Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.


189-190? - 233?
Ancient Christian Church

Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340) initiated his Ecclesiastical History with reference to “the successions from the holy apostles” [I.1], thereby enunciating the principal one of those several themes by which he intended to tell his story [cf. Grant 1980,]. As a consequence, those major urban centers of the Roman imperial world, including its second city, Alexandria, could provide Eusebius with the main points of reference wherein he could document literally by named persons those who were in that succession and thereby presided over the ministry of their respective urban communities.

Concluding what little Eusebius knew of those who had served in the episcopal office at Alexandria through the episcopate of Julian [q.v.], he observed that “in the tenth year of the reign of Commodus, Victor [q.v.; bishop 189-198] succeeded Eleutherus [at Rome; ODP 11-12]”, while in that same year “when Julian had completed his tenth year, Demetrius was entrusted with the ministry of the communities at Alexandria” [H.E.V.22]. Philip Carrington, trying to portray Alexandrian Christianity in the second Christian century, comments:

We have a list of bishops, however, with the number of years they held office, which is preserved in the pages of Eusebius. If we start in the year 62, a number obtained by working backwards from 190, the approximate date of the accession of Demetrius, we find that it works out like this: Annianus (or Hananiah) 62, Avilus 84, Cerdon 98, Primus 109, Justus 119, Eumenes 130, Marcus 143, Celadion 153, Agrippinus 167, Julian 178, and Demetrius 190. Demetrius is the first bishop about whom we have any real information. Annianus occurs in legend. The rest are mere names. [1957:II.44]

Carrington’s observation was not new. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack had commented that “The most serious gap in our knowledge of primitive church history is our almost total ignorance of the history of Christianity in Alexandria and Egypt … until about the year 180 (the episcopate of Demetrius)” [1908:158]. This theme had been reiterated by Walter Bauer: “We first catch sight of something like ‘ecclesiastical’ Christianity in Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria from 189 to 231” [1934:53]. And even they were merely echoing not merely Eusebius’ own accounting, but the kind of presentation which had become “canonical” from the development of the “History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria” [HPCCA], originating traditionally with Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa’ a contemporary of the “sixty-second” patriarch Abraham (975-978), which remains a principal text of Coptic historiography [Johannes den Heijer, 1991: 1238-1242 with bibliography]. Exact dating may remain an issue, but the significance of Demetrius becomes evident, in contrast to the little which could be said of all his predecessors both by Eusebius and by Sawirus, who knew and used Eusebius along with other authors as sources for his HPCCA (ref. Pt.II, p.444; III, p.89; IV, p.359).

What is not self-evident from the mere listing of names up to Demetrius is the awareness that after the Second Jewish War with Rome (132-135), which occurred under the imperial administration of Publius Aelius Hadrianus [24 January 76 - 10 July 138, ruled from 8 August 117], as Eusebius had noted, the church in Alexandria “was composed of Gentiles” such that “the first to be entrusted with the ministry of its members, in succession to the bishops of the circumcision” [implying thereby that Alexandria throughout the first Christian century had been primarily derived from Hellenistic Jews, with a corresponding leadership made up of Jewish Christians from Annianus (q.v., actually, Hananiah!) through Eumenes (q.v.)] was Marcus [or, according to The Coptic Encyclopedia (V.1526) “Marcianus”], or herein “Mark the Bishop,” (q.v.), at approximately mid-century [H.E.IV.6.4].

The second half of the second century was marred by intermittent and sporadic persecution which continued into the imperial administration of Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus [31 August 161 - 31 December 192 (when he was assassinated), having ruled as co-emperor with his father from 177 and on his own from 17 March 180]. Nevertheless as this reign progressed, according to Eusebius, “our affairs took an easier turn, and, thanks to the divine grace, peace embraced the churches throughout the whole world” [H.E.V.21].

As each of the aforementioned commentators have affirmed, Eusebius had actually known relatively little beyond names and relative lengths of service to the church in Alexandria through that of Julian. But then “in the tenth year of Commodus,” things appear to have changed with the accession of Demetrius. And his was the first of such a significant length (“forty-three entire years”, H.E.VI.26), as well as including the survival of quoted documentation, with a major role in the reorganization of ecclesiastical structure at Alexandria, as well as in the initiating of an evaluation of Origen (c.185-254; q.v.) among others, that Demetrius becomes the major voice for Alexandria over nearly half a century.

Carrington has observed that Demetrius “must have been a young man, since he administered his paroikia for over forty years” (1957:II.384), which longevity and its particular moment placed him among a cluster of bishops around the Mediterranean world in its principal urban centers who “were becoming what were later to be called metropolitans; bishops of mother churches” (1957:II.391). “He was the bishop, according to the tenth-century annalist Eutychius who appointed other bishops, for the first time, in the land of Egypt” {1957:II.385; a Latin translation from the original Arabic of the Annals, by Eutychios, the Melkite or Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria [877-940, from 935; cf. ODByz II.760 (SHGriffith)], is presented in Patrologiae Graeca CXI columns 907-1156, with this specific reference at column 982; cf. column 989}.

The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic (or Monophysite) Church of Alexandria not only displays this comparable division, lacking as much as Eusebius any real data on those before Demetrius, but then begins the account of Demetrius with a most peculiar anecdote [HPCCA Pt.I, pp.154-155 s.v. “Demetrius”]:

When the patriarch Julian was dying, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream, on the night before his death, and said to him: “The man who shall visit thee tomorrow with a bunch of grapes shall be patriarch after thee.” Accordingly, when it was morning, a peasant came to him, who was married, and could neither read nor write; and his name was Demetrius. This man had gone out to prune his vineyard, and found there a bunch of grapes, although it was not the season of grapes; so he brought it to the patriarch. And the patriarch Julian said to the bystanders: “This man shall be your patriarch; for so the angel of the Lord last night declared to me.” So they took him by force, and bound him with iron fetters. And Julian died on that very day; and Demetrius was consecrated patriarch.

Whether this story be authentic or not, its preservation says much, while enabling the subsequent lengthy paragraphs to discuss within the Coptic church at Alexandria the serious question, “How is it lawful that a patriarch should be married?” – which allows us to assume considerable information relative to the background of this man.

Persecution resumed, after the contest among the rivals upon the assassination of Commodus, with the ultimate triumph of Lucius Septimus Severus [146 - 4 February 211, reigned from 13 April 193, though with various colleagues]. Therefore, when we read at the beginning of Eusebius’ sixth Book, “Now when Severus also was stirring up persecution against the churches” such that “in every place splendid martyrdoms of the champions of piety were accomplished, but with special frequency at Alexandria” (H.E. VI.1; Oulton 1927: 177), while it is appropriate to observe some kind of phenomenon associated with that place at that time, it is also necessary to evaluate historically what actually happened (cf. Lawlor 1928: 191-192). For it is clear that Eusebius’ account at this point in his history is meant to provide a more thrilling context for the emergence of that one important figure, lifted up within the whole of his history, as the major Christian author of the period from the birth of the church until his own day – namely, Horigenes Adamantius, called Origen, whose father was Leonides (q.v.), but without whom Leonides might never have been recalled.

Admittedly, in the tenth year after his power was secured against his various rivals (202), Severus appears to have accepted the fact of some persecution (Frend 1967: 239-242), though with respect to Christians, “persecution at this time was due to private and/or local initiative” (Grant 1970: 100) in contrast to the impression given by Eusebius (H.E. VI.1). “Apart from the years 202-203, and the situation which had developed between the Christians and pagans in Carthage, the reigns of Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla (211-217) were tolerant” as recognized by Tertullian (Frend 1967: 242; cf. Grant 1970: 97-100).

However, persecution was severe in Alexandria, under Quintus Maecius Laetus, prefect of Egypt, where it touched the life of that adolescent whose father, Leonides, was executed, and who, but for his mother’s hiding his clothes, would have followed his father’s path. The youth was the budding biblical scholar, Origen, who became, in spite of his tender age of 18 [H.E.VI.3.3], through appointment by the mature but not yet aged Demetrius, the director from 203 to 231 of the greatest Christian school, located at Alexandria, taking over from his own teacher, Clement of Alexandria (160-215; q.v.) [H.E.VI.6], who had fled the city recalling “‘roastings, impaling and beheadings’ of Christians” (Frend 1984:293).

Beyond these immediate severities, however, these limited persecutions, which affected notable members of the family and the associates of Origen, and the Catechetical School [cf. Pantaenus, Ambrosius, and Trypho], ceased after the death of Severus, such that, as William Hugh Clifford Frend has noted, “The period between 212 and 250, which Septimus Severus calls the ‘38 years’ peace [Chronicorum ii 32], favored the progress of the moderate part of the African Church. … It can hardly be an accident that this age saw the future patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria emerge from obscurity” (Frend 1952:125). Demetrius spans much of this interval.

While there are hints of a larger bibliography stemming from Demetrius, especially a letter related to the calculation of the dates for the fast before and for the feast of Easter written to Victor bishop of Rome and to others, including Gabium bishop of Jerusalem and Maximus bishop of Antioch [see Eutychius of Alexandria, Annals, in PG CXI column 989], partially preserved among Coptic and Oriental sources (DECL 166), we are essentially limited to those few letters from Demetrius to which Eusebius has made reference, and these seem primarily to have dealt with matters arising from the changing perspective upon Origen. {On the matter of the controversy regarding the dates of Easter at this point in Christian history, see Bede, “The Reckoning of Time”, TTH 29 (1999) 203-204, which cites Victor’s letter, [(sub anno mundi 4146) from Jerome (Chronicle 210.9-10) and from Liber pontificalis 15 in TTH 6 (1989) 6] with support by synodical letter from Theophilus bishop of Caesarea in Palestine [based on Jerome (J43 = FOTC 100 68)].}

Origen had become popular in divine instruction [H.E.VI.8.6], but also sought his own enhancement by attending the lectures of Hippolytus (c.155-235; ODP 14-15) at Rome [J61; NPNF 2/3 (1892) 375] some time during the episcopal administration of Victor’s successor, Zephyrinus (198-217; ODP 12-13), from which Demetrius sought by letter Origen’s return to Alexandria [H.E.VI.14.10-11]. Eusebius inserts at this point in his narrative the vaguely put episode that “one of the military appeared in the scene and delivered letters to Demetrius, the bishop of the community, and to the then governor of the province of Egypt, from the ruler of Arabia, to the intent that he should send Origen with all speed for an interview with him.” Origen “duly arrived in Arabia, but soon accomplished the object of his journey thither, and returned again to Alexandria” [H.E.VI.19.15].

Robert McQueen Grant, sorting out and documenting the details, makes all but the exact dating specific: “Probably around 214 the Roman legate of Arabia (possibly Furnius Iulianus, consul designate in that year) sent an officer to Alexandria with letters addressed to both Demetrius and to the prefect of Egypt, L[ucius] Baebius Aurelius Iuncinus, asking the latter to send Origen to him for an interview. This request was highly important. The legate implicitly recognized the authority of Demetrius, under the prefect of Egypt, over the movements of his subordinate Origen” (1970:204; cf. Carrington 1957:II.441). Helping to confirm this significance, though difficult to document, we may note that at some earlier date in Demetrius’ episcopacy, Jerome states that Pantaenus “was sent by Demetrius … into India at the request of legates from this people” [J36; FOTC 100 (1999) 59].

On the other hand, in the days of Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea, Origen was invited “to discourse and expound the divine Scriptures in the church”, not merely in the presence of the people but even in the presence of the bishops, from which “Demetrius once again recalled him by letter” [H.E.VI.19.16-19; cf. Carrington 1957:II.441].

On a third occasion, “when [at Rome] Pontianus [bishop 230-235] succeeded Urban” [bishop 222-230; cf. ODP 15-16], to confront heresies among the churches of Achaia, Origen “undertook a journey to Athens, by way of Palestine, authorized by an ecclesiastical letter” from Demetrius [J54; NPNF 2/3 (1892) 373-374; cf. H.E.VI.23.3-4; 32.2].

On each of these three instances, Demetrius’ attitude toward Origen appeared to remain in that same positive mode which had initially appointed this brilliant scholar as head of his famed Catechetical School. But during the latter occasion, as Origen passed through Palestine, “because of an urgent necessity there,” he “received the laying-on of hands for the presbyterate at Caesarea from the bishops there” [H.E.VI.22.4], namely, Theoctistus of Caesarea with the assistance of Alexander of Jerusalem [so Lawlor 1928:194 commenting on H.E.VI.8.4]. On aspects of the controversy engendered, with reference to letters exchanged, see Jerome [J62 sub Alexander = FOTC 100 (1999) 90], including that of Alexander’s “Against Demetrius in Defense of Origen” [cf. H.E.VI.19.17].

But by virtue of that youthful indiscretion which had resulted in Origen’s self-emasculation [H.E.VI.8.1-2], though perhaps also as a consequence of his enhanced theological reputation and prestige, including its method and content coming under increasing scrutiny, when Origen was ordained presbyter [at a time when “presbyter” was often thought equivalent to “bishop”; see a nearly comparable ordination situation arising with respect to that by Valerius, bishop of Hippo, of Augustine, according to the latter’s biographer Possidius, Vita Augustini, 4-5, 8], by bishops outside his own jurisdiction and in contrast to the normative procedure relative to eunuchs, then Demetrius turned from this acquiescence of the fact [H.E.VI.8.3] to that denigration of Origen, which required the latter’s departure from Alexandria to Caesarea in Palestine in 231. And this was accomplished by means of an encyclical letter which “spread grave scandal about the deed that he [Origen] had committed long ago when a boy” but also including “in his [Demetrius’] accusations those who raised him [Origen] to the presbyterate” [H.E.VI.8.4-5; cf. J54.3].

Jerome, who long remained positive towards Origen touches upon this letter of Demetrius among his own epistles [Letter 33 to Paula in NPNF 2/6 (1892) 46, with Latin text in FOTC 100 (1999) 177]:

So you see, the labors of this one man [Origen] have surpassed those of all previous writers, Greek and Latin. Who has ever managed to read all that he has written? Yet what reward have his exertions brought him? He stands condemned by his bishop, Demetrius, only the bishops of Palestine, Arabia, Phenecia, and Achaia dissenting. Imperial Rome consents to his condemnation, and even convenes a senate to censure him, not – as the rabid hounds who now pursue him cry – because of the novelty or heterodoxy of his doctrines, but because men could not tolerate the incomparable eloquence and knowledge which, when once he opened his lips, made others seem dumb.

Hermann Josef Vogt suggests the Peri archon (= De principiis) of Origen “with its sure knowledge and the attempt to answer hitherto open questions may have aroused the mistrust of Demetrius” (DECL 444). But the historical account itself is derived from the perspective of Eusebius, not only a defender of Origen, but one whose own role in the Council of Nicaea (325) and its era of increasing reevaluation of all theology, including that of Origen, subsequent to more refined credal developments precisely at that Council, undoubtedly gives a somewhat jaundiced view of Demetrius and his total thought and administrative hand at Alexandria in the preceding days of rapidly evolving ecclesiatical structures.

Only the exact dating of the passing of Demetrius from the scene remains of relative vagueness. By virtue of Eusebius’ greater preoccupation in Book VI of his Ecclesiastical History with the life and achievements of Origen, Demetrius’ death, after “having continued in the ministry for forty-three entire years,” is defined as “not long afterwards” with reference not to some event in that ministry, but to the fact that “Origen removed [himself] from Alexandria to Caesarea, leaving Heraclas [q.v.] the Catechetical School for those in the city” in the tenth year of the imperial administration of Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander [1 October 208 - mid-March 235, reigning from 6 March 222], further noting that Demetrius himself was succeeded as bishop of Alexandria by this same Heraclas [H.E.VI.26; cf. Lawlor 1928:264-265 for commentary upon this matter]. The Coptic Church [HPCCA Pt.I, p.162] and the Melkite Church [Eutychius, Annals], both of Alexandria, later remembered and applauded Demetrius chiefly for his originating opposition to Origen, but by then Origen and Origenism had long been condemned [at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553; on which see Pelikan 1 (1971) 277, 337-338 and ODCC3 (1997) 1195]

Clyde Curry Smith

Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

NIDCC 291 (DJWilliams); OEEC 225 (HCrouzel); GEEC 325 (SSHarakas); FOTC 100 59,77-78,90; DECL 165-166 (BNeuschafer); ODCC3 468.

Supplementary Bibliography

Bauer 1934

Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzerei im altesten Christentum, by Walter Bauer. “Beitrage zur historischen Theologie” 10. Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1934. Translated as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity from the second German edition by a team from the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins under the editorship of Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1972.

Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.

Frend 1952

The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Frend 1967

Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. New York: New York University Press.

Frend 1984

The Rise of Christianity, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.

Grant 1980 Eusebius as Church Historian, by Robert McQueen Grant. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harnack 1908

The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, by Adolf von Harnack. English translation by James Moffatt from the 2nd German edition of 1906. London: Williams and Norgate.

Heijer 1991 “History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,” by Johannes den Heijer, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz S. Atiya. Volume IV, pp. 1238-1242.


“History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria,” by Sawiris ibn al-Muqaffa,’ bishop of el-Ashmunein (fl. 955-987); Arabic text, edited, translated and annotated by Basil Thomas Alfred Evetts. Patrologia Orientalis tome I, fasc.II, pp. 99-214 (= Part I); fasc.IV, pp. 381-518 (= Part II); tome V, fasc.I, pp. 1-215 (= Part III); tome X, fasc.V, pp. 357-551 (= Part IV) [specificaly for Demetrius, Part I, pp. 154-173; excluding Mark the Evangelist (pp. 135-148), all the predecessors are detailed in pp. 149-154].

Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.

Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).

This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

Click here forAbbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.