From Egypt to India in the 2nd Century A.D.

This week I’ve been at meetings in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. It was not my first time there, but the visit made me appreciate again the vital role in history this city has played. Named for the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, it became his beloved city. 

Alexandria for almost a thousand years had perhaps the largest and most finely stocked library in the world. The ancient library was destroyed under still disputed circumstances after Muslims came to power, but a spectacular modern version now exists. (One outside wall of the library is pictured in the photo accompanying this post.)

My wife and I visited the library with friends this week but were only able to be outside due to closing time. I had visited it in 2003, and was impressed by both the architecture and displays. I only wish I could have done research there! (Maybe still to be fulfilled?)

There are many fascinating contributions to world history from this city, but her important role in the early history of Christian education and links to India is often overlooked. Alexandria was a keen competitor with Antioch in the first few centuries of the Christian church, particularly in the formation of theology. In the second century there was even a School of Alexandria, with a program of rigorous instruction. 

In 180 A.D., the principal of this school was named Pantenaeus, and he desired to put his great learning to use in India for the Christians there. Little is known of what became of his mission, other than that he left his post, sailed across the Indian Ocean, and lived in Kalyan, a city still existing near the modern city of Mumbai. 

It is interesting that he did not go farther south to Kerela, where communities of Christians existed that traced back to St. Thomas. Traditions of the Church of the East hold that another disciple of Jesus, St. Bartholomew, also came to India via Edessa and ministered in Kalyan. Perhaps it was to believers tracing to St. Bartholomew that Pantenaeus lived among. We do not know this for sure, as very little evidence remains of these Christians in Western India in the 2nd centuries and onward. 

Alexandria’s role in Christian history would diminish greatly after Islam came in the 7th century. But it remains a very strategically located city still today. More needs to be written on its links with India in the first centuries after Christ, and on the influences that would have led a man like Pantenaeus to leave his position and go to India in 180 A.D.

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