Early Christian monasticism and views of work
Who were the first Christian monks, and what did they believe? Who did the Christian monks think really deserved alms—the “holy poor” or the “real poor”?
In the eastern Roman Empire during the third century C.E., two distinct forms of early Christian monasticism began to develop. One came out of Mesopotamia and Syria and was based on older models of previous radical groups. The other came from Egypt and was a new idea.
In “Monastic Views of Work” in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Peter Brown, Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, examines these two forms of early Christian monasticism. While both were derived from the Biblical writings of Paul, they differed about what it meant to be poor and who should benefit from tithes.
In Mesopotamia and Syria, Manichaean monks and wanderers would travel to wealthy cities throughout the region and offer songs, prayers and wisdom in exchange for monetary support and nourishment.
Manichaeism, a religion often equated with Gnosticism and dualism, was founded by Mani, a man who viewed himself as a prophet, the apostle Paul of his time and the reformer of Christianity.
The Manichaeans believed that before the fall, Adam and Eve did not toil like humans today, but rather sang and praised God like the angels. Thus, these Christian monks had shed the bonds of physical labor and practiced a more spiritual angelic labor. They viewed the prayers they offered for all people as spiritual labor, worthy of tithes and support. These Manichaean Christian monks were the “holy poor,” they believed.
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In direct contrast, a new monastic movement began to develop in Egypt around 270 C.E. Now known as Saint Anthony the Great in certain branches of the Orthodox Church, Anthony was a young Coptic-speaking Egyptian farmer who, inspired by Matthew 19, decided to sell his land, his home and his possessions and give all of the proceeds to the poor. He then moved out into the desert and survived by the fruits of his own labor. Anthony and the many who followed his example believed it was essential for monks to support themselves through hard work, living only off of what they could produce or trade for. All money gained through the sale of goods and services should be donated to the “real poor.”
Unlike the Manichaean monks and wanderers, who traveled from place to place, the followers of Anthony were usually sedentary. Monasteries were built to house communities of these settled Christian monks.
The form of early Christian monasticism that came out of Egypt became the predominant model during the Byzantine period, and it is still recognizable in Western monasticism today.
Learn more about the two forms of early Christian monasticism and the contexts in which they developed by reading the full article “Monastic Views of Work” by Peter Brown as it appears in the January/February 2016 issue of BAR.
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Monastic Views of Work” by Peter Brown in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 25, 2016.
John C. Reeves, “Adam Meets the Evil Archon: The Biblical Roots of a Persian Religion,” Bible Review, August 2001.
Yizhar Hirschfeld, “Spirituality in the Desert: Judean Wilderness Monasteries,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1995.
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