Saint Pachomius (292-346)


founder of cenobitic monasticism (feast day: 14 Bashans). He was born of pagan parents in Upper Egypt. His first contact with Christianity occurred in 312, when he was a conscript in the Roman army. As a soldier, he experienced great acts of charity from a local community of Christians whose members brought him relief while he was taken prisoner during that time. This forever marked his understanding of Christianity. From that time he committed himself to serve mankind. The notion of service to God and to all his brothers was a capital feature of his spirituality for the rest of his life.

As soon as he was released from the army, Pachomius settled in a small village called Sheneset (Chenoboskion), where there was a Christian community into which he was baptized. He devoted himself to the service of others in several ways. He was a born community builder, and every time he settled somewhere, his personality attracted people who availed themselves of his goodness and came closer to him.

After three years of this life of service, Pachomius became one of the disciples of PALAMON, an who lived as an ascetic some distance from Sheneset. From him he learned the forms of asceticism that Palamon himself had inherited from an older tradition: the practice of fasting, vigils, continuous prayer, manual work, and alms.

Seven years later Pachomius felt called to settle in an abandoned village called Tabennese, a call that was as authentic by Palamon. Nothing in the Life of Pachomius causes us to think that Pachomius then thought of founding a new form of monasticism, and still less that he had perceived the dangers of eremitism that could be avoided by the new rule of cenobitic life. He went to Tabennese simply to pursue his ascetic way of life. But, as in Sheneset, several men and women congregated around him in the village that had been abandoned when Pachomius arrived.

The idea of elaborating a new form of spiritual fatherhood did not occur to Pachomius. He simply put himself at the service of all his companions, taking care of their needs until he found it necessary to organize the emerging community into a sort of cooperative brotherhood. After several years Pachomius started laying down rules of common work, common meals, and common prayers in the image of the primitive church in Jerusalem. These rules were unpopular with his followers, so they rebelled against him and were expelled. This represented a failure, and Pachomius thus learned a lesson. Consequently, when other disciples came, he did not become their servant, but decided to organize them into a community of service in which each would be responsible for all the others. That ideal of mutual service is at the root of the nascent Pachomian koinonia (community) and constitutes the essence of his spirituality.

When he set up his new koinonia, Pachomius was not aware that he was founding a new form of monastic life. Nevertheless, it was clear to his contemporaries, as well as to his biographers, that he gave to the monastic phenomenon an absolutely original expression that would be a resounding success, and that was destined to influence the evolution of monastic religious life until modern times.

Gradually, without Pachomius’ planning it, a style of life, a politeia, emerged. It was inspired to a great extent, especially from the point of view of the material setup of the community, by the organization of the contemporary Coptic villages. Gradually a distinction was made between those who accepted the life of integral sharing and mutual service under a monastic rule, and the other men and women who had come to live in the village of Sheneset and now constituted a secular Christian community. Such a Christian community probably had not existed at Tabennese before, and Pachomius built a church that served both segments of the whole Christian population, as long as the monks were not so numerous as to require a separate church within the precincts of the monastery. A separate church came at a later stage in the evolution of the community, and then another had to be constructed for the convent of nuns assembled in the same village around the sister of Pachomius.

After these difficult beginnings, the growth and the evolution of the koinonia accelerated. Soon the monks were so numerous that a new foundation had to be made at PBOW. The new system had so much appeal that some spiritual fathers who had disciples living around them began to ask Pachomius to organize their communities according to the form of life taught him by the Lord. Some bishops asked Pachomius to introduce this way of life into their dioceses.

Pachomius felt a pastoral responsibility toward all these communities, a responsibility he decided to share with several assistants, on both the spiritual and the material level.

In 346, when Pachomius died, there were some 5,000 monks in nine monasteries (plus the nuns in their two convents) to mourn him and to continue the life of the koinonia. He was a man of prayer who knew scripture practically by heart and commented on it indefatigably to his disciples. Though very demanding in his way of life, he had a great understanding of human weakness and a very keen pastoral sense. He was not a theoretician of monastic life but a man of praxis. The living community that he left behind him taught many generations of monks and nuns much more than all the books of spirituality he could have written. His disciples left a very detailed description of his spiritual journey and of his activity as a founder.

Biographies of Saint Pachomius

Shortly after the death of Pachomius, his Life was written by brothers who had known him and had learned about the beginnings of the koinonia through the accounts of THEODORUS OF TABENNESE and of the founder’s other early disciples. Collections of his instructions to the brothers and various short narratives probably had been assembled even earlier.

That Life of Pachomius was often copied, translated, rearranged, and combined with other sources in various types of compilations. It has been transmitted in many forms, in Sahidic, Bohairic, Greek, and Arabic. We must also include in the of the Life a document called the Paralipomena, which was composed in Greek and is known to exist in a version as well.

The Coptic Lives. The whole Coptic was published by L. T. LEFORT, who also made a French translation of it. It comprises fragments of several or copies of the Sahidic Life and an almost complete Bohairic Life (Bo). The of Pachomius was evidently written in Sahidic, the dialect of Upper Egypt, but it is in the Bohairic version that the most popular and “standard” Coptic Life has been preserved in its most complete form. This is a rendering of the recension represented by the fragments S4, S5, and S14 (SBo). The Arabic Life in the Vatican (Av) is an acceptable translation of that original Coptic recension. The fragments S3b, S6, and S7 belong to the same group, although they have their own characteristics.

Fragments of a few other Coptic Lives are extant in the Sahidic dialect, some of which appear to be very old. Through the first Sahidic Life (S1) we probably have the most primitive Pachomian tradition. It contains more vivid and original data than the corresponding narratives in other recensions. In particular, it tells in detail about Pachomius’ initial project of founding a cenobitic community with the people who had joined him at Tabennese, and about the failure of his first attempt. The third Sahidic Life (S3) seems to have been a large compilation integrating sections of S1 along with sections of SBo, and it is possible to use it to restore some missing passages of S1. The two other fragmentary Lives, S2 and S10, are too mutilated to incorporate into the Pachomian corpus.

The Greek Lives. Of the eight Greek Lives extant, the most important is obviously the first Greek Life (G1), which has a great deal in common with the of the SBo recension. Of great importance is another document called the Paralipomena, comprising a collection of stories about Pachomius and Theodorus. All the other Greek Lives are in one way or another a fresh elaboration of the material found in G1 and the Paralipomena. In 1932 Halkin published the six Lives known at that time. In 1982 he published two more Lives, which complete the Greek although they add little substance to the others. In 1932, for his publication of G1 and Paralipomena, he used both the Florence manuscript and a few fragments existing at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. He was unable to use the Athens manuscript that gives the full text of G1, Paralipomena, and Epistula Ammonis. Halkin later produced a splendid edition of the Athens manuscript, the text of which slightly modifies that of the Florence manuscript from a stylistic point of view, without altering its content.

The Latin Life of Pachomius translated by Dionysius Exiguus at the beginning of the sixth century must be mentioned in connection with the Greek because of its close relationship to G2. It is still disputed among scholars whether the Greek text used by him was a source of G2 or a text having G2 as its source.

The Arabic Lives. There are several manuscripts of the Life of Pachomius in Arabic, but none of them has yet been the object of a critical edition. It is obvious that all the Lives of Pachomius in Arabic are late translations, but some of them may have preserved texts lost in the original Coptic. They may be classified in three categories:

  1. Translation from Coptic. This applies to AV (Vatican Library, Arabic codex no. 172), which appears to be the true version of a Sahidic Life of the SBo recension, and to Ag (Göttingen, University Library, MS 116).
  2. Translation from Greek. There are many such manuscripts, the most important being Paris, National Library, MS 261 (Ap). An edition printed at Cairo in 1891 (Ac) was probably based on a very similar manuscript. This Arabic category was derived from the third Greek
  3. Arabic compilation. One of these compilations, published by E. Amelineau in 1889, consists of an Arabic Life similar to Ag, complemented by an Arabic rendering of parts of G3.

For well nigh half a century, the scholarly dialogue concentrated on the argument over whether the priority in these Lives belongs to the Coptic originals or the Greek recensions. Comparing Bo and G1, it was easy for the editors of G1 to find good reasons to believe in its priority over the Coptic Lives, and vice versa. Nowadays it is accepted that SBo cannot be considered a translation of G1, and vice versa. In fact, both these documents retain their particular value and importance. However, it is obvious that they have many points in common, a fact that indicates that probably they were derived from a common source. On the other hand, each retained its own characteristic mode of using the same material.

It is our belief that a close comparison of SBo, G1, and Ag could throw new light on the existing problem. Ag has practically all the stories found in SBo and G1, up to the time of the death of Pachomius, where it stops. But these stories are presented in different orders. The points of contact are such (sometimes SBo agreeing with Ag against G1 and sometimes G1 agreeing with Ag against SBo) that Ag cannot be considered a translation or a fresh elaboration of either SBo or G1. Our conviction is that when the definitive critical edition of Ag has been compiled, it will be easy to demonstrate that Ag is possibly the translation of a Sahidic original text that could have served as a common source for both SBo and G1. That source probably stopped at the death of Pachomius. In the long part that follows the death of Pachomius, covering the development of the koinonia up to the death of Theodorus, the parallelism of the data offered by SBo and G1 begins to disappear and the various Coptic become much less homogeneous.

Despite the complexity of the documents, which must be taken into account, the Life of Pachomius remains the main source of information not only for the early evolution of Pachomian cenobitism but also for Pachomian spirituality. Even from this point of view it is more reliable than the Rules we possess in a form that witnesses to a later evolution of the koinonia, which are simply lists of practical regulations rather than a spiritual program.

Rules of Saint Pachomius

When Pachomius wanted to transform into a community the group of men who had come to live with him at Tabennese and whom he had served for a few years, he drew up a series of rules that he took from the scriptures (S1, 11 and 17). Later, when his sister decided to live the monastic life and was joined by other women, he sent them the rules he had written for the brothers (SBo, 27; G1, 32). When he founded new monasteries or adopted existing communities into the koinonia, Pachomius established in the new foundations the same rules as in the monastery of Tabennese (SBo, 49ff.; G1, 54.81). These rules were certainly not a set text. They constantly evolved with the evolution of the koinonia, during the lifetime of Pachomius as well as under his successors.

In 404 Saint JEROME translated into Latin four series of precepts that he called the “Rule of Pachomius” and that, along with other documents attributed to Pachomius and his disciples Theodorus and HORSIESIOS, came from the monastery of METANOIA (Canopus) near Alexandria, where Pachomian monks had been brought by Patriarch THEOPHILUS. The books were in Coptic, but Jerome translated them from a Greek translation made for him. Very important sections of the Coptic texts of these rules have been discovered and published during the twentieth century. A Greek version probably existed very early for the use of the Greek- speaking monks who did not know Coptic. Unfortunately, no manuscript of that version has survived, but we have a collection of Greek excerpts that, like the short recension of Jerome’s Latin version, represents an adaptation of the Pachomian Rule to a monastic organization different from that of the Pachomian monasteries. The Rule of Pachomius is also found in several Ethiopian manuscripts, but these usually give three distinct documents: a translation of the famous “Rule of the Angel” from the Lausiac History, a translation of the Greek excerpts, and a late Ethiopian compilation devoid of real value.

The “Rule of the Angel” given by PALLADIUS in his Lausiac History, the best-known “Pachomian” document in the manuscript tradition, has nothing in common with the authentic Pachomian rule, and cannot be considered a reliable source for the knowledge of Pachomian practices.

In the complete text found in Jerome’s translation, the Rule of Pachomius is composed of four distinct collections called Praecepta, Praecepta et instituta, Praecepta atque judicia, and Praecepta ac leges. The Praecepta atque judicia is a kind of penitential, measuring out the penances for various types of offenses. The Praecepta ac leges regulates the schedules in the individual houses or wards for every evening and deals with the responsibilities of the housemaster. The Praecepta et instituta is addressed to the housemaster, who, with the monks of his house, was in charge of the weekly service in the general assembly of all the brothers. The Praecepta is by far the longest of these texts and the most composite in character. The repetitions and the various conclusions indicating different blocks of rules show that the series was periodically complemented and expanded according to the new circumstances of the koinonia.

Attempts have been made to establish a chronological order for the four sections of the Rule, and it has been claimed that the Praecepta et instituta is the most ancient collection and the Praecepta the latest. The whole argument, which remains unconvincing, starts from the postulate that one of these four collections must have been composed before the others, and that each should represent the state of Pachomian at some specific point in history. Since they have different purposes, it seems much more natural to assume that they were parallel texts that evolved at one and the same time in different contexts, along with the development of the koinonia. Against the theory that the Praecepta et instituta was the first collection is the very strong argument that it refers very explicitly to existing sets of rules, one of them being in all probability the Praecepta—although an earlier and shorter version of it.

Concerning the authenticity of these Rules this much can be said: Pachomius and Horsiesios wrote some groups of rules, and probably Theodorus did the same. In 404, about sixty years after the death of Pachomius, and probably more than ten to fifteen years after that of Horsiesios, Jerome received the text of a Pachomian “Rule” to be translated into Latin. The text came from a monastery near Alexandria where some Tabennesiotes (Pachomian monks) had lived since about 390. These texts are therefore Pachomian in a broad sense of the word. How much and what part of them can claim Pachomius as their author, we do not know for certain, and none of the recent studies have brought any decisive light to the problem. We can assume that a small group of precepts was composed by Pachomius himself and that this core has been supplemented by others over the years. But we have no means of knowing for sure which precepts are the most original. We also cannot rule out the possibility that the text transmitted to Jerome from the Monastery of the Metanoia had undergone some modifications under the influence of the surrounding monastic communities of Lower Egypt. As a whole these rules seem to suppose a state of evolution later and more complex than that described in the Life of Pachomius in its early Coptic and even Greek versions.

Instructions of Saint Pachomius

Catechesis, instruction on the Holy Scriptures, was a very important feature of Pachomian cenobitism. The housemaster delivered it to the monks of his house or ward twice a week, on the days of fast, and to the superior of the local monastery three times a week, on Saturday evening and twice on Sunday. Pachomius and his successors at the head of the koinonia also gave other instructions, either when they were visiting the brothers of the various monasteries or on special occasions like the celebration of the Passover at Pbow, or the general gathering of all the brothers at the end of the year. Several of the instructions of Pachomius have been inserted into the Life by the biographers. The manuscript tradition also has preserved some of them as separate documents. In his Oeuvres de Pachôme et de ses premiers successeurs, L. T. Lefort published a complete text of one of these instructions and the fragments of another. The latter was given to the brothers on the occasion of the Passover celebration. The first is a very long text into which a large quotation from a homily by SAINT ATHANASIUS has been integrated. These two documents, as well as all the catecheses found in the Life, demonstrate a very great knowledge of scripture on the part of Pachomius and a great pastoral experience.

of Saint Pachomius

The of Pachomian material translated into Latin by Jerome in 404 contained eleven letters, some of them making a cryptic or “spiritual” use of the symbols of the Coptic alphabet. Until very recently these were known only in the Latin version, but now the Greek and Coptic originals of the majority of them have been discovered and published. We possess the Coptic text of letters 8, 9a and 9b, 10, and 11a and 11b (letters 9 and 11 in the translation of Jerome correspond to two different letters in the Coptic manuscripts). We also have a very old Greek translation of letters 1, 2, 3, 7, and 10 from a manuscript of the Chester Beatty Library.

After several preliminary studies, Hans Quecke published all these Coptic and Greek documents in 1975, with a long technical introduction.

One of the important questions concerning these is their Pachomian authenticity. They certainly existed in Coptic at a very early stage, since we have a Greek translation preserved on a fourth- century parchment. From a comparison of Jerome’s version and the Coptic and Greek texts, it appears that Jerome had before him a Greek text very similar to the one preserved in the Chester Beatty Library. Jerome attributed the letters explicitly to Pachomius, and Quecke does not find any positive reason to doubt that attribution. However, none of the letters, either in Greek or in Coptic, bears a title attributing it to Pachomius. A few passages from these letters are quoted by Horsiesios and SHENUTE without any explicit reference to Pachomius. This seems to leave a certain margin of doubt concerning the attribution of the to Pachomius himself, although there is no question concerning their provenance from a Pachomian milieu.

One of the letters (no. 5) is about the annual meeting of all the brothers for the Easter celebration, and another (no. 7) about the other annual meeting in the month of Misra. The last three letters (9, 10, and 11) are about the things to come, and hence have a prophetic character. The rest seem to be spiritual exhortations. But none of them is easy to interpret, least of all those (nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, and 11) that use a cryptic type of language. No satisfactory explanation has yet been given, and even Quecke, who has studied the question very thoroughly, was unable to find a clear answer. No demonstrable connection can be established with a similar use of the alphabet in various documents of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. The Pachomian practice probably has something to do with the traditional love of the Egyptians for cryptograms, to which old Egyptian hieroglyphs lent themselves so well.


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