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Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism.

Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism. By James E. Goehring. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity, 1999. xxxii + 287 pp. $29.00 paper.

"The historical reality of early ascetic development in Egypt, when told in its full complexity, can be tedious," warns James Goehring in Ascetics, Society, and the Desert (85). Happily for his readers, that is not the case. This exceptionally fine collection of previously published essays offers a lucid account of early monastic organizations in Egypt, with nuanced attention to the power of rhetoric in shaping history. Readers old and new have much to (re)discover in this book, which offers two new additions to the articles that, until now, were dispersed in specialized journals and anthologies.

Goehring exposes a variety of ascetic experiments in the late third and fourth century, from groups of men and women who practiced asceticism in towns and villages to monks inhabiting caves and monasteries in the remote desert. Yet ascetics from inhabited areas, by and large, have been overlooked in monastic writings and historiography alike. One reason for this neglect is the sources themselves. Ascetic biographies tend to focus on desert heroes, such as Anthony the Great and Pachomius, the reputed pioneers of solitary (anchoritic) and communal (cenobitic) monasticism, respectively. Although he is not the first to question the historicity of these works, Goehring offers new insights into their historical value. Most notably, he breaks new ground in explaining the appeal and persistence of these literary models, both for ancient Christians and modern scholars.

Several essays challenge the assumption that Egyptian asceticism was predominantly a desert phenomenon. Going beyond standard monastic sources, Goehring teases out the hidden history of village and urban asceticism from nonmonastic papyri as well as monastic writings. Monastics in inhabited areas left behind a steady trail of leases, tax receipts, sales contracts, and correspondence testifying to their existence. Together with evidence drawn from monastic biographies, these documentary sources deepen our understanding of village asceticism.

Goehring draws from a variety of methodological approaches to render these less-known ascetic groups visible. Close linguistic analysis of Greek, Latin, and Coptic sources enhances his broader investigation into the nature of hagiography. Chapter 3 explores the shifting meanings of agotaktikos, literally one who is "set apart," a label for many types of renunciants in Greek and Coptic documents. Since the term did not specify what exactly was renounced (family, private property, society), one finds propertied as well as propertyless apotaktikoi/ai. Eventually, as non-Egyptian Christians began to grapple with the mind-boggling diversity of Egyptian asceticism, apotaktikoi became a derogatory way to refer to "heretical" monastic groups. Goehring's careful investigations uncover strands of early monastic practice that do not fit later definitions of monachos as either cenobitic or anchoritic.

In addition to his analyses of technical terminology, Goehring marshals a broad range of evidence for monks' social and commercial interaction with the larger society. Monastic and nonmonastic sources reveal monks' significant presence in local economies, especially through farming and handicrafts, including the production of books, linens, and basketry. Such economic "attachments" support archaeological evidence that locates Pachomian monasteries closer to towns and villages than has been previously assumed.

More than simply a good detective, Goehring demonstrates a keen literary sensibility, especially with regard to hagiographical genres. His talented integration of historical reconstruction with literary analysis is best exemplified in his magisterial essay, "The Encroaching Desert: Literary Production and Ascetic Space in Early Christian Egypt," first published in The Journal of Early Christian Studies (1993; reprinted as chap. 4 here). Many ascetics remained in or near inhabited areas to pursue the ideal of anachoresis, literally "withdrawal." In the fourth century, however, some Egyptian ascetics "translated" this ethical stance of separation into a "radical reality" of spatial withdrawal to the remote desert. Only when monasticism moved from village to desert did it inspire hagiographers to showcase desert ascetics as exemplars for Christian audiences. Rather than dismissing literary models as idealizations or distortions, Goehring breaks new ground by showing how this "desertification" of asceticism eventually shaped historical realities and modern historians' perceptions. It should come as no surprise, then, that less exotic forms of asceticism, based as they were in homes, villages, and towns, never received comparable attention.

More than exoticism gave rise to desert asceticism, however. In the latter half of the collection, Goehring examines how urban bishops had a stake in promoting desert ascetics over the urban ascetic groups with whom they often came in conflict over matters of admission, worship, and belief. From these essays one gains a deeper understanding of the rise, expansion, and even the fragility of Pachomian communities as they developed among ascetics of different theological stripes, including monks referred to in later writings as "Meletians" and "Origenists." This close connection between asceticism and the desert in the minds of fourth-century monastic writers led to the erroneous assumption that the ascetic leader Hieracas and his followers were desert dwellers; instead, a careful sifting of earlier evidence suggests an urban setting for the Hieracites. Later Pachomians were also capable of reshaping the history of their founder. In chapter 7, a perceptive comparison of various recensions of a single episode from the Life of Pachomius tracks a growing concern over "heresy" and ideological conformity that probably did not exist in the founder's day.

None of the essays lays claim to "the" origin of monasticism or to "the historical Pachomius." As Goehring wisely reminds the reader, myths of origins and heroes are necessary inventions and for that reason worthy of the historian's focused attention. Here, the search for communities takes precedence over personalities. Thanks to Goehring's work, the first century of Egyptian monasticism has more innovators and creators, more experiments, more hidden successes, in short, more diversity than was previously imagined. Anyone interested in the intersection of history and literature, monasticism, or ascetic self-definition owes a great debt to Goehring for offering fresh and innovative approaches to a very complex, and by no means "tedious," movement in Christian history.

Georgia Frank Colgate University
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Author:Frank, Georgia
Publication:Church History
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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