A term of Greek origin with multiple meanings. The original sense of diaconia in classical and Hellenistic Greek was “service.” In later Greek, diaconia practically always denoted religious service of one kind or another, or bodies that had to do with such services.
In later Greek texts from Egypt and in Coptic texts, we are able to discern two trends in the development of the meaning of diaconia.
Diaconia can be a task to be fulfilled by a monk or a cleric, for example, “diaconia of the gate.” A specific modification of this is the meaning “good deed,” as in a text referring to Saint MACARIUS published by E. Amélineau (1894, p. 167), “God writes down everything that we do: whether this is a diaconia or an additional prayer.”
In certain literary texts, diaconia means monastic service, hence monastic community or monastery (Kahle, 1954). The meaning “monastic community” appears in documents, for example, in a letter published by W. E. Crum (1932): “the whole diaconia from small to great,” where the author adopted a typical formula used in letters written by monks, “we greet everyone from the small to the great.” In Greek papyri that pertain to economic problems of the monasteries, the same meaning occurs (Maspero, 1913, Vol. 2, no. 67138; Vitelli, 1913, Vol. 3, no. 285).
The starting point for a second semantic development is a meaning that appears in the New Testament, “a service necessary for preparing a meal” (Luke 10:40). Deriving from this is the use of the word in the meaning of “alms,” hence food or things used as alms.
It is easy to see how, from the previous meaning, the use of diaconia as a term meaning “place in the monastery where the food was stored and prepared” was derived. Even today the place where bread is stored in Coptic monasteries is known in Arabic as the daquniyyah. In the specific conditions of Egyptian LAURAS that were located outside the zone of cultivated land and that were composed of loosely scattered cells and oratoria, the diaconia became a sui generis economic center, clearly separated from the rest. As a rule, it was composed of a building in the shape of a tower in which it was possible to safeguard food and raw materials against robbers. The diaconia also contained storerooms, bread ovens, a kitchen, and a refectory, although sometimes the brothers ate separately. This is why it was possible to rent out quarters in the diaconia from the monastic authorities. After a suitable reconstruction, they could have been used as a hospice for guests, as mentioned in a papyrus published by J. Maspero (1911, Vol. 1, no. 67096).
Moreover, diaconia was applied to separate services connected with economic activity in monastic communities: renting land; making arrangements about work; dividing tasks among the monks; and purchasing food, clothing, and raw materials for handicraft.
In churches, the term diaconia was applied to a separate unit of the episcopal personnel that administered property belonging to the church. It can be surmised that the diaconia also took care of philanthropic work. We still do not know whether the term was used for analogous but obviously much more modest services in the lower ranking churches.
The organization and range of activity of the diaconia in monastic communities depended upon the type and size of community. In large monasteries the diaconia could have expanded into a sizable body that was active in various areas, especially in those instances when the monastery was burdened with collecting taxes (Gascou, 1976). The fiscal product could have been, but did not have to be, partially handed over to the monastery and then used for philanthropic work. This was the case of the diaconia in the Pachomian monastery of the METANOIA in Alexandria, where taxes were collected in the nome of Antaiopolis and from which grain was transported in its own ships to Alexandria, and perhaps even to Constantinople.
It is difficult to know what the principles were according to which monks were selected to manage the affairs of the diaconia, with the exception of Pachomian monasteries where they were clearly described. One wonders if the monks belonged to the diaconia on a permanent basis; if it could have incorporated laics and not only monks, or clerics in the case of churches. These questions remain unsolved. Some texts contain a special term used to describe people of the diaconia. We may suppose that the diaconia was headed by the steward, although we find no information about this in the sources.
J. Maspero proposed another meaning of diaconia: “all property belonging to the monastery or church,” but it seems that this interpretation cannot be proven by sources. His thesis concerns the inscriptions on silver boxes for storing incense. The inscriptions proclaiming that the boxes belong to the diaconia of a church administered by a priest called Praipositos, according to Maspero, can be explained as referring to the diaconia in a meaning considered relating to separate services connected with economic activity.
- P. Kahle in Bala’izah. Coptic Texts from Deir el-Bala’izah in Upper Egypt, pp. 35-40, Oxford, 1954.
- E. Wipszycka in Les Ressources et les activities économiques des églises en Egypte, pp. 125-30, Brussels, 1972.
- J. Gascou and P. Fouad, “Les monastères pachômiens et l’état byzantin,” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 76 (1976):178-83.
- J. Maspero in “Sur quelques objets coptes du Musée du Caire.” Annales du Service des antiquités d’Egypte 10 (1910):173-74.
- Crum, W. E. The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Vol. 2, no. 178. New York, 1932.
- Maspero, J., ed. Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine, 3 vols. Cairo, 1911-1913.
- Vitelli, G., ed. Papiri Fiorentini. Milan, 1913.