The Catechetical School of Alexandria

By Fr. Matthew Attia – Parish Priest from St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, Kensington, Australia.

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 million of books and manuscripts in the days of Ptolemy I. That in addition to the “Serapeum” and the numerous Jewish schools which scattered everywhere.

In other words, Alexandria, the cosmopolitan city was chosen a home of learning, and a unique center of a brilliant intellectual life, where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish cultures were nourished and were giving rise to a new civilization. In such environment, there was no other alternative but to establish a center of a Christian institution to enable the Church to face the battle which waged by these powerful schools.

The Christian School

With the growth of faith in Egypt, St. Mark guided by the Holy Spirit and his sharp wit, recognized the need for establishing a theological school to explain and consolidate the Christian faith. The school was also planned to be counterpart to the idolatry school which was the center of the contemporary idolatry cultures and philosophies of the time such as Gnosticism, which was a great danger facing the Christian teachings. Gnosticism which means “knowledge” saw that no salvation is possible except by knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, it considered matter as something mean, made by an unrighteous god. They even distinguished between God as creator and as a sublime living being. Gnosticism considered human beings either spiritual or physical, and consequently, it refused Christ’s incarnation from the Virgin Mary claiming that “He seemed so as if He was bearing the weight of a body.”

For such reasons St. Mark established the Alexandria Theological School and handed over its management to St. Justus the Erudite. The school began teaching the people who wanted to be baptized whether they were Jews or Gentiles, in addition to Christians, in order to strengthen their faith in the Lord Jesus.

Its Development

The Christian school started as a Catechetical school, where candidates were admitted to learn the Christian faith and some biblical studies to be qualified for baptism. Admittance was open for all people regardless of their religion, culture, age or background.

By the second century, it became quite influential on the Church’s life as can be seen from the following: 1. It was able to satisfy the thirst of Alexandrian Christians to religious knowledge, encourage higher studies and create research work in a variety of fields. 2. It gave birth to numerous spiritual and well acquainted 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, one way or the other. 6. The school of Alexandria contributed to the world the first systematic theological studies. 7. Using philosophy as a weapon for maneuvering with pagan philosophers, it has thus beaten them in their own game.

Its Program

  1. It would be grave error to limit the school’s curriculum to theology. Its teaching was encyclopedic; presenting in the first place 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 schools program at that time, we may conclude that three courses were available: a. Special course to non-Christians, which introduces candidates to principals of Christianity. b. A course on Christian morals. c. An advanced course on Divine wisdom and the sufficient knowledge for the spiritual Christian.
  3. In this school, worship went side by side with study. Teachers and their students practiced prayer, 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 were also continent in earthly possessions.

Thus, the school opened its gates to all people with their different religions, cultures and social positions. The school also comprised the two sexes without any discrimination and it was characterized by the strong link between the theoretical studies and the life of faith and true Christian love. Teachers and students used to exercise praying and fasting to the extent that they ate only once a day at sunset. In this context the Christian historians as well as Philo, the Jew, said: “They were all ascetics, uninterested in the world with all its worthless wrecks, and they cared only about God. They were united in pure love, enjoying the peace of the heavenly spirits. Among them, there was no rich and poor, for the rich gave their money to the poor so that each of them would think of what makes one rich in God. Some of them fasted three or five running days, and their food and drink was only bread and water.”

On the other hand, the teachers of the school were known for their love of the life of chastity, their free choice of poverty and giving away all property. The relation between teachers and students was deep and most personal, not confined by buildings or places. Indeed, the teacher was the living school.

The School of Alexandria was the center of Christian teachings particularly the Holy Bible and the Christian doctrine, in addition to philosophy, logic, medicine, engineering and music. The lectures followed the question and answer technique, i.e., the technique of dialogue and discussion.

The Deans of the School of Alexandria

A quick glimpse at some of the names which directed the Christian school of Alexandria will be 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, Mecrius, Didymus the blind, etc. The teachers of the school aimed at purifying the Greek philosophy in conformity with the Christian thought. This gave them the ecumenical feature in addition to the alert intellectual openness on the East and West. Thus, their works were translated into other languages such as Latin and Syrian. As a result, the Alexandria school managed to fill the Christians with religious knowledge and urge them to study and to conduct scientific research.

Most of the school deans in the early centuries were ordained patriarchs to the See of Alexandria: Justus (6th Pope), Eumenius (7th Pope), Marchianus (8th Pope), Heraclas (13th Pope), Dionysius (14th Pope), Peter I (17th Pope) and Achilles (18th Pope). Popes were also selected from its graduates: Julian (11th Pope), Alexandros (19th Pope), Athanasius the Apostolic (20th Pope), Timotheos (22th Pope), Cyril I the Great (24th Pope) and Dioscorus (25th Pope). This was, in fact, the secret behind the power of the Church of Alexandria in the first five centuries; it was the secret behind the reputation of her Popes, for they were the guardians of Orthodoxy; their erudition made them “Universal Teachers” whose words were the final arbitration. In the present time the ex-Bishop of education and director of the clerical school was chosen to be “Pope Shenouda III” (117th Pope).

  1. Athenaghoras

He was born in Athens and lived in Alexandria. He was one of the leaders of the idolatry religion and a supporter of the modernized Platonic Philosophy. Athenaghoras, the head of the Alexandrian Academy was eager 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. He became a Christian around the year 176 A.D. and became known as Athenaghoras the defender and advocate. The Christians entrusted him with the teaching in the School of Alexandria while he continued to wear the philosopher’s pallium. He became one of the greatest philosophers and teachers of the school. It is note-worthy that he became the school dean later and wrote defending the Christians, and sent his writings to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) and his son Commodus. The church calls him Athenaghoras the Christian philosopher.

  1. Pantaneus

Pantaenus an Alexandrian native Stoic philosopher who believed in Christ and was tutored by the Christian philosopher Athenaghoras. He later became the dean of the Theological School in 181 A.D. during the patriarchate of Pope Julian (11th Pope). He was the first to introduce philosophy and sciences into the School to gain the heretics and educated pagans. This attitude was introduced by Pantaenus, developed by his disciple St. Clement of Alexandria and lastly well arranged by Origen. In the year 190 A.D., Pope Demetrius I (12th Pope) sent him to India at the request of its people to teach the Christian faith. There, he preached the word of salvation. He also found a version of St. Matthew’s Gospel, in his own hand writing, which was brought to India by St. Barltholomew when he preached there. On his way back he went to Ethiopia, Yemen and Arabia.

St. Pantaenus felt the dire need of the church for translating the Holy Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the Egyptian language, so that it could be used in Egyptian churches and homes. Thus, he devoted himself to studying the Egyptian language used at the time. It was a mixture of the Hieroglyphic, Ugaritic and Edomite languages. He found that such a language could not give an adequate translation of the Holy Bible, so he adopted the Greek letters for writing the Coptic language and added to them seven Hieroglyphic letters (ancient Demotic letters) that did not exist in the Greek alphabet. With his students, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, he was able to translate the Holy Bible. Scholars give a special interest to this translation being on equal footing with the original Greek text. Ever since, the Coptic language came into use and the Greek language was abandoned. St. Pantaenus had left us interpretations to all the books of the Bible, besides many works of Christian literature, before he died about the year 193 A.D. Pantaenus was not only a teacher, but also “a helper to many people” closely identified with flock, who called him, “Our Pantaenus”.

  1. St. Clement of Alexandria

Titus Flavius Clement was born in the year 150 A.D. of pagan parents. Nothing is known about the date, circumstances and the motives of his conversion, but it was known that he made extensive travels to Southern Italy, Syria and Palestine. His purpose was to seek instructions from the most famous Christian teachers. In the end, his Journeys brought him to Alexandria where Pantaenus’ lectures had such attractions for him that he settled there and made this city his second home. He became Christian and was known as Clement of Alexandria to be distinguished from Clement of Rome, the Bishop of Rome. When Pantaenus traveled to India, Clement was entrusted with the Theological School by the year 190 A.D. When St. Pantaenus died, St. Clement became the dean of the school. Among his pupils were Origen and Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem.

St. Clement was a scientist and a philosopher and he managed to harmonize between Greek philosophy and Christian teachings to the extent that he was considered the father of the Christian philosophy of Alexandria. For, in his estimation, philosophy was not work of darkness, but in each of its forms a ray of light coming from the Logos. The aim of all philosophers was also the aim of Christianity, i.e., a nobler life. The difference was that while the ancient philosophers were unable to get more than glimpses of the truth, it was left to Christianity to make known in Christ the perfect truth. Thus, he believed that the church must not discourage the catechumens from the pursuit of Greek learning, but rather that she can christianize the pagan world through its education and culture!

Amongst his most famous Books are Pieces Of Advice To The Greeks, The Educator, and Varieties. This trilogy gives reliable information regarding his theological system. He believes that God’s plan for our salvation takes three steps; firstly, the Logos invites mankind to abandon paganism through Faith, then reforms their lives by moral precepts. Finally He elevates those who have undergone this moral purification to the perfect knowledge of divine things. In other words, the work of Christ is considered an invitation to abandon idolatry, redemption from sin and finally redemption from error. The school concentrated its program in the same three steps (conversion of pagans to Christianity, practicing the moral precepts, instructing Christians to attain perfect knowledge of doctrines).

When Emperor Septimius Severus started a wide-spread persecution around the year 202 A.D., St. Clement escaped to Palestine and his escape was arranged by the Holy Spirit, so that he might be useful to the church and support the believers there. He died some time between the years 211-216 A.D. and was succeeded by Origen who became dean of the Alexandria school.

  1. Origen the Scholar

The School of Alexandria reached its greatest importance under St. Clement’s successor, Origen the outstanding teacher and scholar, a man of spotless character, encyclopedic learning, and one of the most original thinkers the world has ever seen. He bore the surname “Adamantios” (Man of Steel) to point the irresistible force of his argument as well as to his own diligence.

Origen, a true Son of Egypt, was born in Alexandria in 185 A.D. of pious parents. He grew in grace and knowledge, and became a genius in science despite his early age. He was famous for supporting and encouraging believers to abide by their faith, even if that meant martyrdom. After his father’s martyrdom, he maintained himself and his family by teaching secular literature and grammar. When he was eighteen, Pope Demetrius (12th Pope) appointed him dean of the Alexandria Theological School following Clement of Alexandria. He gave it much care, spending the days teaching and the nights studying. Origen loved the life of asceticism and renounced everything else to the extent that he sold his own beloved library to devote himself exclusively to his new duties as a catechist.

He was most careful about his chastity and virtue. Many people became his students including Heraclas (13th Pope), Alexandros the Bishop of Jerusalem and St. Gregory the Wonder-worker. He gave due care to the preparation of the catechumen for baptism by studying philosophy and theology. He preserved in the most philosophical manner of life, at one time discipling himself by fasting, at another measuring out the time for sleep, which he was careful to take, never on a-couch, but on the floor. Eusebius tells us that Origen spent the greater part of his nights in studying the Holy Scripture. It was the center of his life, the well-spring of his personal religious life and the instrument for striving after perfection. He meticulously studied the text, and in order to fit himself for this task he learned Hebrew, and made a collection of current versions of the Old Testament and composed his “Hexapla”. Origen says that we must pray for we are often beside the wells of running water – God’s Scripture – and we yet fail to recognize them by ourselves.

Origen made several trips to Rome, Arabia, Palestine, Antioch and Greece. In Palestine he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of Caesarea. This event aroused the anger of Pope Demetrius I (12th Pope) and troubles began until he was sent away from Alexandria. Origen’s self-mutilation was against his ordination. Moreover, mistakes in his writings were declared. He was excommunicated, his ministry was renounced and he was considered unfit for teaching. Origen bore this experience in silence and sobriety defending himself and his writings. He settled down in Caesarea of Palestine, where its Bishop urged him to establish a theological school which he headed for twenty years. There he taught St. Gregory the Wonder-worker for five years.

During the persecution launched by Emperor Decius (249-251 A.D.), he was arrested and severely tormented. An iron hoop was circled around him and he was tied to a trailer. He endured all these pains bravely and died after a short time from his wounds. That was in the year 254 A.D., at the age of 69 in the town of Tyre. Pope Dionysius (14th Pope) had sent him a letter about martyrdom in which he encouraged him to bear his sufferings and expressed his sympathy which lead to a renewal of Origen’s old relation with the Alexandrian Church. Among his most important works are The Book Of Principles, The Hexapla, Varieties, The Answer To Celsus, The Interpretation Of The Holy Bible, The Resurrection, Prayer and The Principalities.

  1. Pope Heraclas

Heraclas is one of the most remarkable of Origen’s pupils. He had, five years before Origen, studied the New-Platonic philosophy. Heraclas, who devoted all his time to Philosophy was gained by Origen to attend the School of Alexandria. At first he was a pupil to Origen, then assistant and finally successor to him after his flight to Palestine. St. Demetrius (12th Pope) who discovered Heraclas’ spiritual abilities to preach, catechize and guide the believers, ordained him a priest then protopriest, giving him a permission to preach in the Cathedral. He converted many pagans to Christianity and showed great love towards the believers. In 224 A.D. he was elected as a 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 so much, decided to distinguish him from the rest of the Bishops by calling him in the Coptic Papa or Pope, which means “Father”. Thus, the first prelate in Christendom to bear this title was Heraclas (13th Pope) many long centuries before it was known to Rome. It is said that Pope Heraclas urged the Great master Origen to return to Alexandria, but he refused, giving an excuse that the School of Alexandria was already established while that of Caesarea was in need of his care.

  1. St. Dionysius the Great

St. Athanasius calls St. Dionysius “the Teacher of the Universal Church”. He is also called “the Great”, because of his courage and steadfastness in the struggle and troubles of his life, and his zealous activity in church affairs not only which belonged to his See but that which belonged to other Bishoprics. Dionysius who was born at Alexandria (c. A.D. 190) of pagan parents was a worshipper of stars and a successful physician. It was his wide reading that led him to embrace the Christian faith, for once he bought some papers of the Epistles of St. Paul from a Christian old woman. After reading them he hurried to her asking for much 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).

In 247 A.D. he was elected as the Pope of Alexandria, and had the difficult task of preserving his church in the midst of Decian persecution (250 A.D.) He was arrested and put in prison with some deacons. One of them, Timothy, fled from the soldiers and met in the street a Christian going to a wedding and told him about the Pope’s imprisonment. All the people who were in the feast hurried to the prison making a very loud noise. The soldiers fled in tremble, leaving the gates opened, while the Pope was sleeping. He refused to leave the prison but his people insisted to carry him from his hands and legs to his home.

In 257 A.D. another persecution began and he was exiled to Libya. There, he managed to hold meetings and convert pagans. After his restoration, new troubles occurred, for the country was harassed from the south by barbarian tribes. In Alexandria Aemilianus, prefect of Egypt, declared himself emperor, and civil war broke out. The war devastated the city and depleted the population. Plague was imminent and famine at the door. At the end of every persecution, St. Dionysius was faced with the problem of the apostates. He readmitted them and he moreover forbade the rebaptism of returned heretics or schismatics. St. Dionysius was an important churchman, whose influence reached far beyond the borders of his own diocese. He mediated in the heated dispute over heretical baptism between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome. To Cyprian the baptism of the heretics and schismatics is invalid, for they are outside the Church and no salvation can be found outside the church. The Penitent, in fact, was not rebaptized but baptized for the first time. Stephen, Bishop of Rome, was of a contrary opinion and excommunicated those who did not agree with him. St. Dionysius, who shared Stephen’s views but, not his temper tried to mediate. It is worthy to note that St. Cyprian’s view was accepted afterwards in the whole Church in the East and West.

St. Dionysius was much involved in combating heresies not only which arose in Egypt but also everywhere in the Universal Church of his days, such as that of Nepos Bishop of Arsinoe (in Fayoum), Sabelius Bishop of Ptolmais (the five western countries), Paul of Samosate and Novatius who was ordained illegally as the Bishop of Rome. Eusebius mentions the Paschal letters written every year by St. Dionysius in which he announces the date of Easter and the beginning of Lent. These letters took the form of pastoral letters exhorting the congregation to observe the Lenten and Easter season spiritually. He also took the occasion to discuss important church questions of the time.

  1. St. Didymus the Blind

Didymus was born about the year 313 A.D.; he bad lost his sight at the age of four. He had never learned to read in a school, but through his eagerness for education he invented the engraved writing to read with his fingers, fifteen centuries before Braille used it. He also used to learn by heart the Holy Bible and the church doctrines. Moreover, he was skilled in rhetoric, philosophy, logic, mathematics and music. He lived almost a hermit’s life. St. Anthony the Great, his friend, visited him several times. Pope Athanasius the Apostolic (20th Pope) appointed him dean of the theological school around the year 340 A.D., as a successor to its dean Macarius after his death. Among his pupils were St. Gregory the Nazianzen, St. Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius. He was one of the famous interpreters of the Bible and wrote about the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity against the heresies. He was a defender of Origen the Erudite. He died around the year 391 A.D. at the age of 83.

The New Theological School at Alexandria

It is worth mentioning that there were some scholars devoted to the study of the books of the School of Alexandria, such as: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom (Golden Mouth). As the school was a great support to the Pope on the See of St. Mark as well as a source of confidence, wisdom and sound judgment, the church was strong and flourishing to the extent that all the churches, East and West, followed it in spirit and thought, scientifically but not administratively. When the school deteriorated and was moved from Egypt to Sidon in Pamphelia during the era of dean Rodon, and then completely collapsed with the great split during the year 451 A.D., following the Chalcedonian council, and the curtain fell over the greatest and most sublime theological, scientific and cultural school in the history of humanity, and the Coptic Church lost much of its earlier position.

Pope Cyril IV (110th Pope), however, known as the Father of Reform (1853-1861) thought of establishing a theological school similar to that of Alexandria, but he passed away before materializing his wish. Yet, Pope Cyril V (112th Pope) (1874-1927) realized this hope, and the school was reopened on November 29, 1893, and late Youssef Macarius was its dean followed by the late Archdeacon Habib Guirgis who was succeeded by the late Fr. Ibrahim Attia.

When Pope Cyril VI (116th Pope) (1959-1971) succeeded on the See of St. Mark, he gave due care to the clerical school and founded the new Pope Cyril VI Theological School during the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the death of Pope Cyril IV. Then he took a greater step when he ordained the Bishop of education (now H.H. Pope Shenouda) on September 30, 1962, to be in charge of the clerical school and the ecclesiastical education, with his wise scientific and spiritual management. Moreover, His Holiness ordained H.G. Bishop Gregory, Bishop of scientific research and Coptic culture on May 15, 1987, so as to enhance the scientific approach in the church.

When H.H. Pope Shenouda III (117th Pope) became the patriarch of the see of Alexandria on November 14, 1971, he gave a strong push to the ecclesiastical education by establishing several clerical schools in Alexandria, Delta (Tanta and Shebin El-Koum) and Upper Egypt (the city of al Muharraq Monastery in Assiut, and Beliena). He also established specialized institutes such as the Holy Bible Institute and the Guardianship Institute. At present, he is about to establish clerical schools in the USA for the Coptic churches there. Besides, he has his own weekly meeting with his people in which he teaches them and enlightens their lives with his spiritual culture and knowledge. In this way, he has restored the image of the teacher patriarch who is keen to preserve the ecclesiastical education and purify it from all impurities.



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