As in other Christian countries of late antiquity, confraternities, or guilds, were active in Egypt. Their members were called, in Greek, philoponoi, or lovers of work, and spoudaioi, or zealots. The term philoponeion, confraternity, is used in documents in reference to its legal status. (The translation “infirmary” in Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon is incorrect.) The earliest information about confraternities, in The Letter of Ammon (Halkin, 1932, chaps. 31-32), dates back to the times of Athanasius (i.e., the first half of the fourth century).
The most recent document that mentions confraternities dates back to the end of the tenth century. There is little possibility that confraternities played a significant role after the first fifty years of Arab rule, during the period of rapid decrease of the number of Christians in Egypt.
Confraternities were characteristic of towns. We know of only one case when a confraternity was situated in the countryside, in the village of Paouore, in the district of Hermopolis (P. Oxf. [Some Oxford Papyri] 16, P. Lond. [Greek Papyri in the British Museum] III, 1080, P. Jernstedt 1).
It is not possible to establish the social composition of confraternities in Egypt, but by making analogies to other provinces, one may suppose that they included representatives of different social strata. Despite the lack of information in sources from Egypt, one may assume that confraternities included women, as happened in Constantinople.
Confraternities, founded in the atmosphere of religious tension so typical of late antiquity, attracted those people whose devotion was deeper than the average person’s. They united in particular those who aspired to enter a religious order but could not do so because of family, social, or other obligations.
There were close ties between confraternities and church structures. In large towns separate confraternities were established close to churches and very often took their names. In Hermopolis, for example, there were philoponoi of Saint MICHAEL the Archangel, Saint VICTOR, Saint Euphemia, and the New Church. Also existing in this town was a confraternity of agoreis, or notaries, recorded in the Fiscal Code of Hermopolis of 590-600 (P. Sorb. Inv. 2227). It is quite possible that there were other confraternities comprising members of the same profession.
Members of a confraternity were considered a separate group in a church, along with the clergy, monks, and laymen. The activities of such confraternities included first of all frequent common prayers and religious services in churches. The Canons of Pseudo- Athanasius (Riedel and Crum, 1904, chap. 93) say, “Those that are zealous . . . go daily to the church, especially on the fourth and the sixth days, but still more on the days of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.” During feasts, philoponoi acted as organized groups singing sacred songs, usually the Psalms. In literary works, they usually appear in such a role.
We know very little about the philanthropic activities of confraternities. In the great sanctuary of Saints Cyrus and John they worked as male nurses (Sophronius Monachus Sophista: Narratio Miraculorum SS. Cyri et Joannis, PG 87, pt. 3, cols. 3424-3676).
Members of confraternities belonged to a group of laymen acting at the side of the bishop and helping him in various matters. In Alexandria the patriarch used them either to exert pressure on the administration or to fight against his opponents (see Zacharias Scholasticus, Vie de Sévère, on events at the end of the fifth century). As an organized group of laymen, they were consulted before the election of the bishop.
In Alexandria they even took part in the election of the patriarch, though their votes did not have much significance (Burmester, 1960, p. 13). Two texts, written independently, seem to suggest that the Alexandrian patriarch regularly invited the more prominent philoponoi to table as well as the members of his clergy (Budge, 1915, p. 825; Orlandi, 1968, pp. 46-47).
The texts connect that custom to the times of Athanasius, but they probably project back into the past something that was usual in the authors’ times, as hagiographic works often do. The chiefs of the philoponoi belonged to the town elite (Budge, 1894, p. 58).
Along with religious activities, confraternities shared a common social life, as did associations of Hellenistic and Roman times as well as the confraternities and guilds of medieval Europe. This is reflected in a Coptic text coming most probably from Hermopolis, where membership fees were paid on the occasion of a wedding, birth, or baptism (Corpus Papyrorum Raineri IV, 196, from the seventh century). Very likely, certain organized forms of mutual aid were employed in cases of misfortune. But unfortunately we have no confirmed records of this.
At the head of a confraternity stood a president with the title of diadochos. He and the members of the confraternity entered into a written agreement stating the obligations of both parties (e.g., Corpus Papyrorum Raineri IV, 196). Some organizational functions that are hard to define were performed by the archigeron (C.P.R. IV, 195; Crum, 1905, no. 1046).
The function of persons called paterion (presumably derived from pater) who appeared together with philoponoi (C.P.R. IV, 195; Crum, 1905, no. 1013) is vague. It is possible that they constituted a group within a confraternity, but they might also have been a group of monastic character.
Confraternities were allowed to own land and houses. In the Fiscal Code of Hermopolis they also appeared as mediators between taxpayers and the fiscal authorities.
- Budge, E. A. W. Saint Michael the Archangel: Three Encomiums. London, 1894.
- . Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. London, 1915.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Rite of Consecration of the Patriarch of Alexandria, p. 13. Cairo, 1960.
- Crum, W. E. Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum. London, 1905.
- Halkin, F., ed. S. Pachomii Vitae graecae. Brussels, 1932. Muszyñski, M. “Les “Associations religieuses’ en Egypte d’après les
- sources hiéroglyphiques, démotiques et grecques.” Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 8 (1977):145-74; discusses the analogies between Christian confraternities and pagan associations.
- Orlandi, T. Storia della chiesa copta, Vol. 1. Milan, 1968.
- Riedel, W., and W. E. Crum, eds. The Canons of Athanasius of Alexandria. London, 1904.
- Sophronius Monachus Sophista. Narratio miraculorum SS. Cyri et Joannis sapientium anargyrorum. PG 87, pt. 3, cols. 3424-3676. Paris, 1865.
- Vailhé, S. “Les Philopones d’Oxyrhynque au IVe siècle.” Echos d’Orient 14 (1911):277-78.
- Wipszycka, E. “Les Confréries dans la vie religieuse de l’Egypte chrétienne.” In Proceedings of the XII International Congress of Papyrology, pp. 511-25. Toronto, 1970.
- Zacharias Scholasticus, Vie de Sévère, ed. M. A. Kugener. PO 2, Paris, 1904.