A History of Christianity in Egypt - The Theologians

A History of Christianity in Egypt
The Theologians

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Egypt to early Christianity was the Catechetical School of Alexandria, called the Didascalia. The oldest school of Christian religion in the world, it was founded around AD 190 by the scholar Pantaenus, who became its first dean. It soon proved itself to be the most important institution of religious learning at the time. Alexandria had always been on the forefront of great thought, and with the Didascalia, it had moved into the sphere of religious thinking. Many bishops of the Christian Church, both in Egypt and abroad, were educated at the Didascalia under such great theologians as Clement, Origen (called the "Father of Theology"), Didymus the Blind, and Athenagoras. Even Saint Jerome, the man who translated the Bible into Latin, visited the school to exchange ideas and converse and debate with the great Christian scholars of his time. The Didascalia gave Christian thinkers the opportunity to discuss and interpret their beliefs amongst the philosophical and intellectual environment of Alexandria.

But the school was not limited simply to the study of Christianity, nor was it limited to Christians. Science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine were only a few of the subjects taught. Additionally, many Greek and Roman students and scholars, who held to their own religions, attended the school. The Didascalia was open to everyone who wanted to learn. Catechumens (followers of Christianity who had not yet been baptized) studied alongside members of the clergy and students of Greek philosophy. Even blind students were able to attend and learn, thanks to a raised-alphabet system using carved wood, fifteen centuries before Braille.

According to tradition, Saint Mark founded the original Christian school as a tool for instructing new converts, and it was this school that Pantaenus expanded on to create his Didascalia. Immediately the school established itself as a powerhouse of theological studies. Under the supervision of Pantaenus and his assistant Clement (who would later succeed him as dean), the New Testament was translated from Aramaic and Greek into Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians. Classes were taught in Greek and Coptic so that anyone who wanted to could learn how to read, opening up the scriptures to all Christians in the area. The effectiveness and fame of the Didascalia is apparent in the fact that many of its faculty and finest students also became Popes of the Egyptian Church.

For centuries the Didascalia was the seat of Christian learning. After the Council of Chalcedon the Emperors of Constantinople, as part of their persecution against the Egyptian Christians, or Copts, ordered the closing of the school and carried away most of the books. Rather than let this put a damper on their learning, the Coptic Church simply transferred its school to the Monastery of St. Macarius in the Wadi el-Natroun desert. This was yet another persecution weathered by the school and the Christians of Egypt, having survived through those of the Roman emperors Septimus, Decius, Diocletian, and many others.

One of the greatest members of the school was Clement, who succeeded Pantaenus as dean. Clement is most famous for his Trilogy, a lengthy three-volume work in the style of similar works issued by the Greek philosophers. The first volume, the Protreptikos (Exhortation), was an invitation to conversion; the second was the Paidagogos (Tutor), a manual of Christian ethics and morals; and the third volume, the Stromateis (Miscellanies), was a long and rambling work on just about every subject Clement could think of. Clement's whole thought was that Christian theology and Greek philosophy could be combined and reconciled to yield a method of scholarship unmatched by the rest of the world. His ability to refute his critics with quotations and allusions to the classic poets and philosophers made him a powerful force for intellectual Christianity, as many of the non-Christians of his day saw Christians as a largely uncultured and unintelligent group. Clement's writings also helped new converts feel at home in their new religion by showing that one could be learned and intelligent and be a Christian at the same time, a factor important at a time when the intellectual elite were all throughout Alexandria.

Another great Egyptian theologian was Origen, Clement's successor. While Clement had been a convert, Origen was born into Christianity, the son of devout Christian parents. The death of his father in 203 during one of the many persecutions gave him a bitter hatred of the established state religions, which combined with a rare talent for philosophical debate and a thorough knowledge of his theology to create an intellectual force unmatched by his peers. He is also said to have had a eidetic memory, and so was able to quote at length from scriptures, from the works of the philosophers, and from the classics when constructing his arguments. After the death of his father, he was taken in by a rich Christian woman, an arrangement he liked not in the least, as she harbored Gnostic beliefs that Origen was adamantly against. Shortly after he left the house and set up his own school and began to lecture on Christianity as well as on philosophy, like Clement, he was able to combine the two. An anti-Christian riot in 215 forced him to leave Egypt and take refuge in Palestine, but Demetrius, Pope of Alexandria, convinced him to come back and become the head of the Didascalia two years later.

The Didascalia is a valuable part of Christian history, but it has no less a bearing on the present, as it is still very much alive. The Theological College of the Catechetical School of Alexandria was re-founded in 1893 and today has campuses in Cairo, New Jersey and Los Angeles.