Education in Fourth-century Alexandria: 
Didymus the Blindís Commentaries on the Psalms

What was the system of higher education in the fourth century C.E.?  The papyri that survived in Egypt's arid climate have given us many examples of the works of literature studied in antiquity and even show how students learned to read and write.  One trove of patristic writings provides a first-hand example of the ways in which a Christian teacher interacted with his students.

In 1945 in Tura, Egypt, over 1800 pages of papyri were found containing commentaries by the church father Didymus the Blind.  Didymus was appointed head of the catechetical school in Alexandria by its bishop, Athanasius.  This city had been a center of learning from the time its great library was founded under the Ptolemaic rulers.  The Jewish writer, Philo, and the Christians Clement and Origen were all important Alexandrian scholars of the first through third centuries.  Didymus (ca. 313-396) accepted and taught Origen's idea of the pre-existence of the soul before it entered the body, a belief declared heretical by a church council in 553.  After Didymus, like Origen, was condemned as a heretic by the Lateran synod of 649, his writings were probably removed from the library of an Egyptian monastery.  These papyri remained hidden in a cave for 13 centuries, until found by an army unit looking for a munitions dump during the Second World War.

Long portions of Didymus' commentaries on five books of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, were discovered among the papyri at Tura.  The commentary on the Psalms was the text of Didymus' actual lecture.  Moreover, the scribe writing down the lecture also included the questions asked by the student or students.  We thus get a picture of the way a teacher explained a concept to his students and the questions with which they interrupted him or argued with him.

Didymus' analysis of the Psalms may seem idiosyncratic to a modern reader.  Alexandria was known as a center of allegorical interpretation and the students' questions often concern this method.  For Didymus and his circle, virtually every biblical verse has a hidden meaning that only the teacher can reveal to his students.  Even the number of a Psalm, when it is a prime, square, or perfect number, has a special significance which must be understood before the Psalm can be fully interpreted.

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