The two men also taught theology. They were both well learned in the Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers, and followed the literal (vs. allegorical) interpretation of the Bible taught at Antioch. Though faithful to the pope and to the decisions of the western councils, Theodore brought some wisdom from the eastern church fathers, such as the Cappadocians. And both Hadrian and Theodore stood firm against heresies and deviations from orthodox Christian doctrines.
Sharing a passion for learning and teaching, Hadrian of Nisida and Theodore of Tarsus partnered together to create a school that brought new resources, methods, and inspiration to England.
For those who think a scholar’s life is bound to be boring, this team will change your mind. In fact, reviewing Michael Lapidge’s Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, scholar Michael M. Gorman envisions their lives as an action movie, starring Sean Connery as Theodore and Peter O’ Tool as Hadrian. I would concur, except, since Theodore was from Turkey and Hadrian from Libya, I would choose actors from those regions.
From the Mediterranean to the North Sea
These men’s lives were eventful from the start. Both of them traveled to Italy, most likely as refugees during the Arab conquest of much of North Africa and today’s Middle East (644-645). It was a time when hundreds of Christians were fleeing those areas.
Hadrian was born around 637 in North Africa – probably in the Roman region of Cyrenaica, which he described in his writings. He was then only a child during the Arab conquest, and might have continued his education in Italy.
The only thing we know for certainty is that he became the abbot of a monastery in the island of Nisida in the Bay of Naples. This area, a place of luxury resorts during the Roman Empire, was still a popular region for those who wanted to escape the hot summers of Rome. There, Hadrian might have met Pope Vitalian, who was so impressed by the young man’s wisdom, erudition, and linguistic abilities that he chose him as an interpreter during at least two imperial embassies.
In 664, when Deusdedit, archbishop of Canterbury, died, the British bishops sent his elected successor, Wigheard, to Rome to be ordained by the pope. But the plague which was raging in the area was no respecter of titles, and Wigheard died in Rome in 667.
Not wanting to wait for the long process of having a new archbishop elected in Britain, Pope Vitalian offered the position to thirty-year-old Hadrian, who declined but suggested a chaplain named Andrew. But Andrew’s health was too poor for such an appointment.
Then Hadrian proposed a monk named Theodore of Tarsus, who lived in Rome. Theodore was rich in knowledge and experience. Born in Tarsus (now in Turkey) in 602, Theodore had been educated in the important scholarly centers of the East, such as Antioch, Constantinople, and Edessa.
Vitalian was at first hesitant. Brought up in the Byzantine Empire, Theodore had probably absorbed many customs of the eastern church. In fact, his head was still entirely shaven, after the habits of the Greek monks.
The pope finally agreed to the appointment, but added two conditions: Theodore was to be tonsured after the manner of western monks (shaving just the top of his head), and Hadrian was to accompany him to England, expressively to keep him from importing Greek customs into the western church.