The rise of Christianity in Alexandria remains a puzzle.Footnote 1 Adolf von Harnack's assessment from the beginning of the last century is often quoted: ‘The worst gap in our knowledge of early church history is our almost total ignorance of the history of Christianity in Alexandria and Egypt … up till 180 ad.’Footnote 2 The purpose of this study is not so much to add to this convoluted problem,Footnote 3 but rather to tackle it from an angle which might seem unrelated on first glance: why did Paul skip Alexandria? Why did Alexandria not appear on the Pauline missionary map? Why would he ignore the opportunity to reach out to the numerous proselytes and God-fearers who were present in large numbers in Alexandria and who elsewhere provided ‘a nucleus for the churches’ which Paul founded in other urban centres?Footnote 4 Why did Alexandria remain out of sight after his missionary journeys, even after delivering the collection to the Jerusalem community? What prompted him to make plans to travel to the Latin-speaking Spain after concluding he had ‘no further place … in these regions (ἐν τοῖς κλίμασιν τούτοις)’ (Rom 15.23)?
The lack of scholarly interest in this question is almost as conspicuous as the lack of sources for earliest Christianity in Alexandria. Adolf Deissmann once noted that there is but one thing that strikes him as ‘peculiar’: that Paul ‘should never have gone to Egypt, especially to Alexandria, the international head-quarters of the Jews of the Dispersion’.Footnote 5 He refers to three rather minor ‘Alexandrian accents’ in Paul's (Lukan) biography: his encounter and co-operation with Apollos in Corinth (Acts 19.1; 1 Cor 3.6), the occasion when he was taken to be an ‘Egyptian’ (Acts 21.38) and his travels on Alexandrian ships (Acts 27.6; 28.11).Footnote 6
If scholars hypothesise about the question of why Paul skipped Alexandria at all, their answers are quite diverse. They relate to Paul's self-understanding as a missionary, to his theological raison d’être, to religious and cultural aspects, and to political circumstances. In the course of the following argument, it will become apparent that answers to the title question are intricately related to the question of the rise of earliest Alexandrian Christianity.
1. Theological and Scriptural Reasons
1.1 Alexandria Was Not Part of the ‘Table of Nations’
James Scott argues that the Jewish ethnographic and geographic tradition of the ‘Table of Nations’ of Genesis 10 (cf. 1 Chron 1.1–2.2) and its reception in Second Temple Judaism was formative for Paul's mission strategy.Footnote 7 Rom 15.19 is crucial for Scott's argument: ‘from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum (κύκλῳ μέχρι τοῦ Ἰλλυρικου) I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.’ According to Scott, Paul's mission starts in Jerusalem as the centre of the world and draws out a circle embracing the whole inhabited world (cf. Ezek 5.5). Paul regards his missionary efforts as part of the divine eschatological plan to reach the nations, those who ‘have not heard of my fame or seen my glory’ (Isa 66.19). The recapitulation of the ‘Table of Nations’ in Ezekiel 38–9, Daniel 11 and especially in Isa 66.18–29 as well as the reception and actualisation of biblical ethnography in several later texts, especially in Jubilees 8–9 and Josephus, A.J. 1.120–47, proves to Scott that eschatological–ethnic expectations were relevant in Jewish self-understanding in the first century. Paul's apostolic mission extends to the territory of Japheth, i.e. to Asia Minor, Achaia, Macedonia and the Adriatic Sea. Spain marks the goal of Paul's Japheth mission and the boundary of his missionary map. Other early Christ-followers undertook the task to travel to the regions associated with the other sons of Noah: to the descendants of Shem in the East and the descendants of Ham in the west and south. In the outline of Acts, Scott delineates the geographical strategy of the first missionary efforts: ‘Shem’ was under Peter's jurisdiction (Acts 2.1–8.25), ‘Ham’ under Philippus’ (Acts 8.26–40) and ‘Japheth’ under Paul's (Acts 9.1–28.31).Footnote 8 In a footnote Scott however entertains the idea that the regions of Ham were under the jurisdiction of Apollos of Alexandria.Footnote 9
In Rainer Riesner's interpretation, Isa 66.18–21 takes centre stage. According to Riesner, ‘Paul read this text as being fulfilled in his own activity, and traces of this exegesis stand behind Rom. 15:16–24.’Footnote 10 He concludes: ‘What picture of the spread of the eschatological Gentile mission could emerge for Paul from Isa. 66:18–21? The movement obviously takes Jerusalem as its point of departure, to which God comes for the gathering of the nations (Isa. 66:18) … This movement, beginning from Jerusalem and proceeding in a northwesterly arc to the most extreme west, would correspond to the conception lying behind Rom. 15:19.’Footnote 11 The phrase ‘in a circle’ (Rom 15.19) does not necessarily denote a full circle but might refer to a half circle.Footnote 12 Rather briefly, Riesner addresses the possibility that Paul could have turned east or south after his visit to Jerusalem. Both directions, however, would have been excluded by the prophetic oracle in Isa 66.19.Footnote 13
Scott asks the suggestive question: ‘Is it coincidence … that the parties in 1Cor 1:12 are named in terms of three men [sc. Paul, Apollos, Peter] who stem from the territories allotted to Noah's three sons, beginning in the north and proceeding counterclockwise?’Footnote 14 However, it is indeed coincidence, since the issue of missionary territory and jurisdiction is not in view in 1 Cor 1.10–17, not even on a secondary or tertiary level. The origin and identity of Apollos are strongly debated, and Peter does not represent a geographically oriented mission, but an ethnically oriented one (Gal 2.7). However, the grand scheme of Scott's and Riesner's ‘Table of the Nations’ readings in view of Paul's understanding of mission still deserves attention despite the notorious difficulties of evaluating the ethnographic terminology and imagery.Footnote 15 The ‘Table of Nations’ tradition and, particularly, Isa 66.19 could provide ‘a shaft of light which illuminates both the rationale of Paul's mission and the compulsion he experienced to reach Spain.’Footnote 16 At the same time, the oracle could have played a role in eclipsing Alexandria from Paul's missionary map. It appears, however, that Paul came to read Isa 66.18–21 (and Genesis 10) as a programmatic, eschatological framework for his mission only in a retrospective rationalising and theologising about his path.Footnote 17
1.2 Alexandria Was Part of the ‘House of Slavery’
In their groundbreaking work Paul between Damascus and Antioch, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer underscore the ‘Table of Nations’ interpretation of early Christian mission. They conclude: ‘Basically, for the first twenty years of earliest Christian history the biblical motto was: Shem, then cautiously Japhet, but not Ham.’Footnote 18 Hence, Egypt was not in view. The only ‘scanty exceptions’ to the striking silence of the New Testament texts are the Ethiopian eunuch and Apollos. Hengel and Schwemer hasten to add that the Ethiopian came into contact with the new faith not in Egypt, but on the road to Gaza, and Apollos possibly in Judea, as he allegedly only knew the baptism of John (Acts 18.25). Their inference from this gap in the sources is sweeping: ‘This silence is probably an indication that the gospel came to Alexandria later than to Antioch and Rome.’Footnote 19 The reason for the late arrival of the gospel is neither accidental nor strategic, but purely theological and scriptural: ‘[W]hile already in the Old Testament period Egypt is the typical land of the exile and the Diaspora, on the other hand a return to Egypt, to the “house of slavery”, was taboo, indeed was sometimes explicitly forbidden.’Footnote 20 Furthermore, Mizraim-Egypt is the son of Ham, who was cursed by Noah, and a brother of Canaan.Footnote 21 According to Hengel and Schwemer, the period after the death of Jesus until the persecution under Agrippa was not characterised by robust missionary activities. Early Christians expected the imminent coming of Christ and experienced rejection among their non-Christian contemporaries, and they were not so much concerned with expanding their missionary territory beyond Arabia and Cilicia. Therefore, as Hengel and Schwemer need to concede, ‘[t]he advance of Christians to Rome seems here at first to be the exception which proves the rule’.Footnote 22
Apart from the fact that the common epithet of Alexandria as Alexandria ad Aegyptum expresses a certain distinction from Egypt, the rather dark picture of Egypt painted by Hengel and Schwemer requires some elucidating.Footnote 23 The early Christian tradition, which has the Holy Family travel to Egypt (Matt 2.13–15), speaks against a particularly negative stance towards this region. In Acts 6.9, Alexandrians are named, without further differentiation, next to Cyrenians and those from Cilicia and Asia as forming synagogue communities in Jerusalem. Early Christian mission did not assess the worthiness of a particular region or people prior to engaging in missionary work, and the existence of early Christian prophets who influenced Paul's and others’ mission strategy is hardly demonstrable. At the end of the day, Jews constituted a remarkable community in the so-called ‘House of Slavery’, and were in regular contact with Jerusalem, benefiting from the comfortable travel conditions. It is plausible, however, that Paul's conviction regarding his particular missionary agenda grew stronger in the course of his ministry as he travelled ‘as far around as Illyricum’ (Rom 15.19). This does not preclude, but rather invites, the idea of a non-Pauline mission in Egypt and Alexandria.
2. Cultural and Political Reasons
2.1 Alexandria Was Not Receptive to Another ‘Universalistic’ Religion
While Hengel and Schwemer point out that Old Testament verdicts and alleged early Christian prophetic warnings resulted in a general reluctance to proceed to Egypt, others regard the religious and ideological atmosphere of Alexandrian Judaism as a strong disincentive for missionary activity. In his famed book Les apôtres Ernest Renan held that Christianity was slow to take any hold of Egypt, indeed ‘Christian missionaries appear to have systematically turned their backs upon it.’ Renan names three reasons: the points of contact between the Alexandrian and the Palestinian Jews were limited, the Egyptian religion afforded no favourable foundation for Christianity, and Egyptian Judaism experienced a development along its own paths. ‘Egypt had Philo and the Therapeutics; that was its Christianity which deterred it from lending an attentive ear to the other. Pagan Egypt possessed religious institutions much more definite than those of Graeco-Roman Paganism: the Egyptian religion was still in all its strength.’Footnote 24 Renan's far-reaching generalisation of Egypt's religious mentality (including his underlying views on race)Footnote 25 and his specific stance on the relationship between the Therapeutae and Christians cannot be addressed here.Footnote 26 His bottom line is that the Jewish universalism of Philo and the ascetic lifestyle of the Therapeutae created a religious atmosphere that deterred Christian missionary efforts. More poignantly: there was a kind of ‘pre-Christianity’ in Alexandria, which kept ‘proper Christianity’ out.
In more recent scholarship the Therapeutae are no longer evoked as an impediment to early Christian and Pauline mission. It is still argued, however, that the universalism of the Jewish religion in Alexandria could have discouraged or undermined Christian mission, at least amongst ‘sympathisers’ of Judaism. Martina Böhm observes that missionaries might have had a hard time finding ‘points of contact’.Footnote 27 Gerhard Sellin takes a different angle and alleges that Paul could have thought that a mission to Alexandria would jeopardise his ideas of resurrection, as laid out in 1 Corinthians 15.Footnote 28 To be sure, Sellin's hypothesis depends to a large extent on his Alexandrian-Jewish characterisation of Paul's opponents in 1 Corinthians, who are, in his view, both ideological kinfolks of Philo and precursors of Alexandrian Gnosticism.Footnote 29 The theological differences between Paul and Apollos were not as great as Sellin wants them to be.Footnote 30 Also, it remains unclear why Paul should not have met the challenge, for in other contexts he is not prone to avoiding conflicts.
Notwithstanding the difficulties of using labels such as ‘(Jewish) universalism’, it is important to recognise that Philo indeed championed a unique convergence of ‘universalist’ and ‘particularist’ traits and developed a ‘view of a comprehensive universalism which integrates Jewish traditions’, in both his theology and practice.Footnote 31 Whether the Philonic openness towards the surrounding culture in turn resulted in closed doors for other ‘universalist’ religious movements such as Christianity cannot be answered with any degree of confidence. After all, one should acknowledge that ‘Philo's milieu in Jewish Alexandria’ was not the only intellectual current.Footnote 32 The religious soil of Alexandria also yielded ‘particularistic’ literary fruits such as 3 Maccabees and the Letter of Aristeas.Footnote 33 In addition, a ‘universalistic’ outlook is, without doubt, an essential trait of Pauline Christianity, but the manner in which Philo and Paul shaped their ideas of ‘universalism’ leaves much room for productive competition.
In a stimulating small monograph with the programmatic title Christentum als Intellektuellen-Religion Alfons Fürst suggests that earliest Christianity took root in Alexandria as a gentile-Christian intellectual phenomenon after the end of Alexandrian Judaism. According to Fürst, Origen is the most prominent example of Alexandrian ‘educated Christianity’ (Bildungschristentum), and others could be placed by his side: among the ‘heterodox’ early Christian intellectuals we find Basilides and Isidore, Carpocrates, Epiphanes, Apelles, Valentinus and Heracleon, and among the ‘orthodox’ he refers to those associated to the catechetical school, Pantaenus, Clement, Heraclas, Origen and Ambrose.Footnote 34 Fürst concludes: ‘Christianity in Alexandria started on a high, the highest intellectual level – as a religion of intellectuals.’Footnote 35 Wistfully, Fürst writes that only after the demise of the type of Christian intellectual and individual did a church organisation arise, which was also common in other regions.Footnote 36 Fürst is certainly correct that Alexandria became a formative force in the Christian movement only in the second century when Christian-‘gnostic’ thinkers placed and developed Christian ideas within the framework of higher education and contemporary philosophy of religion and would later themselves enrich the philosophical discourse. The labelling of this type of Christianity as ‘religion of intellectuals’ has been criticised,Footnote 37 and even more doubtful is Fürst's reductionist argument that the lack of earlier sources proves the non-existence of Christ groups in Alexandria. Fürst does not consider if the intellectual atmosphere of Alexandria prevented an earlier arrival of the Jesus movement in Alexandria – if that would even have prevented Paul from including Alexandria into his travel plans. In fairness, Fürst's goal was to analyse the character of earliest documented Christianity in Alexandria, not to assess the reasons for its late rise. His stated method is to explicitly dismiss inferences from comparative analysis, and he pleads for an uncompromising focus on the existing sources, which are silent on the first century. This necessarily limits his proposals on the question at hand.
2.2 Alexandria Was Politically Too Unstable during the Jewish Riots
The ever-quotable Deissmann found the most poignant words to depict the differences between Philo and Paul: notwithstanding their many points of similarity, ‘there is a very sharp contrast between them … Philo was a writer, Paul a speaker (even his letters were spoken); … Philo was a philosopher, Paul the fool poured out the vials of his irony upon the wisdom of the world. … Philo is a pharos, Paul a volcano. Philo is a student and theologian, Paul a prophet and herald. Philo worked at his desk for the great literary public, Paul hurried from the workshop to the market-place and the synagogue, to see his hearers face to face.’Footnote 38 Even if not all of Deissmann's binary oppositions are equally persuasive, his point is well taken. He would never reach Renan's conclusion that, since Alexandria had Philo, there was no niche for Paul's mission, or any Christian mission. Deissmann, however, concedes that he cannot offer an indisputable explanation why Paul, ‘who on one occasion was taken for an Egyptian’ (Acts 21.38), never went to Egypt.Footnote 39 He contemplates various hypotheses and finally settles on the political turmoil in Alexandria. The persecutions, which broke out ‘when Paul's missionary work was beginning, made a mission to Egypt an actual impossibility and drove Paul to the North and West, even if he had intended to do missionary work in the South. Later on, when Egypt was again quiet, no doubt other persons evangelised there.’Footnote 40
Deissmann first expressed this idea in 1911. It transformed, he later writes, from mere assumption to certainty when H. Idris Bell published P.Lond. vi.1912 (= CPJ ii.153), better known as the Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, in 1924.Footnote 41 In this letter, dating from the autumn of 41 ce (terminus post quem is November 10), Claudius deals among other things with the tensions between Jews/Judeans and other groups in the city. The text, which provoked a flood of secondary literature, need not be reproduced in full here. Deissmann builds his argument upon the stern warning to Alexandrian Jews, not ‘to bring in or invite Jews coming from Syria or Egypt (μηδὲ ἐπάγεσθαι ἢ προσείεσθαι ἀπὸ Συρίας ἢ Αἰγύπ<τ>ου καταπλέοντας Ἰουδαίους), or I shall be forced to conceive graver suspicions. If they disobey, I shall proceed against them in every way as fomenting a common plague for the whole world (κοινήν τεινα τῆς οἰκουμένης νόσον)’ (P.Lond. vi.1912 ll. 96–100).Footnote 42 Paul, Deissmann alleges, did not have an ‘open door’ in Alexandria (cf. 1 Cor 16.9; 2 Cor 2.12).
It is quite plausible that Paul and the people surrounding him were aware of the political situation in Alexandria, and it may even be the case that political circumstances influenced his missionary agenda. However, the edict is not concerned with travel from Judea/Syria to Alexandria, but obviously guards ‘against the inundation with Judean immigrants’, as this would further destabilise the fragile equilibrium within the city and increase the threat of violent turmoil.Footnote 43 Furthermore, as Deissmann places Paul's decision not to go to Egypt at the beginning of his missionary work, he must presuppose a late conversion date.Footnote 44
2.3 Alexandria Was Being Closed for Christian Mission by Claudius
In the context of the puzzling Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, reference needs to be made of the rather bold thesis first suggested by the French religious historian Salomon Reinach. In a paper published shortly after the editio princeps of P.Lond. vi.1912, he argued that the papyrus represented the first allusion to Christianity in (secular) history.Footnote 45 In summary, he suggested that the Alexandrian outburst was ‘intelligible only if Claudius had heard from his Jewish friends in Rome, especially from King Agrippa, that the Messianic agitation, both anti-Roman and anti-social, was brooding mischief in the East and even in Rome. A few years later, as the agitation continued and gained ground, Claudius banished from Rome not all the Jews, but those who took part in the disturbance’ (cf. Suetonius, Claud. 25.4).Footnote 46 Reinach even found an allusion to Claudius’ letter in Acts 24.5, where Tertullus accuses Paul: ‘We have, in fact, found this man a pestilence (λοιμόν), an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world.’Footnote 47 As Paul's trial in Caesarea took place in the late fifties, Reinach assumes that the letter ‘must have been widely circulated and served as a warning to the Messianic Jews’.Footnote 48 Reinach does not relate his findings to Paul's missionary strategy, so it remains unclear whether or not he would support Deissmann's conjecture that the letter prevented Paul from aiming at Alexandria. Despite the exceedingly speculative character of his theory and the far-fetched conceptual coincidence between the letter and Acts – both refer to plague or pestilenceFootnote 49 – there were a number of scholars who agreed or considered it a possibility,Footnote 50 but nowadays it is mostly disregarded – and rightly so.Footnote 51
Claudius refers to conflicts involving Jews and Greeks, not conflicts between Jews and Jewish Jesus-followers, as was the case in Rome in 49 ce. Also, Claudius’ warnings not only concern Jews sailing in from Syria, but also those sailing down the Nile to Alexandria from other regions in Egypt (‘coming from Syria or Egypt’).Footnote 52 Idris Bell, who published the papyrus, severely criticised Reinach's idea twenty years later: ‘whatever may be thought of this, I can see no justification whatever for finding in the letter of Claudius any allusion, direct or indirect, to Christianity at Alexandria. Claudius speaks of the Jews introducing into the city their fellow-countrymen from Syria and Egypt.’Footnote 53 If the political circumstances were not decisive in Paul's decision to avoid Alexandria, one final set of responses to our initial question requires attention.
3. Mission-Strategical Reasons
3.1 Alexandria Had Already Been Evangelized by Anonymous Jewish Christians
One corollary of Reinach's hypothesis reflects an opinion that has nowadays established itself as the majority view. In his conclusion, Reinach wrote in the exuberant language of his time: ‘l'activité, la fièvre d'idées qui se produisait dans cette jeune Eglise dut être quelque chose d'extraordinaire’.Footnote 54 Even if Claudius' letter is not reflective of the dynamics of early Christianity, there are good reasons to assume that the Jesus movement was thriving and expanding and that Christianity had arrived in Alexandria at an early date. Most would argue, in contrast to the above-quoted contention by Hengel and Schwemer, that the missionary impulse of early Christianity was strong from its very beginning and that the arrival of the Jesus movement in Rome in the early 40s was not necessarily an exception.Footnote 55 As it is impossible to determine a specific date for the arrival of Christianity, scholarship settles roughly on the middle of the first century. Helmut Koester wrote: ‘it is indeed unthinkable that the Christian mission should have bypassed Alexandria for decades. One or several communities must have existed there as early as the second half of the 1st century.’Footnote 56 Possibly, the first Christ-believing Jews have entered Alexandria as early as the thirties of the first century.Footnote 57 The strong religious association and the excellent travel conditions between the Jewish ‘Metropolis’ and the Hellenistic–Roman Metropolis are well knownFootnote 58 and prompt a comparison with the early journey of the Jesus movement to Rome. It is hard to prove, though not impossible, that Paul was aware of an organised early mission to Alexandria at the beginning of his own missionary endeavours and that this would have precluded his own engagement in Alexandria. As he considered himself a pioneer missionary who would not interfere with other missionaries’ efforts, he did not go to Alexandria in order not to ‘build on someone else's foundation’ (Rom 15.20–1).Footnote 59 Another possible and even likely scenario is that the new faith was not transported by ‘professional’ missionaries to Alexandria, but by anonymous merchants and craftspeople and through the vibrant connection between the Jerusalem and the Egyptian diaspora, to which the Pentecost report in Acts bears witness (Acts 2.10; 6.9).Footnote 60
The only tangible trace of an early Jewish-Christian mission is the enigmatic figure of Apollos, who is reported to have taught in Ephesus (Acts 18.24–8) and in Corinth (Acts 19.1–7; 1 Cor 1–4). Reconstructing and assessing the disparate information from Luke and Paul is notoriously difficult.Footnote 61 In particular, this is true of Apollos’ Alexandrian setting. In the textual tradition, there is a hint of Jewish-Christian activity in Alexandria: the varia lectio of Acts 18.25 (Codex Bezae), which is certainly secondary but might go back to the second century, reports that Apollos ‘had been instructed in the word in his native city (ἐν τῇ πατρίδι)’. The Western text establishes what Luke's version left open: that Apollos joined a Christian community in Alexandria and can thus be called the first Egyptian Christian known by name. The ‘Egyptian conversion’ of Apollos is by no means certain, as any educated, presumably wealthy, Alexandrian could have become acquainted with Christianity in his travels, as already Renan suggested,Footnote 62 possibly even in Judea.Footnote 63 Up to today, however, these references to Apollos are taken as pivotal evidence ‘to a date in the first half of the first century for the presence of a Christian community in Alexandria’.Footnote 64
3.2 Alexandria Was Evangelized by Barnabas and/or Mark after the Jerusalem Council
Upon the successful completion of their first journey, Paul and Barnabas could have turned to other regions in the Mediterranean.Footnote 65 In the winter months after their return, they – together with the collegial leadership in Antioch – probably forged plans for further action, and after the ‘Apostolic Council’ (probably in 48 ce),Footnote 66 the plans needed to be substantiated, fleshed out and executed. Possibly, they had to choose between revisiting the Christ groups they had founded during their first journey, yet another visit to the regions in which the first mission was less successful (e.g. Cyprus), and the expansion of the mission to other areas in Asia Minor, Greece and even beyond. Possibly, Alexandria figured in these plans, but even if this were the case, the idea was dropped. Luke has Paul say to Barnabas that they would set out from Antioch to revisit the communities they founded during their first trip (Acts 15.36).
Even if this decision is quite understandable, our initial question can be asked even at this stage in Paul's career since his travel plans were not carved in stone (cf. Acts 16.6, 7) and he was always eager to break new ground. Why did he ignore Alexandria at this point? Luke mentions a controversial exchange between Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, who wanted to add a third member to the team, John Mark (Acts 15.36–9), Barnabas’ cousin (?) (cf. Col 4.10). The dispute ended in a division, because Paul was resentful towards John Mark for leaving them in Pamphylia, but the division in turn likely ‘resulted in an expansion … of the mission’.Footnote 67 In fact, Luke reports that Barnabas and John Mark continued their mission work in Cyprus, Barnabas’ home country (Acts 4.36; 15.39), while Paul thought on a large scale and wanted eventually to set foot in ‘Europe’. It has been asked whether or not the information about the travel of Barnabas and John Mark to Cyprus is reliable, since the existence of Christian communities in Cyprus remains obscure,Footnote 68 but for our purposes we have to turn to an even more controversial question: did Barnabas and Mark think on a large scale as well, and set out to visit Alexandria? Did the controversy between Paul and Barnabas concern not only the missionary team, but also the missionary strategy, with Paul turning to the ‘west’ and Barnabas, together with John Mark, to the ‘south’?Footnote 69
After the incident between Paul and Barnabas, all trace of the latter is lost in Acts. Not so in Paul's letters: Paul himself indicates that Barnabas is still active as a missionary in the mid fifties (1 Cor 9.6). One would assume that he did not stay in Cyprus throughout these years, and a trip from Cyprus to Alexandria would certainly not be seen as odd.Footnote 70 Several other arguments have been put forward for Barnabas’ travel to Alexandria, based on a presumably old tradition reported in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (1.9.1–2) that ‘a Hebrew man (ἀνὴρ Ἑβραῖος) called Barnabas’ came from Jerusalem, sent by Peter, to preach the gospel in Alexandria. There is a worthwhile minority opinion that is willing to give some credence to an Alexandrian visit by Barnabas. Gilles Quispel deems this ‘an extremely trustworthy tradition, because it contradicts the official version, according to which Mark, the author of the Gospel, had come from Rome to found the Church there’.Footnote 71 Obviously, the question of Barnabas’ visit to Alexandria is related to the question of the provenance of the Epistle of Barnabas, which is equally contested. For many scholars, Alexandria remains the most convincing solution, particularly due to its relationship to texts and traditions of Alexandrian origin. There, the continuity with Jewish messianism and other millennial hopes, the anti-Roman bias and the figurative modes of interpretation can be situated in a setting where ‘Jewish literal interpretation of the law is harshly condemned and Jewish nationalistic promises are interpreted in a broadly Christocentric manner’.Footnote 72 In particular, the figurative hermeneutics has obvious equivalents among Alexandrian exegetes, both Jewish (e.g., Philo) and Christian (e.g., Origen).Footnote 73 Apart from that, Clement of Alexandria is the first to quote from the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Codex Sinaiticus, an ‘Alexandrian’ version of the New Testament text, includes it. Citing Quispel's thesis, James Carleton Paget writes: ‘If Barnabas did in fact visit Egypt, then the ascription of a letter to him written in Alexandria would make sense.’Footnote 74
An even better attested tradition links John Mark with the foundation of the Alexandrian church (e.g. Eusebius, HE 2.16) – ‘they say’ (φασίν) that Mark spread the gospel in Egypt and founded ‘churches first of all at Alexandria itself’ (ἐκκλησίας τε πρῶτον ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας).Footnote 75 But such reports bear clear signs of a later founding legendFootnote 76 and presuppose an impossible chronology.Footnote 77 Historically, only his alliance with Barnabas (Acts 15.39; cf. again Eusebius, HE 2.16) might point to a possible visit by Mark to Alexandria.
With reference to Rom 15.18–20 and against the backdrop of an optimistic reading of the Barnabas tradition, John Gunther suggested that in the later stage of his mission Paul excluded Alexandria from his territory, because ‘he did not wish to trespass in the domain of Barnabas, the other apostle to the Gentiles. Why else did Paul not plan to stop in Alexandria and Cyrene on the way from Jerusalem to Rome after delivering his gift to “the saints”? Barnabas stayed out of Paul's territory, even in Asia Minor where he had been on their “first journey”. They subsequently acted as if they had made an agreement on the division of missionary territory when they personally parted ways.’Footnote 78 Gunther's proposal and its numerous implications need not be discussed here, but his main thesis should not be dismissed prematurely: Barnabas (and Mark) could have come to Alexandria, after Barnabas and Paul parted ways, and this would possibly have restrained Paul from considering a visit to the metropolis. Perhaps, a dissent over their mission strategy – indeed over the question about what is ‘gentile territory’ – might have incited conflict. In the end, subjunctive phrasing best reflects our ignorance.
3.3 Alexandria Was Part of the Jewish-Christian Mission
It is pure conjecture that a divergent definition of ‘gentile territory’ could have caused trouble between the two ‘gentile missionaries’ Paul and Barnabas. But it is very likely that Paul considered Alexandria ‘as belonging not to Gentile countries, but to the “circumcision”, and thus as Peter's mission field’ (cf. Gal 2.9).Footnote 79 Deissmann considered this option as a possible answer to Paul's omission of Alexandria but dropped it in favour of another, less likely, one. Deissmann had continued his thought experiment. Paul ‘is jealously concerned that every missionary should have his own province and not go beyond it [2 Cor 10.13–18; Rom 15.20], and in particular he had no doubt faithfully kept to his compact with the “pillar apostles” [Gal 2.9].’Footnote 80
Even if more than one of the explanations presented so far might contain a germ of truth, in my opinion the decisive factor for Paul's passing over Alexandria was his conviction that it belonged to the Jewish-Christian mission territory.Footnote 81 If it is true, as both Paul himself and Luke credibly relate, that Paul considered himself an ‘apostle of the gentiles’ as a consequence of his call (cf. Gal 1.16; Acts 9.15), Alexandria was never part of his field of vision for his own missionary activity. At the latest, it had vanished after the ‘Apostolic Council’, which codified the distribution of the mission territories.Footnote 82
In the first century, the population of Alexandria reached half a million, which made it second in size only to Rome. Other estimates even propose a population of up to 1.5 million.Footnote 83 Three groups constitute the administrative structure and characterise the ethnic and socio-cultural atmosphere of Roman Alexandria in the first century ce: Greeks, Egyptians and Jews. These groups are quite self-aware of their ethnic, political and economic status, and they are quite self-confident regarding their respective legal privileges and cultural identities. The effect is both ‘unique, creative diversity’ and ‘constant social and ethnic unrest’.Footnote 84
Jews have been part of the ethnic and religious landscape of Egypt since the sixth century bce and inhabited Alexandria from its foundation. In fact, ‘the Macedonian conquest opened the floodgates of a new Jewish immigration to Egypt’.Footnote 85 Josephus’ statement that Alexander himself gave the Jews the right to settle in Alexandria is historically dubious.Footnote 86 The Letter of Aristeas (12) in combination with the Satrap stela (dated 29 August 311), however, suggests that Jews came to Alexandria as prisoners of war after Ptolemy Lagos's campaign in Gaza in 312–311 bce.Footnote 87 Others came in later decades as mercenaries, merchants and craftsmen and carried with them not only their skills and goods, but also their conceptions of God and the world. The Jewish population of Alexandria was immense, though the exact number remains disputed. Josephus’ and Philo's figures seem exaggerated. Philo, for instance, affirms that Egyptian Jews amounted to a million in his day,Footnote 88 and Josephus counts 50,000–60,000 Alexandrian Jews killed in 66 ce.Footnote 89 At present, the scholarly consensus levels out at ca 150,000 (+/− 30,000) Jews at the beginning of the first century ce, i.e. one third of the Alexandrian population was Jewish.Footnote 90 The Jewish part of the population in Alexandria was a major factor in the ‘fragile diversity’ of the metropolis,Footnote 91 and the above-quoted Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians is but one piece of evidence for the difficulty to maintain the vulnerable equilibrium between the different groups. In line with Claudius’ directives, the imperial and local rulers were eager to respect the status quo and did so, by and large successfully, even during the Jewish War from 66 to 70 ce. Yet the extreme political and cultural tensions erupted at the diaspora revolt (115–17 ce) which almost annihilated the Jewish communities in Egypt and Northern Africa.
In recent decades, scholarship has identified a number of aspects suggesting continuities between Alexandrian Judaism, earliest Jewish-Christianity and post-117 ce Alexandrian Christianity, with a growing awareness of the problematic labels ‘Jewish’, ‘Jewish-Christian’ and ‘Christian’ for this time period. So far, the scattered evidence has not been gathered, systematised and evaluated in a comprehensive and conclusive manner.Footnote 92 I, too, have to leave it at some short remarks, as follows.Footnote 93
(1) Alexandrian Christianity used the Alexandrian Jewish Septuagint and collected and disseminated the writings of Philo, which counts as one of ‘the most obvious signs of continuity’.Footnote 94 Especially the early Christian invocations of Philo can be meaningfully understood in the context of ‘ongoing efforts by Christians to conceptualize and demarcate the difference between two emerging but fluid collective identities, “Christianness” and “Jewishness”’.Footnote 95
(2) A number of Christian writings that can be traced to Alexandria (with various degrees of probability) show clear marks of Jewish heritage and variegated strategies for negotiating identities in a multicultural context. It is possible to discern a Petrine strand of Alexandrian Christianity, i.e. a ‘Petrine discourse’ (Epistle of Barnabas, Kerygma Petri, Apocalypse of Peter, 2 Peter, Sibylline Oracles),Footnote 96 but also a ‘Jacobean discourse’ in the widest sense (Gospel according to the Hebrews, Protevangelium Jacobi).Footnote 97
(3) These writings reflect Jewish messianic and millennial hopes, apocalyptic concepts, ethical traditions etc., they connect to, or polemicise against, Jewish ideas and symbols, and they oftentimes engage in figurative modes of interpretation, which are familiar to us from Philo. Apollos remains an enigma: though both his (Philonic?) education and his (Alexandrian?) conversion will always remain in the dark, the idea that he formed his Christology against the backdrop of Alexandrian-Jewish wisdom theology remains a valid possibility.Footnote 98
(4) The early reception of Jewish-Christian writings which are not of Alexandrian provenance but enjoyed great popularity there suggests an early Jewish-Christian readership (e.g. Hermas).Footnote 99
(5) The treatise of Celsus (ca 180 ce), as reported by Origen, calls upon a ‘Jew’ – either a literary fiction of Celsus or, more likely, a real author – who engages in polemics against the Jesus movement and who invokes the rather diplomatic Dialogue between Papiskos and Jason (ca 120 ce). This probably Alexandrian text could be the first known exemplar of the Jewish-Christian dialogue genre, featuring a studious debate and the ensuing conversion of the Jewish interlocutor. As a literary product it condenses a broader and earlier discourse, which clearly reaches beyond the time of the revolt.
(6) Jewish-Christian elements are also evident in what came to be labelled ‘Gnosticism’. Although tracking down second-century tradition in fourth-century texts harbours severe methodological problems, the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library could give us a hint ‘that in second-century Egypt, Jewish-Christian conceptions and traditions played a part in several Gnostic speculations’.Footnote 100 Furthermore, the fragments of Valentinus suggest his relationship to Hellenistic Judaism in Philonic shape.Footnote 101
(7) The unique profile of the Catechetical School in Alexandria as a Christian philosophical school could have originated as indirect outcome of structures of Jewish teaching institutions,Footnote 102 and the presbyterate and the office of teachers in Alexandrian congregations as well as their counterparts in some ‘gnostic schools’ may reflect leadership structures of the synagogue.Footnote 103
(8) Even the Alexandrian scribes’ use of nomina sacra could ‘shed some illumination, however sparse, on the dark period of the Church in Egypt’, in that they bear witness to early Jewish-Christian scribal habits.Footnote 104
(9) Onomastic data provide certain clues on the Jewish character of earliest ChristianityFootnote 105 but at the same time point to the problems of a simple correlation of religious conversion and onomastic change.Footnote 106 In any case, by the end of the fourth century, the proportion of Christians in Egypt was substantial (70 per cent to 90 per cent, based on onomastic data).
(10) Still more hypothetical are the growth rates of the Jesus movement,Footnote 107 but it appears that the thesis of a late, ‘pagan’ rise of Christianity without any Jewish-Christian pre-history has to reckon with almost miraculous rates of conversion or large-scale immigration. A realistic estimate of Christ-believers at the turn of the first century is at least a hundred, most of whom were Jewish.Footnote 108
(11) Finally, Paul's neglect of Alexandria adds another piece to the puzzle. Paul skipped Alexandria because he considered it to be Palestinian missionary territory and because he was, most likely, aware that the Christian faith had already taken root in this metropolis.
Taken cumulatively, the traces of Jewish elements in the texts, traditions and organisational forms of Alexandrian Christianity from the second century onwards hardly allow for any conclusion other than that the first ‘rise of Christianity’ in Alexandria had a thoroughly Jewish character. Once again, von Harnack's erudition and intuition prove sound,Footnote 109 despite the classic challenge of this view by Walter Bauer and the more recent attempt by Fürst. The lack of primary evidence is certainly lamentable, but, at the same time, explainable. The tensions between the Jews and Greco-Romans in Alexandria, particularly the revolt from 115 to 117 ce but also the less violent disturbances, undoubtedly had an impact on the process of ‘Christianising’ Alexandria. The theory of a complete annihilation is not plausible,Footnote 110 as it cannot explain the substantial continuities between Alexandrian Judaism and Alexandrian Christianity after 117 ce ‘in terms of theology, lifestyle and social organization’.Footnote 111 And it cannot explain how, two generations later, the church should have become – in von Harnack's words – ‘a stately church’.Footnote 112
If one starts from the premise that Paul was a missionary strategist with a considerable spatial imagination,Footnote 113 the question ‘Why did he skip Alexandria?’ is by no means irrelevant or trivial. The answers to this question are partly complementary, partly contradictory. A first set of possible solutions pertains to theological and scriptural reasons and a ‘salvation-historical’ understanding of his mission. Did Paul decide to travel to the north and west rather than the south because he did not count the city of Alexandria among the ‘Table of the Nations’? Did he even believe that Alexandria belonged to the ‘House of Slavery’? A second set of deliberations takes into account the cultural and political circumstances in Alexandria. Was Paul worried that the gospel would not fall on fertile soil in the ‘universalistic’ religious ecosystem of Alexandria? Was he afraid of getting caught up in the turmoil between Jews and Greeks and that effective mission was impossible? Did the emperor Claudius suppress travels of Jews – including Jewish-Christian missionaries! – to Alexandria? A third set of reflections points to mission-strategical reasons for the omission of Alexandria. Was Paul aware that Alexandria had already been evangelised by (anonymous) Jewish-Christians, and his self-understanding as a pioneer missionary kept him from interfering? Did he entrust the city to the missionary work of Barnabas (and Mark), after they had split? Or did the Jewish character of Alexandria convince him that this part of the Mediterranean was under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian mission? The final answer has proven the most plausible one: Paul skipped Alexandria because it was a Jewish city and as such part of the Jewish-Christian mission.