The nineteenth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (312-326).
Alexander succeeded ACHILLAS, who died in the year 312, after one of the shortest episcopates in Coptic history. His death was ascribed by the pious Copts to supernatural chastisement for breaking the command of PETER I, “Seal of the Martyrs,” by accepting ARIUS into communion. On the eve of the succession of Alexander, the imperial throne was contested by six claimants after the abdication of Diocletian. They were Galerius, Maximinus, Maximianus, Maxentius, Licinius, and Constantine. One by one, these claimants disappeared either by natural death or by falling in the field of battle in civil wars.
The high point in this strife was the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, where Maxentius perished at the hands of Constantine, who reportedly saw a flaming cross in the sky with the Greek dictum en toutoi nika, “in this sign, conquer.” Subsequently Constantine and Licinius converged on Milan in 313 as sole augustal survivors. There Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan, confirming the religious toleration previously proclaimed by Galerius before his death, and recognizing Christianity as the official religion of the state. This was shortly after Alexander’s accession to the throne of Saint Mark and the formal termination of Christian persecutions.
In the following year, however, Licinius, in a struggle with Constantine for supreme and undivided authority, resumed some persecutions in the East as a punishment to the Christian supporters of his adversary. But in 324 Constantine inflicted final defeat on Licinius at Chrysopolis (modern Üsküdar) and had him executed in the following year, establishing himself as sole emperor, with the freedom to secure the unity of all Christians in a church in Alexandria where Alexander was facing schism.
Alexander had to deal with three problems throughout his episcopate. He was first troubled over the timing of Easter observance by a schismatic faction led by a certain Erescentius.
Alexander was constrained to write a special treatise on this paschal controversy, referring to previous patristic declarations by DIONYSIUS THE GREAT. This subject remained a sore point until it was settled by the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
The second problem that faced the patriarch occurred at Lycopolis in Upper Egypt, where Bishop MELITIUS had been calumniating Achillas, as he later continued to do against Alexander, even lodging a formal complaint against him to the imperial court under Constantine. The court paid no great attention to it. Still more seriously, Melitius seems to have established a kind of alliance with the most dangerous of the patriarch’s adversaries, Arius. Further, he consecrated his own schismatic bishops over his ecclesiastical superior’s head. The Melitian schism remained in full force until it was temporarily settled at Nicaea in 325, through the wisdom of the patriarch, who compromised in order to win the bishop back to the fold, thus ending his union with Arius.
The third problem faced by Alexander concerned the most dangerous of all heretical movements, that of Arius, who was excommunicated by Peter I, only to be readmitted by Achillas and placed as presbyter of the most ancient of Alexandrian churches, at Bucalis. The church was located in the most populous district of the metropolis, where Arius could exercise a great influence on the Christian population. Arius had previously posed as a rival to Alexander at the time of his elevation to the episcopate. Open hostilities between the two occurred when Alexander declared the unity of the Trinity in one of his sermons.
Arius at once branded his declaration as mere SABELLIANISM. Since the Son of God was created by the Father, he argued, the Son could not be coeternal with his Father. This was the beginning of a long argument, which the future heresiarch developed into horrifying dimensions as he acquired the support of expanding numbers of followers. He was supported in his views by a number of deacons, including Euzonius, Macarius, Julius, Menas, and Helladius, as well as a presbyter by the name of Colluthius, who separated himself from his bishop and started to ordain presbyters of his own. Arius was thus encouraged to preach his heretical views to a wider public, and his followers increased to a point where the bishop found it necessary to summon two assemblies of priests and deacons to discuss these views. This did not, however, restrain the heresy.
Thus, Alexander called a synod of Alexandria and the neighboring province of Mareotis in 320, this time for the trial and condemnation of those doctrines and their author. Thirty-six presbyters and forty-four deacons, including young ATHANASIUS, subscribed to a sentence of condemnation and signed a document to that effect. Nevertheless, the movement kept spreading, notably in Mareotis and Libya, where Arius prevailed upon Secundus, bishop of Ptolemais, and Thomas of Marmarica to unite with the MELITIANS in Lycopolis. The whole church was thus threatened with schism.
In 321 Alexander decided to convoke a general council of the whole diocese to settle the problem on a national basis. Attendance at this council reached about one hundred members, and here again Arius asserted that the Son could not have existed before the time of his creation. He further proclaimed that the Son was not similar to the Father in substance, a proclamation that horrified the bishop and the whole council, whereupon Arius was placed under ANATHEMA until he recanted his errors.
The cornered Arius fled to Palestine, where he secured the support of numerous bishops, who wrote in his favor to Alexander. His greatest support came from Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who was closely connected with the imperial court at the Byzantine capital. Thus, the Arian heresy began to assume international dimensions, and the emperor himself found it necessary to issue a written appeal for the unity of the church and the repudiation of what he had regarded as petty discussions on unintelligible minutiae. But neither the imperial brief nor the episcopal epistles could resolve these matters of serious dogma.
The Arians in Alexandria took to violence in defense of their creed, and Alexander wrote an encyclical to all his brother bishops of Christendom, stating the history of the Arian doctrine and describing the errors of Arius. He was forced to expose Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, whose support for the heretical views of the religious outcast was demonstrated by the fact that he had assembled a provincial council of Bithynia, which scorned Arius’ excommunication and anathematization by the councils and bishop of Alexandria by formally admitting him to the communion of the Syrian church. Arius also received a sympathetic hearing from Paulinus of Tyrus, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Patrophilus of Scythopolis, who seem to have allowed him to assemble his followers for the Divine Office in their churches as he used to do at Bucalis in Alexandria.
It was probably at this time that Arius composed his work entitled Thalia, which contains elegant poetry and hymns representing his views. So popular were these hymns that they could be heard everywhere in open places and at the shipyards. In the meantime, the multiple epistles issued by Arius and Alexander solved no problems; on the contrary, they seem to have fed the fire of theological uproar in the metropolis. In the face of what seemed like a universal rebellion against orthodoxy, Alexander issued his tome, a confession of the faith, on the advice of his brilliant deacon Athanasius.
This he dispatched to all bishops, requesting them to endorse it by their signature. He succeeded in obtaining approximately 250 signatures on his tome, including about one hundred from his own diocese, fifteen from Cappadocia, thirty-two from Lycia, thirty-seven from Pamphylia, forty-two from Asia, and others that are untraceable. It is interesting to note that Alexander wrote to his namesake, the bishop of Byzantium, complaining about the violence of the Arians and their promulgation of Arius’ views on female influence. While promoting his tome in Byzantium, Alexander also communicated with Sylvester of Rome, Macarius of Jerusalem, Asclepius of Gaza, Longinus of Ascalon, Macrinus of Yannina, and Zeno of Tyrus, as well as with many other bishops on the same subject.
The Arian heresy had become a universal problem threatening the peace and unity of the church and of the empire. Hence, Constantine, now sole emperor after the execution of Licinius, his remaining rival, needed to act to stop this disunity on what seemed to him simply theological jargon. He wrote his missive addressed “to Alexander and Arius.” Since the letter was written from Nicomedia, we must assume that the Arian-oriented Bishop Eusebius participated in its composition.
This royal brief was confided to Hosius, the old and reputed bishop of Cordova, who was to transmit it to the contestants in Alexandria. It ended, “Restore to me quiet days and nights void of care, that henceforward I may have the joy of Pure Light and the gladness of a quiet life. . . .Open to me your reconciliation, the way to the East, which ye have closed by your contentions; and allow me speedily to behold yourselves and all other people at union, so that I may be enabled, with the unanimous accordance of every mouth, to return thanks to God for the common concord and liberty of all” (Neale, 1947, p. 134).
On Hosius’ arrival at Alexandria with this royal message, Alexander summoned another general council that seems to have confirmed his tome together with the term “consubstantial.” The council sanctioned the excommunication of Arius and the condemnation of the Melitians, which further infuriated the Arians in the metropolis. Arius submitted a formal complaint to the emperor for the injustice imposed on him, and the emperor’s response, carried by his imperial couriers, Syncletius and Gandentius, called for the defendant to plead his case before an ecumenical council at the city of Nicaea in Bithynia on 14 June 325. In this way the ecumenical movement was inaugurated. The movement lasted several centuries, and had an immense impact on the progress of the church and the definition of its dogma and doctrines.
At Nicaea, however, 318 divines came from Italy, Spain, Africa, Palestine, Cappadocia, Isauria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Even the Goths were represented. This impressive scene included such notable Christian leaders as Macarius of Jerusalem, Eustathius of Antioch, James of Nisibis, Leontius of Caesarea, Hypatius of Gangra, Paul of Neocaesarea, Alexander of Constantinople, Nicasius of Die from Gaul, Protogenes of Sardica, Melitius of Sebastopolis in Armenia, Spiridion of Tremithus in Cyprus, Achilleus of Larissa, Athanasius of Thessaly, Gelasius of Salamis, and many other prelates from the four corners of the old world.
Sylvester of Rome was represented by two priests, Vitus and Vincentius. Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was accompanied by twenty prelates, who included Potamon of Heraclea, Paphnutius from the Thebaid, and the formidable young deacon Athanasius, acting as the eloquent mouthpiece of his bishop. The Arian team consisted mainly of Secundus, Zephyrius, Theonas, and Dathes, all from Libya and the Pentapolis. The Arians had their strong sympathizers; first and foremost in the person of Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, with his palace association and influence. Others included Eusebius of Caesarea, the ecclesiastical historian; Paulinus of Tyrus; Actius of Lydda; Menophantus of Ephesus; and Theognius of Nicaea.
The proceedings of the council, which opened on 20 May and lasted until 25 July, are monumental and varied. In their totality, they belong elsewhere; our focus here is the Arian controvery. From a special throne prepared for him, Constantine, speaking to the assembly in Latin with a Greek interpreter, pleaded for unity and unanimity. Alexander, who was supposed to preside over the council, replaced himself by Hosius of Cordova, since he could not be both judge and chief accuser. In the ensuing discussions, young Athanasius revealed himself to be the most powerful exponent of orthodoxy against Eusebius of Nicomedia, a fact that made him a target of Arian assaults to the end of his life.
One of the most famous results of the council is the NICENE CREED. Eusebius of Caesarea submitted the text of a creed that was rejected outright by the council, because it did not include specific mention of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. Consubstantiality implies that the Son is not only similar but inseparable from the Father, that He is not only like the Father, but of the same substance. This was the orthodox consensus to which the Arians would not subscribe at all.
Hence the orthodox party proceeded to develop their own creed, probably in a closer committee under the leadership of the highly respected Hosius. Contributors may have been Leontius, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Hermogenes who later succeeded him in that see. However, the chief framer of the new text of the creed appears to have been Athanasius, who must have been inspired by Alexander. The final and rather short and pointed version presented to the council read as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all Things, visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father, that is, of the Substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father: by whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth: Who for us men and for our salvation came down, and was incarnate, and was made Man: He suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven: and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.
And we believe in the Holy Ghost.
And for them that say, concerning the Son of God, there was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was produced, and He was produced from things that are not, and, He is of another substance or essence, or created, or subject to conversion or mutation, the Catholic and Apostolic Church faith, let them be anathema
[text in Neale, 1947, p. 145].
The majority of the fathers accepted this text. Only seventeen opposed it—mainly because of the term “consubstantial.” In the end and after some discussion, only five remained adamant in their opposition, and the rest were swayed to join the majority. The five dissenters were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognius of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon, and Secundus and Theonas from Libya. Eusebius attempted to use his influence at the imperial palace without avail, and he knew that his defeat might spell his deposition. Cornered between acceptance of the creed or exile, Maris reluctantly signed the document.
Eusebius and Theognius are said to have subscribed to the creed with the addition of the Greek letter “iota” to the HOMOOUSION to turn the term into HOMOIOUSION, thus rendering the Son of God “of like substance” instead of “of the same substance,” but this allegation is based on Arian sources (Neale, 1947, pp. 145-46). Eusebius, however, refused to accept the sentence of anathema against Arius. Secundus and Theonas remained firm in their total opposition and, with Arius, they were banished by imperial decree to the province of Illyria.
This ended Alexander’s battle with Arianism, but the Arian troubles survived Nicaea and Patriarch Alexander into the age of Athanasius, who continued to combat the heresy and the heresiarch.
The council also dealt with the schism of Melitius, and here Alexander exercised leniency in order to try to keep the Melitians from aligning with the Arians. Melitius was allowed to remain in the communion of the church and even retain the title of bishop, but he was not permitted to exercise episcopal powers. His appointees could retain the title to which they were elevated by him, but their occupancy of an episcopal see would be contingent on the existence of a free seat vacated by death from those previously consecrated by Alexandria.
On the paschal controversy, the bishop of Alexandria was empowered to make his own decision and communicate it to Rome and the rest of Christendom. Another canon allowed the Egyptians to observe their ancient customs in regard to clerical celibacy. On the advice of Paphnutius, an anchorite, no priest could be allowed to marry after taking holy orders.
Five months after his return from Nicaea, Alexander died, according to one source on 22 Baramudah/17 April 326. He is commemorated in the Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION on that date.
AZIZ S. ATIYA
Literature and Works
In Coptic literature, Alexander I is represented most fully in Eusebius’ Historia ecclesiastica; he is also mentioned in the lives and encomiums of his successor, Athanasius the Apostolic. These accounts tend to present Alexander in the shadow of his great successor, who as his secretary (notarius) would have led the struggle against Arius and his disciples in his own name, both at Alexandria and at the Council of Nicaea if Alexander had not taken the initiative. According to CONSTANTINE OF ASYUT, it is even said that Alexander was president of the Council of Nicaea (historically, it was Hosius of Cordova). As he was dying, Alexander is supposed to have named Athanasius as his successor.
Of his works, only one collection of letters relative to the Arian controversy was known in antiquity, and of these, only two have survived. Also, a homily De anima et corpore (On the soul and the body) is ascribed to him in a Syriac version, but the Coptic version attributes this work to Athanasius.
Coptic literature does attribute to Alexander an Encomium of Peter the Alexandrian, known in five codices: VC62.10 (Bohairic, ninth century), VC62.8 (Bohairic, two fragments, ninth century), and three fragmentary codices from the WHITE MONASTERY (ed. Orlandi, 1970). There is also an elaborated Arabic translation to be found in the chapter concerning Alexander in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS by SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘. It is possible to reconstruct the original redaction of this encomium by comparing the various versions in existence. It must have been composed of three segments, which can be characterized as follows: a literary prologue; the main body, which recounts his birth, life, and martyrdom, with vivid descriptions of the many miracles wrought at his birth, during his life, and after his death; and a literary epilogue. Except for a few minor variations, the Sahidic and Bohairic redactions are similar, save that the Bohairic version has excluded the martyrdom and posthumous miracles.
The text appears to be a typical, late construction, filled with biblical allusions, vague traditions, and the portrayal of Peter’s Passion. The complexity of the literary structure, the theological competence, and the style make it one of the best examples of this literary period, and probably one of the first whose date can be proposed as being at the first half of the seventh century.
- Altaner, B. Patrology, trans. H. C. Graef, pp. 309ff. Freiburg, 1960. Bardenhewer, O. Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, Vol. 3, pp.
- 34ff. Freiburg im Breisgau and St. Louis, 1913-1932.
- Cowell, E. B. “Alexander (St.).” DCB 1, cols. 79-82.
- Duchesne, L. M. O., ed. Le Liber Pontificalis, Vol. 2, pp. 98ff. Bibliothéque des Ecoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, ser. 2. Paris 1886-1892.
- Hyvernat, H. Les Actes des martyrs de l’Egypte, pp. 247-83. Paris, 1886-1887.
- Neale, J. M. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, pp. 113ff. London, 1947.
- Orlandi, T. “La versione copta (saidica) dell’Encomio di Pietro alessandrino.” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 45 (1970):151-75.
- Quasten, J. Patrology, Vol. 3, pp. 13-19. Utrecht and Antwerp, 1975.