Monastic Education in Late Antiquity

The Transformation of Classical Paideia

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Lillian I. Larsen, Samuel Rubenson
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Catherine Nixey’s recent, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (PanMacmillan, 2017), provides a lovely backdrop against which to consider Monastic Education in Late Antiquity—a major scholarly achievement. Given the popularity of Nixey’s tendentious reading of period, the present volume, edited superbly by Lillian I. Larsen and Samuel Rubenson, could not be more timely. It contends that early Christian monasteries were “largely responsible for the preservation and spread (reviewer’s emphasis) of not only Greek and Latin literature but also the skills of reading and writing” (1). Immensely learned and carefully documented, this collection of essays “vigorously” argues against “models that have often depicted Christian, and more specifically monastic, thought as inherently antithetical to Classical culture” (3). In the judgment of this reviewer, it renders these models nugatory. 

The volume’s contributors are from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Italy, the Republic of Ireland, and the United States—though the majority are from Scandinavian and American institutions. The work is broken into five parts; “The Language of Education,” “Elementary Education and Literacy,” “Grammar and Rhetoric,” “Philosophy,” and “Manuscript and Literary Production.” The work merits the attention of scholars of education, classical pedagogy and culture, and the relationship between Christian and pagan thought. The attention it pays to the Eastern traditions and to correcting misconceptions about the nature of non-Latin monasticism further commends it. Its contents cannot be given thorough coverage in this review, but will be merely canvassed.

The introduction describes the collection as “a further step in the ongoing reinterpretation of the rise and early history of monasticism” (3). Its re-evaluative aims appear throughout and are amply supported by incisive analysis and generous documentation. The chapter entitled “The School of Didymus the Blind in Light of the Tura Find” offers a good entry-point for assessing this volume in greater detail. Author Blossom Stefaniw works through traditional interpretations of Didymus which are represented, not only by older authors like Joseph Neaner and Wolfgang A. Bienert, but also by the more recent scholarship of Richard Layton and Grant Bayliss. The chapter focuses on the transcripts from Didymus’s lessons, which were found ten miles from Cairo, in the stone-quarries of Tura, in 1941. Among the piles of papyrus codices that had been covered for centuries by rubble, the discovery contained a significant number of manuscripts from Didymus the Blind. Stefaniw’s essay presents an exploration of what the monks used these texts for, as well as the question of transporting these the papyri between Tura and Alexandria. The chapter persuasively argues that Didymus followed neither the guidance given to him by the Emperor Julian nor that given by Athanasius. Instead, Didymus’s work sought to expound the scriptures in a school rather than in a Christian church. Within this arena, Didymus employed the scriptures as a means of engaging with the cultural conceptions which defined Roman life and identity. Likewise, Didymus’s engagement with culture, political thought, and civic identity moved him away from the path Athanasius wished him to follow. The chapter works through examples of how Didymus, doing the work of a grammarian, expounded and taught biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. It also examines the academic level of grammatical instruction and similar concerns.

The chapter entitled “The Pythagorean Traditions in Early Christian Asceticism” should also be taken up. After setting out the development of scholarship on the relationship between early Christian thought, and Pythagoras and Neopythagorean materials, Daniele Pevarello then discusses the interaction between Christian traditions and Pythagoreanism, particularly as it concerns the topic of education. Providing detailed consideration of Origen, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and others, Pevarello shows the profound interest that early Christian authors had in the teachings of the Pythagoreans as well as Pythagorean philosophical and educational thought. Pevarello goes on to discuss the Sentences of Sextus as an example which demonstrates the influence Pythagorean materials had within Christian circles—the Sentences of Sextus being regarded as a “Christian rewriting of a pagan gnomic source” (263). The subjects of marriage and celibacy are discussed together with the apparent intertextuality and marked dependence of pagan and Christian materials, both in the Sentences, and the Chreiai of Clitarchus. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Christian asceticism and Pythagoream procreationism.

The themes touched on in these contributions—for example Christian-pagan interdependence, new approaches to and understandings of ancient texts, interconnectedness in the development of theological and philosophical ideas, and issues associated with the translation of crucially-important documents—appear throughout. Chapters by Rubenson (on the concept of “School” in early monasticism), Roger Bagnall (on the educational and cultural background of Egyptian monks), and Britt Dahlman (on textual fluidity and authorial revision), persuasively argue for the profound linkage that connected classical education with Christian learning and piety. The volume does an exemplary job of making the case that Christian monks were not illiterate recluses or marauding destroyers of culture (as Nixey has argued). Thus, there is, from the vantage point of this review, much to praise here. In addition to things I have already mentioned, the work is full of images from manuscripts such as the Nag Hammadi Codices. Furthermore, having read far too many volumes of collected essays in which contributors did not exhibit awareness of one another’s essays, this reviewer was delighted to see these authors referring to the contributions of one another on a regular basis. The two editors are to be commended for this; and the collection is to be commended for its learning, precision, and clarity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Religion at the University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lillian I. Larsen is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Redlands, California. Her foundational re-reading of the desert fathers and mothers in light of ancient pedagogy grounds the work of the MOPAI research initiative.

Samuel Rubenson is Professor in the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies at Lunds Universitet, Sweden. He has long been engaged in research on the letters of St Antony.


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