Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ancient Alexandria

Reading N°27 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

By good fortune, the later First Century saw Asia Minor become wide open for the spread of the Gospel. Next to the city of Ephesus, Alexandria seemed to promise the brightest future for the Christian religion.

Like Ephesus, which became the metropolis of the Roman province of Asia in 129 BC, the city built by Alexander the Great and containing his tomb, a century later also fell under the might of Rome. Old Egypt became a Roman province and its great capital was thereafter the center and a sort of rallying place for the world of philosophers, thinkers, poets, artists, and mathematicians. Under Roman sway, however, Alexandria jealously kept its religious autonomy. The vast temple of Serapis, which from the top of its artificial hill surveyed the commercial activity of the whole city, appeared to symbolize that haughty independence.

There was located the great library containing 200,000 volumes, which Antony brought from Pergamus to replace that of the Museum which had been burned when Julius Caesar set fire to the Egyptian fleet. This library was the meeting-place of Alexandrian Hellenism and of Jewish culture. The Jews had long been settled in Egypt. At Alexandria they formed an important community which, in this city of a million souls,[1] reached a figure of more than 300,000, about one-third of the total population.[2] One of our canonical books, Wisdom, was probably written at Alexandria toward the middle of the second century BC.[3] The Bible had there been translated into Greek under the first Ptolemies, between 280 and 230 BC. The Jewish books had an influence upon the notions of Greek philosophy. And Alexandrian Judaism, though still venerating at Jerusalem the center of the theocratic religion, was renewed by contact with Hellenic civilization. From this reciprocal influence was born the work of Philo.

Philo of Alexandria

We have very little information about the life of this Jewish writer, who was a contemporary of Christ. We know only that his brother, or rather the son of his brother, was alabarch, or chief collector of the customs at Alexandria, and that Philo himself was deputed by his fellow-Jews (AD 40) to go to Rome to appease the wrath of Caligula, who had been angered against the Jews because they refused to adore him as a god.[4] Philo of Alexandria was principally an exegete, but applied Plato's idealism in the interpretation of the holy books. Many Fathers of the Church speak of him with a respect that borders on admiration. Philo had none of the narrowness of the Pharisees attached to the letter of the Law. He was a man of mysticism and inner worship. With him the idea of philosophy and that of revelation, far from being mutually exclusive, harmonize with each other.[5] But it is also noteworthy that the ideas which Philo sets forth in his books are not so much personal, as they are ideas slowly and deeply elaborated in the Alexandrian atmosphere, ideas that, outside the limited circle of scholars, penetrated into the minds of the ordinary people.[6]

Such being the case, Alexandrian philosophy, if ill-directed, might contribute to the perversion of the Christian movement and might lead it in the direction of vague and dissolvent fancies; but if wisely regulated, it might become, by its broad spirit, a powerful instrument in the spread of Christianity. It is a fact that, at a very early date, Alexandria was entered by missioners of the gospel. According to Eusebius, the first Christian community there was founded by St. Mark.[7] It is probable that the Alexandrians and the Cyrenians who were present at Pentecost may have preceded him there. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that one of the most eloquent preachers of the good tidings, Apollo, "one mighty in the Scriptures, fervent in spirit," was a native of Alexandria. Alexandrian Jews are mentioned among the adversaries of Stephen.[8] Soon, beside brilliant apologists of the school of Clement of Alexandria, the Gnostic sects began to increase. Both truth and error appeared in a powerful and spirited manner, overflowing with life and splendor.


[1] Dict. de la Bible, I, col. 354.
[2] Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 239.
[3] Dict. de la Bible, I, col. 356; Touzard, in Où en est l'histoire des religions, sec. 7, nos. 148-152.
[4] Beurlier, Le culte impérial, pp. 264-271.
[5] Brehier, Les Idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie, pp. 311-318. Cf. Louis, Philon le Juif; Lebreton (Les Théories du Logos au debut de l'ère chrétienne, in Etudes, vol. 106, and Les Origines de la Trinité) shows that Philo's doctrine is fundamentally a Jewish doctrine, altered and distorted, not a doctrine taken from the pagans, as was once claimed. For Philo, the Logos is "the world of the ideas of the personal God according to Moses." The origin of this conception is connected with the Sapiential literature of the Old Testament. "In Palestine, as also in Egypt, the Jews were accustomed to meditate upon these inspired pages, notably Baruch 3:10-38, Job 28, and especially Prov. 1-9, Ecclu. 24:5-47; Wisdom 7:10; 10:17. Considering the outward operation of this Wisdom, we find it very similar to the Logos of the Stoics or the popular Hermes of Egypt or the amesha spenta of Persia or the Logos of Philo. But the Scriptural notion of the hypostatic Wisdom, in which Israel adored the only true God, is quite opposed to the pantheistic materialism of the Porch, as also to the mythological phantasies of Egypt and Persia, which were an undefinable product of Alexandrian speculation. The contemporary apocrypha, as also the books of the Bible, show how deeply this notion had penetrated the minds of the chosen people." (D'Alès, in Etudes, 1912, p. 90.)
[6] Bréhier, loc. cit.
[7] Eusebius, H. E., II, xvi.
[8] Acts 6:9.


Join the discussion at:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated according to both content and form. If you would like to keep your comments private, please indicate this, and include your email if you would like a personal response. Thank you for commenting.