RENATE DEKKER – Episcopal activity in Late Antiquity

Episcopal activity in Late Antique Egypt: Theban bishops at work.
Renate Dekker, Université de Leyde

My research examines the social role of bishops in Late Antique Egypt, particularly in the Theban region (near modern Luxor), in a period that decisively shaped the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church and that of Egypt in general (ca. 600-641).

During this period, the doctrinal conflict over Christology at the Council of Chalcedon (451) became a definite schism, for the anti-Chalcedonian movement in Egypt rapidly developed into a separate church hierarchy alongside the official one, which was supported by the Byzantine state. This oppositional church is the forerunner of the present-day Coptic Orthodox Church. The beginning of the seventh century was also marked by political unrest, caused by the Persian invasion, the reconquest of Egypt under the Emperor Heraclius, and the oppressive religious policy by the Byzantine state.

Whereas the Chalcedonian bishops presumably resided in or near the cities, their anti-Chalcedonian counterparts mainly operated from monasteries in the countryside and seem to have formed a stabilizing factor in this dynamic society. Direct information about the anti-Chalcedonian church is provided by the professional archives of the bishops Abraham of Hermonthis and Pesynthios of Koptos, which are unique sources of factual information on episcopal activity, unlike the literary texts that we usually examine. By analyzing the specific nature of the contacts and social involvement of Abraham and Pesynthios on the basis of their archival documents, it will be possible to evaluate their role as social agents and to correct the idealized images of bishops as presented by normative texts.