The twelfth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (189-231). He succeeded JULIAN and was a contemporary of eight Roman emperors, from Commodus (180-192) to Alexander Severus (222-235), through the age of persecutions, which were particularly harsh in the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211).
Until the time of Demetrius, the church had been passing through a period of growing pains about which very little is known beyond the names and dates of the successive bishops. The History of the Patriarchs offers little information on the early bishops, who moved secretly in Egypt to strengthen the faithful and to appoint the priests who were entrusted with the surveillance of the spiritual welfare of their congregations. The History of the Patriarchs begins to discuss more events and details from Demetrius onward, although its statements often mingle historic events with legendary elements and miraculous episodes.
These begin with the election of Demetrius, an ordinary person from Coptic farmer stock, both illiterate and married. The History of the Patriarchs relates that his predecessor, Julian, had a dream in which the angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that the man who would bring him a bunch of grapes in the morning would be patriarch after him. And so it was, when a peasant found some grapes, out of season, and took them to the patriarch on his deathbed. Julian at once told his companions about the celestial ordinance in his dream and died.
People took Demetrius, against his protests that he was married, tied him in chains, and had him consecrated as patriarch. In reality, he was married by his parents as a child to a cousin, also a child, who was living with them after her parents’ death. The two children lived together like brother and sister. After their marriage, they continued to live together without a marital relationship. Nevertheless, some people began to raise questions. The angel of the Lord appeared to Demetrius in a dream and commanded him to reveal the truth about his conjugal life. Accordingly, the patriarch asked his archdeacon to solicit the congregation to remain after the liturgy, at which time Demetrius took the embers from some burning wood with his hand and placed them on his cloak, without burning it. His wife then had the embers placed in her headdress or pallium, which also did not burn. Then he told the spectators about the realities of his conjugal life, and all prayed and gave thanks to the Lord for their appeasement by this miracle.
Apart from these episodes, registered in detail in the History of the Patriarchs, and generally accepted by the pious Copts, it may seem strange to have a bishop who was illiterate. Demetrius must have memorized the liturgies, a phenomenon that was customary with the old school of Copts until recent times. However, Demetrius proved himself to be an extraordinary patriarch, both active and inflexible in the defense of his church against all heresies. Though illiterate, he took a great interest in the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, which peaked during his reign and became the center of religious scholarship and theology in the whole world.
Internally, Demetrius was indefatigable in moving throughout the country ordaining priests to meet the spiritual needs of the increasing Christian population. For the first time in the history of the church, he decided to consecrate three more bishops to relieve him from the growing pressures of an expanding community in the midst of relentless Roman persecutions. He appointed illustrious personalities as heads of the Catechetical School, such as CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA and ORIGEN, the greatest Coptic religious scholar, with whom he had a falling out later over matters of doctrine.
On the international scene, he dispatched PANTAENUS on a mission to South India in answer to a request from the Indian governor. We are not sure whether this was the second such mission to India, but it was recorded in the Historia ecclesiastica by EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA (5.10). Demetrius also commissioned Origen to go to Arabia for the settlement of some of their theological problems. Throughout his patriarchate, he issued epistles on a variety of subjects, including one to his peers, the bishops of Antioch, Caesarea, and Jerusalem, on the dating of Easter. The authority of the bishopric of Alexandria was universally recognized in combating heresies and heretics.
Throughout his episcopate of forty-three years, Demetrius led a precarious life amid waves of Roman persecutions. The History of the Patriarchs enumerates martyrs who perished in the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus. Among those cited are Origen’s father, Leonidas (Historia ecclesiastica 6. 1); a woman called Herais; Basilides, who was a Roman legionary; a woman called Potamioena and her mother (Historia ecclesiastica 6. 5); a patrician by the name of Anatolius, described as “father of princes”; Eusebius; and Macarius, “uncle of Claudius, Justus, and Theodorus the Eastern,” who were all martyred (see also Historia ecclesiastica 11. 41). Plutarch and Severus were buried alive. A virgin by the name of Thecla perished at the hands of the imperial executioner.
Apparently the later years of the life of Demetrius were consumed by his differences with Origen. Though he was responsible for appointing Origen as head of the Catechetical School, Demetrius became disenchanted with Origen’s writings, and it is unclear whether the patriarch was able to digest Origen’s philosophy and theology. In the heat of their arguments, Origen journeyed to Palestine, where his profound learning was highly appreciated. He was made a priest by the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem (Historia ecclesiastica 6. 8), a step that infuriated the imperious Demetrius, who protested vehemently against the encroachment on his jurisdiction.
The historian Eusebius devotes a number of chapters to Origen and his works (Historia ecclesiastica 6.2), which must have mystified a patriarch whose education was so restricted. The gnostic sections in Origen’s religious philosophy were readily repudiated by the authoritarian head of the church. The History of the Patriarchs states that among his many blasphemies was “his doctrine that the Father created the Son, and the Son created the Holy Ghost; for he denied that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not one God.” The History of the Patriarchs paints a willful picture of Origen, who is said to have composed “unlawful books of magic,” and that therefore Demetrius excommunicated him. The great mentor then emigrated to Caesarea, where he remained until his own pupil HERACLAS succeeded Demetrius after his death. In vain Heraclas attempted to persuade Origen to return after the death of Demetrius.
Sanctified in the Coptic church, Demetrius is commemorated in the Coptic SYNAXARION on 12 Hatur.
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