Comments on the margin
By the books editor
The other week, in a review of Bill Manley’s insightful book on the world’s most ancient book, recording the moral maxims of the ancient Egyptian sage Ptahhapt from about 2,400BC, I remarked that it set off in my mind a train of thought, but I postponed writing about that for another day, as it was not strictly pertinent to the author’s intentions.
Readers will recall that I was surprised to find, contrary to what we had long been told, that monotheism in Egypt was not a significant characteristic of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign. But Manley’s book demonstrated that back in 2,400BC behind the panoply of gods and goddesses so familiar from accounts of ancient Egypt, the sage himself believed in a single deity as the actual creator of all things.
But my train of thought went further, to think about what is recorded in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in more recent historical periods, about Egypt. Readers of Genesis will be aware of the role that Mesopotamia plays in this area. The Garden of Eden, Ur of the Chaldees, where Abraham came from, and the Jewish captivity in Babylon’s role in shaping Hebrew ideas about the past. All these give grounds for the importance of the land of the two rivers.
But thinking on, we might ask what role the land of the River Nile had in the same developments
It was into Egypt that Joseph was sold by his brothers, and where he rose to be an official in the government. But then in time Moses too was connected by tradition with the Royal family. Was he, as Freud used to speculate, actually an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew: probably not most scholars agree. But the influence of Egyptian culture is plain…
The popular idea was once those Jewish slaves built the pyramids. But it is now agreed that these royal tombs were not built by slaves at all, but by ordinary citizens as a form of collective religious activity.
All of Exodus is controversial, but nevertheless illustrates the profound impact that Egyptian culture had on the Hebrews. But what of the point raised in Manley’s book, that the Egyptians of the era of 2,400 were essentially monotheists in believing in a creator god, above and beyond the gods so familiar from Egyptian lore.
The Israelites on arriving in the Promised Land brought with them from Egypt a belief in a single god as well as a moral code. Are these parts of a legendary nation making, religious tales or a legend of the cultural influence that Egypt had on the Israelites? To a certain extent they are.
However, the Egyptian influence is also present in the gospels. The persecutions of Herod and the Flight into Egypt are also disputed. But the flight of the Holy Family is clearly a reflection of some real experience of the Jewish people as a whole.
When traced, the places associated in early Christian tradition are all places with Jewish communities, and run the length of the country to the south. After the Diaspora Jewish communities were to be found not only in Egypt, but all across North Africa, and indeed by the early middle ages Jewish traders had crossed the great desert and were to be found in West Africa.
Tradition suggests that the Holy Family returned very soon to Galilee, and so little Egyptian influence could be expected on the growing Jesus. But the ‘lost years of Jesus’ can only be speculated on: did he spend some of the years before his public ministry began in Egypt?
Whatever about the flight into Egypt, the Christian presence in Egypt was very early. St Mark has always been associated with the great Greek city of Alexandria. But the presence there of the most important library in the western world at that date meant that the city was an attraction to scholars of numerous cultures.
This is what brought about the translation by the Septuagint into common Greek after all, beginning the complex matter of the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into other languages, which still goes on.
Certainly it was in Egypt that early Christian culture began to develop. It was from Egypt after all that monasticism was derived, an ideal of the holy life which was to have extensive influence all over Western and Eastern Europe, even to early Christian Ireland.
Egypt was one of the earliest Christian cultures. Despite the Muslim occupation of Egypt from Arabia after 641, Christianity remains a characteristic culture in urban and rural Egypt. This perhaps is one reason why the Flight into Egypt became so cherished, as Egypt was the only country outside Palestine that played a role in the life of Jesus.
The interaction of the cultures of the past is complex and never as simple as people would like, as the development of Gnosticism and other ‘heresies’ reveals.
It cannot be denied that one way or another Egypt played a formative and influential role in the emergence of all varieties of Christianity.