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the Desert of Apa Shenoute: Further Thoughts on BN 68 - Coptic Wiki

the Desert of Apa Shenoute: Further Thoughts on BN 68

THE MANUSCRIPT KNOWN as BN Copte 68, a trilingual (Coptic-Greek- Arabic) paper codex written in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries and containing instructions for worshipers and liturgical readings, was the object of brief notices and descriptions in the nineteenth century.[1] Hans Quecke, in 1970, was the first to offer an extended discussion and suggest solutions to some of the text’s puzzles.[2]

Yet it is surprising to see how often he states that a term in the text is “puzzling” or “incomprehensible.”[3] In every case of initial puzzlement, Quecke goes on to offer possible solutions after weigh­ing the evidence. Stefan Timm does the same in the 1985 section of the multi-volume work, Das christlich- Agypten in arabischer Zeit, since the rite described in BN 68 seemed to contain information about the com­plex of buildings that made up the monastery of Apa Shenoute.[4]

My intention was to build on the foundations laid by Quecke and Timm when I analyzed BN 68 and its rite in two publications that appeared in 1995 and 1998.[5] The longer publication appeared in and Holy Space in late antique Egypt, edited by David Frankfurter, and offered a pro­visional explanation of the text as a series of instructions to worshipers who came to participate in a stational for the “feast of the desert of Apa Shenoute.”[6] The sequence of places visited and actions undertaken in the rite—as I understood them at the time of that essay—will be summarized before re-visiting some of the problems.

The pilgrims/worshipers go up to the mountain (toou), which refers to the entire domain of Shenoute.[7] They assemble at the corner of the choir-leader (tkel’e mpsa6)[8] and later turn north to the etrigamou (Copticized Greek, for apeirogamos, ‘without experience of marriage’) church, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and founded by Shenoute, Pgol, and Pshoi.[9] After arriving at the church, the people chant while walking to the qalassa of Apa Shenoute, which I then argued was a receptacle for his remains.[10] A sermon by Shenoute, Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail, is read, and then Mass is cel­ebrated (following a five-page gap in the text).[11] The worshipers then “go down” to the monastery of Apa Shenoute and enter the church of the Virgin Mary and St. George.[12] The monastery indicated at this point is the central, main monastery of the domain of Apa Shenoute.

Within its walls, the large church contained sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. George, and Shenoute.[13] Instructions for prayers and singing follow, and then the manuscript breaks off.[14] In general, according to my earlier reconstruction, the program was “assemble, process to a church contain­ing the relics of Shenoute, celebrate mass, process to his main monastery, . . . and (probably) return from the mountain.”[15] Some of these statements were working hypotheses offered as explanations of difficult language in an unusual text. I hoped that other scholars would read, evaluate, and correct my interpretations, as I attempted to do with the earlier work of Quecke and Timm.

In 2004, Peter Grossmann published an essay in which he disagreed with many points in my reading of BN 68.[16] His point of departure is not simply this manuscript, but various historical traditions about the burial of Shenoute and how they relate to the terrain around the White Monastery and to the archaeological remains of the monastery. All this is examined in an effort to locate the burial place or places of Shenoute.[17] After summarizing the data, Grossmann concluded that Shenoute was first buried by the community and then secretly re-buried by and a few other monks. Later, the remains were removed to the main church and finally hidden there in 1167, under the apse.[18] The remains were lost at some point after that.

BN 68, in Grossmann’s interpretation, describes a rite that stays very close to the main monastery and church. Etrigamou is another name for the large, central church.[19] He argues that there is no walk to the site of Shenoute’s cell and an associated church, since it would be too difficult.[20] The topos mentioned in BN 68 could be his residence in old age, which was in main monastery.[21] And given the burial sequence for Shenoute’s body, the qalassa is not a container for remains, but the great spring of the main monastery that miraculously provided water for thousands of refugees in Shenoute’s lifetime.[22]

It seems that my 1998 essay and the 2004 study by Grossmann interpret BN 68 in ways that disagree both on specific points and on the overall inter­pretation of the rite. Does the rite direct the worshipers around the entire domain of Apa Shenoute or does it confine them to the small area around the main monastery? What is the qalassa of Apa Shenoute? New evidence has come to light that may assist in answering these questions. It will be reviewed before I turn to the sermon of Shenoute, Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail, which was read during the rite. Does the sermon help us understand the rite?

If the sequence of burial, secret re-burial, and removal to a chamber in the church for the body of Shenoute is correct, then qalassa cannot be a container near the for the physical remains of Shenoute. Grossmann argued that it referred to the spring of the monastery; Quecke also examined “watery” explanations without reaching a conclusion.[23] Yet no Coptic or Greek texts that I have located use qalassa in that way. In the Life of Shenoute, the miraculous spring is 6onbe.[24] Burmester, citing A. J. Butler, described an cavity called a thalassa that was used for the relics of saints or martyrs.[25] Perhaps the thalassa did not contain the physical remains of Shenoute, but valuable relics associated with him.

Andrea Jordens has published a sixth­century papyrus in which the head of a women’s monastery states that she is a fragment of the “sticharion of abbas Sinouthios” to bring about healing of a demon-possessed nun.[26] This special item of clothing, perhaps the one that is the of so much discussion in Shenoute’s to the women’s monastery,[27]could qualify as a relic since it had been in contact with his body during his lifetime.[28] The qalassa would still be a container of some sort for non-bodily relics, which would solve the vocabulary problem (that is, non-occurrence of qalassa as spring or well).

However, this would not address the question of where this qalassa was located: in the main church of the White Monastery or in another church or chapel within the domain. Does BN 68 describe a rite enacted at widely separated locations in the domain of the White Monastery or one tightly focused on the main monastery and church? The directions in the manu­script—go up to the mountain (BN 68.4r), turn north to the etrigamou church (BN 68.32r), go down to the monastery of Shenoute (BN 68.100r, 137r)—could apply in either case.[29] This is a fifteenth- to sixteenth-century manuscript that collects a variety of biblical, liturgical, and homiletic mate­rials (in Sahidic, Bohairic, Greek, and Arabic) and, at best, the directions for a rite as it was performed at some time prior to the writing of BN 68.

It is possible to imagine a progression whereby the original ‘rite for the feast of the desert’ covered widely separated sites in the domain, but by a later date (that is, one closer to the date of BN 68) the rite was confined to the main monastery. BN 68 would then preserve the directions of the ear­lier stage, which were “symbolically” re-enacted by later worshipers. The stations of the cross, as a rite of prayer, offer an analogy: early Christian to the Holy Land led to later depictions of the stations in monas­teries, chapels, and churches, and finally to a series of fourteen crosses in the nave of the church representing the stations.[30]

More archaeological investigation of the White Monastery site may help us understand that what was done at the time BN 68 was written and what might have been done at earlier time. Work by Bentley Layton on the Canons of Shenoute—the writings directed to a monastic audience that reveal the day-to-day operation of the community—has sketched in the outlines of the domain: the large monastery including the main church, a village with the women’s monastery, a “little” monastery, cells for hermits (and Shenoute) at the valley wall, the house of Apa Pshoi, and the “church of our father.”[31] These sites were well known to the community in the lifetime of Shenoute (385—465?) and probably for some time after. Further study of both the liter­ary and archaeological evidence may show whether these sites were visited in a rite that eventually became the rite recorded in BN 68.

There is evidence that some kind of rite of the ‘desert’ was practiced long before BN 68 was written. The sermon by Shenoute that is preserved in this manuscript, Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail, also survives in two fragmentary codices from the White Monastery.[32] In Codex YP 1: i.1—2 (a tenth—eleventh century manuscript), a liturgical heading appears before the sermon and indicates the day on which it should be read: “the Monday they go to the desert.”[33]

This heading in Codex YP suggests that there was a ritual procession that used this sermon several centuries prior to writing of BN 68. The reference to “Monday” is not inconsistent with the direction in BN 68, “the Monday of the second week in the holy forty days.”[34] Does the content of the sermon, “Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail,” shed any light on the origins or character of an earlier ritual procession or help us understand the directions given in the rite described in BN 68?

Shenoute begins the sermon (in my somewhat colloquial translation of the Coptic nanoupnau): “It is a good time to launch a boat to sail. It is also a good time to moor in the harbor. But it is sinking that is bad.”[35] The ser­mon, and the rite of BN 68, is intended for a mixed audience of laity, clergy, and monks. And let us recall that the first stage of the BN 68 procession for those coming from Panopolis would be to ‘launch’ a boat and then ‘moor’ on the west bank of the Nile. Shenoute continues: “This is what I am say­ing: it is a good time to go to the church of God.”[36]

There are two points in which the rite of BN 68 directs the worshipers to a church: the etriga- mou church at fol. 32 and the church of the Virgin Mary and St. George at fol. 139. These directions bracket the reading of the sermon, which occurs on fols. 54-64.[37] Shenoute then says: “It is good to go up (bwk e6rai) on a high mountain (toou) at any time or any day for the benefit in good things. Coming down (ei e6rai) from it is good also, by means of the turns in the path, for what we need below it. But it is bad to fall off (the moun­tain) so that you utterly perish!”[38] Here, too, the sermon is echoed in the instructions in the rite of BN 68.

On the first page of the manuscript (fol. 4r), “all the people go up (bwk e6rai) to the mountain (toou) to gather at the corner (kel’e) of the teacher (sa6).”[39] After the worshipers take part in several actions of the rite, including a mass and the reading of the sermon, they recite while “coming down” (nhu epesht), fol. 100r) before enter­ing “the door of the monastery of our holy father, Apa Shenoute” (pro mpmonasthrion mpeneiwt etouaab apa 4enoute, fol. 137r). There are ver­bal parallels between sermon and rite in the use of bwk e6rai for ‘go up’ and ei/nhu for ‘come down.’

Shenoute returns to the theme of falling off the path at little later in the sermon, this time with a clear moral interpretation: “It is falling off the path and perishing in sin that is bad.”[40] This is one of many points at which he exhorts his listeners, both lay and monastic, to make special efforts at spiri­tual practice for a time and to make a serious effort to “stay on the path” at all times. All this is appropriate for a Lenten sermon read on “the Monday of the second week of the holy forty days,” as stated at the beginning of BN 68.[41]

What are some of the practices that Shenoute recommends? First of all, “fasting is good” at one time, “eating is good” at another.[42] “Those who serve their belly are rejected, just as the apostle (Paul) scorned them in the conclusion of the first letter.”[43] This refers to Paul in 16:18: “such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites.” Later in the sermon, Shenoute notes that “the apostle said, ‘For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,'(Romans 14:17) though it is God who created eat­ing and drinking, but not being insatiable.”[44]

Different types of sexual continence are recommended. “(A) period of abstinence from your wife is good” and “marriage is also good.” Of course, Shenoute says, “I am speaking to lay people who are in proper marriage, not to monks who have taken up their cross (and) followed the savior.”[45] For “there is no single skill or single work . . . there are many. . . . Some (are) virgins, others keep their beds pure.”[46] He exhorts the audience to keep both thoughts and bodies pure: “If it is with difficulty that Jesus dwells in the man who tries to purify his heart daily of thoughts that are defiled . . . then how will He remain at all in . . . one who sleeps with animals . . . and even in male and female fornicators?”[47] The sermon calls the audience to avoid impure actions, then to purification of thoughts.

Shenoute also recommends acts of charity: care for strangers and being “merciful” if his listeners simply “have the necessities of life without riches.”[48] The important thing is to maintain a record of “good works.” One “who has many good works for a season, now not only becomes weak in good works, but even commits . . . worthless acts” and will suffer the same fate as Jerusalem: “I will give Jerusalem to removal and as a dwelling place of snakes” (Jeremiah 9:11).[49] The former favor of Jerusalem—and of the one who used to do good—will not save it (or him) if behavior changes. And prayer is important: “It is good to run to God every day and every hour and every moment. We call on Him so that He guards us from evil here and makes us worthy of a place of rest in the place to which we go.”[50]

There are calls to repentance scattered throughout the sermon. Repentance is compared to waking from sleep. “Christ came to the world. We sin and we did not repent. Indeed, ‘it is the time and the hour of ris­ing from sleep’ ( 13:11).”[51] Those in the audience may sin without being aware of it, so they need to make a broad commitment to repentance. “Repent, O man who thinks God forgave you, though He did not forgive. . . . According to the prophet, ‘Gray hairs grew on us but we did not know (it)’ (Hosea 7:9); that is to say, we did great evil, while being forgetful, (act­ing) as though they were not sins. . . .”[52] All efforts to repent for past sins and change behavior will be rewarded. “If you are amazed at everything you see on earth, then how much will you be amazed at what you see in heaven! . . . When you see the heavenly Jerusalem, how much will you be amazed!”[53]

Shenoute calls his audience to special efforts in fasting (from food and sex), prayer, and acts of charity for a period of time. That is the sense of “fasting is good” and “eating is also good.”[54] This call is combined with a broad warning about the need to repent for past sins, making the sermon a perfect choice for a Lenten rite. The opening of BN 68 specifies “the Monday of the second week of the holy forty days,” meaning during Lent, but the heading of this sermon in codex YP, “the Monday when they go to the desert,” could point to the same time in the liturgical year.[55]

There is one more theme in the sermon that is consistent with the peni­tential quality of a rite of the desert. Shenoute talks about sunrise and the need to get up and get moving: “The night is good . . . but the day is preferable since with the sun’s rising all the beasts of the field . . . sleep in their dens and ‘man goes out to his work and to his task until the hour of evening’ (Psalm 103:22—23)”[56] And “if disgrace comes to those who sleep and get drunk in the evening, then how great is the . . . disgrace of those who sleep during the day!”[57] Shenoute also offers spiritual inter­pretations of sunrise (Jesus as sun of righteousness, citing Malachi 4:2 and John 11:27), but this does not necessarily dilute the message of his quote from Romans: “It is the time and the hour of rising from sleep” ( 13:11).[58] The reading of his sermon reminded the listeners to get up and get moving, either on “the Monday when they go to the desert” or in the rite recorded in BN 68.

In conclusion, I ask the following questions. When did the ‘rite of the desert of Apa Shenoute’ begin? When did Christians from Panopolis begin to “go to the desert” for a stational liturgy? Was there a Lenten rite for and monks even during the lifetime of Shenoute (d. 464/5)?[59] I cannot con­clusively answer these questions at this time, or solve all the puzzles of BN 68. However, careful reading of Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail reinforces the penitential nature of the rite that BN 68 places in Lent. At its core, therefore, the rite is not about Shenoute (whose feast day is 1 July), but about the effort made by the worshipers as they walk from place to place—praying, singing, and participating in the mass. In its early stages of development, perhaps even during Shenoute’s lifetime, the rite might have required a strenuous hike around the domain of the White Monastery.[60]

As the of Shenoute grew in the centuries after his death and was preserved in of the Life of Shenoute, the rite might have acquired a Shenoutean to supplement the basic penitential character of the earlier practice. “When they go to the desert”, in Codex YP, becomes “the feast of the desert of Apa Shenoute” in BN 68. It is also possible that the strenuous procession around the domain evolved into a limited circuit of the main church and monastery. In the same way, the stations of the cross evolved from devotions at Jerusalem sites to artistic tableaux set up in Europe to fourteen crosses (with or without artistic representations) in the nave of a church.[61]

Relying on his unequaled knowledge of Christian architecture in Egypt, Peter Grossmann has reconstructed the sequence of burials and resting places for the physical remains of Shenoute.[62] However, until some textual support is found for the Greek loanword ‘qalassa’ being used in Coptic to mean well or spring, I prefer to explain it as an ‘ cavity’ that was one stop on the path of the rite described in BN 68. Perhaps it held special items that belonged to Apa Shenoute, such as the sticharion.[63] Scientific excavation around the White Monastery and the publication of improved texts and translations of the works of Shenoute (especially the Canons) may eventually give clear evidence of the location of destinations in the ‘rite of the desert,’ both at the time of the composition of the text preserved in BN 68 and at an earlier, formative period.

Janet Timbie


[1] Hyvernat 1896: 549; Quatremere 1808: 299-300.

[2] Quecke 1970: 488-99.

[3] Ibid.: 490, tkei’e MPSa6, is “unverstandlich;” on 493 it is “ratselhaften.”
Other terms that Quecke struggles with are etrigamou (490), pe6oou mpesnau (489), and qalassa (490 n. 15).

[4] Timm 1984-1992, vol. 2: 601-33, section on “ad-Der al-Abyad.”

[5] Timbie 1998: 415-41; Timbie 1995: 89-93.

[6] Ibid.: 415-41.

[7] Ibid.: 424-27.

[8] Ibid.: 428-29.

[9] Ibid.: 430-34.

[10] Ibid.: 432-36.

[11] Ibid.: 432-34. On this sermon, see Emmel 2004b: 675.

[12] Ibid.: 434.

[13] Meinardus 1965: 292, and for the most complete description of the church, Grossmann 2002a: 528-36.

[14] Timbie 1998: 440.

[15] Ibid.: 440.

[16] Grossmann 2004: 85-105.

[17] Ibid.: 85.

[18] Ibid.: 102.

[19] Ibid.: 92, arguing that it is unlikely that two churches would be dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

[20] Ibid.: 102.

[21] Ibid.: 99-100, discussing the text cited by Crum in which Shenoute orders the monks to destroy his cell.

[22] Ibid.: 86.

[23] Ibid.: 86; Quecke 1970: 490 n. 15.

[24] See Crum 1939: 691a for 6Onbe. Forster 2002: 326 lists occurrences of qal assa in Coptic documentary texts.

[25] See Timbie 1998: 432-35 for bibliography.

[26] Kohlbacher 1999, vol. 2: 144-54 and Jordens 2004: 142-56.

[27] Krawiec 2002: 150-54.

[28] See the definitions and historical review in Chiovard 2003: 50-56.

[29] Timbie 1998: 418 for a review of these directions.

[30] Brown 2003: 499-501.

[31] Emmel 2004b: 553-605 discusses the contents of the Canons; Layton 2003 deals with the territory of the WM federation.

[32] Emmel 2004b: 675, 862. In addition to BN 68, the sermon survives in part in YP and XD.

[33] YP 1=FR-BN 130.5 f 78r. pesnau e4aubwk ep’ai e.

[34] BN 68 f. 4r.

[35] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 174: nanoUPnau nkaP’OI ebol er6ht. nanoupnau on mmoone etemrw. wms de pet6oou.

[36] Ibid.: 174.

[37] See Timbie 1998: 418.

[38] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 175.

[39] Timbie 1998: 426-28 discusses the interpretation of the terms mountain, corner, and teacher. All present problems.

[40] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 176.

[41] BN 68 f. 4r; see Quecke 1970: 489 n. 10 for discussion of the dating prob­lem.

[42] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 174.

[43] Ibid.: 193.

[44] Ibid.: 195.

[45] Ibid.: 174-75.

[46] Ibid.: 177-78.

[47] Ibid.: 192-93.

[48] Ibid.: 176, 178.

[49] Ibid.: 186.

[50] Ibid.: 175-76.

[51] Ibid.: 178.

[52] Ibid.: 182.

[53] Ibid.: 189.

[54] Ibid.: 174.

[55] BN 68 f. 4r and YP 1=FR-BN 130.5 f. 78r.

[56] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 176.

[57] Ibid.: 179.

[58] Ibid.: 177-78.

[59] Emmel 2004b: 6-12 on the chronology of Shenoute.

[60] See Grossmann 2004: 102; what is too strenuous for one era may not be so for another.

[61] Brown 2003: 500.

[62] Grossman 2004: 102.

[63] See Jordens 2004: 142-56 for sticharion reference.