Circumcision and the Copts: A History (Addendum): Evidence that the Christians of Egypt did not circumcise in late antiquity

posted in: Academic Papers | 0



Portrait head of a man, 4th-7th century, Coptic textile fragment.

The reader who is interested in the topic of the Coptic history of circumcision may have read Jacques de Vitry’s testament in the 13th century that the Copts at his time circumcised their children.[1] He may have also read the dubious assertion by Mikha’il, metropolitan of Damietta, in late 12th/early 13thcenturies, that when St. Mark first brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century he found the Copts (Egyptians) in the habit of circumcising their children, and that he approved of this practice.[2] His claim is such that circumcision had always been a Coptic tradition and wasn’t introduced into Coptic society in the 12th century under the influence of Islam. However, we have also seen in our Circumcision and the Copts – A History, Part I, that there is evidence from the History of the Coptic Patriarchs, dated to the late 9th century, that the Copts did not circumcise themselves as the story of Bishop John, the primate of Ethiopia tells us.[3] In Part II and Part III we argued that circumcision was introduced by some Coptic notables into Coptic society in the 12th century to emulate Muslims, and that it became a hot issue of contention between different Copts, both clergy and laymen.[4]

Here, I would like to introduce my reader to further evidence that the Copts did not circumcise themselves prior to the 12th century, this time going back to the 4/5th century, in Late Antiquity. We can find that evidence in both Coptic and Ethiopic synaxaria, under the readings for 14 Misra (or 14 Nehassein the Ethiopian calendar), which is the 12th month in the Coptic calendar .[5]

The Synaxarium (or Synaxarion) in the Coptic Church is a liturgical book containing short narratives of the lives of saints, or exposition of feasts and fasts, arranged on the days of the year, and read in the religious services of the Church throughout the year, except during Pentecost.[6] The book was developed sometime in the Middle Ages – prior to that the lives of saints were kept separately and read eulogistically at the saints’ passion days. These independent encomiums were written in Greek and Coptic, but when they were assembled together they were translated into Arabic, and the resultant work was called Seneksar (سِِنكسار) from the Greek Συναξάριον, itself derived from συναγεινsynagein, meaning ‘to bring together’. The primary compilation of the Coptic Synaxarium is attributed to the 13thcentury cleric, Michael (or Mikha’il), who was bishop of Atrib and Malij, two towns in the Nile Delta. Other writers such as Peter (or Butrus) al-Jamil, bishop of Malij, in the last quarter of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th century, and John (Yuhanna), bishop of Burullus (Parallos), contributed to its production. Two recensions and several manuscripts are available in Egypt.[7] The Coptic Synaxarium has been translated into German,[8] Latin[9] and French. The latter, which is the most famous, was made by René Basset (1855 – 1924) under the title Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte), and was published in the Patrologia Orientalis between 1904 and 1929. It is based on two Copto-Arabic manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, one from the 14th century while the other is dated the 17th century. Basse’s Synaxarium is published in Arabic text at the top of the page and equivalent French text at its bottom. In 2000, the Coptic bishop, Anba Samuel published the Arabic text of Basse’s edition in four volumes under the title: السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى. 

Ethiopia has its own Synaxarium (Senkesar), which is a translation from a Copto-Arabic recension, and appeared towards the end of the 14th century. In its oldest form, as Budge says, “it was simply a translation from Arabic into Ethiopic of the Synaxarium of the Jacobite Church of Egypt, and it only commemorated the saints venerated by the Egyptian Church.”[10] However, it has grown to incorporate local saints and feasts.[11] The Ethiopian Synaxarium was translated into French,[12] and published in the PO, beginning in the same year the Coptic Synaxarium was published. Unlike the Coptic Synaxarium, it has also been translated into English by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, which he made in 1928.[13] In the readings of the 14th of the Ethiopian month Nehasse, in Budge’s edition,one come across the story of a certain Falaksinos (Philexinos), a good, prosperous Jewish man, and two poor Christian men from Alexandria. The story occurred during the pontificate of the 23rd Coptic Patriarch, Theophilus I (385 – 412 AD). Here is the story according to the Ethiopian Synaxarium:

And on this day God worked a great miracle in the city of Alexandria, (by reason of which many Jews believed,) by the hand of Saint Abba Theophilus, Archbishop of the city of Alexandria, brother of Saint Cyril.[14] Now the miracle was this: There was in the city of Alexandria a very rich Jew whose name was Falskinos [Philexinos], who feared God and performed the Law of Moses, according to his ability. And there were in the city of Alexandria two men who were Christians, and they were poor and earned their living with their hands.

And Satan brought into the heart of one of them a blasphemous thought, and he said unto his companion, “O my brother, why do we serve Christ and [remain] poor, whilst this Falaksinos who is a Jew, is exceedingly rich?” And his companion answered and said unto him, “O my brother, know that the possessions of this world are nothing before God. For if He had power over them, He would not give them to the worshippers of idols, and to whoremongers, and to thieves, and to murderers. The prophets were poor men and lived in tribulation, and also the Apostles, and our Lord saith, ‘The poor are My brethren.’” And Satan, the hater of good things, would not permit that man to receive any of these words, but he stirred him up, and he went to that Jew Falaksinos, and he asked him and said unto him, “Let me be thy servant.” And the Jew answered and said unto him, “It is not convenient to me for thee to serve me. I only want a servant who believeth my Faith, and who is my own man. If thou dost want alms, I will give thee money, and [then] depart.” And that wretched man answered and said unto him, “Take me into thy house, and I will do whatsoever thou commandest me.” And the Jew Falaksinos answered and said unto him, “Wait until I take counsel with my teacher.” And the Jew departed and he told his teacher how the man was a Christian. And his teacher said unto him, “If he hath denied Christ his Messiah, take him and circumcise him.” And the Jew returned, and told the Christian what his teacher had said to him, and the wretched man accepted this condition, and the Jew took him a carried him to their synagogue. And the chief of the Jews questioned that wretched Christian before all the Jews, and he said unto him, “Is it true that thou wishest to deny thy Messiah, and become a Jew?” And the Christian said unto him, “Yea”; and that debased and contemptible man denied our Lord Jesus Christ, our God, before the Jews. Thus to poverty in money he added poverty in Faith. And the chief of the Jews commanded them to make for him a cross of wood, and they made one for him as the chief of the Jews commanded, and they gave him a reed, on the top of which was a sponge full of vinegar, and a spear. And he said unto the Christian, “Spit upon this cross.” And he offered to him the vinegar and said, “Pierce [the cross] with this spear, [saying,] ‘I have pierced Thee, O Christ.’” And that debased man took the cross and the spear from them and did as he commanded him. And when he pierced the honourable cross with his cursed hand, much blood and water flowed forth, and ran down on the ground, and it continued to flow for a long time. And straightway that apostate fell down and died, and dried up like a stone. And great fear fell upon all those Jews, and they cried out, saying, “One is the Lord God of the Christians, and we believe on Him.” And then the chief of the Jews took some of that blood, and made a sign therewith over the eyes of a girl who was blind, and she saw straightway. And that Jew and all the men of his house believed, and very many of the [other] Jews believed. And then one went and told Abba Theophilus, the Archbishop, what had happened, and he rose up, and took with him Abba Cyril, and many of the priests, and many of the people, and went to the synagogue of the Jews. And the archbishop saw the cross with blood and water running down from it, and the saint blessed himself, and made the sign of the Cross with the blood on his forehead, and on the foreheads of all the people. And he commanded, and they took up that cross with great honour and brought it with the singing of hymns to the church, and laid it therein; and they gathered up the blood from the ground and laid it in a vessel for “blessing,” and it healed the sick. And after this Falaksinos and all the men of his house, and many other Jews, followed the archbishop, and they confessed before him our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom their fathers in times of old had crucified, and then he baptized them with Christian baptism in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And he associated them with him in prayer, and he administered to them the Holy Mysteries, and they departed to their houses rejoicing, and praising, and thanking God. Salutation to the conversion of the Jews.[15]

Basse’s Synaxaire arabe-copte tells the same story: the relevant Arabic text, I reproduce below with an English translation:

[16]“قل له ان اراد ان يجحد دينه ويكفر بمسيحه فنحن نقبله ونختنه فقبله فاخذه واتى به الى مجمعهم.”

“And he [Jewish rabbi] said to him [Philexinos], ‘If he [the Christian man] wishes to forsake his religion and disbelieve in his Christ, we will accept and circumcise him.’ And he [Philexinos] relayed that to him [the Christian man], and he accepted it, and he took him and brought him to their council.”

Here is clear evidence that the Christians of Egypt did not circumcise in Late Antiquity, at least during the pontificate of Patriarch Theophilus. Christians who wished to convert to Judaism were required to circumcise, a matter which was later also demanded by Muslims from uncircumcised Christians if they wished to convert to Islam. This story of late 4th century, early 5th century plus the story of John, the bishop who was sent by Patriarch Joseph I (830 – 849 AD) to Ethiopia to be its primate, which we produced in Part I of Circumcision and the Copts: A History, proves that the Christians of Egypt did not practise circumcision from Late Antiquity until several centuries after the Arab occupation of Egypt in 640 AD. Circumcision only entered Coptic society late in the 12th century, borrowed from Muslims. It is not original Coptic tradition.

[1] Dioscorus Boles, The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part I (On Coptic Nationalism, 28 January 2012)

[2] Dioscorus Boles, The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part III (On Coptic Nationalism, 24 June 2012)

[3] The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part I.

[4] Dioscorus Boles, The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part II (On Coptic Nationalism, 16 February 2012) ; Dioscorus Boles, The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part III.

[5] Equivalent to 7 August during the time of the story in the 4th/5th centuries, when the Julian calendar was used, and 20 August now (Gregorian calendar).

[6] See, T. Y. Malati: Dictionary of Church Terminology (in Arabic) (Cairo, 1991).

[7] For more on the Coptic Synaxarium, the reader is advised to read:

–          O. H. E. Burmester, On the Date and Authorship of the Arabic Synaxarium of the Coptic Church. J Theol Studies (1938) os-XXXIX(155): 249-254.

–          Copto-Arabic Synaxarion by René-Georges Coquin and Aziz S. Atiya in The Coptic Encyclopedia(New York, Macmillan, 1991).

–          Mikha’il, bishop of Atrib and Malij by René-Georges Coquin in The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[8] Translated into German, in 1879, by Ferdinand Wüstenfeld (1808 – 1899) under the title Synaxarium, das ist Heiligen-Kalender der coptischen Christen (Synaxarium, that is the Holy Calendar of Coptic Christians). It covers only the first-half of the Coptic year as he was not able to publish the rest. This edition is based on a single Arabic manuscript in Gotha, which dates from 1826, but he did not include the Arabic text.

[9] Translated into Latin, in 1905, by Jacques Forget (1852 – 1933) under the title Synaxarium alexandrinum. It was published in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. It depended on seven manuscripts but, including those used by the French, Basset, which it took as its base, “relegating to notes” the rest.

[10] Introduction in The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church: A Translation of the Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum, by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge (Cambridge, 1928).

[11] As David Buxton says in his The Abyssinians, “Although this was at first simply the synaxarium of the Copts, the book underwent gradual ‘acclimatization’ in the Abyssinian scriptoria: they enriched it with more and more lives and acts of local saints while introducing copious references to the festivals peculiar to the Abyssinian Church.”  See David Buxton, The Abyssinians (New York, Thames and Hudson, 1970), pp. 123-124.

[12] By Ignazio Guidi, under the title Le synaxaire éthiopien.

[13] Full title: The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church: A Translation of the Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum, in four volumes, by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge (Cambridge, 1928).

[14] Saint Cyril I (412 – 444 AD). Cyril was not Theophilus’ brother but his nephew.

[15] Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church: 14 Nahasse.

[16] Part III of “السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى”, published by Bishop Samuel (2000), Part III, p. 238.