The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism

The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism

The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism

The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism

Synopsis

The growing scholarly attention in recent years to the religious world of late antiquity has focused new attention on the quest for holiness by the strange, compelling, often obscure early Christian monks known as the desert fathers. Yet until now, little attention has been given to one of the most vital dimensions of their spirituality: their astute, penetrating interpretation of Scripture. Rooted in solitude, cultivated in an atmosphere of silence, oriented toward the practical appropriation of the sacred texts, the desert fathers' hermeneutic profoundly shaped every aspect of their lives and became a significant part of their legacy. This book explores the setting within which the early monastic movement emerged, the interpretive process at the center of the desert fathers' quest for holiness, and the intricate patterns of meaning woven into their words and their lives.

Excerpt

The desert fathers and mothers of fourth century Egypt created a spirituality of remarkable depth and enduring power from their reading and interpretation of Scripture. This book tells the story of early monastic spirituality in light of the hermeneutic that shaped it and within the context of the ascetical world of late antiquity.

The themes discussed here arose in my mind somewhat unexpectedly, the result of a happy convergence of two abiding interests: biblical interpretation and monastic culture. For some time, I had been interested in the question of how one determines meaning in the interpretation of biblical texts. In particular, I wondered whether it was possible to reconcile the diverse and often diametrically opposed approaches to biblical interpretation found in ancient and contemporary Christianity. The ancient and medieval Christian hermeneutical approaches posed a challenge: while they clearly did not establish the meaning of the text in the particular determinative way characterized by the contemporary historical-critical approach, they most certainly did establish meaning. The typological, allegorical, and sometimes literal readings of Scripture in which these ancient interpreters were engaged all comprised attempts to derive meaning from the texts. And yet, what kind of meaning was it? Were their interpretations genuine responses to the text or merely whimsical creations utterly detached from the biblical text itself?

The early monastic world of Egypt presents an especially good place to examine these questions. Here is a culture steeped in Scripture, viewing it not simply as an object of study but as a source of real spiritual sustenance. Daily ruminating and imbibing the Word within the rounds of work and prayer, the monks sought to reshape their imaginations around the world of Scripture and to allow it to penetrate to the core of their beings and their communities. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers struck me as a particularly fruitful source for considering the character and aim of the early monastic hermeneutic. Not only are the stories and sayings themselves inherently interesting, filled as they are with a motley band of colorful characters, wild . . .

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