The Canons of Our Fathers

Monastic Rules of Shenoute

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Bentley Layton
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2014.
     384 pages.
     $145.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199582631.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute is an exquisitely edited, readily accessible book that will appeal to scholar, instructor, student, and lay reader alike. The latter three-quarters of the book present side-by-side Coptic text and English translations of several hundred monastic “rules” which editor Bentley Layton has gleaned from the nine Canons of Shenoute, the monk who directed a federation of monasteries in upper Egypt from the late 4th into the 5th century. The text of the Canons takes the forms of sermonizing reflections on the norms of thought and conduct within the monasteries under Shenoute’s authority. From these texts, Layton extracts anything that sounds even vaguely like a rule that is being referenced, quoted, paraphrased or explained. To our knowledge, the original rule(s)—that collection or collections of guidelines for institutional structure and individual behavior that served to define this federation of monastic houses—are no longer extant. In extracting what he infers to be reflections of these rules from a more general text, Layton’s work seeks to reconstruct a lost history and to expand our understanding of one of the earliest expressions of Christian monasticism. Many of the “rules” revealed in this manner no doubt reflect customs stemming from the earliest origins of the communities in the Federation. The scholarly apparatus of this portion of the book serves as both a teaching model for budding historians, and a rich resource for scholars.

The careful work of historical reconstruction is one of the hallmarks of this volume; and will make this text also of interest to anyone who teaches students how to do the work of history. Chapter 1, for instance, on “The Historical Context of the Rules,” is a discussion of the formation and early leadership of the Federation, and includes two appendices. This chapter plus appendices form a clear, delimited, and an almost textbook illustration of careful historical method perfect for use in the classroom. These pages include reference to archival work, discussion of the challenges of ancient textual analysis, and clear illustration of historical reasoning and inference. At the same time, an argument is made that will be of interest to scholars, and these pages—plus the following three interpretive chapters of the work—provide sufficient bibliography and scholarly apparatus to satisfy even the most critical researcher.

The interpretive introductory chapters (3-85) discuss the founding and context of the Federation monasteries, the nature of monastic rules in general and this speculative rules corpus in particular, the hierarchical organization and structure of Federation monasteries, and day-to-day monastic life as these can be inferred from the collected rules in the latter part of the book. Because of the detailed reference notes, the curious can refer immediately to the rules and rule fragments from which Layton is drawing his conclusions. As Layton writes in straightforward prose and carefully defines his methods and terms, these chapters will also be attractive and accessible to general readers interested in early monasticism.

One reader may choose to skim the prefatory comments on method and do their own analysis of the rules and rule fragments before reading the conclusions drawn by Layton, or alternatively, choose to read the book straight through. Another might read just the introductory chapters. Either of these readers will undoubtedly learn something for their efforts from this intelligent and interesting book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shawn M. Krahmer is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph's University, Phildelphia.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bentley Layton was educated at Harvard University and taught for five years in Jerusalem at the Ecole biblique et archeologique francaise. He worked in Cairo with UNESCO Technical Subcommittee to reconstruct the Coptic Gnostic manuscripts of Nag Hammadi and then taught at Yale University, where he was appointed to the Goff Professorship of Religious Studies. He is the recipient of fellowships from American Council of Learned Societies, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Guggenheim Foundation and past President of the International Association of Coptic Studies.

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