A fourth-fifth-century reforming abbot of DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH (the White Monastery), situated near the ancient village of Atrib, near Suhaj, in the region of Akhmim (feast day: 7 Abib). The source material that makes it possible to reconstruct his life and work consists mainly of the literary remains of his own writings and of the Life composed by his disciple BESA, who succeeded him as abbot of the White Monastery. The Life, although doubtless originally written in Sahidic, has survived in its entirety only in Bohairic and in several other Oriental versions (Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopic). In spite of its hagiological nature—it abounds in miracle stories—it contains valuable historical information.
Shenute’s dates are not certain. He probably died in 466 and, if he really reached the age of 118 as reported by Besa, he was born in 348. His place of birth was the village of Shenalolet in the region of Akhmim, where his parents owned a small holding and some sheep. As a youth, Shenute worked as a shepherd. He soon seems to have come under the influence of his maternal uncle, PJOL, the founder of the White Monastery, which he entered in about 371. When Pjol died, in about 385, Shenute became abbot.
His life’s work was the running of the White Monastery, which grew significantly under his rule and contained houses for nuns as well as houses for monks. The Arabic version of the Life speaks of 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns. Those who wished to enter the monastery had to renounce all their belongings and to make a vow, which was introduced by Shenute, to lead a pure life.
Before they were finally accepted, they had to spend a trial period at the gate house, which was also the place where visitors were received, and which was supervised by a trusted monk. Once in the monastery, they were expected to take part in the work and worship of the community. Precise rules regulated all activities, including eating and drinking in the refectory, which was, of course, severely ascetic. Only in the infirmary were the dietary rules relaxed. All responsible positions within the monastery were occupied by older, trusted monks.
Shenute was a strict disciplinarian. He administered the monastery in accordance with the rule introduced by Pjol, which was itself a good deal harsher than the rule of Saint PACHOMIUS, and he supplemented it by innumerable detailed instructions contained in his many epistles. Obedience for him was the keystone of the monastic life. He waged a constant war against the sins and failings of his monks and nuns. The punishments that he imposed on them could be fierce and included corporal punishment and, in extreme cases, expulsion from the monastery.
His passionate and violent nature is revealed in his writings and found expression in his dealings with his monks and nuns. It sometimes turned into depression and despair when his authority was not instantly accepted and obeyed. But it must be remembered that in all his activities he saw himself as God’s obedient servant. Indeed, it is clear that he considered himself to be inspired by God and to be the vessel of prophetic enthusiasm.
In spite of his heavy responsibilities in the monastery, he withdrew from time to time to a retreat in the desert in order to pray and enjoy a closer communion with God, and it is reported that he was vouchsafed visions there. The high spiritual claims of the monastic movement, which saw itself as a spiritual elite and was accepted as such by many, sometimes caused tensions with the episcopal hierarchy, but it seems that Shenute managed to avoid any serious clash.
One event in Shenute’s life is of special importance. In 431, he, with CYRIL, archbishop of Alexandria, attended the Council of EPHESUS. The story in Besa’s Life of Shenute’s violent clash with NESTORIUS may be open to doubt, but that he attended the council can be accepted as historical fact, and it is quite possible that it was on this occasion that he was given the rank of an ARCHIMANDRITE in recognition of his services.
Cyril, no doubt, had invited Shenute to accompany him to Ephesus because he had heard of his reputation as a reliable defender of the Alexandrian cause. But, although on this occasion Shenute supported Cyril, it must be doubted whether he fully appreciated the theological complexities of the doctrinal controversies of his time. In spite of his knowledge of the Greek language and some acquaintance with Greek philosophy and classical mythology, Shenute was at heart a true Copt whose religion and piety were practical rather than theoretical.
In his writings, he was predominantly concerned with the practical affairs of his monastery and the moral issues affecting his charges. He knew the Bible well and his writings abound in references to it, but he was not a thinker who was able to develop a coherent theology. He was aware of some of the heresies of his time and attacked, for instance, the Arians, the Melitians, and the Manichaeans, but he did not examine theological questions in any depth.
His discussions of Christological problems revealed him as a follower of Cyril of Alexandria, but here again his emphasis was on the practical concerns of monasticism. In this connection it is interesting to see how little he has to say on the veneration of the Virgin MARY (cf. Weiss, 1969-1970). He also wrote a polemical treatise against Origenist gnosticism (cf. Orlandi, 1982). But none of this affects the overall picture. Shenute is not famous as a theologian.
His influence was not confined to the White Monastery. His work brought him into contact with the population of the surrounding region, and thus his popularity grew in a wider field. A constant stream of visitors came to consult him and to receive his blessing. These included bishops and ascetics, as, for example, monks from SCETIS and from the Pachomian monasteries, as well as secular dignitaries. The monastic services were open to laymen who would attend and listen to Shenute’s sermons, many of which are preserved among his writings. Often visitors came to ask for advice on both secular and spiritual matters.
Even military commanders would seek his guidance and receive his blessing before going into battle against nomadic tribes, which from time to time made incursions into Upper Egypt from the south. Shenute seems to have made himself accessible to all who wished to approach him, and there are many references in the sources to his pastoral activities. He had a lively concern for the welfare of the whole region. He offered up special prayers for the flooding of the Nile, which ensured the country’s prosperity.
His charitable acts were many. The poor received alms, and in times of famine special relief was mounted and the distribution of bread was organized. On one occasion, when invading tribes devastated the country, Shenute reports that 20,000 men, women, and children sought refuge behind the walls of the White Monastery. They were fed and clothed by the monks and all their needs were taken care of. Their sick were tended and their dead buried. Shenute was obviously very proud of this achievement, for he described the incident in great detail. He was careful, however, not to claim any credit for himself, but rather to praise God who had made this feat possible.
Incidentally, his account throws some light on the economic strength of the White Monastery and on his own organizational ability. It also illustrates his active involvement in the affairs of his country.
On many occasions, Shenute appeared as the champion of the poor and oppressed. He upbraided the rich for exploiting their workers and for their cruelty in their dealings with the poor. The moral failings of the rich were often singled out for opprobrium. But his very special hatred was reserved for pagan religion, which he opposed in word and deed. In his writings there are many passages which heap scorn and insult on pagan superstitions and beliefs.
In many instances his fanatical hatred of paganism and pagans was translated into action. He himself led attacks against pagan temples and his admirers followed his example. Temples were burned down and cult objects were carried off or destroyed. Even the houses belonging to pagans were not safe from his attention. All attempts of the pagans to restrain Shenute by law were frustrated by the militant popular support he enjoyed.
Shenute’s writings, which have come down to us in a fragmented state, are not yet completely assembled and edited. Their importance for the history of indigenous Coptic literature is considerable. Their popularity is attested by their having been copied over and over again and by their having been read in the White Monastery for many generations. Shenute’s literary style, especially in his letters, mirrors his character.
It is highly individualistic and very powerful. Often the speed and passion of his thinking affected the clarity of his expression. He liked to repeat an idea by means of synonymous expressions, and he used many biblical quotations and allusions. His style is a vehicle for conveying his emotions and his strength of character. His influence on the development of the Sahidic literary language is not yet fully explored.
Shenute’s prominent position in the history of the Coptic church is assured. He was not only a famous monk held in high esteem by his contemporaries as a man of God but also an important leader of the church and an author whose influence extended far beyond his own monastery.
- Amélineau, E. Oeuvres de Schenoudi: Texte copte et traduction française, Vols. 1 and 2. Paris, 1907-1914.
- Bell, D. N. Besa: The Life of Shenoute. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1983. Colin, G., ed. and trans. La version éthiopienne de la vie de Schenoudi. CSCO 444-45: Scriptores Aethiopici, Vols. 75-76. Louvain, 1982.
- Leipoldt, J. Schenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des national ägyptischen Christentums. Leipzig, 1903.
- Leipoldt, J., ed. Sinuthii Vita (Bohairic). CSCO 41, Scriptores Coptici, Vol. 1. Louvain, 1951. Translated into Latin by H. Wiesmann in CSCO 129, Scriptores Coptici, Vol. 16. Louvain, 1951.
- Leipoldt, J., and W. E. Crum, eds. Sinuthii Archimandritae Vita et Opera Omnia. CSCO 42, 73, Scriptores Coptici, Vols. 2 and 5. Louvain, 1954-1955. Translated into Latin by H. Wiesman in CSCO 96, Scriptores Coptici, Vol. 8 (Louvain, 1953) and 108, Scriptores Coptici, Vol. 12 (Louvain, 1952).
- Orlandi, T. “A Catechesis against Apocryphal Texts by Shenoute and the Gnostic Texts of Nag Hammadi.” Harvard Theological Review 75 (1982):85-95.
- Weiss, H. F. “Zur Christologie des Schenute von Atripe.” Bulletin de la société d’archéologie copte 20 (1969-1970):177-209.
- For fuller bibliographical information, see P. J. Frandsen and E. Richter-Aerøe, “Shenoute: A Bibliography.” In Studies Presented to Hans Jakob Polotsky, ed. D. W. Young. East Gloucester, Mass. 1981.
K. H. KUHN