Friendship and Formation: Catechesis in Alexandria

Between the New Testament and the fourth-century catechumenate, one of the most important developments for catechesis emerged in the so-called “catechetical schools” of Alexandria and Caesarea. The school of Alexandria emerged as early as the first century, but more likely in the second or third.[1] As established centers of intellectual life, these cities were home to a host of new ideas and philosophical schools—a fact in itself that that no doubt shaped early Christian pedagogy.

Scholars call these entities “catechetical schools” (didaskaleion in Greek, from didaskalia, meaning “instruction” or “teaching”), but they’re a lot different than schools we think of today. We often imagine students at desks with teachers standing before them—usually lecturing, almost always boring. We think primarily of a cerebral activity—imparting information to the brain. The ancient schools, by contrast, aimed to shape one’s whole habit of being—mind, heart, body, and everything else. No sphere of life was untouched. These schools were characterized by an intense, almost monastic-like way of living. They did, to be sure, offer intellectual instruction—not only on the Bible and theology, but also on grammar, physics, cosmology, and the other ancient sciences. However, the goal of such learning was to form students into an all-encompassing, distinctively Christian way of life. “Their goal,” as Robert Wilken writes, “was to form the lives of their students in light of the ideal set forth in the Scriptures and imaged in Christ.”[2]

Such schools sound more like the church in the Book of Acts than what we think of as schools today. They involved small groups of students centered around a teacher. Students remitted some portion of their material wealth and were committed to ascetic disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—all seen as integral to the process of learning.[3]

This peculiar understanding of learning is especially apparent in the writings by and about Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254), who was the head of one such school in the city of Alexandria, Egypt from 202 to 231, before opening a similar school in nearby Caesarea. Origen was a crucial figure in the history of Christianity, making important contributions to the development of Christology and Trinitarian theology, biblical exegesis and the commentary tradition, and spirituality and mystical theology. But he was also a devoted catechist. “In spite of his erudition and scholarly bent, he had a passionate concern for training new believers in the Scriptures and elementary instruction in the faith.”[4]

We possess a delightful record of Origen’s catechetical teaching by one of his students in Caesarea, a man called Gregory “the Wonderworker.”[5] Gregory came to Alexandria seeking this master of biblical and spiritual teaching, although at first he was reluctant to join.  Origen, he knew, desired not merely argument and intellectual debate. He aimed to “move the soul.” Origen wanted to teach his disciples not only how to articulate a theory, say, of justice or prudence; he wanted them to “practice justice and prudence.”[6] Origen taught, Gregory tells us, “more by what he did than by what he said.”[7]

In Origen’s catechetical schools, the friendship formed between student and teacher was paramount for learning to love Christ. Origen first loved his students, Gregory writes, who in turn came to love him. And by loving him, they came to love Christ. Robert Wilken describes this beautifully: “Through Origen, Gregory learned to love the Word ‘whose beauty attracts irresistibly,’ but he also began to love Origen as well, ‘the friend and interpreter of the Word.’ Only when ‘smitten by this love’ was he persuaded to give up ‘those objects which stood in the way and to practice the philosophical life.’”[8]

In order to live a transformed life, Origen knew his students needed more than knowing what truth was; they needed to see it modeled. They needed to live in the presence of a truthful life before they could live it themselves—day-by-day, among a community of friends. This was the way of doing catechesis in the Alexandrian schools.


[1] Some sources credit St. Mark as the first evangelist to the city and so consider the origins of such a school as early as the mid-first century. The main source for this is church’s first great historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who refers to a didaskaleion, or “school,” in Alexandria. In his Church History, he records that Mark the evangelist visited Alexandria and preached there (2.16); that there was “of old a school of sacred learning,” though he doesn’t mention a specific date (5.10); and that there was a succession of heads of the school (6.6.1): “Clement, who succeeded Pantaenus [d. early third century], was head of the catechetical instruction (Didaskaleion) at Alexandria up to such a time that Origen also was one of his students.”

[2] Robert Louis Wilken, “Alexandria: A School for Training in Virtue,” in Schools of Thought in the Christian Tradition, ed. Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1984), 19.

[3] Another scholar describes these schools like this: “all who joined it renounced the world to devote their lives to the worship and service of God, living in true love and spiritual peace; there was no rich nor poor among them, for the rich gave their money to the poor, to be rich in God. They ate once a day at sunset, both men and women alike in this respect. We can say that the two most important characteristics of the School were the combination of study with spiritual life, such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was open and men and women were co-admitted to the School.” Tadros Y. Malaty, Lectures in Patrology: The School of Alexandria: Book One: Before Origen (Jersey City: St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, 1995), 183–184.

[4] Clinton E. Arnold, “Early Church Catechesis and New Christians’ Classes in Contemporary Evangelicalism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 1 (March 2004): 45.

The quoted portion is Eusebius, Church History 6.3.

[5] This is can be found in Gregory the Wonderworker (Thaumaturgus), Panegyric. For the following I am reliant on Robert Wilken’s excellent study of the Alexandrian schools, “Alexandria: A School of Training,” a variation of which can also be found in his The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale University Press, 2003), 266–272.

[6] Gregory the Wonderworker, Panegyric 11.

[7] Gregory the Wonderworker, Panegyric 9.

[8] Wilken, “Alexandria: A School of Training,” 21, quoting Gregory the Wonderworker, Panegyric 6.