Didymus the Blind

Saint Didymus the Blind

Saint Didymus the Blind
Dean of the Theological School of Alexandria
Born c. 313
Died c. 398
Venerated in Oriental Orthodox Churches
Feast 18 October
Patronage The Blind

Didymus the Blind (alternatively spelled Dedimus or Didymous)[1] (c. 313  398) was a Christian theologian in the Coptic Church of Alexandria, whose famous Catechetical School he led for about half a century. Despite his impaired vision, his memory was so powerful that he mastered dialectics and geometry, subjects whose study usually benefits appreciably from sight.

Didymus wrote many works: Commentaries on all the Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John as Against the Arians, and On the Holy Spirit, which Jerome translated into Latin. He also wrote on Isaiah, Hosea, Zechariah, Job, and many other topics.[2] Didymus’ biblical commentaries, which supposedly addressed nearly all the books of the Bible, survive in fragments only. His Catholic Letters are of dubious authenticity. He is probably the author of a treatise on the Holy Spirit that is extant in Latin translation.

He was a loyal follower of Origen, and opposed Arian and Macedonian teachings.[3] Such of his writings as survive show a remarkable knowledge of scripture, and have distinct value as theological literature.[4]

Early life

Although he became blind at the age of four,[5] before he had learned to read, he succeeded in mastering the whole gamut of the sciences then known.[4]

Despite his blindness, Didymus excelled in scholarship because of his incredible memory. He found ways to help blind people to read, and experimented with carved wooden letters,

Braille systems used by the blind today.[6]

Catechetical School of Alexandria

Rufinus recounts that upon entering the service of the Church, Didymus became 'a teacher in the Church school', having been 'approved by Bishop Athanasius' and other learned churchmen.[7] It used to be assumed that this meant he was placed at the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria which had flourished under Clement and Origen. However, it has long been questioned whether this institution still existed in Didymus' time, or whether Rufinus is referring to a slightly different arrangement.[8]

According to Palladius, the 5th-century bishop and historian, Didymus remained a layman all his life and became one of the most learned ascetics of his time. He counted among his pupils Palladius, Rufinus, Evagrius, and Jerome,[9] who mentions in his letters that he "wrote to Didymus calling him my master" and defends this tutelage as one of a man "both old and learned."[10]

Jerome, generally spoke of Didymus not as the blind but as "the Seeing", or "the Seer," since although blind, his writings showed great insight into God. Jerome also wrote that Didymus "surpassed all of his day in knowledge of the Scriptures" and Socrates of Constantinople later called him "the great bulwark of the true faith".[11] Didymus was viewed as an orthodox Christian teacher and was greatly respected and admired up until at least 553.[12]

Several Oriental Orthodox Churches refer to him as St. Didymus the Blind.[13]

Second Council of Constantinople

In 553 the Second Council of Constantinople condemned his works, along with those of Origen and Evagrius, but not his person. In the Third Council of Constantinople in 680, Didymus was again linked with and condemned with Origen. However, the doctrine of Origen and Didymus that was found to be the most "heretical" was not universalism, nor was it the reliance on the non canonical Gospel according to the Hebrews, nor even his belief that Matthew and Levi were two different people, but rather the belief in the "Abominable doctrine of the transmigration of souls".[11]


As a result of his condemnation, many of his works were not copied during the Middle Ages and were subsequently lost. Of his lost compositions we can gather a partial list from the citations of ancient authors which includes On Dogmas, On The Death of Young Children, Against the Arians, First Word, and others. According to Jerome, he also produced a commentary on Origen's First Principles which tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to interpret an orthodox understanding of the Trinity from Origen's theology. According to Palladius, Didymus also authored an exegetical work on both the Old and New Testaments, mostly believed to be lost.[14]

However, we do have a treatise, On The Holy Spirit (written sometime before 381 in Greek), preserved in a Latin translation by Jerome. There also exists a brief treatise Against the Manichees. There has been greater doubt over two further works traditionally attributed to Didymus. On The Trinity, identified in the eighteenth century as being Didymus' work, saw twentieth-century doubts, largely on grounds of lack of 'provenance' and alleged inconsistencies with the commentaries discovered at Tura in 1941 (see below),[15] but many would still see this as Didymus' work.[16] However, the view that the work preserved as books 4 and 5 of Basil's Against Eunomius is by Didymus is increasingly contentious.[16]

Modern knowledge of Didymus, though, has been greatly increased by a group of 6th or 7th century papyrus codices discovered in 1941 at a munitions dump near Toura, Egypt (south of Cairo). These include his commentaries on Zechariah, Genesis 1-17, part of Job and parts (of uncertain authenticity) on Ecclesiastes and Psalms 20-46.[17]

Jerome mentions that his commentary on Ephesians makes of Origen's, but also "gleaned a few things" from Didymus' commentary.[18]

Within the only extant work we have, his Commentary on Zechariah, Didymus shows himself to be a thoroughly intertextual reader of scripture. He moves from the text he is commenting on to a wide variety of other passages, quoting less frequently from the historical books which do not suit his allegorical method. Besides the gift of having a mind like a concordance, he also shows familiarity with philosophical terms and categories of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Pythagoreans (from whom, with Philo, he derives his occasional number symbolism hermeneutic). His works also seem to cite passages from the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament as well as Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Acts of John. According to Bart Ehrman, his canon extended to at least include Barnabas and the Shepherd. It has been suggested by R.M. Grant regarding Origen's similarly expanded canon that while he lived in Alexandria he accepted the broader tradition of the church in Alexandria, but upon moving to Caesarea and finding the books were not accepted there henceforth manifested greater reserve towards them. Why Didymus would not have inherited his teachers later hesitation is unclear. Among his peers his hermeneutical method seems to have been met with mixed reactions. Jerome, who requested his commentary and considered him a mentor, is still baffled by Didymus's use of what he considered apocryphal works. Readers such as Diodore in Antioch found his hermeneutical approach somewhat gratuitous and arbitrary. What none seem to deny, however, is that Didymus was unhindered by blindness in his remarkable ability to recall the sacred text.[19]


Didymus' method of commentary is often allegorical, and he follows his teacher Origen in seeking a higher meaning of scripture from the Bible, a book which is for him "anointed by God." The knowledge of God relies fundamentally on the revelation of scripture, and God is united to his creation and continually active.

Thoroughly trinitarian, Didymus' again follows Origen in his doctrine of God, making God completely transcendent and only capable of being spoken of by images and apophatic means. He repeatedly emphasizes that God's essence is beyond essence, and uses a term only seen otherwise in Cyril of Alexandria, "without quantity." There can be seen in his works influence from the Cappadocian Fathers, focusing the concept of Hypostasis (philosophy) to express the independent reality of the three persons of the Trinity rather than beginning with the one divine substance (ουσια) as his starting point.[20] Within these three persons, the Father is the root of the Divinity, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, and the Son is generated. Didymus seemed very concerned with stressing the equality of the persons of the Trinity. In Georges Florovsky's opinion, "Didymus does not strive for precision in his formulations. This is a general feature of the school of Alexandria."[21]

In combating the heresies of the Manichaean Docetists and Apollinarians, we should not be surprised to find Didymus insisting on the fullness of the human nature of Christ. He concludes there must be two natures united in Christ, not speculating on precisely how these work together but restricting himself to the expression "a single Christ." In his atonement theory, Didymus does not mention deification, but rather focuses on the ransom and the restoration of the image and the likeness. The fragmentary nature of his writing at this point does not allow us to draw definite conclusions, but he does speak of "universal salvation." Jerome, probably correctly, accused Didymus of confessing the ultimate restoration of the devil.

Didymus seems to have also accepted the pre-existence of souls, and considers the afterlife as a process of purification, though, according to Florovsky, he rejects metempsychosis. He describes the Day of the Lord as an internal illumination of the soul, and in the future world he believes that evil "as a quality" will no longer exist. For him, as in Origen, the true gnostics possess a divine philosophy, one which allows them to defend themselves against heretics by giving a clear confession of the faith. Throughout his theology the influence of Origen is revealed, various aspects of which, particularly his eschatology, must have led to the condemnation of his works.[22]

Universalist historians including Hosea Ballou and J. W. Hanson have claimed that Didymus taught universal salvation, on the basis of Didymus' statement that "in the liberation of all no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord's passion the devil alone was injured by losing all of the captives he was keeping.", and his belief that divine punishment is remedial in nature.[11]


Being the source of goodness, God, even after our failures, calls us anew, not effacing entirely from our mind the knowledge of good, even if we have turned away from virtue through sin. This is what God, at present, also does for Adam in calling him although he has hidden himself, saying to him: 'Adam, where art thou?' Adam, in fact, had been placed there by God for the purpose of working and guarding Paradise; he had received this place from Him to be his own. Having distanced himself from there by disobedience, it is proper that he should hear from God: 'Where art thou?' - From Didymus the Blind.[12]

In literature

Didymus the Blind is portrayed in Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria by Ki Longfellow, a novel published in 2009.


  1. Judy Duchan. Dedimus (Didymus) 313-398 AD
  2. Philip Schaff; Henry Wace (1892). A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church: Theodoret, Jerome Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical writings, etc. 1892. The Christian Literature Company.
  3. Didymus the Blind. OrthodoxWiki. Didymus the Blind
  4. 1 2  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Didymus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 208.
  5. "Didymus the Blind". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-02-17.
  6. John Lascaratos and Spyros Marketos. Didymus the Blind: An unknown precursor of Louis Braille and Helen Keller. Documenta ophthalmologica 86: 203-208, 1994 PMID 7995235
  7. Rufinus, Historia Ecclesiastica, 2.7
  8. Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, (2nd edn, 2010), p93
  9. Georges Florovsky, "The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century", p.224
  10. Jerome, Epistle LXXIV.
  11. 1 2 3 Mercy Aiken. "Didymus the Blind". Accessed Nov. 30, 2007.
  12. 1 2 Richard A. Layton (2004). Didymus the Blind and His Circle in Late-Antique Alexandria: Virtue and Narrative in Biblical Scholarship. ISBN 978-0-252-02881-6.
  13. "Coptic Orthodox Church Centre, UK". Archived from the original on 2007-07-12. Retrieved 2007-09-07.
  14. Georges Florovsky, "The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century" pp.225-227.
  15. Andrew Louth, 'The fourth-century Alexandrians', in Frances Young, Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth, eds, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, (2004)
  16. 1 2 Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, (2nd edn, 2010), p95
  17. "Didymus the Blind". Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. edition 2, page 402.
  18. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Jerome, Letters and Select Works, p.498
  19. Robert C. Hill, Introduction to "Commentary on Zecharaiah," pp.3-24
  20. Robert C. Hill, Introduction to Commentary on Zechariah, p.21
  21. Georges Florovsky, The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century, pp.228.
  22. Georges Florovsky, The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century, pp.227-232.

Further reading

Primary Sources

Secondary sources

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