THE SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA1
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
Long before the establishment of Christianity in
Alexandria, this city was famous for its various schools. By
far, the largest school of all was the "Museum," which was
founded by Ptolemy and became the most famous school in
the East. Its huge library contained between two hundred
thousands and half a million books and manuscripts in the
days of Ptolemy I, in addition to the "Serapeum" and the
numerous Jewish schools which were scattered everywhere.
In other words, Alexandria, the cosmopolitan city was
chosen as a home of learning2, and a "unique center of a
brilliant intellectual life3, where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish
cultures were nourished and gave rise to a new civilization.
In such an environment, there was no other alternative but
to establish a Christian Institution center4 to enable the
church to face the battle fought by those powerful schools.
THE CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
St. Jerome records that the Christian School of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark himself5. He was inspired by the Holy Spirit to establish it for teaching Christianity as the only way to give the new religion a firm foundation in the city6.
This school became the oldest center for sacred sciences
in the history of Christianity7. 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 exegesis was to discover
everywhere the spiritual sense underlying the written word of
The Christian school started as a Catechetical School,
where candidates were admitted to learn the Christian faith
and some Biblical studies to qualify for baptism. Admittance
was open for all people regardless of their culture, age or
By the second century it became quite influential in the life of the church as can be seen from the following:
1. It was able to quench the thirst of Alexandrian
Christians for religious knowledge, to encourage higher
studies and to create research work in a variety of fields.
2. It gave birth to numerous spiritual and well-known church leaders along the years. Many of them deserved to sit on the throne of St. Mark.
3. Through its missionary zeal, it was able to win more 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 churches.
5. It established common awareness of the importance of
education as a basic element in the religious structure.
Consequently every church in Egypt benefited from it in one
way or another.
6. It contributed to the world the first systematic theological studies.
7. It used philosophy as a weapon for maneuvering pagan philosophers, thus beating them at their own game9.
1. It would be a grave error to limit the school's activity
to theology10. Its teaching was encyclopedic; presenting at
first the whole series of profane sciences, and then rising to
moral and religious philosophy, and finally to Christian
theology, set forth in the form of a commentary on the
sacred books. This encyclopedic conception of teaching was
an Alexandrian tradition, and it was also found in its pagan
and Jewish schools.
2. From St. Clement's trilogy, (his three books), which broadly outline the school's program at that time we may conclude that three courses were available:
a. A special course to non-Christians, which introduced candidates to the principles of Christianity.
b. A course on Christian morals.
c. An advanced course on Divine wisdom and sufficient knowledge for the spiritual Christian.
3. In this school; worship went side by side with study11.
Teachers and their students practised praying, fasting and
diverse ways of asceticism. In purity and integrity their lives
were exemplary. Celibacy was a recommended ideal,
observed by many... In addition to continence in food and
drink, they also continent in earthly possessions12.
A quick glimpse at some of the names which headed the
Christian school of Alexandria is a self-evidence of the
history of the school and its rank among similar institutions.
Among these names are Athenaghoras, Pantaenus, Clement,
Origen, Heraclas, Alexander, Dionysius, Pierius,
Theognostes, Peter, Macarius, Didymius the blind... as well
as Athanasius the Apostolic, Cyril of Alexandria, Dioscorus
He was anxious to write against
Christianity. He read the Holy Scriptures in order to aim his
shafts of criticism more accurately, but he was so powerfully
seized by the Holy Spirit that he became a defender of the
faith he was harassing. Not only was he converted to
Christianity (c. 176 A.D), but he also became one of the
most famous deans of the Christian Theological School13,
while he continued to wear the philosopher's gallium. He
wrote a plea (37 chs.) on behalf of Christianity about (A.D
177), addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son co-
ruler commodes. He also wrote a treatise "on the
Resurrection of the dead" in 25 chapters.
He was a well-known stoic who
embraced Christianity at the hands of Athenaghoras. In (A.D
181) he succeeded his teacher as the dean of the Theological
(Catechetical) School. To him was attributed the
introduction of philosophy and sciences into the school to
gain the educated pagans. He introduced the Coptic Alpha-
bet, by using the letters and adding seven letters from the
ancient Demotic letters. The Holy Bible was translated to the
Coptic language under his guidance, assisted by his disciples,
Clement and Origen. Most of our Christian literature was
translated into this language as the last phase in the evolution
of the ancient Egyptian language. In 190 A.D, Pope
Demetrius elected him for the Christian mission to preach in
India. In his journey he brought the Gospel of St. Matthew
written by his own hand in Hebrew, brought by
Bartholomew the Apostle14. He explained all the books of
the Holy Bible.
3. ST. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA:
He was the father
of the Christian philosophy of Alexandria15, and was well
versed in the Holy Scripture. He was born around the year
A.D 150, and he was searching unceasingly for God. After
converting to Christianity he made extensive travels to
Southern Italy, Syria, and Palestine. His purpose was to seek
instruction from the most famous Christian teachers. At the
end of his journeys he reached Alexandria where Pantaenus'
lecture had such attraction to him that he settled there and
made this city his second home. He became the pupil, and
assistant of Pantaenus. He was ordained a priest in
Alexandria, discharged his catechetical duties with great
distinction and succeeded Pantaenus as head of the School
before (A.D 190). Among his pupils were Origen and
Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem.
In the time of severe persecution by Septimius Severus about (A.D 202), he was forced to leave Alexandria and took refuge (probably in Palestine and Syria). In (A.D 215), he died without seeing Egypt again.
St. Clement is the first Christian writer who brought
Christian doctrine face to face with the ideas and
achievements of the time. He believed that the very
constitution of the Church and Holy Scriptures was not
incompatible with Greek philosophy. He believed that there
is no enmity between Christianity and Philosophy. The
difference was this; while the ancient philosophers had been
unable to get more than glimpses of the truth, it was left to
Christianity to make known in Christ the perfect truth.
The chief work of St. Clement is the trilogy, which consists of:
1. The Exhortation to the Greeks (Protrepticus).
2. The Tutor (Paedagogus).
3. The Stromata, Carpets or Miscellaneous studies.
In the first he urges the pagans to accept the Christian
faith, in the second he calls for joining Christian life under
the guidance of its Teacher (Christ), and in the third he
reveals the need for knowledge (gnosis).He also wrote:
"Who is the rich that can be saved?," the "Hypotyposes"
(Outlines), a Paschal letter and other works which are lost.
J. Quasten states, "The School of Alexandria
reached its greatest importance under St. Clement's
successor, Origen16, the outstanding teacher and scholar of
the early church, ...a man of encyclopedic learning, and one
of the most original thinkers the world has ever seen17." The
Coptic Church was compelled to excommunicate him
because of some faulty ideas that he adopted, like the sal-
vation of the devil, and the universal salvation of all human
race, besides his acceptance of priesthood after making
himself eunuch. After his death, other churches
excommunicated him and his followers in the Council of Constantinople in (A.D 553).
Origen, a true son of Egypt, was born probably in Alexandria, in or about (A.D 185). His father Leonides was very careful to bring him up in the knowledge of the sacred Scriptures. His father was arrested and thrown into prison. Origen ardently desired to attain the Martyr's crown, and when he was prevented by his mother, he strongly urged his father to accept martyrdom by writing to him "Do not dream of changing your mind for our sake."
Leonides was beheaded and his goods were confiscated.
Origen's refuge was with a noble lady of Alexandria, who
helped him for a while, but he could not feel comfortable
there, because a heretic teacher, called "Paul of Antioch,"
had so captured this simple lady by his eloquence that she
harbored him as her philosopher and adopted son, and
allowed him to propagate his heresy by means of lectures,
held in her house. Origen felt no comfort, left the house and
supported himself and his family by teaching secular
literature and grammar.
Through his teaching to pagans, Origen often had
occasions to refer to the theological position of pagan
writers. As a result, some pagans approached him for
instruction in Christianity, and were later even martyred.
During the persecution St. Clement left Alexandria, and
Origen was appointed as the dean of the School when he was
eighteen years old. He devoted himself to studying the Holy
Bible and its allegoric interpretation in an ascetic spirit.
Because of the presence of women at his lectures he
He journeyed to many countries, to Rome in (A.D 212),
to Arabia in 214 and 244, and to Palestine in 216 where he
interpreted the Bible before the bishops of Jerusalem and
Caesarea, which angered Pope Demetrius for according to
the Alexandrian tradition layman should not deliver sermons
in the presence of a bishop. He also went to Antioch to meet
Mamaea, the Emperor's mother, and to Greece for church
affairs, and on his return he went to Palestine where the
bishop of Caesarea ordained him a priest so that he could
teach in the presence of bishops. Pope Demetrius was
angered again for Origen's acceptance of ordination from a
bishop other than himself, and considered this ordination in-
valid, especially because Origen was eunuch. A council was
held in Alexandria and Origen was exiled. A bishop of
Caesarea embraced him and asked him to establish a new
school in Caesarea.
During the persecution initiated by Maximian, Origen took refuge in Cappadocian Caesarea, then returned to Palestine. During the Reign of Decius (A.D 249-251) he was arrested, bore many sufferings and died shortly afterwards perhaps because of these sufferings.
His main writings are: The Hexapala (or six-fold Bible),
arranged in six parallel columns from Hebrew and Greek
texts; his exegetical works that range over nearly the entire
field of Scripture; his dogmatic writings like "De Principiis,"
"Discussion with Heraclides" and "on the Resurrection;" his
apologetic works like his "Contra Celsus" and his practical
works as "On prayer," "Exhortation to Martyrdom," "On
Easter" and his letters.
He is one of the most remarkable of
Origen's disciples. Even before that Origen had, studied the
New Platonic philosophy under Ammonius Saccas. At first he was a pupil to Origen, then his assistant and finally successor to him after his flight to Palestine.
On the other hand, St. Demetrius who discovered
Heraclas' spiritual abilities to preach, catechize and guide the
believers, ordained him a priest then protopriest, giving him
permission to preach in the Cathedral. He converted many
pagans to Christianity and showed great love towards the
believers. In A.D 224 he was elected as successor to St.
Demetrius. As his people suffered persecution he visited the
cities and countries throughout Egypt, strengthening them.
On his visits, he ordained about twenty bishops to take care
of God's people. The people and the presbyters of Egypt
who loved him, decided to distinguish him from the rest of
the bishops by calling him, in Coptic, Papa or Pope, which
means "Father." Thus, the first prelate in Christendom to
bear this title was Heraclas before it was used in Rome.
It is said that Pope Heraclas urged the great master
Origen to return to Alexandria18, but he refused, giving an
excuse that the School of Alexandria was already established
while that of Caesarea was in need of his care19. Through
his virtuous life, St. Heraclas not only converted Egyptian
pagans but some foreigners also, like Julius Africanus20.
6. ST. DIONYSIUS OF ALEXANDRIA:
called St. Dionysius "the Teacher of the Universal
Church21." Dionysius who was born in Alexandria (c. A.D
190) of pagan parents, was a worshiper of stars and a
successful physician. It was his wide reading that led him to
embrace the Christian faith. Once he bought some papers of
the Epistles of St. Paul from an old Christian woman. After
reading them he hurried to her asking for more. She led him
to the church and introduced him to the priest. Dionysius
embraced Christianity and attended the Christian School. At
first he became one of Origen's pupils then he succeeded
Heraclas as the Head of the School for about sixteen years
(231-246). He became one of the brightest stars of this
school22. He was ordained a deacon by Pope Demetrius, and
a priest by Pope Heraclas.
In A.D 247 St. Dionysius was elected as the Pope of Alexandria, and had the difficult task of preserving his church in the midst of persecution. His reign, in fact, was full of troubles, such as:
1. In AD 250 the Decian persecution was raged; he waited for four days in his home while the secret-service agent dispatched by the prefect searched everywhere for him. At last he fled, but the soldiers arrested him. The people hurried to the prison while he was sleeping there. And insisted to carry him, to his home.
2. In AD 257 another persecution was conducted by the
Emperor Valerian and he was exiled to Libya. In his exile he
managed not only to hold meetings and convert many of the
heathen but also to exert influence on his church in
Alexandria so as to keep services going there as well.
In Alexandria, Aemilianus, prefect of Egypt, declared
himself emperor, and civil war broke out which 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.
Because of his church position, education and wisdom he
was much involved in combating heresies not only which
arose in Egypt but also everywhere in the Universal Church
of his days, such as the Schism of Novatius who was
ordained illegally bishop of Rome, the heresies of Nepos,
bishop of Arsinoe (in Fayoum), Sabelius bishop of Ptolmais
(the Five Western countries), Paul of Samosate, and the
dispute over baptism by heretics between Stephen of Rome
and Cyprian of Carthage.
Concerning his writings Neale states that the absence of these writings is one of the greatest losses that befell in the church throughout history23.
7. THEOGNOSTES: He was an Alexandrian priest and theologian, about whom little is known, save through quotations in the writings of Photius, Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa.
8. FR. PIERIUS: He was an educated, eminent exegete and preacher. St. Jerome called him "Origen Junior." He published many treatises on all sorts of subjects, such as "On the Prophet Hosea," "On the Gospel according to St. Luke," "On the Mother of God," "On the life of St. Pamphilus " and twelve "Logio" (concerning the logos).
9. ST. PETER THE LAST MARTYR24:
He was born in
answer to his mother's prayers, who pleaded in tears that
God might grant her a son to serve Him all his life. He was
ordained a "reader" (Agnostos) at the age of seven, a deacon
at the age of twelve, and a priest at the age of sixteen years.
It is said that many times he saw the hands of the Son of God
giving the communion to the believers through the hand of
Pope Theona. He was dedicated so much to Bible studies that he was qualified to be the head of the school of Alexandria, and deserved to be called: "The Excellent Doctor" in Christianity.
He interpreted the whole Bible; the Old and New Testaments word by word; and wrote many treatises on "The Trinity," "The Holy Spirit," "Against the Manichaeans," "Philosophy," "Incarnations" etc.
While he was a priest he conquered Sabellius, bishop of Ptolemais, who denied the Holy Trinity, considering them as three modes of God self-manifestation.
During the persecution of Diocletian and Maximianus, in
AD 302, he was ordained a Pope of Alexandria. Meletius,
bishop of Lycopolis (Assiut) made a schism in the church
and ordained bishops and priests (outside his parish).
He ordained Arius a deacon then a priest in Alexandria,
and when he noticed in his sermons that he denied the
Godhead of Christ and his equality to the Father he
excommunicated Arius. when the Pope was prisoned. he
warned his disciples - Achillaus and Alexander - to take heed
of Arius, for he had seen Christ in a vision with a torn
garment; and when he asked Christ about the case He
answered that Arius did tear His garment. A large crowd
surrounded the prison to save their pope, in AD 311. In
order to avoid any blood shedding, he sent secretly to the
commander to plan for his martyrdom without killing his
He wrote many theological treatises and letters which contain his canons, especially that which deals with those who denied faith through persecution.
10. ST. DIDYMUS THE BLIND:
He was born about the
year A.D 313; He had lost his sight at the age of four. He
had never learned to read in school, but through his
eagerness for education he invented the engraved writing for
reading with his fingers, fifteen centuries before Braille
reinvented it. He also used to learn by heart the Holy Bible
and the church doctrines. He excelled in grammar,
philosophy, logic, mathematics and music. He became
popular everywhere. After Macarius's death he became the
head of the School of Alexandria. Among his disciples were
SS. Gregory of Nazianzen, Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius.
He was a close friend to St. Anthony. The latter visited him
several times and Palladius paid him four visits. He defended
Oregin and conquered the Arians in his dispute with them.
Now, I shall leave the writing about some Fathers of the
Alexandrian School, such as SS. Athanasius, Cyril the Great
and Dioscorus, to the next chapters which deal with the
Ecumenical Councils and the controversy about the nature of
Jesus Christ etc.
1. FR. T. Malaty: The Coptic Church Melbourne 1978, p. 26f.
2. H. Gwatkin: Early Church History, London 1909, vol. 2, p.155.
3. Quasten: Patrology, vol. 2, p.1.
4. Lebreton J.: Hist. of the Primitive Church, London 1949, vol. 3, p.731.
5. De Viris Illustribus 36.
6. Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate: St. Mark and the Coptic Church, 1968, p.61.
7. Quasten: Patrology, vol. 2.
8. Nelson: A New Catholic Comm. on the Holy Scripture, 1969, p.15.
9. Douglas: Dict. of the Christian Church p. 26.
10. Atiya: Hist. of Eastern Church, p.33; Mourad Kamel: Coptic Church, p. 36.
11. J. Lebreton, p. 732.
12. Coptic Patr.: St. Mark, p. 63.
13. W. Schoedel: Athenagoras, Oxford 1972, p .IX.
14. Tolinton: Clem. of Ales., London 1914, vol. 1, p.14.
15. Schaff Hist. of Christian Church, Vol. 2, p.782.
16. "Oregano" means "son of or (Horus) the Egyptian sun-god.
17. Quasten vol. 2, p.37.
18. Farrington: Early Christian Church, vol. 2, p.463.
19. W. Budge: Ethiopian Synixarium, vol. 2, p.337-8.
20. Paul d' Orleans: Les Saints d'Egypte, 1923, t2, p.197.
21. De Seyt. Dion. 6.
22. F.W. Farrar: Lives of the fathers, London 1970, vol. 1, p.343.
23. Holy Eastern Church, vol. 1, p.84.
24. Fr. Malaty: Pope Peter 1, Melbourne, 1975.