Clement of Alexandria: mural
Spread of Christianity
Contemporary records for this century apply mainly to Alexandria,
but distribution of papyrus finds suggests that Christianity was
taking hold in many other parts of Egypt (Griggs
The Catechetical School of Alexandria brought Egypt to the forefront
of Christian intellectual life. Alexandria had long been a center
of Pagan and Jewish scholarship: it was there that the Torah
had been translated into Greek. About 150, a converted Stoic
philosopher founded the Christian Catechetical School, later headed by
Clement of Alexandria , an influential scholar (c. 150-210). Clement's description of the fervor of Christian Worship
is quoted on the Events page.
Papyrus Rylands Greek 457, recto: fragment of
Gospel of St. John, from
Papyri, Biblical and other
Most of the early evidence for the books now included in the
New Testament, for
apocryphal books excluded from
it, and for Gnostic
texts comes from Egypt. This situation certainly testifies to
a high level of literacy, and of religious and philosophical activity
in that region, but it also reflects a particular physical environment.
The consistent dryness of Egypt's climate favors preservation
of organic material. Even when discarded or carelessly stored,
papyrus, the material on which texts were written in the early
Christian centuries, is more likely to survive in Egypt than in
many other places.
Papyrology, the study of book and letter forms on papyri, has
allowed increasing precision in dating and deciphering. Even small
fragments may often have large contributions to make. In 1979,
Roberts surveyed the state of scholarship and assigned to the
second century eight fragments of Old Testament books probably
used by Christians rather than Jews (Roberts
1979). He also dated the earliest known fragment of
a New Testament book, a fragment of the Gospel of John, to that
1993, 24-25)."This scrap may take us
back within twenty years of the original composition."
(Bell 1944, 200; quoted Griggs 25: see image at left). Fragments
of a previously unknown gospel are also dated to the mid second
and Skeat 1935).
Mary (on stairs in the middle) leaves her parents to enter the Temple. From the Très Riches
Heures, early 15th century. Click on image for more depictions.
Apocryphal life of Mary
Many apocryphal books added details not in the
One of the most influential additions has been an account
of the life of the Virgin Mary including her parentage, birth,
childhood, betrothal to Joseph, as well as the Annunciation and
Nativity. The stories became very popular and widespread. One
popular element, giving rise to a feast day still celebrated in
both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, is the Presentation
of the Virgin. The story says that as a three year old child Mary
went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem. Artists hthroughout centuries have liked to show her leaving
her parents and being welcomed by the High Priest.
This account may have originated in Egypt in the second century. The earliest surviving manuscript is third century but clearly adapts an earlier text. On date and place of orgigin see Cullman 1991, Strycker
1961 and Testuz
It is misleadingly known as the Protoevangelium Jacobi (Protevangelium of
James), Hock (c1995)
and Wilson (1991)
have published recent English translations.