CHAPTER FOURTEEN

DAWN OF THE ICONOCLASTS

Now, says Solomon, defend wisdom, and it will exalt thee, and it will shield thee with a crown of pleasure.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata

 
 
For Ptolemy, Philo, and the Alexandrian philosophers in whose footsteps they trod, spiritual enlightenment came from two interconnected sources. It was in the unending search for wisdom which might allow them to see beyond the sordid, material world to Plato’s. Coupled with this was a personal code by which their bodies and minds might be in a suitable condition to search out such truths. This path was by no means easy, requiring moderation and temperance, a willingness to shun the obvious temptations of the physical world and to strive to find divinity in ideas alone. As such it was a path suitable only for the chosen few. Neither Philo nor Ptolemy believed that just anyone could enjoy the insights they had received. They were the highest link in the human portion of the Great Chain of Being, with the privilege, and perhaps the duty, of understanding the world on behalf of lesser humans—the uneducated, the women, and the children.

In second-century Alexandria, however, a new force was stirring which took a radically different view of man’s (and woman’s) destiny. During Ptolemy’s lifetime access to this protoreligion had been largely by word of mouth, with just a few accounts of the life and works of the new man-god in circulation. However, those stories had not died out as so many other religious tales had, and now, just a century after his crucifix-ion at the hands of the Roman authorities, tales were rife that the Messiah had emerged among the Jews. His appeal lay partly in the fact that he had renounced the Great Chain of Being: He hadn’t said that the poor and downtrodden must accept their place in society, however meek. In fact he had said the reverse, something radical and dangerous—he had said that the meek were going to inherit the earth.

Christianity, as preached by Jesus and passed on by his disciples, was a truly revolutionary doctrine, which, for all its overt pacifism—“turn the other cheek, love thine enemies”—clearly challenged directly the established social order. In a world dominated by the brute force of the Roman Empire, powered by slavery, awarding most of its inhabitants, particularly women, second-class status at best, the evangelizing zeal of Christianity, preaching damnation for the rich and powerful and salvation for the meek and oppressed, was almost certain to catch on. The highly publicized persecutions and martyrdoms of its early adherents only added fuel to the fires of this passionate new faith.

Alexandria, with its free and tolerant attitude to intellectual debate, as well as its burgeoning population of the downtrodden—slaves, Egyptians, and women from across the known world—was perfectly positioned to become the first great center for Christian study. It would be here that the new teachings would be refined, formalized, and shaped into the first proselytizing religion the world had ever known. This would also be the stage on which Christianity’s main opponents voiced their opinions. In the streets these academic disputes between rich and poor, Jews, Christians, and pagans, would increasingly be fought out not only with words but with lives.

The most penetrating and comprehensive assault on Christianity came from a man named Celsus, who wrote a book titled The True Word or The True Discourse around the time of Claudius Ptolemy’s death in the mid-170s. It gives us a unique insight into what some of the wealthy and educated ruling classes in Alexandria really thought about this new religion; but also, in the extraordinary story of its survival, the book demonstrates the passions such arguments would arouse and the lengths to which people would go to suppress views that differed from their own.

Not a single copy of Celsus’s book survives, as every one was ordered destroyed by the Christian emperor Valentinian III and Archbishop Theodosius in 448. Early Christianity took great pleasure not just in the annihilation of anyone or anything deemed to be pagan, but in wiping out any trace of dissent from its own historical records. Paradoxically, this zeal could sometimes protect the very material that the church wished destroyed. About seventy years after he wrote it, a copy of Celsus’s book was sent to the preeminent Christian theologian of the time, a man named Origen of Alexandria, with a request that he refute it. After some hesitation, Origen consented, and wrote his famous treatise Contra Celsus— “Against Celsus.” This work immediately entered the Christian canon as a revered early defense of the faith, and it has been carefully conserved ever since. But Origen did such a thorough job (he was an Alexandrian scholar, after all) that he quoted almost all of Celsus’s book verbatim—how else could he refute him point by point? Indeed, so much did he quote that in the nineteenth century scholars were able to reconstruct 90 percent of the original just from Origen’s rebuttal. In this deliciously ironic way, the greatest early onslaught on Christianity was conserved almost word for word in the church’s own sacred annals.

We know next to nothing about Celsus as a person, and, just as his book itself is a reconstruction, what little we do know of the man himself has had to be reconstructed from that book. For many years it was thought that Celsus must have been a Roman, living in Rome and hence displaying all the contempt for a foreign peasant religion that we might expect from the then masters of the world. But in his work there are clues to his real origins. His writing clearly shows a deep knowledge of Egyptian customs, something people in Rome had little interest in. His description of Judaism is also unusual for a Roman, not dealing with the Western tradition but instead speaking of the idea of Logos, the Word. This is a unique aspect of Oriental Judaism and one we have heard expressed before by Philo. So all indications are that if we had gone looking for Celsus in the second century we would have found him not in Rome but at the museum in Alexandria.

His True Word consists of a preface followed by an attack on Christianity, first from a religious, Jewish point of view, then from a philosophical standpoint. This is followed by a detailed refutation of Christian teaching and an appeal to Christians to renounce their faith and return to the pagan fold of the True Word (Logos). Celsus opens his attack by accusing both Christianity and Judaism of arrogant “separatism” in that both claim a special relationship with God as chosen races that casts them as superior to the rest of society. This, Celsus claims, is false. In reality all peoples share the same relationship with divinity. In fact, he suggests that the evidence of how Christian and Jewish peoples have fared in the world might be taken to imply that God actually was prejudiced against them. The Christians were, after all, a persecuted people, and the Jews still had no homeland. These seemed to Celsus odd rewards for “chosen” peoples.

Turning then to Christ and his teachings, Celsus begins by attempting to set the record straight with regard to the virgin birth. Pointing out that there are many examples of divine inseminations of mortals in Greek mythology which the Christians have crudely copied, he gives his own stark version of what he imagines were the real events. Jesus was

 
born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her substance by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; . . . after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child.

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28

 
He then moves on to provide his explanation of how Jesus, from this unpromising beginning, went on, thanks to the superstitious Egyptians, to return to Palestine with a religious mission. Celsus claims he became a servant in Egypt in order to raise money and there learned some “miraculous powers”—the sorts of tricks that Egyptians loved and were famous for. He was so pleased with these that when he returned home he declared himself a god.

Celsus maintains that on his return, however, Jesus was not able to persuade his fellow countrymen of his divinity, merely attracting a following of ten or twelve infamous publicans and fishermen—hardly company fitting for a god. Celsus goes on to claim that Jesus failed to keep his promises to the Jews, and even failed to sustain the loyalty of his followers. Of his claims to have predicted his own death, Celsus asserts that this was merely fabricated by his followers, like the story of the resurrection, another trope which appears so often in Greek mythology. If Christ rose from the dead, he asks, why did he show himself only to his disciples and not to his persecutors?

It becomes clear that Jesus does not measure up to Celsus the Platonist’s notion of divinity. Using Philo’s term “Logos” to mean the executor of God’s will, he piles on the sarcasm:

 
The Christians put forth this Jesus not only as the son of God but as the very Logos—not the pure and holy Logos known to the philosophers, mind you, but a new kind of Logos: A man who managed to get himself arrested and executed in the most humiliating circumstances.

Celsus, On the True Doctrine, 64

 
Celsus goes on to attack both Christians and Jews even for claiming that theirs are separate religions when in fact Christianity derives directly from Judaism. His view is that because the Jews revolted against the Egyptians, and the Christians against the Jews, sedition lies at the root of both traditions. He complains too of the lack of any cohesion or agreement among the many fledgling Christian cults which were flourishing at the time, claiming that they have almost nothing in common except the name.

But it is the way that he has seen Christianity spreading through Alexandria and the empire that most baffles Celsus. Alexandria is a city of wisdom, where men dedicate their lives to study so that they might understand the true nature of divinity. Study draws men further up the Great Chain of Being, yet Christian evangelists seem to ignore this, shunning the well educated and concentrating their efforts on the lowliest and most ignorant parts of society. Why is it, Celsus asks, that it is

 
only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women and children of whom teachers of the divine word wish to make converts. . . . For why is it an evil to be educated and to have studied the best opinions, and to have both the reality and the appearance of wisdom? Why should it not rather be an assistance, and a means by which one might be better able to arrive at the truth?

Origen, Against Celsus, 3.64

 
His view is that the Christians have added nothing to the wisdom of the ancients and in fact have often distorted and perverted the tenets of the great classical thinkers. Philosophy, he maintains, clearly distinguishes between true wisdom and mere appearance, whereas the Christians demand that adherents believe what they don’t understand and evoke the authority of their discredited leader as endorsement. Even Christ’s apparently new doctrine of the resurrection he dismisses as a mere corruption of the ancient doctrine of the transmigration of the soul. This lies at the very heart of Celsus’s concern. In his view, rationality—the logic of the museum scholars—is the path to understanding the divine. But Christianity does not require his sort of wisdom; it does not demand that its adherents spend their days in the philosophy lecture halls. Instead, it requires only one thing from them, one thing that anyone of any social standing can give and the one thing that can really threaten his world order: faith.

In this Celsus sees a terrifying future, where the knowledge that he stands for counts for nothing and the dangerous masses might threaten the established social order. Under Christian rule, he believes, the lower classes would rise up, fired not by a new love or understanding of philosophy, but inspired by a blind and unquestioning faith that actually revels in the ignorance of its adherents. With this antiacademic group in control there would then be no rule of law, and the classical world would be reduced to barbarism. What would follow would be chaos and the end of the world as Celsus knew it.

Prophetic words these, as we shall see as Alexandria’s fate unfolds.

But Celsus believes he has a cure. Having identified the rotten worm within the apple, he appeals to the Christians to forsake their errant ways and return to the fold of true Platonic paganism. Some commentators consider that this was his intention all along, that his aim was a reconciliation and return to the true path, as is acknowledged in some passages of Origen’s rebuttal. Celsus declares that his desire is to help all men, and bring them all to the ideal of a single religion.

Celsus has done, certainly in his own view, a classic Alexandrian analysis of Christianity, and found it wanting. Like so many scholars before him, he gathered the information, and sifted and ordered it, before applying the test of his own logic to it. In studying Christianity, which yet had a shortage of texts, Celsus must have spent long hours not in the library but in the market, talking to the evangelizing Christians as they sought converts. It must have made for some nervous and heated exchanges, but at the end of the day Celsus still hoped that they would return to the old order. In his mind this new religion was subversive but not yet truly dangerous. In the end the Great Chain of Being would reestablish itself, so he could afford to treat the Christians he met not as enemies but more as errant children. They should turn away from thoughts of liberation and return to their established place in society. But Celsus had overlooked one key issue, the issue of faith.

At its most fundamental, the debate Celsus raised with the Christians was about the nature of God. In the Platonic world God was an ultimate form, like Philo’s God a constant creator, but one utterly divorced from the world of people, animals, cities, and wars. To remain in his pure form God must not have contact with our fallen, human world. So by definition a God on earth is a debased God:

 
God is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that in the best and most beautiful degree. But if he comes down among men he must undergo a change, a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst. Who, then, would make such a choice?

Origen, Against Celsus, 4.14

 
But Celsus reached this appreciation of God’s nature via the classical Platonic route. His ideas of divinity were to be found through philosophia, the love of wisdom, in which the philosopher refined himself in an attempt to reach closer to God through the purity of his spirit. What Jesus and his followers preached was not philosophia but credo: belief. Their God was to be found through faith, and faith alone, and no amount of intellectual and spiritual refinement would help the individual on that quest. Both parties agreed that there was a God, but only one party, the Christians, believed that access to the almighty was open to all and sundry through faith. Even though they may not have felt the benefit until they had shuffled off this mortal coil, Christian converts lived their lives in faith and in hope of a better life thereafter. This appealed to those who could never afford to enroll their children in the encyclia—to people for whom the next life could, in truth, only be better than this one. These ideas—faith and hope—the cornerstones of Christianity, were barely to be glimpsed in the canon of Hellenistic philosophy.

Celsus was also making a mistake if he thought that Christianity was something new in Alexandria, or just another passing craze. Eusebius, the Greek bishop and ecclesiastical historian, claims that the religion’s roots in Alexandria go right back to the apostles. According to him, Saint Mark came to Egypt preaching the gospel around 41-44 and created a center for discipleship and education in the city, becoming the city’s first patriarch. In truth, reconstructing the life of Mark is fraught with difficulty, and the fact that writers like Origen make no mention of him in connection with the city might suggest that placing him there is a later tradition. Even the nature of his death is uncertain. The Acts of Mark claims that the saint was gloriously martyred at Easter in 68 by an angry Alexandrian mob that dragged him to death through the city streets in reprisal for his attempts to turn them away from paganism. This story does not emerge before the fourth century, however, and may simply serve to provide the city with a major martyr. Though these stories may not be contemporary with Mark, they do demonstrate how quickly Christianity gained a foot-hold in the city and how even early on its church fathers could associate themselves with a character as powerful as one of the apostles. They also contain a veiled warning of events to come.

Whether Christianity was established in Alexandria by Saint Mark or by a later disciple, it was certainly firmly rooted by the time of Celsus’s denunciation; indeed, it was about to move out of the marketplace and into its own educational establishment. The dean of this institution, Pantaenus, was a brilliant Christian scholar, and the establishment he would preside over, the Didascalia, would go down in history as the first school of Christian religion in the world and the home of the first translation of the New Testament from Aramaic and Greek into Coptic, the language of the Christian Egyptians. Founded around 180, this school was intended to take on the Platonists at their own game. According to one ancient source, Pantaenus was originally a Stoic philosopher himself, and therefore well used to the classical form of education available in the city. This he now applied to the teaching of Christianity, forming a “catechetical” school, where his faith and other subjects were taught orally by repetition or by question and answer.

Pantaenus was a Sicilian, and his greatest pupil, and later friend and successor, was Clement of Alexandria. Clement was probably born and educated in Athens—his Greek is very proper—and so received a full classical education before he converted. After his conversion he set about finding the greatest Christian teacher in the world, someone who could not just inspire the people of the marketplace, but defend his religion against the relentless logic of the professional philosophers. Eventually, he found Pantaenus, in perhaps the only city that could have produced such a man—a classically educated convert who could bring Christianity into the same regard as the museum at which he himself had trained. Clement immediately knew his search was over: “Having tracked him out concealed in Egypt, I found rest. He, the true, the Sicilian bee, gathering the spoil of the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow, engendered in the souls of his hearers a deathless element of knowledge” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.1).

Clement stayed with Pantaenus until 189, when the dean was selected to go on a mission to India (in fact probably southern Arabia), and Clement took his place in the Didascalia. According to Clement, Pantaenus eventually returned from “India” bearing the copy of the Gospel of Matthew, in Hebrew, which had originally been carried there by Saint Bartholomew and which was now the treasured possession of the Alexandrian church. Pantaenus was not well rewarded for his trouble, however, and was apparently martyred in 216 in one of the anti-Christian pogroms which would become a feature of the pagan Roman Empire in that period.

The Didascalia had originally been conceived as a specifically Christian school, designed to educate converts to a point where they were ready for baptism, but it was set up in typical Alexandrian style. The school was open to anyone who wanted to learn, not just Christians. Subjects taught there included all the classical greats, not scripture alone, but science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and music. Classes were open to all comers, and non-Christians were encouraged to attend the introductory classes in Christianity. Catechumens (converts who had not yet been baptized) studied alongside students of Greek philosophy as well as ordained priests. Many of the students came from abroad, especially from Rome, and graduates from the school held prominent positions throughout the empire. Classes were held in Greek and the more everyday language of Coptic, and by the fourth century even blind students could study there using a system of raised writing on wooden boards, which predated Braille by fifteen centuries.

So education at the Didascalia under Clement’s tutelage was truly eclectic, which fitted precisely with his own highly educated and open-minded personality and philosophy. The philosophy he taught was not to be “the Stoic, nor the Platonic, nor the Epicurean, nor that of Aristotle; but whatever any of these sects had said that was fit and just, that taught righteousness with a divine and religious knowledge, this I call mixed philosophy” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.7).

Like Celsus, Clement was a universalist: He believed that all humanity could be united under one religion and thus all would be saved from damnation. But unlike Celsus, for Clement that universal religion would be Christianity, not Platonism. Under his guidance Alexandrian Christians brought intellectual rigor to its doctrines and adapted it to all classes of people, and in so doing they attempted to proclaim a world philosophy capable of being understood by all and sundry, from the highest to the lowest, from kings and emperors to slaves, women, and children. It was Clement’s great genius, and a mark of his devout Christian faith, that in the face of Celsus’s withering attack he “turned the other cheek” and sought to incorporate all that seemed good and of value in Celsus’s Hellenistic philosophy into his own Christian doctrine.

The key to Clement’s plans for the Didascalia was the same as the key to the Platonists’ museum: writing. As Clement himself noted, he became a Christian at a time when most Christian teaching and thought was oral, handed down from the apostles to their followers and their followers’ children. Yet Clement was a highly literate scholar in the true Alexandrian tradition, and felt it was his duty to attempt to make a written record of the original, oral tradition. By this time most of the New Testament had been written down, but nobody had employed the Alexandrian approach to Christianity: that is, to collect everything ever written on the relevant subject, refine it, subject it to “scientific” analysis, and finally incorporate it into a way of living and being—a Christian form of Celsus’s “right living.” This is what Clement determined to do to: beat the Alexandrian philosophers at their own game, as it were.

 
 
Clement divided his great work into three parts. Some scholars equate this with the three degrees of the Neoplatonic mysteries: purification, initiation, and vision. Others see it more directly as a graduated initiation into Christian life as belief, discipline, and knowledge, or perhaps even more sublimely as reflecting the Holy Trinity of Son, Father, and Holy Ghost. More overtly, the first set of books, titled The Exhortation to the Heathen or more briefly the Protrepticus or Exhortation, aims to win pagans to the Christian faith; the second set, the Paedagogus or Instructor, sets out to teach the convert how to live a proper Christian life; the third part’s full title is Titus Flavius Clement’s Miscellaneous Collection of Speculative (Gnostic) Notes Bearing Upon the True Philosophy. It has come to be known as the Stromata, or Tapestries, and aims to provide the raw materials from a huge range of sources from which the trained disciple can gain a higher knowledge of the Christian mystery. It is perhaps the boldest literary undertaking in the history of the church and certainly the largest and most valuable record of early Christian thought to have come down to us. Together then, these form their own curriculum—a Christian version of Philo’s encyclia.

So what would the young catechumen, or pagan philosopher, have heard in the halls of the Didascalia? In the first book, the Exhortation, Clement invites the reader to listen, not to the pagan legends of the gods, but to the “new song” of the Logos, the Word of God, the creator of the world. He points to the folly of idolatry and pagan mysticism and the horrors of pagan sacrifice. He also identifies what he sees as the weakness of pagan philosophy, which has only guessed at the real truth, while the divine Logos, as personified by Christ, has revealed the nature of truth, the living Word of God, in person, requiring only that his teaching be followed in order to awaken all that is good in the human soul and lead it toward immortality.

In the second book, the Instructor, Clement establishes Christ as the Divine Instructor and sets out in painstaking detail exactly how a Christian, one who has been rescued from the darkness and pollutions of heathenism, should live a good and virtuous life. In this book, divided into twelve chapters, he addresses the minutiae of conduct under the following headings: “On Eating,” “On Drinking,” “On Costly Vessels,” “How to Conduct Ourselves at Feasts,” “On Laughter,” “On Filthy Speaking,” “Directions for Those Who Live Together,” “On the Use of Ointments and Crowns,” “On Sleep,” “On Clothes,” “On Shoes,” “Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments.” Each one of these chapters runs to several pages, giving a complete history of the usage of the subject under discussion as well as the views expressed both in the scriptures and in secular and philosophical writing, as well as Clement’s own advice on how a good Christian should treat the subject. On drinking, for example, such as he would have witnessed in the festivals of Dionysus and the private banqueting clubs once frequented by Philo, he sounds a note of caution:

 
“Use a little wine,” says the apostle to Timothy, who drank water, “for thy stomach’s sake,” most properly applying its aid as a strengthening tonic suitable to a sickly body enfeebled with watery humours; and specifying “a little,” lest the remedy should, on account of its quantity, unobserved create the necessity of other treatment.

 
Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 2.2

 
He does not condemn drinking alcohol outright, however. He takes the opportunity to explain the Holy Communion, in which Christians drank wine mixed with water in imitation of the Last Supper, when Christ told the apostles that it was his “blood” and they should drink in remembrance of him:

 
For the blood of the grape—that is, the Word—desired to be mixed with water, as His blood is mixed with salvation. . . .

Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both—of the water and of the Word—is called Eucharist.

Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 2.2

This is followed by a long discussion of the merits of wine as well as the demerits of excess. “Moderation in all things” is a major part of Clement’s message. Typically of Clement, however, much of his message would have appealed just as much to Celsus as it did to his Christian converts. For him there was a place for the educated Alexandrian philosopher in Christianity, just as there was for the street peddler, and he appealed to their Platonic belief in “right living” to attract them. On the subject of choosing a bed, for instance, he uses language that could have come from any of those pagan or Jewish intellectuals trained in the encyclia:

 
The bed which we use must be simple and frugal, and so constructed that, by avoiding the extremes (of too much indulgence and too much endurance), it may be comfortable. . . . But let not the couch be elaborate, and let it have smooth feet, for elaborate turnings form occasionally paths for creeping things which twine themselves about the incisions of the work, and do not slip off.

Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 2.9

 
Of course Clement was considerably more ambitious than proponents of the Great Chain of Being in believing that there was a place for everyone in his philosophy. While Philo considered that a woman’s place was in the home, and even secluded within that, Clement suggested that women too could be a part of his great project, provided that they also turned away from the more material aspects of Alexandrian life and adorned themselves not with gold but with the Word of God.

Having exhorted the heathen to turn to Christ and set out how they should live, Clement then moved on to his third work. The Stromata, or Tapestries, is aimed at the mature Christian believer, who by studying the work will be able to perfect his or her Christian life by initiation into complete knowledge of both man and God. It means to give an account of the Christian faith which will answer the questions of all men, even the pagan cynics who inhabit the museum in Alexandria, not through logical arguments but rather by building up a “tapestry” of spiritually nourishing thoughts of his own, drawn from the scriptures and, indeed, even from the pagan world around him. He had no intention of sticking to an ordered plan for the work, declaring that his intention was to create a work like a meadow where all varieties of flowers grow at random, or like a hillside planted with every possible variety of tree. In this way Clement aimed to reveal the innermost realities of his beliefs. His original intention was to do this in one book, but it steadily mushroomed into seven, or possibly eight, books, though if the eighth book ever existed it is now lost. Eusebius’s speculation that the final book was composed solely of extracts taken from pagan philosophers might explain why it has not survived.

While the cornerstone of this work, like all the others, is the revelation and promotion of faith, and the assertion that such revelation is superior to philosophy, he does still have an eye toward the scholars of the museum. He insists that God’s truth is to be found both in revelation and in philosophy. He opens the fifth chapter of the work with a section entitled “Philosophy—the Handmaiden of Theology”:

 
Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain faith through demonstration. . . . Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.5

 
Clement taught in Alexandria from 190 until 202, numbering among his pupils the same Origen who would later be called upon to write the rebuttal to Celsus’s pagan broadside and who would succeed him as dean of the Didascalia.

 
 
But if Christianity was finding a place in Alexandria, it could still be considered a dangerous and seditious sect in Rome. It challenged Roman authority; it refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor and preached that the meek and not the imperial family were the inheritors of the earth. Anti-Christian purges, just like the frequent anti-Jewish pogroms, remained common, and the Alexandrian mob which had been so easily roused against Philo’s friends was just as adeptly turned against Clement’s.

In 202 the emperor Septimius Severus, a North African himself, ordered a purge of the Alexandrian Christians. In the ensuing persecution the seventeen-year-old Origen saw his father martyred, engendering in him a lifelong hatred for the Romans. Clement fled the city and took shelter in Palestine. From there he traveled to Antioch to stay with his star pupil, Alexander, by then archbishop of the city, who reported his master’s death in a letter to Origen in 215.

Clement’s flight proved to be a decisive moment in the history of early Christianity and the history of his home city of Alexandria. As a scholar of the city, he had attempted to bridge the gap between Christian, Jew, and pagan with a hopefulness and generosity which might eventually have drawn these disparate groups together. As the church historian F. W. Farrar once said, Alexandria was in its time “the cradle of Christian theology” (Lives of the Fathers, book 1, pp. 262-63), but the early life of the child born in that cradle would prove violent and bloody enough to turn many church fathers away from Clement’s liberal views. A church born into purges and persecutions found his message too Hellenistic, too open to other philosophies, to the point where, some 1,500 years after his death, Pope Benedict XIV would have his name removed entirely from the church calendar.

A unique moment, when the old pagan and Jewish city and the new Christian one might have come together to set a new path, a new interpretation of the work the museum had striven for so many centuries to achieve, had been wasted. Instead, the seeds of a bitter and ultimately deadly struggle that would tear up the very roads and colonnades of the city itself were sown in their place. Imperial Rome and Christianity were on a collision course. If the infant religion was to survive, it would have to learn to fight even before it had learned to walk. Words were all well and good, but they had not safeguarded Clement in his city. His pupil Origen and the young catechumens had seen just how little the masters of the world cared for philosophy. If Rome wanted a fight, they could have it.

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