A message from Father Nick 63

Seedbeds of the Word:  Alexandria

The great world empires which affected Israel in the Old Testament reached a kind of climax with Alexander the Great. From now on, Greek language and culture, adopted by the Romans too, would be a common medium for people – famously, our New Testament was written in Greek.

As he moved victoriously through the Persian empire, Alexander paused in Egypt, a civilization which had long fascinated the Greeks. Near the Nile delta, he found the perfect place to build a city: a port city which would be a hub of trade and ideas – and of course of military strategy. Founded in 331 BC, Alexandria would become, after Rome, the greatest city in the world.

Above all, it was a Greek city. A melting-pot of peoples, with its celebrated lighthouse standing as a beacon to all-comers. This was where Alexander’s body was preserved for centuries and where Caesar and Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra, herself of Grecian family. This was where the greatest library of antiquity was assembled and where all visiting ships were required to surrender any scrolls they might be carrying to be copied and stored here.

Alexandria was a place of serious intellectual enquiry. It was in this place that the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek. Many Jews lived in the city, but according to legend King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC) sent to Jerusalem for 72 translators (six from each tribe). Working separately, they all emerged with exactly the same text!  (widely known as the Septuagint, meaning “seventy”).

Alexandria became one of the two great Christian schools of antiquity (the other was Syrian Antioch) and it produced some of the greatest “Fathers of the Church”. This Greek city in Egypt is honoured for a particular kind of creative genius – Clement, Athanasius, and the brilliant Origen are among its most famous examples. Origen especially was never canonised because of some rather maverick views but he has remained hugely influential in the interpretation of Scripture. He was much loved by St John Henry Newman.

Alexandria eventually fell to Islam in 641 and the Arab leader Omar is sometimes blamed for destroying its great library. Many however believe that the real destruction had already taken place. As the Church grew strong, a new kind of zealotry had grown within it. Bands of monks with enthusiastic supporters acted as a kind of Taliban militia bent on removing all traces of the pagan past.

Their most famous leader, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) is honoured as a Father of the Church, but his rigorism encouraged the worst in others. Fiercely anti-heretical, anti-Jewish, anti-pagan – it led to violence, and even murder. Hypatia (355-415) was a woman, a mathematician, an astronomer and a philosopher, one of the foremost teachers of her day. Cyril seems not to have been involved in her death, but his followers disapproved of her philosophy and lynched her in the cruellest manner.

This was not the kind of passion for which Christian Alexandria should be remembered. Rather, St John Henry Newman noted and cherished these words of Clement:

“His are all men, some actually knowing him, others not as yet: some as friends [Christians], others as faithful servants [Jews], others as simply servants [heathen]…for he is the Saviour not of these or those but of all.”