One of the greatest Christian saints of all time is St Anthony. He is the founder of monasticism although he was not the first monk.1 The main source of the account of his life is called The Life of Antony, a work attributed to St Athanasius, which is written during the fourth century. There is also relevant material of his spiritual portrait, which exists in The Sayings of The Desert Fathers also known as the Apophthegmata. It is my view that both works differ significantly in many aspects due to several reasons. In what follows I intend to prove the existence of the prominent distinctions between them after presenting a brief overview and an analysis of each work.
If many were eager to imitate the discipline of St Anthony,2 the Life of Anthony itself became one of “the most known and imitated works of Christian biographical literature from Late Antiquity.”3 The Life tells us the story of a young rich Copt who lived in the second half of the third century. He was moved by the gospel he heard in the Church to “Sell what you have” and to “Be not anxious about tomorrow.” He renounced the world and lived for a while outside the village to learn from old ascetics. He then moved further deep in the desert to live a solitary life in a cave by the Red Sea where the early years of his asceticism witnessed severe struggles with his personal thoughts and passions. The demons did combat with Anthony to prevent him from pursuing his solitary life even to the point of being physically beaten. After many years he accepted novices under his guidance and monasticism started to spread all over Egypt by the year 305 AD. The Life includes long discourses by the Elder to young monks in additions to his debates with the pagan philosophers who visited him in the desert. St Athanasius referred to many miracles performed by St Anthony such as exorcism, healings of different infirmities and clairvoyant visions. The book ends with his departure at the age of 105 in 356 AD.
St Anthony is presented here as the prototype of the early ascetics. The thirty-eight sayings of St Anthony are concise and short. The Sayings include the temptations and some of the sinful thoughts that attacked him. They also provide practical answers to issues related to the salvation of the monks who renounced the world seeking the successful model of St Anthony. Some dialogues between St Anthony and his disciples who were seeking his words of benefits are mentioned in brief in the form of questions and answers. The Sayings also present some short stories about fallen monks in addition to the virtuous ones as exemplified by St Anthony the Great. The authors of the Life and the Apophthegmata were different and lived in different centuries. St Athanasius wrote The Life originally in Greek in the fourth century during his exile in Europe. It was translated twice to Latin during the lifetime of Athanasius.4 The Life was translated to other languages such as Coptic, Armenian, Old Slavonic and Syriac. The spread of the heresies, the Greek philosophies, persecution, martyrdom and the beginning of monasticism are all prominent features of the time of St Athanasius who was also a contemporary to St Anthony. However, while The Life is attributed to St Athanasius, the author of the Sayings is unknown. The Sayings of The Desert Fathers were probably “collected and edited anonymously in Palestine in the second half of the fifth century and later enlarged, re-organized, and re-edited in all the languages of early Christianity.”5
Researchers believe that The Life was written not only for the benefits of the Christian reader, but also for preaching the heathen pagans. For example, in his article Read It Also to the Gentiles, Arthur Urbano demonstrated that the Life was a direct refutation to Greek philosophy. He writes, “It is through Christ as teacher and revealer of wisdom, model and aid in virtue, that Antony becomes a true philosopher.”6 To speak to the Greek mind, the Life also had to share “affinities with Iamblichus and with Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus.”7 In contrast, the Apophthegmata is an example of an ancient monastic literature, which is performed to edify monks and not all Christians. In general, the desert dwellers are different from the Greeks. Therefore, the methods of education are different in both environments. In this regards, Lemeni writes, “The desert has its own education, an education imparted by peasants and illiterates, that is to say, by people who wish to change themselves rather than satisfy their intellectual curiosity or unease.”8
Because the audiences were dissimilar, therefore each author used a very specific style of writing. The Life is almost eight times larger in size than the selected sayings of St. Anthony in the Apophthegmata. For instance, in his response to the assembled monks who wanted to hear his words, the answer of St Anthony started in chapter 16 and ended in chapter 43 in the Life. This discourse by itself is three times larger than all the sayings of St Anthony in the Apophthegmata. Whereas the Sayings “are neither accounts of the way of life of the monks nor records of their teaching, but glimpses of them as they are known to their disciples.”9 This is because the monks are taught by the examples of the elders not by their treatises or sermons. Each writer had different goals in mind. As the Bishop of Alexandria, St Athanasius had to defend the Church beliefs against the widespread heresies mainly Arianism. He also had to refute the philosophical claim that the Christian belief is irrational. As a shepherd, St Athanasius had to care for the new monastic communities in Egypt. The Life also aimed to stimulate the monastic movement in Europe. Therefore, St Anthony was portrayed in the Life not only as the hermit, but also as a defender of the Nicene doctrines and a strong advocate of the Orthodox bishops against the heretics. On the other hand, the Sayings are collected during the fifth century,10 which witnessed relocation of Egyptian monks to Palestine. Therefore, there was a need of transferring “the literary traditions, codified in the stories and adages of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”11 to the new monastic communities outside of Egypt. It was through these texts that “monasticism of Egypt became known to the wider Christian world through the translations of these traditions.”12
The Life and the Apophthegmata have very few parallels in common. The numerous quotations of biblical verses in both accounts clearly show that St Anthony was a living Gospel. Furthermore, the power of just his presence as a teacher and healer is reinforced in the Apophthegmata13 as well as the Life. In this regards, Philip Schaff writes,
In addition, both writers did not depict monasticism as a form of a revolt against the Church. Another similar aspect is the fact that St Anthony never went to the desert to flee the Roman persecution but rather to renounce the world and to face severe struggles against the self-passions and the demons. This is contrary to what Jerome had to write about St Paul the first hermit who, according to Jerome, had “fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution.”14
In addition, both writers did not depict monasticism as a form of a revolt against the Church. Another similar aspect is the fact that St Anthony never went to the desert to flee the Roman persecution but rather to renounce the world and to face severe struggles against the self-passions and the demons. This is contrary to what Jerome had to write about St Paul the first hermit who, according to Jerome, had “fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution.”15
It is my view that the two accounts differ significantly. In fact, “while there are kindred themes between the Life and the Apophthegmata, even a few direct parallels, the differences are striking.”16 In brief, different writers wrote both works to be read by different audiences during different centuries to serve different goals. In his Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, William Harmless remarks some outstanding distinctions between the Life and the Sayings. He points out that the Anthony of the Apophthegmata is a simple person if compared to Anthony of the Life. For example, The Apophthegmata does not mention many crucial themes recorded in the Life such as the theological issues, condemnation of the heretics, either Arians or Meletians, and the belief of the generation of the Son from the Father.17 Another point of disagreement between both accounts is how St Anthony reacted to Constantine’s letter. In the Life the ascetic ignored the letter since the emperor was just a mere man. St Athanasius records,
But he made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages. But was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, ‘Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us through His own Son.18
However, the thirty-first saying of St Anthony in the Apophthegmata tells us a totally different story since St Anthony wondered if he must go. Therefore, he had to ask the advice of one of his disciples, a certain Abba Paul. His disciple answered him saying, “If you go, you will be called Anthony; but if you stay here, you will be called Abba Anthony.”19
Another interesting contrast exemplified by Harmless is the fact that Anthony of the Life is freed from the sexual temptations after the fierce battle at his early monastic life. This is entirely opposite to what is recorded in The Sayings. We read in the Sayings that St Anthony teaches, “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.”20 Harmless also refers to even more problematic differences as he puts it, “But the contrast goes deeper.”21 He explains how Anthony of the Apophthegmata behaves like any regular believer who might get depressed and even question the justice of God because of the death of the young, the prosperity of the wicked and the poverty of the just.22 On the opposite side, Anthony of the Life seems heroic in confronting the demons and also in his ascetic practices. Besides, Harmless remarks, it is very obvious that there is a consistent message throughout the Life that St Anthony was illiterate, yet he “was taught of God.”23 St Athanasius writes that St Anthony “could not endure to learn the letters, not caring to associate with other boys.”24 Surprisingly, when St Anthony answered the philosophers who mocked him thinking that he is unschooled, his answers to the sarcastic visitors “amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marveling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man.”25 In order to understand this controversial point, it is important to quote Walker, who writes,
As Greek became the daily speech of city-dwellers in the East, it also became a normal second language for educated persons in the West, where Latin was the common tongue. Other languages— Aramaic, Coptic, Punic— by no means disappeared, but they tended more and more to become languages of the uneducated and of the rural population.26
There is no doubt that the main reason behind insisting the Life on the illiteracy of Anthony is that St Athanasius was convinced that the Greek philosophy is useless. He also saw that Greek philosophy is “the corrupted product of corrupting polytheism and idolatry.”27 In this regard, Urbano reaches the conclusion that St Anthony of the Life was able to debate with the Greeks and wins because he “had achieved the goal of philosophy in his contemplative union with God, physical asceticism, prayer, and study of Christian texts.”28 On the other side, the level of education of St Anthony has less importance to the author of the Apophthegmata where “there is no theorizing, no trains of logical argument, no intricate analysis of biblical texts.”29 However, the Sayings showed him as a man of wide knowledge who was able to teach his disciples the Scriptures. This is because the Sayings are “like ancient Wisdom sayings, is born from experience and gives practical, earthy, and specific advice on how to live.”30 In addition, the Desert Fathers sometimes preferred to teach through “silence instead of words, which forced their disciples to move from the theoretical to the experiential level.”31
In conclusion, the Life by St Athanasius was not a pure hagiography but rather an apologetic hagiography. In other words, St Athanasius wanted to prove the superiority of the Christian ethos over the Greek philosophy. Conversely, some of the words of benefits or the collected sayings by St Anthony were gathered, edited and placed among the Apophthegmata to teach monastics the fundamental rules of asceticism and spiritual struggle. Although the Life and the Apophthegmata are significantly different, they are equally important to both Christian believers and non-believers at any time in the history. About seventeen hundred years ago St Anthony prayed “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?”32 The Lord answered him and the wise man was saved and healed. St Anthony the Great used to say, “The Fathers of old went out into the desert and were made whole and they became physicians, and they returned and healed others.”33 God who saved Anthony in his cave near the Red Sea in the third century can also listen to anyone in the twenty first century anywhere in the world in order to be healed and to heal others. However, this can happen only if he or she acquired the mind of Anthony, which is articulated in the Sayings of Anthony. Nevertheless, this can never be achieved except by walking seriously as we saw in The Life of Antony.
1 It is clear in The Life of Antony by St Athanasius that some ascetics who preceded St Anthony lived outside the villages and he learned many virtues from them.
2 Life of Antony, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2-4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library) 585.
3 Urbano, Arthur. “”Read It Also to the Gentiles”: The Displacement and Recasting of the Philosopher in the Vita Antonii.” Church History 77, no. 4 (2008): 877-914, 893. .894
4 Henry Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 399.
5 Samuel Rubenson, “Asceticism and Monasticism, I: Eastern,” The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 2, Constantine to c. 600 , ed. Augustine Casiday and Frederick W. Norris, (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 649
6 Urbano, Read It Also to the Gentiles, 906
7Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society, 399.
8Daniel Lemeni, “The Dynamics of Spiritual Guidance in the Apophthegmata Patrum.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 60, no. 3-4 (2015): 134. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
9 Norman Russell, The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, trans. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 1980) 3
10 Andrew Louth, The Cambridge history of early Christian literature, ed. Frances Young and Lewis Ayres (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004) 380.
11 James E. Goehring, “Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Egyptian Monasticism” (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1999) 38.
12 Ibid. 38.
13 Lemeni, The Dynamics of Spiritual Guidance, 137
14 The Life of Paulus the First Hermit, in Jerome: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893).
15 The Life of Paulus the First Hermit, in Jerome: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893).
16 William Harmless, Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 168.
17 Harmless, Desert Christians, 168.
18 Athanasius, Life of Antony, 628.
19 Benedicta Ward, The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection (New York: Macmillan, 1980) 8.
21 William Harmless, ‘Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism’ 169.
22 Benedicta Ward, ‘The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection ‘ 2.
23Athanasius, Life of Antony, 618.
24 Ibid. 574.
25 Ibid. 623.
26 Williston Walker, History of the Christian Church (p. 6). Scribner.
27 Urbano, ‘Read It Also to the Gentiles’ 897
28 Urbano, ‘Read It Also to the Gentiles’ 913
29 Lemeni, The Dynamics of Spiritual Guidance, 144.
30 Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 95.
31 Lemeni, The Dynamics of Spiritual Guidance, 133-134.
32 Ward, The Desert Christian, 2.
33 Claude W Barlow, Iberian Fathers, Volume 1 (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 62). Compiled by Claude W Barlow. Translated by Claude W Barlow (Washington: Catholic University of America Press. 1969) 156.