How Early Christians Were Taught: the School of Alexandria

Carthage was an important See of Africa but did not compare to the stature of a See like that of Alexandria and its catechetical school. Egypt’s unique and unparalleled features made it a rich environment in which the gospel and theology could flourish. As Philip Schaff puts it,

“Alexandria… was the metropolis of Egypt, the flourishing seat of commerce, of Grecian and Jewish learning, and of the greatest library of the ancient world, and was destined to become one of the great centers of Christianity, the rival of Antioch and Rome. There the religious life of Palestine and the intellectual culture of Greece commingled and prepared the way for the first school of theology which aimed at a philosophic comprehension and vindication of the truths of revelation.”

The School of Alexandria was not restricted to teaching Christian theology. It began with the secular sciences, moral and religious philosophy. Christian theology was divided into three major branches: a course for catechumens who were candidates for baptism and were being introduced to the principles of Christianity, a course on Christian morals and ethics, and an advanced course on divine wisdom and Christian spirituality. Among the most prominent teachers of the school of Alexandria was Origen who composed voluminous commentaries on Scripture. George Leonard Prestige records how one of Origen’s famous students felt about learning under his guidance,

“To be under the intellectual charge of Origen, says Gregory [probably the Thaumatorgos], was like living in a garden where fruits of the mind sprang up without toil to be happy with gladness by the happy occupants; ‘he truly was a paradise to us, after the likeness of the paradise of God;’ to leave him was to renascent the experience of Adam after the Fall. Few teachers have ever won so remarkable a testimonial from their pupils”

Fr. Tadros Malaty records that the distinctive characteristics of the school of Alexandria in his book The School of Alexandria before Origen. Among these characteristics are: (1) the centrality of the doctrine of deification, (2) the centrality of soteriological theology, (3) oneness of life among the students and teachers, (4) a life of repentance, (5) adoption of Hellenic philosophical, (6) minimal time spent on defining theological terms, and (7) an Ecumenical spirit where students from different dioceses were equally welcomed into the school of Alexandria.