Alexandria in Egypt was the Cambridge of late antiquity. It was a city renowned for its colleges and libraries. The city was ethnically diverse, as its ports were the trading hub of the ancient world. But the dominant language and culture were Greek, and so the backbone of its remarkable educational system were the gymnasia, where the city trained the minds and bodies of young men for their duties as citizens.
The first Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I, dreamed of making his capital city the world’s greatest center of learning. And his successors took up his dream, working almost desperately to amass all the world’s literature in one great library. The Ptolemies were unscrupulous in this pursuit, willing even to send thieves abroad to steal manuscripts from distant Athens, which was then well into its decline. According to ancient legend, it was Ptolemy II who commissioned the Septuagint, the translation of all the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, so that his library would not lack the great literature of Jews.
The library and its holdings were the lifeline of Alexandria’s great university and research institution, the Museion, which was renowned for its studies in astronomy, biology, philosophy, botany, geography, and literature. The Museion counted among its alumni great men such as Euclid and Archimedes, and its laboratories produced remarkable inventions such as the steam engine.
The Jews were a sizable and influential minority in the city, but they lived in uneasy tension with the dominant culture. Jewish parents debated among themselves whether it was right to enroll their boys in the gymnasia, where they might be corrupted by Greek culture, with its polytheism, immodesty, and homoeroticism. The pagan Alexandrians were, for their part, ambivalent about admitting Jews to full citizenship anyway, as the Jews were a discrete community within the community — a faction of ethnic “foreigners” and a potential source of disaffection in the land.
But in the cultural greenhouse that was Alexandria it was an easy matter for Jews to establish their own educational enclave. Philo describes a semi-monastic group called the Therapeutae, who occupied themselves with communal prayer and intense study of the Scriptures.
Into this world, in the mid-first century — around and amid the Harvards and MITs of the Roman empire — came the Christian faith. The gospel arrived early in Alexandria, and some of the city’s best and brightest responded with vigor. The super-apostle Apollos was an Alexandrian (Acts 18:24). A well-established tradition tells us that St. Mark the Evangelist was the city’s first bishop. Eusebius reports that the Therapeutae responded to the apostolic preaching and converted en masse, constituting perhaps the Church’s first scholarly monastic order, anticipating the Benedictines by several centuries. There is documentary evidence, too, indicating that many early conversions came from the pagan Greek and native Egyptian (Coptic) peoples as well.
Alexandrian Christianity developed richly and rapidly. It was deeply Christian, but it was distinctively Alexandrian as well. This cosmopolitan Church prized education very highly.
Quite naturally, the Alexandrian Church soon established a school, which became known as the Didaskalion. Scholars today debate whether it was a “school” the way we understand the term today, with teachers and classes, or merely a “school of thought.” But it is certain that there was some form of systematic education going on. The first master of the school known to history is Pantaenus (late second century), who had been a Stoic philosopher before his conversion and a missionary to India afterward. It was St. Pantaenus who put the Didaskalion on the cultural map. It was he who attracted so brilliant a student as Clement, who would succeed him as master of the school. Many of Clement’s “writings” seem to be transcripts of his own lectures. They are brilliant, erudite, seasoned with allusions to classical literature and abundant examples from the natural sciences. They assume a highly literate, leisurely audience of seekers, eager and attentive.
Clement, in his turn, attracted a bright and zealous young student named Origen, who would succeed Clement while still a teenager, and who would draw famous students from all around the empire — including the emperor’s mother! Origen, like his predecessor, placed a premium on secular as well as sacred learning. He taught that natural science was a useful and indispensable foundation for theological science.
Soon the Didaskalion would eclipse and then absorb the Museion as the center of Alexandrian culture. Alexandrian thought was transformed; yet it was still distinctively Alexandrian. God’s grace had perfected what was brilliant and beautiful by nature.
That’s what Christian education — at its very best — can do.