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”Do Not Believe Every Word like the Fool . . . !” Rhetorical Strategies in Shenoute, Canon 6 - Coptic Wiki

”Do Not Believe Every Word like the Fool . . . !” Rhetorical Strategies in Shenoute, Canon 6

ST. SHENOUTE (flORUIT ~A.D. 385–465) is the major Coptic writer of the late fourth and fifth centuries. The idea of producing texts in Coptic was not his invention, but he brought the language to a peak of literary quality which subsequent writers would struggle to attain. Characteristic of Shenoute’s works is a strongly developed, Bible-based rhetoric which he uses to establish his authority as leader of his monastic congregation in Upper Egypt, which consisted of two male and one female monasteries, and to preserve it in conflict situations[1].

Shenoute speaks to his monks and nuns in the voice of biblical figures whose leadership on the path to salvation was universally acknowledged: the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul[2]. The centrality of Scripture for Shenoute’s language, style, and argumentation cannot be overestimated, and in particular the creative appropriation of the biblical text shows the consummate rhetorical skill of this monastic writer.

In the following I will undertake to give a demonstration of this skill, examining two passages from one of Shenoute’s collections of works on monastic life. Specifically, I hope to achieve three goals:
• To show how Shenoute skillfully uses biblical quotations not only to support his own arguments, but also to deflect attacks by opponents.
• To present an instance where we can grasp a struggle within the monastic community about the correct interpretation of Scripture in the framework of a disagreement about a point of monastic discipline.
• To show how the careful examination of rhetorical strategies can complement codicological and philological strategies aimed at the reconstruction of the original sequence of works in a codex and the restitution of the argument.
As identified by Stephen Emmel[3], Shenoute’s works were transmitted in two major collections, nine volumes of Canons (mainly on monastic life) and eight volumes of Discourses (of various homiletic and pastoral interests).
In addition to the Canons and Discourses, there are a number of letters and unclassified works. The present chapter will focus on two passages from one of the volumes of Canons, Canon 6.

Shenoute, Canon 6

Before I discuss these passages in detail, I will present a short overview of the structure of Canon 6, which is based on Stephen Emmel’s reconstruction[4].
Canon 6 is extant in at least four copies from the library of Shenoute’s monastery[5], Codices XF, XM, XV and YJ. Codex YK, which includes at least two works from Canon 6 in the same order as the other witnesses, may possibly constitute another copy of this Canon. Canon 6 originally contained at least five separate works, most probably more, since there are numerous extensive lacunae. The following five incipits are preserved: “He Who Sits Upon His Throne,” “Remember O Brethren,” “Is It Not Written,” “Then I Am Not Obliged,” and “People Have Not Understood.”
Canon 6 has four main topics, several of which are present in more than one of the individual works. These topics are:
• Accusations against Shenoute of excessive force (and his defense): (“He Who Sits upon His Throne;” “Remember, O Brethren;” “Is It Not Written”)
• Shenoute’s illness (“Remember, O Brethren;” “Is It Not Written;” “Then I Am Not Obliged”)
• Affairs of the female community (“He Who Sits upon His Throne;” “Then I Am Not Obliged;” “People Have Not Understood”)
• Monastic rules
A more detailed look at the structure of Canon 6 will give the necessary background for the discussion of Shenoute’s rhetorical strategies.
“He Who Sits Upon His Throne” is a letter addressed to the community.
Shenoute defends his use of corporal punishment, especially of an elderly priest among the monks, against accusations of excessive force. Shenoute presents his disciplining the monk as divinely ordained and necessary in order to keep intact the unity of the community as the only path toward salvation[6]. A lacuna (XF 29–YJ 32) in the work before the next incipit may leave room for a new work to begin[7]. The end of the part after the lacuna belongs to a letter to a nun accused of insubordination (an offense which might have resulted in her being expelled from the community, but which is ultimately forgiven). “Remember O Brethren” again concerns the priest’s expulsion at the basis of “He Who Sits upon His Throne.” It is also mentioned that Shenoute is ill.
“Is It Not Written” contains about ninety pages of preserved text (the majority of which from Codex XF), interrupted by several larger and smaller lacunae. Most probably it has to be subdivided into several works. The theme of corporal punishment also reappears. The topics of “Is It Not Written” are transgressions of the rule (stealing and hoarding of food; favouritism)[8]; corporal punishment (including reference to a member who died after being beaten, possibly the same), and Shenoute’s illness. Large parts of “Is It Not Written” are addressed to the monastic community (tsunagwgh in Coptic) in the second person singular feminine, a form of personification very frequent in both Shenoute and his successor, Besa.
“Then I Am Not Obliged” once more refers to illness. Large part of the text contains monastic rules. A long lacuna of almost fifty pages may again leave room for a new work to begin. The last part concludes with greetings to the superiors of the female community and is concerned with garments that have been sent to Shenoute by the women. Stephen Emmel[9] argues that a reference to unrest before “our old father died” cannot be used for dating.
According to Emmel the only information we can glean from this reference is that Canon 6 must have been written after the events of Canon 1, which took place during Shenoute’s initial career.
Finally, “People Have Not Understood” is a response to a request for a transfer by a nun from one house to another house inside the monastery because she does not get along with her superior. Both “I Am Not Obliged” and “People Have Not Understood” have been extensively analyzed by Rebecca Krawiec under the aspect of gender relations in the monastery[10].

Shenoute’s Rhetorical Strategies

In this chapter I cannot discuss the entirety of Canon 6, but I wish to draw attention to some interesting parts in Shenoute’s rhetorical strategies. A superficial reading of Canon 6 may leave the reader slightly wearied owing to the relative uniformity of the predominant topic—obedience and discipline, disobedience and punishment—and the apparently repetitive attempts by Shenoute to justify himself vis-à-vis accusations of excessive severity.
However, a detailed analysis of the smaller components of the texts, the individual paragraphs, sentences and phrases, allows us to capture the skill of Shenoute’s phrase-turning and construction of argument. This is what the present paper aims to achieve, using examples in which Shenoute applies and adapts Scripture to make his case against his opponents.

Example 1: XM 181–185 (“De iudicio Dei”)
The first example is part of a stretch of text from Codex XM following the incipit “Is It Not Written” (after four smaller and one large lacunae, which in Emmel’s view could have contained a change of work).[11] Leipoldt has published this passage under the title De iudicio Dei “On the Judgment of God” (XM 175–190).[12] The entire text preserved is concerned with sinners inside the community. Shenoute introduces the particular passage I wish to discuss (XM 181-185) with, “I do not wish that some within you (scil. the community) say a word instead of another word” (XM 181).[13] Allusions about the nature of something hidden follow. Within these he gives an apparently explicit exegesis of his own words by yet another metaphor or parable. He continues, “Do not say to this book: ‘law’ or ‘instruction’ or ‘commandment.’

Instead, name it ‘enmity’ or ‘sighing’ or ‘reproof ’ (XM 183).”[14] In the following Shenoute calls his writing “letter” and tells the monks explicitly how to read and interpret it. He does this by juxtaposing biblical quotations. He tells his audience expressly not to apply particular biblical quotations to his letter, but others, quotations that better convey his purpose. He instructs them, at the same time skillfully adapting the biblical text through intertextual strategies of appropriation such as additions or the substitution of the original with a new wording.

In my analysis of Shenoute’s rhetorical strategies I subscribe to a functional, reception-oriented concept of literary ‘intertextuality,’ which analyzes the relations between individual texts, a source text (here the biblical text) and a target text (here Shenoute’s quotation in its new context), and tries to classify them.[15] It aims at finding the source(s) of a quotation, analyzing the position and the function of the quotation in the target text, and noting the modifications to which the quotation can be exposed in the process of transposition.

It is aware of the intentions of the text producer/author in using and modifying a quotation, but it is also aware of the necessity for the text recipient/ reader to recognize, acknowledge, and possibly reinterpret a quotation.
Therefore, although this concept is in contrast to the poststructuralist concept of ‘intertextuality’ which signifies the inescapable, unintentional, unconscious interconnectedness of all cultural phenomena, it does not intend, to use Udo Hebel’s words, “to limit a text’s semantic openness or to curb the theoretically unlimited and uncontrollable range of associations.”[16] “Intertextuality” is defined as a specific characteristic of texts and a specific strategy of texts[17], but the success of the strategy ultimately depends on the reader.
My analysis has also profited from Elizabeth Clark’s important study “Reading Renunciation,” in which she analyzes those of the late antique fathers who wish to find a biblical foundation for their propagating sexual continence. She identifies eleven rhetorical strategies by which the sometimes reluctant scriptural text is pressed into service to support the ascetical agenda, usually by skillful strategies of decontextualization and recontextualization. Clark calls one of these strategies “Talking Back.”[18] By “Talking Back” Clark actually describes two quite different strategies: on the one hand the throwing of biblical passages into the face of an opponent in a dispute, on the other the confrontation of passages by the same (biblical) author or other authoritative texts which show conflicting standpoints.

Shenoute uses the latter of these two strategies in the passage in question, when he gives explicit instructions to the audience for the interpretation of his own words. At first he tells the audience which biblical teaching not to apply to the situation, namely the ones advocating patience and gentle reproof for those erring[19]:

Do not say of this letter, “do not count them as enemies (biblical text: count him as an enemy)[20]. or teach them (biblical text: him) as a brother” (II Thessalonians 3:15) and, “bear with the weak, be patient with everyone” (I Thessalonians 5:14). This is not how it is. “Do not turn (Biblical text: for you have turned) the law into bile and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness (Amos 6:12[21])!”

Shenoute’s change to the quotation from II Thessalonians 3: 15 applies it to a group instead of the individual who is the object of the biblical admonition.
His substitution of a negative imperative in Amos 6:1221 aligns the quotation with the two previous ones, which both start with an imperative, and also with the negative imperative mpr`oos (do not say). Shenoute then proposes an alternative reading, citing biblical passages that in his interpretation privilege the exclusion of sinners from the group. He again adapts the biblical text to the situation at hand by continuing:

Instead read it this way: “do not mix with one or more people who are called ‘brother’ or ‘brothers’, if he is a fornicator or they are fornicators or worshippers of idols, greedy, reviling, robbing. Such a person or persons, do not eat with him or them (I Corinthians 5:11).”

The words marked in italics are additions by Shenoute and once more apply the biblical text, which in the original is directed at an individual, to a group of persons. The next passage is in my view a fascinating example of Shenoute’s reinterpreting Scripture even as he is quoting it, with his skill showing clearly in the minimal invasiveness of his intervention in the text:

Read this letter as follows: “As the violent man, the fornicator, the worshipper of idols, the adulterer, the effeminate,[22] the man who has intercourse with men, the drunkard or the reviler will not inherit the kingdom of God, in the same way the greedy or the robber will not inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 6:9b–10).

The source text lists ten categories of persons excluded from the kingdom of God linked by oude “and not.” “Greedy” (maito n6ouo) and “robber” (re3twrp) are the seventh and tenth items on this list of equal members. The structure of Shenoute’s quotation is different. He uses a comparison “as . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God (nqe etemn . . . [eight members of the original list] . . . naklhronomei ntmntero mpnoute), in the same way (tai on te qe) the greedy or the robber will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Shenoute thus skillfully rearranges the original biblical list to throw the emphasis on “greedy” and “robber.”
The following passages do not show any major modifications of the biblical text, except for some minor grammatical changes aimed at seamlessly inserting the quotations into the grammatical structure of their new co-text.
Their argumentative value lies in the careful choice Shenoute makes of biblical verses to then be put in opposition to one another:

Do not interpret this letter as follows: “Search for peace, pursue it” ( 33:15) or: “make peace with one another” (Mark 9:50), or: “pursue peace” (Hebrews 12:14), but read it as follows: “if your eye or your hand or your feet are a scandal to you, pluck them out or cut them off and throw them away from you” (conflation of Matthew 18:8f; Mark 9:43ff). Do not interpret this letter as: “who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15), but call it: “I hate the one who transgresses” (Psalms 100:3). About whom should you sigh or whose enemy should you become? This is no one but those who are doing or will do deceitful deeds and every transgression among you.

In summary, the passage XM 181–185 presents the following picture: community members have sinned. Their sin can be identified as the secret appropriation of food, which explains the skillful rearrangement of the argument in I Corinthians 6:9b–10 to throw a particular emphasis on the words “greedy” and “robbers.” Shenoute lines up numerous biblical quotations that could be interpreted as favoring mildness and leniency, and puts them in opposition to other quotations in favor of the expulsion of sinners from a group and the redrawing of group boundaries. Shenoute also assumes the authority to decide the contest in favor of the latter. The refutation by “Talking Back” of numerous biblical admonitions to leniency and brotherly forgiveness are a strong indication, in my view, of the presence of an oppositional position.

The sheer accumulation of passages makes it plausible that this oppositional position has in fact been voiced by a party in the monastery advocating a more lenient treatment of the transgressors. The passage under examination here is particularly interesting, because while the skillful adaptation of the biblical text is very frequent in both Shenoute and his successor, Besa,[23] the juxtaposition and the weighing of quotations against one another is a rare rhetorical strategy in Shenoute’s works. This raises the question why Shenoute would choose this particular strategy in this situation. I believe that we can find the answer to this question if we examine the continuation of Canon 6 following XM 190.

Example 2: XF 241–243
After XM 190 we find two shorter lacunae and then the lengthy continuous passage XF 203–XF 255.[24] The main topics of this passage are as in the previous example the theft of food, favoritism, and criticism of the punishments Shenoute has ordered. Within the text preserved here we can find one of the rare instances in which we can directly grasp an active internal opposition within Shenoute’s monastery (XF 241–243). The problem addressed by Shenoute in this passage is not an unusual one: community members have given food to relatives in secret, which transgresses one of the basic tenets of Shenoute’s monastic system, the replacement of the biological family by the monastic family and the equality of all members of the community.[25] However, we rarely have the opportunity to glimpse alternative positions within the monastery, filtered as our perception is by Shenoute’s monopoly on the presentation of the issues involved. In this particular case, though, and the filter notwithstanding, I believe that we may get closer than anywhere else to individuating an oppositional current and the arguments used in the dispute.

It becomes quite clear that some of the community members disagree with Shenoute’s hard-line approach to those transgressing the rules by stealing, appropriating and illegally distributing food. They argue that a hard-line approach might cause others to lose the fruit of their labors, and they defend their opposition on biblical grounds, basing their argumentation of Matthew (Matthew 22:11–14):

As those who were reclining at the wedding knew the one who did not have a nuptial garment and did not say anything to him or do anything to him until the Lord came, this is also, they (scil. the opposition) say, how those who know those who do evil in the communities or churches should not expel them until they come before the Lord Jesus or until he comes.

Shenoute harshly disputes the validity of this argument:

This talk is a scandal. This is not how it is. Do not believe every word like the fool, but become the more wise, and examine every word, every spirit at every time, so that you will not sadden the one who has said through Solomon, “the fool believes every word, what is sound and what is not, the wise man however, pays attention to what is inappropriate and what is appropriate to say” (Proverbs 14:15).

Proverbs 14: 15 is preserved in Sahidic as:[26] 4arepbal6ht tan6et4a`e nim 4arepsabe de r6th3 “The fool believes every word, the wise man, however, pays attention.” “What is sound and what is not” and “to what is inappropriate and what is appropriate to say” are seamless insertions of the interpretation directly into the wording of Scripture. They expertly adapt the general wisdom of the biblical text to the particular problem of Shenoute’s being confronted with an exegesis of the Bible that advocates a policy diametrically to his own.

Shenoute’s opponents, the quotation is intended to say, lack discernment in judgment and discernment in speech—the text of Proverbs disqualifies them and their dissenting opinion.
Shenoute then directly addresses the rather delicate problem of the dissenters basing their argument on biblical authority:

Or don’t you know that those who stretch these words, bringing them to this meaning, are fighting against the Scriptures or forgetting them? Aren’t those (scil. the Scriptures) the ones which say, “Throw out (nou`e ebol) an evil man from a crowd and strife will go together with him. For if he stays in the crowd, they will all be despised.” (Proverbs 22:10) And again, “You, you have rejected (nou`e ebol) knowledge, I for my part I will throw you out of the [27] so that you cannot serve me.” (Hosea 4:6) And, “I will throw you out (again, the verb is nou`e ebol) of this so that you cannot serve me, as I have expelled your brothers.” (Jeremiah 7:15). Again, “I will take away (3i ebol) all the godless away from you, all the arrogant.” (Zephaniah 3:11) In many passages of the Scriptures it is said thus.

The barrage of quotations with which Shenoute tries to silence his opponents is linked by the semantic field of “expulsion,” either by the verb nou`e ebol “to throw out” (three cases) or the verb 3i ebol “to take away” (one case). The quotation of Proverbs 22:10 corresponds to the original,[28] its value for the argumentation again lies in its selection.

The quotations of Hosea 4:6 and Jeremiah 7:15 show an addition and a substitution respectively.
In Hosea 4:6 “out of the holy place” is inserted into the biblical text,[29] in Jeremiah 7:15, although the text is not preserved in Coptic, “out of this holy place” can realistically be assumed to be a substitution for the Greek a)po_ prosw/pou mou. “out of my sight.”[30] Both the addition and the substitution redirect the focus of the quotations away from the Old Testament context to the setting of the monastery, Shenoute’s “holy place.”

The disobedient of the biblical text, those who have rejected God’s will out of arrogance, become the disobedient of the present situation, those who have rejected Shenoute’s interpretation of the holy texts. The fate of the disobedient in the prophetical books, experiencing the wrath of God, being denied access to his presence and thereby losing their own salvation, will also be the fate of Shenoute’s opposition and the punishment for their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

I would like to draw three conclusions from this brief discussion of the passages from Canon 6. First, there seems to be a continuation of the subject matter from XM 175–190 to XF 241–243, which bridges the two shorter lacunae between the two portions of preserved text. The subject is the secret appropriation of food and the question of how to punish the transgressors— severely, including expulsion, or leniently, with an emphasis on brotherly forgiveness. This continuation raises the suspicion that “Is It Not Written” (or the acephalous work starting in one of the lacunae before XM 175) may continue across the two lacunae we find following XM 190. Second, we gain new information about oppositional movements in the monastery.

The group that Shenoute is addressing in XF 241f openly contests his authority and questions his monopoly on scriptural interpretation, offering an independent exegesis of Scripture, in this case of Matthew 22:11–14. I suspect that it is both the constant exposure to the biblical and other authoritative texts through Shenoute’s works and the unfiltered access to these texts that allows competing interpretations to surface in the monastery. The simple act of quoting a sacred or venerated text is fraught with dangers.

A gap opens up between the authoritative source text and the authority the act of quoting wants to monopolize. The recipient/reader of the quotation may refuse to see an identity between the authority of the source text and the authority of the person citing it and apply his or her own interpretation to the text quoted. Shenoute shares this problem with any author quoting an authoritative text, as Simon Goldhill describes:

In particular, citation, quotation and even the self-reflexive awareness of the texts of the past, become an especially problematic site for the authorized voice: inverted commas open the possibility of comic inversion, or ironic interplay between authorities, or to a display of the contests of voices in and against which an authoritative position is formulated. There is an inevitable gap between the author’s voice and the voice of authority.[31]

In Shenoute’s case, the problem is intensified by the alphabetization of the community, which was encouraged to learn to read and recite Scripture, and the physical access to the books containing the authoritative texts, which inevitably open up the space for an independent exegesis. Shenoute therefore needs to find strategies to control the competing interpretations arising from the gap described.

If the oppositional group of XF 241–243, which offers a competing biblical exegesis, is in fact the same group against which Shenoute justifies his actions in XM 175–190, his strategy of “Talking Back” in XM 183–185 makes perfect sense. He counteracts their alternative, Gospel-based exegesis, with an equally bible-based argumentation, but with an emphasis on the Old Testament, choosing quotations (or quotation clusters) from the prophetical and wisdom books that support his agenda.

Shenoute thus, and this is my final point, not only quotes extensively from the Bible, he carefully chooses the quotations and makes skillful changes to the biblical text to adapt and recontextualize it. In the course of this recontextualization, he may even establish a hierarchy of scriptural quotations, privileging the dire threats and severe admonitions of Proverbs and the prophetical books over the exhortations to peace and brotherly love taken chiefly from the New Testament, those quotations which may have been favored by his opponents. It cannot be shown more clearly that Shenoute sees himself as an inspired vessel of God’s word, a modern-day prophet whose mission complements that of the of old.



[1] For the structure of the monastic federation which Shenoute led see Emmel 2004b and Krawiec 2002, especially ch. 1.

[2] Krawiec 2002: ch. 3.

[3] Emmel 2004b.

[4] Emmel 2004b: 576-582; 731-44.

[5] For the library of Shenoute’s monastery see Orlandi 2002.

[6] Shenoute’s presentation of the monastic community as a privileged path toward sal­vation is one of the mainstays of his system: see, for example, Krawiec 2002: ch. 3.

[7] Emmel 2004b: 577.

[8] Layton 2002 discusses the social aspects of food consumption within the monastery.

[9] Emmel 2004b: 578.

[10] Krawiec 2002: ch. 2.

[11] Emmel 2004b: 577; 734f.

[12] Leipoldt 1906-13, vol. 3: 188-95.

[13] Ibid.: 191.

[14] Ibid.: 192.

[15] Hebel 1991; Plett 1991.

[16] Hebel 1991: 140.

[17] Holthuis 1993: 16.

[18] Clark 1999: 104-52, esp. pp. 128-32.

[19] The quotations discussed in the following are quoted from Leipoldt 1906-13, vol. 3: 192f.

[20] The text used for comparison here is the main text from Horner 1911-1924. The variants given by Horner and most of the texts published since Horner’s edition have been checked to make sure that Shenoute’s deviations from the biblical text are not due to textual variation within the manuscript tradition itself. If the Coptic text is quoted, the spelling is slightly standardized, with the supralin- ear stroke being omitted in all cases. The same applies mutatis mutandis to the other quotations discussed here. Every quotation has been checked against the Sahidic tra­dition, and each of Shenoute’s deviations from the biblical text has been evaluated individually. Only those deviations have been taken into consideration which not only are so significant and striking as to exclude mere textual variants but which also no longer make sense within the original context, whereas, as will be argued here, they make perfect sense in the new context of Shenoute’s argument.

[21][21] Amos 6:12 is not preserved in Sahidic Coptic. The Septuagint Greek translates to “for you have turned judgment into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into bitter­ness.” It is very unlikely that the Coptic imperative mprkte (‘do not turn’) would be a transmission variant for the Greek Aorist 2nd pers. pl.

[22] For a discussion of the Greek loan-word malako/j see Behlmer 2000.

[23] This strategy firmly anchors both in the late antique tradition of biblical interpreta­tion. I discuss this in detail in Behlmer (forthcoming).

[24] Emmel 2004b: 736-38.

[25] Krawiec 2002: chs. 7 and 8. For a comprehensive evaluation of the late antique Christian and especially the monastic concept of ‘family’ see Krawiec 2003.

[26] Worrell 1931: 44.

[27] XF 243 (Amelineau 1907-1909: 64) has 5nan0U’k ebOl 6mpma etouaab. A control of the original would be necessary to check whether it shows the correct reading 5nanO’k ebOl (see Ciasca 1885: 325 for the Sahidic version of Hosea 4: 6). It would also be useful to check whether the original reads, parallel to the following quotation, ebOl 6mpima etOuaab (‘out of this holy place’).

[28] Worrell 1931: 71.

[29] Or: “out of this holy place,” see note 24.

[30] The Sahidic text of Jeremiah, as far as it is preserved, is now readily accessible in Feder 2002.

[31] Goldhill 1993: 151.

Heike Behlmer