first clear reference to Sunday as the Lord's day. To sup­port his argument he quoted from Plato, the Greek philosopher. He said: "And the Lord's day Plato prophetically speaks of in the tenth book of the Republic, in these words : 'And when seven days have passed to each of them in the meadow, on the eighth [day] they are to set out and arrive in four days.' " 8 It is difficult to see any connection be­tween this statement and the point he was making, but those were the days of finespun theological de­bates, and the learned men of the Alexandrian school began to influence the church in other parts of the empire. It seems that for a time, at least, Sunday took the place of Saturday in Alexandria. "The people of Constantinople, and almost every­where, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria." 9

When Constantine the emperor became a nomi­nal Christian, he brought about a close union of church and state, and began to issue religious de­crees. On March 7, 321, he issued a decree mak­ing Sunday the official rest day of the empire. In June he issued a modification "so as to allow the manumission of slaves on Sunday." 10

Constantine soon assumed the leadership of the church. He convened and controlled the famous Council of Nice in A.D. 325.

"The decisions of the Council of Nice mark the begin­ning of centuries in which imperial law determined what should be called Christianity, what orthodoxy, and what heterodoxy. The Bible was not the standard of faith, or practice. Traditions, imperial decrees, the decisions of councils called and dictated by the imperial power, deter­mined the practice of the Church, and formulated her faith." 11

However, the church in Egypt soon rebelled from imperial domination.

Athanasius, (Patriarch, ca. 326-373).—Ath­anasius, who is most remembered for his con­troversy with Arius over the single or dual nature of Christ, was the twentieth patriarch of Alexan­dria during the years from about 326 to 373.12 if he was the author of certain statements attributed to him, he did not agree with those who would eliminate Saturday as a day of worship, but held that both Saturday and Sunday should be ob­served as weekly holy days.13

It was during his term of office, in about 330,14 that Frumentius arrived from Ethiopia, where he had spent some years at the court, and reported a real interest in Christianity. Athanasius was pre­siding over a synod of his bishops when the stranger from the south was announced. He was invited to enter, and told his thrilling story of ship­wreck on the Ethiopian coast and his adventures there. He pleaded that a bishop be appointed, so the church could be properly organized. After consulting with the bishops Athanasius urged Fru­mentius himself to return and carry on the work. He agreed, and was soon consecrated and sent back to Ethiopia, where he spent the rest of his life. "He is reverenced by the Abyssinians under the name of Abu Salama, the Father of Peace," 15 and a poem was written in his honor.

"Peace to the Voice of Gladness I pronounce, The fair Renowned Salama, for he at once Did open wide the Gate of Mercy and Grace: And Ethiopia shew'd the splendid Face Of Truth and Zeal by which we Christ adore, Where only Mist and Darkness dwelt before."16

Christianity spread rapidly after its introduc­tion during the reign of King Abreha Atsbeha the Queen Mother Sofya,17 and the Ethiopian Church was permanently affiliated with the Egyp­tian Church from then on.

Break With Byzantine and the Latin Churches.—The climax of the political struggle of the great bishops for supremacy within the church came at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The controversy was political and personal, but the excuse was the difference between two Greek prepositions—en and ek (in or of two natures) .18

"For the first two centuries the five sees of the first rank had been Alexandria, Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Caesarea; and of these, Alexandria was generally reckoned the first. The encyclical letter which yearly fixed the date of Easter came trom Alexandria. . . . At the Council of Nicaea the first blow was given to the prestige of Alexan­dria by the adoption of the Western date for the celebration of Easter. . . . The Council of Con­stantinople . . . gave Rome the primacy, Constan­tinople the second place, and degraded Alexandria to the third rank among the papal sees." 19 Finally at the Council of Chalcedon, which began October 8, 452, Leo of Rome, through four legates, de­manded the withdrawal of Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria. At an irregular session Diocorus was excommunicated and banished to Gangra. "But the people of Egypt did not submit so easily, and the church of Egypt to this day refuses to ac­cept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon." 20

"In Abyssinia also the church remained faithful to Egypt, rejecting with her the Council of Chalcedon and the intruding patriarchs which the Byzantine emperors endeavored to force upon her. The metropolitan of Abyssinia always came for consecration to the Egy — patriarch, and refused to acknowledge any other." 21

(To be continued in November)


1Edith Louisa Butcher, The Story of the Church of Egypt (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897), Vol. I, p. 357. (The author lived for many years in Egypt and has written a very exhaustive summary of the Coptic Church from the first century B.C. until 1897.)

2 Jacob Muyser, Le samedi et le dimanche dans l'eg­lise et la litterature coptes (Cairo : Imprimerie Nation­ale, Boulaq, 1937), pp. 89-111. (The first attempt to gather from all sources state­ments cnncerning Saturday and Sunday in Coptic litera­ture. Part of a larger work by Toga Mina, Martyre D'Apa Epima.)

3Butcher, op. cit., p. 19.

4 C. F. Rey, The Real Abyssinia (London: Seeley Serv­ice & Co. Limited, 1935), 1:1- 274. (Mr. Rey has spent much time in Ethiopia.)

5 Francisco Alvarez, Narrative of the Portuguese Em­bassy to Abyssinia During the Years 1520-1527, translated from the Portuguese by Lord Stanley of Alderley (London: Hakluyt Society, 1880, pp. 80, 81. (Alvarez accompanied Rodrigo de Lima to the emperor's court in 1520. He remained in Ethiopia until 1526.

6 Job Ludolphus, A New History of Ethiopia (London: S. Smith, 1682), D. 250. (Translated from Portuguese to English by J. P gent. His information was taken largely "from the Writings and Discourses of Gregory the Habessinian" and in Book III, from Confession.) Claudius, king of Ethiopia.

7 Butcher, op. cit., PP. 44, 49, 50. 'Clement of Alexandria, The Miscellanies, Book 5, ch. 14 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 469. (Clement gathered philosophic writings from ancient sources and endeavored to correlate them with Christian teachings.)

9 Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, ch. 19, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. II (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1890), p. 390.

10 A. H. Lewis, Paganism Surviving in Christianity (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892), p. 220.

11Ibid. p.258.

12 Butcher, op. cit., p, xiii.

13Muyser, op. cit., p. Ioo.

14 Ludolphus, op. cit., p. 250.

15 Butcher, op. cit., pp. 151, 152.

16 Ludolphus, op. cit., p. 252.

17 Rey, op. cit., p. 275.

18 Butcher, op. cit., p. 312.

19 Ibid., pp. 209, 210.

20 Ibid., pp. 296-300.

21 Ibid., p. 318.

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By ERNEST L. BRANSON, Superintendent of the Middle East Union Mission

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