The early history of the Alexandrian church has always been notoriously hard to pin down. Despite the fact that Alexandria was the second largest metropolis in the ancient world, and that its influence on Christian history in subsequent centuries would be immense, we have no clear picture of the first Christians in the city.
Roman Alexandria was certainly impressive. With around 500 000 inhabitants, the city was second in size (and arguably importance) only to Rome itself. With both coastal and inland harbours (allowing goods to flow into the Mediterranean and down into Egypt) the city was uniquely positioned as a centre of trade and commerce, and it earned a reputation as the ‘granary of the empire’ supplying much of the grain eaten in Rome and Italia more widely. Its long history meant the city featured monumental palaces, temples and architecture. The main street, the Via Canopus (seen in the reconstruction above), was a colossal 100 feet wide, running the length of the city. The famous lighthouse stood on the island of Pharos, and the Great Library was but one of a number of educational centres across the city that gave Alexandria a reputation as a centre of intellectual activity. The city also had a longstanding Jewish population, which had thrived there for several hundred years before the Romans arrived, intermingling with the local Egyptian and Greek populations. It was in Alexandria that work on the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, was undertaken in the third and second centuries BC.
The city was a religious one, with quite literally thousands of religious sites scattered among its streets and buildings. Some, such as the enormous Serapeum, were sanctuaries with global significance at their peak. The Jewish community were well served by numerous synagogues, including the so-called Great Synagogue, which was the focal point of the Alexandrian Jewish community. Yet at no point in the first few centuries do we hear of church buildings. In part this is to be expected, for much of the first few centuries of Christian history the church met in private homes and gathering sites, yet even of such informal ‘church buildings’ we find no record. Unlike the Jewish, Greek or Egyptian religious histories, the history is nearly entirely silent on the first Christians in the city.
A Religion of the Book
Yet we know there was a church in Alexandria. Before we pull together fragments of evidence to try and glimpse these first Alexandrian believers, it is worth noting the larger picture to realise just how much Christian activity was going on in the city. Though we do admittedly have little by way of historical description of the first Alexandrian churches, we do have a large number of Christian texts with Alexandrian heritage.
Apocryphal works such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Apocalypse of Peter and numerous others hail from Alexandria and the surrounding regions, all with likely dates of origin in the early second century. Later writings by authors such as Clement and Origen (with subsequent careers spanning the late second to mid third centuries) have a preference for extra-biblical works such as the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement. Their inclusion in Clement and Origen’s various texts suggests an Alexandrian preference for the works, which given their early date implies a lengthy circulation among Christians in the city.
All this is to say, though we cannot find the names and details of individual Alexandrian Christians in the first few centuries, we can see a body of literature that suggests an at times sizeable Christian context flourishing in Roman Alexandria.
Piecing Together the Evidence
Unsurprisingly, the first hints of a Christian presence in Alexandria come from among the Jewish population. Though Matthew’s Gospel notes that Egypt features briefly in the Gospel story with the escape to Egypt (2:13-15), the first connection with Alexandria and Christian believers occurs in Acts. Jewish visitors from Egypt are described among the crowds who heard the Apostles preaching the Gospel at Pentecost (2:10), and Jews of Alexandria are explicitly highlighted in the narrative a short while later, as Stephen is seized by a number of Jewish opponents (6:9). It is entirely reasonable to see a similar Gospel movement as the spread of the Good News to Antioch (11:19-21), and so a glimpse of the first Alexandrian Christians can be seen in the New Testament account.
It should be noted here that though the Coptic church celebrates a link with the Apostle Mark, seeing him as the founder of the Alexandrian church, we simply don’t possess the evidence to make such a claim. The New Testament is silent on the subject, and save a recently discovered fragment of a late second century letter of Clement of Alexandria that notes Mark visited the city, the tradition has no literary support until the history of Eusebius in the fourth century (HE 2.24).
Second century, Alexandrian Christian texts, such as the Teachings of Silvanus or the Epistle of Barnabas, betray links with Alexandrian Jews that support this idea of the faith first flourishing among the Jewish community in the city. Silvanus is a piece of wisdom-literature, that reflects Hebrew texts such as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in both content and style, drawing Jewish wisdom into a Christian context. Barnabas betrays a Jewish relationship more negatively – the work contains a strong anti-Jewish polemic, illustrating both opposition and interaction with Jewish texts and culture. The hazy picture of the first century Alexandrian church is one of Jewish origins and growth, before we begin to see a move away from this judeocentric community, and the inclusion of greater numbers of gentile believers in the second century.
Explicit evidence in the second century is even harder to come by, yet two texts suggest a flourishing Christian community in this great city. Justin Martyr mentions in his Apology “one of our number… a youth” in Alexandria (Apol. 29.2-3). This youth is mentioned anecdotally, yet it provides a crucial glimpse of Christianity in the city. This young man supposedly asked the Roman governor, Felix, for permission to be castrated, so that he might live free of sexual desire and concerns. Though obviously an extreme petition, and one which Felix rejected, the story reveals a few interesting things. Firstly it seems likely that in requesting a surgeon approved by the Roman governor, the youth sought a non-Jewish practitioner, and that therefore in turn he was a non-Jewish believer. Secondly, the story describes an interaction between a Christian youth and the Roman governor. Such an interaction implies the Christian community was established, or at least tolerated, in the city by the mid second century.
Furthermore, Clement’s Paedagogus, a lengthy work of instruction for Christian living written at the end of the second century, includes a fascinating passage centred around a family metaphor. God is Father, and we are his children. Who then, asks Clement, is our mother? Well (1.5), “[as] the mother draws the children to herself; we seek our mother the church.” For Clement, as we are “made perfect” in Christ, we are grown and developed within the local church. The context of Clement’s metaphor cannot allow for some early expression of Catholicity, he was talking about the Alexandrian church, his church. Clearly Clement valued his local church so highly as to give it this motherly position in his extended metaphor, it is in the church that believers are nurtured and grown in the truth.
Though a clear picture of the Alexandrian church in the first two centuries will likely continue to evade modern writers, there are some conclusions that we can draw together. The church in Alexandria seems to have begun with Jewish believers, converted in Jerusalem, returning home and sharing the Good News with their friends and family. The church grew among the sizeable Jewish population of the ancient city, and soon spread among other ethnic groups in this huge, bustling city. By the end of the second century, this church was established, diverse, and earnest in faith. Persecutions that broke out in the early third century further suggest this conclusion to be the case, and mark the beginning of a clearer chapter in the story of the Alexandrian church.
Though these early African believers are likely to continue to elude historians, the glimpses of their story tell us that there will be many Alexandrian brothers and sisters from the first few centuries of Christian history with whom we will share forever in the wedding supper of the lamb.
Nice work, thanks for writing that.
[…] 10. The Church in Egypt… What can we say about the first Christians in Alexandria? […]