Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.04.02


John Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ. The Monasteries of Palestine 314-631. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 276. $55.00. ISBN 0-19-826465-8.


Reviewed by J. Vanderspoel, University of Calgary (vandersp@acs.ucalgary.ca).

Though its title might suggest otherwise, this book, published in the series Oxford Early Christian Studies, is mainly about Cyril of Scythopolis and the evidence for the lives of the monks in the Judaean desert to be found in his treatments of seven of these monks. Certainly, B. introduces other material to the extent that this is available, but his own emphasis on contemporary sources and Cyril's significance as the main written source for Palestinian monasticism have left little alternative. It might be said, however, that B. sometimes traverses beyond the boundaries of the appropriate. For example, in Part II, on the physical environment of the monks and monasteries, he has chapters on Jerusalem, the desert, and Scythopolis. The latter is important mainly as the birthplace of Cyril; yet it is discussed at greater length than the desert which was the main environment for the monks who are the main topic of the book. Though a brief treatment of Scythopolis is reasonable, the monasteries on which B. chose to focus largely lie on the Jerusalem to Jericho road and the region to the south; Jericho is nowhere treated in depth, while Scythopolis lies some 50 km. to the north. The monks and monasteries of Cyril's birthplace appear only in this chapter, apart from casual references, while those elsewhere in Palestine, e.g., in the region of Gaza, appear haphazardly. In short, the book is not to be regarded as a complete study of monasticism in Palestine, but of a selected portion. As noted, this is dictated to some extent by sources, but another motive can perhaps be discerned. Throughout, B. places much emphasis on the conflict between supporters of Chalcedon and Monophysites and shows the ultimate victory of the former in desert monasticism; Origenists enter the picture as well. This tone is set early: some fifteen of seventeen pages of the "Introduction" are, rather oddly, given over to the reception of Chalcedon in the Judaean desert, as if this were the sole issue of importance to B. and the only one of interest to his readers. Elsewhere in Judaea, as B. himself points out later in the book, many monks were Monophysites, but these are treated rather briefly. One wonders, in consequence, whether B. is silently promoting a Chalcedonian theological view.

Apart from an "Introduction" (1-17) and "Conclusion" (245-246), the book as a whole is divided into three parts; each part, again after an introduction, is divided into three chapters, which are further subdivided into small sections varying in length from a single paragraph to about ten pages. On the whole, the final subdivision into sections is not entirely successful, especially when a series of smaller sections follow one another; the treatment seems piecemeal, since chapters are not given the opportunity to break into a narrative flow. This is often further amplified by the lack of connectives between one section and the next, even when a section logically follows from its predecessor. Indeed, even paragraphs and sentences often suffer from this approach to the style of writing; individual sentences sometimes seem intrusive, and I have never seen as many paragraphs composed of a single short sentence; the effect is rather jarring at too many places. I might add here that the book reveals signs of insufficient proofreading; most instances will not cause great difficulty, but a few require more attention. For example, quoting G. F. Kirk (n.9) (G. E. Kirk in the Bibliography), B. (105) speaks of higher rainfall and a higher ratio of good years having "its greatest effort in marginal lands," where "effect" is to be read. At 239, n.88, from the reference to "A. H. M. Jones, Later Roman Empire, i (Oxford, 1964), iii. 958", delete "i" (B. cites a four volume edition which I do not know, but the page number is correct). On the same page, "Peter Brown" should probably be replaced with "A. H. M. Jones", since "This perception of the saints' change of spiritual place has been summarized by Peter Brown" is followed immediately by a quotation from Jones' book; if B. intends the text as it stands, some confusion or a lack of clarity results. Less problematic is the abbreviation PEFQ St for the Palestinian Exploration Quarterly. PEQ is now often used, though the full title of the journal is the Palestinian Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement.

In his preface and in the conclusion to the book, B. outlines the reasons for the chronological parameters of his book. These can be stated quite succinctly: Macarius, who consecrated the first church in a monastic community, became bishop in 314; the official institution of desert monasticism thus occurred no earlier than that year. At the other limit, Antony wrote B.'s latest source, the Life of George of Choziba in 631. Arguably, these are arbitrary limits and present the reader with an apple and an orange. Chariton, whose cave at Pharan Macarius consecrated, had been in the desert for some years previously, and ascetics had inhabited the region earlier. A Bishop Narcissus of Jerusalem fled to the desert in the early third century and Hilarion, according to Jerome, lived in a hut near the sea at Gaza from about 308, eventually forming monastic communities in the region. Thus B., who records all this (154-158), must emphasize the significance of Macarius' consecration of Chariton's cave to find his terminus; the availability of sources is irrelevant here. Equally difficult is the year 631. If the official institution of desert monasticism began after 314, it did not come to an end in 631. More to the point, from the perspective of the Byzantine Empire, large parts of Palestine and Jerusalem itself fell under the control of Persians in 614 and were taken by Arabic forces in 638 (16-17). Either date, but preferably the second, since imperial forces were still attempting to recapture the region in the interval, represents one significant change for desert monasticism, i.e., the loss of Byzantine and Christian control of the area. From that perspective, the earlier terminus should be 324, when Constantine defeated Licinius; B. seems strangely aware of that possibility, since he has Chariton founding his monastery "when bishops were assembling at Nicaea" (155), though he refers as well (vi, 245) to the agreement between Constantine and Licinius in 313 to cease persecution. The selection of chronological limits is thus inescapably arbitrary, but B. largely focuses on the period from 405, when Euthymius reached Jerusalem, to the Council of Constantinople in 553, when the Origenists ceased to be an effective force in the desert communities of Palestine. His dates are, consequently, an attempt to place the writings of Cyril into a longer perspective; from that point of view, they are, in the end, suitable enough.

The first chapter of the first part of the book, a treatment of "Sources", is given over to a discussion of "Cyril of Scythopolis" (23-40). Two pages on "Cyril the Author" compare and contrast his work with other biographies of monks, and B. points out that Cyril was better acquainted with his subjects than most writers in the genre. About four pages then treat "Cyril the Child". B. argues that Cyril was born in 525 and briefly discusses his childhood and his "call" at the age of six to a monastic life. He passes to a treatment of "Cyril the Disciple", a three-page exposé of Cyril's early spiritual advisers and disobedience to the injunction to enter the monastery of Euthymius. The section closes with a brief discussion of Cyril's view that his biographies of seven monks were an "aspect of discipleship, carried out in obedience to the memory of the saints" (32). A fourth segment, of four pages, describes "Cyril as Monk" witnessing the physical violence of the Origenist controversy in Jerusalem before moving to Euthymius' monastery in 544 and two other foundations before his death, probably in 559. In the process, B. points out that Cyril was much affected by the "living" presence of the founding fathers of the institutions, even when they had long been dead. The final five pages of the chapter address "Cyril and the Christian Historical Tradition". Here, B. both surveys the Christian writing of history and Cyril's contributions to it, in particular, the monk's acceptance of the standard theme of orthodoxy versus heresy (as noted, perhaps silently emulated by B. himself) and his adoption and development of "a new form of writing in which classical history and hagiography contribute" (40). In the process, B. explains, too briefly, one reason that monks entered the written record. "They took the place which the martyrs had had in the writing of Eusebius as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel" (38). This is an important statement and one worthy of further elaboration: with the cessation of the creation of martyrs, new "heroes" were required. Though the growth of martyr cults relieved the need somewhat, monks' Lives offered contemporary examples of struggle against forces of evil; heretics play the same role as Roman officials in martyrs' Lives. This, in combination with the general theme of orthodoxy triumphant, is why Cyril's Lives of Euthymius and Sabas end with their victories over heretics instead of their deaths (cf. 37, without the point about "heroes"). In short, little distinguishes monk from martyr in the new Christian historiography.

Constructed in the same manner, other chapters follow. From Cyril, B. proceeds to a discussion in the second chapter of "The Other Sources" (41-55). These include Lives of four saints, related in approach to Cyril's treatments, John Moschus, and Antony's Life of George of Choziba. The third chapter, "Monastic Culture" (56-76), is once again essentially a treatment of Cyril: sections on his library, the use of oral traditions in the monasteries, historical awareness and autobiography focus on this monk's approach to the writing of saint's Lives.

The second part of the book is a treatment of "Environment". In three chapters, B. discusses "Jerusalem: Resurrection of a City" (79-98), "This Desert" (99-120), and "The City of Scythopolis" (121-147). The physical circumstances of desert monasticm provide the main subject for these chapters. The inclusion of Scythopolis has been addressed above, and the need for a description of the desert is obvious. Jerusalem too was important to the monks. Most of the monastic communities discussed in the book lay within easy travelling distance from the city, but Jerusalem played a much larger role than mere location would suggest. The monks, as pointed out by B. many times, saw themselves as an integral part of the wider Christian community. The primary link was with Jerusalem and its Patriarch, though relations were not always harmonious, but the connection extended to Christianity at large, especially in the East.

"Themes" are the focus of the final part of the book. The first chapter in this sections repeats B's title for the book: "Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ" (154-182). Here, B. outlines the change in the perspective of Judaean desert monks from ascetics in the usual understanding of the term, represented by Euthymius, Cyril's earliest subject, to participants in the wider community; of the latter, Sabas, who founded a series of new establishments, but also travelled on embassies to Constantinople, is one of these ambassadors of Christ. In chapter 8, "Witnesses to Truth" (183-217), B. focuses on the reception of Chalcedon, the Monophysite movement, and the Origenists in the desert monasteries and Jerusalem. Clearly, much of Judaean desert monasticism remained faithful to the Chalcedonian cause, though not entirely so. In the chapter, B. suggests that the dispersion of monks in scattered small communities and the cosmopolitan nature of the monks' origins precluded excessive flirtation with the Monophysite movement: too few of the monks had origins in those regions of the East most inclined to oppose the Chalcedonian view; in any case, monks' relationship with the Patriarch and the contact with holy places were more important than theology (197-198). This seems optimistic, but Palestinian monasticism did differ from monasticism elsewhere in its access to holy places, and the Patriarch did aid in the contact with such places. Yet the monks of the desert were fully capable of opposing some Patriarchs who inclined to the Monophysite or Origenist views; theology certainly held some importance. The final chapter, "Fellow Workers with God" (218-244), is an account of miracles and their importance in the lives and Lives of the monks. Like other recent writers, B. points to the essential view that the historicity of these miracles is less important than the fact that they were believed to have occurred; he discusses the different categories of miracles and the role that each played in the relationship of the monk to the environment, the community and to God. Two short appendices follow, one on "John of Scythopolis" (247-248), the other on "Leontius of Byzantium" (249-253). A bibliography, including a separate list of primary sources, and an index complete the volume.

Much of the foregoing, I fear, can and no doubt will be seen as complaint. Yet this book offers much of value. B.'s descriptions of the life and role of the monks in the Palestinian desert are both informative and useful, and many, including myself, will learn much from the material included in this book. If a difference of opinion arises on some points, that is only to be expected; indeed, it is B.'s ability to provoke thought on the issues that he addresses that leads to disagreement. In the final analysis, this treatment of Palestinian monasticism, even if it addresses only some aspects, is well worth reading.