© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.

1163/157430110X597845
Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 brill.nl/rt
&
Religion
Theology
Territory, Anti-Intellectual Attitude, and Identity
Formation in Late Antique Palestinian
Monastic Communities
Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony
Department of Comparative Religion, Faculty of Humanities,
Te Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel
ashkelon@mscc.huji.ac.il
Abstract
Identity both religious and secular is influenced by external factors. Tis article is an attempt to
show how this is the case in connection with two Palestinian ascetic communities and how these
two communities though both influenced by the Chalcedonian controversies, as well as the
second Origenist controversy developed very differing identities.
Keywords
identity formation, Palestine, ascetic centres, Chalcedonian controversies, Origenist controversy
1. Introductory Remarks
It is widely acknowledged that Christianity in Late Antique Palestine was far
from being a religious or cultural monolith; rather, its cosmopolitan nature
was one of its distinctive marks. Palestinian monasticism, which arose in the
second half of the fourth century, was likewise, an international movement.
Most of the monks and virgins came from abroad, and they conducted their
liturgy in a variety of languages, including Greek, Georgian, and Armenian,
1

1
V. Sabae 20, 32, ed. E. Schwartz, Kyrillos von Skythopolis (Texte und Untersuchungen zur
Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 49; Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1939). Eng. trans. Cyril of Scy-
thopolis, Lives of the Monks of Palestine (Cistercian Studies; intr. J. Binns; trans. R. M. Price;
Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990); Teodorus Petraeus, Vita sancti Teodosii 18, 45, ed.
H. Usener, Der heilige Teodosios (Leipzig: Deichert, 1890). On the monastic liturgy in the
Judean desert, see J. Patrich, Sabas, Leader of Palestinian Monasticism: A Comparative Study in
Eastern Monasticism, Fourth to Seventh Centuries (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research
Library and Collection, 1995), 229–253.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 245
yet they adopted Palestine as their new homeland.
2
Given the Palestinian
international amalgam, the issue of communal and religious identity forma-
tion is a particularly intricate and intriguing one. Far from being a static entity,
communal and religious identity is a social construct and the outcome of a
discourse.
3
Tus many factors were at work in shaping the identity of those
ascetics that streamed to Palestine in Late Antiquity; traditions from their
various homelands, along with local and invented traditions, myths, symbols,
and collective memories
4
– all played a role in molding such groups, develop-
ing their self-perception, and ensuring their continuity and their social and
political power. Moreover, communities and individuals invariably have a
range of identities to choose from, consciously or unconsciously, and the
2
Since the publication of D. J. Chitty’s classic study on the historical development of Pales-
tinian monasticism (D. J. Chitty, Te Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and
Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Oxford: Blackwell, 1966]), much has been
done in this field. For comprehensive studies on late antique Palestinian monasticism, see J.
Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: Te Monasteries of Palestine, 314–631 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1994); L. Perrone, “Monasticism in the Holy Land: From the Beginnings to
the Crusaders,” Proche-Orient Chrétien 45 (1995): 31–63; P. Rousseau, “Monasticism,” in Te
Cambridge Ancient History 14 (eds. A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, and M. Whitby; Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), 745–780; B. Bitton-Ashkelony and A. Kofsky, “Monasti-
cism in the Holy Land,” in Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land. From the Origins to the
Latin Kingdoms (Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 5; eds. O. Limor
and G. Stroumsa; Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), 257–291. Several aspects of the heterogeneity of
Palestinian monasticism are noted in Y. Hirschfeld, “Te Monasteries of Palestine in the Byzan-
tine Period,” in Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land. From the Origins to the Latin King-
doms (Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 5; ed. O. Limor and
G. Stroumsa; Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), 401–419.
3
I was much inspired by the collective volume edited by Richard Miles, Constructing Identi-
ties in Late Antiquity, (London: Routledge, 1999), especially his introduction, 1–15, as well as by
the Leiden project on identity as presented by Bas ter Haar Romeny, “From Religious Associa-
tion to Ethnic Community: A Research Project on Identity Formation among the Syrian Ortho-
dox under Muslim Rule,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 16, no. 4 (2005): 377–399. See
now the presentation of the results of the Leiden project in a special volume Religious Origins of
Nations? Te Christian Communities of the Middle East (Church History and Religious Culture
89; ed. Bas ter Haar Romeny; Leiden: Brill, 2009), especially 1–52.
For identity as an essentially social entity, see the illuminating introduction to the collective
volume, Identities, Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality (eds. L. Martin Alcoff and E. Mendieta;
Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 1–8.
4
On the role of collective memories in constructing early Christian identity, see M. Halbwa-
chs, La topographie légendaire des évangiles en terre saints: Étude de mémoire collective (Paris: Presses
universitaires de France, 1941). See also the critical assessment of Halbwachs’s theory in relation
to the question of identity formation in E. A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian
Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 10–32. On Halbwachs’s theory
regarding the origin of the holy places in Palestine, see my Encountering the Sacred: Te Debate
on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity (Te Transformation of the Classical Heritage 38;
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28–29.
246 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
choice varies according to the context and the circumstances. It therefore
seems profitable to approach the notion of communal identity as a highly
elastic one; to adopt a strict definition of it would certainly be arbitrary.
5
To
glimpse the dynamic behind the convoluted process of identity construction
in the ascetic communities in Late Antique Palestine, then, the data need to
be approached in terms of a provisional and flexible identity.
It is worth bearing in mind the Christological controversy that followed
from the councils of Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, and the political
struggles relating to it in the Roman Empire. Tey brought about a decisive
change in the religious atmosphere, and hence new possibilities for construct-
ing religious and communal identity. Tis change continued to affect the East-
ern Christian Empire as a whole, including the Palestinian ascetic and
ecclesiastical milieu, during the second half of the fifth century and through-
out the sixth century. Given the religious atmosphere ensuing from the Chris-
tological controversies of Chalcedon, any attempt to grasp the precise process
of communal and cultural identity formation in Palestine should pay consid-
erable attention to local views on the burning theological issues of the period,
to regional prestige and tensions,
6
and to the various models of authority
adopted by local leaders.
7
Tese were people who knew how to impose their
particular theological and spiritual stance, and articulated their ideas through
carefully chosen images, symbols, and biblical interpretation.
8
All of these fac-
tors play a role in the process of identity formation. Since I agree with Richard
Miles’s statement that “the construction of identity is, at its heart, a matter
of an imaginaire rather than a fixed reality,”
9
my main interest here will be
those texts that point clearly to the social forces that the dynamic of such an
5
S. Mitchell and G. Greatrex, Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity (London: Te Classical
Press of Wales 2000), xi.
6
See, for example, the different approaches to the holy places, already in the fourth century,
between Eusebius of Caesarea and Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, discussed mainly in theological
terms by P. W. L. Walker, Holy City, Holy Places? Christian Attitudes to Jerusalem and the Holy
Land in the Fourth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
7
On models of authority, see A. Sterk, Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: Te
Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); C. Rapp,
Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: Te Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Te
Transformation of the Classical Heritage 37; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). For
a comparative study regarding models of leadership in Palestinian monasticism, see B. Bitton-
Ashkelony, “Monastic Leadership and Municipal Tensions in Fifth–Sixth Century Palestine: Te
Cases of the Judean Desert and Gaza,” Annali de Storia dell’esegesi 23, no. 2 (2006): 415–431.
8
On the factor of biblical exegesis in shaping identity, see Bas ter Haar Romeny, “Te Iden-
tity Formation of Syrian Orthodox Christians as Reflected in Two Exegetical Collections: First
Sounding,” Parole de l’Orient 29 (2004): 103–121.
9
Miles, Constructing Identities, 4.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 247
imaginaire created, such as the hagiographical compositions that emerged
from sixth-century Palestine.
In this essay I shall limit myself to examining two factors that seemed to
play a key role in the construction of the communal and religious identity of
two Palestinian monastic centres, that of the Judaean desert and that of the
region of Gaza
10
– in particular, sacred territory and the anti-intellectual
approach to learning and theology adopted by the spiritual leaders of the lat-
ter.
11
I shall attempt to argue that although the two monastic centres of leader-
ship were geographically very close – the distance between Gaza and the Great
Laura of Sabas (439–532) in the Kidron Valley and the coenobium of Teo-
dosius (423–529) east of Bethlehem, is less than 70 km – and although their
historical growth occurred during the same period and under the same his-
torical circumstances in the Roman Empire, each developed its own unique
pattern of settlement and models of piety and leadership, espousing a diverse
political and theological stance vis-à-vis the holy places in Jerusalem and the
theological controversies, and eventually gaining a variant intellectual profile.
2. “Te Inhabitants of Tis Holy Land”: Territory and the
Self-perception of Judaean Desert Monasticism
As is well known, ascetic settlement in the Judean desert and in the Jordan
Valley owed its development to the appeal of the holy places and to the prac-
tice of pilgrimage. But since pilgrimage in late Antiquity was not simply a
religious fashion – in the words of Cyril Mango “had become the thing to
do”
12
– the realisation of ascetic ideals, in particular, alienation and tranquility
(xeniteia and hesychia), precisely in the holy places, was more than a mere
10
On the various key factors relating to identity formation, see W. Pohl and H. Reinitz, eds.,
Strategies of Distinction: Te Construction of Ethnic Communities 300–600 (Leiden: Brill, 1998).
11
Of course, I will not be able in this limited framework to describe the cultural identity of
these monastic communities. On this topic, a few marks of distinction have gained scholarly
attention. See, for instance, Barsanuphe et Jean de Gaza: Correspondance (trans. Lucien Regnault,
Philippe Lemaire, and Bernard Outtier; 2 ed; Sable-fur-Sarthe: Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes,
1993), 22–34. L. Perrone’s various articles illuminating the unique features of this community,
such as his “Te Necessity of Advice: Spiritual Direction as a School of Christianity in the
Correspondence of Barsanuphius and John of Gaza,” in Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity. 2nd
ed. (eds. B. Bitton-Ashkelony and A. Kofsky; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 131–149; and B. Bitton-
Ashkelony and A. Kofsky, Te Monastic School of Gaza (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
12
C. Mango, “Te Pilgrim’s Motivation,” in Akten des XII. internationalen Kongresses für
Christliche Archäologie, Bonn, 22.–28. September 1991 [= JbAC Ergänzungsband 20, no. 1] (eds.
Ernst Dassmann and Josef Engemann; Münster: Aschendorff, 1995), 9.
248 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
pious act.
13
In some cases, the journey of monks to Palestine was a journey
toward the formation of their religious identity, and later on it turned out to
be a crucial stage in forming their communal identity and in constructing the
authority of their leaders.
14
Tus when Chariton, a native of Iconium in Asia
Minor (Konya) – who was among the first monks to settle in the Judaean
desert in the early fourth century – came as a pilgrim and desired to worship
in the holy places in Jerusalem, he was in fact inaugurating in Palestine a rela-
tively new model of piety and initiating the affinity between the holy places
and the Judaean desert (V. Char. 12).
15
He also developed a new pattern of
settlement – namely, the laura – a pattern later adopted by many generations
of Palestinian monks, especially famous among them being the laura at Pha-
ran, located six miles from Jerusalem; Cyril of Scythopolis mentioned monas-
tic foundations being constructed “on the model of Pharan” (V. Euth. 9, 16).
16

Euthymius (377–473), an Armenian monk who came to Jerusalem in 405,
marking the commencement of the formative stage of Judaean desert monasti-
cism, launched his career in a laura. Cyril wrote: “After he [Euthymius] had
venerated the holy Cross, the Holy Anastasis and the other reverence places . . .”
he visited the Fathers in the desert, studying their virtue, and then “came to
the laura of Pharan, lying six miles from the Holy City” (V. Euth. 6). Tis new
beginning was also the start of a long process of shaping ascetic communal
identity, and Euthymius later became one of the founders of a monastic com-
munity in the Judaean desert. Many came to visit him as well as the holy
places, and they eventually settled in the desert, creating diverse patterns of
settlement and adopting the unique monastic way of life in the laura of Chari-
ton and the laura of Euthymius.
17
Te process of integration of the Judaean desert monks with the Church of
Jerusalem, which is well documented in Palestinian sources and accounts for
the construction of their communal identity, was no doubt facilitated by the
13
On this aspect of pilgrimage, see my Encountering the Sacred, 146–160.
14
B. Bitton-Ashkelony, “From Sacred Travel to Monastic Career: Te Evidence of Late
Antique Syriac Hagiography,” Adamantius 16 (2010): 353–370.
15
G. Garitte, ed., “Vita Charitonis, La vie prémetaphrastique de S. Chariton,” Bulletin de
l’Institut historique Belge de Rome 21 (1941) : 16–46. Eng. trans., L. Di Segni, “Te Life of Chari-
ton,” in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (ed. V. L. Wimbush; Minne-
apolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 393–421. On Chariton monastic establishments of the laura type,
see Yizhar Hirschfeld, Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period (New Haven: Yale Uni-
versity Press (1992), 10–11, 21–24.
16
On the rather limited impact of the model of Pharan, see J. Patrich, “Palestinian Desert
Monasticism: Te Monastic Systems of Chariton, Gerasimus and Sabas,” Cristianesimo nella
storia 16 (1995): 1–9.
17
A new typology of monastic settlements was suggested by Hirschfeld in “Monasteries,”
401–419. See also, Hirschfeld, Judean Desert Monasteries; Patrich, Sabas.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 249
ascendance of patriarchs from among the desert monks such as Martyrius
(478–86) and Elias (494–516), former disciples of Euthymius. Sabas, follow-
ing in the footsteps of his teacher Euthymius, strengthened the patronage of
the patriarchate of Jerusalem over his community. With his growing prestige
and power as a monastic leader, Sabas became virtually integrated into the
leadership of the Palestinian Church and was sent as a church ambassador on
various missions to the imperial court, where he met Anastasius and Justinian
(V. Sabae 50–52, 54, 71–73).
18
Toward the end of the fifth century, in the days
of Sabas and Teodosius, both natives of Cappadocia who were later appointed
as archimandrites – Sabas as head of the anchorites and the laurae monks, and
Teodosius as leader of the dwellers of the coenobia
19
– when monastic settle-
ment reach its peak in terms of the number of monks and monasteries,
20
a
string of monasteries functioned as a federation,
21
with their own rules, prob-
ably written by Sabas himself.
22
Te social process of identity formation in the monastic community of the
Judaean desert is relatively clear to us, thanks in particular to the regional
hagiographical composition written in 557 by Cyril of Scythopolis, himself a
Palestinian native who dwelled about six years in the monastery of Euthymius,
moving later, in the year 555, to the New Laura.
23
Tis composition contains
the stories of seven monks who came from abroad to colonise the Judaean
desert, among them Euthymius, Sabas, and Teodosius, the leaders of this
18
On this aspect of Judaean desert monasticism, see L. Perrone, La chiesa di Palestine e le
controversie christologiche: Dal concilio di Efeso (431) al secondo concilio di Costantinopoli (553)
(Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1980); Patrich, Sabas, 311–319; Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors,
80–81, 178–179; Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky, “Monasticism,” 271–277.
19
On the history of the office of archimandrite in the Palestinian context, see Patrich, Sabas,
287–299.
20
Y. Hirschfeld, “List of the Byzantine Monasteries in the Judean Desert,” in Christian
Archaeology in the Holy Land: New Discoveries” : Essays in honour of V. Corbo (eds. G. C. Bottini,
L. Di Segni and E. Alliata; Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1990), 1–90; Hirschfeld, Judean
Desert Monasteries; idem, “Monasteries,” 401–419; Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors; R. Solzba-
cher, Mönche, Pilger und Sarazenen – Studien zum Frühchristentum auf der südlichen Sinaihalbin-
sel – Von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn islamischer Herrschaft (Altenberge: Münsteraner theologishe
Abhandlungen, 1989).
21
More than sixty monasteries in the Judean desert are known from the literary and archaeo-
logical evidence dating from the fourth to the seventh centuries.
22
On Sabas as a monastic legislator, see Patrich, Sabas, 255–275.
23
Te classic study on Cyril’s composition is B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de
Cyrille de Scythopolis (Paris: Etudes augustiniennes, 1983). On Cyril’s wanderings in the Judean
desert, see Flusin, Miracle et histoire, 29–32; L. Di Segni, Cyril of Scythopolis: Lives of Monks of the
Judaean Desert (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2005), 3–30 (in Hebrew). On Cyril’s concept of
writing as a pious act, see D. Krueger, Writing and Holiness: Te Practice of Authorship in the Early
Christian East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 75–79.
250 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
movement. Cyril was writing the history of this international movement in a
specific territory that he termed: “the desert of Jerusalem” or “the desert east of
the holy city” or “the desert of the holy city,” attesting to the close affinity of
this community to the holy city of Jerusalem.
24
Te life of those monks who
never returned to their homeland he linked to a territory of grace – that is, the
holy places in Jerusalem, and to the centres of ecclesiastical power in Jerusalem
and Constantinople.
Te bond between ecclesiastical and monastic authority was powerfully
demonstrated in the assembly of monks in Jerusalem in 516/517 organised by
Sabas and Teodosius in support of the doctrine of Chalcedon and John the
Patriarch of Jerusalem (V. Sabae 56:148–152).
25
According to Cyril, that
assembly, in the church of the proto-martyr Stephen, attracted a vast number
of monks: “Tose who counted the multitude announced that the total came
to ten thousand monks,” and they shouted out for many hours: “Anathematize
the heretics, confirm the council!” (V. Sabae 56:151). Of course, historians
should be suspicious about the recurrent exaggerative tendencies evident in
such texts. Tus Cyril’s indication of the number of monks that gathered in
this well-orchestrated pro-Chalcedonian manifestation might well be
considered unreliable. Nor should Cyril’s deliberate endeavour to explain to
his readers the reason for choosing the church of the proto-martyr Stephen as
a suitable place for this demonstration be overlooked or naively regarded as
guileless. According to Cyril, the reason for choosing this church as the venue
was because of its size, it being large enough to contain the huge number of
participants (V. Sabae 56, 151). But there may have been more than that in
choosing such a “champ de bataille” against the theological stance of the
emperor and his court. After all, in the collective memory of the inhabitants
of Jerusalem and its desert, this church, a well-known pilgrimage site in
sixth-century Jerusalem, was a locus where myth, symbol, and imperial power
were fully embedded. It is worth recalling that the church was founded by
Eudocia, who had hastened to consecrate it in 460, although unfinished,
because of her impending death, which had been announced to her by
24
See, for example, Cyril’s title for the Life of Sabas: “Te Second Monastic History of the
Desert of Jerusalem,” and ibid., 30, 115; Robert L. Wilken, Te Land Called Holy. Palestine in
Christian History and Tought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 158.
25
Wilken, Land Called Holy, 166–72; idem, “Loving the Jerusalem Below. Te Monks of
Palestine,” in Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (ed. Lee I.
Levine; New York: Continuum, 1999), 240–250; P. T. R. Gray, “Te Sabaite Monasteries and
the Christological Controversies (478–533),” in Te Sabaite Heritage in the Orthodox Church
from the Fifth Century to the Present (ed. J. Patrich; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 237–243; Jacob
Ashkenazi, Te “Mother of All Churches”: Te Church of Palestine from its Foundation to the Arab
Conquest (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2009 (in Hebrew).
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 251
Euthymius (V. Euth. 35). She also assigned to it a large income, taking
Gabriel – Euthymius’s disciple – “under her wing” and putting him in charge
of the entire administration of the church (V. Euth. 16, 30). Moreover, the
narrative of the proto-martyr Stephen had had close ties to Jerusalem since its
beginnings (Acts 6:8–7:60), and his tomb was discovered in Caphar-Gamala
(in 415), which fell within the territory of Jerusalem.
26
A few years later, in
mid fifth-century Jerusalem, Hesychius, the presbyter of Jerusalem, promoted
Stephen’s image and cult by honoring him as “the citizen of the Cross” (πολίτης
ἐστὶν τοῦ Σταυροῦ). On account of Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem – apart
from his cosmopolitan image as a distinguished martyr all over the Christian
world, such that Christian authors from North Africa to Cappadocia wrote
eloquent homilies in his memory – Hesychius fostered his local image,
repeatedly emphasising his link to Jerusalem and to its holy places. He stressed
that Stephen dwells “among us” and implanted his tent “among us” (παρ’
ἡμῖν); “here” (ἐνταῦθα), in this place he has “the field of his teaching, the
theater of his eloquence” and from here he was elevated to heaven.
27
Tere was
nothing new in such claims; already in the fourth century Cyril, bishop of
Jerusalem, promoted Jerusalem precisely in the same terms.
28
Nonetheless, the
rivals for the true faith in early sixth century Jerusalem could not have chosen,
then, a better symbolic arena for expressing their identity and claims to the
true faith against those of their opponents than the church of the proto-martyr
Stephen.
Consequent events were even more spectacular: When the news about what
had happened in Jerusalem reached the emperor Anastasius, who supported
the non-Chalcedonian party, he prepared to exile by force the archbishop John
as well as Teodosius and Sabas. Te desert’s leaders, for their part, again ral-
lied the monks, resulting in a petition to the emperor Anastasius that success-
fully prevented his scheme to appoint an anti-Chalcedonian patriarch in
Jerusalem (V. Sabae 57). Now if by “identity” we mean to answer the straight-
forward question: “Who am I?” then this petition clearly represented the ulti-
mate stage of a long process of constructing the social, political, and religious
identity of the Judean desert monks. For Cyril wrote:
26
E. D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD 312–460, (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1982), 212–220, 242.
27
Hesychius, Homily 9.2, in Les Homélies Festales d’Hésychius de Jérusalem (Subsidia Hagio-
graphica 59; ed. M. Aubineau; Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1978), text: 328–329.
28
Walker, Holy City, Holy Places? 330–340. For the political dimension of Cyril’s promotion
of Jerusalem, J.W. Drijvers, “Promoting Jerusalem: Cyril and the True Cross,” in Portraits of
Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium and the Christian Orient (eds.
Jan W. Drijvers and John W. Watt; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 79–95; Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering
the Sacred, 57–61.
252 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
To the God beloved and very pious emperor, Augustus and Imperator by
God’s grace, Flavius Anastasius the lover of Christ, a petition and supplica-
tion from the archimandrites Teodosius and Sabas, other superiors, and all
the monks inhabiting the holy city of God, and the whole desert around it
and the Jordan. Te king of all . . . has entrusted to your authority, beloved of
God, the scepter of rule over all things after him, to arrange, through your
piety, the bond of peace for all the holy churches, but especially for the
mother of the churches, Sion, where was revealed and accomplished for the
salvation of the world, the great mystery of piety, which beginning with Jeru-
salem (Luke 24:47) has caused the light of truth to shine, through the divine
and evangelical preaching, in all the regions of the world. From that venera-
ble and supernatural mystery of Christ, through the victorious and precious
Cross and life-giving Anastasis, indeed all the holy and revered places, receiv-
ing by tradition from above and from the beginning through the blessed and
holy apostles, the true confession, a confession without illusion, and faith, we
the inhabitants of this Holy Land (οἱ τῆς ἁγίας γῆς ταύτης οἰκήτορες) have
kept it invulnerable and inviolable in Christ. By the Grace of God we main-
tain it [this faith] always without being intimidated in any way by our adver-
saries, according to the council of the apostle without allowing ourselves to
be driven about by every wind of doctrine . . . If it is on behalf of the faith that
all this trouble has been stirred up against the holy city of God, Jerusalem,
the eye and light of the whole world, the recipient of the logos of the gospel,
if indeed, according to the prophetic saying: out of Sion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is. 2:3), and if her inhabitants
touch as it were, with their own hands each day the truth through these ven-
erable places in which the mystery of the incarnation of our great God and
Savior took place, how then, more than five hundred years since the coming
of Christ, can we Jerusalemites learn the faith anew? . . . We the inhabitants of
this Holy Land all share with God’s help one mind and one faith . . . since
through these four holy councils we the inhabitants of this Holy Land have
all received, as we have repeatedly said, the unique, apostolic faith and with
God’s help are firmly rooted in it, no one will be able in whatever way to
unite us to any one who is of a different mind and does not obey these coun-
cils, even if countless deaths are impending (V. Sabae 57:152–157).
29
Tis is without doubt one of the most striking manifestations of Christian
identity in Late Antique Palestine. As Richard Miles has observed in another
context, the formation and contestation of identity are fundamentally
about power, the power to represent.
30
From this perspective, the periphery –
that is, the monastic community of the Judean desert and the Church in
Jerusalem – defined themselves against the centre of power in Constantinople,
claiming to represent the truth of Christianity. It becomes clear that the direct
pressure of the emperor Anastasius on the Church in Jerusalem, which at that
period was entirely governed by the Judaean desert monks, strengthened their
29
Te English translation is from Wilken, Land Called Holy, 168–169.
30
Miles, Constructing, 5.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 253
self-definition. Robert Wilken has precisely discerned in his book, Te Land
Called Holy that “the language of this petition is without precedent in Chris-
tian history,” drawing our attention to the importance of the term “Holy
Land” in this context; this is the first time in Christian history that the term
“Holy Land” is used as a mark of identity – linking people, territory, theo-
logical stance, political interests, and glorious past – and not merely in a bibli-
cal exegetical context.
31
Behind Cyril’s well-crafted text of this petition is a
long history of the monks’ relationship with the holy places and social fabric,
which scholars have been able to trace from various angles.
32
Te petition was
a product of the way in which the monks represented themselves and talked
about themselves, as opposed to other groups from which they distinguished
themselves, such as the anti-Chalcedonians, Nestorians, and Eutychians,
whose doctrines they explicitly anathematised (V. Sabae 57:156–157). From
Cyril’s account it appears that the monks, who came from all parts of the
empire, were conscious of their self-definition, and for the first time they iden-
tified themselves as the “inhabitants of this Holy Land.” Four times the author
of the petition repeated the phrase “We the inhabitants of this Holy Land”, a
formulation that referred to the monks as well as the Church of Jerusalem. It
was the territory that set them apart as a community and ensured their power.
Tey claimed exclusively for themselves the sharing of historical memories and
symbols in a specific territory. Undoubtedly, their self-perception, as disclosed
in Cyril’s hagiographical composition, was also the outcome of a discourse
infused with rhetorical and propagandist elements in favour of the doctrine of
Chalcedon. Yet there is no plausible reason to doubt Cyril’s articulating the
identity of the monks and their leaders as the inhabitants of this Holy Land, nor
the crucial claim they made in this petition – namely, the primordial acquisi-
tion of the true faith – that their territory had always held the truth and had
direct contact with the truth, leading to the question: “More than five hun-
dred years after the Savior’s presence among us, can we Jerusalemites learn the
faith anew?”
33
31
Wilken, Land Called Holy, 169.
32
See, for instance, Hunt, Pilgrimage; L. Perrone, “Christian Holy Places and Pilgrimage in
an Age of Dogmatic Conflicts: Popular Religion and Confessional Affiliation in Byzantine Pal-
estine (Fifth to Seventh Centuries),” Proche-Orient Chrétien 48 (1998): 5–37; idem, “Monasti-
cism in the Holy Land: From the beginning to the Crusaders,” Proche-Orient Chrétien 45 (1995):
31–63; idem, “Rejoice Sion, Mother of all Churches: Christianity in the Holy Land During the
Byzantine Era,” in Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land (Cultural Encounters in Late
Antiquity and the Middle Ages 5; eds. O. Limor and G. Stroumsa; Turnhout: Brepols, 2006),
141–173.
33
On the primordial element in the discourse intended to strengthen the sense of identity, see
the approach adopted by the Leiden group, Romeny, “From Religious Association to Ethnic
Community,” 381–382.
254 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
Wilken’s insightful study, however, depicts only part of the picture of Chris-
tian identity in fifth–sixth century Palestine. By focusing on the Church of
Jerusalem and its desert, and primarily on their relationship with the imperial
court, disregarding the region of Gaza where an important monastic commu-
nity had arisen, much of the local complexity and tensions that arose around
the sacred territory in Palestine, and the appropriation of it as a factor of iden-
tity, as well as the new symbols and discourse relating to it, were ignored.
34
It
goes without saying that the monastic communities in Late Antique Palestine
cannot be viewed monolithically, nor does it seem to me profitable to use such
a category as “Christianity in the Holy Land,” which assumes that the forma-
tion and articulation of communal identity was similar for all monastic com-
munities in Late Antique Palestine.
35
Tere were various Christian
communities in Palestine that were diverse, inter alia, in their self-perception
and affinity to the sacred geography and in their openness toward and interac-
tion with the ecclesiastical authorities that controlled the network of holy
places in Jerusalem and its vicinity. In light of the increasing scholarly interest
in Gaza monasticism in the last decade, resulting in an abundance of publica-
tions – critical editions of texts relating to this monastic community, transla-
tions of the sources, archaeological studies and monographs dealing with
diverse aspects of the religious thought and behavior of this community dur-
ing various stages of its growth – the view which assumed that the concept of
“Holy Land” was a mark of distinction and cherished by all the ascetic com-
munities in Late Antique Palestine can now be nuanced.
36
3. Hiérosolymites in Exile: A Provisional Identity
As noted earlier, communal identity is an elastic category; it might be adjusted,
deliberately or unconsciously, according to the social and political circum-
stances, and it would search for new images and symbols to articulate it. Tis
34
On the geographical boundaries of late antique Gaza, see L. Di Segni, “Te Territory of
Gaza: Notes of Historical Geography,” in Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity (eds. B. Bitton-
Ashkelony and A. Kofsky; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 41–59.
35
See, for example the collective volume Christians and Christianity, in which the regional
aspect emerged in many articles.
36
For recent studies on Gaza that include earlier bibliography, see J.-E. Steppa, John Rufus
and the World Vision of Anti-Chalcedonian Culture (Gorgias Dissertations in Early Christian
Studies GD 4, ECS 1; Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2002); J. L. Hevelone-Harper, Disciples of the
Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2005); C. Saliou, ed., Gaza dans l’Antiquité tardive: Archeologie, rhetorique
et histoire (Saleron: Helios, 2005); Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky, eds., Gaza; idem, Monastic;
C. Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine: Te Career of Peter
the Iberian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 255
is certainly the case with Late Antique Gaza monasticism, in which two stages
can be discerned with regard to the sacred territory as a factor shaping com-
munal identity. Te first stage was marked by the leadership of Peter the
Iberian (d. 491) – a Georgian prince who was a political hostage in the court
of Teodosius II and later an influential monk-bishop in fifth-century
Palestinian monasticism – during which time the holy places played a major
role in shaping his identity and that of his circle. At the second stage of this
community – under the leadership of Barsanuphius, John, and Dorotheus –
the sources are silent regarding the sacred territory in Palestine.
During the last decade, Peter’s career and the ecclesiastical dynamic that
evolved around his followers have received a great deal of scholarly attention,
through which the historical setting and the images and symbols of this com-
munity were fully exposed. I shall therefore limit myself here only to informa-
tion that is essential to our topic.
37
First, it is worth recalling that Peter
launched his monastic career in Jerusalem. Te voluntary exile he imposed on
himself (probably in 439), escaping from Constantinople and setting out for
the holy city of Jerusalem, marked the first steps of a journey toward his new
identity. He began his career on the Mount of Olives, where he was admitted
by Melania the Younger, and later founded a monastery in Jerusalem near the
Tower of David that served in part as a pilgrim’s hostel. To escape from a plan
of Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, to have Peter ordained to the priesthood,
Peter left Jerusalem and joined a small monastery near Maiuma (444), a move
that marked a new phase in his leadership as an anti-Chalcedonian leader in
the East.
38
Tis stage was also characterised by the tensions pertaining to the
holy places in Jerusalem as a direct consequence of the drama of the Council
of Chalcedon.
As I have argued elsewhere, Te Life of Peter the Iberian, written by his dis-
ciple John Rufus at the end of the fifth century or beginning of the sixth,
39

37
On various aspects of Peter the Iberian’s portrayal, see A. Kofsky, “Peter the Iberian: Pil-
grimage, Monasticism and Ecclesiastical Politics in Byzantine Palestine,” Liber Annuus 47 (1997):
209–222; idem, “Peter the Iberian and the Question of the Holy Places,” Cathedra 91 (1999):
79–96 (in Hebrew); B. Bitton-Ashkelony, “Imitatio Mosis and Pilgrimage in the Life of Peter the
Iberian,” Le Muséon 118 (2005): 51–70. A revised version of these articles is published in Bitton-
Ashkelony and Kofsky, eds., Gaza, 47–81; Horn, Controversy; L. Perrone, “Pierre L’Ibère ou
L’Exil comme pèlerinage et combat pour la foi,” in Man Near a Roman Arch: Studies Presented to
Prof. Yoram Tsafrir (eds. L. Di Segni, Y. Hirschfeld, J. Patrich and R. Talgam; Jerusalem: Brepols,
2009), 190–204.
38
A detailed account of the journeys of Peter and his disciples in Palestine and Egypt, and the
key role of his community in the political-ecclesiastical life of the fifth century is provided in Te
Monastic School of Gaza, 24–36.
39
Vita Petri Iberi, Syriac text and German trans., R. Raabe, Petrus der Iberer: Ein Chrarakter-
bild zur Kirchen- und Sittengeschichte des fünften Jahrhunderts (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1895). A draft
of the unpublished English translation of the Syriac Life of Peter the Iberian prepared by Derwas
256 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
created a literary space in which the author promoted the anti-Chalcedonian
faith and depicted it in its full historical setting during one of its chaotic
phases. In addition to the theological controversies embedded in the Life of
Peter, its idiosyncrasy resides in two particular features: the interpretation of
Peter’s activities in terms of those of the biblical Moses and the relatively
detailed accounts of the hero’s pilgrimages.
40
John Rufus – probably one of the
earliest anti-Chalcedonian hagiographic authors – was in fact embracing two
strategies of representation – namely, the imitatio Mosis, and the liminal
dimension of pilgrimage. From the outset of the narrative Rufus named Peter
the Second Moses, evoking the image of Moses as the leader of the Exodus and
depicting Peter’s departure from Constantinople and his pilgrimage to Jerusa-
lem as paralleling the Exodus from Egypt. By drawing a parallel between
Moses and Peter, and at times even merging the two, Rufus established the
authority and credibility needed to underpin the hero’s anti-Chalcedonian
identity. Te centrality of the motifs of pilgrimage, Exodus, and exile to the
Life of Peter is widely acknowledged by scholars, and their juxtaposition to
the monastic ideal of xeniteia – that is, voluntary exile and pilgrimage – near
the holy places in Palestine is wholly evident.
41
Moreover, as recently argued
by Lorenzo Perrone, the motive of xeniteia dominates the entire course of
Peter’s life, to the point of being the mark of his new identity. Toward the end
of his life he was not only “the monk, the bishop, the confessor of the faith,
but he is all these while being a ‘pilgrim’ and a ‘stranger’.”
42
Te tension surrounding the holy places and the desire to appropriate this
territory of grace, all the while fostering the image of Peter as exile/pilgrim, is
recounted in the Life of Peter by a “simple monk,” who tells his friends his
dream of Peter the Iberian’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Tis tale is recounted
against the backdrop of the disciples’ amazement that Peter had not visited
Jerusalem’s holy sites during his long stay near the city.
After this, when the autumn had arrived, the blessed man [Peter] returned to
his brethren in the plain. When he left, people were indignant and said:
“How, when he [Peter] stayed all these days near Jerusalem, did the blessed
not desire to enter the holy city, even by night, and worship at places of
J. Chitty (the library of St. Gregory’s House, Oxford) was kindly put at my disposal by Sebastian
Brock. A new English translation edited by C. B. Horn and R. R. Phenix, Jr. is now available,
John Rufus: Te Lives of Peter the Iberian, Teodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus (Writ-
ings from the Greco-Roman World; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature , 2008).
40
Tese aspects of the Life of Peter are the main focus of my “Imitatio Mosis.”
41
On the affinity of xeniteia and pilgrimage, see Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred,
146–160; Perrone, “Pierre L’Ibère ou L’Exil comme pèlerinage et combat pour la foi.”
42
Perrone, “Pierre L’Ibère ou L’Exil comme pèlerinage et combat pour la foi,” especially his
conclusion, 202.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 257
worship and especially at holy Golgotha and the life-giving Sepulchre?” One
day after his departure, one of the brothers who was a perfect and very simple
man said to them: “Tis night I saw a fearful vision. For it seemed to me that
I was seeing Abba Peter the bishop, who said to me, ‘Brother, can you give
me a hand?’ and in this vision he alone took me to the holy city, on the same
night during which he was about to depart. He entered first to the Martyr-
ium of St. Stephen, whom he had met before. Afterward, he went down to
the cave and worshiped there his sarcophagus. Coming out of there he has-
tened to the holy Golgotha and the Holy Sepulcher. From there he went
down to the church named after Pilate (Matt. 27:11–14), and from there to
that of the Paralytic (John 5:2–15), and then to Gethsemane. Having made
the circuit also of the holy places around it, he then went up to the Upper
Room of the disciples (Mark 14:14–16; Luke 22:11–13), and after that to
the holy Ascension (Luke 24:50–51; Acts 1:9), and from there to the house
of Lazarus. He then went on the road leading from there until he arrived at
holy Bethlehem. After praying there he turned to the tomb of Rachel (Gen.
35:19) and, having prayed there and in the rest of the shrines and oratories
on the way, he descended to Siloam (John 9:7); from there, going up to holy
Zion and completing a holy course and worshipped the Lord in every place,
he finally returned to the village Beit Tafsha. And I, in every place was sup-
porting him. And the very next day after I had seen the vision, the father
went on his way. All this occurred in order to persuade those who were indig-
nant that the blessed one was in every holy place every day, or perhaps every
hour, offering in spirit worship to the Lord. For it is written: ‘Tose who are
spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s
scrutiny’ (1 Cor. 2:15).
43
Tis imaginary journey maps with great exactitude the actual network of
holy sites – a journey that every Christian pilgrim might undertake at the end
of the fifth century.
44
Te author was here drawing the boundaries of the
sacred space of Jerusalem and at the same time proclaiming the appropriation
of this sacred territory – namely, that this network of holy places belonged to
him too and not only to the Chalcedonians currently in possession of them. It
seems that since Peter, faithful to the anti-Chalcedonian cause, was unable to
enter the holy places at that time – a situation akin to that of Moses prevented
from entering the Promised Land – Rufus resorted to this strategy as a solu-
tion to the shameful situation in which anti-Chalcedonians were avoiding
visiting the holy places. By representing Peter and his entourage as “Hiéro-
solymites in exile,”
45
Rufus was in fact stressing the unbreakable link of the
43
Vita Petri Ib. 98–100.
44
J. Wilkinson Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1977), 56,
has provided a map of this dream pilgrimage.
45
As coined by B. Flusin, “L’hagiographie palestinienne et la réception du concile de Chalcé-
doine,” in ΛΕΙΜΩΝ: Studies Presented to Lennart Rydén on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (ed. J. O.
Rosenqvist; Uppsala: Almqvist & (cf. previous publisher) Wiksell, 1996), 25–47, esp. 38.
258 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
anti-Chalcedonians to the holy places, a persistent claim in the Life of Peter.
Rufus’s attempt to circumvent the difficulties through use of the dream mode
served to demonstrate the importance of the holy sites for the author and his
idea that those able to see those sites, albeit in a vision, were the ones in pos-
session of the true faith.
We know nothing about Peter’s self-perception or about that of his monas-
tic community. All we can say is that even when inventing a provisional reli-
gious identity – in this case that of Moses who did not reach the Promised
Land – and embracing the image of the “Hiérosolymites in exile,” the sacred
geography fulfilled a vital function in shaping communal identity. Te multi-
faceted liminal course of action of Peter and his followers – that is, their Exo-
dus, exile, and pilgrimages – reflects in a sense a provisional identity, one that
fitted the religious and political tensions of the time. It is important to note
that Rufus’s mode of representation is distinctive in the Palestinian hagiogra-
phy. No other hagiographic text depicts in so sophisticated manner the sym-
bols of identity of its hero and his circle, nor am I aware of any sort of
maintenance or renewal of these images created by Rufus in the Palestine
ascetic context in later periods.
After the chaotic years of the Christological campaigns under the charis-
matic leadership of Peter and his heirs, notably Severus of Antioch, the monas-
tic center of Gaza seems to have entered a new, more quietist phase and to
have withdrawn into monastic piety.
46
Te religious atmosphere seems to have
undergone an important transformation. Unlike during the period of Peter,
the struggle over orthodoxy was not at the heart of this community in the
sixth century, at least not externally. Tis phase was marked by the peculiar
style of spiritual leadership that had been initiated by Abba Isaiah and culmi-
nated in the dominance of the holy men Barsanuphius and John. Cyril of
Scythopolis’s notable account of the shouting assembly of the Judaean desert
monks in the church of the proto-martyr Stephen and their extraordinary
petition to the emperor, as well as John Rufus’s dreamt pilgrimage in the sacred
territory of Jerusalem, are unimaginable among the monks of Gaza in the
sixth century.
4. Anti-intellectual Attitude in the Ascetic Community of
Sixth-Century Gaza
In the rich and varied corpus of Questions and Answers produced in this learned
community, the holy places and pilgrimage are not issues that gain any
46
See, for example, Letter 52 (SC 426), 268–269.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 259
attention. Tis is not to say that visits to holy places by monks from the com-
munity of Gaza in this period did not take place, yet they are not a component
of its religious identity and its ascetic discourse as testified in the Cyril of Scy-
thopolis’s composition and in the Life of Peter the Iberian.
47
Nor do the monas-
tic community of the Judaean desert and its leaders receive any mention.
However, the Patriarch of Jerusalem did address questions to the Old Men in
Gaza, which attests to his recognition of their spiritual authority.
48
Far removed
from any direct contact with the ascetic communities of the desert of Jerusa-
lem and the imperial court in Constantinople,
49
the monastic community in
sixth-century Gaza developed its own marks of distinction.
Paradoxically, the learned and sophisticated leaders of this community in
the fifth and sixth centuries – Zeno, Abba Isaiah, Barsanuphius, and John –
maintained a negative attitude to theological discussions and promoted this
as a distinctive feature of their community. Te guiding principle of Zeno and
Abba Isaiah was that dabbling in theology can only confuse the believer and
introduce heretical thoughts into his mind; the study of theological issues
should therefore be exclusively reserved to the experienced and perfect ascetic.
Tis anti-intellectual stance was further adopted by Barsanuphius and John,
who essentially objected to the study not only of non-Christian literature but
also of theological literature, with the exception of the Apophthegmata and
the Scriptures. Even independent study of the Scriptures was considered liable
to implant heresy in the hearts of believers unfamiliar with its spiritual
interpretation.
50
One monk wrote to Barsanuphius that upon reading theological books he
had felt his soul elevated beyond passionate thoughts toward contemplation of
the truths revealed by these books. But as it happened his soul had rebuked
him, saying: “You do not benefit from reading such things, you who are
wretched and impure!” Barsanuphius retorted: “I did not find satisfaction in
these books which exalt the soul, but rather in the Sayings of the Elders, that
is, the Apophthegmata, because they lead the soul to humility” (Letter 547).
Describing meetings between fathers and laymen where theological discussions
47
See Letter 356 (SC 450), 378–379. Tere is a rare example in the Correspondence of a monk
who was sent out to “the Holy City [of Jerusalem] on a mandate” and went down to the Jordan
in order to pray. See also the visit of Dositheus to the holy places before he joined the monastery
of Dorotheus, Vita Dosithei, text and Fr. trans., by L. Regnault and J. de Préville, Dorothée de
Gaza, Oeuvres spirituelles (SC 92; Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1963), 122–145.
48
See, for instance, letters 813–830 (SC 468), 280–307.
49
Abba Isaiah, for example, refused the call of the emperor Zeno (488) to come to Constan-
tinople. See Zacharias the Rhetor, Vita Isaiae Monachi, Syriac text and Latin trans., E. W. Brooks
(CSCO, Scriptores Syri, ser. 3, xxv; Leuven: Peeters Press, 1907), 14–15.
50
Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky, Monastic School of Gaza, 99–106.
260 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
took place, a layman asked Barsanuphius whether he should participate in
such discussions or remain silent, and whether his silence was not in fact a
betrayal of the faith. Te Old Man emphatically instructed him never to dis-
cuss matters concerning faith, “For God will not demand this of you, but only
whether you believe correctly . . .and whether you keep his commandments . . .
it is not necessary to talk about doctrines, because this is beyond you” (Letter
694).
51
He should instead concentrate on praying for his sins. A hypothetical
dilemma is invoked in the next question: “If the heretic happens to be arguing
better than the orthodox brother during this discussion, is it then good per-
haps for me to support the latter as much as I can, lest he be harmed in the
orthodox faith by losing the debate?” Te response is not surprising: “If . . . you
truly want to be of assistance, then, speak within your heart to God . . .” (Letter
695). When the questioner asks further whether he should at least ask to learn
what they are discussing, Barsanuphius commands: “Ask for nothing that God
will not demand of you”; one should be satisfied with the confession of the
right faith (Letter 696). Tus the clear policy of Barsanuphius and John, at
least regarding laymen and ordinary monks, was that of perpetuating blissful
ignorance. Aelianos, the abbot of the monastery, voiced the following dilemma:
“Is it always a good thing or not to tell others about good stories found in
Scripture and in the Lives of the Fathers?” Tey reply in a very prudent manner,
saying: “We cannot put all people on an equal footing; indeed, one person can
speak without bringing any harm, while another cannot do this. Silence, how-
ever, is always good and admirable above all else . . . Nevertheless, since we
have not reached the point of walking the way of the perfect . . . let us speak
about those things which contribute to edification, namely, from the Sayings
of the Fathers, rather than risking our souls by using accounts from Scripture.
For this matter contains a risk for someone who does not understand” (Letter
469). Barsanuphius and John’s basic assumption here is that a “fleshly person”
will not be able to discern the spiritual dimension of the Scripture. Terefore
they advise to take refuge in the words of the fathers, and to keep briefness as
a rule in such conversations. However, this attitude regarding discussions on
Scripture – in itself not an original approach developed in the Gaza monastic
milieu but one adopted by the desert fathers
52
– may indicate not merely a
cautious approach motivated by fear of doubt and heresy but also by a quietist
monastic tendency. When the issue is raised from a different angle: “If, how-
ever, the discussion concerns the Scriptures, should I still keep silent, or may I
51
Te English translation is from Barsanuphius and John: Letters (Te Fathers of the Church
113, 2 volumes; trans. J. Chryssavgis; Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press,
2006).
52
As mentioned by the editors of the Correspondence (SC 451), 571, notes 4–5.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 261
then speak?” the Old Man firmly answers: “Silence (σιωπή) is always better”
(Letter 697). Tis stance is further reflected in the answer to the same layman’s
question as to whether he should anathematise Nestorius and the heretics with
him when asked to do so: One should never hasten to condemn – even though
Nestorius and his followers were under anathema – because one should regard
himself as a sinner and must therefore focus on repentance without mixing it
with other matters (Letter 699). “Indeed, even if I anathematize Satan while
doing his works,” proclaimed John, “I am in fact anathematizing myself!” If,
however, his interlocutor still persists, he may be permitted to anathematise
the heretic in order to satisfy those exerting pressure on him (Letter 700). Te
Old Men were fully aware of the complexity of social interaction for someone
who has a close friend that has proved to be a heretic, stressing: “Do not, how-
ever, argue with him, nor seek to learn what he believes . . . instead, if he wants
to benefit entirely and to hear the truth about faith in God, take him to the
holy fathers . . .” (Letter 733). Despite the overall anti-intellectual trend
described here, Barsanuphius and John did maintain certain relations with
intellectual circles, as reflected in their correspondence with anonymous teach-
ers of philosophy – though not on philosophical issues – and in the arrival at
the monastery of educated monks such as Dorotheus.
53
From consultations of monks with Barsanuphius and John regarding the
Origenist controversy of the sixth century we can glean something of their
position on the matter and their essential attitude to theology. Te polemics
against Origen’s theological views, which had begun not long after his death,
resumed at the end of the fourth century.
54
In the first half of the sixth century
the Church was beset by yet another bitter polemic over Origen. In Palestine,
Jerusalem clergy and monks from the Judean desert were especially involved,
and the controversy sometimes escalated to violence between the parties.
55

Tis time, criticism was directed not only against Origen’s writing but perhaps
even more against those of his followers in later generations, especially Evagrius
53
See, for instance, Letters 664–666, 778.
54
E. Clark, Te Origenist Controversy: Te Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
55
For the sixth-century Origenist controversy in Palestine, see Perrone, La chiesa di Palestina
e le controversie cristologiche, 203–222; idem, “Palestinian Monasticism, the Bible, and Teology
in the Wake of the Second Origenist Controversy,” in Te Sabaite Heritage in the Orthodox
Church from the Fifth Century to the Present (ed. J. Patrich; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 245–259;
D. Hombergen, Te Second Origenist Controversy: A New Perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’
Monastic Biographies as Historical Sources for Sixth-Century Origenism (Studia Anselmiana 132;
Rome: Sant’ Anselmo, 2001); Idem, “Barsanuphius and John of Gaza and the Origenist Contro-
versy,” in Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity (eds. B. Bitton-Ashkelony and A. Kofsky; Leiden:
Brill, 2004), 173–181.
262 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
Ponticus. Te dispute focused primarily on issues of the pre-existence of the
soul and the nature of body and soul after resurrection.
56
Having read the
writings of Origen and Didymus, as well as Evagrius’s Kephalaia Gnostica, a
certain monk addressed to Barsanuphius and John a series of questions regard-
ing the Origenist controversy, asking about the belief in the pre-existence of
human, angelic, and demonic souls, and about their return with the apokatas-
tasis to their pure primordial state. Barsanuphius condemned these doctrines
as the speculation of Greeks; they did not lead to progress according to God
but rather to progress according to the devil. “Avoid these things, brother . . .
do not study them,” said Barsanuphius (Letter 600). It is noteworthy that,
while condemning Origenist concepts, Barsanuphius and John hardly
addressed them; they did not elaborate on their objections beyond a total
rejection and the repeated command to concentrate on the study of the Apo-
phthegmata. Persisting, the monk asked whether one might at least read the
writings of Evagrius. Te answer was that one might read them, but only
selectively, that is, only those writings that are “beneficial for the soul” (Letter
602). Te monk pointed out that some of the Fathers had accepted the Ori-
genist doctrines through Evagrius, and this was indeed confirmed by Barsan-
uphius; yet he was nevertheless inclined to oppose Origenism. But he
emphasised that what was important was not the truth or error of these views;
neither the questioner nor Barsanuphius himself should be preoccupied with
them but should concentrate on an examination of their passions, as well as
weep and mourn about them (Letter 603). Te questioner and his fellow
monks went on to complain in a long letter to Barsanuphius that other monks
were advocating the Origenist doctrine of the soul’s pre-existence, deriving
support for it from Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Te essence
of Barsanuphius’s answer was that preoccupation with these matters causes
only harm and confusion. Even the saints did not have a full understanding of
the divine mysteries. His general approach to theology was summed up in the
following advice: “Cease from such idle talk and pay attention to your pas-
sions, about which you will be asked to give account on the day of judgment.
For you will not be asked about these matters, why you do not understand
them or why you have not learned them” (Letter 604).
Te persistent monk followed with theological questions regarding hetero-
dox views encountered in the Apophthegmata (Daniel 8). He inquired about
the opinion that the holy bread was not the body of Christ but only a symbol,
and that Christ was in fact Melchizedek – why did God allow these great men
to fall into error? Te answer was that God did not lead them astray but that
56
Questions and Answers 600–605 (SC 451), 804–829.
B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267 263
these wise men did not investigate the matter with the pursuit of truth in
mind; sages in various generations, however, complement one another. Bar-
sanuphius’s replies did not succeed in allaying the monk’s concern with the
theological issues of the Origenist controversy (Letter 605). He had, he said,
read another theological work that caused great confusion in his soul. He was
hesitant about addressing Barsanuphius but claimed that his thoughts did not
allow him to remain silent. Barsanuphius rebuked him, declaring that the
devil was pushing him to useless preoccupations (Letter 606).
As these fascinating Questions and Answers attest, while Barsanuphius and
John were suppressing the monks’ attempts to discuss any speculative issues
relating to the Origenist controversy, the Judaean desert was, at the same time,
inflamed by these matters; monks and their leaders were deeply involved in
this controversy.
57
We witness here a process of deliberate selection of writings,
which certainly accounts for the religious and communal identity of the
monastic circle of Barsanuphius and John. Tey set themselves apart from the
heavy legacy of Origen and Evagrius on theological matters, thus separating
their community from the speculative tradition of these writers and cultivat-
ing a new spiritual direction, one centred on prayer, weeping and mourning.
Yet it should be stressed that the Old Men’s emphatic negative stance regard-
ing the speculative dimension of Evagrius’s teaching did not succeed in pre-
venting the infiltration of the Evagrian ascetic legacy into their own spiritual
world.
58
From the above discussion, one can easily agree with Miles’s statement that
“no identity can exist by itself and without an array of oppositions or
negatives.”
59
Te religious and political effects of the Chalcedonian controver-
sies, as well as the second Origenist controversy, on the identity formation of
the monastic communities in Palestine were immense. Here, I have indicated
only a few of the distinctive factors that appear to have played a role in this
process and that attest to the marked difference between the two Palestinian
ascetic centers. Te images by which each monastic community chose to artic-
ulate its identity, as well as the distinctive manifestations of their communal
and religious identity, confirm the flexibility of such an entity as “identity,” as
well as the force of local incentives.
57
On the doctrinal and political aspects of the conflict in relation to the Judaean desert’s
involvement and Cyril’s account, see Hombergen, Second Origenist Controversy.
58
Tis is evidenced, for example, with regard to perfect prayer, Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky,
Monastic School of Gaza, 174–176.
59
Miles (ed.) Identities (London: Routledge, 1999), 1–15 (esp. 6).
264 B. Bitton-Ashkelony / Religion & Teology 17 (2010) 244–267
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