Alexandria and the New Testament

J. S. Riggs
1897 The American Journal of Theology  
ALL great realities awaken a twofold interest in view of what they are and how they came to be. A masterpiece, whether in literature, art, or life, by its very inspiration urges us to study its secret. Along two lines work on the New Testament has been tireless and abundant-one in setting forth the power, beauty, and worth of the truth itself; the other in making clear the conditions which were antecedent to its deliverance, the environment in which it was proclaimed, and the results which its
more » ... results which its deliverance brought about. It is along this latter line that our theme lies, and the purpose of this paper is to answer as briefly as is consistent with clearness the question "What did Alexandria do in the preparation of the New Testament message?" Did she have a mission which should place her name beside those of other great cities whose growth and influence were factors in God's plan for the accomplishment of this last revelation to us, or are we wrong in supposing that the language of her streets and the impress of her thought is found in these sacred pages? To anyone who knows anything of the thought and life of the first Christian centuries there can be -no question about the wide-reaching influence of the Egyptian capital. Her schools were the pride of scholarship, and her methods the charm of both teacher and pupil. Some of the greatest names among the Fathers were familiar in her streets, and the discussions of her schools are manifest in nearly every department of Christian thought. But with the development of catechetical instruction, with the strange commixtures of gnostic teachings and with the intellectual, stirring theology of these later days, we have not now to do. We are to look at that period which begins with the first of the Ptolemies, in the earlier part of the 927 This content downloaded from on August 15, 2016 11:26:21 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions ( THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY third century B. C.-the golden age of Hellenism-and which ends for us with a name which belongs rather to the sovereignty of thought than of force-Philo Judaeus. He died about the year 40 of our era. This period, no less than the one succeeding it to which we have referred, was one of intellectual agitation, earnest questionings, and complex interpretations. Indeed its problems were brought face to face with the teachings of Christ and his apostles soon after these teachings were given, and its one fascinating method of solving the declarations of poets and prophets worked out many a fanciful comment upon the scriptures of the New and Old Testaments. I refer, of course, to the allegorical system of interpretation. Did space permit, it would be of interest to present a somewhat detailed picture of Alexandria as it was in the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus. The liberal policy of Alexander, with its ideal of placing centers of Greek culture over all the then known world, was earnestly followed by the Ptolemies, and Alexandria soon became in consequence a capital of wealth and power. Its ports, palaces, theaters, and temples were all built upon a magnificent and costly scale. In the time of Philadelphus, not only was it a city of imposing avenues and multiform activities, but leaving out of sight all the smaller public edifices, there were at least thirty remarkable structures which would claim the attention of visitors as do today the Louvre in Paris, the Palais de Justice in Brussels, or Westminster in London. This will give some idea of its dignity and importance. In order, however, to prepare the way for an estimate of the influence exerted upon the preparation of the New Testament message, it is necessary for us to linger a moment at three points in the city-in the Jewish quarter, at the Museum, and in the market place. They are the critical points for the study of Alexandria's peculiar place and purpose. The mission of Alexandrian Judaism was peculiar. From the first it had in the varied history of the city a conspicuous part. Alexander had given the Jews equal rights and privileges with all other citizens at its foundation. They had their own alabarch or governor, who, in conjunction with the Sanhedrin, exercised 928 This content downloaded from on August 15, 2016 11:26:21 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions ( ALEXANDRIA AND THE NEW TESTAMENT control over them. To be sure, a wall at one time about the Jewish quarter marked the hostility which they experienced from the Greeks and native Egyptians because of political jealousy and religious hatred, but here the Jews prospered and in the midst of their wealth found time for intellectual improvement. Their energy, temperance, and mental quickness won for them that position of dignity and self-respect which they eagerly sought for here and in other Greek cities, and the charms of Greek culture proved irresistible. Within that inner wall Plato was studied as well as Moses, and Greek was the "common lan- guage." "The presiding genius of Egyptian Judaism was the royal house of Ptolemy." Within a stone's throw of their city boundary stood the Museum and they could not go over to the docks without coming into contact with the manifold influences of Greek life and custom. In this northeastern part of the old city began, then, that amalgamation which was so long to be serviceable in the history of thought. Here were started the questions which brought the law into comparison with philosophy and which opened the way for the interpretation of one in the terms of the other. Hence came, doubtless, the call for the Greek version of the books of Moses. That busy, thriving section was linked in a strange way with the fortune of the gospels and the epistles. In order to see more clearly the connection we must hold awhile by the Museum. Our use of this ancient word does not lead us to think of a university, but as the muses and their priest were associated with the schools, it is nothing else than the great center of learning that here opens before us. And there could not be found in all Alexandria a better expression of the broad, noble policy of the Ptolemies to make their city a center of intellectual and political worth than this same Museum, With its theater for lectures and public assemblies, its large dining room for its professors, its long marble colonnades adorned with obelisks and sphinxes, and its famous library open to all who would use it, either for studying or for copying its treasures, it brought to the very door of the Jews the wisdom and culture of the heathen world. Nor was the equipment merely in metal and marble. The names of some of the librarians 929 This content downloaded from on August 15, 2016 11:26:21 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions ( THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY are guarantee for the earnest work that was done here.' Every facility in the way of retirement and help was given to men. Lectures could be heard upon poetry, mathematics, science, philosophy, and medicine. The Platonist, the Aristotelian, the Epicurean, and the Stoic were among those who here earnestly discussed the problems of creation, life, and destiny; and the spirit that was busy allegorizing the old Greek poets was making inquiry into the thoughts of all philosophies for an explanation of the mysteries of mind and nature. Is it supposable that Jews were never found listening eagerly to the expositions of the classics of other lands and times? This was a place of marked intellectual activity, and that, too, with a fascination which comes from untrammeled speculation and comparative study. The third point of interest for us in the city is widely different in character from that we have just noted. The market place of Alexandria was crowded with life and business. Wares from every part of the world were exhibited, "the amber of the Baltic, the salt fish of Pontus, the coffee of Cyprus, the timber of Macedonia and Crete, the pottery and oil of Greece, the spices of Arabia, the splendid birds and embroideries of India and Ceylon, the gold and iron of Africa, the apes, leopards, and elephants of tropical climes." Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and merchants from the provinces of Asia Minor were busy in trade, and the variegated scene on the shore was matched by that of the harbor itself where ships from many ports lay at anchor. One fact invests this scene with supreme interest for us. There is everywhere one medium of communication -the Greek. In some cases it was spoken with halting, awkward expression; in others with confusion of foreign idiom and with the admixture of strange words; yet it was Greek. Just so at the Museum and all along the streets and in the Jewish quarter itself. Cosmopolitan as the life was, it found its unification in this. There was one language in palace, court, school, theater, and shop. ' Zenodotus, the grammarian; Callimachus, the poet; Eratosthenes, the astronomer; Apollonius of Rhodes; Aristophanes, the founder of philological criticism; Aristarchus, the critic.
doi:10.1086/476686 fatcat:twtd5c6smvgvnmzsrdk54nat7u