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The Monastic Paradox: Desert Ascetics as Founders, Fathers, and Benefactors in Early Christian Historiography

In: Vigiliae Christianae
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  • 1 Centre for Theology and Religious StudiesLund University
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Abstract

This is a study of three literary sources from the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE that depict the rise of monasticism, the anonymous History of the Monks of Egypt, the History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Sozomen’s Church History. Although each of these texts conveys what Peter Brown has termed the “myth of the desert,” i.e. a portrayal of monks as being part of another world, I argue that the same texts also reflect a “myth of the city,” in which the monastic movement is depicted as a civic institution with regard to its foundation, regulation, and influence in the world. What these texts reflect is an attempt from the side of Christian authors to make sense of the multifaceted phenomenon that was monasticism, creating a conceptual space where different ascetic expressions come together as one, as ‘monasticism’ or as a desert city.

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