CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA
The first and foremost institution of theological learning in Christian antiquity. Though we first hear of it as an established school in the Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius, around the year 180, its roots must be traced much further back. Its rise to prominence from humble beginnings must therefore have been a long and evolutionary process parallel to the spread of the new religion among the Jewish and pagan inhabitants of Alexandria.
Although we must repudiate the native Orthodox theory that Saint MARK was its founder, it is not inconceivable that soon after his martyrdom the newly established hierarchy became active in their missionary endeavor for gaining new converts. During the reign of the early bishops of the church, it was natural that they should start a system whereby the clergy could instruct novices and catechumens in the substance of the Gospel and the doctrines of the faith.
To this purpose, study circles were held in multiple places outside the churches, led by catechists who were generally, but not necessarily, ordained presbyters. The humble origins of the school consisted of informal circles or groups of mentors and catechumens whose assured acquaintance with their new religion was a necessary condition before their admission to BAPTISM.
As a rule this operation comprised two edificatory stages. The first stage was open to all as listeners, later known in the West as Audientes, a term found in the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian. As they advanced in their religious knowledge, in an unspecified period they became worthy of admission to baptism as Competentes. As catechumens, however, they were allowed to attend the church only during the initial part of the liturgy known as Liturgy of the Catechumens (missa catechumenorum). Afterward they were expected to leave the church for the subsequent performance of the second phase, the Liturgy of the Faithful (missa fidelium), intended only for the baptized congregation.
With the progress of Christianity and the gradual disappearance of the category of the old catechumens, this primitive procedure became unnecessary. Consequently, these religious circles were transformed into regular classes with a prescribed study program, which grew in complexity beyond simple religious instruction. Ultimately this began to take the shape of a school conducted parallel to the older, pagan institution of the Ptolemaic Museion, whose famous library must have been used by the students and faculty of the emerging theological college under the protection of the church. As the theological college progressed toward maturity, the Museion began to dwindle until its liquidation after the assassination of Hypatia in 415.
Prior to the advent of PANTAENUS as the first-known head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria in the late second century, the subjects taught by catechists revolved mainly, though probably not exclusively, around religious initiation and the scripture. The discussion of the godhead, of Christ and of His virgin birth, the Cross, the burial, the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, the human body and soul, the hereafter, and the Second Coming of Jesus—all these subjects constituted the themes to be clarified in school within the framework of the Bible.
When Pantaenus was appointed by the Alexandrian patriarch to the headship of the institution before 180, he is known to have reformed and organized its curriculum by extending its program beyond purely theological subjects to most branches of the humanities. Though he is sometimes described as of Sicilian origin without solid proof, the Copts simply mention him as a native of Alexandria.
While introducing his reform, he has been credited with the promotion of the use of the Greek alphabet, in lieu of the difficult and antiquated demotic characters, which ultimately led to the establishment of the new Coptic language as the last phase of the ancient Egyptian. He composed certain works in Greek on exegesis, now lost.
However, at some time in the course of his service as an educator, his career at the Catechetical School was interrupted by Patriarch DEMETRIUS I who elected him for a Christian mission to India. This he accepted after seeking a worthy successor to ensure the continuation of the work so auspiciously begun by him at the developing school.
His choice fell upon the most prominent of his pupils, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA. Probably an Athenian of pagan birth, born about 150, Clement had become a zealous Christian theologian. He added this to his former study of Greek philosophy. He succeeded Pantaenus before 190 and retained that office until 202 or 203, when for expediency rather than fear, he decided to flee from Alexandria during the persecution of Emperor Septimius Severus. He never returned to the school and appears to have spent his later years moving between Jerusalem and Antioch, but neither the place nor the date of his death in Greater Syria is known with precision.
This is not the place to discuss the detailed biographies and work of Clement or any other head of the school. But it is necessary to outline their careers in relation to the development of the burgeoning institution of theological knowledge in the story of universal Christianity.
Clement’s role in this picture is unique in one sense. His thought was solidly based on liberal principles. As a theologian and Greek philosopher at one and the same time, he labored toward the reconciliation of the tenets of his youthful religion with ancient Greek learning, where he found no incompatibility between the biblical prophets and the Greek philosophers. He was at pains trying to prove that the Greeks plagiarized Moses and the Old Testament.
It is amazing how Clement sowed the seeds of Christian liberalism in the classes of the Catechetical School, when the church curia surrounding the imperious Pope Demetrius I was totally conservative in its outlook on matters of doctrine. In an age where Gnostic teachings were still rampant among Egyptian Christians, Clement, with all his traditional orthodoxy, displayed no outright hostility to the Gnostics.
Though technically he was not a Gnostic, in his classes he professed that illumination in religious knowledge was the true essence of Christian perfection. Like Socrates, Clement considered ignorance as worse than sin. On the whole, Clement may rightly be regarded as one of the earliest apostles of Christian liberalism in that patristic age.
It may be sufficient here to refer to the titles of Clement’s outstanding works composed during his tenure as president of the Catechetical School, leaving all analytical considerations thereof to his specific biography. Though most of his work appears to be lost, we are aware of his notable contributions including his Exhortation to the Heathen, an apologetic tractate; the Pedagogus (or Instructor) on Christian life and ethics; and the Stromata, which comprises a series of varied discourses hard to construe (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1956, pp. 165-568).
After Clement, the Catechetical School remained temporarily without a head, but it kept functioning with the momentum of its great master. Finally in 215 Pope Demetrius I decided to appoint as his successor the most illustrious of Clement’s pupils, ORIGEN. Under his aegis, the school appears to have reached the peak of its efflorescence.
Origen was born about 185 either in Alexandria or somewhere else in Egypt, and died an exile in Palestine around 253. His parents were ardent Christians. His mother could have been of Jewish extraction, a fact that may account for his proficiency in Hebrew. Theories about his mixed origin have been entertained, but if we believe Epiphanius of Salamis, one of his close contemporaries, Origen must be regarded as a Copt and a true son of Egypt. His very name, derived from the ancient Egyptian word Horus or Orus, should have some significance.
As a child, he had lived through the anguish of his father’s martyrdom for the Christian faith. As a young man, he was extremely ascetic by nature, observed the most rigorous vigils, and carried the word of the Gospel (Mt. 19:12) literally to the extent of mutilating himself, thus becoming a eunuch, a fact that contributed to his future troubles with Patriarch Demetrius I.
His education was enriched by the knowledge he readily absorbed from his learned master Clement. He also studied pagan philosophy and literature under Ammonius Saccas (175-242), the real founder of Neoplatonism, whose directive influence captivated Plotinus. He must have attended the lectures of Saccas with Plotinus at the Ptolemaic School of Alexandria.
He also traveled widely and became acquainted with most of the eminent scholars and prelates of his day. His wandering extended from Arabia and Syria to Greece and Rome, where he attended sermons by Saint Hippolytus. Origen was destined to become one of the world’s greatest exegetical scholars of all time; his productivity was enormous beyond reason. Epiphanius of Salamis states that his bibliography reached six thousand books and treatises. The analytical survey of Origen’s works is a tremendous task that belongs elsewhere. Nevertheless, a brief and panoramic reference to his accomplishments may help to reveal the stature of the school where these vast products were made.
As a biblical scholar and philosopher, his erudition was massive and his creativity colossal. There is hardly a single book in the Old and New Testaments on which he did not write a lengthy commentary. His amazing critical edition of the Old Testament, the Hexapla, combines in six parallel columns all the available texts in both Greek and Hebrew scripts. This he later produced in a compendium under the title of Tetrapla with four columns, omitting the Hebrew. These were the works used by Saint Jerome in Caesarea. His monumental exegetical commentaries entitled Scholia were partly put into Latin by Rufinus.
Only fragments of both have survived. Origen’s homilies are reputed to be among the most ancient specimens of Christian preaching. In the realm of theology, his most important work was De Principiis, in which he systematized the whole of the Christian doctrine in four books—on God and the celestial world, on man and matter, on free will and its impact, and on the scriptures.
Though the original of that ambitious project perished almost completely, its purpose has survived in rather inadequate Latin renderings by Rufinus and Saint Jerome. In a treatise called Contra Celsum, Origen defended Christianity from attacks by the second-century pagan philosopher Celsus.
He wrote a number of ascetic works, of which two have come down to us. The Exhortation to Martyrdom was composed in 235 during the persecution of Emperor Maximinus. His more extensive work On Prayer had a great appeal to the mind of the early Christians.
His troubles started again during his first visit to Palestine, when he was invited by the bishops of Aelia and Caesarea to preach in their dioceses. It was unthinkable in Alexandrine ecclesiastical discipline that a layman should preach in the presence of bishops. Demetrius was an authoritarian cleric, who was imperceptibly pushing patriarchal prerogative to the edge of a monarchical system unable to accept uncontrolled initiative, even if it came from so great a personality as Origen.
Demetrius recalled him to Alexandria around the year 218. For twelve years he sustained the gathering storm and buried himself in writing and teaching. The “winds of wickedness” were blowing hard against him, and synods started discussing his life and dissecting his thought. Finally, the hour of deliverance came when he fled back to Palestine in 230.
There he was honored and promptly ordained to the priesthood. It is said that he was even considered for the episcopate. As expected, this action provoked Demetrius, who hastened to nullify the ordination and excommunicate his unbending adversary, whom he also dismissed from the Catechetical School. Origen became an exile, and in 231 he settled in Caesarea, where a new school with more distinguished candidates arose around his person.
Some of his pupils, such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, bishop of Neocaesarea in Pontus, rose to key positions in the hierarchy. He arbitrated in doubtful cases of theology inside and outside Palestine. But the real glory of his calmer moments at Caesarea was the accomplishment of his immense literary work, whose solid basis had been laid at the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
During the Decian persecution of 250, however, the great master suffered tremendously but with fortitude. He was imprisoned and tortured. Though he survived the horrors of his ordeal and regained his freedom, his health began to decline, and he died at the city of Tyre in 253 at the age of sixty-nine.
Origen, like most universal thinkers and prolific writers, was a controversial figure both in his lifetime and after his death. The term Origenism was freely accepted in the realms of theology and philosophy as a formidable institution with a supporting school of Origenists and an equally ardent school of anti-Origenists.
It is impossible in these pages to embark on even the briefest analysis of Origenist theories about such subjects as the unity of God, its relation to the Trinity, the doctrine of SUBORDINATIONISM, his audacious theory about souls and their prenatal existence and destiny after death, and numerous other physical and metaphysical controversies of almost unfathomable depth. Suffice it to mention that many of the greatest names of his day and even afterward joined the fray for or against Origen. In his defense one may read Saint PAMPHILUS, Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, Saint BASIL THE GREAT, Saint GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, DIDYMUS THE
BLIND, and others. In the hostile camp are Saint Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, and both Saint Jerome and THEOPHILUS of Alexandria, who turned against Origen in later times. In the fifth century, church councils were convened solely to discuss Origen’s views. After a short lull, the Origenist controversy flared up again in the sixth century, and Origen was repeatedly condemned by two councils, held at Constantinople in 542 and 553, with the connivance of the Emperor Justinian himself.
Until the discord between Demetrius I and Origen, and the decision of the latter to quit Egypt for Caesarea in Palestine, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, though closely associated with the church, succeeded in retaining at least in theory, and to a considerable extent in practice, its academic freedom and independence. After Origen’s flight to Palestine and his dismissal from office at Alexandria, the school came under the direct control of patriarchal and church authority.
His immediate successor was HERACLAS, his former pupil and assistant who later followed Demetrius in the patriarchate from 231 to 247. One of his first acts was to lift his predecessor’s sentence of excommunication from Origen and to urge the great master to return to Alexandria, but in vain. His reign is of interest on another account.
It is said that when he increased the number of local bishops to twenty, the presbyters of the church decided to distinguish him from the rest of the bishops by calling him “Papa.” If this is true, then the first prelate in Christendom to bear the title of pope was Heraclas the Copt in the early part of the third century, long before it was known to Rome.
The next head of the school, another famous pupil of Origen, was DIONYSIUS of Alexandria, later surnamed the Great. He occupied that post until he became patriarch (247-264). His reign was full of troubles. In 250 the Decian persecution drove the patriarch into hiding, though he was once arrested but escaped. In 257 another persecution was conducted by the Emperor Valerian. The country was harassed from the south by barbarian tribes.
In Alexandria, Aemilianus, prefect of Egypt, declared himself emperor, and the civil war that broke out ended in his capture by the imperial general Theodotus, who sent the rebel in chains to Rome. The war, however, devastated the city and depleted the population. Plague was imminent and famine was at the door.
At the end of every persecution, Dionysius faced the problem of the apostates. But he was broad-minded enough to readmit them, and he forbade the rebaptism of returning heretics and schismatics. It is a wonder that he had time to compose a number of theological works, where he displayed an independent but rather controversial mind.
He was accused of tritheism by his namesake at Rome, was defended by Athanasius, and opposed by Basil. In regard to the Trinity, however, he himself rejected the heretical innovations of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch and wealthy procurator of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.
At a later date Athanasius entrusted Didymus the Blind with the headship of the Catechetical School in the early decades of the fourth century, a position he held until his death toward the end of that century. He lived during the tempestuous age of ARIANISM and the Council of NICAEA (315). Among his pupils were Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Jerome, and the historian Rufinus. He was a man of erudition, but his works are almost all lost. It is said that the treatise entitled Against Arius and Sabellius, preserved under Gregory of Nyssa’s name, was dictated by him.
It is interesting to know that he cared for the welfare of the blind—he had been blind since the age of four—by promoting for the first time in history a system of embossed or engraved writing for them. After Didymus, we enter the obscure period in the history of the school. It had done its share in shaping Christian doctrine and theological scholarship in those formative years. Then the zeal and knowledge began to fade, and with them a great institution.
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AZIZ S. ATIYA