Samuel Rubenson

The emergence of monasticism in the East, its rapid development in the fourth and fifth centuries and its establishment as a major institution in Christianity are among the most significant phenomena in the history of Christianity. Although asceticism as such has deep roots in ancient society, both in the various religious traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Greek philosophical tradition, the emergence ofmonasticism constitutes a strikingly rapid and radical change of social, political and religious culture. Almost totally absent in our sources up to the mid-fourth century, monasticism becomes a major concern in Christian literature by the end of the century. What was a new phenomenon in the early fourth century was by the early fifth century already a major force (as well as a major problem!) for the church. From the late fourth century onwards, issues related to monasticism are on the agenda at almost every council in the East, and monks can be seen as playing a pivotal role within all the important conflicts of the church in the East during this period.

Previous scholarly attempts to identify a single source for, and to trace a unified development of, Eastern monasticism have met with a conspicuous lack of success. In its early formation, monasticism took inspiration from a number of traditions - particularly from scripture,1 but from other sources as well, Christian and non-Christian - and throughout the period under consideration the monastic impulse found expression in numerous varieties ranging from hermits to large-scale monasteries, from itinerant groups ofpreachers to recluses strictly enclosed in cells, from unwashed stylites to aristocratic households. The development of the monastic tradition was, moreover, regionally distinct, depending on geographical, social, political and religious factors. In

1 The account of the first Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 4) is taken as programmatic for monastic life by many authors and may account for the spontaneous development of broadly similar forms of behaviour in different areas. See, e.g., A. Voobus, History of asceticism in the Syrian Orient, 1:147; L. Verheijen, Saint Augustine's monasticism.

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