Church History, Lesson 14: The Rise of Monasticism

Antony of Egypt2Recap and Intro

When Valerian became Emperor in 257 AD, he began the first Empire-wide persecution of Christians.  Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, was sent into exile.  The next year, Valerian ordered all Christian clergy to be killed.  So, Cyprian was brought out of exile and beheaded in Carthage on the 14th of September.

The Emperor banned Christians from gathering for worship.  He also strove to shatter the Church’s leadership and frighten off the upper-class members.  This targeted persecution reveals how Christianity spread even among the wealthy and intelligentsia.

In 260, during a battle at Edessa (today, in Southeast Turkey), the Persian Emperor, Shahpuhr I, took Emperor Valerian as a prisoner.  He kept him as a hostage for the rest of his life.  After Valerian died, he was stuffed and dyed imperial purple, hanging in a Persian temple as an offering.

Valerian’s son, Gallienus, became emperor and ruled from 260-268 AD, fully securing power in 262.  He reversed his father’s policy against the Christians, allowing some religious tolerance and the recovery of Church property.  Perhaps, he saw his father’s capture as divine retribution for his policies.

Gallienus may have also realized that persecuting Christians wasted Empire resources when more pressing matters demanded attention.  The once thriving Roman economy, based on trade among the provinces, was contracting at breakneck speed.  The Persians hammered the Empire from the East, seizing territory from Rome.  From the north, Barbarians attacked, as did the Goths in Asia Minor.

So, for the next 40 years, the Church enjoyed official toleration and continued to grow.


The Beginnings of Monasticism

The term monk, (monachos) means “solitary one” (from monos).  The heart of the monastic life grew from seeking solitude and stillness and the contemplative life.  How ironic.  For as monasticism further developed, it came to become a community-based way of life.

Origen: The Theological Seedbed of Monasticism

Origen, who left Christianity for a perfectionist sect (see Lesson 12), understood human and divine activity as a continual process of human transformation.  This understanding provided an ideal seedbed for a Christian monastic tradition to develop by struggling against the sinful flesh to grow in the Faith.

In his interpretation of Song of Songs, Origen took the book as a metaphor for a perfected relationship between the Christian’s soul and Christ.  To get to the soul’s ideal relationship with Christ required struggle and overcoming obstacles.

You must come out of Egypt and, when the land of Egypt lies behind you, you must cross the Red Sea if you are to sing the first song: Let us sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted [Exodus 15]….  Though you have voiced this first song, you are still a long way from the Song of Songs….  Pursue your spiritual journey through the wilderness … [so] you may sing the second song [Numbers 21:17-20]….  You must fight under Joshua and possess the holy land …  that you may take that song also on your lips, which is found in the Book of Judges [Judges 5]….  [After others struggles and songs to sing] when you have been through all the songs, then set your course for greater heights so, as a fair soul with her spouse, you may sing this Song of Songs too.  [Homilies on Song of Songs 1.1]

For Origen, the Christian needed to struggle to achieve “greater heights.”  The ability to do this required dedication and focus, which an ascetic lifestyle provided.  Note the progression.  One’s status with God isn’t only declarative but also works-oriented (which eventually led Origen to forsake Christianity).

For Origen, this progression was a three-step process.  First, one needed to learn virtue.  Next, he needed to adopt a right attitude.  Third, he needed to ascend to the contemplation of God.

If then a man has completed his course in the first subject [learning virtue] … He then sees how empty the world is and recognizes the brittleness of transitory things, coming to renounce the world and all everything in it [the right attitude].  Next, he is to contemplate and desire “what is unseen,” which “is eternal” [the contemplation of God].  To attain these, however, we need God’s mercy. [Commentary on Song of Songs Prologue 3]

  • None of what Origen wrote was possible without God’s mercy. Still, for Origen, what did God’s mercy do and not do?


Whoever has contemplated the better and more divine things, which are necessary to him, will obtain the objects of his contemplation, for they are known to God. [On the Lord’s Prayer 21.2]


  • In Origen’s three-step process, when does the Christian obtain “the better and divine things,” which are “the objects of his contemplation”?


For Origen, the Christian’s soul needed to be pure before he can expect to stand in the God’s presence.  Though we would not disagree with him on this point, what we may find disturbing in his theology is how the Christian becomes pure enough.  From His treatise, On The Lord’s Prayer, we learn:

“Lead us not into temptation,” … I do think that God deals with each rational soul in such a way as to lead it to eternal life, though it [the soul] always possesses free will and on its account [that is, through free will] may ascend to the summit of goodness through the better things… [On the Lord’s Prayer 29.13]

  • According to Origen, why may “each rational soul” “ascend to the summit of goodness”?


  • How does his understanding help pave the way for a monastic culture to develop?


As the monastic movement developed in the 4th century, many ascetics found Origen’s spirituality a theological foundation for their aspirations.  The idea of “unforgivable sins” still flowed in the undercurrents of Christian thinking.  This horrified many about betraying their baptismal promises and soiling the white baptismal garment through such “unforgivable” sins.

Antony the Ascetic (251-356 AD)

Tertullian (160-225 AD, Lesson 12), wrote of laity who were ascetics in the Church at Carthage.  They practiced self-discipline and refrained from pleasurable activities (On the Apparel of Women 2.9; To His Wife 1.6; On the Resurrection of the Flesh 61).

In the 2nd century, a distinct, organized form of Christian asceticism emerged in Egypt.  The first recorded monk was a man named “Paul the Hermit,” who retreated into the desert of Egypt around 250 AD.  Monks also began to live elsewhere.  Palladius of Antioch (died 309 AD) wrote about monks in the Libyan desert whom he had met.  One of them was reputed to have been a monk since 291 AD.

The most well-known monk in the 2nd century was Antony, who began his monastic life in the early 270s.  Athanasius (296-373 AD, whom we will study later) wrote Antony learned of this ascetic way of life from hermits who “practiced the discipline in solitude near their village” (Athanasius, Life of Antony 3).

Antony grew up in a prosperous family in a Coptic-speaking village in lower Egypt along the Nile.  His parents died when he was in his late teens, leaving him a large family farm and a younger sister to care for.  At a church service he attended, the Gospel reading included the words: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come back and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).  He saw this as Jesus directly addressing him.  At once, he gave away his land and possessions, keeping only a few things to provide for his younger sister.

Read Matthew 19:16-22

  • What is the context for the man’s question to Jesus? (vs. 16)


  • Why does Jesus answer as he does (or what path of salvation is Jesus shutting down)?


Read Matthew 19:25-26

  • On whom does salvation rely?


  • How did Antony misunderstand and misapply Matthew 19:21?


Later, Antony went into the desert to become a hermit, living an ascetic lifestyle, sleeping on the hard ground, and eating salted bread and water.  For him, this physical hardship was living out of what the Apostle Paul had written.  “So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). 

Read 2 Corinthians 12:9

  • What was the context for Paul to write, “when I am weak, then I am strong”?


  • The weakness of the person was to rely on whose power and doing?


  • Discuss: Did Antony misapply the verse?


Diocletian and the Last Severe Christian Persecution


Diocletian became Emperor in 284 AD, ruling until 305 AD.  He inherited a vast empire.  In the west, it stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in England to the coast of modern Portugal.  The East extended to the Black Sea and Syria.  The Rhine river bordered the North; the upper reaches of the Nile in the South.

He began a massive reorganization, hoping to strengthen Rome’s legions, the economy, and the civil service.  This included dividing the Empire into two, each governed by a senior emperor titled, “Augustus,” and assisted by a junior called, “Caesar.”  Each emperor would serve 20 years, and then the caesars would take over for 20 years, and so on.  This was meant to make the Roman Empire more manageable and provide for a smooth transition of power with qualified rulers.

So, Diocletian and his Caesar, Galerius, governed the Empire east of the Adriatic, while Maximian and his Caesar, Constantius, ruled the West.  So far, so good.  With a uniform currency and political system, Diocletian also wanted more uniformity of religion to help unify the Empire.

What the Roman Empire did not have was a universal language.  So, Diocletian created boundaries between where the official language would be Greek or Latin.  For instance, he drew an imaginary line through the middle of Libya, resulting in two Libyas: one Greek and one Latin.  The East-West division made permanent the current dominance of Greek language and culture in the East and Latin in the West.  As the language divide continued, two churches continued to diverge, now separated by language, culture, and thinking: Western Catholics from Eastern Orthodox.


In 298, Diocletian started rooting out Christians from the army and civil service.  In 303, he launched the Great Persecution with his “Edict Against the Christians,” beginning the bloodiest of the Roman persecutions.

On February 23, the persecution began, lasting in the Western half of the Empire from 303 to 305; in the East, from 303 to 311.  Refusal to obey was a capital offense.  The Edict, however, did not specify the death penalty, so the martyrdom of Christians was not uniform.  The Edict ordered:

  1. The destruction of Christian churches
  2. The burning of all copies of the Scriptures
  3. The upper classes were to lose the privileges attached to their rank
  4. The reduction to slavery of civil servants
  5. The loss of legal rights for those who refused to recant their Christianity.

In the West, one of Diocletian’s co-rulers, Constantius, was sympathetic to Christianity because he had a Christian wife.  So, he executed no Christians and only burned a few churches in Gaul, Britain, and Spain, giving the appearance of enforcing the Edict.  Among the people, this Edict was not popular, and some citizens chose to hide and shield Christians.

In 304, Diocletian stepped down as Emperor and the Caesar, Galerius, now became Emperor.  He issued an edict demanding all citizens to offer a sacrifice and a libation to the gods or suffer death.  This resulted in a large number of public executions, most especially in North Africa.

In the West, when Constantius died at York on 25 July 306, his soldiers proclaimed his son, Constantine, as Emperor.  Though not a Christian, he positioned himself as a protector of Christians, considering their persecution as harmful to the Empire.  His mother, Helena, was also a Christian and Lactantius, a Christian theologian, was earlier his tutor.

In 311, Galerius fell ill, convinced he had angered the Christian god.  So, he rescinded his policy and, instead, told Christians to pray for the welfare of the state and for him to be healed.  He also allowed Christian to rebuild churches.  He died six days later (Eusebius, Church History 8.17.3-10).


The Institutionalism of Monasticism

After 20 years, Antony emerged from solitude, attracting much attention.  People flocked around him, hoping to get a glimpse.  Many “enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens” (Athanasius Life of Antony 5).  He became the abbot (from abba, “father”) of a monastery and instructed others in the monastic way of life.  Where the persecution was the worst, monasticism grew and developed.

Later, Athanasius wrote Life of Antony, which became an instant “bestseller.”  Translated from Greek into Latin and Coptic, the book spread monastic thinking into the rest of Christendom.  It even helped lead Augustine (354-430 AD), the second father of Latin Christianity, to the Christian faith (Augustine’s Confessions 8.6.15 and 8.12.29).  Inspired by the hermit’s dedication, the Vulgate’s translator, Jerome (347-420 AD), would later abandon all thought of a secular career to live the monastic life.

Abbot Antony said, “Like a fish when lifted up out of the water dies, so does the monk who stays too long outside his cell” (from Anan Isho, a Syrian monk in the 600s).

White Martyrdom

When Christianity finally become legal, many Christians believed the Church began to lose her identity.  Many now joined the Church from ambition, seeking promotion in a Church hierarchy which, for some, became a substitute for the decaying Roman civil service system.  Newcomers filled the churches, hoping to gain imperial favor.

Still, resonating in Christianity was Tertullian’s “perfection” theology.  He wrote, “Filth is washed away by baptism, but stains are truly made white by martyrdom” (Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting 12.10).  With the stain of sin not able to be “made white by martyrdom,” what could take its place?

So, Christians now sought some other heroic way to give their lives for Christ.  With a small monastic system already in place, many now chose to separate from the growing Church structure.  This “martyrdom” involved isolating themselves to focus on purifying the soul and drawing closer to God.

Influenced by Origen’s austere personal habits (another “perfectionist” theologian), these monks ate little food and often went shoeless.  This monasticism became known as “white martyrdom.”  The red martyrdom, the shedding of blood, forced earlier on Christians now exchanged itself for a “white” one.  The monk, like the martyr, became Christ’s warrior in the front-line battle against the powers of evil.

Revelation speaks of the white-robed martyrs entering heaven, having endured great suffering (Revelation 7:14).  But with martyrdom now in the past, monasticism adapted the thinking of Ignatius (35-107 AD, Lesson 8).  As he traveled to Rome, he wrote about his coming martyrdom.  “Do not give to the world one who wants to belong to God or tempt him with material things.  Let me receive the pure light.  For when I arrive there, I will be a human being” (Romans 6.2).  For monks, staying away from the world and renouncing material things now became a way for them to “receive the pure light.”

  • Did these first monks adapt and apply Ignatius’s words faithfully?


The Church at the Beginning of the 4th Century

By the beginning of the 4th century, the failure of the persecutions to stop Christianity was apparent—even to the Emperors.  Christians continued to become a more significant percentage of the population.  No person would have thought so at the end of the 1st century.  Then, only 10,000 Christians lived in the Roman Empire.  Of the 60 million in the Empire, Christians made up .0017 percent of the population.  By the year 200, the number increased to a bit more than 200,000, still a tiny minority of about .36 percent.  Fifty years later, the number of Christians had risen to more than a million, a five-fold increase!  More striking are the figures to come in 50 years.  By 300 AD, Christians made up 10 percent of the population, six million people.

So, what did a typical Christian community look like in a major town?  In Cirta (today Algeria), we learn the following from a record of court proceedings (Acts of Zeno).  The clergy consisted of one bishop and at least two presbyters.  Also serving in the Church were two deacons, four subdeacons, seven lectors, and more than of six gravediggers.

The church was a converted house, which also had a well-equipped dining area.  Included was also a cemetery, which had a large cottage.  The Church’s chancel-ware included chalices, lamps, lampstands, a candelabra, and other gold, silver, and bronze items.  Clothing to help the poor included 82 women’s tunics, 38 veils, 16 men’s tunics, 13 pairs of men’s shoes, 47 pairs of women’s shoes, and 19 cloaks.

For its scriptures, this congregation possessed one unusually large-bound book, which may have been a lectionary, as well as 30 other books, two smaller books, and four partly completed works.


Link to the next Lesson.


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