The Merciful John III

THE MERCIFUL JOHN III

A saint and fortieth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (677-686). John was born at Samannud in Lower Egypt on the Damietta branch of the Nile. He was prepared for his position in the Coptic church by his education in ecclesiastical and secular matters, as well as by his purity of body and heart. It was during a pilgrimage in the desert that John became ill with a strange malady from which he was miraculously healed. At this time, when he was in the vicinity of the monastery of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR), he experienced a dream, which further prepared him for his future duties.

After his healing, John and two disciples retired to the monastery of the Brothers (DAYR AL-IKHWAH) in the Fayyum. Bishop Menas of the Fayyum undoubtedly had ordained him as presbyter; and patriarch AGATHON, becoming aware of him, asked the bishop to send “Presbyter John” for an audience. The patriarch made him the first priest of his city, thus elevating him to a position of church seniority in Alexandria.

Despite some disputes with the magistrate and with the Chalcedonians, John became patriarch after the death of Agathon without much trouble. John needed Muslim help, however, to strengthen his position against the Chalcedonians, who were eager to control the Alexandrian churches. Survival depended upon collusion with the Muslim governor, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan ibn al-Hakam ibn Abi al-‘As (684-703), since the patriarch perceived enemies within the ranks of his own church, as well as in other areas of the religious sector.

Although the Muslim authorities made heavy monetary demands and strict requirements of reverence toward ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and although John was imprisoned and barely escaped torture, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz proved in the long run to be his ally. Consequently the governor gave him support against those who sought to denigrate him.

John’s death occurred as a result of illness with gout, and an ache in his side that caused him to return from al-Fustat (Old Cairo) to Alexandria, where he died. John’s contributions during his ministry included the rebuilding and decorating of the Church of Saint Mark within a three-year period as well as the installation of practical establishments such as a flour mill and a linseed oil press. With the help of these establishments, John could provide aid to the poor during a three- year drought. He also convinced some Chalcedonians to return to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and he left an important literary legacy.

John’s writings show that he was a fighter for the faith of the Coptic church. First in importance is a work of the so-called type of Erwtapokr…seij (Erotapokriseis; see PHYSIOLOGUS), in which an unknown presbyter named Theodorus, probably a man of letters, poses twenty-three questions concerning the exegesis of the Bible. The questions address Bible passages that could have various interpretations, but the patriarch provides the accepted Coptic version. Some important aspects of this work are the use of allegory and the use of parts of the Physiologus, for the explanation of the Sacrament of Baptism as being the only key to Heaven and the major Orthodox Coptic Christian distinction from Islam and sectarianism. In the field of Christology, John defines the Coptic position concerning God and Man in One Body. He discusses the fall of Satan and the institution of Saint Michael, as well as most of the important problems of faith in Egypt at that time.

The text is extant in a Sahidic version, copied rather carelessly about 900 in the monastery of the archangel Michael (DAYR AL- MALAK MIKHA’IL) at Sopehes (Hamuli) in the Fayyum. There are several Arabic versions that correspond to four Bohairic fragments of that work, and some Ethiopic versions, wrongly attributed to other authors. The Ethiopic versions, copied partially or completely, show the importance of theological questions and the responses considered to be canonical. The differences in patriarchal assertions provide hints about problems of theology in different places and times.

Another document about a controversy of the patriarch with a Jew and a Melchite exists in Bohairic and Arabic. The text deals with the issue of assets becoming state property when a Jew died without heirs. In one case, among the possessions of the deceased was found a precious vessel containing a piece of wood. The patriarch, being present in this audience with ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, perceived the wood to be part of the true cross of Our Lord. The wood was tested with fire and did not burn. Ultimately it was purchased for 3,000 dinars. The governor then initiated a dispute between the patriarch, a Jew named Aaron, and a Chalcedonian. Undaunted, John stood firm in his beliefs and succeeded in convincing his adversaries that with faith, bread and wine can be converted into the Flesh and Blood of the Heavenly One.

Another important work, an Encomium, treats Saint Apa Menas, the famous saint of Lower Egypt. Some disagreement exists about its authorship—whether it had been written by Saint John, archbishop of Alexandria, or John III or JOHN IV. Its editor, J. Drescher, tends to ascribe it to John the oeconomos of Saint Menas’ church, while Tito Orlandi attributes the work to John III on the basis of the proximity of Saint Menas’ church to the monastery of the Brother’s where the patriarch resided.

The Encomium consists of five parts: an introduction from Luke 1:1, and an assurance that the stories of Saint Menas come from authentic sources; a discussion of three feats by the saint; the life of the saint including his descent from noble parentage and his martyrdom; the fate of his relics and their burial in a shrine where miracles were performed; and finally, an exhortation for people to visit the shrine of Saint Menas.

The reference to John as the author of the Encomium comes only at the conclusion. Whether this is John III, should not detract from his importance as a fierce fighter for orthodoxy and as a good writer and preacher whose work is only partly known to us.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Drescher, J. Apa Mena. Publications de la Société d’archéologie copte: Textes et Documents. Cairo, 1946.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ’n Natrun. Part I, New Coptic Texts from the Monastery of Saint Macarius. New York, 1936. Includes an appendix on a Copto-Arabic MS. by G. P. G. Sobhy.
  • Lantschoot, A. Van. Les “Questions de Théodore.” Studi e Testi 192. Vatican City, 1957. See the review by C. D. G. Müller, in Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 54 (1959):coll. 136-41. Orlandi, T. Elementi di lingua e letteratura copta. Milan, 1970.

C. DETLEF G. MÜLLER

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