Perfect participle of Greek proistemi, meaning “being at the head.” In Christian texts dating from the second and third centuries, it could be used to denote a church leader or bishop. In late Greek and Coptic texts it described a superior of a monastic community. This was the most widely used of the terms to denote the superior, abba, father, HEGUMENOS, ARCHIMANDRITE, and noh nrome.
In the oldest (334) Greek document in which proestos occurs in a monastic context (P. Lond. 1913; see Bell), it is used not in its later meaning but describes a group of monks of a Melitian monastery with whom the superior, called “father,” comes to an arrangement concerning his deputy and establishes the latter’s prerogatives. This group clearly consisted of the “elders” of the community, who perhaps fulfilled certain functions in the monastery (similar, for instance, to the chiefs of the houses in the Pachomian congregation). It is possible, however, that they were simply brothers who enjoyed higher authority.
In texts from the second half of the fourth century, proestos has an established technical significance. In large communities that were composed of a number of smaller units, such as ENATON or APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara, proestos referred, as a rule, to the lower- ranking superior when the prior of the entire community was designated by another title, usually archimandrite. In the Pachomian congregation, the superior of a single monastery was called proestos. In communities of a looser structure, that title could have been used by more than one monk at the same time.
Usually the proestos was an ordained presbyter; more rarely, a deacon. At times he was also given the higher title of hegumenos, which was identical with archipresbyteros. The way in which the proestos was nominated varied not only according to the size and type of the community but also according to local traditions. He could be nominated by his dying predecessor; or he could be elected by the brothers, who sometimes entered into a formal agreement that defined his obligations and those of his subordinates. The range of the activities of the proestos and the degree to which his powers were limited by the convention of all the monks or the council of the “elders” varied.
It is not clear whether the local bishop could influence the nomination of a proestos and his work, since the sources contain no indications. One could say with great caution that the absence of information in the extremely copious documentation concerning the churches and monasteries in Egypt provides evidence for a considerable independence of the monastic groups.
- Barison, P. “Ricerche sui monasteri dell’Egitto bizantino ed arabo secondo i documenti dei papiri greci.” Aegyptus 18 (1938):36-38.
- Bell, H. I. Jews and Christians in Egypt. London, 1924.
- Crum, W. E., and G. Steindorff, eds. and trans. Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djême (Theban). Leipzig, 1912-.
- Schiller, A. A., ed. Ten Coptic Legal Texts, nos. 1, 2, and 5. New York, 1932.
- Steinwenter, A. “Neue koptische Rechtsurkunden.” Aegyptus 13 (1933):315-16.