Ascetics, Society, and the Desert

“Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism” by James E. Goehring [Trinity Press International, 1999: Studies in Christianity and Antiquity]

“Basing his work on papyrological documentary sources, archaeology, and traditional literary sources, James Goehring gradually forces a new direction in understanding the evolution of monasticism. He rigorously examines these multiple sources, transforming them into a clear narrative and infusing the history of Egyptian monasticism with renewed energy. “This is a fine collection of essays. It reads well as a complete unit, displays the complexity of writing the history of Egyptian monasticism, and incorporates new kinds of documentary and archaeological evidence. It is first-rate scholarship impeccably argued and written. This book is a must for historians of monasticism and late antiquity, Egyptologists, religious studies teachers interested in spirituality, papyrologists, and anyone in the general public fascinated by the growth and development of religious communities.” Richard Valantasis, St. Louis University “In these twelve essays, Goehring convincingly dismantles much previous scholarship regarding early Egyptian monasticism. Appealing to archaeological and papyrological evidence as well as to literary texts, he situates Pachomian monasticism in the midst of the economic and social life of its time. The diversity of Egyptian monasticism, in theology and in lifestyle, is here demonstrated. Highly readable and clearly argued. Goehring’s books is a must for all scholars of early Christianity.” Elizabeth A. Clark, Duke University James E. Goehring is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA.”

“A concise version of the received history of monastic origins would run something like this: Antony is the first monk ever; influenced by his anchoritism, Pachomius initiates the cenobitic life; from these two men and in these two distinct forms, all Christian monasticism spreads throughout Egypt, the East, and the e West . In this collection of twelve essays written within the past twenty years, James Goehring, Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Classics , Philosophy, and Religion at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia, seeks to prove that such a notion is “oversimplified ” and in fact “erroneous ” (13) .
Contemporary scholars are now beginning to see that monasticism appeared more or less simultaneously in the various Christian areas as a development of the Church’ s premonastic asceticism (largely inaccessible to historians), from which a diverse tradition of apotactic [‘renunciative’] monasticism , or ascetic renunciation, developed. In Egypt , these ascetic renunciants practiced various forms of “ethical withdrawal” (anachoresis) from family ties , ranging from the solitary to the fully communal, while remaining physically , socially, and economically bound to their villages . Goehring relates that Antony and Pachomius were really part of early Egyptian monasticism’ s evolving apotactic tradition and that both became preeminent innovators within it . Antony seems to be one of the first to withdraw not only ethically but also physically from the village, and Pachomius the first to organize an affiliated system of cenobitic monasteries into a koinonia (although one of the essays tentatively questions Pachomius’s originality).

Cassian DelCogliano, OCS O / St . Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, MA 01562-123 3
“Cistercian Studies Quarterly” 36. J (2001)

Part of this book is available to read on-line at:

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