They called him “The Sicilian Bee.” St. Pantaenus hailed from the same island as all four of my grandparents. You don’t know my grandparents, but you know me at least from this blog. In a similar way, you probably don’t know St. Pantaenus, but I’ll bet you know his spiritual descendants — Clement and Origen of Alexandria, to name just two.
St. Pantaenus is the first known rector of Alexandria’s renowned catechetical school. Scholars tusssle over whether the Didaskaleion (as the school was known) was an actual educational institution or more like a “school of thought.” It seems clear to me from the Alexandrian writings that both Clement and Origen spent a good deal of their time lecturing, so I’m betting on the Didaskaleion’s institutional identity.
Pagan by birth, Pantaenus spent his young adulthood as a pagan philosopher. He converted to Christianity and set off on a missionary journey that took him all the way to India. There he encountered Christians, the descendants of Indians who had been converted by the apostles.
At some point, Pantaenus returned westward and settled at Alexandria, where he continued to teach and preach. He attracted the best and brightest as disciples. Young Clement had traveled for years, over land and sea, in search of a wise teacher. He found what he was looking for in Pantaenus. “When I came upon the last teacher, he was the first in power. I tracked him down hidden away in Egypt. And then I found rest. He, the true, the Sicilian bee gathering the spoil of the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow, engendered in the souls of hearers a deathless element of knowledge.” Now, if that were the Sicilian Bee’s only testimonial from a student, he could be justly proud. It’s a little like being Einstein’s favorite physics prof.
Eusebius and Clement both suggest that Pantaenus wrote as well as taught, and some modern historians believe him to be the author of the Letter to Diognetus.
Was he the founder of the Didaskaleion? Well, Coptic tradition assigns that role to St. Mark the Evangelist. Pantaenus, however, is the first schoolmaster to show up in the historical record.
He probably died around 200 A.D., and he was succeeded at the Didaskaleion by Clement.
Some years later, Origen — who was Clement’s disciple — would defend his own use of Greek philosophy by saying that Pantaenus had done the same thing. And if Pantaenus did it, it had to be good.
Today, July 7, is the memorial of St. Pantaenus. It seems wrong to celebrate the Sicilian Bee with chocolate. Go for the honey — baklava.