J. William Harmless, SJ

in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780199271566
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology


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Christianity had ascetic commitments from its very foundation, in the words and deeds both of Jesus and of Paul. When it surfaced into legitimacy in the 310s, Christianity's deep-seated ascetic impulses surfaced as well. The movement called monasticism left an indelible impression upon Christian faith and practice in the medieval West, the Byzantine East, and beyond. Two classic forms of monasticism emerged early: the anchoritic, or solitary life of the hermit; and the cenobitic, or life within a structured community. Monastic life required, from the outset, stark renunciations: of family, property, marriage, and career. Early monks typically joined ascetical disciplines – fasting, vigils, poverty, lifelong celibacy – with a life of manual labour. This article surveys the classic figures and classic texts, since these provide the point of departure for contemporary research, both the deconstruction of received views and the reconstructions opened up by new discoveries and new methods.

Keywords: Christianity; asceticism; hermit; early monks; fasting; celibacy

Article.  11252 words. 

Subjects: Religion ; Christianity ; Religious Studies ; Religion in the Ancient World

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