“THE POPE”: Before There Was Two, There Was Only ONE


After getting word that His Holiness Pope Tawadros II will be visiting my parish here in the U.S.A. soon, I thought it appropriate to write this post to inform Copts and non-Copts alike about the eminence of the original papacy: the Coptic papacy.

It all begins with this: whenever anyone (not Coptic) says “The Pope,” who do they mean? The head of the Roman Catholic Church. As for myself, however, whenever I hear/see that title being used to exclusively refer to the Catholic Pontiff, a small part of me cringes in grief at the ignorance.


Because “The Pope,” for almost one millennium, used to exclusively be understood by all of Christendom (including Rome) to refer to one archbishop, and it wasn’t Rome’s; it was the Archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Church. This is not a matter of uninformed, personal bias just because I am Coptic; this is a historical, well-established fact.

My confusion over this came slowly over time as I would attend countless Coptic liturgies and services, and hear or read countless times the title of our Archbishop. We Copts call him “The Pope,” and among us when that title is spoken, we think of only one, and that is our Patriarch of Alexandria. This is deeply ingrained in the Coptic Church and its vernacular, and not just in conversations outside of Church services, but inside as well. We always see the Coptic Church in its liturgical texts and hymns referring to our Archbishop as “Papa Abba ______” or “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria.” But as I was growing up I kept hearing another receiving that acclaim and title exclusively for themselves, and I wondered why.

Here is the historical truth:

The word Pope is an ancient term originally pronounced papa, and like it sounds, it meant father. Sources often indicate this term originally actually derived from the term ab-aba (or ap-apa); that is, Father of Fathers.

See, initially, all bishops in the Church, most particularly in the Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic Churches, were bestowed the title Abba (also meaning Father). The Copts, though, eventually started to refer to the head of all their Abbas (the head of all their bishops) as the Papa. This is said to have begun at least as early as the 13th Pope of Alexandria (c. AD 231—Pope Heraclas [or Theoclas]). In fact, we attribute this date because his successor Pope Dionysius of Alexandria used this title about his predecessor when writing to a Roman priest named Philemon: “I received this rule and ordinance from our blessed Pope, Heraclas.” [τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον.] (Eusebius, History of the Church, 7.7.4)

This is a well-known fact. See what one historian says about the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and Pope Alexander of Alexandria:

He was the bishop, not indeed of the first, but of the most learned see of Christendom. He was known by a title which he alone officially bore in that assembly. He was “the Pope.” “The Pope of Rome” was a phrase which had not yet emerged in history. But “Pope of Alexandria” was a well-known dignity. Papa, that strange and universal mixture of familiar endearment and of reverential awe … was the special address which, long before the names of patriarch or of archbishop, was given to the head of the Alexandrian Church. (Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church, By Arthur Penrhyn Stanley).

Then, at some point around the 11th century (although some sources say the 7th), the head bishop of Rome appropriated the title for himself. It makes sense, as the primacy of Rome over all of Christianity was a consistent point that Rome tried to impress on all other jurisdictions, and which contributed to the Great Schism around this time.

The bishops themselves bestow the title Abba more eminently on the Patriarch of Alexandria, which occasioned the people to give him that of Baba or Papa, that is, Grandfather, the Father of the Fathers; a title which he bore before it was bestowed on the Bishops of Rome, for the name of Pope was not exclusively appropriated by them until the close of the eleventh century. It is now conjoined with supreme authority, the Pope being the head of the Roman Church; so much so, that the Catholic Religion is termed Popery, and has its adjective and adverb Popish and Popishly. A member of the [Catholic] Church is called a Papist. (An analytical dictionary of the English language, By David Booth)

Today, there are only two archbishops of the ancient Church that are titled pope: the archbishop of Alexandria, and that of Rome (although, the Greek Church, after the separation between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, placed an archbishop in Alexandria as well and appropriated for him the title of Pope as well, since it was the historical Alexandrian title). Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary gets this one mostly right:


Next time you hear someone refer to “the Pope,” know that there used to only be ONE, and now there are TWO.

If you are Coptic, be proud of the history of your Church.

(Note: In no way am I intending to disrespect the Catholic Church or its archbishop, but simply bringing attention to history. The relationship between the Coptic and Catholic Churches have been very cordial in recent times, and I pray they continue to progress in a positive direction.)



Pope Francis and the Coptic Archbishop, Pope Tawadros II pose during a private audience in the pontiff’s library at the Vatican, May 10, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS /ANDREAS SOLARO / POOL



  • Elwell, Walter A. (2001). ”Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”
  • Greer, Thomas H.; Gavin Lewis (2004). A Brief History of the Western World.
  • Mazza, Enrico (2004). The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite.
  • O’Malley, John W. (2009). A History of the Popes.
  • Schatz, Klaus (1996). Papal Primacy.
  • Fau, Edward. 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches

9 thoughts on ““THE POPE”: Before There Was Two, There Was Only ONE

  1. The Acts of the Council of Ephesus in 431 use the title “Pappa” for both Cyril of Alexandria and Celestine of Rome. So, the title was used for the bishop of Rome well before the seventh century, and long before the eleventh.


    • Thanks for sharing, but I’m surprised to hear that, and since so many scholarly sources indicate otherwise, it seems suspect to me. Can you provide a link to the Greek version of the Acts or otherwise provide a direct reference where I can find it myself? Where in the Acts, in what source? etc…


  2. Hi John,
    I found it in Schwartz’s critical edition (Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum), which I accessed on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, but you have to have a subscription. Celestine is called pappa at t. 1, vol. 1, pt. 7, pp. 9-10; Sixtus III at t. 1, vol. 1, pt. 7, p. 15. Admittedly, those are all in the titles of letters, so perhaps they were added later?
    Be that as it may, I looked in Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon. The first usage he notes for the bishop of Rome in Greek is in Ursacius’s letter to Julian in the 340s. There are others starting in the fourth century.

    I also ran a search of a few fourth and early fifth century Latin authors on the Library of Latin Texts. They routinely refer to the bishops of Rome with the title “Papa” (more than 100 hits for Augustine and Jerome alone).

    Having also consulted Souter’s and Blaise’s Latin lexicons, I think the confusion is this: the 11th century is when Roman Catholics began to use the title “Papa” *solely* for the bishop of Rome. In fact, that’s just what the source you quote above actually says. (I wish the author provided us with a reference to the document that reserved papa for Rome. That would be interesting to track down.) Souter notes that in Latin papa is almost exclusively used for the bishop of Rome starting in the sixth century. The registers of Gregory I’s correspondence (r. 590-604), for example, refer to him and earlier bishops of Rome as “papa” many times. And there are many attestations earlier than that. Not just for Alexandria and Rome, either. I found Augustine referring to Ambrose of Milan, for example, as “Papa.” And Cyprian is called “Papa” already in the mid 3rd century (epp. 30 & 31). Even earlier, even though he’s being sarcastic, Tertullian refers to a bishop (there’s debate over whether it’s the bishop of Rome or Carthage) as “papa” (de pudicitia 13).

    These days I don’t know any informed Roman Catholics who have any problem referring to the Patriarch of Alexandria as “pope”. “Pope” is used occasionally in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to refer to the bishop of Rome, but not once in the Code of Canon Law (with the exception of two instances of the adjective “papalis”) or in the decrees of Vatican I. The usual technical designation is Pontifex Romanus or Pontifex Maximus (Roman Pontiff or Supreme Pontiff), though there are ritual circumstances when it’s used (e.g. in the Eucharistic prayers and in the famous “habemus papam”).



    • Thanks for the clarification and the extensive resources provided. I want to take time to review them. It appears though that at the earliest years of the Church sources seem to indicate that it was an exclusive title to the archbishop of Alexandria. Even if the date of use as applied exclusively to the archbishop of Rome is an earlier date than the seventh century, it appears that the sources agree it was at first exclusively understood to apply to the Alexandrian archbishop.


      • To be clear, I don’t dispute in the least that the preponderance of early Greek uses of “pappa” as a title of ecclesiastical dignity refer to the Patriarch of Alexandria. I just don’t think it was ever regarded as more than a customary usage that could be extended to the bishops of Rome, Carthage (c. 250!), Milan, etc. Are you suggesting the title “pappa” bore some sort of specific canonical meaning? I think that would be awfully hard to demonstrate. As your source above indicates, Rome was regarded as the “first” See, though Alexandria was the second and “most learned,” at least until Constantinople claimed the second position, allegedly in 381. And note that, although Rome eventually accepted the Chalcedonian canon that made Constantinople #2, Pope Leo the Great argued against Constantinople’s claim, which he saw as disrespecting the traditional privileges of Alexandria and Antioch as the second and third Sees (see canon 6 from Nicaea) in letters to the imperial couple and Archbishop Anatolius in 452.


      • I agree with you wholeheartedly about it bearing no canonical privilege but rather expressive of a customary title. I really value the wonderful and informative dialogue here and am glad I was able to learn more about this from you. I don’t claim to know everything but rather share what I’ve come to know, and invite others such as yourself to hone my understanding. Your clarification is quite refreshing and very much appreciated. God bless you.


  3. Pingback: 10 Things Your Friends/Colleagues Don’t Know About Your Coptic Church | ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MEETS WORLD

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