this chapter, a discussion of some general characteristic features will precede a typological description of the main varieties and a sketch of the tradition's emergence in the five major areas, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor and Constantinople.


The first question to be asked is, what is meant by monasticism? The word monachos as a social designation turns up for the first time in Egyptian documentary papyri during 323 ad.2 Although absent from the Septuagint, the word occurs in other Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible for yehidim in Psalm 68.7, as well as in second-century texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Dialogue of the Saviour from the Nag Hammadi Library. The word designates a person who is single-minded, that is, someone who is celibate and devoted to a spiritual life. The first specific depictions of Christian ascetics as monks are found in Eusebius (c. 260-340) and Athanasius (c. 296-373)? The use of monachos in the papyri, where it is often combined with other more specialised terms such as parthenos, apotaktikos, monazontos and anachoretes, indicates that it gradually became the standard general term for a variety of ascetic lifestyles. The emergence and rapid spread of a more unified terminology was most probably prompted by a need in the Constantinian period for a stricter differentiation between the 'ordinary' Christian on one hand and all ascetics on the other; another index of this differentiation is the contemporary emphasis on physical separation, as we shall see. In this way, the term monachos first came to embrace many approaches to Christian spiritual life and then its meaning was restricted to specific accepted forms of ascetic life. This process is evident in the use of the common expression 'pseudo-monks'. Occurring regularly from the late fourth century, it shows not only that 'monk' was universally considered a positive term, but also that the term could be used even to characterise individuals who varied from the norm.

Earlier scholarly attempts to define monasticism with reference to a complete detachment from society and the creation of a Sonderwelt are problematic. These attempts drew heavily on later literary descriptions of early Egyptian monks (not least by Latin authors such as Jerome and Cassian, whose works will be discussed below), which are highly idealised and not well supported by the historical sources. For example, in the earliest documents, we find monks

2 Malcolm Choat, 'The development and the usage of terms for "monks"'.

3 On the history of the terminology see Francoise-E. Morard, 'Monachos, moine', and Choat, 'The development and usage ofterms for "monk"'.

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