Religion Reviews

David Frankfurter Christianizing Egypt

Taming Crocodiles

One of the less celebrated miracles of the Coptic church was the resurrection of a crocodile.

An Egyptian peasant was snatched by a crocodile in front of the monastic leader John the Little. He prayed to God who sent an angel which forced the crocodile to release his quarry on the river bank and die.

Father John prayed for the crocodile’s soul:

“Immediately the crocodile arose, alive; he went and made obeisance […] at the feet of Saint Abba John, and he slept at the feet of the holy one like a sheep and would not leave his side, traveling in the water beside the boat until it came into port in Alexandria, and Abba John would each day throw it three loaves of bread all the days that it followed him”.

John’s mastery over the crocodile was a sign of his power. The story resembles Christian myths such as Androcles and the Lion, but has added layers of reading. The crocodile is a sign both of danger (natural and divine), and the taming of traditional Egyptian religion. The crocodile was venerated in some regions of Egypt as a powerful god and recognised across the Roman world as a symbol of Egypt.

David Frankfurter

This is just one of the fascinating and multi-layered vignettes, which David Frankfurter offers in his book on Early Christianity in Roman Egypt. The book follows his classic work Religion in Roman Egypt from 20 years ago. In that book he argued that forms of traditional Egyptian piety continued into the Seventh Century but offered little substantial proof beyond the fifth centuries.

One of the great unanswered questions of Ancient History is why Christianity first become one of the most popular religions and then the major institutional religion of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon attempted an answer, which although cynical and disparaging to Christianity is still our best hope of understanding this complex topic.

Gibbon argued that there were five reasons for Christianity’s success: “intolerant zeal”, beliefs, morality, discipline and ability to perform miracles.

Frankfurter follows this argument to some degree. He follows that miracles were probably an important aspect. He is much more interested in the particular nature of Egyptian Christianity, why it developed as it did and what aspects came from traditional Egyptian religion.

In doing this he rejects a model of syncretism, where particular visual tropes or ideas transfer from the previous religion to another. The theory of syncretic religion still beguiles scholars. This is probably because of Herodotus, who identified particular divinities between cultures.

The idea of non-Christian elements within a Christian framework follows Nineteenth Century evangelical ideas of a single pure form of Christianity (which was most closely allied to Protestantism). One result of this ideology was the effort to convert Eastern Christians in the Ottoman Empire to Western forms of Christianity. Efforts which were based on assumptions of Western superiority in scholarship and which damaged historical Christianities in the Middle East. Of course, another effect of this reading of ancient tradition within a pure Christianity is the celebration of the non-Christian as a form of ancient folk culture or belief. In the Twentieth Century in Ireland and Greece, for example, some scholars emphasised the national elements of their (trans-national) state religions.

Yet syncretism is a flawed model, because it assumes two or more pure religions which combine together. It does not recognise that most religions are in fact complex mixtures which reflect local, family and individual religions. Syncretism is then just an added level of complexity.

An alternative to this reading might perhaps be to examine ancient evidence more closely. For example, in Mamre, Palestine adherents of different religious beliefs joined in common worship. Other examples of magical texts praising the Jewish and/or Christian God and various Greek and Egyptian deities has a long life continuing to the Arabic period.

For Frankfurter, Christianity is not an ideology but ‘a range of possible strategies’ that can be drawn upon according to circumstances.

This kind of approach is crucial to understanding Egyptian Christianity, not least because there was not one single ideology. Institutional Christianity was divided in Egypt in complex and long lasting ways which have not been researched to the level they deserve. The most obvious division was between Miaphysite and Chalcedonian Christianities, which had separate leaders for centuries. There were other divisions such as that between monastic and episcopal Christians.

No Survivals

Frankfurter is keen to get beyond a model that searches for ‘Pagan Survivals’. Rather than images, beliefs or practices that are only superficially Christianised he examines gesture: how people knew what to do when entering specific spaces outside the home; how people did certain everyday actions which may have had religious overtones (such as lighting lamps in the home).

It is hard to really understand this. Our evidence is largely from texts complaining about people misbehaving from across the Roman Empire. One intriguing example from Gaul, complains about Christians crossing themselves before eating sacrificial meat. Another from Rome, says that Christians should not bow to the setting sun on the winter solstice. How far can we read such texts as proof for the actions of people and to what extent can we read actions as evidence for belief? Frankfurter never discusses belief, but the answer to both questions I would argue is quite limited.

He is much better at unpicking what the evidence doesn’t tell us. For example, amulets with their arresting melange of Pagan and Christian deities do not reflect Egyptian Christianity as a whole but rather the social world of the ritual expert writing the text; the embroided Christian scenes embellishing expensive clothes are evidence of rich people wanted to show off their wealth rather than them wanting to show off their [new] faith.

Figurines of slender means

Yet there is one area in which the question of pagan survivals is more complex. Clay figurines have been found in large numbers from the St Mena healing and pilgrimage centre near Alexandria. The figurines are crudely moulded in the shapes of women, with deliberate detailing. It is not clear why or what the figurines depict or are meant to do, but it is presumed they had a link to the healing aspects of the centre.

To a modern viewer, the figurines seem to clearly resemble earlier images of Isis nursing Horus (Isis Lactans) or the Madonna and Child.

Frankfurter argues that figurines were centred in the house and had multiple aims of preservation of ancestor culture, procreation and protection from evil and illness. How true is this? I would argue that we only know a little about such images.

Another intriguing tale from the Arabic period is about the statue of mother and child to which women with fertility worries resort. According to the report, the identity of the women is no longer know but it is presumed to be an image of Isis and Horus.

Such evidence provides some clues to the role of the figurines and their (possible) link to earlier religion, although not the difference in space. Here the women travel to a public space, there they are believed to place small figurines in their home.

Monasteries and text

A capable Coptologist, Frankfurter uses textual evidence which means he privileges normative texts – lives of saints (hagiographies), invectives and harangues (a very popular genre) and various codes of behaviour and ethics. The problem with this type of evidence is not just that it only represents one view point, but more broadly it only represents one area of interest or topic.

The texts mostly come from monasteries, which

‘represented social sites of Christianization that were distinctively textual – that is, distinctively interactive with books’

The Christianities that developed from such centres was a result of the texts read there (see the review of God’s Library by Brent Nongbri). Early Egyptian scriptoria (if we can call them that) were local in make up and interests.

Whilst we tend to look forwards to later examples of monastic scriptoria, or backwards to the institutionalised scriptoria of Ancient Egypt temples Frankfurter is perhaps right in identifying the itinerant Manichean “scribal experts” as a closer precursor. We can glean from evidence that Mani, the “founder” of Manicheanism sent apostles to the East and the West to preach his new religion. Such experts were not unique however.

There was also a non-institutional literate scribal tradition from Jewish communities both in Egypt and more widely. The Nomina Sacra, shortened words which refer to particularly holy subjects, are taken from Jewish scribal practice.

Frankfurter argues that the use of Nomia Sacra and Charakteres (symbols) are evidence for the belief of the text’s inherent power. However, we can see in both Earlier magic texts and texts found at Nag Hammadi, the importance of orality. We have examples of magic texts written in Demotic (which lacked characters for vowels) with the pronunciation transliterated in Greek characters at the side. This is sometimes called Old Coptic. Many texts found in Nag Hammadi are followed by long lists of vowels which show they are written forms of oral texts.

The power of text in a society without full literacy is an intriguing one. Certainly, the rates of literacy improved with the adaption of Greek and Demotic, but did written text have a power beyond its ability to affect the world beyond its pages? I personally doubt it. A magic text was only as powerful as its perceived effects. The mystery of text may have given value to this perception, but it also gained power from the perception that it could do something.

Stories of the old gods

Frankfurter argues that the strange insertion of traditional Egyptian gods into otherwise Christian texts is a sign that the texts were originally songs. An intriguing argument that isn’t tested by any analysis about how the texts might have functions of songs.

Coptic hagiographies follow a pattern which often includes a vision of the divine. By the fifth and sixth centuries, a new idea of heaven develops. Abbaton, the shape changing Angel of Death whom God ‘made […] to be awful and disturbing’ with teeth half a cubit long and claws like “sharp reaping knives”. He is an ambiguous character on one hand he reduces sin and on the other he mediates for the community.

In Christian Egypt, heaven is a place of opposites – the damned and the saved –  compared to Egyptian vision which is more of a journey, more of a gradual testing. Some earlier Christian texts resemble traditional Egyptian belief, but they probably come from Jewish milieux.

These texts aside, most Egyptian Christians seem more interested in improving their lot in this life than the other.

By the seventh century Egypt had changed. The regions of Egypt which were identified by body parts belonging to Osiris, now became a land identified by local saints and their venerated bodies. The Nile flooding which was once the blessing of Isis, was now the blessing of the saints.

Normal people navigated the complex world as best they could drawing on whatever resources were available to them.


Christianizing Egypt is a fascinating and insightful read. It offers challenges new insights and questions not just of Egyptian Christianity and Paganism, but also Early Christianity as a whole.

One question that fascinated me from reading the book is where did the olds gods  go? Why were they not mentioned more in Christian texts? There is an absence of names, with the exception of Bes (hazily remembered) centuries after Christianity was dominant.

Several Egyptian texts mention animals. Shenoute, a major figure of Early Christianity who always reminds me of Ian Paisley, describes a room full of images of animals – “there is nothing else portrayed… except the likenesses of snakes and scorpions, the dogs and cats, the crocodiles and frogs, … the likenesses of the sun and moon”. The narrative of the destruction of the Menouthis temple also describes a room full of images of animals.

The text of Abba John with which this review started, is just one story of saints controlling wild animals. Was this a real story or a later embellishment. According to some Roman authors, tame crocodiles quite common. Some gymnasts may have specialised in jumping over them. Was John just a saint, or also a showman?

In later texts such creatures were associated with hell in Egyptian texts. But why? Why did the powerful Egyptian animals worshipped for millennia in recognition of their power and perhaps to appease them, suddenly become evil. This is perhaps a question for another time, but Frankfurter offers a rigorous paradigm for undertaking that query.