A fifth-century monk and third abbot of the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH), situated beside the ancient village of Atrib in the region of Akhmim, near Suhaj. The monastery was founded by PJOL in the middle of the fourth century, and Besa’s immediate predecessor as abbot was SHENUTE. No Life of Besa exists, and any attempt to sketch his biography must be based on his own writings—his Life of Shenute and his Letters and Sermons— and on the occasional references to him that have survived in Coptic literature. Neither Besa’s date of birth nor that of his death is known. If the date of Shenute’s death is assumed to be 466, this is the year of Besa’s succession as abbot of the White Monastery.
From a fragment of a manuscript leaf now in the British Library (Or. 3581B, 64), it appears that an Apa Besa had an interview with the emperor Zeno who came to the throne in 474. If the reading and identification of the two names are correct, it can be concluded that Besa lived until after 474. There is no doubt that Besa spent some time as a monk under Shenute and that during Shenute’s lifetime he attained a position of trust and responsibility.
In his old age, Shenute nominated him to be his successor. Like his predecessor, Besa was given the ecclesiastical title ARCHIMANDRITE. A fragment of a panegyric on Besa (Paris, National Library, 131.7, 37) that has survived testifies that his memory was held in high esteem. An indirect testimony to Besa’s reputation in monastic circles of later ages is the preservation and continued copying of his writings. His name is also remembered in the liturgy where it is coupled with that of Shenute in the Memento of the saints.
From Besa’s writings it is clear that his life was devoted to the administration of the White Monastery and to the pastoral care of its monks and nuns. To teach and encourage them, to exhort and upbraid and, if necessary, to punish them was his daily duty. He had supreme authority not only over the community in which he lived but also over the daughter houses, both monasteries and convents, that formed part of the White Monastery. He assumed even wider responsibilities when, in time of famine, he gave refuge in the monastery to about 5,000 to 6,000 victims and saw to it that they were cared for by his monks. Food, baths, and medical treatment were provided, and those who died were buried. He is also on record as having given exhortation and advice to clergy and laymen of certain villages outside his monastery.
His inspiration for his own life of asceticism and for his teaching is primarily the Bible. Every page of his writings bears witness to his intimate knowledge of and respect for it. His admiration for Shenute and his loyalty to him are apparent not only in his Life of Shenute but also in references to him in his other writings. Although the Bible and Shenute were the two most active influences on Besa, his respect for monastic tradition is revealed by his frequent references to the commandments of “our fathers” as well as by quotations from ATHANASIUS and ANTONY.
While it is true that many of Besa’s writings are provoked by the lapses of his monks and nuns, it must not be supposed that monasticism under him offered nothing more than a penal code to enable the individual to lead the good life. The ideal of fellowship and mutual advancement was alive in his communities. That his writings contain hardly any references to the doctrinal controversies of his day may, at least in part, be accounted for by the predominantly pastoral concerns displayed in them.
All his writings are in the Sahidic dialect with the exception of the Life of Shenute, which, in its entirety, has been preserved in Bohairic but which no doubt was composed originally in Sahidic. Besa’s style is difficult to characterize. It is largely conditioned by the subject matter of his writings. In the Life of Shenute, he adopts the conventional style of the panegyric; in his moral exhortations he is often formal, stilted, and diffuse. Sometimes, however, when a problem engages his keen personal interest, his style becomes vivid and persuasive.
It is perhaps inevitable that the figure of Shenute should dwarf that of his successor. Nevertheless, this fact ought not to blind us to the many positive qualities of Besa. In his writings, he occasionally accuses himself of weakness, but it is clear that, in order to fulfill his manifold duties, this had to be overcome. His humility and utter sincerity shine through all his writings, and his moral earnestness and saintliness must have done much to strengthen the roots of monasticism and to encourage its growth.
- Cauwenbergh, P. van. Etude sur les moines d’Egypte, pp. 137ff. Paris, 1914.
- Kuhn, K. H. “A Fifth Century Egyptian Abbot.” Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954):36-48, 174-187; 6 (1955):35-48.
- , ed. Letters and Sermons of Besa. Textus. In CSCO 157, Scriptores Coptici 21. Louvain, 1956.
- , ed. Letters and Sermons of Besa, Versio. In CSCO 158, Scriptores Coptici 22. Louvain, 1956.
- Leipoldt, J., ed. Sinuthii vita bohairice. Textus. In CSCO 41, Scriptores Coptici 1. Louvain, 1906.
- Wiesmann, H. Sinuthii vita bohairice. Versio. In CSCO 129, Scriptores Coptici 16. Louvain, 1951.
K. H. KUHN