Catechetical School of Alexandria

Learning from the founding of the Very First Christian School

(Note to the reader: Most of what follows is gleaned from Dr. Willem Oliver’s research summaries here and here on the history of the Catechetical School.)

Where better to start with our Mustard Seed series than right at the beginning: the founding of the first-ever Christian school.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria was started in Alexandria, Egypt in the 5th decade of the first century — less than 20 years after the ascension of Jesus. The (likely) co-founders of the school were Mark the Evangelist and Apollos of Alexandria (mentioned in Acts 18-19, 1 Corinthians, and Titus 3:13).

While much of the history is contested, many believe both Mark and Apollos had strong ties to North Africa. Sometime around AD 49 Mark travelled back to Alexandria (after his trip to Cyprus with Barnabas in Acts 15:36–41). There Mark helped found the Church, where he is widely honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.

Citing Eusebius, historian Philip Schaff believed the Catechetical school was encouraged along by Apollos — the gifted orator and evangelist (a native of Alexandria) — to train a succession of Christian pastor-scholars to arise like him, ‘… eloquent men, and mighty in the Scriptures’ (Schaff 1885a:370).

Forged & Enduring Amidst Opposition

Many from all sides opposed the church and school in Alexandria. Some historians, citing later traditions, claim that Mark was martyred in Alexandria in a very gruesome fashion.

Founded by these faithful leaders, the Catechetical School of Alexandria endured as a bastion for the education of church leaders and scholars for nearly 350 years (until AD 398).

Five Insights for Christian Educators

For school leaders today, here are five insights that inspired me while researching the Catechetical School of Alexandria:

  1. The Roots of Christian Ed. are in Africa — It should be emboldening for everyone to learn that Christian education began in Africa. Interesting for classically-minded educators is that Clement of Alexandria, among others, argued that Plato and Aristotle had learned from Moses as well as from Egyptian schools. (For more on the African roots of Christian thought in general, see Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.)
  2. Their Context Was Perennially Hard — If you think your school context is hard, this school endured under intense persecution for 350 years. Of the nearly 20 heads of school, at least three died as martyrs. Many others were affected personally by persecution: for example, while Clement of Alexandria was a young head of school, his father was beheaded during the persecution of Septimius Severus of 202.
  3. Marked by Diversity, Economic Poverty, and Radical Generosity — Students came from all over the world, from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Historian T.Y. Malaty describes the school’s student body like this: “all who joined … devote(d) their lives to the worship and service of God… there was no rich nor poor amongst them, for the rich gave their money to the poor, to be rich in God.” Teachers sacrificed to make this possible. One head of school, the brilliant yet controversial Origen, lived in total poverty and once sold his own small library to make ends meet (Eusebius’ Hist. Eccl. 6.3.9). He never received a paycheck.
  4. Students were Broadly Educated — Students and teachers were encouraged to engage deeply with the various philosophies of the day, including learning a whole series of “profane sciences” and training in rhetoric.  Heads of school were well-versed in the thought of Aristotelian and Middle Platonic philosophy, and Jewish philosophical exegesis.
  5. Christ was at the Center — But at it’s core, the school took a whole-life approach to Christian virtue, with Jesus Christ at the center. Students were taught a regular practice of study, prayer and the disciplines of the Christian life, including fasting, purity, integrity, and a life of celibacy until marriage. To just give a flavor of the Christ-centered focus, read this brief passage from Clement of Alexandria, the school’s head from AD 192-203:

“It is time for us in due course to say who our Instructor is. He is called Jesus. Sometimes he calls himself a shepherd, and says, “I am the good shepherd.” According to a metaphor drawn from shepherds, who lead the sheep, is hereby understood the Instructor, who leads the children—the Shepherd who tends the babes. For babes are simple, being figuratively described as sheep. “And they shall all,” it is said, “be one flock, and one shepherd.” The Word, then, who leads the children to salvation, is appropriately called The Instructor (Paedogogue).

Read More: Also of interest, since the late 19th century in Alexandria, Egypt, the legacy of the catechetical school has been celebrated and even revived. See, for example, the Alexandria School of Theology.