Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Book Review)

William Harmless is professor of Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He has published his research on monasticism in the journals of Theological Studies, Church History, and Studia Patristica. This review will examine specific approaches the author used in his narrative pertaining to his research on monasticism in his book, Desert Christians. The author’s approach is disclosed through his choice of best-known literary works of Athanasius, Pachomius, and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  Also included are the discoveries of text and archaeological finds which had a profound impact on the scholarship of monastic origins.

The thesis is an account of the origins, theology, literature, and history of desert Christians that would impact monastic life for centuries. The book is divided into five parts totaling 13 chapters. Part 1 contains chapters 1-2. The first chapter surveys the social aspects of Egypt—the geography, politics, and economy. The origins of Christianity in Egypt are discussed along with the most sophisticated city in the Roman empire, Alexandria. Origen, one of the most influential figures in church history is shown to have had a profound impact on desert monks and desert literature. Despite being declared a heretic by the Council of Constantinople II in 553, he remained influential throughout church history. Harmless contends that Origen influenced Athanasius, whose work on the Life of Antony are examined in chapters 3 and 4. Councils and controversies are examined in chapter 2 regarding internal struggles which led to divisions that affected monasticism.

Part 2 consists of chapters 3-5. These chapters focus on Athanasius’s Life of Antony, and Pachomius. The popularity of the Life of Antony received international attention for Egypt, its monks, and monastic institutions. Harmless argues that Athanasius’s publication on the Life of Antony marked the beginning of desert Christian literature. Athanasius’s popularity is made known by the author through the repercussions of the arrest order issued by the Emperor Constantius. In this section of the book the author details a series of events each having a lasting impact on the history of monasticism. For example, when Athanasius refused an invitation to appear before the Emperor apparently, it was considered a treasonous act. Thus, an arrest warrant was issued. However, the author reveals how through a network of monks, clergy, and monasteries Athanasius managed to avoid apprehension for six years. During this period of exile is when he composed the Life of Antony.

In chapter 5, the author disclosed how Pachomius pioneered the monastery, that is, how monks who chose to live alone, came to live together. The author uses two primary sources for constructing a narrative of Pachomius’s career, the Bohairic Life and the First Greek Life. Harmless concludes that although Pachomius is usually correlated with Antony and other desert fathers, Pachomius did not live in the desert. Pachomius and his followers lived near the Nile. Further, they did not turn deserts into cities, but transformed desert villages into thriving communities though agrarian practices and craftmanship. Their transportation system proved beneficial not only for commercial dealings but for religious ones as well. The author emphasizes that while Antony withdrew to the desert to escape distractions of the world, Pachomius withdrew from the desert to minister to the world and unite people with God.

Part 3 contains chapters 6-9. This is the section that identifies the book as a work of scholarship, expelling any lingering considerations that it may be labeled simply a trade book for commercial use among a lay audience. The author begins by disclosing that there were other portraits of Antony’s life circulated among the desert Christians—the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers is a popular one. The first few pages of chapter 6 is dedicated to comparing and contrasting the Sayings of the Fathers with Life of Antony before analyzing the literature of the desert Christians and traditions of the monks. In the following chapters the author provides excerpts in different ancient languages from various collections including the popular Apophthegmata Patrum and Life of Antony. The ancient languages used by the desert fathers from collections include: Greek, Syriac, Sahidic Coptic, Bohairic Coptic, Georgian, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Latin.

Part 4 consists of chapters 10-12. These chapters primarily address monastic theologians and their theories, encompassing a wide range of monastic characteristics. Particularly interesting was the section titled The Origenist Controversy. The author disclosed the internal conflict among bishops from a theory dealing with God’s substance which can be traced back to Origin himself. The author omits nothing. Perhaps to show how messy early monasticism was; revealing jealously, violence, theological, and political discord among the church leaders. The reader is made aware that the existing literature on the subject is mostly biased. This is because the primary sources are extracted from letters that each side may have embellished when it came to accusations made about the other. Further, the controversy was far reaching and because of Theophilus’s initial bipolar actions and continued forceful pursuit of those who opposed his new position, there was little neutral territory. The final chapter in this part is dedicated to John Cassin, it discusses his role and perception of monasticism.

Part 5 consists of the final chapter of the book—chapter 13. This chapter is a reflection on the material covered—origins, perspectives, discoveries, and disputes. The author begins by asking “where did monasticism come from?” Cassin is reflected upon and his belief that monasticism came from the apostles. The author concludes that although Egypt received the most attention, it alone was not solely responsible for the birth-place of monasticism. 

The weakness does not preside in the narrative or supportive arguments; it may be in the author’s decision to divide the book into five parts. There does exist a common theme and overall narrative. However, the detail each section discloses regarding each given topic creates some ambiguity regarding the overall primary objective of the book. It’s as if each part could have produced its own narrative within the chapters it included. Perhaps this is a testament to the author’s reflections in the final section—part five. Harmless, argues that when studying ancient history caution must be used regarding what can be known. While interesting things about certain monks and monasteries can be ascertained, the majority are unknown. Reconstructing early Christian monasticism based on surviving documents and archaeology sites can be difficult and tentative. Thus, dividing up the book into parts may have assisted in staying within the limits of what can be know as opposed to any attempts to join narratives that may have otherwise been outside the body of evidence. 

The narrative is not an argument for a particular event or idea, but an account of origins, literature, and people that influenced and shaped monasticism. Harmless’ research has resulted in many publications in various journals that require peer review. The author used research accumulated over his career that was extracted from primary sources including ancient texts and archaeological sites to construct an account almost entirely from the evidence. Thus, the strength in the author’s work comes from his own research. Furthermore, the author included contrasting views to decisive conclusions accepted by most scholars; e.g., discrepancies pertaining to the literature and who may have actually composed it. This demonstrates the author’s dedication to providing the most accurate narrative possible, rather than a strictly one-sided interpretation of the evidence. 


Harmless, William S. J. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.  

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s