Otto F. A. MEINARDUS. Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015. pp. 352. $29.95 pb. ISBN 9789774167454. Reviewed by Walter N. SISTO, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY 14201.
Otto Meinardus’ text provides a succinct overview of the history, life, and experience of Coptic Christianity. His thematic approach immerses readers into Coptic Christianity with specific attention to important events, personages, and movements that have and continue to shape the expression of the Coptic tradition. His text also includes an exhaustive overview of the main Churches and monasteries in Egypt as well as a detailed bibliography that would be of great use to any researcher interested in Coptic Christianity.
An important theme in this text that occupies the first chapter is to explain what Meinardus deemed as the “renaissance” of Coptic Christianity that began in the late twentieth century and has continued into the twenty first century (93). Meinardus attributes this renaissance to Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012), the patriarch of Alexandria and leader of Coptic Christianity. Meinardus argues this renaissance was a direct result of Pope Shenouda III’s commitment to making Coptic Christianity relevant to young Copts, establishing and attending to the spiritual needs of Coptic Christians outside Egypt, and helping to free the Coptic Church from its theological isolation (5). On this latter point, during Pope Shenouda’s papacy, the Coptic Church strengthened its relationship with other apostolic Churches. From the perspective of the Catholic-Coptic dialogue, the culmination of this relationship was the Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and of the Pope of Alexandria Shenouda (May 10, 1973) that professed a mutually agreed understanding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ (7). This is significant since the lack of a shared understanding of the hypostatic union led to schism between the patriarch of Alexandria and the patriarch of Rome in 451 CE that continues to the present day.
Meinardus is an effective writer who helps his reader gain historical sympathy that results in a rich mosaic of the religious ethos of Coptic Christianity. Meinardus accomplishes this by his bottom-up approach to history. Meinardus is not content to simply introduce his reader to the Coptic Church’s history, beginning with the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to the modern day, but also the Coptic religious experience. This is evident in his subsections on the folk religion of the Copts, Coptic families, lay movements and his appendix on Coptic names and tattoos.
Nevertheless, chapter two is the longest but also the most fascinating chapter. His subsection on the Service of Abu Tarbu was particularly notable. The service of Abu Tarbu is a sacramental healing service used as a “remedy against hydrophobia” (101). Although the priest is the main celebrant, it also involves seven boys who pray with the priest. After praying together, the boys chew unleavened bread that the priest places on the lap of ill person. The service concludes with the ill person eating unleavened bread, anointing the ill person with oil, and prayer.
Meinardus thematic approach results in encyclopedia-like entries that provide a great reference to particular aspects of Coptic Christianity. However his chapters and subsections do not connect very well. The subtopics tend to distract from the theme of the chapter. This is confounded by the fact that two of the three chapters include more than three-quarters of the book. Moreover, although the scope and breadth of the topics that Meinardus addresses in this text are impressive, Meinardus neglects citations within the text that makes tracking down sources cumbersome. Given the fact that Meinardus (d. 2005) was a leading authority on Coptic Christianity and the extensive bibliography provided in the text, this shortcoming can be forgiven. Finally readers should be aware that the text was written more than a decade ago, and therefore it lacks discussion of Pope Shenouda III’s successor, Pope Tawadros II (2012-current) and the recent persecutions of Coptic Christians in Egypt by Islamists.
Despite these shortcomings, I highly recommend this text. The text provides a needed addition to English scholarship on Coptic Christianity that is accessible to non-specialists. In addition, the text succeeds in presenting a solid overview of the history of Coptic Christianity. The text is well-suited as a supplemental text for a course on the history of Christianity.