The early phase of Coptic monasticism is more complex than generally thought. One of the most evocative periods in the history of Christianity, the various texts associated with Antony, Pakhom, and others have received ongoing revaluation.
1. Preliminary Reflections: Edward Gibbon Versus Christianity
2. The Silent Man
3. Anachoresis and Literacy
4. Ethnic and Role Complexities
5. Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis
6. Sayings (Apophthegmata) of the Fathers
7. Hermits, Paganism, and Clericalism
8. Evagrius Ponticus
9. John Cassian
10. Jerome and Paul the First Hermit
11. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria
12. Wealth of the Clerics
13. Pachomian Monasticism
14. Basil of Caesarea, Macrina, and Pierre Hadot
15. Nag Hammadi and the Gnosticism Issue
16. Hieracas and the Melitians
17. Antony the hermit
18. Antony and the Origenist Tradition
19. The Outer and Inner Mountains
20. Virgins of God
21. Shenoute of Atripe
22. Didymus the Blind
1. Preliminary Reflections: Edward Gibbon Versus Christianity
Two basic obstacles are encountered in relation to the study of Coptic monasticism and subsequent European developments. On the one hand, the influential conceptualism of the British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94), expressed in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols, 1776-88), tends to lament the passing of classical culture as preserved by the Romans and to minimise any significance in Christian developments. On the other hand, the conventional Christian glosses applied to the centuries in question are not beyond criticism. The real nature of events can be elusive when preferred yardsticks are imposed. The total dimensions may exceed the rule of thumb.
Commentators have repeated that Gibbon felt as a Roman, thought as a Roman, and wrote as a Roman. His thought, observed Dawson, was so patterned by the culture of the European Renaissance and the eighteenth century Enlightenment outlook, that he could recognise no other standards; everything of value in the world came from Roman antiquity or from the modern Western culture supposedly rooted in such antiquity. This elevation of Eurocentric values was fashionably current in eighteenth century Britain, the new vehicle of Empire. The daunting superiority complex did not prevent the partisan editor J. B. Bury from stating that Gibbon's account of the internal history of the Roman Empire after Heraclius was not only superficial, but also gives an entirely false impression of the facts. (1)
These matters admit philosophical considerations not always pursued. Myself being British, I should state my strong reservations concerning the outlook of Gibbon, despite his abilities as a historian. I have always resisted exclusive identification with any mono-cultural package. The Greek and Roman variants are no exception. The "glory that was Greece" included aristocratic blindspots, slavery, pederasty, and other problems. When treating subjects like the Copts of Egypt, Eurocentric prejudices have to be set aside. The origins of monasticism require to be viewed through a different lens than the contemporary hedonistic myopia prevalent in numerous countries. This expedient does not mean reversion to the reductionism imposed by episcopal Christianity.
The pagan hagiographer and rhetorician Eunapius of Sardis described the early Eastern Christian monks as "men in appearance, but [who] led the lives of swine." (2) This pedagogical Greek assessment may be described as illustrative of the basically elitist nature of so much Greek philosophy, which despised low class people. Even the more rigorous commentator Porphyry, the Neoplatonist, separated philosophy from any role of manual labour, though he also made the distinction in terms unfavourable to orators, soldiers, sailors, athletes, and others. (3)
Many centuries later, Edward Gibbon expressed a hostile version of Coptic (and other Near Eastern) monks, which has been described in terms of "one of the most strident specimens of sustained invective and cold hatred to be found in English prose." The same scholarly critic, Henry Chadwick, observed how the underlying insistence of the Gibbon attack was that "the ascetic ideal makes people so otherworldly as to be of no use in this world." (4)
The citizen critic should add that low class people, whether or not they became ascetics, had no recognised use in imperial Roman society other than as dispensable labourers. Rebellious slaves were crucified as criminals.
Ironically, the rationalism of Gibbon was subject to some assumptions conditioned by the theological milieu. There was the belief (influenced by Athanasius) that the early monks were Coptic peasants unfamiliar with the literacy of Greek-speaking pedagogues in the Roman Empire. This assumption has since been revealed as misleading. Greek philosophy and rhetoric were certainly upper class pursuits, and generally for career purposes. The value of rhetoric is much in doubt. Proclus of Athens was paid an annual fortune by wealthy patrons for writing his defence of "Neoplatonist" paganism in the fifth century CE. His patronage of theurgy is questionable.
The Roman socioculture was basically military in complexion, geared to conquering other nations who were deemed inferior. Gladiatorial arenas of the Roman world are notorious for the barbarous deaths of numerous human and animal victims, and all for the entertainment of a retrogressive urban populace, especially the aristocracy. The amphitheatre became increasingly common during the first century BCE, and the Colosseum appeared in Rome at the end of the first century CE. The arena spectacles frequently comprised savage public executions via crucifixion, burning alive, and throwing condemned humans to wild beasts. The executed victims included prisoners of war, runaway slaves, and Christians who refused to participate in sacrifice to the Roman gods or to the emperor.
A nauseating instance of the Roman tactic is afforded by the martyrs of Lyon (in Gaul), who in 176 CE refused to participate in religious festivals commemorating the emperor Marcus Aurelius, after he returned from a victorious military campaign in the east. The forty-eight martyrs included servants and slaves, including the young female slave Blandina (Pamela Bright, Early Christian Spirituality, Fortress Press 1986, pp. 39ff.). They were arrested and brutally tortured in prison prior to a mass execution designed for holiday entertainment in the arena at Lyon. Blandina was already worsted by torture, but she was "hung on a post and exposed as bait for the wild animals that were let loose on her." On the last day of these atrocious proceedings, Blandina (apparently still in her teens) was brought back into the arena with a 15-year old boy named Ponticus. "After having run through the gauntlet of whips, having been mauled by animals, and forced into an iron seat placed over a fire to scorch his flesh, Ponticus died. Blandina, having survived the same tortures, was at last tossed into a net and exposed to a bull" (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980, p. 102).
Gibbon's partisan assessment of Marcus Aurelius (rgd 161-180 CE) included the belief that he was "just and beneficent to all mankind." Aurelius does indeed have an unusual reputation amongst emperors, being averse to unnecessary bloodshed, and attempting to reform the arena by giving blunted weapons to gladiators; scholars have concluded that the persecution of Christians during his reign probably did not occur at his instigation. At the same time, he does not appear to have prevented the persecution tendency.
Some critics of arena events incline to the judgment that the Roman aristocracy should have been placed in the amphitheatre on equal terms with the condemned gladiators. Most of the gladiators were prisoners or slaves compelled to fight; to survive ten combats was a rare achievement. Killing was made public entertainment by the aristocracy, whose oppressive class system was intended to subjugate slaves, colonised nations, and objectors.
The British successors of Gibbon's time were similarly colonialists, and fond of depicting themselves as Romans in the sculptural glorifications of personal entity. The new Romans accomplished such feats as land enclosure in their own country, careful to preserve their exclusive interests at all costs above those of the commoner.
Even more to the point perhaps, the Roman example served as a shallow excuse for eighteenth century colonial slavery, conducted with such enthusiasm and greed by wealthy British merchants in short term life expectancy on the plantations. Roman Empire agriculture had intensively resorted to the work of slaves, the system of latifundia extending from the home country to other territories subjugated by military occupation. The latifundia (large estate) enterprise was monopolised by the wealthy minority, which basically means the Roman senators and the Roman emperor. To think like a Roman is an exploitative habit requiring correction.
2. The Silent Man
In ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, the ideal of the "(truly) silent man" has been discerned as a prominent feature. Various aspects of this "silence" were conceived by the Egyptians to exist in such avenues of expression as good manners, and more dynamically perhaps, in the extension of the term gr to mean "self-control." Silence certainly became a virtue for the early Coptic hermits of Christian Egypt, (5) and indeed a virtual rule of the desert. In this respect, the monastic apophthegmata, frequently terse and laconic, have been linked to the Late Egyptian wisdom literature.
The comparison has been treated with reserve in some quarters, as being unChristian to some horizons, and romantic to others. Ironically, historians can easily tend to the view that the Alexandrian Patriarchs (Archbishops) of the fourth and fifth centuries CE acted like Pharaohs when the Graeco-Roman colonial hold terminated. Moreover, those prelates largely tamed the diverse monastic trends, making the monks a subservient ally.
The "silent man" ideal primarily applies to desert anchorites, whose lifestyle was modified by communal (coenobitic) monasticism. The early Pachomian coenobitic communities, still obscure in many respects, were replaced by more orthodox coenobitic monks like Shenoute of Atripe (d. 466), who liaised with the Alexandrian clerical power base and even participated at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Such a role does not fit the ideal of earlier Egyptian ascetics, and was surely too vocal by anchorite standards.
With regard to the fourth century ascetics of Egypt, while most appear to have been Copts, there were also some Greeks (and "Graeco-Romans"). The precise ratio is unknown. The Copts were descendants of the Egyptian peasantry and lower classes living in Pharaonic times. They were subject to a degree of Greek admixture in both genetic and linguistic respects. The Greeks were a more voluble breed with a strong tendency to oratory and rhetoric. Some Copts graduated to middle class status, and there were urban instances such as Hieracas, a highly literate ascetic who was stigmatised as a heretic by the clerical Patriarch of Alexandria ().
The profiles of Hieracas, Antony, and Pakhom are different, though all were Coptic ascetics. One was an urban renunciate, one was a desert hermit of the more radical type, while Pakhom fits the category of early village asceticism. The later example of Shenoute amounted to an incarnation of religious orthodoxy by comparison.
Linguistic research has endeavoured to trace the origin of numerous Coptic personal names. The statistics arrived at in one study, some decades ago, were as follows: 36% of those names had an identifiable origin in the ancient Pharaonic milieu; 28% had a derivation from Greek names; 6% were Latin names, 6% were Hebrew-Aramaic names, while the Arabic contribution was ascertained at 2.4%. The origin of the remaining names could not be traced. (6)
Graeco-Roman Egypt was a milieu of diverse religious influences. Some modern scholars have envisaged possible connections of Egyptian monasticism with the Jewish community of Therapeutae (mentioned by Philo of Alexandria), and also with the recluses of Sarapis. The Sarapis cult was suppressed by Christianity in the late fourth century. However, the probability of any direct influence from these contingents has generally been considered unlikely (though the Jewish precedent remains particularly evocative). One well known explanation tended to the conclusion that all these developments were the consequence of some permanent tendency existing in the Egyptian temperament and in combination with the desert geography. (7)
The implications are thought-provoking. Could there have been earlier manifestations of the same ascetic temperament that characterised Antony the Copt and many other hermits? The sociocultural structure of Pharaonic Egypt had collapsed more than once, and such events may have encouraged withdrawal amongst a minority. Even if such possibilities are set aside as conjectural, basic differences between the early Coptic anchorite tradition and oratorical tendencies of the Graeco-Roman colonial elite are of interest.
Silence does not mean an absence of literacy; the exercise of rhetoric does not amount to philosophical acumen.
3. Anachoresis and Literacy
During the Ptolemaic and early Roman eras of Egypt, a strong distinction existed between the Greek elite of Alexandria and the common people of Egypt, meaning the Copts. Egypt was basically regarded as a cultural backwater of Rome, and the "Graeco-Roman" priorities were insidious. The colonial Greeks were now part of the Roman Empire. However, during the "Late Empire" period associated with the third century CE, a series of reforms meant that, in theory at least, Roman citizenship was an inheritance of the population at large. Egyptian towns gained autonomous rule. Nevertheless, the Roman exploitation of Egypt continued, and the new system of taxation proved afflicting.
Alexandria was the capital of Egypt, a city second only to Rome in size. The population, according to an early papyrus, included at least 180,000 men in addition to women, children, and slaves. Estimates of the total population have varied, and upwards of half a million. Alexandria was one of the largest cities ever built in the pre-modern centuries, even though it was not an imperial capital. The grand buildings and expansive roads were accompanied by colonial prosperity and a high degree of learned culture.
The rural situation was frequently in stark contrast. Many villages became deserted. There was a widespread flight (anachoresis) by the Copts from the problems they faced. The reasons were heavy taxation, military activity, rapid inflation, and bureaucratic corruption. Irrigation was neglected in the pursuit of economic gains. The basic reason for the imperial Roman presence in Egypt was to exploit the "granary of Rome," meaning the rich agriculture of the Nile valley, worked by Coptic labourers. The Egyptian output appears to have provided by far the larger part of the grain consumed throughout the Roman Empire. Famine was a major fear in those territories, but the Egyptian peasants frequently did not benefit from their crucial industry.
The military government of Roman territories (including Egypt) was ruthless, and frequently employed torture, a customary expedient used against slaves, though extended to other social classes. In Egypt, citizens could be imprisoned and scourged for not paying taxes, which were expended, e.g., on military wars in other territories.
Other developments occurred. The growing wealth of the towns along the Nile attracted many rural people, and intermarriage between Greeks and Egyptians assisted the rise of new social classes, despite the class taboos of the exclusivist "Graeco-Roman" milieu (Romans being at the top of the social scale).
In the age of the early Coptic hermit (third century CE), Christianity was a struggling and persecuted trend. However, Christians gradually gained influential roles in education and trade. The early Christian papyri prominently refer to the towns of Oxyrhynchus and Arsinoe, while Panopolis is strongly associated with Gnostic and Hermetic literature. Lycopolis became a Manichaean centre, (8) and was the reputed birthplace of Plotinus. These developments meant that traditional Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cults eventually lost out to new religious movements.
Anachoresis was an official term for illegal absence, implying tax evasion. "There is no evidence that the absentees actually fled, still less that they went into hiding in the deserts." (9) Onerous official duties were imposed upon villagers by the Roman system, the victims choosing to join the absentees, a resort which did not signify any role as a destitute peasant. For some centuries, anachoresis (flight) had been the avenue of escape for Egyptian farmers under pressure. During the economic crisis of the third and early fourth centuries, there were numerous absentees in this category. The fugitives generally seem to have moved away to neighbouring villages or towns, and even Alexandria. An uncertain number chose the life of an outlaw on the desert fringe. Young men seem to have resisted military conscription into the Roman army by this means.
Eventually, a system of patronage was officially adopted, in which major landowners took on responsibility for the oppressed farmers. Still there were difficulties. The emerging monasteries of the mid-fourth century are here implicated as sites of refuge for displaced Copts. Yet this trend does not explain the creation of those monasteries, and various conventional assumptions about "illiterate Coptic peasant monks" require due reassessment.
There is evidence that third century Egyptian towns harboured scholars, bibliophiles, and philosophers. Classical education was initially limited to the social elite in those towns (meaning the Greek "gymnasial" class), but spread to the growing middle class, who denote a mixed population. Greek literature was also available in the villages, where calligraphers were active. The deduction has been made that many Copts were semi-literate in Greek, with some being able to read but not write that language. Persons only able to read and write Coptic were regarded as illiterate by the elitist Greek-speakers.
The language of Coptic was in some respects a derivative of the ancient Egyptian, though employing the Greek alphabet. Efforts to reproduce the vernacular language opted for the inclusion of some speech symbols derived from the secular Demotic script. Christians were keen to employ Coptic as a means to spread their religion amongst the native people. The use of Coptic as a literary medium increased during the fourth century CE, to which period date both Manichaean papyri in Coptic and texts of Christian Gnostic content in the same language. The mid-third century saw the earliest known translations into Coptic, which gradually emerged as a written language via the spread of Christianity. Greek had been the official language in Egypt for centuries, though Roman rule attempted to enforce Latin as the prestige tongue. This recourse seems to have been successful only in administrative areas, and Greek remained the key language of written communication.
The early Christian anchorites fit a different category to the economic fugitives and outlaws (many of whom were not Christians). Paul of Thebes, reputedly the first desert ascetic, is depicted as being well educated in both Greek and Egyptian letters, a detail suggesting that he was of Egyptian race (though his profile is very tenuous). Antony was certainly an Egyptian, and is likely to have been literate in Greek ().
The early Christian manuscripts of Egypt reveal the existence of a Christian intellectual elite from the early third century onwards. By the late third century, there was at least one Christian scholar in Oxyrhynchus who was literate in both Latin and Greek. At Leontopolis soon after, the Coptic Christian scholar Hieracas published erudite books in Greek, though the major source on this Origenist is the afflicting heresiologist Epiphanius (). Origenism was a strong component of the early monastic tradition of Nitria, though eliminated by the Alexandrian Patriarch Theophilus at circa 400 CE.
In the early fourth century sources, the terms anchorite and apotaktic (apotaktikos) are found as descriptions for Christian ascetics. The apotaktic denoted an ascetic who had rejected marriage, but who could apparently still be a landholder, and therefore a taxpayer. Whereas "an anchorite was someone who had withdrawn completely from society, who lived apart, but not necessarily in the desert, inaccessible to visitors." (10) The word anchorite is derived from anachoresis, the "flight" here fitting a context of ascetic withdrawal. The anchorites were not tax fugitives, and were not hiding from the authorities.
"The papyri reveal that a number of apotactics and anchorites came from the urban elite, and Antony himself is said to have been the heir of 300 arourae, a real fortune of land, while Amoun, the first monk in Nitria, is reported to have been of noble and wealthy descent." (Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1995, p. 118).
In this perspective, the early ascetics were not destitute and ignorant peasants, but instead came from the elite and middle class of the growing towns, people burdened by heavy social obligations imposed by Roman rule, and who had a strong connection with literacy. Village events were complex, and could involve persons with a landholding status. Destitute peasants appeared on the scene during the later phase of (fourth century) monasteries, when an established tradition had been created that provided a haven. In this subsequent phase, monachos became the standardised description for all types of monk.
The apotaktic movement appears to have begun long before the ascetic figureheads Antony and Pakhom. Village ascetics started to live in houses of their own, following the precedent set for urban virgins and widows. This appears to be a development of the third century. By 324, monachos was a recognised stylism for the apotaktic type of ascetic. (11) Christians may have become the majority in Egypt by the late 330s, the decade which some historians now chart in terms of the transition from Roman to Coptic Egypt.
A graphic illustration of social ranking is afforded by cases in which ascetic renunciation did not amount to a complete break with the world. "The precipitous drop in social status that could result from such an act [of renunciation] certainly caused hesitation for some." (12) The same scholar cites the anecdote of a distinguished official who distributed his goods to the poor, though retaining a little of his wealth because he did not want the humiliation of losing everything.
Much has been made of a statement in the Life of Antony that the monks made the desert a city. This influential clerical theme has been considered to obscure urban and village ascetic events (section 6 below), though desert events were indeed significant. In the latter half of the fourth century, large numbers of recruits flocked to the monasteries in the Nile valley, the Fayyum, and the Nile Delta. Those milieux became prosperous. In South Egypt, the village-based Pachomian monasteries cultivated deserted and donated land, resulting in a new monastic wealth. Novice monks were taught to read in the Pachomian environment, and one of the tasks was to work in a scriptorium.
The literate character of early monastic society was underestimated until comparatively recently. Three significant collections of monastic documents date from the mid-fourth century. The Melitian monastery known as Hathor contributed an archive of letters dating to the 330s, attesting an "apparently bilingual and highly literate" community, even though some members could not sign their own names in Greek. The second collection consists of letters in Greek to the literate anchorite Paphnutius, who flourished somewhere in the Arsinoite/Fayyum or the Thebaid. (13) The third archive relates to Nepheros, leader of a large monastic community during the 350s; he was proficient in both Greek and Coptic, and conducted an extensive correspondence involving several monks, most of whom were apparently also competent in Greek.
Prior to the late fourth century, there is little evidence for conflict between monks of different ideological persuasions, here meaning "orthodox," Gnostic, or Manichaean. Earlier conflicts occurred within the "orthodox" communities, or with the church clericalism. To the early monks, heresies were not the same issue as occurred in later times. "It was only when State and Church combined their efforts to define orthodoxy and stamp out everything else that the lines hardened.... pagan traditions were kept as long as they did not contradict the Christian faith or became forbidden" (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 122).
Origenism was one of the heretical factors later outlawed. "The legacy at hand for anyone who like Antony, at the turn [end] of the third century, retreated from the duties of social life for the life of a philosopher, was not what, half a century later, a bishop like Athanasius wanted his flock to be fed with" (ibid., p. 125). The phrase "life of a philosopher" is here notable in the modern commentary; even if that phrase should be interpreted in the light of a radical Christian Origenism, the contrast with clerical preferences is significant. (14)
4. Ethnic and Role Complexities
The ethnic situation of the late Roman period is complex, in that there are grounds for both a distinct Egyptian Coptic identity, and also one of an admixed Graeco-Egyptian ethnicity. The latter milieu was mainly created by those Greeks who settled in rural areas and very soon lost their sense of racial superiority; they freely intermarried with the native population, and their families adopted Egyptian names. This assimilation was particularly marked in religion, Egyptian gods and goddesses being freely identified with those of Greece.
Nevertheless, the Egyptians were predominantly treated as an inferior and conquered race, much as they had been under the Persian Empire. The Greek sense of elitism is well known. The Greek Ptolemies, ruling from the third century BCE, were careful to confirm the Egyptian priests in their privileges (priests more than once provided leaders in popular uprisings), and permitted some of them (and a few other bureaucratic categories) to gain important offices in the Greek administration. Yet apart from this native elite, the mass of Egyptians belonged to a lower class of social ranking than the Greek settlers. The artisans and tenant peasants felt an inevitable resentment toward the foreigners, and there is evidence of an active nationalist party in the fragments of patriotic and prophetic literature.
Many upper class Egyptians learned Greek, and also took Greek names. At the bottom end of the social scale, the Egyptian peasantry had for centuries toiled to pay the Pharaohs and the landlords. The new city of Alexandria, culturally resplendent though this was, meant nothing to the oppressed natives. (15) The Roman system of taxation proved afflicting.
The recluses (katochoi) of the Serapis cult, associated with the Serapeum at Memphis, do not fit an entirely Egyptian context. That cult was Hellenicised; the majority of the recluses known were Greeks or Macedonians. The Ptolemies innovated the cult of Serapis in an attempt to create unity between Greeks and Egyptians. This cult was subsequently favoured by the Romans, who inserted their own emperors into the pantheon. "To an ordinary Egyptian in the third century, the Roman emperor was still the deified Pharaoh, who had his throne-room in the temple with his name in hieroglyphs" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 99).
The flight (anachoresis) to sanctuary had for long constituted the last recourse of the Egyptian peasant when his plight became intolerable. During the Ptolemaic period, a peasant had the right of sanctuary at the altar of the monarch, or in one of the numerous temples bestowing asylum, but under Roman rule this latitude was greatly restricted. An alternative recourse was then a flight to the swamps of the desert, where robber bands tended to form in the struggle for survival.
Paul of Thebes is the first anchorite on record; this obscure figure () reputedly fled to the desert as a refuge from the Roman persecution (249-51 CE) occurring in the reign of Decius. (16) The Christian anchorites ennobled the flight as a spiritual endeavour, contrasting with the purely mundane plight of peasants.
Standard conceptions of the earliest "desert fathers" derive from the pious milieu of a later time, supported by the conventional religious texts which developed a century after the Decian persecution. This literature is known to have been extensively edited and continually rearranged during the fifth and sixth centuries CE, after the authoritarian episcopal orthodoxy of Alexandria firmly accommodated the burgeoning ascetic trend to official doctrinal conveniences. Recourse to "desert fathers" literature is accordingly liable to be misleading, reflecting the ideational format of an appreciably later and altered situation. The substantial collection of vitae (lives) and apophthegmata (sayings) may be of interest for an assessment of late fourth and fifth century Egyptian monasticism, but will not suffice for anchoritic origins and early phases of coenobitic monasticism.
The monastic movement spread rapidly in several countries. In Asia Minor, a synod at Gangra occurring circa 340-41, expressed strong disapproval of monks who completely abandoned attendance of the Christian church. That institution had recently achieved a position of supremacy in the Mediterranean world, unlike the situation at the time of the Decian persecution. Some ascetics like the Messalians were evidently indifferent to the Christian sacraments emphasised by the clergy. Bishop Basil of Caesarea attempted to offset unorthodox trends by creating a Rule for monastic communities designed to safeguard authority of the local bishop (section 14 below). Within thirty years of Basil's death in 379, the bishop of Caesarea was employing his monks to terrorise the city militia, when this body was protecting the exiled John Chrysostom (a benevolent and outspoken cleric who had started to tell the truth about his corrupt society). (17)
Scholarly views have differed about the causes contributing to monasticism. Professor Peter Brown early contradicted the belief that founders and inspirers were oppressed peasants. In his interpretation, late Roman Egypt was a land of vigorous villages where tensions arose quite as much from the disruptive effects of new wealth as from the tax collector. The hermit Antony was here called an "educational misfit," while the hermit Macarius (d.c. 390) is described as a smuggler in his pre-monastic days, and Moses the Negro as a highwayman. (18)
Macarius the Egyptian initially smuggled niter in the locale of Nitria, a career which made him closely acquainted with the desert and modes of travel, especially camel transport. He became a leading hermit in the desert of Scetis, living to an advanced age. He is said to have encountered Antony, and apparently learned from the latter as a disciple. Despite the fame of Macarius, very little is reliably known about him. His contemporary Moses the Black was a released Ethiopian slave who lived as a robber in Nitria before becoming a repentant hermit; he was killed in the devastation of Scetis by barbarian invaders of the early fifth century. The monastic movement became a social leveller, but was also in danger of clerical manipulation.
By 391, many Coptic monks in the Delta region had been indoctrinated by episcopal anti-pagan activism; that year the Patriarch of Alexandria, namely Theophilus, goaded local monks and others to attack and destroy the Serapeum, a centre of pagan worship and the temple of Serapis. In more critical circles, Theophilus gained an adverse reputation for misusing funds that should have gone to widows and orphans; instead he constructed resplendent churches and reacted strongly to accusations.
An insular and bloodstained policy was implemented by the Alexandrian Patriarchs Theophilus (in office 385-412) and his nephew Cyril (in office 412-444). "Brought up under his uncle's campaign for the suppression of heresy and paganism in Egypt, Cyril was deeply intolerant." (19) This archbishop apparently created violent riots between Christians and Jews in Alexandria, and is closely associated with the murder of Hypatia in 415. The landscape of role abuses is not attractive.
The spectacular growth of monastic settlements in the late fourth century might be attributed in substantial part to the plight of peasant villagers faced with the alternatives of flight (anachoresis), ruin, or peonage. During the fourth century, a wealthy class of landowners emerged, and villagers tended to place themselves under the protection of the former as a safeguard against extortionate taxgatherers and oppressive official demands for labour services. A law passed in 415 CE reveals how high officials of Christendom were effectively joining in the racket which burdened the peasant.
Yet in the reign of Constantine the Great (306-37), there had still existed a large number of peasant proprietors of small landholdings, following the ancient pattern. Such factors underline the contrasting nature of third century social conditions. Monasteries of the late fourth century have been described as vast welfare centres affording a buffer against economic calamity and the danger of barbarian raiders. The large scale of monastic settlement is attested by key reports. Jerome wrote (circa 400) that nearly 50,000 Pachomian monks attended the annual assembly of their order at Tabennesis. The Historia Monachorum, dating to the 390s, relays that the town of Oxyrhynchus had been largely taken over by monks, who numbered some 10,000 in the urban environs. (20)
The rise of the "desert monk" to social prominence in the Later Roman Empire was attributed by many conservative scholars, from Gibbon onward, to the decline of Greek civilisation in the Near East. Peter Brown commented that this impression was reinforced by the influence of a Darwinian theory of evolution which dominated the anthropological study of religion. "Popular" belief was treated as the belief of populations at an inferior stage of moral and intellectual evolution. This approach contributed to a very inadequate version of ancient belief as something inferior to a Graeco-Roman elite; the populations of the Near East were conceived as being at a lower stage of evolution to the glorified European model. (21)
The intellectual evolution of anthropology and related disciplines might one day grasp the differences between various kinds of belief and experience. Meanwhile, it is necessary to understand, for instance, that some mental patterns and lifestyles associated with religion become diffusely popular in the course of time, with proportional losses in accuracy. It is arguable that such losses occurred in the experiential repertories attaching to both Plotinus and Antony the Copt. Neoplatonist theurgy and monastic violence were two of the consequences.
Antony and other early renunciates need to be clearly distinguished from the Patriarch Cyril, occupant of the see of Alexandria, whom Harold Idris Bell courteously described as being greedy for power and utterly unscrupulous in the means he employed to that end. Saint Cyril played upon the mob mind to expel the Jews, and is strongly implicated in bringing about the murder of Hypatia. At the council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril was mainly responsible for the condemnation and banishment of Nestorius, the rival Patriarch of Constantinople (), though by lavish bribery the former escaped responsibility for the unseemly irregularities marring the Council. (22)
The background of the early Egyptian monks was by no means confined to the peasantry or provincial lower classes (e.g., artisans). In the Nile Delta area, "many of their leading figures, including Amoun, were men who had given up positions of power or prestige in Alexandria or some other urban setting," while in the south "several of the Pachomian monks came from precisely the same wealthy and educated classes that produced monks like Amoun." (23)
5. Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis
In the early fourth century CE, the Egyptian hermit Amoun (c. 290-c. 355) retreated into the desert of Nitria, south of Alexandria. He is credited with commencing the eremitical lifestyle in this area of the Nile Delta. The phenomenon quickly spread to Kellia and the adjacent desert of Scetis (Wadi Natrun). That lifestyle is sometimes classified as semi-anchoritic, because the ascetics in those areas were not entirely cut off in solitude. In the Nitria-Scetis regions they lived in semi-isolation, intent upon solitary contemplation in their own cells but having the option of contact with neighbours.
Amoun (Amun) was the reputed inspirer of the monastic population which developed at Kellia ("the Cells"), a wilderness zone south of the Nitrian desert. He is reported to have started life in a wealthy urban family at Alexandria. Amoun encountered the more famous Coptic hermit Antony, when the latter visited Nitria and advised him about the expansion of cells into Kellia.
The emigre Greek ascetic Palladius (c. 365-c. 425) stayed for nine years in the desert of Kellia during the 390s, subsequently undergoing exile when Origenism was suppressed. Though a disciple of Evagrius Ponticus, he was susceptible to the clerical role, eventually acting as the bishop of Helenopolis (in Asia Minor). However, he was not typical of churchmen, becoming involved in the debate over the radical bishop John Chrysostom, whom he supported, and as a result of which Palladius was exiled in 406 to the Thebaid. Subsequently, he contributed an important Greek source on the fourth century monks, known in Latin as the Historia Lausiaca, covering varied manifestations of ascetic life in Egypt.
The Lausiac History (written at the request of Byzantine chamberlain Lausos) is not a straightforward text. The two Latin versions differ from the Greek (and also from the Syriac). The well known 1918 English translation (available on the web) has to be used with caution. The author spent three years in Alexandria, and then a year in Nitria before moving to the preferred haven of Kellia. Some effort is required for the modern reader to project back into these locales, which furthermore lack much in terms of historical documentation. Palladius and other writers include legendary castings and pious stories, and there are different versions of some events. Nevertheless, Palladius does afford some insight into the early Christian ascetic milieux.
At Alexandria, he became the pupil of Dorotheus, a hardy Copt whose lifestyle proved too arduous for him. This ascetic lived in a cave a few miles outside the city, and would work all day in the burning sun, despite his advanced age. Dorotheus was in the habit of building cells for anchorites, and would laboriously search for stones in the local desert. Existing on a diet of bread and herbs, he never seemed to sleep, and at night he would weave ropes from palm-leaves as a means of livelihood, paying for his bread. Dorotheus would drowse involuntarily while sitting and working. He had lived like this for many years.
Palladius moved on, sailing south across Lake Mareotis, and journeying for a day and a half to the well known mountain range of Nitria. According to his report, some five thousand ascetics were living in this vicinity, which may be an exaggeration. They adopted different lifestyles; some were solitaries and others lived in groups. Seven bakeries catered for their needs, and this output was also mediated to the anchorites of Kellia, about ten miles to the south, and apparently then numbering about 600 inhabitants. Bread was the monotonous diet in the desert and mountain. A large church had been constructed in Nitria, and was served by several priests; nearby was a popular guesthouse for visitors and pilgrims. Palladius also reports that wine was for sale, along with confectionery. He observed that all the ascetics of Nitria were self-supporting, applying their hands in manual work to the craft of manufacturing linen. Intruding robbers and transgressing ascetics were liable to a scourging administered near the church.
In chapter 12 of the Lausiac History (1918 translation), Palladius describes the ascetic Benjamin, an octogenarian of Nitria who was believed to have gained mastery in his vocation and to be blessed with the gift of healing. Every sufferer who approached Benjamin was supposedly cured after receiving his ministrations. This development was symptomatic of a popular response to saintly ascetics. Medical doctors did exist at Nitria, but were evidently limited in their skills. A problem arose when Benjamin contracted severe dropsy, his body swelling acutely. He died some months later.
By this time, Palladius was living in Kellia, the destination of those who wished for a more secluded life. Nitria had become too congested, and too accessible to a wide range of persons, including those who desired healing. The extra mileage into the interior denoted the paneremos, a Greek word for the further desert. Kellia was about two days away from Alexandria, with a lack of amenities. Like other participants, Palladius had concluded that the most rewarding vocation was in the greater seclusion and isolation.
Another source is the late fourth century Historia Monachorum (History of the Monks in Egypt). At Kellia, "there was so much space between each of the cells that none of them [the inhabitants] could either see or hear each other; living one to a cell there is a great silence and quietness among them." The ascetics of Kellia assembled on Saturday and Sunday to share a meal, some travelling three or four miles to the rendezvous church. If anyone failed to appear, the others would know that he was sick, and special visits would then be made by all the ascetics in turn. Otherwise there was no reason to intrude into the preferred privacy.
Further south was Scetis, a night and a day's journey from Nitria. No marked road led to this desert waste, and "you can only travel there by the stars in their courses," informs the Historia Monachorum, whose authors were in awe of this extensive desert, where water was a scarce blessing. Yet the hermits proved adaptable, and separate monastic communities developed here.
Palladius became the disciple of Evagrius Ponticus, who resided at Kellia until his death and who favoured the teaching of Origen (). These two Greeks successfully adapted to the Egyptian ascetic environment, which is still a mystery to unsympathetic parties. The phenomenon is not generally seen in due perspective. For one thing, during the fourth century, there was no fixed doctrine amongst the Coptic and other ascetics of the desert; the latitude for independent thinking and lifestyle was substantial, though increasingly cordoned by the growing clerical factor associated with the archbishop Athanasius ( ) and his successors in Alexandria.
The Nitrian hermit Ammonius (the name a Greek version of Amoun, or Ammon) was esteemed by Palladius, who commemorated him in chapter 11 of the Lausiac History; this Coptic ascetic was an Origenist in friction with the clergy and Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria. From his youth, Ammonius ate only raw food, with the exception of bread. He reputedly learned by heart the Old and New Testaments, and was closely familiar with the writings of Origen and Didymus the Blind. His high degree of learning made him a target for clerical interests wishing to make him a bishop. During the early 380s, a deputation from Archbishop Timothy importuned him in this context, on behalf of a town whose citizens wished to incorporate him as a church figurehead. Ammonius resisted the prospect of leaving the desert, and to the extent that he cut off his ear, invoking an official clause prohibiting a man with a severed ear from being elected to the priesthood. Even this dramatic gesture was not sufficient to prevent unwanted attention; the deputation returned with a renewal of pressure. Ammonius then threatened to cut out his tongue, and that severity did end the matter.
Ammonius was taught by Pambo, a Coptic hermit who settled in Nitria (Palladius, chapter 10). Pambo claimed never to have eaten bread (the basic ascetic diet) that he had not earned by his own hands, and became celebrated for his aversion to opulent gifts from admirers. His point being that he preferred weaving palm-leaves (for baskets), his occupation of the cell. Pambo does not seem to have encouraged attention, and was reluctant to answer questions about scriptural matters, saying that he had not yet found the solution. Yet he is also described as being capable of precise speech. He is now implicated as an Origenist.
In the Historia Monachorum, Ammonius is described as living in a cell (monasterion) protected by an encircling wall; he was able to dig a well, a great luxury in his environment. Many other hermits had to walk miles for their water. His cell (apparently in Kellia) was constructed from rough masonry locally available from derelict buildings. The lifestyle was austere, but Ammonius and others in his community had everything they needed. When new recruits were accepted, a new cell could be built the same day by the other hermits, who would respond to instructions from Ammonius. He had a habit of taking new renunciates to his church; this was a signal for the other hermits, who would discreetly and anonymously place items from their own cells into the new dwellings, so that nobody lacked tools or food. Such details convey a picture of manual work and adequate stores; tools were important, and so was charity.
One of the more unpleasant tasks fell to a senior ascetic called Didymus, who eliminated scorpions and snakes, saving his brethren from dangerous stings and bites (asps were deadly). The location was apparently Kellia (it is not always clear in the sources as to which region is being discussed).
Kellia was inhabited until the ninth century, and then abandoned. The site was not rediscovered until 1964, when archaeologists exhumed many koms (living quarters) and also churches. Two types of kom are evident, the later ones accommodating a number of hermits. Yet examples of the earlier single cells were also located. By the sixth century, there was a standard form of mud-brick hermitage housing up to three monks. The total anchoritic population of Kellia was apparently over 1500 by the seventh century.
During the fourth century, a number of single cells in Kellia were constructed entirely of mud-brick. Other hermits had huts of stone with a roof of reeds; more rudimentary structures were made of wood from small desert trees. Some anchorites favoured cells built on cliffs, in areas where these existed.
Many buildings in Nitria and Scetis vanished over the centuries. In Scetis, ascetic communities developed into monasteries, only four of which survived. A prominent name in this sector is Macarius the Egyptian (c. 300-c. 390). A disciple of Antony the Hermit (), he reputedly inspired ascetics of different nationalities, i.e., Egyptians, Greeks, Ethiopians, Nubians, Armenians, Palestinians, Italians, Gauls, and others. In this respect, a description in terms of "Egyptian monasticism" can restrict the cosmopolitan dimensions of the phenomenon under discussion. Macarius became legendised, as did other hermits; miracle stories and demon lore were often a substitute for facts. The monastery in his name was one of the few in Scetis to survive the subsequent Berber raids of the fifth century, and also the Islamic conquest of a later period.
In these ascetic colonies of the Nile Delta, bread and salt was the staple diet, though variations are on record (for instance, Macarius the Egyptian is said to have lived for years on vegetables, beans, and bread). Stern ascetics reputedly frowned upon maintaining vegetable gardens, and yet in a distant locale, the hermit Antony is reported to have planted beans to supplement his meagre diet of dates. There was no inflexible rule, and diet probably varied considerably (). The cell of the hermit could contain "jars of honey and wine and other pleasant foods, vegetables, and fruits, which had been left by the pilgrims, and which the Fathers pressed upon visitors." A story told about Macarius relates that he found a thief stealing from his cell, a detail indicating the existence of more than a reed mat inside. The abba (father) raised no protest, and benignly assisted the thief to load a donkey with the stolen items.
A saying of Moses the Black (an Ethiopian), a famous abba or desert father, enjoined "Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." This has been viewed as confirmation of the independent nature of early Egyptian anchoritic activity, in which the all-important cell of the hermit was the milieu of work and contemplation, and quite distinct from the changes and rigid rules that formed in the wake of coenobitic establishments. The cells were sparsely furnished with reed (or palm) mats made by the inmates; a reed bolster served as both a seat and a pillow (reeds could be found in salt lakes or marshes). Some ascetics had sheepskins convenient for use during the very cold winter nights, when fires were lit.
The Greek word monasterion originally referred to the hermit cell, and only later to a collective monastery. The cell varied in characteristics at the earliest period, but as time passed, often consisted of two rooms: an anteroom for manual activity such as rope-weaving, and a back room for prayer and sleep. The life of ascesis (discipline) bore little resemblance to the stereotyped ideas about ascetic extremism which became common in the modern era. Indeed, a fair number of the early Egyptian renunciates led surprisingly practical lives. A widespread recourse was that of making mats, ropes, and baskets from halfa grass or palm fibre; these items were sold in the towns.
Relevant for consideration is the precedent of therapeutoi (Latin: therapeutae), a Jewish ascetic sect reported by Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE- c.50 CE). This Hellenised Jewish philosopher composed On The Contemplative Life, in which he described desert-dwelling renunciates or "philosophers" living on a hill near Lake Mareotis, adjacent to Alexandria; their celibate lifestyle involved fasting, prayer, and Torah study in isolated cells. On the seventh day of the week, these ascetics converged in a communal meeting house, the men and women being segregated. The therapeutoi had no slaves, and were vegetarians, favouring bread and pure water. Later writers such as Eusebius confused this early community with Christian monks. Nevertheless, there are some strong resemblances in lifestyle to the semi-eremitical model of Kellia.
Philo's therapeutoi have been revealed as part of a wider range of ascetic practices and allegorical exegesis found in Alexandria amongst the first century Jewish community. The allegorical tendency had been strong for over 150 years, developing different interpretations. Jewish ascetics could fit either the individual or the communal categories; the allegorisers resisted a literalism of the law, but could be moderate or extreme in their approach. The therapeutoi relate to the "extreme" mode. "A particular kind of Alexandrian Jewish asceticism, linked with allegorical exegesis, forms part of a wider picture of philosophical asceticism that would ultimately flow into Christian practices" (Joan E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First Century Alexandria: Philo's 'Therapeutae' Reconsidered, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 344).
Philo contrasted abstemious meetings of therapeutoi with the symposia of more expensive banquets popular amongst the Greeks, and in which participants became drunk and argumentative, even to the point of fighting. Those events were attended by vulgar entertainers and talk about sensual love; effeminate male slaves waited at the table in the non-ascetic milieux (ibid., pp. 349ff). Such banquets were associated with Plato and Athens, though Plotinus was estranged from the suspect conviviality.
The originating causes of Christian developments were two Jewish ascetics in Palestine. John the Baptist and Jesus both set an example of retreat into the wilderness for their respective applications of asceticism. The arguments continue about precisely what was involved. A recent analysis has urged that John was not a proto-Christian and nor an Essene; there is no evidence that he had any contact with the (possibly Essene) sectarians of Qumran responsible for assembling the Dead Sea Scrolls. Educated in the scriptures, John went into the wilderness dressed in sackcloth (made of camel-hair). Judaism had provision for a form of ascetic life by means of the Nazirite vow; John may have taken this vow, which involved, for instance, not cutting or combing the hair. (See further Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist Within Second Temple Judaism, Michigan 1997).
The Egyptian version of asceticism has been considered mild by comparison with the Syrian Christian format of the anchoritic life, the latter imposing severe ordeals upon the body. Environmental factors have been invoked here, in that the desert heat (and cold nights) obliged the Egyptian ascetic to spend much time in his cell, contrasting with the more varied and mild climate of Syria. The cell was the focus of askesis (Coptic: askhsi), the discipline that encompassed fasting, prayer, and meditation. The desert fathers tended to disapprove of severe austerities such as wearing chains or living in a state of exposure to the elements without a cell. "Although evidence of excessive mortification can be found in Egypt, it nonetheless was an exception rather than the rule, and was usually practised most often in terms of food deprivation." (Jeffrey Conrad, Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism in Late Antiquity, online PDF).
The cell was also the focus of manual work. In the Nitria-Scetis zone, the hermits made linen from flax, in addition to the more widespread activity of weaving ropes from palm-leaves. There is also evidence for ascetics working as seasonal labourers at harvest time, thus earning measures of corn, much of which was given to the poor (ibid.). This out-of-cell activity may have been very extensive, and is indication of a strong affinity with the Coptic working class.
Abba Loukios (Lucius) is reported to have explained how he was able to simultaneously work and pray without ceasing. He would pray while collecting and weaving palm-leaves.The detail is afforded that Leukios earned about sixteen "pence" per day from his labours, which he used to buy food, though placing two coins outside his door as charity for passers-by (ibid.). A very similar concept was in later currency amongst Muslim Sufis, and in terms of "the heart with God, the hands for work" (best known in a Persian formulation).
In Coptic Christian circles, the activity of prayer was closely linked with meditation. "While prayer was most often done alone, the hJsuciva [meditation] was practiced with the intent of seeking the advice of an Abba. Sitting in his cell, the lonely ascetic would meditate, paying close attention to the thoughts that ran through his mind. Many times his streams of consciousness, or logismoiv, would be puzzling, and often disturbing. Every so often, the ascetic would go to an Abba, to help him analyse his thoughts." (Quotation from J. Conrad, article cited).
Hagiology is a drawback in the annals. The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto was allegedly written by a party of monks from Jerusalem who visited Egypt in 394 CE. Composed in Greek, this account was translated into Latin and augmented by Rufinus of Aquileia (). The text emphasises austerity and miracles; scholarly views have differed as to the reliability of reporting. The authors claim to have visited Coptic monks like Apollo, who lived in the territory of Hermopolis in Middle Egypt. This entity had reputedly become a hermit at the age of fifteen, living many years in the desert before establishing a monastery in his veteran years, teaching hundreds of monks. That monastery was located at Bawit, near Asyut, and is credited as having commenced circa 385.
According to Palladius, Macarius the Egyptian was reputed to have raised a dead man to life, and for the purpose of refuting a heretic who did not believe in resurrection of the body. This miracle story was an early instance of the anti-Origenist trend amongst the ascetics, contracted amongst those who relied upon conventional scriptural exegesis. Palladius himself, as a disciple of Evagrius, was evidently inclined to Origenist teaching. He was writing in the early fifth century, and states that he never met Macarius, who died shortly before his own sojourn in the desert. Many of the desert fathers are still historically obscure, overlaid by legend.
However, the Greek writer did encounter another Macarius (Makarios), namely the entity known as Macarius the Alexandrian (d. 393). This ascetic apparently started life as a merchant in the city, though he became a priest and ended up as an ascetic in Kellia, where Palladius was in contact with him for three years. Some deference must therefore be given to what is related about this desert father. For instance, the Alexandrian Macarius resorted to several cells - one at Nitria, one in Kellia, one in Scetis, and yet another in the Libyan desert. He was not therefore sedentary in all respects.
This abba had the repute of being a healer, though he was afflicted by vainglory when he entertained thoughts about visiting Rome (or Alexandria) to cure the sick. These thoughts were attributed to the power of demons. Macarius resisted the problem by filling a large basket with sand, placing this on his shoulders, and carrying it about in the desert until he was exhausted. The tempting thoughts were then vanquished.
Palladius recounts an event which he personally witnessed. A village priest came to the cell of Macarius in Kellia, and lay down outside. The visitor was suffering from a severe skin disease afflicting his head, his hair having fallen out. The abba would not give him audience, despite the plea of Palladius. According to Macarius, the disease was a merited punishment, as this priest was conducting church services while living an ignoble life of indulgence. When the sufferer was given this information, he vowed to revert to the status of a layman and to reform his conduct. Macarius then consented to heal in this instance, laid his hands upon the victim, and after some days the latter was cured.
While digging a well, Macarius was bitten by an asp. These snakes were dreaded for their ability to kill. The ascetic destroyed the asp in retaliation. On another occasion, he was stung by a mosquito, which he then squashed in anger. Afterwards he repented of this action (despite the pain caused him), and assigned himself a penance of sitting for six months in the marshland of Scetis, where mosquitos were legion and could harass even wild boars. The penitent ascetic received so many bites, swelling his flesh, that observers thought he had contracted a disease. This extreme episode would indicate the basic respect for life on the part of the hermits, to the effect that killing some creature was considered an infringement (save perhaps in the case of deadly snakes).
Macarius of Alexandria was renowned for his asceticism, which included an attempt to live without sleep via remaining outdoors for twenty days, exposed to the heat of the sun and the bitterly cold nights. The attempt failed, and according to his own report, he risked delirium unless he returned to the cell and gained some sleep.
According to Palladius, the same hermit had the tendency to copy any ascetic feat, with the intention of mastering the performance. Macarius learned that the Pachomian monks of distant Tabennesis ate only raw food during Lent, and for years thereafter he fasted on raw vegetables and pulse. He reputedly undertook the long journey to meet them. His expedition to the Thebaid lasted fifteen days, and for this purpose he wore the garb of a common labourer. This episode may have occurred during his early years; Pachomius (Pakhom) is described as being in charge of the monastery at his destination. Macarius was admitted at his request, and fasted for forty days (during Lent) on a sparse cabbage diet, forsaking bread and water, and furthermore observing silence and standing up while weaving palm-leaves. This performance is said to have shamed the other monks, who could not match his example. The accuracy of such reports has been questioned, and some context was doubtless lost. Ascetic rivalries probably did occur quite often. The question of exactly what constituted spiritual perfection evidently arose in a number of situations concerning the desert fathers of Egypt.
6. Sayings (Apophthegmata) of the Fathers
Numerous Christian hermits are commemorated via the well known sayings (apophthegmata) of the Desert Fathers (the alphabetical collection is known as the Apophthegmata Patrum). Many of these sayings originate from the Nile Delta version of the nationwide renunciate movement. Senior leaders were known by the title of abba or father, in the sense of a teacher considered proficient in the desert tradition and possessing discernment (diavkrisi). A group of hermits would often live in close proximity to an abba, in the relationship of disciples.
The Greek word monachos, meaning solitary, became a standardised description for Egyptian ascetics by the late fourth century. The more commonly known translation of "monk" has medieval associations that do not fit the Egyptian milieux of hermit life. The celibate life at this era meant primarily "being undivided, attaining an inner unity" (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 40).
Varied attempts have been made to comprehend this phenomenon. (24) The economic dimension has inevitably been one avenue of explanation. By the third century, the Roman system of tax collection had created misery for many Copts. Small farmers in villages often abandoned cultivation due to the difficulties. They disappeared, creating an even greater burden of taxation on those villagers still remaining. "Whole villages came to be deserted, especially near the desert's edge" (ibid., p. 41). Such conditions have been implied as exerting an influence upon ascetic withdrawal by the early wave of hermits, though a contrasting argument is that the villagers moved to the towns in pursuit of prosperity. Renunciates were in a different category.
Another explanation for the hermit trend is the Decian persecution of Christians in the mid-third century. Many Christians reputedly left the towns at that time and went into protective solitude in deserts and mountains. While many of those people doubtless returned after the persecution, an uncertain number might have remained in solitude by virtue of preference.
The teaching of the hermits was preserved in different languages. Problems have arisen in assessing the content of the sayings (apophthegmata) that achieved expression in diverse manuscript collections. For instance, "are these genuine conversations or merely literary creations?" (ibid., p. 76) While many readers have tended to regard these sayings as authentic fourth century records, critical analysis has stressed the gap of more than a century that was discernibly involved in the transition to manuscript traditions.
"There is every reason to suspect theological and ecclesiastical tendencies at work in the sifting and transmission of the material over more than a hundred years. Thus the overall picture given in the sayings, even if only the earliest stratum is used, reflects the way the leading monastic circles wanted their forerunners to be remembered and used as models rather than the actual conditions of the early period." (Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 39)
Sayings of the desert fathers are extant in linguistic media ranging from Latin and Greek to Syriac and Arabic. There are well over two thousand different sayings. The contents of the collections include varied components. A dominant trend of interpretation has regarded the dialogues and anecdotes as later developments, while the authentic item is considered to be in the format of brief response to request for a word (rhema) of guidance from the abba. An alternative view is that such formal criteria, together with the underlying assumptions, can be misleading. This argument relates strongly to the issue of role typecasting for the early hermits.
"To reject sayings that are longer or more complex, or those that are dogmatic or philosophical, only strengthens the prejudice against the early monks as simple, uneducated peasants. What is preserved in the sayings is certainly only part of the truth about these monks, and there is no guarantee that the compilation and transmission of the sayings was not intentionally selective" (ibid., p. 151).
Scholars have urged that the apophthegmata originated in the fifth century, and not in Scetis, but in Palestine. In the early fifth century, many hermits left Scetis, partly as a result of Berber raids on the monasteries. The sayings focus upon monks who lived at the time of this diaspora, and who ended their careers outside Scetis. Arsenius and Poemen are quoted extensively in the sayings, and these entities lived until the mid-fifth century. Also well represented are the earlier (fourth century) figures of Macarius and Antony, (25) although the lastmentioned did not live in the Delta zone.
A notorious Berber raid in 444 killed forty-nine of the desert fathers living at Scetis. Some commentators have interpreted the Council of Chalcedon (451) in terms of a final blow to the hermit trend at Nitria-Scetis. Until that time, the formative monasteries frequently enjoyed a strong degree of independence; now bishops gained control over all monasteries, imposing a uniform doctrine and fiscal pattern. The "golden age" of ascesis was over. Ideological divisions were pronounced in Palestinian monasticism, although similar conflicts apparently existed in Egypt.
7. Hermits, Paganism, and Clericalism
There were marked variations in early Egyptian monasticism, with urban, village, and desert environments all being represented, and in kaleidoscopic formats which can defy generalisation. Nevertheless, the conservative version that emerged triumphant did opt for generalisations and contractions. The ideal tended to become that of desert locations, but with a pronounced loss of context, and with an accompanying neglect of occurrences in both the villages and the urban ascetic sector (primarily meaning Alexandria).
The recent contribution of Professor James E. Goehring has strongly contended in the issue surrounding the literary embellishments of Bishop Athanasius. This Patriarch of Alexandria () produced a very influential hagiography of Antony the hermit that was part of an episcopal campaign inciting to an orthodox creed. Antony retreated into the desert, and came to personify the desert ideal, projected as normative by the clerical version of early monasticism. Acute contractions and omissions followed in train.
"The desert monk came, in the end, to represent a sizable portion of the Egyptian ascetic population. The city and village ascetics continued in their role, but their place in history was lost.... A literary 'desertification' of Egyptian monasticism occurred" (Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in early Egyptian Monasticism, Trinity 1999, p. 88).
In the Life of Antony, Athanasius resorted to the rhetorical phrase that "a city in the desert" was created by the saint he promoted. The impression was thereby fostered that the desert inhabitants achieved large numbers. In reality, many of the ascetics seem to have stayed near inhabited sites, and the urban desert of Athanasius amounted to a simplistic depiction of a multi-faceted trend that he and other clerics wished to monopolise and control.
Of course, the desert hermits were a phenomenon in their own right, and still in process of discovery. The most intensive desert milieu was known in Greek as the paneremos, signifying a substantial distance from human habitation. The hermit might opt to walk for two days, or several days, into the desert before stopping at a cave or other suitable site. In some or many cases, any concern about returning to the village zone was probably negligible. This option was taken by a relative minority amongst the Egyptian renunciates.
The lifestyle of both relatively accessible Kellia and the more remote Mount Kolzim has met with different interpretations from the time of Athanasius. Simplistic versions view motive in terms of a desire to escape the temptations posed by women; this was doubtless part of the emerging monastic psychology, but is not comprehensive. A long trek into the desert would have been quite unnecessary to escape any potential allurements. Many ascetics were able to accomplish personal segregation by the use of village locations, or village perimeter environments. This is quite apart from the consideration that, during the formative period of monasticism, male hermits are reported to have lived in the desert alongside female virgins. In his Lausiac History, Palladius reported that Ammonius, a fourth century anchorite of Nitria-Kellia (and an Origenist), retired to the desert with three other hermits and two female ascetics; they each occupied their own cell, keeping a distance from the others. (26) Such proximities were frowned upon at a later period.
There is the dismissive modern view that the renunciate hermit of the desert was merely a freak, a virtually insane recluse in pursuit of nebulous otherworldly ideals. The lore about demons, magnified without due comprehension by Bishop Athanasius in his blanketing clerical project, has assisted this interpretation of the backward ascetic.
The celibate lifestyle of the town, village, and desert still has the advantage of not contributing to population increase. In contrast, complacent scoffers of today are heedless contributors to population explosions causing so much global trouble.
In one scholarly interpretation, the friction with paganism is seen as a major factor in desert asceticism. There are some convergences discernible between early anchorites and the pagan philosophers, especially in the instance of Plotinus.
"Both sought detachment through an ascetical form of life. Both gave great attention to the search for self-knowledge through an experiential exploration of the inner world. Both achieved some freedom from the social bonds weighing down their contemporaries and expressed this freedom in their attitudes and actions. However, there were also some important differences between them. Unlike the pagan philosophers who engaged in the quest for holiness from within the heart of traditional Roman society, the monks' pursuit of holiness usually meant separation and removal from the mainstream of society.... the monks' dramatic act of withdrawal into the desert sent a particularly strong message regarding the social, cultural, and religious distance of this movement from the heart of traditional pagan culture." (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, OUP 1993, p. 54).
Another distinction is drawn between simple monks who reflected a piety that was ignorant of Greek philosophy and culture, and the more learned desert monks who criticised the pagan heritage. A relevant difference between the pagan philosophers and the Coptic ascetics was that the latter believed in the possibility of simple people to seek holiness. To put that theme in different words, the Greek heritage did unfortunately reflect in some ways the biases of a socially elite class towards low class people (and slaves). Those sentiments reflect the classical heritage of snobbery, and are not persuasive in respect of spirituality.
Scholarly opinions have differed about the extent of literacy amongst the fourth century anchorites. "Although some who went into the desert were educated, and spoke and read Greek, most of the monks were uncultured in the traditional sense of the word - they were illiterate and had little formal education" (ibid., p. 58). Other analysts tend to think that the early phase of monasticism included a higher proportion of literate ascetics than is customarily envisaged.
However, the basic point of the "anti-pagan" contention is that even those ascetics who did possess a classical education were confronted by the need to jettison former concepts and assumptions. John Cassian, who sojourned in Egypt (), is quoted on his new distaste for classical poetry, fables, and heroic mythology, instead now preferring the Biblical scriptures that were highly regarded by the monks. This factor does not annul Greek philosophy, whether viewed in terms of Plato or Plotinus. Furthermore, the anti-pagan contention does not refer to the Origenist beliefs being dramatically outlawed at the end of the fourth century, teachings to which a number of educated monks subscribed. Strong differences between the Egyptian monks themselves often escape due analysis, and the apophthegmata are not an effective guide in this respect. (27)
An anecdote is supplied from source texts about Arsenius (350-445), an erudite desert ascetic who had renounced a high social status. This man was born in Rome to a senatorial family; he joined the ascetics of Scetis at circa 400. Arsenius is reported to have asked an old Coptic monk about his (Arsenius') own thoughts. Someone asked: "Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?" The reply came: "I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant" (ibid., p. 58). The same learned monk reputedly commented to the very literate Evagrius Ponticus () that their classical education led nowhere, but that "these uncultured Egyptians have acquired the virtues by their own hard work" (ibid.).
Evagrius himself is credited with the disclosure, after receiving teaching from one of the Coptic monks, that :"I have read many books before, but never have I received such teaching" (ibid., p. 59). Evidently, the "hard work" was something that could instruct in a different way to what such learned men were accustomed to. The church historian Sozomen reported of the monks that "they do not demonstrate virtue by argument, but practice it.... devoid of vain and meretricious eloquence" (ibid.).
The esteemed "hard work" evidently held the attention of such bibliophiles and scholars as Cassian, Evagrius, and Arsenius, being something quite apart from the constant exercises in rhetoric achieved by the pagan sector. The oratory could be overpowering, though not necessarily inspiring. The clerical Christian mode of rhetoric is also in doubt, though Coptic hermits were not preachers, and had to be asked for their comments.
The precise nature of the (psychological) hard work is still elusive at the purely didactic level, whether expressed in terms of reliance upon scriptural themes or scholarly critical paraphernalia. The acquisition of virtue is not restricted to pedagogy, and may benefit from a detour of dogmatic religion.
The argument about paganism is offset by the fact that monks increasingly renounced the world after a Christian majority had emerged in Egypt by the mid-fourth century. There was then far less cause to escape a pagan environment. They wished to escape all distractions, not just the pagan variety. Anchorites kept moving into the desert for contemplation, and were able in this way to escape clerics and substitute activities. At least for some time, until the iron fist of episcopal authority intervened in desert events. In the Origenist conflict with Patriarch Theophilus, the Nitrian ascetic Ammonius cut off his ear rather than be ordained into the clergy.
In his writings, Evagrius mentions that one symptom of vainglory is the prospect of becoming a priest in a nearby town (). Evagrius had turned his back on clerical life in Asia Minor, and evidently regarded his earlier career as a vainglory, which he was now having to rectify in solitude. He was not fleeing from paganism. Joining the ranks of clericalism was an elementary trap into which Augustine of Hippo fell at this period. The network of bishops, already formed in third century Egypt, subsequently enveloped the monastic communities, causing an adverse mutation. A number of hermits were tragically exiled from Egypt because of their Origenist beliefs ( ).
It is also possible to argue that fourth century desert ascetics were in retreat from urban ascetics because this more visible sector were frequently priests or clerical supporters, conducting an active role in church affairs, following on from the early wave of apotaktikoi. One of the urban exceptions here was Hieracas, a Coptic calligrapher of very literate abilities (). The female urban ascetics are a more complex subject ( ). The subsequent wave of literalist "Anthropomorphite" male ascetics in the Delta region were convergent with clericalism, and do not equate with earlier trends.
8. Evagrius Ponticus
Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399) was a Greek foreigner who became an abba (father) in Kellia. His teachings, expressed in a number of Greek works, have been considered distinctive, reflecting an Origenist orientation and a gnostic (small g) character. He was born at Pontus in Asia Minor, the son of a rural bishop. He became an archdeacon as a consequence of his association with Gregory of Nazianzus, who was bishop of Constantinople in 381 (though soon to be disillusioned by the political influences). In this milieu of Gregory and Basil of Caesarea, Evagrius acquired the Nicene dogma, though accompanied by a preparedness to borrow pagan concepts of the Platonists and Stoics. Above all, he developed a commitment to the cosmology of Origen, which resisted literalist concepts such as resurrection of the body.
Origen (c.185-254) had adopted an allegorical approach to the Bible and was increasingly considered a heretic after his death (). (28) Judging from the account of Origen in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius (d. 339), he could easily have been a role model for some of the early monks; Origen is described in terms of practising severe fasting, short hours of sleep, extreme poverty, walking barefoot, and abstaining from wine. In the time of Evagrius however, Origen was condemned by Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, a vehement heresiologist whose literalism opposed Origen's version of the resurrection.
After diverse experiences, Evagrius made a break with the clerical world, moving to Jerusalem, and then journeying to Nitria in 383, becoming a renunciate; two years later, he moved to the more isolated Kellia, where he stayed until his death. He committed himself to the hermit discipline that he encountered, and was regarded by some as a teacher. His disciples included Palladius, who later authored the Lausiac History; Palladius arrived at Kellia c. 390 and lived in a cell nearby, meeting Evagrius at weekend gatherings. The early version of the monastic life was far more individual and independent than later European communal patterns; Evagrius supported himself economically in the role of a calligrapher.
He composed a number of works in Greek, the famous Praktikos comprising a summary of hermit practice. This was actually the first in a trilogy of books, the other two being Gnostikos and the lengthy Kephalaia Gnostica. The titles indicate the mystical content, though one should distinguish the gnostic (small g) Evagrius from the more unconventional Gnostics who existed in Egypt.
This desert abba represented the monk as being initially a praktikos, meaning a practitioner of ascesis whose objective was apatheia, or freedom from passions. This detachment eventually progressed, via the complexity of agape (higher love), to the state of a gnostikos (gnostic or knower). An inner dimension to the early monastic life was thereby emphasised, one that transpired to be in danger of acute constriction and rejection.
"Most of Evagrius's major works appear in the chapter, or century form, that is, as collections of often enigmatic aphorisms organised in groups of hundreds. The Pontic hermit was the first Christian author to use this genre, which, despite its similarity to some Hellenistic philosophical works, such as the Sentences of Sextus, seems to have been rooted in the central mode of early monastic teaching.... the century genre contributes to our difficulty in understanding Evagrius's teaching.... He speaks of essential gnosis in all his works, and it seems that what he was most hesitant to reveal to non-gnostics was not so much the goal as the Origenist cosmological framework that enclosed it." (29)
Diverse Christian assessments of his mysticism have sometimes been critical, because Evagrius does not accord with standard religious ideas. His usage of prayer is very contemplative, for instance, and related to gnosis. What he termed "pure prayer" denoted the gradual elimination of all images and concepts, here the only means to establish a link with the formless Trinity.
Evagrius incorporated a version of demonology. At first sight this is offputting to modern readers, though the full context has factors of significance. The "demons" are transcended in the perfect apatheia; an imperfect form of that detachment is also mentioned. Evagrius is thought to have been partially influenced by Athanasius, who developed an extremist format of demon lore that became very influential via hagiography. However, Origen had earlier referred to a hierarchy of demons in his own cosmological scheme.
Gregory of Nazianzus, the early clerical mentor of Evagrius, taught that the demons attacked baptised Christians; this bishop composed short prayers intended to repel the demons. These clerical superstitions may have been assisted in Egypt by Coptic beliefs attributing power to anti-demonic words, possibly a legacy of pre-Christian tendencies to magical spells. Be that as it may, Evagrius grafted demon lore onto an earlier appropriation of more rational Stoic concepts about "impressions" (phantasiai) in which:
"We encounter a wide range of impressions, incoming images and ideas, which we must sort out as true or false, leading to virtue or vice, and the like.... Origen and Didymus took over this teaching and adapted it to Christian views." (30)
In the Evagrian variant, the hermit striving to achieve apatheia engages in a combat with "demons," who attack mainly through the medium of pride, avarice, greed, and other psychological problems. Thoughts (logismoi) and passions are here the demons, though the equation is not complete, implying an underlying belief in literal demons. Evagrius classified the primary "demons" in terms of the eight most afflicting thoughts, i.e., vainglory, pride, anger, fornication, gluttony, avarice, depression, and dissatisfaction (akedia). Vainglory was defined in terms of generating fantasies about the acquisition of healing powers, desiring a reputation for holiness, and desiring to become a priest in a nearby town.
In Talking Back (Antirrhtikos), Evagrius describes over 500 thoughts or situations in which the practitioner of ascesis had to combat "demons." The idea was that the ascetic should "talk back" to the tempting "demons" by employing passages from the Bible, duly specified. This work became very popular amongst monastic circles, spreading to the Byzantine world. The obvious drawback is that a sense of literalism could easily occur, the lore having a tendency to obscure the gnosis ultimately involved. Salutary is the reminder of Evagrius to Abba Loukios: "Do not think that a demon is anything other than a human being that has been disturbed by anger and has departed from perception." (31)
A relevant deduction is that monastic writers inherited the metaphor of combat from martyr literature, sources which viewed the struggle of Christian victims with beasts or gladiators of the Roman arena in terms of a combat with Satan. (32) The barbarous entertainment in Rome could understandably be regarded as satanic, in a world where large numbers of human and animal deaths meant nothing to the demons in political power.
The Evagrian praktikos was committed to exercises in fasting and sleep deprivation. The most exacting diet involved was limited to bread and water; this option could lead to anxieties about stomach problems in a milieu where medical assistance did not exist. Yet there was no fixed rule amongst the solitaries, unlike the situation in coenobitic monasteries. Manual labour frequently accompanied life in the cells, and Evagrius included this factor in his Foundations of the Monastic Life. The point made here was that the monk should not be a burden to anyone, and by the labour of his own hands could gain some surplus to assist others in need. The monk sold the produce of his labour in the markets of nearby villages or towns. An intermediary was considered preferable in this link with commerce, itself considered a drawback because of prevalent mundane attitudes.
Evagrius doubtless learned an improved version of demon lore from his teacher Macarius (Makarios) of Alexandria (d. 393), not to be confused with the contemporary namesake Macarius the Egyptian. Macarius was active in Kellia, and very strict in his adherence to fasting (). Evagrius was eventually obliged to modify his diet because of a stomach problem that he contracted in his last years. (33) If the regimen sounds extreme, the practitioners might nevertheless be favourably compared with the gastronomic surfeits reported amongst the clergy from Rome to Constantinople. Bishop Nectarius (d. 397) of Constantinople, along with Pope Damasus of Rome (office 366-84) "encouraged the clergy to minister to their flock by good food and drink as much as by pastoral instruction" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 187).
Details found in Talking Back convey the impression that many of the ascetics known to Evagrius came from privileged social backgrounds, though he does also mention monks from poor families, and monks who were formerly slaves (and perhaps even still classified as slaves). An evident problem was that upper class monks tended to regard other monks with a degree of contempt, and might even taunt former or current slaves. This realistic detail indicates the variety of occurrences in the early monastic sector, closely related to the Graeco-Roman colonial situation.
The ascetics at Nitria and Kellia engaged in crafts work and manual labour; Evagrius approved of this, and yet also took the view that extroverted activities could be pursued too enthusiastically in the pursuit of income. He refers to loans between monks, some of whom may have owned cattle. Basic foods were bread and oil (apparently olive oil), though some ascetics abstained from oil in a mood of severe discipline. Wine was available, but discouraged by the elders. Vegetables and fruits were also available, if regarded as temptations by rigorous ascetics. (34)
The writings of Evagrius insist that the imagination must not conceive any idea of God as having human form or any kind of spatial location. However, there were many Coptic monks who believed in an anthropomorphic deity, and numerous clergy likewise. Soon after the death of Evagrius, in 400/401 the Origenist controversy afflicted the Nitrian desert and Kellia. The anchorites had become divided amongst the supporters of Origen and a more fundamentalist grouping known as the Anthropomorphites. This has been described in terms of a "tension between the learned Origenists and the simple monastics." (35) Yet much is obscure in these developments. The Alexandrian Patriarch Theophilus at first supported the Origenists, but politically switched his allegiance in 400 and instead persecuted them.
In his own correspondence, Theophilus depicted Origenism as an extreme and undesirable form of asceticism. In contrast, Palladius (the disciple of Evagrius) provided a very different account in his Life of John Chrysostom, describing how Theophilus expelled certain ascetics from Nitria-Kellia, including the distinctive Ammonius (one of the teachers of Evagrius). The victims were accused of Origenism, and sought refuge with the more liberal clerical figure John Chrysostom at Constantinople. A large number of "Anthropomorphite" recluses in Nitria are mentioned by the fifth century Byzantine historian Socrates Scholasticus. However, the major entity in this opposition was Epiphanius (d. 403), bishop of Salamis, a fanatical anti-Origenist who appears to have been a key figure in the strategy of Theophilus. (36)
Nevertheless, Evagrius continued to be read by liberal parties. A large number of Egyptian ascetics fled to Palestine in the early fifth century; this exodus was caused by the agitation against Origenism and also by the violent attacks on monasteries in Scetis by Berber tribes. Gaza may have been the location where emigre monks commenced to record the apophthegmata. The writings of Evagrius and Origen aroused strong interest in Palestine, leading to a major controversy in the sixth century. The Byzantine emperor Justinian condemned Origen, and soon after in 553, the Council of Constantinople followed suit. Origen and Evagrius (along with Didymus the Blind) were afflicted by the stigma of heresy, and many of their writings were destroyed by orthodox zealots in the Byzantine world ().
The significance of this event is pronounced. What could be called "mystical monasticism" was now eliminated. Evagrius is early mentioned as a heretic by the disapproving Jerome in a letter of 414 (Epistle 133). (37)
"As each variant ideology was rejected and subsequently removed from the preserved literary record, the early ascetic movement was remembered as more exclusive and more rigorously orthodox" (Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert, 1999, p. 10).
9. John Cassian
The life of John Cassian (c. 360-435) is for the most part obscure. "The chronology of major events in his life or of his writings rests on deduction rather than solid evidence" ( Columba Stewart, Cassian the Monk, 1998, p. 3).
Cassian was was probably born in Dacia (associated with modern Romania). Becoming fluent in Latin and Greek, he lived as an ascetic in Palestine and Egypt. He and his friend Germanus twice sojourned in Egypt during the last two decades of the fourth century. His Origenist affinities are thought to have caused his flight from Egypt circa 401-2, at a time when Origenist desert fathers were exiled by the Alexandrian Patriarch Theophilus. The opposing and influential "Anthropomorphite" movement amongst the monks was then becoming vehement and agitatory.
Cassian moved to Constantinople and Rome, where he was ordained as a priest by Pope Innocent. His orthodoxy contrasts with the heretical profile of Evagrius, but he proved loyal to the desert ethos. At circa 415 he moved to Gaul, where he created a monastic project inspired by Egyptian models. Cassian commendably criticised the popular demand for "desert father" miracle stories that gained vogue in Gaul. This trend created the hagiography of Bishop Martin of Tours, the reputed soldier-saint. The admirers of such works were also avid readers of the Life of Antony, reputedly composed by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria and made available in Latin translation as the Vita Antonii.
The two well known Latin writings of Cassian were composed in Gaul, and prior to his residence at Marseilles from 429. In De Institutis (Institutes), Cassian describes the external trappings of monks living a communal life. Part One closes with an account of the monastic life, including obedience, and containing a discourse attributed to Abba Pinufius, regarded as a model of self-abnegation. Part Two describes the eight principal vices, deriving from the Evagrian schema of afflicting thoughts such as vainglory and pride.
The Institutes require to be seen in the situational context; Part One has been revealed as revolutionary in the face of attitudes sustained by the traditional Roman social elite and Gallic ascetics. Contemporary Gallic writers were exhorting their aristocratic readers to pursue a clerical career, with the encouragement that the nobleman would not need to abandon his social status in this prospect. "Life as a bishop or monk was simply a continuation of what was being renounced" (Richard J. Goodrich, Contextualising Cassian, OUP 2007, p. 22). Such anomalies were the life-core of delusory spirituality.
"Whereas other [Western] writers saw asceticism as a new aristocratic cursus that led to even more honours in the present world, Cassian advocated a complete separation from the world and its concern for rank and status... While other Western ascetics and writers were busy attempting to integrate traditional Roman elite virtues and Christian asceticism, Cassian preached a complete change of life" (ibid., p. 6).
A lengthy work of Cassian is Conferences, in which he claims to record conversations with desert fathers in the Egyptian desert, at Scetis and other Delta sites. The "conferences" are dialogues between hermit teachers and their disciples Cassian and Germanus. With some honesty, Cassian indicates that he can no longer remember everything he saw and heard in Egypt; the events had occurred over twenty years before. His reliability cannot therefore be taken for granted; the conversations are thought to have been elaborated. Nevertheless, these reports are of due interest.
The figure of Abba Paphnutius emerges, a hermit rarely seen even by other anchorites, and reputedly ninety years old. Once a week, he carried back to his cell a week's supply of water, which he bore on his shoulders over a distance of nearly five miles. The ruggedness of desert father lifestyle was in stark contrast to the pampered urban environments of the Gallo-Roman elite, the Graeco-Roman colonialists of Egypt, and the opulent Christian clerics.
Several times Cassian alludes in the Conferences to Jesus encountering Satan in the desert; this Gospel depiction was evidently an underlying aspect of the demon mythology found in the monastic literature. Yet Cassian is reticent about miracles, and regarded purity of heart as being more important than fasts, vigils, and meditation on scripture. This was his interpretation of the evocative Greek term apatheia. Cassian did not recommend any extreme ascetic practices, which he evidently considered to be lacking in the discretion needed for the spiritual life.
According to Cassian, the hermit Abba Poemen suggested that the desert fathers were a more reliable guide to Christian conduct than scripture. Further, the thirteenth conference includes a critical version of Augustine's doctrine of grace, though the bishop of Hippo is not named. Cassian scholars have interpreted this feature as an intentional response to Augustine (354-430), though the argument is attributed to Abba Chaeremon. (38)
10. Jerome and Paul the First Hermit
The Origenist controversy spread from Egypt to Palestine, where two prominent Latin scholars disagreed on this issue in 393. They lived in austere abodes of the kind that were to become an increasing resort in Judaea, and a testimony to influences from the Coptic desert tradition. Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 349-411) was strongly in favour of the Origenist outlook. However, his friend Jerome (d. 419), who had formerly translated some works of Origen and praised the latter highly, now expressed a vehement opposition, being influenced by the heresy-hunting and anti-Origenist Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis. Such a change in mood was not untypical of Jerome, who is notorious for his quarrels and polemic against rivals.
Rufinus was more benign in temperament, and similarly translated Greek materials into Latin, especially Origen. He influentially transmitted the Historia Monachorum, and also translated the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, which he augmented with up to date chapters. His De Vitis Patrum provides reports of the Egyptian ascetics, though with the setback of miracle stories. In Egypt during the 380s he studied under Didymus the Blind, a noted Origenist exponent (), and was ordained a priest in 390. Such scholarly figures were more assimilable to the clergy than many of the Egyptian ascetics.
Educated at Rome, Jerome became a Christian in his early years. Subsequently, in 374 he retired into the desert of Chalcis, near Antioch, which was inhabited by many hermits. This ascetic phase in Syria was of short duration. Returning to Antioch, he was ordained a priest circa 377, perhaps unwillingly. He changed direction, moving back to Rome and becoming a secretary to Pope Damasus (d. 384), participating in papal councils until 385. By that time Jerome was in friction with the Roman clergy; he departed for Palestine, choosing to live in a hermit cell at Bethlehem, though he had companions nearby, both men and women who regarded him as a mentor.
He effectively established a monastery with his Roman patron Paula, and translated the Bible into Latin. His milieu in Bethlehem was actually Greek, though his relations with the Greeks in Jerusalem were strained. One of his sermons to Latin monks at Bethlehem consisted of a rather dogmatic criticism of the shocking Greek custom of celebrating the birth of Christ on 6th January instead of 25th December. Henry Chadwick concluded that although Jerome was producing Biblical scholarship, he was no thinker. (39)
Jerome has the repute of a heresiologist. After his anti-Origenist campaign, he opposed the Pelagian doctrine. In 415 he composed his Dialogus adversus Pelagianos, and inveighed against those who taught apatheia (freedom from passions), which involved a belief in the attainment of spiritual perfection. Jerome traced the heretical concept back to the Stoics and Aristotelians, and asserted that Cicero also taught in this vein, with Christians like Origen thereafter being guilty. The list of erring parties includes Evagrius Ponticus (), the Manichaeans, and the Messalians (a Christian sect). (40) This gesture of disapproval is indicative of a growing intolerance amongst the more dogmatic monks, who converged with clerical strictures.
The Messalian movement is associated with the Spiritual Homilies mistakenly attributed to the fourth century Egyptian anchorite Macarius; the origin of those anonymous Greek texts has been traced to the relatively obscure milieu of Syriac Christianity. The language of the Pseudo-Macarian writings was considered dangerous by many Greek bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries (though ironically, this corpus became favoured in Byzantine monasticism and was avidly read by Protestants, Jesuits, and Benedictines when translated into Latin during the sixteenth century).
"Every emphasis on direct personal experience of the Holy Spirit could be seen as a de-emphasis of sacraments and official ministers.... Every reference to being 'filled with the Spirit', or "being fulfilled' or 'perfect', could be seen as a potential threat to hard-won church order.... They [accusing clerics] took the unfamiliar language to represent heretical doctrine; now it can be seen that the language in fact represents an unfamiliar culture." (41)
Jerome had visited Egypt in 385 or 386, in the wake of Rufinus, who stayed for nearly ten years; they both revered the monks of Egypt. Jerome produced the Vita Pauli, or Life of St. Paul the First Hermit, composed in Latin. This is the source upon which rests the repute of Paul of Thebes as the first hermit in the mid-third century CE. The consensus of modern scholastic opinion has tended to be that the Vita Pauli is suspect as a historical document. (42) Jerome is often regarded as competing with the Life of Antony, known to him in a Latin translation. However, some have detected an authentic flavour in some passages of Jerome's work; a deduction is that Jerome compiled his version using sources that were probably in written form.
"The text is not a complete vita, but an account of how Paul and Antony first met, introduced by a reference to the debate on who was the first monk, and an account of the persecution which caused Paul to become a hermit" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 176).
During his teens, Paul reputedly fled the Roman persecution of Christians in the Thebaid; he moved into the formidable Eastern Desert, where soldiers could not follow. The famous monastery in his name is situated in dramatic mountain terrain near the Red Sea, and is believed to mark the site of the cave where Paul lived, and where he encountered Antony, who lived in a similar manner in an adjoining desert locale.
While Paul of Thebes is a difficult subject for historical reconstruction, some commentators have urged that Bishop Athanasius was writing too close in time to Antony the Copt for there not to have been a core of solid data in his Life of Antony. However, the manner of arranging that data, of modifying and adapting it, is another matter altogether.
11. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria
The episcopal entity Athanasius (c. 298-373) is inseparable from propagation of the "Desert Father" mythology. Realistically however, he can be viewed as the major affliction for early monasticism, imposing clerical yardsticks upon dimensions of life that can be interpreted very differently. His high status role "manipulated ascetic Christians, their values, and their prestige in order to enhance his own power and to expand and solidify the episcopally centred Christianity that he was forming." (43)
Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for over forty years until his death in 373, though his term was punctuated by periods of exile. In his early years, he became the secretary of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria (in office 312-28). He was elected to the same episcopal office in 328. Athanasius adopted the same inflexible tactic as his predecessor towards the Arian heresy, which had been created in Alexandria by Arius, a priest who served under Bishop Alexander. The latter was offended by a difference of view about the Word of God and the nature of Christ. Alexander convened a council of Egyptian bishops, who condemned the views of Arius and excommunicated him, together with his supporters. This intolerant action had the drawback of creating antagonism amongst the numerous followers of Arius in Alexandria.
A number of bishops in other countries (Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine) proved favourable to Arius and urged Alexander to readmit the dissident into the church. Alexander refused, and was justified by the Council of Nicaea in 325, which excommunicated Arius and even exiled several bishops who had supported him. When Athanasius gained the episcopal throne, he proved equally authoritarian in the exclusion of Arius. More liberal Christians in Alexandria were dismayed by these dogmatic tendencies to repress disagreement. A substantial number of bishops in the Eastern Church were part of the reaction, and in 335 the protesters were successful at a synod in Tyre, which condemned Athanasius for actions unworthy of a bishop. The emperor Constantine exiled Athanasius from Alexandria, sending him to Gaul.
This was the first of five periods of exile. Each time Athanasius returned to Alexandria. Arius died in 336, but his heresy survived via many supporters, including the emperor Constantius. In 339 a synod at Antioch elevated Gregory of Cappadocia as bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius then had to flee, and for seven years lived in exile in Italy and Gaul. Opposition persisted amongst his supporters in Alexandria, and to such an extent that Balachius, the general of the Roman army in Egypt, made a strong gesture to enforce support of the imperial government for the Arian bishop Gregory. A factual drawback is that Athanasius was the reporter of this episode, writing a decade later. However, it is not difficult to concede that Balachius endorsed violent persecution of ascetic Christians who favoured Athanasius. The Roman army was not a public benefactor. Balachius is said to have ordered the beating of virgins and the flogging of monks (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 1).
More caution is required concerning the inclusion of the hermit Antony in the episcopal report. According to Athanasius, Antony wrote to Balachius, warning of divine retribution for the violence. The mood of the recipient was one of contempt. Not long after, the Roman general was killed in an accident while on horseback.
"Athanasius tells this story in the late 350s, not as a disinterested reporter of facts, but as an outlawed bishop, a fugitive in the desert, trying to rally Christians to his fight against 'Arianism' by invoking the supernatural power and ascetic fame of the now deceased Antony. Asceticism and politics come together in Athanasius' story, if indeed they were ever separable." (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, OUP 1995, pp. 1-2).
In 356, the military police attempted to capture Athanasius, who managed to escape from Alexandria once more. For six years, the deposed bishop remained in hiding, by now having supporters among the monks of Egypt. The Arian bishop George was installed in his place (Gregory having died), though subsequently murdered by a pro-Athanasian mob. Amongst the prolific writings of Athanasius during this period were anti-Arian letters to monks and his influential Life of Antony, which depicted the subject as an opponent of Arianism.
Athanasius conducted a strident anti-Arian campaign in monastic sectors, and circulated to monks the dramatic story that Arius had been struck dead by divine judgment. The death of Arius was presented as a sign of God's wrath. More specifically, Arius went into the toilet and suddenly fell headlong, bursting open in the middle, and ignominiously expired without holy communion (ibid., pp. 129ff.).
The deposed bishop is thought to have taken refuge in monastic communities during this period. The more susceptible monks evidently took him seriously, believing in the divine condemnation of the cleric's enemies.
"Athanasius intended that the horrifying death of Arius should dissuade the monks not only from accepting Arian ideas, but also from entertaining people who were theologically suspect.... Athanasius argued vigorously against a monastic tendency to offer hospitality to anyone, regardless of his or her theological proclivities; such a policy, he said, was just as bad as holding heretical opinions" (ibid., p. 134).
In this atmosphere of dogmatic manipulation, Athanasius wrote circa 357 the Life of Antony. (44) The subject of that hagiography had recently died, and was now deemed highly desirable for enlistment in the episcopal cause. A Latin translation soon followed. The alleged contact of Athanasius with Antony is strongly in question. In view of the known psychological pattern of Athanasius, his literary offerings must be critically received.
"Athanasius presented his flight [from Alexandria] as an instance of ascetic withdrawal from and rejection of the world. The creation of the legendary Athanasius, near martyr for the true faith and kindred spirit of those in the desert, began with Athanasius himself" (ibid., p. 132).
His presentation of himself as an anchorite can be deemed superficial. His chosen career was one of clerical status and acute doctrinal polemic, a consequence of the dogmas instilled in him by Bishop Alexander. Athanasius fled from Alexandria only because he was obliged to do so, his life being in jeopardy. One may deduce that Athanasius was a stranger to intrinsic ideals and concepts of the anchorites, his own tendency being that of political opportunism. Some scholars doubt that he ever met Antony, despite the claims attendant upon his corpus.
"The sources for the first half of Athanasius' episcopate (328-50) provide little evidence for contact between the bishop and the monks of the Egyptian desert. The ascetics that appear in his writings in reference to this period live in the city of Alexandria.... After the year 350, a new category of male ascetics appears in Athanasius' works: 'monks.' Unlike the 'solitaries' of Alexandria, these men did not live in the city and orientate their piety by the rhythms of parish life.... Athanasius tried to involve the monks more fully in the public life of the Church by appointing many of them as bishops. He also asserted the right of bishops to intervene in monastic affairs" (ibid., pp. 8-12).
In this way, the vintage monasticism was impaired by the clerical status role intent upon zealous doctrine and party politics. The subsequent harassment of Origenism by the episcopal cause of later dogmatists is further testimony to a mutated heritage.
A prominent motive of Athanasius in writing the Life of Antony was to demonstrate the Christian orthodoxy of the subject. In this manner, the status of church and bishop was maintained in the face of a burgeoning Coptic monastic movement, now sought as an ally and regarded as a vehicle in need of substantial modification by episcopal preferences.
The bare details of Antony's life which emerge from the canonical version can be briefly related without the embellishments. He was the son of a wealthy farmer and born circa 251, apparently in North Egypt. His parents are said to have been Christians. He spoke Coptic, the vernacular language; a Greek education is bypassed by Athanasius. As a young man Antony became an ascetic, meeting several others, and living under the instructions of an old hermit near his village. He made his abode in an empty tomb, and afterwards resided in a deserted Roman fort at Pispir. The hagiological treatment depicts Antony as struggling with Satan and demons. Friends brought him food but never saw him. His reputation spread amongst other hermits, and they began to converge upon his fort, but he ignored their requests for instruction. Pispir was in a region adjacent to Arsinoe, south of the Delta.
Circa 305, Antony emerged into comparative visibility and began to teach those who persisted. He presided over a disciplined community of hermits, but frequent interruptions caused him to depart several years later. This time he journeyed into remote desert territory, and settled on Mount Kolzim near the Red Sea. Again he was sought out by would-be disciples, and a colony of hermits formed at the foot of the mountain. When he died a centenarian in 356, Antony wanted his grave to be kept secret, wishing to avoid superstitious homage ().
The extravagant Athanasian demonology is no guide whatever to factual occurrences. The bishop here utilised his own doctrines to embellish his account of Antony. Superstitions about demons were widespread; a folk belief was that demons inhabited the desert. "The demon's use of thoughts and apparitions is familiar from the monastic literature of Egypt; Athanasius' presentation is unique in its emphasis on the external mode of attack" (ibid., p 220).
Athanasius dwells at length upon demonic apparitions, and uses the theme of human moral paralysis caused by fear of death, a theme he had innovated in his early work On the Incarnation, which emphasised lore about martyrs and related subjects. In his Festal Letters, the bishop "frequently portrayed the Christian life as a conflict with the airborne Satan, his demonic host, or both; he described exorcisms performed at martyr shrines as graphic evidence of this struggle, the outcome of which Christ's death had pre-determined" (ibid., p. 225). These and other confusions were disastrously influential. Athanasius believed that demonic attacks were repelled by the sign of the cross or by saying the name of Christ; he inserted his beliefs and inventions in the Life of Antony.
Jerome referred to seven letters of Antony, which survived in different versions. The attribution has long been in dispute, and the contents frequently ignored. Those letters have recently been re-evaluated, (45) serving to cast a significant light upon what Antony really taught, and very much in contrast to the doctrines of Athanasius ().
12. Wealth of the Clerics
At the end of the persecutions by the Roman empire, the Christian Church gained increasing wealth and power. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, there were 72 bishoprics in Egypt. During the reign of Constantine the Great, the bishops were exempted from taxation, and state contributions to church funds were an accompanying innovation. In Egypt, the bishops were appointed by the Patriarch (archbishop) of Alexandria, e.g., Athanasius, Theophilus, who were the ecclesiastical rulers.
"The documentary material, moreover, shows that the Church, through donations of money, grain, valuable articles, animals, slaves, and above all of land, rapidly accumulated considerable wealth.... Apparently, the office of the bishop was soon regarded as so attractive that people tried to become bishops in order to enrich themselves" (Rubenson,The Letters of St. Antony, 1995, p. 107).
The implications for clerical lifestyle are not flattering. At the beginning of the fourth century CE, the custom of bequeathing land to the Egyptian Church commenced in earnest. In a document of 304, a deacon complains that his village church lacked money, vestments, cattle, slaves, boats. The expectation was evidently much to the contrary. As ordained representatives of the bishops, the deacons and presbyters also benefited from the accumulation of assets. In a land register from Hermopolis dating to the 330s, "a presbyter is registered for 42 arurae, an amount giving him an economically much better position than a pagan priest; the bishop is registered for as much as 466 arurae, a proper fortune, enough to feed at least 50 families" (ibid., p. 108 note 1). Scholarship has assessed one arura in terms of the annual subsistence of one person.
The bishops, who largely came from the urban elite, took on the role of caring for the poor. With their wealth and status, the bishops acquired large followings from the urban lower classes. These supporters assisted bishops against their enemies, whether Christians or pagans. Some manifestations of this trend were violent. Though often called "monks" today, and apparently living as ascetics,"in the sources they [the supporters] are generally distinguished from these [the monks] and designated as 'the ardent' or 'the zealous' " (ibid., p. 108). The zealous private army of the Patriarch Cyril is closely associated with the murder of Hypatia in 415. In some respects, the episcopal milieu can be regarded as a variant of the aristocratic court and retainership.
13. Pachomian Monasticism
The early days of monasticism in South (Upper) Egypt were a comparatively nebulous factor to hermits and visitors in the Nile Delta, where the majority of Egyptian apophthegmata were pooled. Other documents survive relating to the Pachomian monasteries in the Thebaid. The Nile valley also harboured a variety of non-Pachomian monasteries, such as that attested in the Nepheros archive. One scholarly assessment has been that almost 500 monasteries existed in South Egypt during the fourth century (Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity, 1990, p. 154).
The form of monasticism that came to characterise the Thebaid is known as coenobitic (from the Latin word coenobium or community), and was communally-based, not hermit-oriented. This made for significant differences. The coenobitic model eventually became the standard format of Christian monasticism, which meant that features of the eremitical hermit life were eclipsed.
The reputed founder of the coenobitic model was Pakhom (292-346). The belief in Pakhom's innovation was stated as a fact by Jerome in the preface to his Latin translation of the Rule of Pachomius, though since disputed in view of Melitian events. (46) One has to be cautious of the very patchy history of what never really happened in the way it was written down. Furthermore:
"The quest for the historical Pachomius offers the same pitfalls and many of the same negative possibilities connected with the quest for the historical Jesus" (James E. Goehring,The Letter of Ammon and Pachomian Monasticism, 1986, p. 23).
Pakhom did not start life in any Christian milieu, but was a pagan Copt (possibly a farmer) from the region of Latopolis. At the age of 20, he suffered compulsory enlistment in the army of Maximinus Daia, and was quartered in a squalid prison at Thebes. After his discharge from the army in 313, Pakhom settled in a temple near the deserted village of Seneset, on the Nile, and there cultivated vegetables and palm trees. He decided to be baptised as a Christian. For three years he engaged himself in feeding the poor, and then committed himself to the life of an anchorite.
Pakhom now became a disciple of the obscure hermit Palamon, who lived on the outskirts of Seneset. He fasted on bread, salt, and water, observing strict silence in a routine of contemplative prayer and obedience to his teacher. After seven years, he moved to Tabennesis, another deserted village further along the Nile, where he and his brother John lived as anchorites. The general situation has significances.
"The Lives of Pachomius attest to a widespread tradition of anchorite life, long before either Antony or Amoun took to the desert. Men had lived as ascetics in caves just on the edge of villages since the middle of the third century, and when Pachomius joined Palamon, he not only joined an established Father and teacher, but an entire and close-knit community of ascetics that had already developed a host of ascetic customs" (Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 287).
As a consequence of Constantine's policy, Christianity became the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. Pakhom witnessed several trends of early Christianity that became extinct by about 400 CE. For instance, prior to that date, it was common to postpone baptism until late in life because of the serious nature of this commitment.
At Tabennesis, Pakhom established a community of monks, eventually including a hundred inmates, all living in separate dwellings. The discipline allowed for a degree of independence, though a distinctive communal effort was in occurrence. Manual labour was a priority. Pakhom and his monks worked as labourers during the day, with prayer and contemplation occurring during nocturnal hours. The deserted village, ruined by Roman sovereignty, now gained fresh life and a revived economy.
This site represented "village monasticism" as distinct from the desert version. Tabennesis had fertile land for vegetable gardens, plus the water necessary for irrigation. There were also materials here for basket and mat weaving, often a staple of monastic output. Commercial markets were nearby, and the Nile facilitated transport. The flourishing community expanded into a federation of affilated monasteries spread along the Nile between Panopolis (Smin) and Latopolis (Sne).
By the time of Pakhom's death, there were nine monasteries under his direction, and reputedly some three thousand inmates. "Most Pachomian monks were Coptic speaking peasants, but several brothers clearly belonged to the Graeco-Roman elite" (ibid., p. 289). Further, a core of nuns formed around his sister Maria (who joined in 329), and they gained two monasteries of their own, at Tabennesis and Tsmine. These women were basically the sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters of the monks. The nuns "were responsible for the production of textiles and garments for all Pachomian communities, male as well as female; the raw materials, such as flax, were provided by the male communities" (ibid., p. 294). In other respects, the nuns depended upon the monks for assistance in manual work and the provision of food.
Yet dissension within these settlements of the Thebaid occurred soon after Pakhom's expiry. His example was replaced by abbots who converged with clerical orthodoxy. The discipline became codified into a formal Rule that was committed to writing at an uncertain date. The coenobitic development as a whole has been interpreted as a departure from the abba ideal as found in hermit clusters elsewhere.
The anonymous Lives of Pakhom survived in Coptic, Greek, and Arabic versions. These hagiographies are attended by linguistic complexities and discrepancies. The Coptic and Greek versions were redacted in the late fourth century, apparently employing oral transmissions and possibly brief written accounts. This was the period of Pakhom's successors Theodorus and Horsiese. Writings deriving from Pakhom's actual lifetime are very scanty. Theodorus apparently commenced the process of composing a biography; at a later date, the Pachomian federation produced the multiple Lives of Pakhom, which evidence a tendency to make the subject fit an orthodox mould. The subject of demons is one ingredient, easily explained by the fact that Pachomian hagiologists had by then read the Athanasian Life of Antony.
A number of the Pachomian monasteries became very prosperous, owning property, and being involved in manufacturing and trading activities. This prosperity was not diminished until after the Islamic invasion of the seventh century.
Pakhom may have allocated work on the basis of vocational background. Certainly, a description relevant to the Akhmim locale, written circa 420, relays that three hundred Pachomian monks were engaged in every type of craft, and used their surplus output to provide for the nuns. The source is here the Lausiac History, composed by Palladius, and regarded as the principal document for the history of Egyptian monasticism.
Palladius (c.365-425) became a monk in his early twenties on the Mount of Olives. Circa 388 he left Palestine for Egypt, where he lived amongst the hermits. He spent some three years in Alexandria and the Delta sites, and then nine years in Kellia before returning to Palestine. It was not until 408 that he commenced a four year sojourn in the Thebaid, providing an eyewitness testimony to coenobitic monasticism of this period. Palladius relates that he journeyed to Akhmim and found in the local Pachomian monastery fifteen tailors, seven metalworkers, four carpenters, twelve camel drivers, and fifteen fullers, amongst others. (47)
A more basic factor to comprehend is the distinctive autonomy of Pakhom from the clergy. Pachomian sources report that in 329/30, Bishop Athanasius (section 11 above) journeyed by boat to the Thebaid. Bishop Sarapion of Tentyra (near Tabennesis) at that time requested the prestigious visitor to induce Pakhom to become a priest. The background to this development was that Pakhom had recently refused the prospect of ordination, frustrating the wishes of Sarapion. The Greek Life of Pakhom relates that the subject was aware of Sarapion's request, and resorted to hiding in order to avoid ordination.
Pakhom had annoyed Bishop Sarapion when he administered the finances involved in a new village church, a factor contradicting the official episcopal prerogative. Such funding was one means by which the bishops maintained authority. Pakhom was here the effective patron of the villagers, and thus a rival to Sarapion. This was apparently the reason why Sarapion wanted the monastic leader to be ordained, which would mean that Pakhom was his surbordinate.
The underlying reason for the friction is supplied by the Lives. The ordination of monks was regarded in the Pachomian monasteries as a source of pride and jealousy. Pakhom compared the ego inflation caused by rank to a spark cast onto the threshing floor, capable of destroying a whole year's labour unless quickly doused. The suggestion has been made that Pakhom founded his second monastery at Pbow in order to escape the intrusions of Sarapion (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, pp. 116ff.).
There is indication of further friction between Pachomian monks and the clergy. An episode reported in the Lives depicts how the bishop of Latopolis tried without success to prevent the founding of a monastery in his diocese at the nearby village of Phnoum. The bishop is reported to have led a mob in an attempt to deter Pakhom from his objective. The precise reaction of Pakhom is unclear, but a degree of resistance is inferable (ibid., pp. 113ff.).
In 345, an episcopal synod placed Pakhom on trial, on a charge of clairvoyant powers, and significantly at Latopolis. A riot then occurred, and Pakhom was apparently fortunate to escape with his life. A scholarly surmisal has been that the same hostile bishop was involved. Pakhom "resisted any episcopal intrusion into the life of the [Pachomian] federation, and the rapid emergence of his large and well-organised community could and did lead to tensions and even to violence as spheres of authority were being defined and coming into conflict" (ibid., p. 116).
The Synod of Latopolis also saw the drama in which the bishops Muitius and Paul were confronted by Pakhom. These two clerics had the reputation of monks, and indeed had been close to Pakhom himself. "Were you not once monks with me in the monastery before you became bishops?" (ibid., p. 100). Pakhom defended himself against the accusations, and must have regarded such monk-bishops as traitors to renunciation.
From the angle of Coptic monasticism, the urban Graeco-Roman elite were evidently a complication, spawning the clergy instead of renunciates, and resorting to the paraphernalia of wealth and status that were basic problems underlying the colonial heritage. The friction ended when the clergy gained more acceptance amongst the Pachomians. The way in which this came about is revealing.
Pakhom caused surprise when he named his successor. He bypassed the popular Theodorus, and selected an older monk named Petronius. The latter died after only a few months in office; he had delegated Horsiese as the new leader. In 350 one of the monastery leaders refused to obey Horsiese, and the latter resigned. Theodorus (Latin: Theodore) was far more popular, and took control of the Pachomian federation, living at the Pbow monastery, while Horsiese lived in a self-imposed exile at Tabennesis. Theodorus came from the Graeco-Roman elite, being the son of a prominent family at Latopolis; he appears to have been quite a different type to Pakhom, and tended to close connections with the clergy. During his leadership, the number of Pachomian monks increased, as did the monastic wealth. Reforms were introduced, and the official version of Pakhom's life developed. The emerging "orthodoxy" converged with overtures made by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.
Theodorus was evidently partial to Festal Letter 39 of Athanasius dating to 367. The Pachomian leader apparently read out this document to the brothers. That well known epistle elevated the author's canon of the New Testament, a canon which transpired to be influential, as indeed was the accompanying context. Athanasius was seeking to gain ascendancy over the "academic" Christian tradition of Alexandria; he repudiated the concept of a Christian teacher, and maintained that only Christ was to be called teacher. The term "teacher" became a stigma for his rivals, who were now portrayed as "teachers whose ideas were too original and whose reading lists included too wide a range of Christian literature" (ibid., p. 67). Thus, in Christ becoming the only teacher, all the heresies were subjugated, and Bishop Athanasius was in the ascendant. Heretical books were now frowned upon by Copts who had formerly been more liberal.
"The first part of the [39th Festal ] Letter shows that Athanasius is still struggling to impose a stringent doctrinal position upon Egyptian Christians who were reluctant to follow along" (C. Wilfred Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity from Its Origins to 451, Leiden 1990, p. 148).
During the 360s, Athanasius again toured the Thebaid and was able to intervene in the Pachomian situation by meeting the receptive Theodorus, who requested his help in resolving internal leadership issues. The bishop visited the monasteries of Nouoi and Kaior, and effectively gained adherence. He provoked a reconciliation with Horsiese via a letter he wrote to that entity, a letter which signified his control over the situation. As a consequence, Horsiese returned to Pbow. In 368 Theodorus died, and Athanasius then wrote a letter to the monks confirming Horsiese as the new Pachomian leader.
That same year, Athanasius composed his Festal Letter 40, in which he complained of a disorder caused by irregular ordinations, a problem affecting the monasteries. Yet he listed bishops who took office during the preceding year and stated that "all of these men are ascetics and in the life of monasticism" (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 100). During his lifetime, he persuaded many monks to become bishops.
The practice of appointing monks to bishoprics became widespread by the fifth century. Athanasius early faced resistance in the person of Dracontius, when he pressed that ascetic to assume the role of bishop at Hermopolis Parva, near Alexandria. The Athanasian Letter to Dracontius (circa 354) expresses irritation with the refusal, and condemns the unnamed advisers of Dracontius, who are thought to have included hermits like the famous Amoun of Nitria. The opposing arguments viewed the episcopal role as a serious distraction and route to the sin of pride. The basic idea of the anchorite objectors was that in leaving the desert, the monk-bishop could lose his link with God and instead become dependent upon the approval of men.
For such reasons, John Cassian (in his Institutes) urged that the spirit of pride suggested clerical rank to the susceptible monk, and thereby the prospect of converting many onlookers. Athanasius employed an exhortation to the very same prospect repudiated by Cassian, who was following the cue from ascetics he had encountered in Nitria-Scetis (ibid., pp. 103-4).
Athanasius was successful in his overture to Dracontius, and via the resulting bishopric, he created a strategic link between the hermits of Nitria and the Alexandrian clergy. Both of Dracontius' successors were Nitrian monks, yet after the death of Athanasius, some monks of that zone remained resistant to assuming episcopal offices. The Alexandrian Patriarch Timothy (in office 381-5) requested the Nitrian hermit Ammonius to become the bishop of a nearby town, but that resourceful ascetic cut off his ear as proof of his commitment in the opposite direction. The Lausiac History reports that Ammonius even threatened to cut out his tongue when the pressure was continued, after which he was able to withdraw from the unwanted spotlight.
Ammonius was one of the "Tall Brothers," an Origenist group who were subsequently persecuted by the Patriarch Theophilus, and after one of them (Dioscorus) did actually become a bishop of Hermopolis Parva (ibid., pp. 99ff.). This group were notably influential in that "contacts with Melania the Elder, Rufinus, John Chrysostom, and their circle spread the influence of the Origenistic monks to Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and the West" (Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, p. 326).
Athanasius is sometimes considered less objectionable than the more militant Patriarchs (or Archbishops) Theophilus and Cyril, though his strategies can nevertheless arouse strong criticism. He was accused of being involved in violent persecution of Melitian rivals, though he denied the charges (Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity, 1990, p. 128). In more rhetorical aspects of his campaign, Athanasius "depicted the kind of relationship he desired between monk and bishop in the Life of Antony" (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 110). That recourse may be considered equivalent to portraying Ammonius of Nitria and Pakhom of the Thebaid as key agents of the episcopal cause.
14. Basil of Caesarea, Macrina, and Pierre Hadot
As "simple monks" of coenobitic type, the early Pachomian wave met with a rival in distant Asia Minor, where theologians systematised the new monasticism into a clerical vehicle of the urban church. The events in Asia Minor are strongly associated with Basil the Great, the canonised bishop who composed an influential Rule during the 370s in the interests of episcopal control.
Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379) was an upper class Greek who studied at Athens; he originally intended to become a rhetor, then regarded as a lucrative and advantageous career. The rhetor often had a superficial acquaintance with philosophy. Returning to Caesarea (Kayseri), in Cappadocia, he was appointed to an academic role as a rhetor, and was baptised by a local bishop in 356. At this juncture, Basil was persuaded by his Christian sister Macrina and his early mentor Eustathius of Sebasteia to devote himself to an ascetic life. This new orientation took him to Egypt via Syria and Palestine. (48) He subsequently returned to his ancestral country mansion on a large estate near Ibora, in Pontus (a northern province of Asia Minor, adjoining Cappadocia).
The mansion was called Annesi (Annisa), and soon after, Basil joined a secluded ascetic grouping nearby, one created by his brother Naucratius, who died at this time, leaving Basil to become the leader. The participants fasted, observed vigils, and performed manual labour, planting gardens and working in the woods. Basil read the works of Origen, and in 358 started to formulate ascetic concepts in a written code. One of his letters extols the value of askesis, a Greek word broadly meaning exercise or training, and here denoting a way of life grounded in right conduct, decoding to renunciation of wealth, vegetarianism, regular prayers, appropriate readings, silence, and self-abasement. The objective was control of the emotions, leading to a due contemplation or tranqullity.
These themes were discernibly influenced by Platonist and Stoic conceptualism, and were compatible with both an individual and collective career in "asceticism," a word which has been given different inflections of meaning. The related Greek word asketikos became "ascetic" in English, and is commonly used as a derogatory term by writers having no great familiarity with the original contextualism. The fundamental significance was a self-discipline, though forms of extremism opted for mortification of the body.
In 359 Basil departed from his ascetic companions. He was distracted by theological activities, and in the company of a bishop, he attended the church council of Constantinople. Basil then had only the low status rank of reader in the clerical hierarchy. Two years later he was ordained a priest (in 362), and was thus more prominent. Although he returned to the solitude of Annesi, his visits there became infrequent. In 370 he became the bishop of Caesarea. "From now on, the task of regulating the day-to-day affairs of his diocese and his involvement in dogmatic controversies occupied the greater part of his time" (Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, OUP 1994, p. 68).
His correspondence in later years has far less reference to ascetic themes. Yet the community at Annesi remained ongoing, though very obscure by comparison with the career of Basil. During his episcopate (370-9), he composed in Greek the Great Asketikon, a collection of rules in a question and answer format. This model for the ascetic life exhibits a marked preference for the communal version as distinct from the individual or eremitical career (i.e., the hermit mode). "He eventually condemns individual asceticism altogether." (49)
In more than 400 topics covered in Basil's rules, only thirteen refer to matters concerning women, who were represented in his communities. Full admission to the coenobitic community here involved a form of novitiate, and required consensus approval. Some novices could be accepted as full members at the age of sixteen. Some brothers came from a poor background, but escaped slaves were returned to their masters "unless the latter were of exceptional cruelty." (50) The upper class milieu of St. Basil is not the most convincing rationale for curtailing eremitical lifestyles.
Basil's major preoccupation in his last years was support of the Nicene faction against the Arian doctrine. He struggled unsuccessfully to extend Nicene jurisdiction in neighbouring sees. Arguments about the Trinity and sacramental tradition can be viewed as a diversion from both spiritual and social priorities. The Byzantine Greek theologians were topheavy with words, and most of the time they merely discussed "asceticism." The basic objective of bishops was to make that subject a conformist servant of the clerical role.
Due analysis of surviving texts has merited the conclusion that Basil was the imitator of a precedent in his home environment. Over a decade prior to his ascetic phase at Annesi in 357/8, his Greek sister Macrina had initiated, at an early age, the monastic model of communal life in Asia Minor. Macrina committed herself to the life of virginity and asceticism, the milieu being her upper class parental mansion. She effectively created the ascetic community at Annesi, which developed at the mansion, and came to include a majority of low class people, including freed slaves now regarded as equals. Her brother Naucratius subsequently created the nearby community of male ascetics which Basil joined. The genesis of this development was subsequently obscured by the salience of Basil, who was mistakenly assumed to be the founder.
The Life of Macrina was composed by Gregory of Nyssa, another of the subject's brothers. Unlike Macrina and Gregory, Basil "never questioned the institution of slavery as such; he argued, on the contrary, that slavery reflects the God-given order of mankind.... some of Basil's passing remarks on the subject of slaves reveal a surprising amount of the customary contempt felt by rich owners towards their servants; in this respect Basil is very much a man of his times." (51)
Basil gained fame for his influential furtherance of monasticism in Pontus and Cappadocia, where he created or inspired a number of monasteries. However, this was at the cost of offsetting and marginalising earlier monastic trends, and principally in relation to Eustathius of Sebasteia. The ascetic lifestyle and encratite ideas of the latter were condemned at the Synod of Gangra circa 340/1. The radical cleric wore a coat strongly associated with philosophers and signifying his beliefs, which were stated to include "the rejection of property ownership, especially by the Church; the refusal to pay a 'church tax'; rejection of certain liturgical practices; disdain for married clergy; annulment of traditional marriage; and, finally, equality of slaves and women on a par with men" (Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, p. 110).
Eustathius was bishop of Sebasteia, in Pontus. Originally a disciple of Arius, he introduced coenobitic monasticism into Asia Minor. During the 370s, he was in strong friction with Basil; this clerical duel involved calumnies. Basil had formerly been on good terms with Eustathius for many years, while Macrina and Naucratius "can be seen as responding directly to some of Eustathius' ideas, particularly at the most important stages: for example, the gradual transformation of the household into an ascetic community by legally adopting all former slaves as equals, and the renunciation of all disposable property" (ibid., p. 135). Eustathius was a frequent visitor to Annesi, though his role was suppressed by Gregory in the Life of Macrina. When Basil became an opponent of the radical, he sought the allegiance of many ascetics against him, including Macrina. This was demonstrated during his last visit to Annesi in 375-6, and when the community there had become a fully fledged monastic centre.
"Basil, an adherent of Nicene doctrine, sought to counteract the popularity of Eustathius by marginalising the most powerful elements in his movement: he [Basil] insisted that ascetic communities move to the countryside, away from the urban centers where they had made a name for themselves as pressure groups and troublemakers in the doctrinal debates, and he aims to further curb their growing strength by advocating the strict segregation of men and women, thereby binding women to their subordinate role. Through such repressive measures, Basil was, as bishop of Caesarea, able to safeguard orthodoxy and at the same time to assert the superiority of the institutional clergy." (Claudia Rapp, review of Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, April 1995).
Basil converged with Athanasius in the constricting persuasions. The legislation of the Asketikon was oriented to conformism and obedience to the monastic superior. "In his continual emphasis on restraint Basil anticipated the spirit of the Benedictine Rule." (52) However, unlike Benedict of Nursia (c.480-547), Basil was preoccupied with episcopal matters.
A basic factor is often ignored. Gregory of Nyssa, describing the influence of Macrina on Basil in his early years, reports that the latter "went over to this life full of labours for one's own hand to perform" (Phillip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea, 1994, p. 27 note 1). It is clear that Basil subsequently cast strong doubts upon his early phase, preferring the clerical life, which was more assimilable to Greek concepts of social class in which the elitists never did any manual work.
The clerical penchant of Basil strongly infuenced the new Nicene creed of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I (rgd 379-395), who made conciliatory gestures to Pope Damasus of Rome and the Patriarch of Alexandria. It is realistically possible to view this situation in terms of the ruling Greek elite transiting from paganism to Nicene dogma, along with their vast wealth, extensive lands, and slaves. Basil's own ancestral estate in Pontus was extensive, though he and his brother Gregory criticised other wealthy landowners for "their mansions decorated with multicoloured marbles, exotic woods, precious inlays, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures" (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 80).
Most of the land in Cappadocia and adjoining regions was owned by private landowners (possessores), the imperial household, and the church. "In accordance with their wealth, these possessores - the three Cappadocian Fathers [Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus] were among them - were also the principal political authority" (ibid., pp. 20-21).
The historian and philosopher Pierre Hadot located Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Evagrius Ponticus, and "to some degree Athanasius of Alexandria" in the context of a fourth century "Christian philosophy," a phenomenon claimed by Church Fathers and associated with the tradition of Clement and Origen. However, one should observe that Nicene dogma ousted Origenism. Hadot was implying a strong assimilation of the Greek and Roman "secular philosophy" now identified with the Neoplatonists and Stoics. What Hadot called "spiritual exercises" were common to both philosophies, and "some of which were specifically Christian, but many of which had been bequeathed by secular philosophy." (53)
In using the phrase "Christian philosophy," Hadot was basically referring to the Church Father exegesis of early monasticism in Egypt and Syria; the monastic trend involved rigorous askesis, though the practitioners "were not educated people, and any connection to philosophy was quite remote from their thinking" (a conventional generalisation impervious to the obscured exceptions). The inspirations were instead the Old and New Testament; nevertheless, "the possibility cannot be excluded a priori - in examples of Buddhist or Manichaean asceticism." (54) Hadot finds the theme of attention to the self resurfacing in the Life of Antony, and yet "this was the fundamental attitude of the Stoics, and of the Neoplatonists as well." (55)
On the day of his death, Antony (the Coptic hermit) is reported to have said to his disciples: "Live as if you were going to die every day, devoting attention to yourselves." (56)
Entities with any deep knowledge are too often dead by the time they are discovered. Their legacies are generally distorted by enthusiastic imitators and eminent authorities who may be ignorant of subtleties. So much goes missing, as with the legendised desert hermit appropriated by the urban Patriarchate that engineered the murder of Hypatia and the repression of all heretics in Egypt.
The Hadot exegesis was missing the point in basic respects. For instance, Evagrius moved in a very different direction to the more prestigious Basil and Athanasius, choosing a hermit life in Kellia. Some of the Egyptian ascetic practitioners were in fact educated people, a factor confused by episcopal strategies. Shallow education, even if officially promoted by clerics and pedagogues, is not necessarily desirable - as the Origenists must often have thought during the "Origenist controversy," which ended in the episcopal suppression of Origen's followers. (57) Hadot's emphasis on "spiritual exercises," though relevant enough, tended to be simplistic in some dimensions, and was assimilated by the rather more misleading version of Michel Foucault.
Less superficial than Basil or Athanasius was John Chrysostom (d. 407) of Constantinople. This outspoken bishop was liberal towards the Origenist group known as the "Tall Brothers," desert ascetics who appealed to him when they were expelled from Egypt in 400 by the Patriarch Theophilus, who was swayed by dogmatic anti-Origenist monks and their supporters. John himself was exiled, having incurred the opposition of Theophilus. John's controversial sermons castigated "those who cared nothing for the beggars at their door and wanted only to own ten fine houses with hundreds of servants and lavatories of gold" (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 188).
15. Nag Hammadi and the Gnosticism Issue
The issue of Gnosticism has been attended by various theories, biases, and enthusiasms. A black and white version is preferred by some analysts in favour of a neutral point of view.
The relevance of Gnosticism to early Christianity has been vigorously denied by some conservative scholars, though others have prudently treated the subject as being integral to that religion. (58) Gnostic ideas appear to have been circulating in Alexandria during the second century CE, and are thought to have subsequently attracted the emerging and literate middle class of the southern towns. The monastic trend is related to the same social background, though less elusive in terms of personnel.
"Gnosticism can be seen as a natural reaction to the confusion of the old cults, Platonic ideology, and Jewish traditions. That there was much in Christianity that could be used as a vehicle for this reaction cannot be denied. The towns of Upper [South] Egypt with their philosophical and cultural life thus constitute a plausible setting for these new currents. This is corroborated by the fact that the Coptic Gnostic material is written in the dialect of Panopolis, and that the Coptic Manichaean material shows Lycopolis to have been a strong centre of theirs" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1995, pp. 104-5).
The well known manuscript find at Nag Hammadi is now celebrated. At this site in South Egypt, in 1945 were found over fifty texts translated into Coptic from Greek during the fourth century. Some scholars at first referred to this discovery as the "library of a Gnostic community." In a well known book, the French scholar Jean Doresse argued for the Gnostic ownership of the codices, and claimed that this identity could be further defined in terms of the Sethian Gnostics. (59) Yet the works which have been dubbed "Sethian" (denoting what some called a "mythological Gnosis") constitute only a minority of the Nag Hammadi texts.
A rival theory urged that the codices were produced by Pachomian monks rather than by a Gnostic sect. (60) To be more specific, Frederik Wisse implied that the Nag Hammadi texts were owned by ascetics who later became Pachomians. The codices include not only Sethian, Valentinian, and Hermetic tracts, but also other Christian writings which defy classification in terms of the heresies, Gnostic or otherwise, described by the Church Fathers. Plato is also represented.
The codices were discovered at the foot of the Jabar al-Tarif, a cliff in the Nile valley, and in the vicinity of Pachomian monasteries. On this same cliff, Sixth Dynasty tombs (dating to the third millenium BCE) had existed, long since plundered. These tombs had gained a different kind of usage in the Pachomian era.
"They [the tombs] had become cool solitary caves where a monk might well hold his spiritual retreats, as is reported of Pachomius himself, or where a hermit might have his cell. Greek prayers to Zeus Sarapis, opening lines of biblical Psalms in Coptic, and Christian crosses, all painted in red onto the walls of the caves, show that they were indeed so used. Perhaps those who cherished the Nag Hammadi library made such use of the caves, which would account for the choice of this site to bury them." (61)
Gnosticism appears to have been on the decrease in Egypt at the same time that Coptic monasticism was gaining momentum. This factor led to the supposition that many "Gnostics" joined the Coptic anchoritic trend and the early coenobitic communities. Wisse described the codices in terms of a diverse collection of books which Egyptian ascetics brought with them to their new Pachomian setting. According to his version of events, for some time these manuscripts could be read and copied in the Pachomian communities, but during the second half of the fourth century, Bishop Athanasius was able to persuade the Pachomian monks to jettison apocryphal texts. The extant group of codices discovered at Nag Hammadi were at some point collected and carefully buried in a jar at a spot close to a Pachomian monastery. The interment is suggested to have occurred during a purge of non-canonical books instigated by Athanasius in 367. At that time, the Pachomian leader Theodorus deferred to Festal Letter 39 from this powerful cleric, an epistle intended for reception among the monks, and emphasising an official canon of scripture ().
There is reason to believe that obsessions with heresy were much less deeply felt by the early Pachomian monks than by the elitist church hierarchy in Alexandria. The main issue amongst the early Coptic monks was not doctrinal orthodoxy, but the practice of asceticism. Heresy only became a factor of relevance in their relations with episcopal entities like Athanasius.
In the hagiographies, Pakhom and his coenobitic monasteries are portrayed as bastions of orthodoxy. This has been considered misleading; the Lives of Pakhom and other materials were composed amongst later circles who by that time wished very much to portray the founding figurehead and his monks as being doctrinally beyond suspicion. (62)
A concrete example did survive of unorthodox methods employed by Pakhom. Greek and Coptic fragments of Pakhom's letters have disclosed resort to alphabet mysticism and enigmatic speech. (63) A relationship has been suggested between the widespread use of cryptograms by Egyptian monks (in colophons and graffiti) and the eccentric employment of vowel and nonsense syllable in Gnostic works. The Nag Hammadi codices contain many examples of alphabet mysticism, and there is one cryptogram.
"Since no convincing alternative has been put forward... a Pachomian library remains the most plausible setting for the codices. The fact that there is much in the [Nag Hammadi] texts that could have been regarded as edifying by intellectual monks is not disproved by the presence in the texts of speculation and mythology alien to the Pachomian tradition.... The Nag Hammadi codices were perhaps only a minor part of the [monastic] library, or probably libraries, they belonged to, and not likely to have been the books that were most frequently read. Unfortunately our evidence for the character of Egyptian monastic libraries does not go beyond the fifth century, and is thus of little value for what was kept and read in the early fourth century" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, 1995, pp. 123-4).
More recently, an alternative theory has been argued which denies any reliable indication that the Nag Hammadi codices were produced/completed by Pachomian monks. This version insists that the Gnostic texts were produced by urban, non-traditional Christians, who are furthermore described as semi-intellectuals with some knowledge of Greek philosophy. These urban authors, moreover, translated their own texts into Coptic. According to Dr. Alastair H. B. Logan, these authors shared the syncretistic mentality found in the third century pagan writer Zosimus of Panopolis, and also in the magical papyri from Diospolis Magna. The originating milieu was possibly Alexandria, and from this source, the Egyptian Manichaeans are thought to have derived their "semi-philosophical schooling and vocabulary."
The Logan interpretation is pitched against the "esoteric monastic" version of Wisse. Logan describes the authors of the Nag Hammadi codices in terms of a "Gnostic cult community" and a mixed grouping of men and women. He converges with the early judgment of Doresse concerning the relative reliability of the heresiologists (meaning Irenaeus and Epiphanius), and also the prospect that the codices formed the library of an ascetic "Sethian" Gnostic community. Wherever this community actually originated from, they became active in South Egypt, in the area of Chenoboskion, during the mid to late fourth century. This community was not monastic, although they did exist near Pachomian monasteries. The suggestion is made that the codices were buried in the grave of this community's last leader, in the late fourth or early fifth century.
This version of events integrates the well known description of Epiphanius in his Panarion, which describes a Gnostic group of men and women in Egypt. That early and very hostile account has been debated, though it is believed to have a factual basis. The Panarion refers to "virgins," and it has been argued that Epiphanius (a dogmatic bishop detesting heresies) misinterpreted the profile of an ascetic group. In the Logan version, events relating to Plotinus are also covered.
From the report of Porphyry (Vita Plotini), it is evident that Christian Gnostics attended the lectures of Plotinus in Rome during the 260s. Logan urges the likelihood of these people being members of the same "Gnostic cult community" which he is primarily describing. These Gnostics in Rome, whom Plotinus criticised in his Enneads, employed elaborate jargon and a mythology of Sophia and the immortal soul; they had a close interest in healing, which involved the exorcism of evil spirits. They also used chants, "hissings," and reiterated vowels. They were influenced by Valentinian ideas, but were not themselves Valentinian Gnostics. (64)
The close juxtaposition of Pachomian and Gnostic activities in the fourth century Thebaid will doubtless continue to exercise fascination. I am only concerned here to narrate the basic choice applying to interpretation, not to engage in close evaluation or judgment. I have formerly made a comment on "integral" misapprehensions concerning Plotinus and the Gnostics.
16. Hieracas and the Melitians
Hieracas (c. 260-c. 350) was a Coptic Christian ascetic who is relatively obscure in the shadow of more prominent names. A contemporary of Pakhom, he lived at Leontopolis in the Nile Delta. He was no illiterate, but a learned urban calligrapher fluent in both Greek and Coptic. His works are lost, though he was reputedly familiar with both the Old and New Testament, Origen, and also astronomy and medicine. The extent of his familiarity with Greek philosophy is not clear. Hieracas was not a Bible literalist, but favoured allegorical exegesis and denied the resurrection of the body. This aspect of mentation, reflecting Origen, did not endear him to the dogmatic Bishop Epiphanius, who gives a hostile description of Hieracas in the heresiographical work Panarion, composed during the 370s (see Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion Vol. 2, pp. 308ff.).
Epiphanius (c. 315-403) was born in Palestine. As a young man he travelled in Egypt, visiting ascetics and also encountering an allegedly libertine Gnostic sect. He returned to Palestine and there founded a monastery, gaining a repute for learning and linguistic ability. In 367 this anti-Origenist became Bishop of Salamis (in Cyprus), a role accompanied by vehement castigations of heretics. He rails against eighty heresies in the Panarion. (65) Epiphanius was "untrained in the Greek classics and with little or no background in philosophy" (ibid., p. xii), his commitment being to Christian scripture. The persistent attack by Epiphanius on supporters of Origen was influential in the "Origenist controversy" of the late fourth century, which resulted in a doctrinal cordon of Origenist teachings imposed by the clergy, who preferred the prospect of bodily resurrection.
The major source for the teaching of Hieracas is Epiphanius. The teaching of the former "shows several similarities with Gnostic texts and the Nag Hammadi library, but he was far from being an outright Gnostic; the greatest influence, moreover, came from Origen" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 125). A strong Origenist tradition has been implicated for Nitria and Kellia during the fourth century.
Hieracas emphasised a theme known as encratism, a celibate ideal involving aversion to meat and wine, and which claimed that intrinsic Christianity entailed an ascetic existence. The original Greek word was enkrateia, meaning self-control. In this view, only the lifelong struggle in ascesis could gain salvation. The opponents of Hieracas associated him with Manichaeism, a bias which merely points to a degree of affinity between two heresies of an ascetic nature. Hieracas apparently declined to teach married persons, and instead nurtured a mixed community of male and female ascetics, for whom he composed hymns.
Hieracas reputedly taught that the incarnation of Christ had commenced an era of chastity. Resurrection related only to the soul; the flesh would not endure, contrary to literalist beliefs. The Christian life required strong efforts to transcend the body, a spiritual contest entailing celibacy. Married people would not be able achieve the kingdom of heaven; the imitation of Christ demanded chastity. Hieracas depicted marriage as being very inferior to the ascetic life. Mere belief in Christ was not sufficient to gain blessedness. This teaching was attractive to Christian virgins, who evidently gained a sense of equality and freedom in Hieracian circles.
"It is likely that Hieracas attracted followers among Alexandrian virgins not only because he embraced celibacy so zealously, but also because he was immensely learned and intellectually gifted. According to Epiphanius, Hieracas was highly trained in the traditional disciplines, such as rhetoric and geometry, and in medicine; he was a master of scriptural exegesis who had memorised the Old and New Testaments" (David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, OUP 1995, p. 57).
Athanasius attacked Hieracas in his first Letter to Virgins. "Now let Hieracas be cast out, with all the other heretics as well, and let him be cast out before everyone as a defiled enemy" (ibid., p. 283). In that document, the Alexandrian bishop attempted to make the feminine contingent compatible with his own doctrine. This recourse was not actually to the greater benefit of the virgins, as some scholars have strongly implied.
Athanasius relied heavily upon his emphasis about "brides of Christ," a traditional description of Christian virgins. His intention was to prove that Hieracas was in error for depreciating marriage, and that virginity itself was a (transcendent) form of marriage. Unfortunately for virgins however, the episcopal argument advocated that they behave like ordinary wives, meaning "silent, withdrawn, and submissive" (ibid., p. 75), which was certainly convenient for church assimilation of the celibate population involved ().
These issues should remind of the earlier period when the Alexandrian bishop Demetrius (d. 232) condemned Origen at a prestigious synod; the victim was banished from Alexandria and exiled to Palestine (). (66) "Origen cultivated a smaller circle of students devoted to speculative philosophy and gained international fame and respect through his books and lecture tours" (ibid., p. 60). This was part of "academic Christianity," which cultivated a tolerance of opinion, the central role of the teacher, and the participation of women, especially virgins. "It is precisely these features of the Christian school that Athanasius attacked" (ibid.).
Followers of Hieracas were still active at the end of the fourth century, when the Patriarch of Alexandria enjoined an anti-Hieracian purge in the monastery of Macarius. (67) The targets of clerical censure were not restricted to Jews and pagans.
Professor James E. Goehring has argued that the late and legendary Life of Epiphanius, dating to the fifth or sixth century, is to be rejected as a misleading document, representing the desire to portray Hieracas as a desert monk in the wake of the Athanasian influence. The hagiography locates Hieracas in a monastery outside Leontopolis, whereas the Panarion reports him to have been an urban ascetic teacher within the city. (68)
Professor Susanna Elm has implied that "the true focus of Athanasius' attack against Hieracas was the Melitians," (69) who comprised a much larger grouping. The rivalry with Melitians was a major aspect of the Athanasian campaign. That community took their name from Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis, a town in South Egypt. Athanasius, in his Festal Letter 39 of 367 (addressed to the Pachomian leader Theodorus), promoted a new canon of scripture and accused Melitians of resort to apocryphal books. "I heard that the heretics, particularly the wretched Melitians, were boasting about the books that they call 'apocryphal' " (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 332). Such books were now taboo.
The Melitians comprised a separate church in Egypt, primarily Coptic, and claimed to be the only true church; they found many supporters amongst Coptic ascetics. The founder Melitius was a contemporary of Hieracas. The Melitian presence was widespread, with a strong urban complexion to the monasticism which featured in their ranks. They were quite separate to the Pachomian events, though some similiarities may have existed. Melitian monks "interceded with financial aid for debtors, produced agricultural as well as other goods such as cloaks and shoes, and were actively involved in trade." (70) The Melitian monasticism was eclipsed by Alexandrian episcopal tactics, whereas the Pachomians adapted to orthodoxy.
17. Antony the hermit
The episcopal campaign to cordon the ascetic movement, and to render this a tame pet of the establishment, requires a similar objection to that raised against the pro-Roman bias of Edward Gibbon (secton 1 above). The main problem for Christianity was not the heretics or even the pagans, but the dogmatic outlook of clerics. These officials so frequently departed from ascesis and self-abnegation even while assuming the halo associated with ascetic values. Their doctrines, contrived in the increasing attempt to ward off rivals, were far less compelling than the Greek philosophy assimilated by a minority of "Christian philosophers" ().
The Coptic hermit Antony was clearly not enamoured of the urbane existence preferred by clerical chatter. He represents withdrawal from the clerical world, not any form of pulpit preaching or obsession with heresy. Church councils were the obverse of ascesis; in the synodic ambience of status roles, "asceticism" was merely a convenient political reference.
The Life of Antony by Bishop Athanasius () is a hagiography regarded with suspicion by many scholars. The letters of Antony were in comparative neglect until recently, largely because the contents are in such contrast to the hagiography and also the teachings attributed to Antony in the apophthegmata. The authenticity of the letters was formerly denied and doubted, or merely conceded as a probability. In the interpretation of Professor Samuel Rubenson, those epistles gain new life as valid documents.
In the sayings or apophthegmata, Antony "is depicted as a penitent, unlettered Egyptian peasant, who plagued by his conscience fled into the demon-haunted desert" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1995, p. 10). This theme is now very much in question as a reliable portrait of the subject. In contrast, the letters of Antony reveal that the author was not an illiterate who had conveniently changed peasant role for that of a monk. Indeed, elements of a "Christian philosopher" entity are discernible. A number of the concepts involved link Antony closely with the approach of Origen, who was made a heretic by the dogma of conservative clergy. In short, the letters attest that Antony was not a simple-minded supporter of Athanasius, as the bishop evidently wanted everyone to believe.
The seven letters were apparently composed in Coptic, which does not in itself mean that Antony did not know Greek. However, even literacy in Coptic alone undermines the portrayal in the hagiography. "If the letters are genuine, they oblige us to redraw not only the image of Antony, but also much of the established picture of early Egyptian monasticism" (ibid., p. 11). The specialist commentator cited here evidently does regard the letters as genuine compositions of Antony. Those letters were mentioned by Jerome and cited by fifth century Coptic authors; they can be dated to the third or fourth decades of the fourth century.
The Greek philosophical conceptualism evident in the letters of Antony implies a close knowledge of Greek. "Because of the strong influence Greek had on Coptic, and the bilingual situation prevalent in Egypt in antiquity, it is often impossible to ascertain whether a Coptic text is an original Coptic work or a translation of a Greek text" (ibid., p. 23). Coptic was only just beginning to be employed in Antony's time, primarily for translation of religious texts; Greek was still the prestige language of education and literature.
Comparing the letters to the hagiography, Rubenson finds that the main arguments of the former are missing in the latter, and that there is no reference in the former to the dominant theological themes of the latter (ibid. p. 37). The same commentator points to the discrepancy involved in the frequent scholarly doubts about the hagiography as a historical source, even though the Athanasian "statements about Antony's lack of education and his rejection of wisdom and reasoning in favour of faith" are still widely credited (ibid., p.40).
The hagiography credits Antony as a centenarian, and states that he died at the age of 105. The critical scholar here interposes that it is "very unlikely that Athanasius could have had exact information about Antony's age; most probably even Antony himself did not know when he was born" (ibid., p. 43). This verdict involves the reasoning that even fairly wealthy Egyptian landowners of that era did not know their own age, as evidenced by certain documents cited (ibid.). However, the deduction is made that Antony must have been an abba (ascetic teacher) as early as the 320s.
A point of convergence is found in the detail that the anti-Arian position allocated to Antony in the hagiography is corroborated by the letters. However, there is a pronounced difference in the wordings used. The fleeting and muted critical reference in the letters seem to reflect the early phase of the Arian controversy, whereas the Life of Antony is evocative of the abusive and condemnatory verbiage for which the later phase is notorious (ibid., pp. 44-5). The Athanasian gloss is therefore not demonstratively accurate, but rather much exaggerated.
The letters exhibit features of a rhetorical style, and use many Biblical quotations, especially from the Pauline epistles. The first letter tends to be distinctive, comprising an introduction to the ascetic life, and relating to repentance and purification. In general, "probably the most striking feature of the letters of Antony is their emphasis on knowledge, gnosis" (ibid., p. 59). The repeated exhortation of Antony to "know thyself" is accompanied by the theme of salvation in terms of a return to an original spiritual nature or bedrock. These are definitely not Athanasian concepts.
The format of Biblical quotations and Greek philosophical concepts "often makes it extremely difficult to understand Antony's thinking" (ibid.). Themes are not systematically treated. The Greek ingredient of the letters has been described in terms of "a popularised form of the Middle and Neo Platonic tradition" (ibid.), although another component is Origenist theology. The terminology is not of the kind readily understood on today's popular media of spirituality. "For Antony, it is by being rational, logikos, that man can know himself.... By knowing himself according to the 'spiritual essence' man is able to attain true knowledge, he is able to know God, to know all" (ibid., pp. 61-2).
Antony appears to diverge from Origen's view of God as "unknowable in principle," but instead "remained in the tradition based on Plato, Timaeus 28c, according to which it is a difficult, but not impossible, exercise to find God" (p. 62 note 1). In the seventh letter, Antony refers to his own experience as the basis of his teaching. "This emphasis on knowledge is corroborated by the complete absence in the letters of the concept of 'faith' " (ibid., p. 64).
His version of the parousia ("coming of Jesus") has been viewed as setting him apart from other early teachers of ascesis. Unlike the Lives of Pakhom and the apophthegmata, in the letters of Antony there are "no exhortations to the reader to fear the torments of everlasting punishment, not even an exhortation to fear God" (ibid., p. 83). The knowledge of God here displaces the pietist fear of God.
The topic of demons has provoked negative reactions from modern readers. This topic appears prominently in the Life of Antony, and also in the sixth letter. Aspects of this conceptualism may derive from reaction to pagan Egyptian beliefs. Demonology was later employed by the Byzantine Origenist Evagrius Ponticus, a champion of ascesis (). "The background of this tradition is primarily the demonology of Origen with its roots in Judaeo-Christian tradition" (ibid., pp. 86-7). The imagery is complex, and can be interpreted more symbolically or psychologistically than some literal versions. "In contrast to the imagery of the Vita [Life of Antony], where the demons are visible and audible, the letters present them as completely internalised.... the demons are more or less equated with passions" (ibid., p. 87). This aspect of ascesis involved "a spiritual warfare fought in the souls and bodies of men" (ibid., p. 88).
The Life of Antony is conventionally attributed to Athanasius, though the modification has been urged that the bishop revised and supplemented an earlier version by Serapion of Thmuis, likewise a contemporary bishop and a supporter of Athanasius (and a follower of Antony). The Life has often been regarded as an attempt to present an ideal of monasticism, but one which has little or no historical relevance. Certainly, the famous description of how Antony emerged from his lengthy self-imposed confinement has been traced to a literary borrowing from Porphyry's Life of Pythagoras, or more specifically, to a lost source employed by Porphyry.
"It is obvious that the intense research on the Vita Antonii in the last hundred years has led to a state of greater confusion than ever before" (ibid., p. 131). My own (citizen) recourse is to steer with the most lucid professional commentary on these intricacies available in English by the 1990s.
The letters of Antony emphasise self-knowledge (gnosis) as the path to salvation, whereas the Life of Antony portrays the hero as an orthodox ascetic who deferred to ecclesiastical role. The Life includes a debate with philosophers, in which faith has the priority over knowledge. The rational character of Christianity is nevertheless emphasised against the rivals, who are accused of inventions. The references to faith and revelation are discernibly "part of the apologetic tradition in which Athanasius stood" (ibid., p. 134). The Life was "probably intended for readers more impressed by Greek philosophy" than by church theology (ibid., p. 132).
For Athanasius, salvation was closely associated with Christ's victory over death. The Life depicts Antony as being surrounded by demons who are dispersed by the power of Christ and the cross. "A comparison with the letters shows that this Christocentric perspective in the Vita is utterly alien to them" (ibid. p. 138). The love of Christ, faith in Christ, and martyrdom are essential to Athanasian thinking. Suspiciously, the debate in the Life "ends with Antony cleansing some of the [pagan] bystanders from demons with the sign of the cross" (ibid.). It is legitimate to deduce that the image of Antony was being manipulated by ecclesiastical preferences and assumptions.
A major difference between the letters and the Life, reflected in the choice of terminologies used, lies in "different understandings of ascesis and of what the Christian himself achieves in his salvation" (ibid., p. 139). In the letters, ascesis basically means the purification of body and soul, a struggle requiring constant practice, with the human (and not God) having the responsibility for salvation. Whereas in the Athanasian document, faith in Christ and the redeeming power of Christ are the clear priorities. In this orthodox context, ascesis means "preparation for the warfare against the demons" (ibid.).
These two sources differ strongly in describing the demons. The letters regard "demons" as a source of deceit and negative emotions such as hatred. "They are bodiless and invisible and manifest themselves only in the deeds of men" (ibid.). In this sense, the "demons" signify a "lifelong warfare" in the psychology of the hermit. In contrast, the Life presents demons in a far more literal sense of entity. "They smite and run, they speak and prophesy; they appear and transform themselves, they discuss and plan, they are hurt and frightened" (ibid.).
One may conclude that the Athanasian version of demonology reflects a literalist conception nurtured by clerics who lacked the experiential commitment to ascesis. Preferring status honours and organisational commitments, their dogmatic version of hermit teachings missed the underlying point of the renunciatory project known as ascesis. The "demons" are really in human psychology, but the episcopal doctrine opted to believe that demons were independent of humans and could be vanquished by belief in Christ.
Athanasius made Antony into a puppet of the Nicene creed. The bishop wanted to depict the triumph of Christianity over paganism, whereas the letters of Antony attest a tangent in which "pagan philosophy and Christian faith do not seem to have been contradictory, they were both a quest for the ultimate" (ibid., pp. 140-1).
The letters indicate that Antony possessed a degree of literacy, having "a fairly good knowledge about contemporary [pagan] philosophical ideas and a fair acquaintance with Origenist tradition and exegesis" (ibid., p. 141). At the time of writing, he apparently lived in the vicinity of Arsinoe, and had probably been a monastic leader for some time. He was not in agreement with Arian Christology, though "his emphasis on self-knowledge and the lack of references to authoritative writings or to ecclesiastical leaders suggest that he was what could be called a charismatic teacher of spiritual gnosis" (ibid., p. 141). However, "he was by no means a Gnostic" (ibid., p. 144), to use a word that is evocative of an eccentric orientation.
Standard interpretations of the Life have generated the assumption that Antony was an illiterate monk ignorant of Greek. Professor Rubenson convincingly argues against this stricture. The Life says that Antony did not attend school and had not studied grammata (learning or letters, meaning the pagan education that was standard in his time). Yet Antony is not actually described as illiterate, and it is evident that grammata cannot refer to elementary education in reading and writing. Other references in the Life indicate that the subject composed epistles, and when teaching self-control, Antony advised his disciples to write down their thoughts and actions. The deduction follows that the author of the Life imposed upon the subject a strong preference for Christian faith at the expense of literacy and Hellenistic philosophy.
The mentality involved in the Athanasian bias against grammata or pagan knowledge is revealing. Other references in the Life attest a belief that the Christian had access to the kingdom of heaven and so did not need to travel abroad in search of knowledge like the Greek pagans. The philosophers depended on their own grammata or learning, whereas the Christian depended on Christ. So the Athanasian hero was above studying grammar or other branches of knowledge, relying instead on Christian faith. The recent suggestion has been made (ibid., p. 142) that the cue for Antony's alleged illiteracy was the description of Jesus in John 7:15. When Jesus taught in the temple, the Jews asked "How is it that this untrained man has such learning?" (New English Bible version). Still very little is known about the background context of Jesus.
The clerical image of the simple monk relying upon faith is undermined by a consideration that "the philosophical and theological language of his [Antony's] sermons and arguments in the Vita definitely presupposes a knowledge of Greek at least as much as the letters do" (ibid., p. 143).
Rather suspiciously, Athanasius employs his theme of the unlearned Antony to suggest "that there may be something demonic in philosophical speculation" (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, 1995, p. 254). The relevant discourse begins with a typical Athanasian assertion: "The Scriptures are sufficient for our instruction." In the well known confrontation between Antony and the philosophers (Life, chapters 72-80), the arguments against pagan concepts that are attributed to Antony actually derive from the apologetic works of Athanasius (Brakke, op. cit., pp. 255-6).
The same scholar deduces that Antony's resistance to formal schooling does not represent any total illiteracy, but rather his unwillingness to be tutored at a mature age by a grammatikos. In the towns and villages of Egypt, some wealthy parents (such as those of Antony) sent their adolescent sons to Alexandria for further education (ibid., p. 255). One may credit that Antony preferred ascetic seclusion to such a prospect, but he may already have been quite literate via introductory tuition in his boyhood, and moreover, probably continued to be so via private reading.
Athanasius cannot be trusted in some emphases. The bishop was obsessed with opposing the teachers of "academic Christianity," men who had strong affinities with Greek education and philosophical reasoning (e.g., Origen). "Here Athanasius suggests, as he does elsewhere, that these human intellectual activities are really the work of the devil and his demons" (ibid., p. 256). The demonology imposed by clericalism is not a sure guide to the early hermits.
Despite the clerical manipulation of content, various background events in the Life can be regarded as relevant, however partial the reporting. Reference is made to a lengthy period of ascetic training before Antony left his native village and secluded himself in a deserted Roman fortress. He reputedly spent seventeen years learning from a number of teachers. "What we know about the religious movements in general, and Christianity in particular, in Egypt of the late third century makes it quite likely that his teachers were less orthodox than his later biographer" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 143). The teaching found in Antony's letters could perhaps easily have been acquired from wandering ascetics with a degree of literacy, including those partial to Origenism and Alexandrine traditions. Thus, the gulf between Antony and Plotinus is not quite so wide as might at first appear.
At a later stage in his life, Antony retreated much further into the desert, though subsequently remaining in contact with ascetics near the Nile. He stressed silence and anachoresis, but was also an active monastic leader discharging a sense of responsiiblity. However, to live like such persons was not the same as hearing about them and writing hagiographies, even if a direct encounter occurred between the writer and the subject.
18. Antony and the Origenist Tradition
There are significant indications of a strong Origenist affiliation for Antony and other early Egyptian ascetics. Antony "held the same views as Origen not only on the Creation, the Fall and the salvation of man, but also on the interpretation of the Scriptures" (Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 186). Antony is here inferred as having created his own theological mix on the basis of familiarity with Platonism and the legacy of Origen. "Probably Antony's teaching was not too different from that of the lost writings of Alexandrian theologians like Theognostus, Pierius, and Hieracas" (ibid.). The learned Copt Hieracas () was considered a heretic by some influential clerics, including Athanasius. The main point is that the Origenist outlook was ousted by strategies of clerical dominance.
In the well known Life of Antony attributed to Athanasius, "an anti-Arian emphasis on Christ as the divine actor in man is superimposed on the Origenist theology of Antony" (ibid., p. 187). In this clerical hagiography, the objective was "to use the influence of Antony to depict the victory of Orthodoxy over pagans and heretics" (ibid.).
Antony was by no means unique amongst the early monks in his acquaintance with Origenist theology (and Greek philosophy). The most famous Origenist of the fourth century was Didymus the Blind (), with whom Antony is closely linked in some sources. Rufinus, in the Historia Ecclesiastica, refers to this man, who was his teacher for several years; Didymus was a layman who lived in Alexandria. According to Rufinus, Antony encountered Didymus when he visited Alexandria in 337/8. This event has been interpreted as evidence for Antony's link with the Origenist party in Alexandria. The same visit to Alexandria appears to be mentioned in the Life of Antony. The context is often stated to be that of Antony supporting Athanasius against the Arians. Ambiguous textual factors leave open "the related question of whether Athanasius was in Alexandria and responsible for the summons of Antony" (ibid., p. 175 note 1).
There is evidence of a larger trend confirming the type of outlook revealed by the letters of Antony. In 400/401 a leading group of Origenist monks was ejected from Nitria-Kellia. The instigator of this expulsion was Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who can be described as establishing the papacy of Egypt. The clerical iron fist means that no detail of official events should pass without question. The campaign against paganism and heresy is illustrative of the insular mentality demonstrated by ecclesiastical "Pharaohs" who were scheming for doctrinal supremacy and the attendant economic advantages.
An atypical cleric was Palladius (c.365-425), a disciple of Evagrius Ponticus (), with whom he stayed for nine years in the desert of Kellia during the 390s. His own Origenist affinities are apparent in a work that he later composed in Greek (and known in Latin as the Historia Lausiaca). Palladius knew many Egyptian monks at firsthand ( ).
Palladius refers to hermits who had been closely associated with Antony. In this context are included the figures of Amoun (the "founder" of Kellia), Hierax (a senior Origenist aged 90), Kronios, Stephen of Libya, and Isidorus (a Nitrian ascetic who became an ambassador for Theophilus, though later denounced by the Patriarch as an Origenist). Of a more anecdotal reputation are the sketches and stories found in the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, written in Greek and translated into Latin by Rufinus. Miracles and severe austerities are here favoured, though references are made to Antony as the teacher and inspirer of famous hermits, and "almost all of them are linked not only to Antony but also to the roots of the Origenist tradition among the monks" (ibid., p. 179).
Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of those clergy who desired monks to become bishops. In strong contrast to this increasing trend was the example of Abba Ammonius, an Origenist hermit highly regarded by Evagrius Ponticus as a saintly inhabitant of Kellia in the late fourth century. Ammonius was a learned man, a factor contributing to the attempt by Patriarch Timothy (in office 381-5) to make him a bishop. The response of Ammonius was to cut off his ear (). When the persuasion persisted, he threatened to cut off his tongue. He gained a respite in his hermitage accordingly. (71)
This episode serves to illustrate the anti-clerical orientation of some early hermits. Their sincerity and commitment recognised the prodigious distraction of an episcopal role, and perhaps not least because they perceived that preoccupations of the status role narrowed down the teaching at stake.
The purge of Origenism means that Egyptian monasticism was never the same after circa 400 CE. The clerical cordon strangled much of the intrinsic content, imposing a formalism and doctrinaire attitude that was considered a bulwark against heresy. Miracle stories were more congenial than gnostic complexities.
The famous sayings (apophthegmata) of the desert fathers stand in a very ambiguous relation to the train of events (). Professor Rubenson encapsulates a pressing aspect of the problem.
"The collections [of apophthegmata] preserved all date after the Origenist controversy which deeply affected Egyptian monastic tradition, and there is no proof that the bulk of the sayings go back half a century before Theophilus expelled many of the most prominent fathers in the Apophthegmata Patrum" (ibid., p. 188).
The oft-cited sayings are thus in doubt, despite the giant stature they achieved over the centuries, and one so amenable to orthodox attitudes. The neglected letters of Antony "show how inadequate the Vita Antonii and the apophthegmata are for studies of the attitudes of the first monks" (ibid., p. 189). This despite the substantial number of sayings attributed to Antony. Indeed, Antony's standing in the sayings is second only to that of Abba Poimen.
The sayings have been discerned as reflecting the changes in emphasis that occurred, as distinct from the originating themes. The sayings were collected for purposes of an ascetic edification in the manner preferred from the early fifth century onwards. "There is no guarantee that they give a well-balanced image of earlier generations" (ibid., p. 188). To the contrary, "the evidence makes it safe to conclude that Antony played an important role in the making of the Origenist tradition" (ibid., p. 189).
Both Evagrius Ponticus and Origen were condemned by the church heresiarchs of the sixth century. Numerous close parallels are discernible between the letters of Antony and the output of Evagrius, while John Cassian is urged as being influenced by the first Antonine letter. The Origenist content of the Antonine letters is a suggested reason for the barrier to diffusion outside Egypt, despite parallels with some passages in the writings of Dorotheus of Gaza (ibid., p. 190).
Whatever the merits found in the apophthegmata, "the fact that most topics in the letters [of Antony] have no parallels in the sayings only confirms that ... the transmission and compilation of the collections [of the sayings] was governed by interests which wanted to avoid theological issues" (ibid., p. 158). The dilution surely represented a convenience for the Alexandrian prelates and related officers of heresiology.
19. The Outer and Inner Mountains
The Coptic hermit Antony (later celebrated as Antony the Great) appears to have spent much of his life in a sustained flight from urban lifestyles. Reconstruction of his career is strongly dependent upon a hagiography attributed to Bishop Athanasius, and which requires critical assessment. That work was apparently composed a few years after the subject's death. The Greek Life of Antony was translated into Latin by the early 370s, and became influential in the Christian world. Antony was not the founder of monasticism, contrary to the fluent traditional eulogy as "father of monks." A very uncertain number of Christian ascetics (and probably many) existed prior to him.
Certainly, ancestors of the Copts had laboured to build the extensive mortuary and temple remains surviving from Pharaonic eras. When Antony and others led hermit lives in the tombs and caves, they were critical of the pagan past, the evidence of which was visible in so many places along the Nile. Sweat stings the eyes at the sun's zenith, even when gods are installed and inscriptions cut into stone recording the triumphs of dynastic achievements.
Yet paganism was not a danger for the independent hermit life, which became part of a Christian majority in Egypt during Antony's lifetime. The Athanasian hagiography strains to show that Antony was devoted to orthodoxy and church clericalism. There were fears that the ascetic movement would part company with clerical control. Circa 340-1, a synod at Gangra (in Asia Minor) expressed censure of monks who neglected church attendance. One of the themes employed by Athanasius was that of "demons," though the neglected letters of Antony impart a different complexion to that subject, avoiding the Christology of the bishop ().
A number of the Egyptian ascetics were probably in some affinity with the teaching found elsewhere that "in each man there is an indwelling devil who can be ejected not by any sacramental grace but exclusively by intense prayer and ascetic contemplation sufficient to produce palpable inward feelings." (72) This teaching is evocative of the fourth century ascetic sect known as Messalians or Euchites, who aroused controversies ending in their condemnation at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
The Life credits Antony with with 105 years of existence. The conventional date of his birth is 251, based on his date of decease at 356. His parents were affluent rural landowners, apparently living at a village in North Egypt; they died died during his teens, leaving him to care for his sister. Antony did not renounce the world because of poverty; he inherited a farm of more than two hundred acres, together with other possessions. He gave away some of his estate to neighbours and sold the remainder. He donated the proceeds to the poor, retaining a small sum for the maintenance of his sister, who joined a group of Christian virgins.
His birthplace has sometimes been stated as Coma, a village near Herakleopolis Magna in Lower (North) Egypt. This location was provided by the church historian Sozomenus, and is not alway regarded as definitive.
Antony became the disciple of a hermit in an adjacent village, an old man who had become an ascetic in his youth. An oral tradition of some vintage is therefore implied. He also sought out other ascetics of whom he had heard. (73) Next to nothing is known about these entities. A rather striking feature of his ascetic training is the accomplishment of manual labour. He apparently lived in a hut while supporting himself by manual work. Some of his earnings were spent on his own bread, but the rest he gave to the poor. The term ascesis, meaning practice or training, does not converge with the stereotyped ideas about asceticism common today.
Subsequently, Antony departed for the tombs located at some distance from his village. He shut himself inside one of these mausoleums after requesting a friend to bring him bread at lengthy intervals. (74) This event supplied the cue for the Athanasian myth of fighting the devil, who is represented in a very literal fashion according to clerical conceptions that are strongly imposed on the subject (). Afterwards he separated from his hermit teacher, and set out alone into the desert wilderness. (75) He arrived at Pispir, on the right bank of the Nile some fifty miles south of Memphis (and in the zone of Arsinoe), where he occupied a deserted Roman fort. This site later became known as the "Outer Mountain."
Antony blocked up the entrance to his new abode, acquiring a store of bread sufficient for six months. He never went out, and received a regular store of bread thereafter. His acquaintances came to see him but he would not let them enter, and so they had to live outside if they stayed at all. After nearly twenty years of this, some visitors broke down the door, and Antony came outside the fort for the first time. He is credited with a miraculous youthfulness in appearance. (76)
Antony found that many visitors were seeking him out. Being averse to this attention, he vacated Pispir and circa 313 accompanied an Arab tribe to a remote desert area near the Red Sea. This was in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, where only Bedouins could usually be found. He was apparently one of the first ascetics to opt for such a remote locale. However, an earlier pre-Christian stratum of renunciate were mentioned by Philo of Alexandria in the first century; this Hellenised Jewish philosopher referred to ascetics called therapeutae, who were apparently entrenched in the vicinity of Lake Mareotis near Alexandria, and also other more remote regions.
He chose to settle at a spot near a spring of water. Antony reputedly lived in a cave on a mountain slope (traditionally identified as Mount Kolzim, or Khelsm). The Bedouins brought him bread, and he also ate dates. Antony tilled a vegetable garden and made a habit of weaving mats from palm leaves, there being palm trees in his vicinity. The new hermitage became known as the "Inner Mountain," and after his death a monastery developed there. While he lived, he attracted disciples, though it is not clear how many lived near him.
Only a relatively few hardy travellers reached the Inner Mountain (which may have been accessed via the Red Sea). Other visitors milled around Pispir, which evidently remained an extension camp at the edge of the desert. A monastic settlement developed at the "Outer Mountain." The visitors here apparently comprised a diversity in social ranking. Eminent persons such as magistrates and military leaders are said to have requested a rendezvous with the saint at Pispir, on the excuse that Mount Kolzim was too inaccessible. In response to such pressure and lament, Antony would make occasional visits to Pispir. However, he was basically averse to the stream of visitors, who would doubtless have included clerics.
A military officer had to send numerous messages before Antony agreed to make an appearance at Pispir. Even then, the saint spoke only a few words on the subject of salvation, and then set about departing. The eminent visitor begged him to stay longer. Antony declined and remarked that if monks tarried among the worldly, they might lose sight of the inner life. (77)
A suggestion has been that the "Inner Mountain" was invented by Athanasius, and that Antony spent the intervals away from Pispir as a desert wanderer of no fixed abode. Derwas Chitty objected that the Inner Mountain is quite well authenticated independently of the Life of Antony. However, Chitty did bend to the second argument involved, and concluded that we do not need to suppose that Antony spent the whole of his time moving between the Inner Mountain and Pispir. (78) Antony thus eludes the boundaries inherent in the Athanasian version. The itinerant life of Egyptian ascetics is far less easily localised, and can admit of further objectives.
The apophthegmata furnish some additional details, and report that Antony visited Nitria, in the desert zone adjoining the Nile Delta. His intention was evidently to assist the development of anchoritic life in that pivotal locale. Some hermits wished to live in greater isolation due to an increase in their numbers. Antony's demographic strategy was to suggest a distance of several miles between the new hermitages associated with Kellia. (79)
Chitty tends to glorify Athanasius, awarding that bishop a halo via monks who believed that Christ reigned on the episcopal throne in Alexandria "in the person of its occupant" (The Desert a City, p. 2). In a more sober context, Chitty asks how far the Life of Antony conveys a picture of the real Antony as distinct from an industrious bishop's idealised portrayal of what a monk should be. The same commentator follows up by stating that to some extent the question is irrelevant. The argument is preferred that certainty exists in the subsequent adoption of the portrayal as the pattern of the true anchorite (ibid., p. 5). That argument does not confirm the accuracy of the protoype.
Significantly, Chitty comments that throughout the textual records of the desert fathers, we find a contrast. On the one hand, the desert is represented as the domain of the demons, to which they have retreated after being driven out of the cities by the Christian church. On the other hand, nothing can hide the fact that the hermits had a positive love for their wilderness. Is it fair, asks Chitty, to suggest that while the hermits were largely countryfolk, the writers of the annals were more often townfolk with the urban fear of lonely places? (ibid., p. 6)
The suggestion appears to be very fair, and further reason to query the interpretations of Athanasius, who was clearly intent upon providing an orthodox framework for the Life of Antony that would be compatible with clerical objectives in the high urban sphere. The composer of the hagiography chose to emphasise the profound respect entertained by Antony for bishops and priests. We are told that Antony wanted every cleric to be honoured above himself. There is also the emphatic refrain that the saint had no friendly contact with the Manichaeans or any other heretics, teaching that association with them brought harm and ruin to the soul. This was certainly the attitude of Athanasius.
The Life insists that Antony was opposed to the Arian doctrines; he is even stated to have driven away a group of Arians from his retreat. Antony does not appear to have been keen on interruptions from any doctrinal direction whatsoever; eremitical silence was a virtue largely foreign to the urban locales. The Life also reports that the Arian faction spread the story that Antony's views converged with their own. This is very feasible, and was also the resort of Athanasius himself. The contest to appropriate monasticism ended in defeat for the Arian cause.
Antony is reported to have visited Alexandria for the purpose of correcting the rumour about his Arian affinities, answering an appeal of both the bishops and monks. (80) That visit occurred in 337/8, and has received frequent commentary. Antony is said to have publicly denied any Arian connection. It has been doubted that Athanasius was one of the clerics involved, as he was in exile from Alexandria until the end of 337. Antony was apparently in the city for only two days, perhaps because of the danger that might arise, and his concern was for the welfare of Alexandrian anchorites in the face of molestation by the Arian faction. He is described by Athanasius as having performed many healings in the city, which some analysts regard as a substitute for history.
The aggression of Arian supporters towards other Christians was demonstrated by Balachius, a Graeco-Roman aristocratic and military officer who became notorious for beating ascetics, both male and female. Antony is reported to have composed a letter rebuking Balachius and his Arian colleague Bishop Gregory, though the response was one of scorn. Not long after, Balachius was killed in an accident with his own horse.
Antony also wrote (and frequently) to the Christian emperor Constantine, involving a degree of complaint, though the monarch remained indifferent. This complex situation involved support for the exiled Athanasius, but was much wider in scope than clerical issues.
"The people of Alexandria, but more specifically, the clergy and the parthenoi (ascetic virgins) had started a campaign on behalf of the deposed Athanasius.... Thus, the connection was not primarily between Athanasius and Antony, but between Antony and those among the urban ascetics who supported Athanasius; it was they who orchestrated the letter-writing campaign in 335, and who invited Antony in 337/8." (81)
Antony was perhaps basically responding to the plight of female ascetics, who were the worst hit component of the conflict with Arian dogma. Athanasius was the figurehead of Nicene dogma, and was actually the cause of the violent friction due to his refusal to accommodate the views of Arius, who had been excommunicated as a heretic. Athanasius had become the bishop of Alexandria in 328, but was banished to Gaul by Constantine in 335. He returned to Alexandria after the death of Constantine in 337.
The first encounter of Athanasius with monasticism occurred in 329/30, when he embarked on a tour along the Nile, seeking support. In this way, he visited the Pachomian monks of the Thebaid, where one of his entourage (a local bishop) suggested that he ordain the monastic leader Pakhom to the priesthood. The reaction was decisive; Pakhom quickly disappeared from the scene, and remained in concealment until Athanasius departed, thus demonstrating commitment to renunciate ideals. Athanasius subsequently expressed a desire to meet Pakhom, but such a meeting has been considered unlikely. (82) Whether Athanasius actually met Antony is doubted by some analysts. Even those who are inclined to credit an actual meeting have acknowledged a problem in the reports:
"At the beginning of his Life of Antony, Athanasius claims to have seen the monk 'often', but this is an exaggeration: it is more likely that Athanasius saw Antony only once.... There remains, then, only Antony's visit to Alexandria found in chapters 69-71.... An account of a similar visit of Antony in Alexandria in the index to the Syriac collection of the Festal Letters may indicate that the visit took place while Athanasius was still in exile." (83)
The political tactics of Athanasius were very much in the cause of his episcopal attempt at dominance of Christian (or Coptic) Egypt. He was an early influence in the form of persuasion that caused monks to become priests and clerics, a trend resisted by such stalwarts of independence as Abba Ammonius () and Pakhom.
"Many of the Egyptian ascetics that Athanasius knew personally were members of the clergy, more often than not recruited by the bishop himself. In his Letter to Dracontius, of 354 or 355, Athanasius eloquently scolds the recipient, an ascetic, for evading ordination." (84)
There may well be some accuracy in the Life concerning the Antonine depreciation of magic and sorcery and oracles, though one suspects that Athanasius delighted in the embellishment of scathing references to Egyptian incantations. (85)
Modern analysts have discerned that stylistic influences for the Life of Antony derive from the Vitae of philosophers and others belonging to the pagan tradition, most notably the Life of Pythagoras (associated with Iamblichus and Porphyry), and also the version of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus, and the more refined Life of Plotinus by Porphyry.
One translator of the Life of Antony conceded a number of parallels with the Life of Plotinus, and admitted the possibility that Athanasius was competing with the pagan writers. Yet Robert T. Meyer defended the episcopal position in hagiography to the extent of stating that Antony achieved what Socrates and Plato and Plotinus could only grope for in their highest speculation. (86) This interpretation, rather weighted in favour of Christianity, is not necessarily the last word on the subject; indeed, more recent scholarly output has revived the Antonine letters (), which afford a counterweight to the hagiographical gloss of Athanasius.
A relevant anthropological consideration is surely that Antony the Copt, in his minimal subsistence and simple lifestyle, was compatible with primeval demonstrations of ecological redemption. Current exponents of cultural and scientific superiority may carp at a lifestyle which subsisted upon bread, dates, and vegetables in a locale remote from civilisation. Yet he had an answer to demographic problems that have more recently gone berserk via global population increase, and nothing he did caused environmental pollution, which is an urban setback of gigantic proportions. The greatest scientific advance of all time (i.e., the modern era) could so easily amount to the end of the world.
Some anthropologists might argue that only an intensive agricultural phase could have produced anything resembling a hermit. Yet the simplicity of Antony could match Predynastic standards. When he died, it is reported that nobody knew where he was buried save two attendant monks who followed his strict orders concerning secrecy and simplicity. He wanted to die alone on the Inner Mountain, (87) removed from the urban trends to ostentation and social discord. The persecutions in Alexandria got worse, and even Bishop George (the Arian) could not escape being murdered by a mob.
Antony is reported to have resisted the outlook of those renunciates who mortified their bodies by extremist asceticism. (88)
The Athanasian account of Antony's practical wisdom includes a well known poke at the pagan philosophers. Amongst the visitors to the "Outer Mountain" were "Greek philosophers" who opposed Antony with their verbal ingenuity. He presented his own question to this contingent: which had priority, the mind or letters? Further, was the mind the cause of letters (education), or letters the cause of the mind? The Greek visitors answered that mind was the inventor of letters. The Coptic monk retorted: "It follows then that a person with a sound mind has no need of [Greek] letters." Athanasius failed to take the cue, being literate in Greek. (89) The bishop probably invented this anecdote.
Perhaps the Antonine ideal of a disciple is contained in the following anecdote found in the apophthegmata. A group of renunciates from Scetis boarded a boat en route to visit Antony. An old man, unknown to the others, accompanied them. The pilgrims piously recited the words of scripture, but the stranger remained silent. Upon arrival at Antony's cell, the occupant commented to the taciturn stranger that he had brought many good monks with him. The unnamed visitor answered that these monks were doubtless good, but implied that they had no control over their mouths, and therefore their inner deportment was in jeopardy. (90)
The apophthegmata of Antony include what is perhaps a significant reference: some said that Antony was spiritually elevated, but he himself would never speak of his attainment. (91) This report would imply due restraint from a truly silent man, signifying an ancient ideal preserved in Egyptian wisdom literature ().
20. Virgins of God
The role of women in the "desert father" phenomenon is a major factor. More precisely, the Christian virgin is the subject under consideration. This contingent became substantial in Egypt during the third century, and more particularly in Alexandria. Their renunciation of family commitments gave them opportunity and leisure for study of scripture and other works. This field of "Christian philosophy" attracted literate young women who were frequently of a wealthy background. Modern scholars sometimes refer to the studious tradition in terms of "academic Christianity."
Alexandrian presbyters continued that tradition into the fourth century, one reason why many virgins supported the heretical Arius in the conflict with Bishop Athanasius. However, other virgins in Alexandria were followers of Athanasius. The latter was intent upon subjugating the "academic" tradition of Alexandria, replacing this with the clerical rules of guidance that seem more like a straitjacket to some recent investigators.
"Athanasius' effort to separate virgins from the discourse of academic Christianity thus involved intensive censorship of the virgin's speech and hearing" (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, OUP 1995, p. 72).
For instance, in this episcopal directory, virgins were to avoid conversation with men and instead converse silently with their "bridegroom," meaning Christ or the Word of God. Such emphases can be found in the bishop's first Letter to Virgins, apparently addressed to women in Alexandria. Such injunctions were designed to prevent "public conversations with anti-Athanasian teachers" (ibid.), a situation representing the seclusion of virgins within the episcopal milieu. In this interpretation, the correct teachings were only to be found in the church led by the (Athanasian) bishops and priests.
Autonomy and equality was thus forfeited by the virgins who chose to follow Athanasius. Their role as the "brides of Christ" here amounted to a repetition of the dutiful wife clause favoured in the traditional Greek and Latin repertories, and echoed by some philosophers and moralists like Plutarch (ibid., pp. 75-6). Independent female thought was frowned upon in such directions, a problem perpetuated by Athanasius and other bishops.
"Many [Christian] virgins did not play the role of the dutiful wife. Instead, they carried on their own commercial activities, made journeys to the Holy Land, cultivated innovative relationships with ascetic men, and participated in public discussions of Christian philosophy" (ibid., p. 77).
These virgins (parthenoi) of Egypt came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Some were wealthy and owned property and slaves, while some of the less elevated were themselves slaves. The virgins were numerous in the capital of Alexandria, but also existed in the towns and villages of Egypt. The extent of provincial occurrences is less certain in the third century. The Life of Antony says that this early Coptic hermit entrusted his sister to respected virgins in his village. "It is possible that this is not a historical fact, but merely Athanasius' depiction of what he thought Antony should have done with his sister" (ibid., p. 24).
However, a reading of the Canons of Hippolytus (revised in the 330s) has confirmed that "women of a variety of ages were leading a life eis parthenian, in virginity - just like the ones who were entrusted with the education of Antony's sister - and formed part of a long-standing tradition; these women lived as part of their village ... and not in some special community" (Elm, Virgins of God, OUP 1994, p. 230).
By the late third century, Christian women in Egypt were living a dedicated religious life. "These women held the title of widow or virgin, achieved their status through a vow, and expressed it by wearing a specific habit" (ibid., p. 231). They were allowed to teach in private, but not in public (ibid., p. 249), a constraint reflecting the influential bias of the apostle Paul, who asserted "I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man; she should be quiet" (First Letter to Timothy 2:12-13; New English Bible, p. 267).
There were different categories of lifestyle applying to virgins in the fourth century. The woman might live quite independently, or at home with her parents, or in an ascetic community with other women. A more complex role was that of sharing the dwelling of a male ascetic, an option which was denounced by Athanasius in his second Letter to Virgins. This practice has been described by modern scholars as "spiritual marriage." Athanasius cast doubts that celibacy could be maintained in such arrangements, though he conceded that some female ascetics were beset by poverty and needed assistance. In such cohabitation, the female virgin received shelter, food, and clothing, in return for which she was expected to cook and clean the quarters.
The underlying intention of Athanasius was to divert virgins from other living situations to that of communities under episcopal control. "He believed that the only male authorities in a virgin's life should be, in addition to Christ, her father and her priest or bishop" (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 31).
Many virgins (parthenoi) visited the hermits in the desert, and in some cases these visits were on a regular basis. The hermits in the Nile valley were often only a few miles away from villages. Several apophthegmata refer to virgins who lived with male ascetics (Fathers) as their servants. These cohabitations occurred both in villages and in the desert (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 261).
There were rather more individual cases of virgin life in the desert. In 391, Abba (Father) Bessarion and a disciple visited Lycopolis, and en route they entered a desert cave where an old Father was making palm-leaves into ropes. On their return journey, they discovered that the same Father had died, and when burying the corpse, they found with surprise that the "Father" was a woman (ibid., p. 262).
At the same period, a virgin known as Amma (Mother) Theodora lived in the desert, apparently in Nitria or Scetis, and her sayings were commemorated along with those of male ascetics. Compilers of the apophthegmata evidently regarded her as an ideal teacher, and a model to emulate like that of the male anchorites. She describes the characteristics of a spiritual teacher in terms of being "a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory, and pride" (ibid., p. 265). She was reputedly in contact with Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, though it is very difficult to regard that entity as a stranger to the desire for domination in his violent campaign against paganism.
Amma Sarah lived in the desert of Peluseum, perhaps situated in the Arsinoite or Fayyum area. She evidently encountered masculine doubts concerning her valid identity as a desert-dweller. Her sayings include the assertion, addressed to male ascetics, that: "It is I whom am a man, you who are women" (ibid., p. 266). This identity is reminiscent of the much more recent Sufi female ascetic Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), who insisted upon her masculine credential after being buried alive by Islamic fundamentalists. (92) The simplistic version of motivation for desert presence is reduced in some sayings of Coptic desert fathers to the factor of need to escape women.
Whatever the deficient mentality of some male ascetics, the desert was partly inhabited by women, some fleeing the threats of tax-collectors, some visiting their male relatives who had become ascetics, some seeking cures for illness, and yet others being on pilgrimage (ibid., pp. 271-2). The strong implication is made that some women also became mendicants, adopting perpetual xeniteia or wandering.
A few examples of male mendicants are attested in the apophthegmata, though some writings of Evagrius Ponticus (himself a desert ascetic) indicate that women were inclined to constant xeniteia. Ultimately, the issue amounts to the fact that both men and women wanderers were even less controllable by the clerical authorities than hermits in the desert, the mendicants being "unencumbered by the demands for obedience and regularity which were the staple of 'orthodox' ascetic life" (ibid., p. 282). The coenobitic monasteries were the easiest target for regulation.
Palladius records a revealing event. Elias was an ascetic who lived at Athribis (possibly Atripe, near Panopolis, rather than the place of that name in the Nile Delta). He owned property in that town, and he was thus one of many ascetics in the urban category. He created a large monastery for women, being concerned at the situation of wandering virgins. Over three hundred women found shelter there, gaining the amenities of medical care, household goods, and gardens. He himself lived in the monastery, resolving quarrels amongst the inmates. (ibid., pp. 321ff.).
In his Lausiac History, Palladius devoted a chapter to "manly women," meaning female virgins in the desert whom he granted a spiritual equality with male counterparts. He gives details about virgins such as Alexandra, who secluded herself in a tomb just outside Alexandria, receiving living essentials through a window via a servant-girl. This retreatant occupied herself by spinning flax, by prayer, and by meditating upon the lives of prophets, apostles, and martyrs (ibid., p. 319).
The city of Antinoe (in Middle Egypt) was covered by Palladius, where he sojourned c. 410. No less than twelve monasteries for women existed there. One of these housed sixty virgins, whose leader was the octogenarian Amma Talis; the front door was not locked, a detail interpretable in the context of loyalty to the leader, a lock being indicative of a tendency to leave the precincts (ibid., p. 328).
To the north of Antinoe, the city of Oxyrhynchus (Al-Bahnasa), so famous for ancient papyri, was a major site for ascetics and virgins. The Historia Monachorum describes this place as being full of monasteries by the 390s, together with an encircling zone of monasteries outside the city walls. The ascetics outnumbered the secular citizens, and could be found living in gate-towers, porches, and former pagan temples. "Five thousand monks lived within the city walls, as many again surrounded it; the bishop of the town counted 10,000 monks and 20,000 virgins in his jurisdiction" (ibid., p. 329 note 45). Many of the ascetics did not live in monasteries, and the practices in vogue evidently varied substantially, a factor which could easily mean that teachings did also.
With regard to the general situation in Egypt during the fourth century:
"Women are mentioned as practising ascetic life in villages and in the desert, alone, with their mothers, as partners in a mariage blanc, in communities, as anchorites, and as wandering ascetics.... all communities referred to, with the exception of Amma Talis', included men who lived in close proximity to women" (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 330).
Male ascetics (monazontes) and virgins (parthenoi) were part of the Christian congregation in Alexandria during the first two decades of the fourth century. The former lived as solitaries or in groups, and included erudite men, who might be in contact with desert ascetics. The virgins have similar associations. These contingents featured strongly in the career of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria.
Different reports exist concerning the major exile of Athanasius during 356-62. He was not necessarily living in the desert at that time. According to Palladius, the eminent cleric spent the entire six years in hiding with a virgin who "washed his feet and cared for all his bodily needs and his personal affairs, obtaining the loan of books for his use" (ibid., p. 357). That virgin was apparently Eudaemonis, who was tortured by the military commander Artemius for obstructing the official search for the bishop. One interpretation of the texts has deduced that the Palladian version was a legend based upon an initial two years hiding of Athanasius in the city, though the plight of Eudaemonis in the face of Graeco-Roman military brutality is not denied (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 130).
The violence inherent in the clerical temperament is indicated via the account by Athanasius of events at Alexandria in 339, when the rival bishop Gregory (a Cappadocian) was installed. The imperial prefect Philagrius, another Cappadocian Greek, was notorious as a persecutor of Christians; he sent a mob to attack male and female ascetics, these pro-Athanasians being in danger of their lives. Bishop Gregory caused the prefect to publicly scourge over thirty victims, prominently including virgins and married women, after which they were imprisoned. While virgins were beaten, Gregory looked on, sitting comfortably with the duke (and military commander) Balachius (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 361). These high class Greeks (and Romans) had too much violence in their genes, and their contempt for inferiors and slaves is not attractive. Many Copts must have loathed the sight of them.
Twenty years later, the violence in Alexandria was more acute, with Duke Sebastianus presiding over the Arian attack on virgins and related religious entities. Some victims were beaten, some were exiled, and some were killed. Females apparently joined in the attack, at least in a verbal sense, and these are now implied as Arian virgins, a category Athanasius was clearly reluctant to reveal (ibid., p. 368). His opponents likewise relied on parthenoi for financial and related support.
This scenario of conflicting Arian versus pro-Athanasian (and Nicene) virgins is an unfortunate illustration of how the elite Graeco-Roman governing class imposed religious doctrines upon the urban population. The conflict was created by vehement Christian dogmatism sustained on both sides, and giving rein to military brutality. The excommunicated Arius was dead and not responsible for the outrages.
Despite preaching otherworldliness, Athanasius and prestigious rivals were so strongly involved in political and lobbying activities. They were amongst the least likely persons to retreat to the paneremos, the deep desert wilderness of total solitude. When Athanasius retreated from the dire Alexandrian disturbances in 356, and wherever he was actually living after a while, he was not primarily contacting desert ascetics but "those [ascetics] who were members of the clergy and resided in an urban context" (ibid., p. 368).
Many urban virgins came from the upper ranks of society, while a fair number of urban male ascetics were themselves members of the clergy. A significant number of bishops were ordained by Athanasius from ascetic ranks, and those renunciates more resistant to clerical status remained a mystery to episcopal psychology.
"Contrary to the impression given by many of the contemporary sources such as Gregory of Nazianzus (and certainly fostered by Athanasius himself), his [Athanasius'] involvement with the desert ascetics like Antony or Pachomius was indirect and facilitated by mediators such as Therapion of Thmuis or Theodore, not the result of an intense personal pursuit" (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 370).
The situation pertaining at the close of the fourth century represented a triumph for the Athanasian standpoint. Nicene bishops ruled the religion of Egypt, and heresy was outlawed. Origen, Hieracas, and many others were left in the shadow. The Manichaeans were brutally repressed in various countries. Gnostic books were consigned to oblivion. Even erudite Christian Origenists were exiled. The virgins became a totally subservient appendage to the revised monasticism. Ironically, women appear to have enjoyed a higher religious status in Pharaonic times. (93)
The elite organisation of Nicene bishops created a conformist ideology encumbered by literalist concepts and hysteria over anything which could be deemed non-canonical. The monasticism they favoured was not the original Coptic endeavours of the desert, but a diluted version of Antony and the early Pachomian model. The clerical establishment gained support from a new wave of fifth century monks, including Shenoute of Atripe (c.350-466), a literate Coptic abbot.
In distant Rome, the status of Christian women was very low by the mid-fourth century. Pope Damasus (office 366-84) features in one of the issues attaching to this trend. (94)
"The erasure of the female bone gatherers and other politically and socially influential Christian matrons is completed by Damasus, in his bloody and contentious campaign to become the sole bishop of Rome. In promoting male saints over female ones, Damasus embarked on a 'masculinised reformulation' of Christian memory and devotion. He also strived to ensure that the piety of the average Christian woman and the veneration of female saints took place through 'complex rituals of access' controlled by the church." (Caroline T. Schroeder, review of Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Sept. 2008.)
The monasticism which prevailed in the fifth century was that devised by Athanasius, Theophilus, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). These entities were glorified by the clerical class presiding in both the Greek and Latin sectors of Christianity. Modern scholarship is still involved in the attempt to extricate the truth from the mythologies and usurpations.
21. Shenoute of Atripe
When Christianity gained the ascendancy in Egypt by the mid-fourth century, the monasteries proliferated. The new majoritarian atmosphere must have encouraged enthusiasm for the lifestyle format now most closely associated with salvation. Imitation of a precedent does not necessarily amount to the same event, and different affiliations were in effective competition. The Pachomians, the Melitians, and other communities were part of a sociocultural situation in which the Alexandrian prelates were making an exertive bid for power, imposing a simplistic doctrine on all Christian populations in their territories.
In the Thebaid, as in Kellia and elsewhere to the north, anchorites continued to exist, though increasingly an endangered species during the fifth and sixth centuries. The solitary lifestyle was to undergo modifications even in Kellia, the land of cells. Only the coenobitic programme survived in Latin milieux, sparked by the enthusiasms of John Cassian in Gaul. The communal form of monasticism was far easier to reproduce, the instinct for strict solitude requiring greater commitment and ingenuity. The coenobitic monasteries became smothered by rules and regulations, losing contact with the independent spirit of the hermits commemorated in hagiography. The "truly silent man" of the Egyptian wisdom literature was in danger of becoming an authoritarian guide to the rule book, with all the vocal energy that such a vocation might imply.
A fourth century Coptic anchorite named Pgol lived in the Theban desert near Akhmim (Panopolis), and not far from some Pachomian monasteries. He founded his own monastery near the ruined village of Atripe, and which became known as the White Monastery. Pgol supplied strict rules for this community, which contrasted with those of the more relaxed Pachomian federation. He retained his anchoritic habits, and continued to retreat into the desert for lengthy periods; he was literate in Coptic, and wrote letters to the monastery. By the time of his death, circa 385, there were only about thirty inmates, though including some women, who lived in separate quarters. The demanding routine made his community far less popular than the Pachomian rival.
The nephew of Pgol was Shenoute (Shenouda), born in a nearby village at an unknown date. He succeeded his uncle as leader of the White Monastery, after complaining about some laxities in discipline, and using biblical language. The community became extensive under his direction, accommodating over 2,000 monks and 1,800 nuns by the time of his death many years later, when he was reputedly over a century old. All the inmates shared a cell, contrary to the Pachomian practice of single occupier cells. To his credit, Shenoute emphasised "an equality which embraced not only the formerly rich and those who were poor, the educated and the non-educated, former slaves and those who were free, but also men and women" (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 308). However, the female leader was subject to male authority, as in the Pachomian monasteries. The discipline was strict, and in some respects severe.
Farming was conducted by the monks, and Shenoute encouraged them to retain the skills of their former professions, thereby helping to make the community self-supporting. Carpentry, shoe-making, rope and basket weaving, book-binding, and other activities were in evidence. Shenoute emphasised the need for literacy and writing manuscripts, and was himself a prolific writer in Coptic. He was understandably resistant to pagan oppression of Coptic peasants in the Thebaid, though he went further than this, and produced sermons and writings pitched against pagans and heretics, especially the Origenists. In such respects, he was strongly influenced by the clergy.
A number of commentators have referred to the harsh temperament of Shenoute. His biographer Besa records a number of violent attacks made against pagan centres of worship. These were nominally Greek sites, though scholarship has suggested that the "Greeks" were perhaps unorthodox Christians (Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity, 1990, pp. 198-9). Shenoute is reported to have destroyed a heretical church of pagans, this being interpreted as a probable reference to Christians who did not profess allegiance to the Alexandrian Patriarch. He is said to have confiscated their "magical" books; the suggestion has been made these these texts were possibly Gnostic works containing unintelligible vowels and words similar to magical incantations. Indeed, Shenoute reputedly threatened the heretics with the sword or exile unless they acknowledged the superiority of Patriarch Cyril in Alexandria. Although hagiography may have embellished such incidents, the orthodox nature of Shenoute's disapproval is obvious.
Shenoute is reported to have accompanied Patriarch Cyril to the Council of Ephesus in 431, as part of the Alexandrian campaign to oust the doctrine of Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople (and a Syrian monk). As a reward for his support, Cyril elected Shenoute to the official status of an archimandrite or abbot, though the latter was already the leader of his monastery.
In this episode of international friction, Cyril accused Nestorius of being a heretic, though a deadlock occurred in the former's rivalry with a Syrian synod. The dubious behaviour of Cyril extended to spending "vast sums on douceurs for influential people at the palace," a recourse resulting in loss of favour for Nestorius. When he escaped from prison, Cyril "rewarded his venal gaoler by promotion among the Alexandrian clergy" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 199).
Nestorius (c. 380-c. 451) shared the violent opinions of Cyril about heretics and pagans (Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity, p. 192). Now the former himself was on the receiving end of stigma. Nestorius was banished to Antioch, but he was subsequently condemned and in 435 "exiled to the Egyptian desert where he suffered much and shortly before his death, wrote his tragic memoirs" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 199 note 1). More specifically, he was deported to the isolated oasis of Hibis (Al-Khargah), and afterwards spent some time in Panopolis under the guardianship of Shenoute. These events were a major triumph for Cyril, who thereafter gained orthodox repute as a saint, while Nestorius was remembered as a villainous heretic. (95)
These events attending the Christian "Pharaoh" of Alexandria were a sequel to the riots Cyril instigated against Jews, and also the infamous death of the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, who apparently suffered from the attention of his private army. The monastic trends were by now firmly subordinated to the "Pharaoh" policies. Further confirmation of the secondary status of monasticism was afforded at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the prestigious and wealthy clergy decreed (amongst other things) that monasteries were not to enlist fugitive slaves as monks (Griggs, Early Eg. Christianity, p. 209). The emerging national Coptic church retained independence from Chalcedon (associated with Constantinople), though many unfortunate slaves evidently could not do so, the established Greek (and Roman) social preferences being facilitated by the power politics of Christian clericalism.
22. Didymus the Blind
Didymus the Blind (c.313-398) was a Christian scholar and ascetic of Alexandria who accommodated the Nicene belief system. He was opposed to the followers of Hieracas (). However, both of these urban ascetics became stigmatised as heretics; during the sixth century, the extensive literary output of Didymus and his circle was destroyed by orthodox fanatics in the Byzantine world. Both of these figures were Origenists, though their attitude to the church differed, Hieracas being far more confrontational.
Didymus was a blind man, though he is said to have composed many works. Some accounts (deriving from Rufinus of Aquileia, his student for eight years) state that he contracted blindness at the age of four; Jerome and Palladius are in agreement that Didymus suffered blindness before attending school. He became regarded as an authority on the interpretation of Biblical texts; Jerome sought his advice, though later moving in a different direction. A suggestion has been that Didymus resorted to an early version of braille, in which letters were engraved into the surface of wood.
A major influence upon Didymus was Origen (c.185-254), and he is now strongly identified with a format of "scholastic Origenism." From this source, Didymus assimilated the allegorical approach to Biblical texts, one which sought to find alternative meanings rather then settle for an inflexibly standard interpretation. The learning of Didymus achieved a synthesis of Origen, Alexandrian wisdom, Aristotelian logic, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, the Old and New Testaments, and the Nicene dogma recently improvised by the church. He reputedly argued with pagans, Jews, Manichaeans, and rival Christian teachers; he is thought to have regarded some of the contestants as heretical.
Didymus was a lay Christian, and not one of the clergy. He has been customarily presented as a teacher in the catechetical school associated with Bishop Athanasius, who purportedly enrolled him in the orthodox cause. This theme has been subject to query (Richard A. Layton, Didymus the Blind and his Circle, 2004, pp. 15ff., who describes the school as "notoriously obscure"). Rufinus described Didymus as a "teacher in the church school." An influential opinion that he was director of the school derives from the church historian Sozomen, who has been considered unreliable on this point. In his bid to gain ascendancy in Alexandria, Athanasius apparently gave full approval to the activities of Didymus, though "the [Tura] papyri do not suggest that Didymus acted in concert with the bishop to forge an academic association to counter the proliferation" of communities who were outside the compass of episcopal control (ibid., p. 18).
The writings of Didymus were for long believed to have been completely destroyed by zealots in the wake of Church Councils. In 1941 a significant discovery occurred at Tura, near Cairo, where a collection of papyri came to light that dated from the sixth or seventh centuries. Five commentaries of Didymus were included, relating to Old Testament books, though many citations from the New Testament also featured. Those texts confirmed his abilities, and his circle has been described as a Christian philosophical academy. (96) This should be understood in the context that Didymus defended Nicene doctrine.
The circle of Didymus has been described as more closely resembling the philosophical schools (operating in the urban centres of the Mediterranean world) than the ascetic communities of the desert. "Didymus certainly shared with the desert ascetics the identification of mystic vision and union with God as the telos to contemplative practice" (Layton, op. cit., p. 160). However, this objective did not steer the conduct of scholarship within the circle, which was committed to analysis of Biblical texts.
Didymus expressed disdain for the literalist critics of Origen, who appear to have increased in his later years. At the same time, despite his dependence upon the Alexandrian philosophical tradition, he tended to accentuate the divide between Christians and pagans. "He did not attempt to abstract from the biblical narratives a moral anthropology or infuse ascetic practise with a speculative mysticism" (ibid., p. 161). His scholastic boundaries are suggested as the reason for his being overshadowed by two contemporaries: Evagrius in Egypt, and Gregory of Nyssa in Asia Minor.
Despite his more pedestrian tendency, Didymus produced his distinctive commentary on Job, in which he created a "fascinating and influential portrait of the biblical saint as a teacher in the mould of the Alexandrian gnostic" (ibid.). Further, the Didymus commentary on Zechariah has been described in terms of affording a wide range of meanings applied to the obscure verses of the Jewish prophet, and contrasting with the more static approach of other commentaries found in the Antiochene tradition, including that of Theodore (350-428), bishop of Mopsuestia. (97)
The gathering storm against Origenism was signified by the turnabout of Jerome, who jettisoned his former enthusiasm and engaged in a pamphlet war with Rufinus. The heresy-hunting bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) is strongly implicated in this development, pitching himself against the Origenist exegesis of monastic circles in Egypt and Palestine. Didymus was dead by the time that some Origenist ascetics were exiled from Egypt, reviled by the "Anthropomorphite" monks who gained a hold in Nitria. The Paschal Letter of Patriarch Theophilus, dating to 401 (and translated into Latin by Jerome), has been adduced as evidence for a misunderstanding on that cleric's part of what Origen taught.
Generations later, the situation gained a sequel in the "Second Origenist Controversy," this time involving monastic factions in Palestine during the sixth century. The literalists were again triumphant, and large numbers of Origenist monks (known as Isochristes) were exiled from Palestinian monasteries, many of which by now existed. (98) The mystical teaching of Evagrius Ponticus () was perhaps the dominant factor in these circles, though his inspiration was Origen, a figurehead who was deemed by opponents to merit an imperial intervention. Origen was officially condemned in 543 by the powerful emperor Justinian and his synod of bishops, the excuse being that Origenism was causing division amongst the monks. The political ambitions of Justinian loom very large at this period, involving a military campaign to reconquer the barbarian West.
The censure was confirmed (via imperial instigation) at the subsequent Council of Constantinople in 553. Origenist themes were denounced in canons (or anathemas) hitting at themes partly derived from the corpus of Evagrius. The prohibitions do not appear in the official statements (or acts) of the Council; it is believed that the participating bishops signed the anathemas before the Council formally commenced. (99) The works of Didymus were also strongly associated with the heretical themes. Many books and manuscripts were destroyed by the opposing zealots, who detested the teaching expressed by Evagrius in his Kephalaia Gnostica. The works of Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus were now taboo.
Evagrius had praised Didymus as the "great and gnostic teacher" (Layton, Didymus the Blind and his Circle, p. 9), though the former was more influential in the controversies that ensued. Evagrius "adapted Clement's model of the gnostic to address specifically monastic instruction" (ibid.). Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) was a lay Christian, "working as an independent teacher of 'the Christian philosophy,' instructing pupils in grammar, rhetoric and etiquette as well as in specifically religious matters" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 99). The overall Alexandrian tradition was so complex as to harbour Plotinus and Ammonius Saccas along with Clement and Origen. "Clement appears as an innovator in his attempt to bring together his Christian faith and an advanced form of traditional Greek literary and philosophical education." (100)
Clement's younger contemporary Origen (c.186-255) was also an Alexandrian. (101) This figure is celebrated in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius (263-339), who was Bishop of Caesarea (in Palestine) from circa 314. Eusebius is not considered the most reliable source by specialist scholarship. For instance, he says that Origen was the pupil of Clement, which has been deemed a retrospective assumption. There was no official school of theology involved; the modern tendency to assume a "catechist school" is now regarded as an exaggeration. (102)
Origen's father Leonides was one of the Christian martyrs during the persecution inflicted by Septimius Severus (rgd 193-211), and was apparently a Roman citizen. His mother "must have been an Egyptian" (Henri Crouzel, Origen, p. 6). This deduction is attended by social factors of some interest, accentuated by the detail that Origen was able to teach as a Christian catechist in Alexandria without being detained by the police, despite the persecution that lasted for some years.
Three classes of freemen existed in Alexandria: the Roman citizens, the Greek citizens of Alexandria and other cities in Egypt, and the "Egyptians" (including Greeks who were not members of the two higher classes). The persecution appears to have targeted only the two higher classes. Origen was regarded as a lower class citizen because of his mixed parentage, and thus survived unscathed. So he was perhaps a half-Copt, depending upon the precise ethnicity involved, which is unknown. According to Epiphanius, Origen "was a native Egyptian" (Panarion Vol. 2, trans. F. Williams, p. 132). Yet Jerome adds a complicating factor: the mother of Origen was either a Jewess or a Christian (McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, p. 3 note 15).
One of Origen's treatises is entitled An Exhortation to Martyrdom, a theme which does not appeal to audiences of today. Yet it has to be understood to what extent his community were afflicted; his own father was beheaded.
The young Origen appears to have conducted a private school, continuing his father's profession as a teacher of Greek literature, or grammar. The paternal wealth had been confiscated by the oppressive Roman administration, and so he needed to obtain a livelihood for himself and his family. He was apparently eighteen when Demetrios, the Bishop of Alexandria, enlisted his paid services as a catechist of the church. However, Origen remained in part independent, and his role as a private didaskalos (tutor) has been implied in causing the eventual friction between himself and the bishop.
Origen was probably in his early twenties when he sold his father's library in return for a small pension. He was evidently keen on the study of both philosophy and Biblical scripture. For a period of uncertain duration, he reputedly studied under the same teacher as Plotinus, namely the obscure Ammonius Saccas. The modern theory of two Origens in this context, i.e., the pagan Origen and the Christian Origen, has been resisted by a number of scholars; some commentators state that both entities were pupils of Ammonius. "There is every reason to believe that Origen acquired his superb education in philosophy from him [Ammonius]" (Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen, 1998, p. 12). According to Porphyry (mediated via Eusebius), Ammonius was originally a Christian but became a Platonist, and he complains that, in contrast, Origen forsook Hellenism for Christianity.
"Origen himself, though technically more of an eclectic in his own philosophic tradition and having close relations with the Middle Platonists whom Ammonius had introduced to him, can also lay claim to having at the heart of his life's work the weaving together of the philosophic and mystical imperatives. Even the conflict between the Plotinus school and the Christian heirs of Origen is a sign of how close were the agendas between the leading Hellenist and Christian intellectuals of the day" (John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen, 2004, p. 5).
The philosophical orientation of Origen is obscured in some accounts by the scriptural factor. The Bible certainly did feature prominently in his eclecticism, but the full context requires to be assimilated. Origen has been described in terms of: "technically a Christian Middle Platonist, much influenced by Plato, Numenius, Albinus, and others; but equally marked on him is the influence of Aristotle and Pythagoras" (ibid., p. 5 note 32).
During the third century, independent Christian teachers still existed at Alexandria, and gaining the hostility of bishops like Demetrios who were attempting to bring all Christian events under their jurisdiction. Some of these independents were Gnostic types, such as the obscure Paul of Antioch. Origen encountered this man when he was early assisted in his hardship by a wealthy Christian woman, and both of them lodged in her home. Eusebius insists that Origen kept apart from Paul, though such insularity suited the later clerical account. Gnostics were regarded by clerics as heretical horrors.
Origen is noted for some disputation with the Gnostic sector in his writings, and his major patron was an ex-Valentinian named Ambrose. Yet it would seem evident that, in the eyes of Bishop Demetrios, Origen tended to unorthodox perspectives. Tuition under Ammonius Saccas was definitely not the episcopal ideal of Christian conduct. Christian Middle Platonism was not the Scriptural certificate of godliness. The elements of Platonism and mysticism in the psychology of Origen permit a degree of "gnostic" association, to be distinguished from the capital G Gnosticism of the sects then prevalent. There were different Gnostic ideologies, many confusions, and some extroverted practices not conducive to clarity.
Only part of Origen's extensive corpus survives. His best known work is the Treatise on First Principles. "He may well have been the most prolific writer of the ancient world" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 37). Much of his output comprised detailed biblical commentaries, and he covered nearly all the biblical books. Only fragments of these commentaries are extant. He also delivered hundreds of homilies, starting at Alexandria and later at Caesarea in Palestine. His aim was to portray the inner meaning inherent in the text, a factor which brought him into collision with literalist interpreters.
"Origen's doctrine of various levels of meaning became profoundly influential in both East and West.... He believed that only very few passages in the Bible have no literal sense but only a spiritual meaning. But it was not clear that he seriously regarded the literal sense as being important in itself.... The soul within the body of scripture was the important thing.... man had to be educated to rise from the letter to the spirit, from the world of sense to the immaterial realm" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 108).
His theory of "triple meaning" in scripture has aroused frequent criticism. The literal sense or meaning was associated with the body, the moral sense applied to the soul's life in this world, while the mystical sense related to mysteries of the spirit. "In fact Origen hardly ever expounds all three meanings but goes on from the literal to either the moral or the mystical" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 79).
From the philosophical point of view, his scriptural exegesis is awkward, particularly in respect of the Old Testament. Some scriptures are to be understood allegorically, while others are to be understood literally; a third basic category of text should be comprehended in both ways. Origen's perspective in this respect has been controversial until the present day, including his tendency to favour Christian meanings rather than Jewish equivalents (i.e., "Israel" could mean the Christian church). See also Origen, the Jews, and the Fourth Gospel.
He assimilated Philo, the Alexandrian Jew (c. 20 BCE - c. 50 CE) who had employed the allegorical method. In another direction, Origen evidently believed that Christians had access to the ultimate wisdom, which the Platonists and others had failed to achieve. This view is inseparable from Christian Neoplatonism, in which Biblical scripture is a priority. Yet Origen pointedly negotiated the Christian dogmas about resurrection of the body, the soul being interpreted in a more spiritualising manner than the orthodox mentality would permit. He confronted opponents in such themes as "the millenarians take literally the biblical anthropomorphisms; they suppress all difference between the terrestrial body and the glorious [spiritual] body" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 250).
Liberal Christians of this period, when they referred to philosophy, did not mean the pagan version but a more eclectic interest in "the moral and ascetic life, of Christian and pagan alike" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 26). This is actually more inclusive than the pagan Greek ethnocentric bias against "barbarians."
The Neoplatonist Porphyry (a disciple of Plotinus) "could not forgive Origen's disrespectful attitude to Plato and to the classics of Greek literature" (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 112). Plato himself had criticised Homer.
"In spite of his great admiration for Plato, Origen retains his independence of him and is able to criticise him.... Origen's teaching on the use that the Christian can make of philosophy is mainly expressed in allegorical exegeses, some of which became famous and were repeated throughout the Middle Ages" (Crouzel, Origen, T. & T. Clark, 1989, pp. 157-8).
The ambivalence in Origen's approach has provoked many comments, including the well known reflection of Henry Chadwick that Origen's worldview "incorporates a larger proportion of Platonic assumptions than is apparent in Clement's writings; he was completely at home in the arguments of the Greek philosophical schools, and could move with the familiarity of a master among the different positions of Stoic, Epicurean, Platonist, and Aristotelian" (The Early Church, p. 101). Even more pointedly, the same scholar asserts that "the conflict between Celsus and Origen was the more intense because Origen himself was, like Celsus, a Platonist" (ibid., p. 111). Origen's Against Celsus (Contra Celsum) was written (at a late stage in his career) in response to the obscure anti-Christian Platonist of the second century CE, who composed the polemical work True Doctrine.
The eclecticism of Origen encountered an obstacle in the Bishop of Alexandria, namely Demetrios. "He thought Demetrius a worldly, power-hungry prelate consumed with pride in his own self-importance, enjoying the honour of presiding over a wealthy community in a great city" (ibid., p. 109). Demetrios condemned Origen for being ordained a priest at Caesarea in Palestine, the point being that the layman had not been ordained in Alexandria under the local bishop, i.e., Demetrios.
Scholarly opinion has not been unanimous about the ordination. "That we have here a more or less forced ordination is not unlikely" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 19). Even Jerome's ordination (generations later) is in question on this account. Unwilling candidates for clerical role might merely be intensively persuaded, though a measure of violence is on record. Jerome's brother Paulinian did not have much choice when recruited by the heresiologist Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, who reported the episode in a letter.
"Paulinian received deacon's orders, and then priest's, while being held down by several deacons, one of whom stopped his mouth with his hand to prevent him crying out that he was unwilling" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 19).
Origen was exiled from Alexandria as part of a hostile strategy achieved by Demetrios, who influenced two synods in the process. The victim's ordination was declared invalid. According to Eusebius, the censoring bishop divulged that Origen had castrated himself at an earlier date, in his enthusiasm for a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, and thus implying his unsuitability for ordination. "The story is hardly credible" (McGuckin, Westminster Handbook, p. 6). Some orthodox interpretations have accepted the report of Eusebius at face value, but Origen himself expressed a dismissive view of the "eunuch" literalism, and one may credit that Origen text is to be preferred above the version of Eusebius. Some analysts think that the real reason for exile was the unorthodox teaching of this mystical theologian who exhibited a Middle Platonist complexion.
Origen spent his last years in Palestine, writing and preaching. In the end, a foe even worse than Demetrius obstructed his path. The Roman persecution of Christians, launched by the emperor Decius (rgd 249-51), claimed him as a victim. He was imprisoned in Palestine and subjected to grim tortures. Despite their vaunted prowess, the Roman elite were barbarous; in a similar category were the Roman Catholic zealots who tortured and killed large numbers of heretics via the diabolical Inquisition of a later era. According to Eusebius, Origen survived the Roman persecution, though he died soon after.
The heresy-hunting zealot Epiphanius asserted in his Panarion that Origen had apostasised during the persecution. This account has been considered to represent confused clerical gossip (Crouzel, p. 36). Epiphanius denounced Origen in terms of heresy. The victim of persecution can more accurately be regarded as a protomonastic, which is a recent description. Origen would not have wished to see the Anthropomorphite triumph of the literalist monks (influenced by Epiphanius) in the Nitria-Kellia zone of Egypt five generations later.
The theme of apokatastasis has been regarded by some analysts as an important component of Origen's teaching, though depreciated by others. (103) The Greek word signifies a "universal restoration" at the end of time; the theme is compelling by comparison with orthodox dogmas entailing resurrection of the body and the consignment of many souls to eternal damnation. Those dogmas were convenient for a terrorist regime of preaching during the medieval era. Origen did not believe in eternal punishment, and instead maintained that all souls will eventually achieve salvation. This involved the conclusion that a single lifetime is not sufficient for the achievement of salvation.
Origen accordingly "developed his doctrine of multiple ages, in which souls would be re-born... with a view to ultimate salvation" (Edward Moore, Origen of Alexandria). The transmigration of souls is thereby strongly implied, though not in the Pythagorean sense admitting retrograde incarnation into animals. Reincarnation concepts are adamantly resisted by both materialists and believers in damnation. Origen's "concept of universal restoration is based on equally strong Scriptural and Hellenistic philosophical grounds and is not original, as it can be traced back to Heraclitus" (ibid.).
Orthodox Christianity opposed and suppressed many aspects of the Alexandrian intellectual tradition, including apokatastasis. Nevertheless, that tradition, extending into "Christian philosophy," appears more attractive to some analysts today than the later formats of religious doctrine imposed by clerical councils and affiliated activities.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
September 2011 (modified December 2011)
The original draft of this article was composed in 1982, forming part of the unpublished supplement to Minds and Sociocultures. Two years later, in the manuscript of Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture (published in 1991), I made a few comments about the "Desert Fathers" phenomenon. "Antony the Copt is not to be made into the image of an Athanasius because materialists cannot distinguish differences between celibate lifestyles. The anthropographic view of this historical episode (which has some anthropological undertones) is that ecclesiastical materialism generated convenient theological assumptions concerning certain of the 'Desert Fathers' of Coptic Egypt.... Great care needs to be taken in the examination of hagiographies like that written by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria" (Meaning, p. 84).
A second reference in the same work observed that:
"The Coptic 'Desert Father' phenomenon of Graeco-Roman Egypt has customarily been viewed in accordance with the Gibbonian and/or orthodox Christian paradigms. Contrary to these perspectives, I have presented a reconstruction of the life of Antony the Copt that furthers scholarly discoveries and deductions made concerning the Nag Hammadi corpus.... my view favours an identification of gnostic elements with the early Coptic stratum of monks and anchorites in Roman Egypt. This was a rural stratum, and not to be confused with certain urban gnostic trends that were contaminated with prevalent sociocultural deteriorations in repertory" (Meaning in Anthropos, p. 113).
The 1982 draft has been updated via recourse to subsequent academic books, and is presented above for internet usage. The employment of a gnostic (small g) association of reference for Antony is valid in the context of the letters attributed to him, which reflect an Origenist orientation that was later suppressed by episcopal tactics.
Some overall associations, misunderstandings, and contractions concerning Gnosticism (capital G) were addressed in my citizen response to the academic Christian philosopher Eric Voegelin, originally written in 1995, unpublished, and likewise more recently adapted for web usage. See my Voegelin and Gnosticism. I suggest that the Egyptian complexities summarised above in the present article, as part of a citizen anthropographic coverage, amount to a philosophical argument in confrontation with the secularist "Roman" Gibbonian legacy and the existential Christian Platonism of Voegelin. See also Eric Voegelin and also my Voegelin and Ancient Israel and Voegelin and Plato. Careful readers have noticed that my response to Voegelin is sympathetic in relation to his breadth of coverage (e. g., Biblical Israel and Plato), but critical of certain limitations and extremisms in his theories and presentations.
(1) C. Dawson, intro. to Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 1 (London: Dent, 1910), pp. ix-xi. J.B. Bury was the nineteenth century editor of a seven volume edition of Gibbon's classic. Gibbon's account of monasticism observes that the Christian church was at first opposed to monastic ideas. According to him, the bishops and clergy persecuted the monks; yet the church quickly discovered the advantages of reconcilement with, and patronage of, the monastic movement. The objective was here to retain an influence upon the common people. Gibbon says that while the Egyptian monks maintained their original incentive, they were the faithful and benevolent stewards of the gifts and wealth entrusted to them. He affirms that their discipline was corrupted by prosperity, and they gradually assumed the pride of wealth (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 4, 1910 edn, pp. 3 note 4, 14). Some think that Gibbon was here associating Coptic monasticism with the Roman Catholic developments in Europe. During the medieval phase, the Christian Copts were a minority in Islamic Egypt, and the conditions were very different to those existing in Italy, France, or Britain. Many Coptic monasteries were abandoned or closed down temporarily. See also David Womersley, ed., The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (3 vols, London: Penguin. 1994).
(2) This comment from Lives of the Sophists is quoted in Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 11, and observing that even some Christians, such as the well educated Synesius of Cyrene, regarded the monks as uncultured. For such critics, the complaint was that "monasticism had arisen outside of and even in opposition to the traditional culture of the Roman world" (ibid., p. 12). The same scholar observes the variant sequels in the attacks of Gibbon and other critics like E. R. Dodds in his Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1965). Burton-Christie expresses the caution that Dodds, in his version of ascetic extremism, "cites examples mostly from the Historia Lausiaca of Palladius, one of the most hellenised and dualistic of the early monastic documents; he [Dodds] makes no distinction between the ascetical practices depicted there and the much more restrained and moderate picture presented by the Sayings" (The Word in the Desert, p. 27 note 32). The corpus of apophthegmata (sayings) has been the subject of different interpretations. See further ibid., pp. 76ff., and stating that the majority of these sayings originated in "the largely eremitical and semi-eremitical monastic movement of Scetis in Lower Egypt."
(3) Ibid., p. 70 note 82, and citing Garth Fowden, "The Pagan Holy Man in Late Antique Society," Jnl of Hellenic Studies (1982), pp. 48-9, who adds how Eunapius "makes clear that he regards any intellectual from a genuinely poor background as an exceptional and noteworthy phenomenon." The deduction is made that most pagan philosophers/holy men came from prosperous backgrounds.
(4) H. Chadwick, "The Ascetic ideal in the Early Church," in W.J. Sheils, ed., Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), pp. 6-7. Also quoted in Burton-Christie, op., cit., p. 12. The British scholar Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) was a Protestant clergyman active at Cambridge and Oxford Universities as a Regius Professor of Divinity.
(5) R. J. Williams, "The Sages of Ancient Egypt in the Light of Recent Scholarship," Journal of the American Oriental Society (1981) 101:1-19, p. 13, and citing the German Egyptologist Emma Brunner-Traut, who had analysed the nature and scope of the key concept in the pre-Coptic era. The ideal of the "(truly) silent man" can be traced in early Egyptian wisdom literature, and was prominent in this respect during the New Kingdom. Brunner-Traut viewed the early Coptic hermits as a manifestation of the same concept.
(6) Otto Meinardus, "Tattoo and Name: A Study on the Marks of Identification of the Egyptian Christians," Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes (Vienna 1972) 63-4, 27-39, p. 32, and citing the study by G. Heuser dating to 1929, which involved some 2,500 Coptic personal names. See also Meinardus,Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (American University in Cairo Press, 1999); idem, Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages (American University in Cairo Press, 2007). In these books, Meinardus gives much detail about the Coptic Orthodox Church, and finds that many of the folk beliefs and practices of the Coptic people derive from the ancient religion of the Pharaonic era.
(7) Harold Idris Bell, Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Liverpool University Press, 1953), p. 99. See also Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 113, describing the therapeutae in terms of Hellenised Jewish ideals. Devoted to an ascetic life and scriptural study, the therapeutae have been compared with Gnostic Christians, but other equations are possible. "The educational setting and the emphasis on a philosophical life bring them close to the ideals met with in numerous papyri transmitting Greek and Late Egyptian wisdom texts: educational aphorisms and apophthegms with a focus on wisdom, silence, humility and restraint" (ibid.). Texts like the Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy and the Sentences of Sextus respectively represent the Egyptian wisdom literature and the Greek equivalent. These traditions were Christianised and integrated into an ascetic teaching. Both the Gnostics and the Coptic hermits are viewed as being influenced by wisdom texts, though "while the former stressed esoteric knowledge and mythology, the latter preserved the apophthegmatic character and the emphasis on discipline" (ibid.). See also Henry Chadwick, The Sentences of Sextus: A Contribution to the History of Early Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1959), the text apparently compiled by an Alexandrian Christian redactor at circa 200 CE. See also Frederik Wisse, "The Sentences of Sextus" (503-8) in J. M. Robinson, ed.,The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn, Leiden: Brill, 1988), and observing that "though most of the sentences are of non-Christian origin, they enjoyed considerable popularity in Christian circles" (ibid., p. 503). Rubenson further emphasises close affinities between the letters of Antony and the Teachings of Silvanus, another text found in the Nag Hammadi codices, and which has been described as "a rare specimen of Hellenistic Christian wisdom literature," and one exhibiting "a remarkable synthesis of biblical and late Jewish ideas with Middle Platonic and late Stoic anthropological, ethical, and theological concepts" (M. L. Peel and J. Zandee, "The Teachings of Silvanus," in Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 379). This text may date to the third century, and the place of origin was probably Alexandria.
(8) Archaeological excavations in the Lycopolis area located remains of a Manichaean community dating to the early fourth century; this could have reached the Thebaid by sea from Mesopotamia, via the Red Sea port of Berenice and overland to Hypsele, near Lycopolis. See Birger A. Pearson, Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt (New York: T. and T. Clark, 2004), p. 25. Some scholars now speak of a symbiosis between groups of Gnostics and Manichaeans. The Gospel of Thomas has been thought to exhibit Manichaean influence, though at the same time, the Coptic Manichaean texts reflect Sethian and Valentinian influences, not to mention the Hermetic variety (ibid., pp. 25-6).
(9) Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, p. 93.
(10) Ibid., p. 117, and suggesting that the apotaktic had "a kind of official position in the Church." Cf. Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 238-9, who says that apotaktikos soon became a title for a religious person no longer owning worldly goods, but that six of the eight apotaktikoi mentioned in the papyri she discusses are known to have owned property and lived in villages. The term apotaktikos connoted renunciation, and was closely associated with references in the gospel of Luke. Cf. Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 80, who, in referring to late third century urban asceticism, says that "ascetic men called apotaktikoi ('renouncers') began to move into community houses and to adopt a distinctive style of dress."
(11) Birger A. Pearson, Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt, pp. 38ff., and suggesting that "the solitaries referred to in the Gospel of Thomas conceivably refer to a distinct class of Christian ascetics that could very well have existed in second century Alexandria" (ibid., p. 40).
(12) Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (1993), p. 215, citing from the Patrologia Graeca, and adding that this kind of cautious attitude "was not uncommon in the desert."
(13) Rubenson, op. cit., p. 121. Seven letters to the hermit Paphnutius were published in H. I. Bell, ed. and trans., Jews and Christians in Egypt: The Jewish Troubles in Alexandria and the Athanasian Controversy Illustrated by Texts from Greek Papyri (London, 1924), pp. 100ff. The elusive locale of Paphnutius may have been south of Oxyrhynchus; he was sufficiently distant from human habitation to make contact difficult for his correspondents, who were well-educated laypeople. These correspondents credited him with the experience of revelations as the consequence of his ascetic life. He was believed to exercise supernatural powers, including healing (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, 1995, pp. 210-11).
(14) Rubenson, op. cit., pp. 89-125, and observing the lack of proof as to any clearly defined Manichaean movement in Egypt, despite the presence of Manichaean missionaries and the Manichaean texts extant in Coptic. The Manichaean centres in Egypt did not resemble Pachomian monasteries or anchoritic communities, and were "most probably urban resthouses for wandering electi" (ibid., p. 122). However, the strong Manichaean emphasis on renunciation did resemble the early Christian monastic outlook, and "some of their literature could have been read by monks who were not professing Manichaeans" (ibid.). The Manichaean identity became clouded by the decrees of the emperor Theodosius I (rgd 379-95), who legislated against heretical sects. Official statements stigmatised Manichaeans disguised as Christians, the objective being to curb various ascetic groupings.
(15) H. I. Bell, Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest: A Study in the Diffusion and Decay of Hellenism (Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 36ff., 55.
(16) Ibid., pp. 108ff. See also the more up to date coverages of the period in Alan K. Bowman, Egypt After the Pharaohs 332 BC to 642 AD (University of California Press, 1986); Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 1993).
(17) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), pp. 179-80. Chadwick here describes the Messalians as a "pietistic mendicant sect" who spread from Mesopotamia into Asia Minor, and who preferred prayer and contemplation to sacramental activity. The Messalians were an ascetic group condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. See also Elm, Virgins of God (1994), pp. 190ff., describing the earlier condemnatory synods at Side and Antioch in the late fourth century; the elite critics derided the lowly origin of the Messalian heretics and misrepresented them as being "totally bereft of any civilisation." Influences from a Syriac milieu are emphasised in Columbia Stewart, 'Working the Earth of the Heart': The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431 (Oxford University Press, 1991).
(18) Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), pp. 99ff.
(19) Chadwick, op. cit., p. 194. See also Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, trans. Ian Shaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 3, informing that the closure of Egyptian temples began in 356 and culminated in 391 with the massacre of the Serapeum priests at Memphis. In 380 the Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, accompanied by the mandate that all pagan cults were forbidden. The intolerance "effectively silenced Egyptian civilisation" (ibid.). The writing system of the priests now vanished.
(20) W. H. C. Frend, "The Christian Period in Mediterranean Africa c. A.D. 200 to 700" (410-489) in The Cambridge History of Africa Vol. 2 (1978), pp. 433ff. Cf. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (London: Longmans Green, 1965, Ancient Christian Writers No. 34), p. 193 note 283, and stressing the difference between the reported 50,000 monks in Jerome's Latin translation of the Rule of Pachomius, and the figure given by Palladius of 7,000 men in some Pachomian monasteries, while John Cassian says the number was close to 5,000. It is not clear as to what date the estimate of Palladius actually refers, nor to how many monasteries; Jerome may well have exaggerated the total, if indeed it was Jerome whose pen was involved here. Further, even the more orthodox scholars have expressed a low opinion of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, long thought to be an original work in Latin by Rufinus, though he was actually the translator; the author was a contemporary of obscure identity. Derwas Chitty calls this "History of the Monks in Egypt" a gullible book full of wonders. See Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), p. 51. For a translation, see A. J. Festugiere, Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Les Moines d'Orient Vol. IV.I (Paris: Les Editions Du Cerf, 1964). See also Norman Russell, trans., The Lives of the Desert Fathers: Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1980).
(21) Peter Brown, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity," Journal of Roman Studies (1971) 61: 80-101, p. 81.
(22) Bell, Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest (1948), p. 115. For an up to date work of reference, see the multi-volume Cambridge History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press), and especially M. W. Mitchell and F. M. Young, eds., Volume 1: Origins to Constantine (2006); A. Casiday and F.W. Norris, eds., Volume 2: Constantine to c. 600 (2007). The second volume includes Samuel Rubenson, "Asceticism and Monasticism, 1: Eastern" (637-668). See also Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford University Press, 2008).
(23) David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 111.
(24) See, e. g., the detailed coverage in Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring, eds., The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986). See also Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (Oxford University Press, 1979); Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988); C. Wilfred Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity from Its Origins to 451 CE (Leiden: Brill, 1990); Marilyn Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). Very readable is William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford University Press, 2004), and who deduces that "while some desert fathers were Alexandrians or even foreigners, most came from villages along the river" (ibid., p. 7). A radical interpretation, strongly angled against the Athanasian gloss of "the desert a city," can be found in James E. Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1999).
(25) Graham Gould, The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community (Oxford University Press, 1993). pp. 9-11, citing the theories of Derwas Chitty and Lucien Regnault, and urging that "scepticism about the historical value of the sayings [apophthegmata] is thus not well founded on a consideration of the evidence" (ibid., p. 24). Gould suggests that the sayings originated in the early fifth century. Cf. David Brakke, trans., Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons (Cistercian Publications, 2009), p. 35, stating that the sayings "originated no earlier than the second half of the fifth century in Palestine," though crediting the preservation in those texts of oral traditions and "smaller written collections" from the fourth century.
(26) Susanna Elm, Virgins of God (1994), p. 327. According to Socrates Scholasticus, the famous Amoun, a slightly earlier ascetic, retired into the desert of Nitria with his wife, observing a celibate marriage, and the pair continued their careers in separate cells (ibid., pp. 325-6). There are variations in other early accounts of Amoun.
(27) To be more specific, Burton-Christie does briefly mention the Origenist issue, though not in the section on contrasting pagan and Christian approaches. In a later chapter, he says that the allegorical approach (to scripture) of Origen "made him extremely unpopular with many of the simpler monks" (The Word in the Desert, p. 171). The modern scholar adds that the apophthegmata represent "diverse desert traditions, including Origen's sympathisers as well as his opponents" (ibid.). An annotation informs that "the Origenist side was eventually discredited, and anti-Origenism is in strong evidence in the Sayings" (ibid., p. 176 note 129).
(28) See Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983); Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998); John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (John Knox Press, 2004). See also note 101 below.
(29) Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. One (London: SCM Press, 1992), pp. 146, 157, and observing that the term gnosis ousiados (essential gnosis) refers to the goal, and that prayer is used as a description "for all the activities by which nous ascends and for the unitive knowing that is the goal" (ibid., p. 150). Professor McGinn refers to the contention that Evagrius stands closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, a view which has not been generally accepted.
(30) David Brakke, trans., Talking Back (2009), p. 24. The Stoic-associated word phantasiai (singular: phantasia) has been given different interpretations, though the translation as "impressions" seems very relevant. Cf. F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics (second edn, Bristol Classical Press, 1989), pp. 85ff., providing a commentary on Stoic psychology via Zeno's phantasia kataleptike ("cognitive presentation"). The subject was a source of debate between Stoics and the Academy, though involving the clause: "from the presentations that arise through sense-impressions there automatically follow certain other changes in the psyche" (ibid., p. 89).
(31) David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 77. See also John E. Bamberger, trans., Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos - Chapters on Prayer (Cistercian Publications, 1970).
(32) Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk, pp. 182 ff.
(33) Robert E. Sinkewicz, trans., Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 2, 9ff, xix-xx, and describing Foundations as an introductory pamphlet, one advocating the practice of stillness (hesychia). See also p. xxx, and translating phantasiai as "fantasies," in the negative cast awarded by Evagrius, meaning the demon context.
(34) Brakke, Talking Back, pp. 37-8. Vegetables and fruits were apparently regarded as a special treat rather than being prohibited. Olive oil was evidently an important dietary factor, though curtailed by some enthusiasms for fasting. The standards of abstinence were certainly very high, and perhaps too much so for health; the aggregate regimen was doubtless easier for old men, some of whom were reputedly octogenarians.
(35) McGinn, The Presence of God Vol. One, p. 145, and referring to the strong Origenist movement in the desert led by Abba Isidore, Evagrius, and the four "tall brothers" who included the hermit Ammonius, as described by Palladius in the Lausiac History.
(36) See further Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 23ff. Epiphanius is here described as a confirmed Anthropomorphite. Both the church historians Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen were critical of Theophilus. According to Socrates in his Historia Ecclesiastica, Theophilus armed a large number of Anthropomorphite monks in Nitria when he attacked the four Origenist "tall brothers."
(37) Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Evagrius Ponticus: The Making of a Gnostic (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), p. 19, and describing the Apophthegmata Patrum as being anti-Origenist in flavour, and moreover, "scathing regarding Evagrius" (ibid., p. 12). The apophthegmata are here strongly associated with the "fundamentalist" faction in the Origenist controversy. Cf. Columba Stewart, Working the Earth of the Heart: The Messalian Controversy (1991), p. 41, who emphasises that Jerome's censure of those who taught apatheia must be seen in the light of the Latin commentator's aversion to Pelagian doctrine rather than in terms of his earlier anti-Origenist campaign.
(38) Owen Chadwick, John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism (1950; second edn, Cambridge University Press, 1968); Columba Stewart, Cassian the Monk (Oxford University Press, 1998); Richard J. Goodrich, Contextualising Cassian: aristocrats, asceticism, and reformation in fifth century Gaul (Oxford University Press, 2007). See also Boniface Ramsey, trans., John Cassian: The Institutes (NJ: Paulist Press, 2000, Ancient Christian Writers 58); Ramsey, trans., John Cassian: The Conferences (NJ: Paulist Press, 1997, Ancient Christian Writers 57). See further McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. One (1992), pp. 218ff., who describes Cassian as a convinced Origenist heavily dependent on the works of Evagrius, though the former never explicitly mentioned either Evagrius or Origen; nevertheless, "he did much to convey aspects of their teaching to the West" (ibid, p. 219). The reason for reticence was apparently the Origenist controversy, in which the supporters of Origen had lost.
(39) H. Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 216, and who describes Jerome as "a prickly, donnish figure of a familiar type: his immense scholarship could at times be put to the service of passionate resentments and petty jealousies" (ibid., p. 185). See further J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies (London, 1975); Philip Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian (Oxford University Press, 1978). A more recent version is Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2006), providing a fresh assessment of Jerome in his scholarly context as the creator of a monastic library. Cf. the review by Catherine Conybeare in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2007). On Rufinus as a historian, see Philip R. Amidon, trans., The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia: Books 10 and 11 (Oxford University Press, 1997).
(40) Columba Stewart, 'Working the Earth of the Heart': The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431 (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 41, informing that Jerome made an error concerning Origen, to whom he attributed the Stromateis, a work by Clement of Alexandria.
(41) Ibid., pp. 238-9, and observing that "modern readers of the Ps.-Macarian texts find them warm, persuasive and inspiring as they describe the labours of 'working the earth of the heart' " (ibid., p. 238). This metaphor related to the diligent psychological labour involved in early Christian asceticism. The relevant conclusion is also expressed: "Modern students of early [Christian] controversies realise that many disagreements about language rested upon misunderstanding; theologians from different parts of the world, formed by different traditions of usage and with access to different texts, found their colleagues' use of particular words unfamiliar and often dangerous" (ibid.).
(42) Still relevant is A. F. Shore, "Christian and Coptic Egypt" (390-443) in J. R. Harris, ed., The Legacy of Egypt (second edn, Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 401-2.
(43) Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, p. 16. Cf. Charles Kannengeisser, Arius and Athanasius: Two Alexandrian Theologians (London: Variorum, 1991).
(44) Owen Chadwick expressed doubts as to whether Athanasius was really the author, though adding that this reservation is contrary to the general opinion of modern scholars. The same writer commented that the information in the Life of Antony does not look like the work of an eyewitness (John Cassian, second edn 1968, pp. 4-5). Cf. Brakke, op. cit., p 15 note 31, who judges the Life of Antony to be an authentic Athanasian document, and contesting an argument in Timothy D. Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantian Empire (Harvard University Press, 1993). The Brakke version is critical of content, commenting, for example, that "the Life is more an expression of his [Athanasius'] own views than a thoroughly reliable source for information about the real Antony" (Brakke, op. cit., p. 201). The conclusion is expressed that the author "probably had minimal contact with the monk; he instead relied on others for most of his information" (ibid., p. 201). Further, "the narrative world of the Life is governed by Athanasius' myth of heavenly ascent" (ibid.). According to the same scholar, the major target of Athanasian propaganda was a Hellenised bourgeois, meaning "the prosperous citizens who made up the middle ranks of the larger cities and the elite of the country villages; such persons formed a significant portion of the monks of fourth century Egypt" (ibid., p. 238).
(45) Altaner deemed these letters to be "probably" genuine. See B. Altaner, Patrology, trans. H. C. Graef (London: Nelson, 1960), pp. 301ff. Rather more affirmative is Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony: Origenist Theology, Monastic Tradition, and the Making of a Saint (Lund University Press, 1990)
(46) Owen Chadwick, John Cassian (second edn, 1968), p. 55; James E. Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert (1999), pp. 187ff., contending that the Melitian group of monasteries in South Egypt was a counterpart to the Pachomian federation appearing in the same period. The far more obscure Melitian monks survived until the sixth century CE.
(47) Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (1965), pp. 5-6, 94. A useful commentary is available in Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert (1999), pp. 89ff., 137ff., 221ff., and providing the definition of "village monasticism" for the Pachomian federation. See also Philip Rousseau, Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth Century Egypt (University of California Press, 1985; new edn, 1999). See also Armand Veilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia: The Lives, Rules, and Other Writings of Saint Pachomius and his Disciples (3 vols, Cistercian Studies Series 45-47, 1980-2). See also Susanna Elm, ' Virgins of God': The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 283ff. On the matter of demon lore, see David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk (2006), pp. 78ff. Of further relevance is James E. Goehring, The Letter of Ammon and Pachomian Monasticism (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986). Bishop Ammon was a pagan convert to Christianity; he adopted an urban ascetic lifestyle in Alexandria, though later living for a while as a Pachomian monk at the monastery of Pbow during the leadership of Theodorus. Eventually, the clerical life triumphed in this instance. The Epistula Ammonis has engendered scholarly arguments. The document purports to be a firsthand account of Pachomian monasticism, though the writer spent much time at Nitria after living at Pbow monastery in the Thebaid. The Letter of Ammon is "a source rife with problems of leakage from Ammon's post-Pachomian years as a Nitriote monk and bishop of the church" (ibid., p. 33). Nitrian practices are here imposed on the Pachomian milieu.
(48) Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 80. See also W. K. L. Clarke, St. Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism (Cambridge, 1913). A critical attitude to some aspects of Basil can be found in Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (University of California Press, 1994).
(49) Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, p. 76 note 54, observing that the ascetic concepts of Basil were "influenced by Stoic and Platonic anthropological teachings" (ibid., p. 66), and here citing Pierre Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (Paris 1981). For the monastic legislation of Basil, see Anna M. Silvas, The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great (Oxford University Press, 2005).
(50) Elm, op. cit., , p. 71. The reluctance of Basil to adopt a more radical approach seems to be consistent with his psychological remove from his early phase. In a late letter to Eustathius of Sebasteia, he says that he was deceived by his early journey of ascetic exploration in Syria and Egypt. "That feeling of disappointment, of having been cheated, a feeling directed chiefly against Eustathius himself, was now allowed to colour the whole period of his earlier asceticism; he virtually passed over it completely" (Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea, p. 22). Instead, Basil was now only concerned with his leadership role in the church. Psychological blindspots are known to occur when a new career is preferred to an earlier one with less obvious prospects.
(51) Elm, Virgins of God, p. 103 and note 88, and also informing that Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus both denounced slavery, "but in practice neither one maintained their own laudable standards, for both owned slaves" (ibid., p. 103 note 87). Professor Elm's account of Macrina can be found on pp. 39ff, 92ff. See also Anna M. Silvas, Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), who describes the subject in terms of the "domestic ascetic" trend of the time, and informing that Naucratius and a former servant lived in a small house in the woods adjoining Annisi, and included relief of the poor in their commitments. Cf. Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. 1 (1992), pp. 139 ff. on Gregory of Nyssa, and with no reference to Macrina or Eustathius of Sebasteia. Basil is here referred to as "the great Cappadocian monastic legislator and anti-Arian bishop," while Gregory is "one of the most penetrating and original thinkers of Greek Christianity." The latter was familiar with Plato and Origen, "though he disagreed with the Alexandrian on several key issues" (ibid., p. 140). See further Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
(52) Chadwick, The Early Church (1967), p. 179, and also mentioning that in defiance of the orthodox prescriptions, "there long continued to be numerous ascetics who were neither solitaries nor incorporated in a community (coenobium), but wandered from place to place, and were regarded as an irresponsible, disturbing element" (ibid., p. 178). The migrant Irish monks and the early Franciscan friars may be regarded as exceptional extending instances.
(53) Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. Michael Chase (Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 241-2, and stressing that the Christian philosophers "tried to Christianise their use of secular philosophical themes by giving the impression that the exercises they advised had already been recommended by the Old or the New Testament" (ibid., p. 248). Confusions could obviously arise in scriptural exegesis.
(54) Ibid., p. 242. Hadot also classifies the sixth century monastic writer Dorotheus of Gaza in the "Christian philosophy" mode. Evagrius Ponticus was "more influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic conceptions" than anything Stoic (ibid., p. 245). It seems true enough that "asceticism was often conceived in a Platonic way, as the separation of body and soul" (ibid., p. 246). Hadot further reports that "according to Evagrius, the death for which the philosopher-monk is in training is the complete uprooting of the passions which bind the soul to the body" (ibid., p. 247).
(55) Ibid, p. 242. The concept of "attention to the self" is deceptive in superficial formats; the Foucaultian version has been criticised, while the new age incentive to "love myself" is symptomatic of inattention and abuse of the self.
(56) Ibid. Hadot also finds that Antony advocated "examination of the conscience," advising his disciples to write down "the actions and motions of our soul" (ibid., p. 243). Doroetheus of Gaza recommended self-examination every six hours (ibid., p. 244), which is certainly an improvement upon current standards of laxity. Hadot does not mention the Sufis of subsequent centuries who cultivated an elaborate psychological programme of self-examination, and in such influential instances as Harith al-Muhasibi. See further Hakim al-Tirmidhi.
(57) See further Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy (Princeton University Press, 1992); Rebecca Lyman, Christology and Cosmology: Models of Divine Activity in Origen, Eusebius, and Athanasius (Oxford University Press, 1993). In relation to these matters, "the Homoiousian or 'semi-Arian' as well as the so-called 'Arian' interpretation of the Trinity form part of an intellectual climate deeply grounded in the teachings of Origen" (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 376).
(58) See further Simone Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism (London, 1991; French original 1984); Michael A. Williams, Rethinking 'Gnosticism' (Princeton University Press, 1996); Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997); Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 2006); David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Harvard University Press, 2010).
(59) See Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics: An Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic manuscripts discovered at Chenoboskion, trans. P. Mairet (London: Hollis and Carter, 1960). Another introduction was afforded in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980), and, for instance, informing that the words "monk" and "monastic" derive from the Greek word monachos, signifying a "solitary," and which the Gospel of Thomas frequently employs as a description for the Gnostic (ibid., p. 130). That heterodox Gospel can be found in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), pp. 124ff.
(60) Frederik Wisse, "Gnosticism and Early Monasticism in Egypt" (431-440) in B. Aland, ed., Gnosis: Festschrift fur Hans Jonas (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1978).
(61) James M. Robinson, "Introduction" (1-26) in Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn), p. 22.
(62) Wisse cited the detection by J. Leipoldt of a textual anomaly in the Lives (Vitae) where all but one manuscript omitted an episode casting an unfavourable light on Pakhom's leadership. Though writing in a less critical vein, Derwas Chitty observed that a work less embellished than the later Coptic biographies is the Vita Prima, a Greek life of Pakhom dating to perhaps as early as circa 390. The author or compiler of this work was clearly trying to fit into a consecutive history various fragments of tradition handed down without the connecting links (The Desert a City, p. 10). See also A. J. Festugiere, trans., La Premiere Vie Grecque De Saint Pachome - Les Moines d'Orient IV/2 (Paris: Les Editions Du Cerf, 1965).
(63) In extension, a detail was reported by Palladius that has been interpreted as a garbled reminiscence. Pakhom is here said to have arranged his monks in twenty-four groups, assigning to each group a letter of the Greek alphabet, by which he would refer to them respectively. A special meaning reputedly attached to the letters, which were allocated according to the dominant disposition of each group; only the more spiritually perceptive individuals could understand the meaning of each symbol (R. T. Meyer, trans., The Lausiac History, 1965, p. 93).
(64) Alastair H. B. Logan, The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult (New York: T. and T. Clark, 2006). See also the same author's earlier work Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy: A Study in the History of Gnosticism (Edinburgh 1996).
(65) Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism, trans. A. Alcock (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 6-7, 183ff., and describing the Panarion as the "most complete ancient survey of heresies" (ibid., p. 196 note 20). The format of Epiphanius is "the exact antithesis of modern scientific method," a problem involving episcopal license in consigning the heretics "to an increasingly fantastic genealogical pedigree, painted in the gloomiest colours, charged with the worst sins and condemned to the harshest penalties" (ibid., p. 7). See also Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (2 vols, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1987-94).
(66) Henri Crouzel, Origen, trans. A.S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989), pp. 22-4.
(67) Susanna Elm, Virgins of God, p. 339ff, and stating that "it appears as if Hieracas and his followers, rather than being an aberration, in fact represent a strand of asceticism prevalent in all Egypt; indeed, they are attested around the end of the fourth century in the Arsinoite" (ibid., p. 341).
(68) James E. Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert (1999), pp. 110ff., and criticising two other scholars for employing the version of Hieracas in Karl Heussi, Der Ursprung des Monchtums (Tubingen 1936), which mixes the Panarion and the Life of Epiphanius, thereby giving the impression that the urban Coptic calligrapher was an anchorite who had withdrawn from the city. "Hieracas was thus forming a separate ascetic community within the broader Christian community in the city of Leontopolis" (ibid., p. 132).
(69) Elm, Virgins of God, p. 347, and informing that "none of our literary sources indicated even the existence of Melitian ascetics until H. I. Bell published several papyri in 1924, which drastically altered our knowledge" (ibid., p. 345).
(70) Ibid., and stating that the Melitian church had fully organised monastic communities prior to 334 CE, and "mainly located in or very close to villages and towns." The same church also had a clerical hierarchy, and this had penetrated Alexandria in addition to more than half of all episcopal sees along the Nile. In this large scale organisation, the Melitians were clearly quite different to the minority of Hieracians, who must have posed a far lesser threat to Athanasius. See also C. Wilfred Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity from Its Origins to 451 (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 117ff. for a detailed commentary stating that, from the start, the Melitian events were a revolt against the Alexandrian prelate. Accurate figures are not available for assessing the size of this sect, though an extensive network of Melitian monasteries existed in Egypt. According to Griggs, the Melitian schism is "best seen as a nationalistic movement based in the Thebaid" (ibid., p. 122), though others might disagree with part of that description. See also Hans Hauben, Studies on the Melitian Schism in Egypt AD 306-335 (Ashgate Variorum, 2012).
(71) Owen Chadwick, John Cassian (second edn, 1968), p. 27; Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995), p. 109.
(72) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 179. Biases against Messalian terminology continued into recent times, though subsequently offset by due scholarship. Norman Cohn referred to the Messalian sect as flourishing in the Edessa region and teaching "anarchic eroticism" (The Pursuit of the Millenium, third edn London 1970, p. 151). Cf. S. Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 176, who appropriately reflected that the orthodox charges of immorality made against Messalians probably require correction in the light of data about the Cathar movement.
(73) Robert T. Meyer, trans., St. Athanasius: The Life of St. Antony (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1950, Ancient Christian Writers 10), pp. 3, 20-1. Cf. E. A. Wallis Budge, trans., The Paradise of the Fathers Vol. 1 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1907), p. 5, stating that Antony was an owner of slaves during his early life.
(74) Meyer, op. cit., p. 26.
(75) Ibid., p. 29.
(76) Ibid., pp. 30-2.
(77) Ibid., pp. 90-1.
(78) Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City (1966), p. 16, and see note 20 above.
(79) Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (London: Mowbrays, 1975), p. 7.
(80) Meyer, trans., The Life of St. Antony, pp. 61-2, 76-8; Robert C. Gregg, trans., Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus (NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 82. Associations also adhere to the "final persecution" of Christians (commenced by Diocletian) under Maximinus Daia that lasted from 306 until 311. According to Athanasius, the saint visited Christian prisoners and was busy in the courtroom stimulating the zeal of martyrs. A commentator has interpreted the episode to mean that Antony changed his ascetic appearance to that of a civilian. The same scholar emphasised the tendency of hagiographers to present their unmartyred heroes as leading lives like the heroic martyrs (Meyer trans., pp. 59, 119 notes 166 and 167). Martyrdom was an ideal of clerics like Athanasius; ascetics who could transpose to the role of civilians are less easily classifiable in orthodox terms.
(81) Susanna Elm, Virgins of God (1994), p. 365.
(82) Ibid., p. 362.
(83) Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995), pp. 204-5. Cf. Meyer, trans., The Life of St. Antony, pp. 8-10, who is rather less critical on such points, and who inclined to the belief that Athanasius spent part of his youth with Antony, probably before being ordained deacon in 318. This presupposes a degree of ascetic commitment that is deemed very unlikely elsewhere.
(84) Elm, Virgins of God, p. 365.
(85) Meyer, trans, The Life of St. Antony, p. 84.
(86) Ibid., pp. 11ff.
(87) Ibid., p. 96. See also Tom Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis, trans., The Life of Antony - The Coptic Life and the Greek Life (Cistercian Publications, 2003). Of further interest is Vivian, Words to Live By: Journeys in Ancient and Modern Egyptian Monasticism (Cistercian Publications, 2005).
(88) Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 2.
(89) Cf. Meyer, trans., The Life of St. Antony, p. 80.
(90) Cf. Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 4.
(91) Ibid., p. 6.
(92) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
(93) Though officially inferior to men, women were less socially constrained in ancient Egypt, and could hold office in temple cult. See further Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (Harvard University Press, 1993). For the situation in the earliest period of Christianity, see Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
(94) See Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007). The title refers to the Christian women who patronised tombs in the Roman catacombs. Those patrons collected bones and bodies of Christian dead, commissioned tombs, and funded churches, thus creating a religious and social influence. The period is that of circa 250 to the late fourth century, when Bishop Damasus became Pope, in circumstances involving a severe riot in a church where many people were killed. The living women (and teachers) were effaced from memory, being replaced by the veneration of deceased women (especially virgin martyrs), and also of male saints. This process involved the relocation of saintly bones from the catacombs to the above-ground basilicas presided over by male church officials.
(95) See further Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic (Oxford University Press, 2004). On Shenoute, see Susanna Elm, Virgins of God (1994), pp. 296ff.; Rebecca Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (Oxford University Press, 2004); Caroline T. Schroeder, Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). See also David N. Bell, trans., Besa: The Life of Shenoute (Cistercian Publications, 1983). Some studies on Shenoute are included in Gawdat Gabra and Hany Takla, eds., Christianity and Monasticism in Upper Egypt: Akhmim and Sohag (American University in Cairo Press, 2008). See also James E. Goehring and Janet A. Timbie, eds., The World of Early Egyptian Christianity: Language, Literature, and Social Context (Catholic University of America Press, 2007).
(96) See further Richard A. Layton, Didymus the Blind and his Circle in Late-Antique Alexandria (University of Illinois Press, 2004), who says that "while biographical traditions identify Didymus as the director of the famous catechetical school of Alexandria, I remain skeptical of their accuracy" (ibid., p. 160). Layton thinks that the formative education and teaching role of Didymus occurred independently from direct clerical auspices.
(97) See Robert C. Hill, trans., Didymus the Blind: Commentary on Zechariah (Catholic University of America Press, 2006).
(98) See further John Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: the Monasteries of Palestine 314-631 (Oxford University Press, 1996); Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A New Perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis' Monastic Biographies as Historical Sources for Sixth Century Origenism (Rome: Centro Studi S. Anselmo, 2001); Jennifer L. Hevelone Harper, Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth Century Gaza (John Hopkins University Press, 2005), which is a commentary on an important collection of letters written by two sixth century anchorites in the Gaza region, namely Barsanaphius and John of Gaza. The anchoritic tradition survived alongside the strong coenobitic activity in Palestine. The monastic intellectual community of Gaza is described in Bruria Bitton-Ashkelony and Aryeh Kofsky, The Monastic School of Gaza (Leiden: Brill, 2006). The Chalcedonian dogma is a pervasive reference point in the literature on Palestinian monasticism. A pivotal figure tends to be that of Peter the Iberian (d.c.492), alias the Georgian prince Murvan who became a hostage in Constantinople and thereafter escaped to Jerusalem, becoming a monk. He founded a monastery near Gaza, and became bishop of nearby Maiouma; he was an outspoken opponent of the Christ doctrine imposed by the Council of Chalcedon. When exiled by imperial policy, he fled to Egypt. A persistent academic argument urges that the Corpus Areopagiticum derives from Peter. See Basil Lourié, "Peter the Iberian and Dionysius the Areopagite: Honigmann - Van Esbroeck's Thesis Revisited" (2010) at academia.edu. Peter's biography was composed by the monk John Rufus circa 500. See further Jan-Eric Steppa, John Rufus and the World Vision of Anti-Chalcedonian Culture (NJ: Gorgias Press, 2002); Cornelia B. Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth Century Palestine: The Career of Peter the Iberian (Oxford University Press, 2006); Cornelia B. Horn and Robert R. Phenix Jnr, eds. and trans., John Rufus: The LIves of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008). These studies relate to the anti-Chalcedonian view represented by John Rufus and Peter the Iberian, a stance opposed to that of Cyril of Scythopolis, a Chalcedonian apologist who composed Lives of the Monks of Palestine. The monastic population of the Gaza region were anti-Chalcedonian, in contrast to the monks of the Judean desert near Jerusalem. The tradition of Gaza asceticism was founded in the fourth century by Hilarion, associated with Antony the Copt. The Council of Chalcedon (451) asserted a doctrine of the "two natures" of Christ that was accompanied by an elevation of the new city of Constantinople. The popular response in Egypt was one of strong opposition, leading to violent mob action in Alexandria which annihilated the pro-Chalcedonian bishop Proterius in 457. In Palestine, the Chalcedonian issue caused much dissension. Origenism was a separate issue, and in the fifth and sixth centuries, assimilated concepts that amounted to "post-Evagrian Origenism" rather than anything taught by Origen himself.
(99) See Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 (2 vols, Liverpool University Press, 2009). This Council was largely concerned with the Monophysite problems extending into the "Three Chapters" issue.
(100) Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. One (SCM 1992), pp. 101-2, adding that Clement was the first to give detailed treatment to "a number of the major themes that later became central to Christian mysticism," and that he introduced the adjective "mystical" and the adverb "mystically" into Christian literature, employing these words over fifty times in his corpus.
(101) On Origen, see Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge University Press, 1953); Nicholas De Lange, Origen and the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 1976); R. A. Greer, trans., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles Book IV (London: SPCK, 1979); Karen Jo Torjesen, Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Structure in Origen's Exegesis (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1986); Charles Kannengiesser and William L. Petersen, Origen of Alexandria (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989); Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen, trans. A. E. Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007; French original 1950); Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Homilies 1-14 on Ezekiel (NJ: Paulist Press, 2010, Ancient Christian Writers 62), from the Latin translation by Jerome, who translated several of Origen's works prior to his quarrel with Rufinus. See also note 28 above.
(102) John Anthony McGuckin, "Life of Origen," in The Westminster Handbook to Origen (2004).
(103) The theme of apokatastasis or "restoration" has been the subject of differing interpretations. This concept "usually denotes the doctrine of the restoration of all things at the end of time, a doctrine attributed to Origen and to Gregory of Nyssa" (Crouzel, Origen, p. 257). Professor Henri Crouzel analyses this topic, which is evocative of incorporeality, pantheism, and universality. Crouzel approaches the subject from a Roman Catholic viewpoint, intending to demonstrate the orthodoxy of Origen. He observes that, in certain passages of the Treatise on First Principles, Origen "discusses two alternative hypotheses, that of a corporeal end for rational creatures, supported by reasons drawn from Scripture, and that of an incorporeal end for them, supported by philosophical reasons; and he comes to no conclusion" (ibid., p. 259). Jerome wished to give the impression that Origen was heretical, attributing a teaching of final incorporeality to the subject. "We may wonder whether Jerome did not read Origen through the opinions of his contemporary Evagrius Ponticus, for the final dissolution of the glorious [spiritual] body is found several times over in the Kephalaia Gnostica" (ibid.). The tendency to separate Origen from Evagrius is pronounced in some scholarly literature, though alternative assessment is possible. Cf. Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989), pp. 257-66.
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