AN INTRODUCTION TO THE
SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA
Long before the establishment of Christianity in Alexandria, the city was famous for its many schools. By far, the largest school was the “Museum,” which was founded by Ptolemy and became the most famous school in the East. In addition, there were the “Serapeum” and the “Sebastion.” Each of these three schools had its own huge library. Justo L. Gonzalez states that the Museum’s library, whose directors were among the most remarkable scholars of the world, grew to the point where it housed 700,000 volumes, making it an arsenal of knowledge that was astounding for its time. The Museum, as its name proclaims, was dedicated to the Muses, and was a sort of university in which the most distinguished writers, scientists, and philosophers gathered and worked. Largely because of these institutions, Alexandria soon became famous as a rich center of knowledge. Numerous Jewish schools were also scattered everywhere.
The geographical position of Alexandria gave a special flavor to the thought that developed in the city. This was all the more important because the intellectual work produced in Alexandria was precisely of the type for which the world was athirst. Egypt had been admired by the ancient Greeks, who saw in it a mysterious land, pregnant with hidden wisdom. Moreover, all the various doctrines emanating from the East converged in Alexandria where they formed an eclectic mass… Jews with their Scriptures were not the only ones who had come to Alexandria, but Babylonians had also come with their astrology, as well as Persians with their dualism, and many others with different and often confused religions.
In other words, Alexandria, the cosmopolitan city, was chosen as a home for learning, and a unique center of a brilliant intellectual life, where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish cultures together with eastern mystic thoughts were nourished and gave rise to a new civilization. Philip Schaff states,
Alexandria… was the metropolis of Egypt, the flourishing seat of commerce, of Grecian and Jewish learning, and of the greatest library of the ancient world, and was destined to become one of the great centers of Christianity, the rival of Antioch and Rome. There the religious life of Palestine and the intellectual culture of Greece commingled and prepared the way for the first school of theology which aimed at a philosophic comprehension and vindication of the truths of revelation.
In such an environment, there was no alternative but to establish a Christian institution to enable the church to face the battle which was waged by these powerful schools.
It is highly probable that there were well-educated Christians in Alexandria in the apostolic times. In the Acts of the Apostles (18:24 ff.), St. Luke tells of Apollos who was a learned Jew of Alexandria and mighty in the scriptures; he may well have learnt there the knowledge of Jesus that he possessed before he met Aquilla and Priscilla.
THE CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
St. Jerome records that the Christian School of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark himself. He was inspired by the Holy Spirit to establish it to teach Christianity, as this was the only way to give the new religion a solid foundation in the city.
The School became the oldest center for sacred sciences in the history of Christianity. In it, the first system of Christian theology was formed and the allegorical method of biblical exegesis was devised. In this context, Dom. D. Rees states, “The most renowned intellectual institution in the early Christian world was undoubtedly the Catechetical School (Didascaleion) of Alexandria, and its primary concern was the study of the Bible, giving its name to an influential tradition of scriptural interpretation. The preoccupation of this school of exegesis was to discover everywhere the spiritual sense underlying the written word of the Scripture.”
We are not, of course, to think of school buildings in any modern sense; we are not even to think of church buildings. Instruction was in the teacher’s private house.
This Christian School started as a Catechetical School, where candidates were admitted to learn the Christian faith and some Biblical studies to qualify for baptism. The deans were in fact catechists. Origen describes the catechist’s functions in more than one of his books. He had both to teach doctrineand to give instructions on the Christian life. “If you want to receive Baptism,” Origen says, “you must first learn about God’s Word, cut away the roots of your vices, correct your barbarous wild lives and practice meekness and humility. Then you will be fit to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Bardy has suggested that we are dealing with a philosophical school rather than a catechetical school. But, as Mehat has pointed out, catechesis is not merely a simple matter of baptismal instruction. J. Ferguson states that he does not find the two (catechetical and philosophical) incompatible.
Admittance was open to all people regardless of culture, age or background.
By the second century it became quite influential on church life as can be seen from the following:
1. It was able to satisfy the thirst of the Alexandrian Christians for religious knowledge, encourage higher studies and create research work in a variety of fields. G.L. Prestige gives us a picture about the students of Origen, the dean of the School, saying,
So their education was completed. No inquiry was closed to them, no knowledge was withheld from them. They had the chance to study every branch of learning, Greek or foreign, spiritual or sociological, human or divine. “We were permitted with entire freedom to compass the whole round world of knowledge and investigate it, to satisfy ourselves with every variety of teaching and to enjoy the sweets of intellect.” To be under the intellectual charge of Origen, says Gregory, was like living in a garden where fruits of the mind sprang up without toil to be happy with gladness by the happy occupants; “he truly was a paradise to us, after the likeness of the paradise of God;” to leave him was to renascent the experience of Adam after the Fall. Few teachers have ever won so remarkable a testimonial from their pupils.
2. It gave birth to numerous spiritual and well-known church leaders along the years. Many of them were deserving to sit on the throne of St. Mark.
3. Through its missionary zeal, it was able to win many souls to Christianity from Egypt and abroad.
4. In a true ecumenical spirit, it attracted students from other nations, many of whom became leaders and bishops in their own churches.
5. It established a common awareness of the importance of education as a basic element in religious structure.
6. It offered the world the first systematic theological studies.
7. It used philosophy as a weapon in dealing with pagan philosophers, and thus beating them by their own game.
8. Although the School of Alexandria was a church school, and had its spiritual and educational effect on the clergy and laymen and many of its deans were ordained Popes, nevertheless it did not interfere in church affairs (organization). G.L. Prestige says,
The chief difference between the Roman and Alexandrian school seems to have lain in a closer relationship between Christian thought and ecclesiastical government in the eastern metropolis. Possibly the popes of Alexandria enjoyed a more sympathetic understanding of the minds of visiting professors, and so may have been better to advise them and control them; certainly they were not faced with the self-assertive ambitions which animated many of the theological legal eagles that flocked to the Roman dovecote. In any case, it may be remembered that for centuries the Egyptian Church was the most highly centralized in Christendom.
It would have been a grave error to have confined the School’s activities to theology. Its teaching was encyclopedic; first presenting the whole series of profane sciences, and then rising to moral and religious philosophy, and finally to Christian theology, as set forth in the form of commentaries on the sacred books. This encyclopedic conception of teaching was an Alexandrian tradition, for it was also found in Alexandrian pagan and Jewish schools.
From St. Clement’s trilogy, consisting of his chief three works: Protrepticus (An Exhortation to the Heathen), Paidagogos (the Educator), and Stromata (Miscellanies), which broadly outlined the School’s program at his time, we may conclude that three courses were available:
1. A special course for non-Christians, which introduced candidates to principles of Christianity.
2. A course on Christian morals.
3. An advanced course on divine wisdom and sufficient knowledge for the spiritual Christian.
Worship went side by side with study in the School. Teachers and their students practiced prayer, fasting and diverse ways of asceticism. In addition to continence in food and drink, they were also continent in earthly possessions. In purity and integrity their lives were exemplary. Celibacy was a recommended ideal, and was observed by many. Jean Daniélou in his book, Origen, says,
At that time, philosophers were not so much teachers of theory as masters of practical wisdom. Philosophy meant ceasing to bother overmuch about temporal affairs, such as politics and professional matters, and putting the things of the soul first. The philosopher’s ideal was the quest for the perfect life, unlike the rhetorician’s, whose object was the glory this world bestows. Conversion, in the ancient world, meant conversion to philosophy.