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September 22, 2017


Two young people from the Fayum portraits during Roman times in Egypt

Pope Demetrius was the twelfth bishop of Alexandria, and Patriarch of the Egyptian (Coptic) Church. He was ordained bishop and patriarch in AD 189, after the death of the eleventh Patriarch Julian in the same year. St. Demetrius’ consecration occurred in the politically unsettled, final years of Emperor Commodus (180 – 192). He was different from his predecessors in several ways: he was a peasant from a very old and famous family in Alexandria but he was uneducated, though, once selected to the throne of St. Mark, he educated himself and excelled in ecclesiastical sciences; further, unlike all his predecessors, he was married. Probably, had it not been for what was passed as a miracle, he would not have been selected. His biography is included in the first part of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria [Henceforward, History of the Patriarchs],[1] and must have been written shortly after the Saint’s death. It tells us of the strange way in which St. Demetrius was chosen through a miracle:

When the patriarch Julian was dying, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream, on the night before his death, and said to him: “The man who shall visit thee to-morrow with a bunch of grapes shall be patriarch after thee.” Accordingly, when it was morning, a peasant came to him, who was married, and could neither read nor write; and his name was Demetrius. This man had gone out to prune his vineyard, and found there a bunch of grapes, although it was not the season of grapes; so he brought it to the patriarch. And the patriarch Julian said to the bystanders: “This man shall be your patriarch: for so the angel of the Lord last night declared to me.” So they took him by force, and bound him with iron fetters. And Julian died on that very day; and Demetrius was consecrated patriarch.[2]

Another source on St. Demetrius, and his selection to the patriarchate, is The Encomium of Flavianus, Bishop of Ephesus, on Demetrius, Archbishop of Alexandria [Henceforward, The Encomium of Flavianus],[3] which seems to have relied on a common source from which the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria took, gives us more detail on the circumstances of the ordination of St. Demetrius:

And after Saint Julianus, the Archbishop of Rakote [Alexandria] was dead, the throne of Rakote remained empty for many days, and there was no bishop, and no man sat on the archiepiscopal throne, because it was the period during which lawless and idol-worshipping Emperors reigned. A great persecution of the Church was in progress, and the people were like unto the sheep that are without a shepherd. However, by the Will of God, and by the votes of the whole congregation, they laid hold of a second Joseph, I mean Saint Demetrius, and they enthroned him on the throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist.[4]

Here, we read of no miraculous event in the selection of Demetrius before the death of Julian. Instead, we are told of the political disturbances that existed then, and a ‘great persecution of the Church’, which delayed the selection of a successor to Julian; and ‘the throne of Rakote remained empty for many days’. Eventually (we don’t know how long it took), Demetrius was chosen ‘by the votes of the whole congregation’. I find it difficult to accept this. There is evidence that not everyone was happy – and that was mainly because Demetrius was a married man; and his wife was still alive and living with him.  History of the Patriarchs tells us:

But the people were unjust towards this patriarch, Demetrius, saying that he was the twelfth of the patriarchs, counting from Mark, the evangelist, and that all of them were unmarried except Demetrius; and they bewailed his fall.[5]

And when some sinners were reproved by Demetrius, they complained: “This is a married man. How then can he reprove us, seeing that he has dishonoured this see? For none has sat therein to this day who was not unwedded.”[6] “This man is married, and his wife is with him at this present, why should he rebuke us especially? None but a virgin should be appointed to the throne of Mark the evangelist.”[7]

Not everyone, however, was critical of Demetrius for being a married man, as some responded to his critics, saying: “His marriage does not lessen his merits, for marriage is pure and undefiled before God.”[8] Although, none of Demetrius’ predecessors was married, married bishops were allowed by Church canons. Indeed, St. Peter and all the disciples were married. The writer of Demetrius’ biography, after telling us that he was married, says: “And if any should say: ‘How is it lawful that a patriarch should be married?’ we reply that the apostles declare, in their canons, that if a bishop be wedded to one wife, that shall not be forbidden him;[9] for the believing wife is pure, and her bed undefiled,[10] and no sin can be laid to his charge on that account.”[11]

But, Demetrius, even though he was married, did not have a carnal relationship with his wife. He was 63 years old now, and had been married for 47 years; and, throughout all these years, he and his wife had not known each other as man and woman. They kept their virginity – and they kept it secret from everyone else. The biographer, however, would like us to keep in mind that, “even if he had lain with his wife, it would not have been sin unto him, because they had been joined together by God.”[12]  Demetrius did not want other people to know; and, like most men, he probably was embarrassed letting foreigners know about his private life. But God had other thoughts, and meant to reveal the secret of Demetrius and his wife and show his sainthood, and also to remove the doubts that had filled the people on account of Demetrius:

But it was God’s will to make his virtues manifest, that he might be glorified, and might not leave this great secret unknown. As he said in his holy gospel, by his pure mouth: “A city when it is set on a hill cannot be hidden,” so God made the merits of this patriarch manifest, that his people might increase in virtue thereby. Accordingly, on a certain night, an angel of the Lord came to Demetrius, and said to him: “Demetrius, seek not thine own salvation by neglecting thy neighbour; but remember what the gospel says, that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep”. Then Demetrius said to the angel: “O my Lord, teach me what thou commandest me to do. If thou wilt send me to martyrdom, I am ready to let my blood be shed for the name of Christ.” Then the angel said to him: “Listen to me, Demetrius, and I will tell thee. The Lord Christ was incarnate only to save his people; and it is not right that thou shouldst now save thine own soul, and allow this people to be filled with scruples on account of thee.” So Demetrius answered: “What is my sin against the people? Teach me, my Lord, that I may repent of it.” Then the angel said: “This secret which is between thee and thy wife; namely, that thou hast never approached her. Now therefore make this known to the people.” But Demetrius said: “I pray thee that I may die before thee rather than that thou shouldst reveal this secret to any man!” Then the angel answered: “Know that the scripture says: He that is disobedient shall perish. Tomorrow, therefore, after the end of the liturgy, assemble the priests and the people, and make known to them this secret which is between thee and thy wife.” When the patriarch heard this, he marvelled, and said: “Blessed is the Lord, who does not abandon those that trust in him.” Then the angel departed from him.[13]

Not wanting to be disobedient to God, Demetrius, on one 12 Baramhat (= 21 March), which happened to be the feast of the Pentecost in that year (most probably AD 190)[14], gathered the congregation after the celebration of the liturgy around the patriarchal throne, and sent for his wife to be present. He then bid the brethren to collect much fuel:

… and [he] arose, where they could all behold him, and stood by the blazing logs, which had already been lighted, and spread out his cloak, and took burning embers from the fire with his hand and put them in his cloak; and all the spectators were astonished at the quantity of burning fuel in his garment, and yet it was not burned. Then he said to his wife: “Spread out thy woollen pallium which thou hast upon thee.” So she spread it out; and the patriarch transferred the embers to it while she stood there; and he put incense on the fire, and commanded her to incense all the congregation; and she did so, and yet her pallium was not burned. Then the patriarch said again: “Let us pray”; while the embers were blazing in his wife’s pallium, which yet was not burned.[15]

This miraculous event is celebrated in the Coptic Synaxarium as ‘manifestation of St. Demetrius’ virginity’.[16] The biographer explains ‘this great wonder’: “This man had made himself an eunuch of his own free will, so that he was more glorious than those that are born eunuchs; and therefore the fire had no effect upon this saint, nor upon his garments, nor upon those of his wife, because he had extinguished the flames of lust.”[17] After the miracle, the clergy begged his Holiness to explain to them ‘this wonderful mystery’. Demetrius told them that his wife was his cousin, the daughter of his paternal uncle; and he then explained to them how she had been orphaned in childhood; how she was brought up by his parents in the same household as his; how his parents, once the two children had reached the age of 15 years old, thought of marrying the two to each other;[18] why they did that; and what happened on their wedding when he wanted to consummate his marriage:

Know that I have not done this seeking glory from men. My age is now sixty-three years. My wife who stands before you is my cousin. Her parents died and left her when she was a child. My father brought her to me, for he had no other child than me, and she was the only child of my uncle. So I grew up with her in my father’s house, and we dwelt together. When she was fifteen, my parents resolved to marry me to her, in order that their possessions might not pass to a stranger, but that we might inherit them. So the wedding was performed, as men do such things for their children; and I went in to her. And when they had left us alone, she said to me: “How could they give me to thee, seeing that I am thy sister?” So I said to her: “Listen to what I say. We must of necessity remain together in this chamber without being separated all our lives, but there must be no further connexion between us, until death shall part us; and, if we remain thus in purity, we shall meet in the heavenly Jerusalem, and enjoy one another’s company in eternal bliss.” And when she heard this, she accepted my proposal; and her body remained inviolate. But my parents knew nothing of our compact. Then the wedding-guests demanded the customary proof of the consummation of the marriage, as you know is done by foolish men; but my mother said to them: “These two are young, and the days before them are many.” Thus we kept our purity; and when my parents as well as her parents were dead, we remained orphans together. It is now forty-eight years[19] since I married my wife, and we sleep on one bed and one mattress and beneath one coverlet; and the Lord, who knows and judges the living and the dead, and understands the secrets of all hearts, knows that I have never learnt that she is a woman, nor has she learnt that I am a man; but we see one another’s face and no more. We sleep together, but the embraces of this world are unknown to us.[20][21]

Here we come to the real subject of this article which I would like to focus on: Demetrius’ wife was his paternal uncle’s daughter – that makes them first cousins. They were teenagers,[22] and when his wife’s parents died, her uncle (Demetrius’ father) took her into his household to look after her. We do not know exactly what age she was then, but she was only a few years old. The Coptic Synaxarium says: “Her relatives died and they left her, then a little girl in my father’s house, and I was brought up with her.”[23] Both children had no siblings. Although they grew up together, Demetrius and his wife-to-be were acutely aware that they were not actual brother and sister but first cousins.

Was it normal and acceptable tradition with Egyptian Christians at that early age to marry first cousins? As you shall see in the next chapters, first cousin marriage is not uncommon in Coptic societies in modern times; so, I am asking here if this ‘tradition’ is rooted in our history or if it was introduced to us at a later stage. You shall also get to know that the Early Church did not produce any canonical laws on the degrees of kinship that were allowed to marry. It did not legislate on this matter as it didn’t about other social matters such as inheritance and will, as it left these matters to the customary regulations of each society, provided that they stick to natural law and the Mosaic regulations in Leviticus (18:7-11; 20:11-21) and Deuteronomy (22:30; 27:20-23). Mosaic Law does not prohibit marital relationship between cousins; and natural law is not coded and is open for interpretation. Therefore, from an ecclesiastical canonical point of view, in early Church, there was no explicit ban on first cousin marriages; but, again, as you shall see in the next chapters, silence on a matter does not necessarily means that it was permissible, or that the ‘negative licence’ was taken up by the people.

What can we learn from the biography of St. Demetrius on the way Christian, Egyptian society in the second century viewed first cousin marriage? Those who were opposed to the ordination of Demetrius to the patriarchate based their opposition on the fact that he was married. There was no mention in their disapproval of his first cousin relationship with his wife. This, however, cannot be taken to mean that they didn’t see anything wrong with first cousin marriages. Probably, they did not know of the degree of kinship between Demetrius and his wife until he revealed it to them later; or, perhaps, they did not pay that relationship much attention because their case was based on episcopal marriage in general, regardless of the degree of kinship.

It is in Demetrius’ revelation of the forty-seven old secret of virginity between him and his wife that we can detect the view of society, or at least Demetrius and his wife, about first cousin marriage. Demetrius was almost apologetic for having married his first cousin as he tells his secret: “[My] parents resolved to marry me to her, in order that their possessions might not pass to a stranger, but that we might inherit them.” His wife was more explicit: she found her marriage to him inappropriate. After the wedding ceremony and when Demetrius went to the bride chamber to consummate their marriage, she had the chance, after all had left, to express her opinion:  “How could they give me to thee, seeing that I am thy sister?” She obviously saw him as a brother since he was her first cousin, and thought of such a kinship relationship as an impediment of marriage. Her response seems to me a natural expression of what was acceptable in society then. We are left with no doubt that the marriage was also an arranged and forced marriage as is clear from the Coptic Synaxarium: “And he [Demetrius] told them [the congregation] of his strife with his wife, and how his father had compelled him to marry against his will, and how his wife herself had had no wish to marry.”[24] Both Demetrius and his wife did not have much say in their marriage, as it appears from the text; and the natural inclination to rejection of first cousin marriage was overcome by fear of upsetting father and uncle.

There are a few points to make at this stage:

First, there is no evidence that Demetrius’ and his wife’s reluctance to consummate their marriage was due to any lack of virility on Demetrius’ side or lack of interest in men on his wife’s side. As we have seen, Demetrius went to the wedding chamber, as soon as family members and guests left, to sleep with his wife. Flavius in his Encomium uses Demetrius’ example to admonish his listeners and exhort them into sexual restraint; and in it Demetrius’ struggle to keep his virginity intact is apparent:

Now do not your hearts leap when ye hear of miracles of this kind? And do ye not wonder at this holy man, who passed his whole life with his wife, and restrained himself from union with her? Where are the men now, who, although they have their wives, practise fornication, and who [at the same time] proclaim emphatically ‘We are Christians?’ Let them come hither now, and let them be ashamed when they see their father Demetrius, the holy Archbishop, saying, “We know nothing of each other, except the face.” O thou who dost set the combat, thou fighter against passion, Saint Demetrius, O my father, did not thy heart leap within thee when thou didst gaze upon the exceedingly great beauty of thy wife? Did not the tender softness of her body cause thine understanding to totter?

For thou wast, after all, only a youth. When thou didst talk with her and there was none present with thee, did not he who shooteth arrows of evil shoot arrows into thee? He said, “I am a man myself, and I am clothed with flesh like every other man.” But hearken, and I will shew thee [what Demetrius said], “Whensoever my heart vised to stir me up to passion, I used to remember the vows which I swore to keep to the Christ, saying, ‘I will never break them, for if I do He will deny me before His Father and His holy angels.’ Whensoever I remembered the softness of her body, I used to remember how the flesh of men goeth to corruption in the tomb, and the foetid humour which it giveth forth. And, not permitting our mouth to utter any strange thing, we were afraid of the destruction caused by the fire and flame of Gehenna which exist in Amente, and [we remembered that] those who are therein wish to open their mouth to its fullest extent, and that they cannot open it.’[25]

Second, there is no evidence that the couple hated each other, and, therefore, did not wish to consummate their marriage. As we know from the story, they lived together for 47 years under the same roof, indicating to no lack of affinity between the two.

Third, there is also no evidence that Demetrius’ bride objected to marriage per se or that she had held a vow to remain a virgin for Christ before her wedding, as so many Coptic women and men had done now and then. Nay, her objection was simply the fact that Demetrius was so closely related to her that she felt it was not right for them to get married. Demetrius found nothing wrong or odd in her objection, and readily agreed with her. Probably not to upset his parents, he proposed to her that they remained together, living in the same house, while keeping their virginity and pretending all the time to the outside world that they were fully married. That proposal she accepted and honoured all those long years.[26]

The story of St. Demetrius and his wife is indeed a very extraordinary one: they lived under one roof, as married man and wife, and yet they remained virgin by choice as they felt their first cousin relationship precludes them from marriage or at least the consummation of it. As we have seen, even if they chose to know each other carnally, no one would be able to blame Demetrius or to rightly criticise his choice for the patriarchate, for he and his wife were joined together in holy matrimony, and the Apostolic canons did not ban married men from being selected to the bishopric. Demetrius and his wife, however, chose to resist the calls of their nature in order to honour their common resolve. That is why his biographer calls him a man “even better than Joseph”, for if Joseph resisted his sexual desires, they were desires that would have been considered a sin for him if they were fulfilled; Demetrius, on the other hand, would have been justified in his action had he later chosen to sleep with his wife.  That is why Demetrius is called in Coptic literature, “the pure virgin, the fighter of lusts, the vanquisher of natural inclination;”[27] for “the grace of God descended upon this man, and he was like Joseph, the son of Jacob; yea, and more excellent than Joseph, for though Demetrius was married, he knew not his wife.”[28]

The mystery of St. Demetrius and his wife is the perfect story to begin with our discussion of first cousin marriage within our nation. It tells us how, despite the fact that it wasn’t canonically explicitly banned, cousin marriage was shunned upon in our early history and was not considered natural or acceptable.

In the next chapters we will discuss this matter further.



[1] Attributed to Severus, bishop of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis) in the 10th century, but as a matter of fact he had nothing to do with it. The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria is a collection of several books written by several authors, at different times, and often redacted by later authors. The part which includes the biography of St. Demetrius was published, Arabic text with English translation, for the first time in 1907 by the English historian, Basil Thomas Alfred Evetts (or simply B. T. A. Evetts), in Patrologia Orientalis (PO), Tome I. It covered the Lives of the Patriarchs from St. Mark to Theonas (300 AD). See: Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, Part 1: St. Mark – Theonas (300 AD). Patrologia Orientalis, Tome I (1907), pp. 102 – 211. The Arabic text, with the English translation at the bottom, of the Live of St. Demetrius is to be found in pages 154-173.

[2] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, Part 1, Patrologia Orientalis, Tome I, pp. 154-5.

[3] Coptic martyrdoms, etc., in the dialect of Upper Egypt, with English translations, by E.A. Wallis Budge, with thirty-two plates. Imprint London, Printed by order of the Trustees, sold at the British museum [etc.] 1914.

[4] Coptic martyrdoms, p.393.

[5] History of the Patriarchs, pp.155-6.

[6] History of the Patriarchs, p.156.

[7] Synaxaire arabe-jacobite under 12 Baba (Ethiopian Synaxarium: 12 Tekemet). See, note 16 below.

[8] History of the Patriarchs, p.156.

[9] The writer is talking about Canon 5 (6) of The Apostolic Canons which reads: “Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, put away his wife under pretence of religion; but if he put her away, let him be excommunicated; and if he persists, let him be deposed.” See: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14; edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900).

[10] Here, the writer is rephrasing Heb. 13: 4.

[11] History of the Patriarchs, p.155.

[12] Coptic martyrdoms, p.394.

[13] History of the Patriarchs, pp.156-7.

[14] 21 March 190 AD corresponds to 12 Baramhat 94 Before the Era of Diocletian (or of the Martyrs), and was a Sunday. Pentecost is celebrated on Sundays.

[15] History of the Patriarchs, p.158.

[16] The Coptic Synaxarium was published in Arabic and with a French translation by René Basset (1855 – 1924) under the title Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte) in the Patrologia Orientalis between 1904 and 1929. There is no respectful English translation to this date; so I am using The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church: A Translation of the Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum by E. A. Wallis Budge (Cambridge: University Press, 1928). The Ethiopian Synaxarium was translated from a Copto-Arabic recension, and appeared towards the end of the 14th century. Its core contains stories of the saints venerated by the Egyptian Church. On Demetrius, the Ethiopian Synaxarium is an exact translation of the Arabic, Coptic Synaxarium. I therefore, use Wallis Budge’s English translation in this article. See Synaxaire arabe-jacobite under 12 Baramhat (Ethiopian Synaxarium: 12 Megabit).

[17] History of the Patriarchs, p.159.

[18] As the reader shall see in the next chapters, the age of marriage, by both civil and ecclesiastical law, was twelve years for women and fifteen years for men.

[19] Should be 47 years.

[20] Demetrius speech continues: “And when we fall asleep, we see a form with eagle’s wings, which comes flying and alights upon our bed between her and me, and stretches its right wing over me, and its left wing over her, until the morning, when it departs; and we behold it until it goes. Do not think, my brethren and ye people who love God, that I have disclosed this secret to you to gain the glory of this world which passes away, nor that I have told you this of my own will; but it is the command of the Lord, who bade me do it, for he desires the good of all men, and he is Christ our Saviour.” History of the Patriarchs, p.160.

[21] History of the Patriarchs, p.159-160. The History of the Patriarchs adds: “When Demetrius had finished this discourse, the people all fell upon their faces on the earth, saying: “Verily, our father, thou art more excellent than many of the saints; and God has shewn his mercy towards us in making thee head over us.” And they gave thanks to him, and besought him to forgive their evil thoughts of him. Then he gave them his blessing, and prayed for them; and they dispersed to their own homes, praising God. And after this, Demetrius bade his wife depart to her house.” Ibid, p.161.

[22] Sources tell us that Demetrius was 15 years old when he got married. The age of his wife at marriage is not given, however, The Encomium of Flavianus (p. 398), which has several inaccuracies, has this for Demetrius to say on exposing the mystery between him and his wife: “I am sixty years of age this day, and the woman whom ye see is more than fifty-one.” The History of the Coptic Patriarchs (p.159) gives his age then as sixty-three, but does not give his wife’s age. He must have been 63 and not 60. The Encomium of Flavianus simply says that his wife was then ‘more than 51’. This would make her at marriage only 6 or 9 years old: this is impossible since the legal age of marriage for girls then was 12 years. The Encomium of Flavianus must have suffered at copying. I suggest that the original was ““I am sixty three years of age this day, and the woman whom ye see is more than sixty-one.” This will make her 13 years of age at her marriage to Demetrius who was 15 then.

[23] Synaxaire arabe-jacobite under 12 Baba (Ethiopian Synaxarium: 12 Tekemet).

[24] Synaxaire arabe-jacobite under 12 Baramhat (Ethiopian Synaxarium: 12 Megabit).

[25] Coptic martyrdoms, p.400.

[26] The Coptic Synaxarium is very explicit on the nature of that common contract to stay together but to remain virgin: “And I said unto her, ‘Dost thou wish us to live together in one house, and never to separate from each other, and to preserve our virginity, undefiled, and that there shall be nothing between us?’ And she said, ‘Yea.’” Synaxaire arabe-jacobite under 12 Baba (Ethiopian Synaxarium: 12 Tekemt).

[27] Ibid.

[28] History of the Patriarchs, p.155.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2018 11:48 am

    Yes very interesting to the identity of the person who created this website through word press. Actually Copts nowadays avoid cousin marriage and only a small percentage of copts married there cousins in past.

  2. April 20, 2018 11:56 am

    Copts are one the most racially mixed people in the world like other Egyptians as there has been numerous invasions and intermarriage with these invaders in Egyptian history. Copts and Egyptians are the same thing except when Arabs came to Egypt and spread Islam by force they used the term Copts to Christians only after mass conversion from Christianity to Islam.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      April 20, 2018 3:24 pm

      I am not sure what you want to say exactly.

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