BMCR 2023.08.22

The rediscovery of Shenoute: studies in honor of Stephen Emmel

, , , , The rediscovery of Shenoute: studies in honor of Stephen Emmel. Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta, 310. Leuven; Paris; Bristol: Peeters, 2022. Pp. xxii, 546. ISBN 9789042948303.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Shenoute of Atripe was many things: leader of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from about 385 C.E. until his death some time in the first part of the fifth century; the organizer of an extended group of Christian monastic communities for both men and women; a defender of orthodoxy who was not afraid to break a window or throw a punch; a preacher who indicted everyone from liars, adulterers, and demon worshippers to wage thieves and the merely half-hearted. What Shenoute has not been, though, is well-known to most modern scholars of the ancient world. He wrote in Coptic, a language that has not benefitted from being labeled one of the “classics”; instead of being transmitted and studied in an established discipline, Shenoute’s works, collected and edited at his own monastery, remained there for the most part until the great extractive force of the colonial antiquities market gave those pages value, and thus wings. The manuscripts comprising Shenoute’s Canons and Discourses, about 150,000 words of material, were acquired by a constellation of institutions across Europe and North America. Portions of works that survived this scattering intact were published at the opening of the twentieth century by two editors, Émile Amélineau and Johannes Leipoldt, their twin projects slightly overlapping in coverage. Other scholars steadily chipped away at the harlequin pieces of the White Monastery’s collection, but it took until the 1990s for Stephen Emmel, this volume’s honoree, to set about completing a codicological reconstruction comprising all known fragments. That work, his 1993 Yale dissertation, led to the publication of Shenoute’s Literary Corpus (abbreviated SLC, CSCO 599 & 600, 2004), which has become the standard reference work.

The volume under review honors Emmel, demonstrating by the breadth of its collected disciplines and approaches the magnitude of what his reconstructive work has facilitated. It opens with an innovative exercise in ekphrasis, in which Elizabeth S. Bolman takes up the perspective of a traveling monk to guide readers through a well-documented but lucidly imagined narrative: we, as the monk, visit the White Monastery and thus are initiated into current scholarship on the compound and its business in antiquity. What follows are twenty-four essays presented in alphabetical order by author. Every essay bears its own bibliography, often a little treasure map for its subdiscipline. Accompanying the essays is a bibliography of Emmel’s scholarship, along with three indices: of passages from Shenoute’s corpus and the Life of Shenoute, of biblical references, and of ancient and medieval names. For this review, I will group the essays into apparent categories and offer a short description of each, so readers may have a sense of the volume’s varied contents. Space prevents me from doing more in the vein of evaluation, but as an overall assessment, the scholarship comprised by the volume is excellent. A full list of titles and contributors appears at the end of this review.

Some of the essays look at groups of texts from the White Monastery corpus. Diliana Atanassova investigates the liturgical typika from the corpus that indicate specific works by Shenoute to be read (classified as MONB.NP, MONB.WD, and MONB.WE). She provides a detailed catalog of all known pieces of these three codices, a discussion of each piece, and as an appendix, two interlocking tables that represent the feast day, the work to be read, its incipit, and its categorization in SLC. Anne Boud’hors considers Canon 8, which comprises seven works, examining from it Shenoute’s citations from Leviticus, particularly those sections concerning the contamination of leprosy. She finds that the extensive reliance on textual citations signals that these works, while they may have been presented orally, were designed to be copied, written and read as pieces of literature. Paul Dilley takes the two identified pieces of Canon 3—Abraham Our Father and the remainder of the canon, for now labeled as one work, Acephalous Work 22—and shows how Shenoute adheres to the theory of allowed and disallowed literature in Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter. Dilley argues that Shenoute conceived of canonicity as a value that could apply to writings but that he also thought of it as a feature of monastic practices.

Other essays focus on a single work within the corpus. Sydney Aufrère and Nathalie Bosson consider the anti-Jewish themes in Blessed Are They Who Observe Justice (which appears as Discourses 4, work 9). Specifically, they explore Shenoute’s reliance on the arboreal metaphor of the rootstock and the new shoot, which appears in the discourse to amplify his comparison between the “synagogue of the Jews” and the “church of the nations.” David Brakke situates the Vienna Incipit List within the late ancient Christian culture of list making, limits on reading material, and the canonization of scripture. He makes the case that Shenoute’s emergence as an author known in antiquity should be considered a crucial part of the history of Christian literature. Tonio Sebastian Richter considers an odd piece, an “astrological leaflet” catalogued as BnF Copte 135.5 f9. He provides the text and an English translation, along with a discussion that aligns the leaflet with a wider catalog of scientific writings originating from the White Monastery. Sina Becker offers a small taste of her forthcoming dissertation in an essay that focuses on Shenoute’s First Letter to analyze his rise to power.

Shenoute’s leadership style is the topic of several other contributions in the volume. The cluster of incidents between Shenoute and his fellow villager Gesios are examined in two essays. Hugo Lundhaug amends Emmel’s reconstruction of the series of incidents, reordering the dating of the texts involved so that Let Our Eyes was written before Not Because a Fox Barks, rather than after. Anastasia Maravela and Sofía Torallas Tovar dissect the curses Shenoute put on Gesios—a wish that his tongue be cut out, or that his tongue be tied to his big toe. They follow these specific bodily fantasies of torment into the imaginative Christian literature about the tortures of hell, contextualizing the curses by reading them alongside descriptions of afterlife punishment, in Shenoute’s writing and elsewhere. David Frankfurter offers his reflections on Shenoute’s participation in the customs of upper Egypt, via an examination of Shenoute’s use of charms and vessels, salient among them the infamous jars of urine vandalized and broken at the front entrance to Gesios’s house. Rather than thinking of Shenoute as an outlier, Frankfurter argues that we should understand him to be fully involved in the local culture of binding and cursing, often by speech but in these cases by objects. Janet Timbie investigates Shenoute’s epistolary practices, arguing that he utilizes letters as a public medium, written to one person but to be read over and over again for all. Timbie points out that, in this understanding, Shenoute styled himself after Paul, as he relied on an elder to bear his thoughts to others at the other monasteries under his care. Finally, Andrew Crislip places Shenoute’s concept of illness, apparent in works from Canons 6 and 8, in conversation with other Christian writers’ reports of their own disease. He reads Shenoute’s complains alongside letters from Basil of Caesarea, which describe his own illnesses, and argues for reading such illness as “real” and significant, especially in monastic culture. James Goehring looks laterally to document in his essay the likely social and cultural pressures that led to the development of the written rule that governed Pachomian monasteries.

There are essays that further our understanding of textual practices and linguistic forms by their reading of works from the White Monastery. Paola Buzi offers a detailed discussion of the palimpsests present in the corpus. Coptic palimpsests are already rather rare—she explains that there are 40 or so extant. Eleven of those are from the White Monastery and meticulously analyzed and presented for scholarly readers. Ariel Shisha-Halevy contributes an annotated catalog tracing the use of generics (with an extensive lexical catalog of instances thereof), registering their importance from the frequent appearance of generalization in Shenoute’s rhetorical repertoire. Bentley Layton solves a curious puzzle from a text describing a medieval rehabilitation of the White Monastery, reasoning that the “dirt-eater” blamed in the text for the damage to be repaired was not an earthquake, as was previously reasoned, but rather a termite! Wolf-Peter Funk’s contribution, edited for this volume after his death, catalogs from the corpus those verboids in Coptic that express similarity and difference, demonstrating their common reliance on an infix based on ero=. Frederick Wisse represents the differences between the Sahidic Bible and the Septuagint and New Testament by listing the biblical citations from Canon 7 and comparing them to the received Greek text of the same passages, where extant.

Yet other essays consider the long influence of Shenoute and the organization of the White Monastery on later cultures. Tito Orlandi collects the extant Coptic texts describing the Council of Ephesus, which Shenoute may have attended. His contribution helpfully reports on the relationship between the Coptic texts and what is known from Latin and Greek sources about the council. Rebecca Krawiec offers readers a sequel to her 2001 book, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery, by detailing what happened to women in the community when Shenoute’s successor Besa assumed leadership. Heike Behlmer looks as far out as the nineteenth century, investigating research in Coptic biblical studies; her essay focuses on two scholars, Paul de Lagarde and Agapius Bsciai, and their troubled relationship as evidenced in their surviving correspondence.

Shenoute himself casts a long shadow, so appropriately three essays historicize his reception as a saint and as a holy author. Samuel Moawad examines the Life of Shenoute and its extensions and translations—looking past the Greek and Latin to the Egyptian versions, making direct comparisons between the Bohairic and Arabic versions, comparing the Life of Shenoute to the Life of Antony, and offering the comparisons between the episodes in the Life and corresponding loci in the Canons or Discourses. Gesa Schenke observes the multipart development of the cult around Shenoute, following both material and textual evidence of the traditions of memorializing him, tracing the moments when Christians transition to venerating him as a healing saint. Stephen Davis contributes a well-annotated edition and translation of an early modern Arabic text represented in two manuscripts, the Canons of the Holy Father Anbā Shenoute. This work incorporates portions of the Bohairic Life of Shenoute, draws from the Canons of the White Monastery, but as Davis demonstrates, also bears the influence of many other pieces of literature, including āhadith and commentaries on the Qur’an.

If there is a weakness to the volume, it is the lack of an explicit framework to comprise all of these contributions, beyond them all simply bearing a connection to the work of Shenoute or the White Monastery. The preface to the volume does attempt to categorize the contributions, albeit briefly, in a paragraph. It may not be feasible to ask for more; the work I have done here to attempt the same was difficult and indeed, my categorization is idiosyncratic and may puzzle some readers. At the same time, the sheer breadth of the methods and disciplines represented in the volume is also a strength, as it represents the multidisciplinary impact of the honoree Stephen Emmel’s contribution to studies around and about Shenoute. This volume neatly conveys the state of the field to readers and its contents will facilitate future work on this neglected domain of late ancient Christianity.


Authors and Titles

Shenoute’s Great House: Imagining the White Monastery Church – Elizabeth S. Bolman

Die Predigten Schenutes in den liturgischen Typika des Weißen Klosters – Diliana Atanassova

Le vieux pied de vigne (la Synagogue des Juifs) versus le sarment provigné (l’Église des Nations) dans le discours de Chénouté, Blessed Are They Who Observe Justics  – Sydney Aufrère and Nathalie Bosson

Shenoute’s Rise to Power: Mythologization and Ritual in Canon 1 – Sina Becker

Paul de Lagarde, Agapius Bsciai and the History of Coptic Bible Research – Heike Behlmer

L’image de la lèpre dans le Canon 8 de Chénouté – Anne Boud’hors

The Form and Function of the Vienna Incipit List: Shenoute among the Christian Authors of Late Antiquity – David Brakke

Codices Coptici Rescripti: A Preliminary Census of the Palimpsests from the White Monastery – Paola Buzi

Shenoute’s Illness – Andrew Crislip

The Arabic Canons of the Holy Father Anbā Shenoute: Introduction, Text, and Translation – Stephen Davis

Shenoute’s Polemic against Non-Canonical Texts in Canon 3 – Paul C. Dilley

Shenoute and Magic – David Frankfurter

Palamon, Pachomius, and the Rule of the Angel: The Development of “Rules” in Early Upper Egyptian Monasticism – James Goehring

Besa and the Women of the White Monastery: The Sequel – Rebecca Krawiec

Termites in the Church of Shenoute – Bentley Layton

Shenoute the Burglar: Reconsidering the Conflict with Gesios – Hugo Lundhaug

Impossible Anatomies: Shenoute’s Curse and the Death of Gesios – Anastasia Maravela and Sofía Torallas Tovar

Bemerkungen zur Vita Sinuthii – Samuel Moawad

Shenoute and Victor at the Council of Ephesus – Tito Orlandi

BnF Copte 132.5 f. 9, an Astrological Leaflet, among Other Coptic Technical Writings from the White Monastery – Tonio Sebastian Richter

The Cult of Shenoute: From Holy Man to Healing Saint – Gesa Schenke

Shenoute’s Generics: An Overview – Ariel Shisha-Halevy

Rhetoric by Proxy from Paul to Shenoute: Public Letter-Reading in a Christian Community – Janet Timbie

Shenoute and the Bible – Frederik Wisse

Twin Verboids: ‘Be Different’ with One Syllable Too Many and ‘Be Alike’ with One Too Few – Wolf-Peter Funk