The Ancient Library of Alexandria

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J. Harold Ellens’s article “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” originally appeared in Bible Review, along with the sidebars “Greco-Roman Philosophers,” “Whither Aristotle’s Library?” “The Perils of the Alexandria Library: Two Ancient Book-Burnings,” “How to Measure the Earth” and “Alexandria Library Redux.” BAS Library Members: Read the article as it appeared in Bible Review.
 


 

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C.E., the Ptolemaic dynasty was given control of Egypt. Ptolemy I (c. 367–283 B.C.E.) established his capital at Alexandria and immediately began to build up the city. Ptolemy’s grandest project, begun in 306 B.C.E., was the Library of Alexandria, a research center that held one million books by the time of Jesus. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

In March of 415 C.E., on a sunny day in the holy season of Lent, Cyril of Alexandria, the most powerful Christian theologian in the world, murdered Hypatia, the most famous Greco-Roman philosopher of the time. Hypatia was slaughtered like an animal in the church of Caesarion, formerly a sanctuary of emperor worship.1 Cyril may not have been among the gang that pulled Hypatia from her chariot, tearing off her clothes and slashing her with shards of broken tiles, but her murder was surely done under his authority and with his approval.

Cyril (c. 375–444) was the archbishop of Alexandria, the dominant cultural and religious center of the Mediterranean world of the fifth century C.E.2 He replaced his uncle Theophilus in that lofty office in 412 and became both famous and infamous for his leadership in support of what would become known as Orthodox Christianity after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), when basic Christian doctrine was solidly established for all time.

Cyril’s fame arose mainly from his assaults on other church leaders, and his methods were often brutal and dishonest. He hated Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, for example, because Nestorius thought Christ’s divine and human aspects were distinct from one another, whereas Cyril emphasized their unity. At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril arranged for a vote condemning Nestorius to take place before Nestorius’s supporters—the bishops from the eastern churches—had time to arrive. Nor was Cyril above abusing his opponents by staging marches and inciting riots. It was such a mob, led by one of Cyril’s followers, Peter the Reader, that butchered the last great Neoplatonic philosopher, Hypatia.

Cyril is honored today in Christendom as a saint. But at the time of his death, many of his fellow bishops expressed great relief at his departure. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, wrote that Cyril’s “death made those who survived him joyful, but it grieved most probably the dead; and there is cause to fear lest, finding him too troublesome, they should send him back to us.”3

 


 
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One reason Cyril had Hypatia murdered, according to the English historian Edward Gibbon, was that Cyril thought Hypatia had the political ear of Alexandria’s chief magistrate, who vigorously opposed Cyril’s ambition to expel from the city those who held different religious views from his own.4 Cyril was also jealous of Hypatia because scholars from all over the world crowded into her lectures in Alexandria, Athens and elsewhere. Socrates (380–450), a church historian from Constantinople, says of Hypatia:

[She] was so learned that she surpassed all contemporary philosophers. She carried on the Platonic tradition derived from Plotinus, and instructed those who desired to learn in…philosophic discipline. Wherefore all those wishing to work at philosophy streamed in from all parts of the world, collecting around her on account of her learned and courageous character. She maintained a dignified intercourse with the chief people of the city. She was not ashamed to spend time in the society of men, for all esteemed her highly, and admired her for her purity.5

Hypatia’s father, Theon, was a leading professor of philosophy and science in Alexandria. He had prepared a recension of Euclid’s Elements, which remained the only known Greek text of the great mathematician’s work until an earlier version was discovered in the Vatican Library in this century.6 Theon also predicted eclipses of the sun and moon that occurred in 364.

Hypatia, who was born about 355, collaborated with her father from early in her life, editing his works and preparing them for publication. According to one authority, she was “by nature more refined and talented than her father.”7 The extant texts of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables were probably prepared for publication by her.8

Such scientific and philosophical enterprises were not new or surprising in Hypatia’s Alexandria, which already boasted a 700-year-old, international reputation for sophisticated scholarship. Founded in 331 B.C.E.9 by command of Alexander the Great, the city contained almost from its beginnings an institution that would remain of immense importance to the world for the next 2,300 years. Originally called the Mouseion, or Shrine of the Muses, this research center and library grew into “an institution that may be conceived of as a library in the modern sense—an organization with a staff headed by a librarian that acquires and arranges bibliographic material for the use of qualified readers.”10
 


 
The Athenian Agora was a great center of ancient learning. Read about recent agora excavations in the Bible History Daily feature “Stoa Poikile Excavations in the Athenian Agora.”
 

 
Indeed, the Alexandria Library was much more. It “stimulated an intensive editorial program that spawned the development of critical editions, textual exegesis and such basic research tools as dictionaries, concordances and encyclopedias.”11 The library in fact developed into a huge research institution comparable to a modern university—containing a center for the collection of books, a museum for the preservation of scientific artifacts, residences and workrooms for scholars, lecture halls and a refectory. In building this magnificent institution, one modern writer has noted, the Alexandrian scholars “started from scratch”; their gift to civilization is that we never had to start from scratch again.12

In 323 B.C.E., as summer was breaking upon the northern coast of Egypt, Alexander the Great died in Mesopotamia. Within little more than a year, Aristotle died in Chalcis and Demosthenes in Calaurie. To this day, these three gigantic figures, more than any others, save Jesus and Plato perhaps, remain essential to the ideal of civilized life throughout the world. The reason these and other figures remain alive for us today is the ancient library and “university” of Alexandria.13

When Alexander died, his empire was divided among his three senior commanders. Seleucis I Nicator became king of the empire’s eastern reaches, founding the Seleucid empire (312–64 B.C.E.) with its capital at Babylon.14 Antigonus I Monopthalmus (the One-Eyed) took possession of Macedonia, Greece and large parts of Asia Minor, where he established the Antigonid dynasty, which lasted until 169 B.C.E.15 A third commander, Ptolemy, assumed the position of satrap, or governor, of Egypt. Ptolemy made Alexandria his capital, brought Alexander’s body to the city for a royal entombment and quickly embarked upon a program of urban development.16

Ptolemy’s grandest building project was the Alexandria Library, which he founded in 306 B.C.E. Almost immediately the library epitomized the best scholarship of the ancient world, containing the intellectual riches of Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome and Egypt. Until it was closed in 642 C.E.—when the Arabs conquered Egypt and carried off the library’s treasure—it was the major vehicle by which the learning of the past was kept alive.17 Not only did the library preserve the ancient sciences, but it proved to be a vital philosophical and spiritual force behind the surprising new worlds of Judaism, Neoplatonism and Christianity.

The history of the library and its university center falls into five stages. The first, from its founding in 306 B.C.E. to about 150 B.C.E., was the period of Aristotelian science, during which the scientific method was the dominant feature of scholarly investigation. The second, from 150 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E., was marked by a decided shift away from Aristotelian empiricism to a Platonic preoccupation with metaphysics and religion. This period coincided with the consolidation of Roman influence in the Mediterranean basin. The third was the age of Philo Judaeus’s influence, from 30 B.C.E. to 150 C.E. The fourth was the era of the Catechetical School, 150 to 350 C.E., and the fifth was the period of the philosophical movement known as the Alexandrian School, 350 to 642 C.E. Together, these five stages cover a thousand years. No other institution of this kind has proved to be so long-lived or so intellectually dominant of its world and subsequent history as Alexandria’s library.

Sometime between 307 and 296 B.C.E., Ptolemy I brought from Athens a noted scholar named Demetrios of Phaleron (345–283 B.C.E.) to undertake his vast library project.

Demetrios set about this task with vigor, providing the course the library was to follow for a millennium. His genius lay in his conception of the library as something more than a receptacle for books; it was also to be a university where new knowledge would be produced. The library’s initial design called for ten halls for housing the books. These halls were connected to other university buildings by marble colonnades. Scholars were extended royal appointments with stipends to live and work in this university community. At the same time, task forces commissioned to acquire books were scouring the Mediterranean. Books were even confiscated from ships moored in Alexandria’s harbor, copied and then restored to their owners. The scriptorium where the copies were made also served as a bookstore, creating a lucrative enterprise with an international clientele.

In 283 B.C.E. Demetrios was succeeded as chief librarian by Zenodotus of Ephesus (325–260 B.C.E.), who held the office for 25 years. This brilliant scholar was a Greek grammarian, literary critic, poet and editor. He continued Demetrios’s work on Homer, making a detailed comparative study of the extant texts, deleting doubtful passages, transposing others and making emendations. He also produced the first critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey and set each of them up in the 24 books in which we have them today.
 


 
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It was probably Zenodotus who established as part of the library the public lending section known as the Serapeion—so named because it was a sanctuary for the god Serapis as well as a public library. He appointed two assistant librarians: Alexander of Aetolia (born c. 315 B.C.E.), to specialize in the Greek tragic and satiric plays and poetry; and Lycophron of Chalcis (born c. 325 B.C.E.), to concentrate on the comic poets. Both of these men became famous in their own right as writers and scholars.

One of the things we would most like to have today from the Alexandria library is its catalogue, called the Pinakes, the great work of Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–235 B.C.E.), who served under four chief librarians but never rose to that position himself. The full title of the Pinakes is Tablets of the Outstanding Works in the Whole of Greek Civilization.18 Pinakes means “tablets” and probably referred originally to the tablets or plaques attached to the stacks, cabinets and rooms of the library, identifying the library’s wide variety of books from numerous cultures, most of them translated into Greek.a

Although only fragments of the Pinakes have survived, we know quite a lot about it. Most dependable sources agree on the organizational method utilized in the catalogue, which amply demonstrates the sophisticated character of the ancient library. The Pinakes consisted of 120 scrolls, in which all the works in the library were organized by discipline, with a substantial bibliographical description for each work.19 The encyclopedia of knowledge as it has been conceptualized since ancient times is derived from Callimachus’s design. As a leading scholar has noted, “The Western tradition of author as main entry may be said to have originated with Callimachus’s Pinakes.”20

The Pinakes identified each volume by its title, then recorded the name and birthplace of the author, the name of the author’s father and teachers, the place and nature of the author’s education, any nickname or pseudonym applied to the author, a short biography (including a list of the author’s works and a comment on their authenticity), the first line of the work specified, a brief digest of the volume, the source from which the book was acquired (such as the city where it was bought or the ship or traveler from which it was confiscated), the name of the former owner, the name of the scholar who edited or corrected the text, whether the book contained a single work or numerous distinct works, and the total number of lines in each work.21

The Pinakes was the first great library catalogue of western civilization, just as The Bible of Gutenberg was the first great printed book. [I]t earns for its author the title of “Father of Bibliography.” Thus, as in all intellectual efforts, the Greeks fixed the canons of cataloguing, which have been incorporated, more or less, in our Library of Congress, European, and other systems. However, the Pinakes was more than a catalogue. It was the work of the foremost man of letters of his age. He could not treat even a purely scientific subject as the Pinakes…without imparting to his work the rich stores of his scholarship, and thus the first world catalogue of knowledge became also the first literary and critical history of Hellenic literature, and also earned for its author the title of “Father of Literary History.”22

By the end of Callimachus’s life, the library is purported to have contained 532,800 carefully catalogued books, 42,800 of which were in the lending library at the Serapeion. Two and a half centuries later, in the time of Jesus, it held one million volumes.23

It was officials with the conquering Arab army who last saw the library in its operational state. Undoubtedly much of it was carried off to their royal libraries. It is likely that the character and structure of Callimachus’s Pinakes was used as a model for a brilliant Arabic counterpart from the tenth century known as the Al-Fihrist, or Index, by Ibn-Al-Nadim, which we have in virtually its complete and original form. Surviving fragments of the Pinakes confirm the likelihood of this.24

For its first two centuries, the library at Alexandria continued to be a center for nearly every kind of research in the natural sciences as well as in philosophy and the humanities, employing the scientific method developed by Aristotle, which, thanks to Francis Bacon (1561–1626), forms the foundation of modern science.25

Eratosthenes of Cyrene (275–195 B.C.E.), a student of Callimachus who rose to become chief librarian, is a classic example of the Alexandrian scholar of the period. He was an accomplished mathematician, geographer, astronomer, grammarian, chronographer, philologist, philosopher, historian and poet. He founded the sciences of astronomy, physical geography, geodetics and chronology. He was known as the most learned person of the Ptolemaic age26 and was acclaimed by his contemporaries as second only to Plato as a literary thinker and philosopher.

Eratosthenes dated the Trojan War to about 1184 B.C.E., a date generally accepted in ancient times and respected by many modern scholars. He worked out a calendar that included a leap year, and he calculated the tilt of the earth’s axis. One of his most memorable accomplishments was the invention of an accurate method for measuring the circumference of the earth (see the sidebar to this article).

During his tenure as chief librarian, Eratosthenes brought to Alexandria the official Athenian copies of the three great Attic tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. This involved a bit of scurrilous horse-trading: Ptolemy III approved an arrangement for borrowing these precious manuscripts from Athens, pledging the modern equivalent of $4 million as surety.27 With the documents in hand, Ptolemy III then forfeited his deposit, cavalierly retaining the original manuscripts for the Alexandria Library, and instructed the staff to make good copies on fine quality papyrus, which were then sent back to Athens. “The Athenians with both the money and the copies,” one scholar has observed, “also appear to have been satisfied with the deal.”28

Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257–180 B.C.E.) followed Eratosthenes as chief librarian and served for about 15 years. He was a man with a photographic memory and could cite at length the literary sources in the library.29 He had read them all. It is said that while judging poetry competitions he regularly detected plagiarized lines, and on a number of occasions, when challenged by the king to justify his criticism, cited the sources and recited the original passages. As a philologist, grammarian and author, Aristophanes produced poetry, dramas and critical editions of the works of his famous namesake, Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 B.C.E.), the Greek poet and dramatist.

Near the end of his life, Aristophanes was imprisoned by Ptolemy V Epiphanes for entertaining an offer to move to the great library of Pergamum. Such repression did not create an ideal climate in which scholarship might flourish. After his imprisonment, the library languished under an interim director, Apollonius Eidograph. But in 175 B.C.E. a new chief librarian was appointed, Aristarchus of Samothrace (217–130 B.C.E.), who returned the institution to its grand tradition of high scholarship and scientific sophistication.

Aristarchus was chief librarian for 30 years, from 175 to 145 B.C.E. He is still considered one of the greatest literary scholars because his recension of the works of Homer continues to be the standard text (textus receptus) upon which all modern versions are based. Besides his two critical editions of Homer, he produced similarly erudite editions of Hesiod, Pindar, Archilochus, Alcaeus and Anacreon. He wrote commentaries on the works of all these classical poets as well as on the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes, and on the historian Herodotus.

Aristarchus had been the teacher of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, and though the latter gained a reputation for being a monster, the two apparently remained friends. When a civil war and political insurgency against the king arose in 131 B.C.E., Aristarchus accompanied him in his banishment to Cyprus. There Aristarchus died before Ptolemy VIII returned in triumph in 130 B.C.E. to continue his oppressive reign for another 14 years. With his reign, the history of wise and humane Ptolemies and illustrious librarians ended. Thereafter, valuable scholarship continued in Alexandria, such as the work of Philo Judaeus (30 B.C.E.–50 C.E.), the Catechetical School of Clement and Origen (150–350 C.E.) and the Neoplatonic School (350–642 C.E.), but after 130 B.C.E. both kings and scholars were lesser lights. Revolutions, insurrections and persecutions wracked the kingdom as dynastic political intrigue plagued the country, the city and the scholarly community. By the end of Aristarchus’s tenure, such dissatisfaction existed among the scholars regarding the character of the king and the conditions of the scholarly community that Ptolemy VIII imposed a military controller upon the operations of the library.

Considering the extensive accumulation of scientific data collected by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and their advanced methods of empirical research, it is surprising that they did not achieve some key breakthrough in chemistry or physics that would have precipitated an industrial revolution. The Greeks and Romans both understood, for example, the power of steam produced by heated water. The Romans harnessed steam for powering toys. There is some indication that they employed it for powering siege guns. What held them back from utilizing it in steam-driven machinery, which would have enabled that giant leap from mere muscle to mechanical power? They had refined sciences of optics, geometry and physics. What prevented them from imagining and creating a microscope? They understood atomic theory in some coarse way. What prevented them from identifying the components of water as hydrogen and oxygen and thus moving on to the intricacies of chemistry? They seem to have marched right up to the intellectual and scientific threshold for mechanization and then fallen back into a 1,500-year darkness. Their sciences needed to be rediscovered and reinvented in the Renaissance of the 12th to 14th centuries before the next step forward could be made. Why?

The likely answer lies in the area of two cultural circumstances: (1) the shift in Alexandrian Library scholarship from Aristotelian empiricism to Platonic metaphysical speculation in about 100 B.C.E., and (2) the barbarian subduction of Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.

Increasingly during this period of decline, the wealth and intellectual capital of Alexandria was dissipated in trying to maintain workable relations with the rising power of Rome. As the tribute to Rome increased, and the material investment in the library and its scholarship suffered, the superior intellectual importance, prowess and productivity that had been standard under the early Ptolemies proved impossible to maintain: “The dons were drawn into the political vortex, and those not so inclined were silent. The zest to produce the things of culture was permanently interrupted.”30

One consequence of these disturbing times was an intense turn toward religion. Hellenistic Jews were experimenting with various kinds of theologies.31 In Greco-Roman culture, mystery religions were popular, despite the prominence of the emperor cult. The roots of Christianity, Gnosticism and rabbinic Judaism were already insinuating themselves into the rich soil of this uneasy world. In Alexandria, the scholarly community abandoned its intense, fruitful focus upon empirical science after the mode of Aristotle and lost itself in the scholarly inquiry into the religion and philosophy of Platonism.

Father of geometry. The Alexandrian scholar Euclid is depicted calipers in hand by the 15th-century Dutch painter Joos van Ghent; the work is now in the Palazzo Ducale, in Urbino, Italy. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Although the decline of the golden age of the ancient library and university center is sad to contemplate, the “sea change” nevertheless ushered in the newly productive era of the Hellenistic Judaism of Philo Judaeus (30 B.C.E.–50 C.E.); the Hellenistic Neoplatonism of Plotinus (205–270 C.E.), Porphyry (c. 234–305 C.E.), Olympius (c. 350–391 C.E.) and Hypatia (355–415 C.E.); and the Hellenistic Christianity of Pantaenus (c. 100–160 C.E.), Clement (c. 150–215 C.E.), Origen (c. 185–254 C.E.), Tertullian (c. 155–225 C.E.), Athanasius (c. 293–373 C.E.) and Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375–444 C.E.). So the scholarly culture of the ancient library became the seedbed of the great philosophies of Judaism and Christianity and thus has continued to influence Western culture for two millennia, showing little sign of abating as we move into the third.

Philo Judaeus was surely one of the most prominent scholars in Alexandria at the turn of the millennium. His life overlaps that of Jesus of Nazareth and is the scholarly bridge between the pre-Christian era of Greek antiquity and the begin ning of Christian history in Alexandria. With the appearance of Philo, Jewish scholarship became a prominent force there. Philo was a member of a distinguished Jewish family in the influential Alexandrian Jewish community. His brother, Alexander the Alabarch, led that community. Philo lived much of his life in contemplation, authoring a large array of books.

The Jewish community included half of the city of Alexandria in Philo’s time and a large part of the general population of Egypt. Philo and his contemporaries considered themselves to be faithful Jews. Hellenized Judaism was generally welcomed by the Jews of Egypt and provided both an interpretation of Judaism for the Greeks and an interpretation of Hellenism for Jewish society, stretching the whole upon the frame of historic Jewish traditions.

Philo sought to demonstrate that Judaism could be accepted by the Greeks for its universal wisdom and superior insight into ultimate truth. The subjects Philo treated and the organization he used reflect the pattern set for scholarship at the library by Callimachus’s Pinakes. Philo systematically addressed the full range of topics that had formed the categories of that great catalogue. His writings include investigations of theology, philosophy, literary criticism, textual analysis, rhetoric, history, law, medicine and cosmology. However, Philo was not simply interested in objective scientific exploration. His greatest motive was to demonstrate that all that is valuable and virtuous in Greek thought and ideals was also epitomized by the biblical patriarchs and heroes of faith of Jewish religious tradition. Philo treated the Greek notion of Logos, for example, as the universal expression of Hebrew Wisdom (Khokhma in Hebrew; Sophia in Greek), God’s self-expression in the material world.

Philo lived at a time when confidence in a world governed by cause and effect had given over to questions about the purpose of life and history. His questions concerned the nature of God; God’s function in the universe as creator, manager and redeemer; and the meaning and destiny of humankind. The primary question for Platonic-minded scholars and laypersons alike was how a transcendent, ineffable God of pure spirit could be linked to a material universe. Moreover, it seemed evident that the material world was shot through with pain and evil. How could a perfect God create a flawed world?

In both the Jewish and Greek traditions that Philo inherited, this problem was solved by a model of the world in which God was separated from the created universe by a series of intermediaries. These were thought of as divine forces, agencies or persons. The main intermediary was the Logos. The Greek Stoic philosophers had made much of the concept of Logos from the time of early Platonism onward. Philo saw Greek tradition as simply another expression of the references to Wisdom in Job 28, Proverbs 1–9, The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Baruch and other literature in the Hebrew tradition. Philo understood the Logos to be responsible for creating the material universe, supervising it providentially and redeeming it. For Philo, Logos was God’s rationality, both in God’s own mind and in the rational structure of creation. Sophia was the understanding that God has and that humans acquire when they discover God’s Logos in all things. Philo, on occasion, allegorically refers to Logos/Sophia as an angel and, rarely, as a “second God.” In his exposition of Genesis 17 (describing God’s covenant with Abraham), he characterizes God as a trinity of agencies.32
 


 
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Between 150 and 180 C.E. a Stoic philosopher named Pantaenus was converted to Christianity and became the headmaster, if not the founder, of a Christian institution known as the Catechetical School of Alexandria. This school reflected the long-standing intellectual tradition of the Alexandrian Library and may well have been a part of that scholarly enterprise.33

Pantaenus served as head of the Catechetical School long enough to bring it out of obscurity and then, handing over its leadership to Clement, became a missionary. In India Pantaenus discovered a community of Jewish Christians, disciples of the apostle Thomas, whose faith and life were built around their use of a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. Pantaenus never returned to Alexandria.34

Clement (c. 150–215 C.E.) was a student of Pantaenus, and Origen (c. 185–254) was very probably a student of Clement. The theological connection between them, as well as their dependence upon Philo’s work of 150 years earlier, urges this conclusion. Clement and Origen seem to have taken over Philo’s model of God’s relationship to the created world, particularly the function of the Logos in creation, providence and salvation.

These two towering figures of early Christian theological development were headmasters of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which flourished under them and quickly became famous throughout the Christian world. Eusebius (c. 260–348), a church historian, refers to it as “a school of sacred learning established…from ancient times, which has continued down to our own times, and which we have understood was held by men able in eloquence, and the study of divine things.”35

Its relationship to Philo and his classical Greek predecessors has been described as follows:

The first representatives of early church exegesis were not the bishops but rather the “teachers” (didaskaloi) of the catechetical schools, modeled after the Hellenistic philosophers’ schools in which interpretive and philological principles had been developed according to the traditions of the founders of the respective schools. The allegorical interpretation of Greek classical philosophical and poetical texts, which was prevalent at the Library and Museum (the school) of Alexandria, for example, directly influenced the exegetical method of the Christian Catechetical school there. Basing his principles on the methods of Philo of Alexandria and Clement of Alexandria, his teacher, and others, Origen…created the foundation for the type of Christian exegesis (i.e., the typological-allegorical method) that lasted from the patristic period and the Middle Ages up to the time of Luther in the 16th century. Origen based his exegesis upon comprehensive textual-critical work that was common to current Hellenistic practices such as collecting Hebrew texts and Greek parallel translations of the Old Testament. His main concern, however, was that of ascertaining the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, the transhistorical divine truth that is hidden in the records of the history of salvation in the Scriptures. He thus developed a system containing four types of interpretation: literal, moral, typological, and allegorical.36

Clement’s theological and philosophical emphasis differed little from that of Philo, except that the orientation of his notion of the Logos/Sophia doctrine was Christian rather than Jewish. Clement’s aim in his teaching and ministry was to convert to Christianity members of the educated Greek community in Alexandria, the sort of people who would previously have been attracted to Philo’s type of Hellenistic Judaism. “Just as Philo had presented Judaism as the highest form of wisdom and the means by which humankind would come to ‘see God,’ so Clement urged that Christianity was the end to which all current philosophy had been moving…the new melody superior to that of Orpheus.”37

Origen advanced Clement’s ideas and directly identified the Logos with the person of Jesus of Nazareth, thus personifying the Logos. Such personification of the Logos was not uncommon in the world of Philo, Clement and Origen. Indeed, it was a relatively common practice in both Jewish and Greek tradition to conceive of divine powers or agents as identified at various times with specific extraordinary persons. As the divine agency was personified in a human person, the divine was humanized and the human deified.

It was this significant North African theological perspective in the theology of Clement and Origen that dominated Christian thought from the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. At these councils the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the trinitarian nature of God were worked out. Thus, there is a straight line between the Alexandria Library, Philo Judaeus’s Hellenistic Judaism and the Christian doctrines of the deity of Christ and the nature of the trinity. This connection is, of course, very complex, and other forces also affected this development, such as the great variety of polytheistic theologies (which propose that there exist intermediary beings between God and creation) present in the Judaisms of 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. and that Philo wished to counteract in order to refine and protect Jewish monotheism. However, it is the influence of Philo’s theological and philosophical model (mediated through Clement and Origen to the bishops who met at the great councils), combined with the very speculative allegorical interpretation of scripture under the influence of Neoplatonism (typical of the outlook in Alexandria), that explains the theological move of the councils from a Jesus who was filled with the Logos to a Christ who was the being of God.

As this Judeo-Christian development unfolded, the seeds of the Alexandrian school were sown at the ancient library and its university. Plotinus (205–270 C.E.) established the movement with his articulation of a new kind of Platonism. Many similarities can be seen between this Neoplatonism and Judaism and Christianity in the second and third centuries C.E. Neoplatonism stood for an intense personal spirituality, estimable ethical principles and a theology rooted in the Hellenistic philosophy that so significantly shaped Philo.

Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry (c. 234–305 C.E.) looked for the ultimate religious experience as an ecstatic vision of God, adhered to standards of personal purity that made the most ardent Christian envious and proclaimed that God is revealed in the material world in a trinity of manifestations. This singularly attractive alternative to Christianity was championed in the fourth and fifth centuries in Alexandria by the notable Neoplatonist “saints,” Olympius and Hypatia—bringing us back to where we started.

Although Hypatia was brutally murdered by Cyril for advocating a philosophy he thought was antithetical to “orthodox” Christianity, her brand of Neoplatonism became increasingly attractive to Christian philosophers. By the sixth century, it was taken over by them. Though the Alexandrian school was formally eclipsed when the Arabs destroyed the library—and much of the city—in 642, its spirit survives to this day in its influence over Christianity.

That is the story of the Alexandria Library, too. After destroying the library, the Arabs preserved a large percentage of the ancient volumes—as evidenced by the fact that they possessed, in Greek and Arabic translations, many of the works of the ancient poets, playwrights, scientists and philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Eratosthenes. When the European Crusaders encountered the Arabic world in the 11th and 12th centuries, those venerable works became known again in Europe, giving rise to the Renaissance. Islamic philosophers and scientists—such as Averröes, a Spanish Arab (1126–1198 C.E.), and Avicenna, a Persian (980–1037 C.E.)—gave the ancient books and their wisdom back to the Western world and taught Christian Europe to know again and prize its roots in ancient Greece.

So the ancient library of Alexandria rose like a phoenix from her own ashes. She has been wounded, perhaps, but has never really died.

 


 
J. Harold EllensJ. Harold Ellens is a retired scholar who researched at the University of Michigan and served as an occasional lecturer for the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School in California. He is the author of hundreds of articles and numerous books, including The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development (Claremont Graduate School, 1993).
 

 
J. Harold Ellens’s article “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” originally appeared in Bible Review, along with the sidebars “Greco-Roman Philosophers,” “Whither Aristotle’s Library?” “The Perils of the Alexandria Library: Two Ancient Book-Burnings,” “How to Measure the Earth” and “Alexandria Library Redux.” BAS Library Members: Read the article as it appeared in Bible Review.

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Notes

a. The best-known book collected from a non-Greek culture and translated into Greek at the library was the Hebrew Bible, known in its Greek form as the Septuagint (LXX). It seems to have reached the state of a largely completed and official Greek text between 150 and 50 B.C.E. Philo Judaeus (30 B.C.E.–50 C.E.) obviously knew and worked with a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.

1. Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), p. 93. Cf. J. Harold Ellens, The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development, Occasional Papers 27, Institute for Antiquity and Christianity (Claremont: Claremont Graduate School, 1993), pp. 44–51.

2. “Saint Cyril of Alexandria,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 3, cols. 329–330.

3. Theodoret, quoted in The Works of Charles Kingsley, 2 vols. (New York: Co-operative Publishing Society, 1899).

4. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury, 3 vols., with notes by Gibbon, introduction and index by Bury and a letter to the reader from P. Guedalla (New York: Heritage, 1946).

5. Socrates Scholasticus, Historia Ecclesiastica 7.15, in A.C. Zenos, ed., vol. 2 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2d ser., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 160. See also Edward A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library, Glory of the Hellenic World: Its Rise, Antiquities, and Destructions (London: Cleaver-Hume, 1952), p. 356.

6. “Theon of Alexandria,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 9, col. 938; “Euclid,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 6, col. 1020; Ellens, Alexandria, p. 44; and Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, pp. 68–69.

7. Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, p. 70, quoting Damascius without citing what source.

8. Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, pp. 70–73.

9. Steven Blake Shubert, “The Oriental Origins of the Alexandrian Library,” Libri 43:2 (1993), p. 143.

10. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” pp. 142–143.

11. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” p. 143.

12. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” p. 143.

13. Ellens, Alexandria, pp. 1–2.

14. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 16, cols. 501–503.

15. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 1, cols. 990–991.

16. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 15, cols. 180–182.

17. For a detailed discussion of the date of the destruction of the library, see Ellens, Alexandria, pp. 6–12, 50–51; and the superbly objective and thorough treatment of the process of the library’s demise by Mostafa El-Abbadi, Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris: UNESCO/UNDP, 1990), pp. 145–179. See also Gibbon, Decline and Fall, vol. 1, pp. 57–58, and vol. 2, chap. 28 (on the destruction of the library); and Parsons, Alexandrian Library, pp. 411–412.

18. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” p. 144, in which reference is made to the tenth-century C.E. Byzantine Greek volume called the Suidas Lexicon. This lexicon cites the full name of the Pinakes and describes its size as 120 scrolls. Cf. Ellens, Alexandria, p. 3; and F. J. Witty, “The Pinakes of Callimachus,” Library Quarterly 28 (1958), p. 133.

19. Suidas Lexicon; Tzetzes, as cited in El-Abbadi, Life and Fate, p. 101. See also Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” p. 144; and Witty, “Pinakes of Callimachus.”

20. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” p. 144. It is interesting in this regard that Anne Holmes (“The Alexandrian Library,” Libri 30 [December 1980], p. 21) suggests that the Pinakes may have been a list of authors and books that Callimachus wanted to acquire for the library rather than a catalogue of existing library holdings. This is unlikely because of the detailed bibliographical and critical material incorporated in each entry, including the indication that the book was purchased from some other library source or confiscated from some traveler. Lionel Casson (“Triumphs from the Ancient World’s First Think Tank,” Smithsonian 10 [June 1985], p. 164) urges that the Pinakes was conceivably only an encyclopedia of Greek literary history. In such a case, one wonders why it was called the Pinakes, connecting it with the tiles designating the categories of storage compartments and their contents.

21. El-Abbadi, Life and Fate, p. 100; and Parsons, Alexandrian Library, p. 211. See also J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1906–1908), p. 34 n. 3.

22. Parsons, Alexandrian Library, pp. 217–218.

23. Parsons, Alexandrian Library, pp. 110, 204–205. See also El-Abbadi, Life and Fate, pp. 95, 100; and Tzetzes, a 12th-century scholar whose Prolegomena to Aristophanes, also known as Scholium Plautinum, may be found in R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), p. 101.

24. El-Abbadi, Life and Fate, p. 102.

25. Kathleen Marguerite Lea, “Francis Bacon,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, 15th ed., vol. 2, cols. 561–566. See also Catherine Drinker Bowen, Francis Bacon, The Temper of a Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).

26. Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (New York: Scribner, 1897), p. 387.

27. Casson, “Triumphs.” The ancient sources describe the sum as 15 talents, which would probably exceed $4 million today.

28. Shubert, “Oriental Origins,” pp. 145, 166 n. 8, cites Galen’s Comm. II in Hippocraits Epidem. libri III 239–240, which I have not been able to consult. See also J. Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968), pp. 118–119; Holmes, “Alexandrian Library,” p. 290; and P.M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 325.

29. Vitruvius, De Architectura 7.6–8. See also Parsons, Alexandrian Library, p. 150; and El-Abbadi, Life and Fate, pp. 105, 111. Vitruvius lived during the same period as Julius Caesar, Philo Judaeus and Jesus Christ. He was a famous Roman architect, engineer and city planner. The work cited here is a handbook for Roman architects. His style for architecture and city planning was largely Greek, as he lived at the beginning of the phase of creative Roman architectural style, and his work heavily influenced Renaissance art, architecture and engineering. Pliny the Elder borrowed heavily from Vitruvius in the preparation of his Natural History. As was typical in the ancient world, Pliny does not cite his sources and credit Vitruvius. De Architectura contains ten books on building materials, Greek designs in temple construction, private buildings, floors and stucco decoration, hydraulics, clocks, measurement skills, astronomy, and civil and military engines. He was classically Hellenistic in his perspective.

30. Parsons, Alexandrian Library, p. 152; see also p. 229, where Parsons, citing a letter from Thomas E. Page to James Loeb, declares that “But for the patronage of the Ptolemies and the labor of devoted students in the Museum, Homer…might have wholly perished, and we might know nothing of Aeschylus…We still owe Alexandria a great debt.” Murray (Literature, p. 388) remarks, “Zenodotus, Callimachus [sic], Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus were the first five librarians; what institution has ever had such a row of giants at its head?”

31. In this regard see, for example, Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977); Maurice Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991); Jarl Fossum, The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord, Samaritan and Jewish Concepts of Intermediation and the Origin of Gnosticism (Tübingen: Mohr, 1985); Gabrielle Boccaccini, Middle Judaism, Jewish Thought, 300 B.C.E.-200 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

32. Philo Judaeus, The Works of Philo, trans. C.D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993). See also Harry A. Wolfson, Philo, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1947).

33. Some scholars question whether there really was a formal catechetical school as early as the second century, rather than just independent teachers; see Roelof van den Broek, “The Christian ‘School’ of Alexandria in the Second and Third Centuries,” in Centres of Learning: Learning and Location in Pre-Modern Europe and the Near East, ed. J.W. Drijvers and A.A. MacDonald (Leiden: Brill, 1995). The preponderance of evidence, however, strongly indicates that there was one; see W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), p. 286; Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), pp. 190–191, 217–255; Schaff and Wace, eds., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 224–226, 249–281; and G. Bardy, “Aux origines de l’ecole d’Alexandrie,” Reserches de Science Religieuse 27 (1937), pp. 65–90.

34. Frend, Rise of Christianity, p. 286.

35. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, p. 190. See also Annewies van den Hoek, “How Alexandrian Was Clement of Alexandria? Reflections on Clement and His Alexandrian Background,” HeyJ31 (1990), pp. 179–194.

36. Ernst Wilhelm Bentz, “Christianity,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, vol. 4, col. 498.

37. Frend, Rise of Christianity, p. 286.

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  1. Ákos says

    Vicious suppositions without proof declared as facts – this is called calumny. And that is what the author did in connection with Cyril of Alexandria, claiming that he ordered killing Hypatia or that he personally hated Nestorius.

  2. Paul says

    Bart Ehrman, in his “Misquoting Jesus”, (p.178-186) points out the inconsistancies regarding women’s status within the early church:
    “One of the most important passages in the contemporary discussion of the role of women in the church is found in 1 Corinthians 14. As represented in most of our modern English translations, the passage reads as follows:
    33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 let the women keep silent. For it is not permitted for them to speak, but to be in subjection, just as the law says. 35 But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 What! Did the word go forth only from you, or has it reached you alone?”
    According to Ehrman, verses 33 and 34 “were not written by Paul but originated as a kind of marginal note added by a scribe.” These verses are contradicted elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, as Ehrman writes:
    “Paul gives instructions to women speaking in the church: according to chapter 11, when they pray and prophesy – activities that were always done out loud in the Christian services of worship – they are to be sure to wear veils on their heads (11:2-16). In this passage, which no one doubts Paul wrote, it is clear that Paul understands that women both can and do speak in church. In the disputed passage of chapter 14, however, it is equally clear that “Paul” forbids women from speaking at all. It is difficult to reconcile these two views – either Paul allowed women to speak (with covered heads, chapter 11) or not (chapter 14). As it seems unreasonable to think that Paul would flat out contradict himself within the short space of three chapters, it appears that the verses in question do not derive from Paul.”

  3. Raymond says

    “After destroying the library, the Arabs preserved a large percentage of the ancient volumes—as evidenced by the fact that they possessed, in Greek and Arabic translations, many of the works of the ancient poets, playwrights, scientists and philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Eratosthenes. When the European Crusaders encountered the Arabic world in the 11th and 12th centuries, those venerable works became known again in Europe, giving rise to the Renaissance.”

    My readings elsewhere suggest the Christians of Byzantium held a greater collection of the original Greek works than the Arabs, who mostly worked from Arabic translations. Moreover, the Crusaders hardly busied themselves with scholarly endeavors, and brought only a small portion of such works back with them. Some scholars have argued that it was the fall of Constantinople that resulted in the movement of vast quantities of books from those Christian-maintained libraries to Venice and elsewhere that sparked the Renaissance. There was, of course, some movement of works into western Europe centuries earlier, mainly due to translations by Christian and Jewish scholars working out of Iberia. I leave it to scholars to argue these various scenarios.

    And why would the Arabs would even consider destroying such a venerable institution? Muslim legend has it that the commander asked the Caliph what to do with these works. He answered that if the wisdom they conveyed was consistent with the Quran, then it was redundant. And if it was contrary to the Quran, then it was heresy. Some have alternatively suggested that periodic fires destroyed much of the collection. But clearly not all of it survived, as the Arabs never created a comparable repository.

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