He began when MELITIUS (or Meletius), bishop of Lycopolis (modern Asyut) in Upper Egypt, objected to the terms set by PETER I of Alexandria for the readmission of lapsed Christians. Melitius began to ordain supporters of his stricter policy, and they constituted the core of the movement. Persecution continued and Melitius was exiled. Upon his return from exile (after A.D. 311), he began to organize a schismatic church.
ACHILLAS and then ALEXANDER I, successors of Peter as bishop of Alexandria, apparently failed to reach an agreement with the Melitian party. A serious attempt to heal the breach was made at the First Council of NICAEA (325). It was decided that clergy ordained by Melitius could retain their status; Melitian bishops, if properly elected, could succeed Catholic bishops when the sees became vacant; and Melitius would retain his title.
These measures of reconciliation were not sufficient, perhaps because ATHANASIUS I, who succeeded Alexander in 328, did not approve of them. From this point on, there are many references in the writings of Athanasius to the continued activity of the Melitians. They joined with the Arians in opposition to Athanasius, though it is unclear to what extent they supported the Arian theological position.
In 332 they brought various accusations against Athanasius to the emperor; whatever the truth of specific charges, this action shows that the reconciliation planned at Nicaea was being undermined by both parties. Melitius was succeeded by John Arkaph (date unknown; probably between 325 and 332) as leader of the sect; the names of subsequent leaders are unknown. There is papyrological evidence for a thriving Melitian monasticism in the fourth century. The Melitian monks lived together in groups, but it is unclear whether they had structured cenobia (like the Pachomians) or semi- eremitic communities (like the monks of Nitria and Scetis).
Scattered references indicate that the sect survived until the eighth century, but it seems gradually to have changed its character and purpose. It began as a movement in favor of strict discipline, later formed an alliance with the Arians, and, according to a reference in Theodoret (Compendium 4.7), still later developed distinctive forms of worship that included hand clapping and music.
The Melitian sect had some success with Coptic-speaking Christians. This is suggested by the Egyptian names of some of the Melitian bishops (see the list in Athanasius Apologia contra Arianos 71), by the papyri that mention Melitian issues, and by the references to the sect in the Coptic writings of the Pachomians and SHENUTE of Atribe.
- Bell, H. I. Jews and Christians in Egypt. London, 1924; Westport, Conn., 1972. Contains the Melitian papyri and a brief history of the sect.
- Hardy, E. R. Christian Egypt: Church and People. Oxford, 1952. Kettler, F. H. “Der meletanische Streit in Ägypten.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 35 (1936):155-93. A modern work on the subject.