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 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.
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.