Pachomius and the White Monastery

IN THE fiRST volume of the Oxford History of the Christian Church, entitled The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great and published in 2001, Henry Chadwick included the following brief paragraph on Shenoute in his chapter on “Monks: The Ascetic Life.”

In the the Pachomian monasteries acquired a formidable leader Shenoute; austere and authoritarian, he made discipline tougher (more vehement beatings for lapses) but was admired for generous hospitality and for his onslaughts on pagan temples.[1]

While we historians of Coptic Egypt may give thanks that Shenoute has finally made it into a classic western English language introduction to Christianity, we may also be forgiven for cringing at the historical inaccuracy of enrolling Shenoute himself into the Pachomian federation. And yet there is a way in which history did in fact effect that enrollment, albeit later in date in the community’s subsequent articulation of its past. The history of the relationship between Shenoute’s White Monastery and the Pachomian federation offers, in fact, a fascinating glimpse into the historical development and creative memory of the Upper Egyptian coenobitic movement. While the evidence is necessarily sparse, enough survives to permit a tentative reconstruction of the various stages involved in the process.

By the middle of the fourth century, when Pcol decided to found his new monastery on the edge of the desert across the Nile from Smin (Panopolis),[2] the Pachomian Koinonia already administered a cluster of four monasteries in the area on the other side of the Nile. The local bishop of Smin, an ascetic named Arios, had earlier invited Pachomius to organize a monastery in his city.[3] Its success soon led the federation to expand its operation in the area. Before his death in A.D. 346, the federation added two additional male monasteries, Tse and , and a monastery of virgins associated with , in the immediate area.[4]

The distance of this cluster from the original Pachomian communities centered around led to an arrangement whereby Petronius, the father of Tsmine, served to oversee the entire cluster.[5] While one need not assume that the Pachomian communities were the only monasteries in the area, it seems probable that their considerable presence made them readily visible and influential in and around the city of Smin in the middle of the fourth century.

The substantial Pachomian presence in the area leads one to suspect some form of relationship between it and the White Monastery that emerged on the other side of the Nile in the middle of the fourth century. Johannes argued, in fact, that Pcol’s success in founding the White Monastery depended on the decline of the Pachomian federation. There is, however, no hard evidence to support this thesis.[6]

While it is true that the federation came close to breaking apart upon Pachomius’s death, a fact used by Leipoldt in support of his contention, the crisis was averted when Theodore replaced Horsiesius as the federation’s general abbot.[7] In order to avoid similar problems in the future, Theodore instituted a new administrative policy, rotating the individual abbots among the various monasteries twice each year.[8]

While the silence of the sources allows one to speculate about the fate of the outlying monasteries, it offers no proof that they were either in decline or left the federation. The implementation of the new administrative system suggests rather that they remained within the federation. Additional references indicate, in fact, that the federation continued to grow under Theodore’s leadership. Before his death in A.D. 368 he founded two new monasteries, Kaior and Nouoi, further down the Nile beyond Smin near Hermopolis, and added an additional monastery of virgins at Bechne near the federation’s central monastery of Pbow.[9] While problems reemerged when Horsiesius resumed the post of general abbot upon Theodore’s death, they did not last long.[10]

There is again no indication that any of the federation’s monasteries left during Horsiesius’s tenure, which lasted at least through A.D. 387. The fact that the federation constructed a major basilica at its central monastery of Pbow in the middle of the fifth century and was involved in the founding of the monastery of in the Alexandrian suburb of Canopus argues for its continued strength into the following period.[11]

Given this evidence, there is no reason to assume that the success of the White Monastery near Smin occurred as a result of the decline of the nearby Pachomian communities.[12] While they certainly declined and disappeared at some point in history, any effort to pinpoint the date rests not on fact but speculation. If one accepts the continuing existence of both communities for some period of time, the more interesting question of their interaction arises. Rather than simply assuming that the White Monastery grew as the nearby Pachomian communities failed, one is compelled to ask about the nature and impact of the relationship between the two. It is to this task that I now turn.

While one will never know why Pcol chose to establish his own community rather than join the Pachomian federation, the significant presence of the federation in the immediate area appears to have influenced his own undertaking. Later sources note that Pcol did not fashion a new way or different rules, but built on the foundation of others, presumably Pachomius and his successors.[13] The so-called Rule of Pcol, reconstructed by Leipoldt, supports this claim. Several of its regulations, while formulated differently, address behaviors identical to those found in the Rule of Pachomius.[14] Compare, for example, regulations 8 and 9 of the Rule of Pcol, as cited by Shenoute, with Praecepta 97 and 96 from the Rule of Pachomius.[15]

Rule of Pcol 8
“Cursed is any novice who shaves another novice without being assigned to do so, or who does so out of the sight of others.”

Rule of Pachomius, Preacepta 97
“No one shall shave his head without the housemaster, nor shall anyone shave someone else without having been assigned to do so, and nor shall anyone shave someone else while they are both sitting.”

Rule of Pcol 9
“Cursed is any novice who removes a thorn from another novice’s foot without being assigned to do so, or who does so out of sight of others.”

Rule of Pachomius, Preacepta 96
“No one shall remove a thorn from someone else’s foot, except the housemaster and his second, or someone who is ordered to do so.”

It seems clear from such evidence that Pcol drew from the Pachomian tradition in constructing his own community. One may further assume that his information came from the federation’s monasteries in the immediate area. Each new monastery in the Pachomian federation was organized according to the same rule and likely supplied with a copy of it.[16] Whether Pcol learned of the rules through conversations with Pachomian monks or from a copy of the rule acquired for his own community, knowledge of it appears to have influenced the organization and running of his monastery.

The of Pachomius’s authority as the founder of the coe-nobitic life and author of the movement’s ancestral rule continued under Shenoute’s leadership (385-465).[17] While he guarded the White Monastery’s independence, he would on occasion appeal to Pachomius in support of his cause.[18] In his “So Listen,” for example, Shenoute harshly condemns an errant monk, suggesting that his activities in the darkness mock the words of “our fathers,” which he then narrows down to “Pachomius the Great,” citing from his rule “Do not speak with your neighbor in darkness?”[19] By referencing Pachomius and his rule, Shenoute condemns the actions of the errant monk as crimes committed not only against him and his rule, but against the coenobitic institution more generally.

A second reference to Pachomius, although this time not identified as such, occurs in Shenoute’s discourse “I Have Heard About Your Wisdom,” preached before the governor Flavianus. In this treatise, Shenoute reflects on how a person is to confront the world without becoming an enemy of Christ. At one point, he draws from the Letters of Pachomius, declaring: “A good and wise and truly pious father said through his writings in some letters, ‘Sing the omega. Do not let the omega sing you’.”[20] The passage is a direct quotation from Pachomius’s Letter 1.[21] While we cannot know for certain why he chose in this instance not to name his source,[22] his use of it again underscores the respect and authority given to Pachomius within the White Monastery.

Additional, more subtle echoes of parallel content and language between Shenoute’s writings and the Pachomian dossier further the impression of this connection.[23] One may suspect as well that Shenoute’s effort to draw the nearby female community and the Red Monastery into a monastic federation under his centralized control reflects the influence of the Pachomian Koinonia.

Shenoute’s successor, Besa (A.D. 465 to after 474), on the other hand, neither quotes from the Pachomian corpus nor refers to the Pachomian federation in his extant letters and sermons.[24] In the later , however, the Pachomian connection reemerges. It reports that Victor, of the Pachomian federation, and Shenoute traveled to the royal city with the of Alexandria to confront the problems raised by Nestorius.[25] The reference probably points to Shenoute’s attendance at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and if both his and Victor’s participation is historically accurate,[26] it underscores the two coenobitic leaders’ recognition within Egypt and establishes a connection between them. If it is not historically accurate, it indicates the later assumption of such contact.

Contact is also assumed for the mid-fifth century in the Panegyric on Macarius Bishop of Tkow, which reports that the Pachomian archimandrite Paphnutius stopped at the White Monastery as he journeyed northward with some brothers to receive a blessing from Shenoute.[27] It is worth noting in this connection that both communities, the White Monastery in Sohag and the Pachomian central monastery of Pbow, constructed great new basilicas with remarkably similar dimensions in the middle of the fifth century.[28] They had become parallel monastic powerhouses in Upper Egypt, and while not precluding some form of competition, the two federations continued to recognize and accept one another, as they always had.

Matters changed dramatically, however, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527—565). In the period following the Council of in 451, diversity emerged within the Pachomian federation with respect to the decisions embraced by the council. The differences, however, did not disrupt the federation until the reign of Justinian I, when, according to evidence contained in three fragmentary White Monastery codices, certain pro-Chalcedonian elements within the federation brought accusations against of Farshut, the archimandrite of the federation’s central monastery of Pbow. Based on these charges, Justinian summoned to Constantinople, where he demanded his allegiance to .

When Abraham refused, Justinian stripped him of his position as archimandrite and appointed one of Abraham’s pro-Chalcedonian accusers in his . Upon his return to Egypt, soldiers accompanied the newly named pro-Chalcedonian archimandrite to Pbow to insure his installation. The sources report that the monks loyal to Abraham, namely, the element, fled to the desert and other monasteries. As a result, the Pachomian federation, at least as represented by its central monastery of Pbow, became a pro-Chalcedonian organization.

Abraham, who managed to return to Egypt with the help of the Empress , proceeded first to Shenoute’s White Monastery, where he copied the rule and put it in safe storage for later use. He retrieved the copy at a later date when he established his own community near his native Farshut.[29]

The fact that Abraham sought refuge in the White Monastery underscores the close relationship between it and the Pachomian community of Pbow. I have argued elsewhere that the events that befell the Pachomian federation were unique to its own situation. While Justinian I supplied the muscle to effect the enforcement of the Chalcedonian position at Pbow, the impetus for the action came from elements within the Pachomian federation. The emperor’s religious policies created an opportunity for the pro-Chalcedonian monks, who used it effectively to gain control of the federation. At the White Monastery, on the other hand, Shenoute’s emphasis on the purity of the corporate monastic body and his strict enforcement of the rules insured the community’s Coptic orthodoxy. No place existed within the Shenoutean federation where pro-Chalcedonian elements might gain a foothold.[30]

The White Monastery thus offered the exiled anti-Chalcedonian archimandrite welcome and familiar refuge.[31] He used his brief stay there, for example, to make a copy of the rules.[32] While the identifies these as the rules of Shenoute, one wonders whether the identification is anachronistic. It would make more sense for Abraham to make a copy of the Pachomian rule, which, given Shenoute’s citation of it in his writings, must have existed in the community’s library at that point. In that case, Abraham, shorn of access to his own community, turned to its close Upper Egyptian relative for access to his own Pachomian traditions.

The loss of the Pachomian federation to the pro-Chalcedonian party in the middle of the sixth century removed it as a player in the production of Coptic orthodoxy. The White Monastery, which had existed as one of the two main coenobitic powerhouses in Upper Egypt, became in the process the sole inheritor of the orthodox coenobitic mantle. While insufficient evidence survives to reconstruct the decline of the Pachomian monasteries subsequent to these events, decline they did and ultimately disappeared. One has only to observe the current state of the Pachomian Monastery of Pbow in comparison with that of the White Monastery to recognize this fact.

The transfer of power led as well to a more intimate joining of the early orthodox Pachomian traditions with the continuing orthodox traditions of the White Monastery. As Abraham, when exiled from the newly pro-Chalcedonian and hence heterodox Pachomian federation, had found refuge in Shenoute’s White Monastery, so the Coptic orthodox coenobitic tradition found refuge and continuity in the enduring orthodoxy of the White Monastery. The coenobitic family tree shifted to trace its heritage from its early orthodox Pachomian founders to and through Shenoute, who became the tradition’s most visible representative in Egypt.

This shift is traceable in the references to Pachomius and Shenoute in the later sources. Prior to the demise of the Pachomian federation, references to Pachomius recognized his authority as the founder of the coenobitic tradition without blurring the distinctive nature of his and Shenoute’s federations. Shenoute refers to his coenobitic ancestors as “our fathers,” but neither he nor the later Life of Shenoute use the phrase to locate the origin of the White Monastery in the Pachomian tradition or to suggest that it has inherited the coenobitic mantle.

The usage simply recognizes a more general indebtedness to the earlier Pachomian movement. In the Life of Shenoute, for example, the author has Shenoute call out in the midst of a deathbed vision, “My father Apa Psoi, my father Apa Antony, my father Apa Pachomius, take my hand so that I may rise and worship him whom my soul loves, for behold! He has come with his angels.”[33] Note that the use of the term ‘father’ does not set Pachomius apart. He, like Psoi and Antony, simply represents the origins of the Egyptian monastic movement, saints who Shenoute to heaven and now return to welcome him into heaven at the moment of his death.

When one turns to the later Panegyrics on Abraham of Farshut, the pattern shifts so as to place Shenoute in the line of early coenobitic leaders. The First Panegyric on Abraham of Farshut tells the story of Abraham’s vision of his own impending death.

He looked and saw our holy fathers of the Koinonia, Apa Pachomius and Apa Petronius and Apa Shenoute of the monastery of Atripe. They came to him, and when he saw them, he ran to them (and) greeted them with his face downcast towards the earth. They embraced him, raised him up, (and) greeted him. And they said to him, “Peace to you who has built upon the foundation that we laid.”[34]

The author later praises Abraham as “a great one among the saints and an elect and perfect one among the monks, like our ancient fathers and forefathers, that is, Apa Pachomius and Apa Shenoute and Apa Petronius and Apa Horsiesius, the fathers of the world.”[35] Shenoute, in these passages, has become one of the founding fathers of the Upper Egyptian coenobitic movement. Gone are the later Pachomian archimandrites , like Apa Victor, who accompanied Shenoute and Cyril to the Council of Ephesus. The coenobitic family tree now moves from Pachomius to Petronius to Theodore to Horsiesius to Shenoute. Shenoute, the archimandrite of the independent White Monastery federation, is here posthumously enrolled in the Pachomian federation.

In similar fashion, Shenoute takes his place alongside Pachomius as the author of the coenobitic rule. In the same First Panegyric on Abraham of Farshut, Abraham warns his monks, “And even if the whole world were in , you would be in need because you abandoned the laws of the Lord that our holy fathers gave us, namely Apa Pachomius and Apa Shenoute.”[36]

Consider in comparison the passage from Horsiesius’s Fourth Letter: “Let us remember his [Pachomius’s] commandments and laws, which he established for us so that we may observe them in truth. And let us also remember our father Petronius, who passed his short time with us according to the [custom?]. And let us remember our father Theodore.”[37] Horsiesius, writing before the events that took place in the reign of Justinian I, thinks historically within the Pachomian tradition.

The author of the First Panegyric on Abraham of Farshut, on the other hand, writing after those events, thinks more “creatively.” He realigns the history of Upper Egyptian coenobitism so that it follows orthodox rather than historical lines of descent. By tracing the coenobitic tradition back through Shenoute to Horsiesius to Theodore to Petronius to Pachomius, the author, whom I take to represent the later tradition, fashions a new line of descent that ignores and therefore bypasses the later heterodoxy of the Pachomian federation.

Let me return in closing to Henry Chadwick’s observations that “in the fifth century the Pachomian monasteries acquired a formidable leader Shenoute.” The claim, as already noted, is historically inaccurate. While the founders of the White Monastery willingly drew upon the Pachomian example and developed close relationships with the federation, they never became part of it. I would argue, however, that what did not happen historically, happened in the later articulation of history.

With the loss of the Pachomian federation to Coptic orthodoxy in the sixth century, Shenoute gained in stature. As the heterodox Pachomian monasteries declined over time and eventually disappeared, Shenoute’s position rose within the shared memory of the past. He took his place in a now common coenobitic history that traced its origins back through Shenoute to Pachomius. In this sense then, while Chadwick’s assertion is historically inaccurate, it captures the eventual outcome of history. In the aftermath of the events that took place in the reign of Justinian I, the Pachomian tradition, to use Chadwick’s words, “acquired a formidable leader, Shenoute.”

James E. Goehring


[1] Chadwick 2001: 402.

[2] The precise date of Pcol’s founding of his monastery remains unknown. Judging from the date of Shenoute’s entry into the monastery circa 356, the founding is usually placed center the middle of the century. Emmel 2004a: 156—57; Layton 2002: 25.

[3] Fifth Sahidic Life of Pachomius (S5) 54 and the First Greek Life of Pachomius (G1) 81; for English translations, see Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 73-74 and 352-53.

[4] For Tse: S5 52 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 72-73) and G1 83 (Veilleux 1980­1982, vol. 1: 354). For Smin: S5 54 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 73-74) and G1 81 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 352-53). For Tsmine: S5 57 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 77-78) and G1 83 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 354). For the associated monas­tery of virgins: G1 134 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 393). See also Ladeuze 1898: 174-78; Lefort 1939: 403-404; Goehring 1996: 279 (Goehring 1999a: 101-102).

[5] 1957: 382-85.

[6] Leipoldt 1903: 36. His case rests on (1) an assumed loss of power evidenced by the schism that followed Pachomius’s death, (2) the fact that this loss of power makes sense of the fact that the later Coptic tradition, while honoring Pachomius, Theodore, and Horsiesius, preserved little more than the names of the subsequent Pachomian abbots, and (3) the fact that the decline of the Pachomian federation explains the rise of the White Monastery. With respect to his second point, it is worth noting that the natural focus of such communities on their founders’ sto­ries explains this phenomenon. One could say the same thing with respect to the sources on the White Monastery. In addition, one might point to the Pachomian Archimandrite Victor, who, according to the of the Council of Ephesus and the Life of Shenoute, accompanied Cyril to the Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E. His feast day was later celebrated at the White Monastery (Coquin 1991d: 2308).

[7] Sixth Sahidic Life of Pachomius (S6) 139-44 (supplemented by the Bohairic Life of Pachomius [Bo]); G1 127-131; Veilleux 1980-1982[vol. no.?]: 195-205, 387-91; Goehring 1986: 242-44 (Goehring 1999a: 1 67-70) .[Goehring 1986 a or 1986 b?]

[8] S6 144; Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 204-205. This policy is not mentioned in the Greek Life of Pachomius.

[9] G1 134; see also Bo 202 (= G1 137).

[10] Goehring 1999b: 221-40.

[11] For the fifth-century basilica, see Coquin 1991b: 1926-1927; Grossmann 1991e: 1927-1929; Goehring 1989: 11-12 (Goehring 1999a: 251-52); Lease 1991. For the monastery of Metanoia, see 1991: 1608-11. It may be, of course, that not all of the federation’s monasteries remained equally strong and/or affiliated with the Koinonia.

[12] It should be noted that the existence of a powerful monastery does not necessarily preclude the formation of other independent monasteries in the same area. While various pre-exisiting monasteries did choose to join the Pachomian federation (so seneset, Tmousons and Tbewe; see Goehring 1992: 245 (Goehring 1999a: 28), oth­ers, such as the community near Sne from which Theodore came (Bo 31; G1 33) did not. The later Pachomian monastery of Phnoum at Sne is presented as a new foundation (Bo 58; cf. G1 83) and thus distinct from the independent monastery that Theodore had initially joined. One may point as well to the numerous later monas­teries that arose in the vicinity of the White Monastery on the east side of the Nile near Akhmim (Coquin 1991a: 78).

[13] Leipoldt 1903: 38 n. 2.

[14] Emmel 2004a: 164; Leipoldt (1903: 37-38) indicates that Pcol made the rule some­what harsher. Emmel notes that Leipoldt’s reconstruction of the Rule of Pcol has yet to be fully tested against the newly reconstructed of Shenoute.

[15] Translations from Emmel 2004: 164 (Rule of Pcol); 164-65 n. 39 (Pachomian Rule).

[16] Bo 50 (seneset); S5 51 (Tmousons), 52 (Tse); Am 54 (Smin); Bo 56 (Tbewe), 57 (Tsmine), 58 (Phnoum); cf. G1 54 and 83. The Life of Pachomius reports that a copy of the rule was made and deposited in the first associated women’s monastery (Bo 27; G1 32). The more distant cluster of four monasteries in the Panololite nome surely had at least one copy of the rule.

[17] The dates refer to his period as the third father or leader of the White Monastery. For a thorough discussion of Shenoute’s dates, see Emmel 2004: 155-57.

[18] I am aware of only two specific references in the surviving corpus of his works.

[19] Amelineau 1909: 461; Leipoldt 1903: 99 n. 4. David Brakke alerted me to this pas­sage. The Coptic of the Pachomian Rule, Praecepta 94, reads: “No one shall speak to his neighbors in the darkness.” While the Coptic differs, the citation of the Rule is clear.

[20] White Monastery Ms. XH 277.11.35-43; Chassinat 1911: 111; my translation. See Quecke 1968: 155-71.

[21] Quecke 1975: 99. The Greek reads asOV tw’ w, ‘iVa mh; to; w ash SOiV. Cf. Boon 1932: 77. Quecke (1968: 166) identified this passage as the one example in Shenoute’s extant writings where he cites Pachomius.

[22] Leipoldt (1903: 86 n. 4) suggests that Shenoute may have left Pachomius’s name out on the assumption that his non-monastic audience would have been unfamiliar with him.

[23] Such echoes are just beginning to be recognized. See Timbie 2005: 70—71.

[24] See the indices in Kuhn 1956. It is interesting to note that Besa does quote from the letters of Antony, which one thus assumes were in the monastery’s library.

[25] Life of Shenoute 17—21; English translation in Bell 1983: 47—49. The royal city refers to Constantinople, though one suspects that the passage connects with Shenoute atten­dance with Cyril at the Council of Ephesis in 431 B.C. (Life of Shenoute 128—30).

[26] In the Coptic of the Council of Ephesus, Victor’s role at the Council of Ephesus is emphasized and Shenoute is not mentioned. See Kraatz 1904: especially 148—71. Janet Timbie brought this reference to my attention. See also Coquin 1991d: 2308.

[27] Panegyric on Macarius 15.3; Johnson 1980: vol. 415, p. 117 (text) and vol. 416, p. 91 (translation).

[28] See above, n. 11; also, Goehring 2006: 3—5.

[29] The events are briefly recorded in the Copto-Arabic . See Basset 1916: 682-88; Forget 1906: 411-13 (text); 1921: 401-405 (translation). A brief reference also occurs in the Panegyric on Apollo. See Kuhn 1978, vol. 394: 17-18 (text) and vol. 395: 13 (translation). Additional details are preserved in the fragmentary remains of White Monastery Codices GC and GC. The former contains two panegyrics on Abraham of Farshut, and the latter an excerpt on Abraham in a panegyric on Manasseh. See 1978: 223-46; 1985b; 1985c. I am currently working on a critical edition of these materials. For a more detailed account, see Goehring 2006: 1-17, and the older dated article, Goehring 1989.

[30] Goehring 2006: 17-20.

[31] One assumes that some of the others who followed Abraham in leaving Pbow also found refuge at the White Monastery.

[32] This information occurs in the Copto-Arabic Synaxarium. Basset 1916: 684-85; Forget 1921: 402.

[33] Life of Shenoute 185; Bell 1983: 91.

[34] White Monastery Codex GC, Coptic page 49A14-B13 (Cairo, IFAO 8r); my trans­lation.

[35] White Monastery Codex GC, Coptic page [84]B11-24 (Paris, BN 12913 15v); my translation.

[36] White Monastery Codex GC, Coptic page 53A14-B2 (Vienna, BN K9527r; my translation. A similar conflation occurs in the Panegyric on Apollo (Kuhn 1978, vol. 394: 36.14-22 (text) and vol. 395, 27.25-32 (translation)).

[37] Horsiesius, Ep. 4 (Veilleux 1980-1982, vol. 1: 163); Veilleux’s translation. A similar reference to Pachomius, Petronius, and Theodore occurs in Horsiesius’s speech to the brothers after Theodore’s death preserved in the Bohairic Life of Pachomius 208 (Veilleux 1980-1982[vol. No.?]: 261-62); Goehring 1999b: 229


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