Alexander, first bishop of Cappadocia

The first known bishop of Cappadocia was Alexander (c. 170–250). History knows him as “Alexander of Jerusalem,” for he spent the final 37 years of his life as bishop of the Holy City.


Studies in Alexandria


History records nothing about Alexander’s birth, family, or childhood. However, we may deduce that he was born around AD 170, likely in Cappadocia.

Alexander studied at the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria in the 190s. In a letter to his fellow student Origen, Alexander refers fondly to their days as students in Alexandria. He mentions their forefathers “Pantaenus, my truly blessed master, and holy Clement my master and helper.” Both were theologians and heads of the school. Clement of Alexanderia was ordained and authorized to teach in AD 189 by Pantaenus, who died c. 200. Because Alexander mentions both of them as teachers, he must have studied in Alexandria at some point in the 190s. Jerome claimed that the apostle Mark started the Alexandrian school but historians believe that Pantaenus began the school around 185. How did Alexander know about the new school in Alexandria? And why did he travel from Cappadocia to Egypt to study theology? The cause of Alexander’s study in Alexandria is unknown, but the result was unmistakable. In Alexandria, Alexander developed close relationships with the key Church leaders, especially Clement and Origen, who would shape his future. In a letter to Origen several decades later, Alexander insists their friendship “should remain inviolate and grow warmer and more enduring” (CH6.14), as, indeed, it did.


Bishop of Cappadocia


Around 200, Alexander became bishop of Cappadocia, presumably his hometown. Early in his bishopric, Alexander invited his Alexandrian teacher Clement to Cappadocia. In 202–03, thousands of Christians lost their lives in Egypt. At this time, Clement, dean of the Catechetical School and bishop of Alexandria, left the city, never to return. He likely went to Cappadocia at the invite of his former student, Alexander.


Hosting Clement


As the dean of the school in Alexandria and a prolific writer, Clement was the most influential Christian theologian of his day. His presence in Cappadocia (c. 203–11) likely attracted students to the region. According to Alexander, Clement’s ministry increased the quality and expanded the quantity of the church in Cappadocia. This suggests that Clement, as a former dean and theologian in Alexandria, operated a similar catechetical school in Cappadocia. Firmilian, the next bishop of Cappadocia, begged the famous Origen to teach in Cappadocia, perhaps at this same school begun by Clement.


Alexander had close connections to the Antioch church and even knew its new bishop, Asclepiades. Around 211, Alexander wrote a letter to commend Clement to the church in Antioch. Perhaps Alexander had plans to leave Cappadocia and, so, helped his mentor transition to a major church. The letter, as cited by Eusebius, closes with, “I send you this letter, dear brothers, by the hand of Clement the blessed presbyter, of whom you have already heard and will now get to know. Through the Master’s providence, he both strengthened and increased our church during his presence here” (CH 6:11).


Persecution


Sometime around 210, the Christians of Cappadocia encountered local persecution. Their bishop, Alexander, remained faithful to Jesus, earning the title of “confessor.” To the church in Antioch, Alexander mentions he was in chains as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Earlier in Church History, Eusebius introduces Alexander as “one of those who manfully confessed the faith during persecution and were preserved by God’s providence.” When mentioning the circumstances of Alexander’s death in 250, Eusebius states that this was Alexander’s second trial and imprisonment, so as to recall Alexander’s first encounter with Roman officials in Cappadocia. Alexander’s Cappadocian imprisonment occurred during the reign of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211), a period of numerous regional persecutions against Christians. The persecutions were probably not empire-wide actions but, rather, the actions of local officials.


Bishop of Jerusalem


Alexander decided to travel from Cappadocia to the sacred sites of Jerusalem around 212. To date, he is the first-documented Christian in history to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Melito of Sardis did visit Jerusalem (and perhaps Sinai) around 190 but only to verify which Old Testament books Jews accepted (Eusebius CH 4:26) and not as a pilgrim to the holy sites. Curiously, the second-recorded pilgrim to Jerusalem was a fellow Cappadocian, Alexander’s successor Firmilian (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 45). Based on these incidental references, the Cappadocia Church was an early influencer regarding the religious devotions of sites in Jerusalem.


While in Jerusalem, Alexander became bishop. He succeeded the famous bishop Narcissus, who was respected for his integrity and devotion to the contemplative life. Eusebius dates the event “at the time” when the Roman Emperor Severus was succeeded by his son Antonius Caracalla—211 AD (CH6.8). In a unique arrangement, Alexander actually shared the bishopric with the elderly Narcissus. Eusebius directly quotes a letter from Alexander himself: “Narcissus, who held the office of bishop before me here and is now, at age 116, my associate in public worship, greets you, and urges you to be on one mind, as do I” (CH 6.11). This arrangement lasted until Narcissus’ death in 215 AD.


How did Alexander, a foreign bishop from Cappadocia, become the bishop of Jerusalem, one of the most prestigious positions in the early Church? Eusebius attributes the role to divine providence. While in Cappadocia, Alexander experienced a dream that prompted him to travel to Jerusalem in order to “worship there and view the [sacred] sites” (CH6.11). Meanwhile, the church leaders in Jerusalem had received a dream/revelation “to go outside the gates and welcome the man God had already selected as their bishop.” Later that day, the people of Jerusalem kindly welcomed Alexander and demanded that he stay in Jerusalem. Eusebius’ account emphasizes the divine providence of Alexander’s appointment; God revealed his will through two complementary dreams.


Was the selection based solely on divine revelation? In the first mention of Alexander, Eusebius states that Alexander “was thought worthy of the Jerusalem episcopate” (6:8). This language suggests that the factors transcended supernatural revelations. Alexander’s appointment as bishop certainly required the approval of, if not direct selection by, Narcissus, the elder and venerated bishop of Jerusalem. Two factors perhaps endeared Alexander to Narcissus. According to the source cited by Eusebius (which may have been documented by Alexander), Narcissus had long preferred the contemplative life. At one point, Narcissus left his post at the Jerusalem Church to spend “many years hiding in the deserts and remote haunts” as a monk. Perhaps Alexander shared Narcissus’ proclivity for monastic asceticism. Several generations after Alexander in Cappadocia, the monastic movement did surge under the bishopric of Basil (330–379). However, Basil refers to prior monastic communities that influenced his Cappadocian grandparents. Second, Alexander was the first (documented) Christian to travel as a pilgrim to the sites of Jerusalem. Alexander recognized the sacredness of Jerusalem—a fitting quality for the leader of a community seeking to expand its influence among Christians throughout the empire. Travel to Jerusalem greatly increased in the third century, perhaps due to Alexander’s efforts to develop Jerusalem as a leading city within the Church.


Alexander and Origen


As bishop of Jerusalem, Alexander made two influential decisions. He welcomed his fellow student and friend, Origen, from Alexandria to Palestine—a move that redirected the course of Christian theology. In 213, the young Origen traveled through Jerusalem to Arabia on an official church visit. During this drip, Alexander likely introduced Origen to the sites of the holy land and, perhaps, discussed his vision for a theological library and school in Jerusalem. In 215, the Roman Emperor Caracalla destroyed the city of Alexandria (because some students mocked him!) and exiled all teachers. Origen fled to Jerusalem. At that time, bishops Alexander of Jerusalem and Theoctistus of Caesarea (Palestine) invited Origen to give discourses on the interpretation of Scripture. Despite his international fame, Origen was not an ordained bishop. Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, became infuriated at the fact that the un-ordained Origen taught publicly, which was a violation of Christian canons. So, Demetrius sent the deacons of Alexandria with an official letter demanding Origen’s return. Demetrius may have been jealous of Origen’s fame or concerned about the spread of Origen’s allegorical exegesis. Nevertheless, the bishops of Palestine defended their decision to invite Origen, emphasizing the importance of his gifting over office—“Wherever people are qualified to assist brother [clergy], they are invited by the bishops to preach to the people” (CH 6.19). In the end, Origen obeyed and returned to Alexandria, though his relationship with Demetrius never healed.


Despite Origen’s obvious talent and fame, Demetrius never ordained Origen. Therefore, in 231, Origen left Alexander and permanently settled in Caesarea, the main city in Palestine. The bishops Alexander and Demetrius, perhaps eager to build up their church, immediately ordained Origen as a presbyter, thus giving him full authority to teach in the Church. They regarded Origen “as their only teacher and left to him the task of interpreting the divine Scriptures and other aspects of church instruction” (CE 6.27). Sponsored by Alexander and others, Origen established the Christian “School of Caesarea” with its large library. While teaching in Caesarea until his death in 254, Origen produced a massive quantity of writings and trained future Church leaders, including the Cappadocians Firmilian and Gregory Thaumaturges.


The Jerusalem Library


Alexander also established a public library in Jerusalem. Having studied in Alexandria (190s) and hosted Clement’s training in Cappadocia, he knew the importance of library resources. The learned theologian knew that the Jerusalem Church needed a respectable collection of books to become a focal point of Christian learning. Alexander’s vision soon became a reality. By the 220s, the Jerusalem Church hosted “many learned churchmen.” Eusebius, writing from the library around 300, said their “correspondence still survives and is easily accessible in the library” (CH6.20).


The decision to copy and collect Christian writings was perhaps Alexander’s most important legacy. This library in Jerusalem, along with Origen’s vast library in Caesarea, became principal sources of material for Eusebius’ Church History. Eusebius says about Jerusalem: “It is here that I myself was able to gather the material for this book” (6:20). Much of our knowledge about eastern Christianity in the early 200s, transmitted through Eusebius’ research, comes from the library that Alexander established in Jerusalem.


Death


Alexander died in 250 in the persecutions of Decius (r. 249–51). The Roman Emperor issued an empire-wide edict commanding everyone (except Jews) to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Some Christians acquiesced and offered sacrifices. Others, such as Alexander, refused and were martyred or imprisoned. Eusebius explains, “Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem again appeared in the governor’s court at Caesarea, boldly confessed his faith a second time, and was imprisoned, though crowned with the hoary locks of ripe old age. After his glorious witness he fell asleep in prison, and Mazabanes was named his successor in the bishopric of Jerusalem” (CH6:39). This was Alexander’s second court appearance and it recalls his trials 50 years earlier in Cappadocia. Alexander publicly maintained his allegiance to Jesus before the Roman judges in Caesarea of Palestine. At this point, Alexander was about 80 years old and so could not survive the harsh conditions of prison. As Jerome concludes, “brought to Caesarea and shut up in prison, [Alexander] received the crown of martyrdom for confessing Christ” (On Illustrious Men, 62).


Summary Timeline of Alexander’s Life


c. 170–birth, location unknown, perhaps Cappadocia

190s–studies in Alexandria, under Clement and with Origen

c. 200–becomes bishop of Cappadocia.

203–hosts Clement of Alexandria in Cappadocia

211–writes letters to Antiochians introducing Clement

c. 213–travels to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, becomes bishop of Jerusalem

215–invites Origen to teach in Palestine

231–welcomes Origen to live in Palestine

250–arrested by Roman authorities, dies in jail


There are two main sources for Alexander's life. Eusebius’ Church History (book 6) offers select details and cites four of Alexander’s letters. Jerome, borrowing from Eusebius, summarizes Alexander’s life a in On Illustrious Men 62.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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