- Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt
Summarizing the benefits of the incarnation of the Word, Athanasius of Alexandria famously wrote, “He became human in order that we might become divine” (On the Incarnation 54). Stephen J. Davis’s outstanding Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt explores how Coptic Christians have appropriated, explained, defended, and performed the Christology that they inherited from Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. Davis not only provides a clear and interesting account of Coptic Christology from its origins into Late Antiquity and the Copto-Arabic “Golden Age” of the high Middle Ages, but also models an inter-disciplinary approach to historical theology, one that combines analysis of high theological discourse with study of ritual, art, and clothing. The result is a complex study of Coptic spirituality in different historical and social contexts.
Davis describes the book as a series of case studies organized around three themes: “(1) the interpretation of biblical texts and patristic authorities, (2) the production of apologetical literature in the context of theological controversy, and (3) worship and other ritual activities that functioned as privileged venues for christological communication and performance” (viii). A substantial introduction traces the development of christological ideas, especially concerning the role of the body, in Alexandria from early thinkers such as Basilides and Valentinus, through Clement and Origen, to the principal authorities for later Copts, Athanasius and Cyril. This chapter provides the basis for the book’s theme of interpretation of the early Fathers, but it also contributes to the other themes by examining how Athanasius and Cyril articulated their Christologies in conflict with alternative views and how Cyril presented the Eucharist as the principal site for human participation in the divine incarnation.
Parts I and II examine Coptic Late Antiquity, with chapters on the writings of Shenoute of Atripe, Coptic Eucharistic liturgies, pilgrimage and the cult of the saints, and images on textiles and church buildings. Shenoute and the liturgies adapted and cited earlier authoritative theologians and texts in new polemical contexts. Along with the practices of pilgrimage and iconic representations of Christ and the saints, they articulated and performed a participation in the divine life made available in the incarnation, in which remembrance and imitation of the saints and worship practices (prayer, Eucharist, pilgrimage) were central. Especially in the chapters on pilgrimage, the cult of the saints, and images, Davis argues that the link between divine incarnation and human deification that Athanasius succinctly stated functioned not merely as an idea for Coptic clergy like Shenoute to elaborate and defend, but became incarnate itself, so to speak, in the embodied practice of Coptic Christians. Davis supports his hypotheses about the christologically performative nature of, for example, tunics embroidered [End Page 155] with religious images with theoretical perspectives drawn from ritual studies and performance theory.
Part III turns to Copto-Arabic sources, with chapters on the tenth-century writings of Sāwīrus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ and literature from the Coptic Church’s theological renaissance of the thirteenth century. Sāwīrus The Precious Pearl provided a florilegium of biblical and patristic quotations that served as a basis for later christological reflection, and his own constructive work responded to the Muslim context in which Copts lived and tied Christology to liturgical aind social practices. Authors such as Bishop Būlus al-Būshī of Old Cairo and texts like the Awlād al-‘Assāl creatively appropriated the patristic heritage, now often read through the lens of earlier Arabic Christian authors. Lacking the kind of material that he has for Coptic Late Antiquity, Davis here must be somewhat more tentative in linking theology and religious practice, but examination of a late thirteenth or early fourteenth-century icon from the Church of St. Marcurius at Dayr Abū Sayfayn alongside a homily of Būlus once again demonstrates the fruitful nature of Davis’s integrative approach.
The book concludes with a...