Because of our Western orientation, we often lose sight of the fact that, from the third to the sixth century A.D., the eastern half of the Roman Empire was backed by a buoyant economy; a world that we now associate with dry deserts dotted with ancient ruins was thriving.1 The Roman Empire that the great British historian Edward Gibbon described in his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first appeared in 1776) was declining mostly in the West. In the East, the Roman Empire was still alive and well.
It is in this context that we should examine two very different monastic movements that thrived in the East—the Manichaean monks and wanderers in Syria and Mesopotamia and the Coptic monasteries in Egypt. They had very different ideas from each other about the nature of wealth, labor and care of the poor. This goes to the heart of how they functioned in society.
We now tend to take for granted that the principal duty of good Christians in the disposal of their wealth has always been to show mercy to the “real” poor. We assume that this view already went without saying among the majority of Christians around 300 A.D. It was from this definition of “the poor” that the charitable ventures associated with later Christianity derived, but in Mesopotamian monasticism at this time there was a form of Christianity in which a different attitude was equally prominent. Many Manchurians thought that Christians should give mainly to the “holy poor”—to the “poor among the saints,” to use the phrase of 044St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (15:26) when describing his collection for the poor “saints,” of the community of Jerusalem. These “holy poor” gave the ethereal benefits of “spiritual” blessing, advice and prayer, in return for being entirely supported by the “earthly” offering of daily sustenance, as if they were beggars—indeed, as if they were the only beggars that mattered.
In the late third and early fourth centuries, this division of opinion was particularly acute throughout these distinctive geographical areas in the East.
The dominant languages in these Eastern districts of Christianity were not Latin and Greek, but Coptic (a form of Egyptian) and Syriac (the latest and eventually the most widespread form of the Aramaic that Jesus of Nazareth spoke).
Three main groups of monks and missionaries moved up and down the Fertile Crescent at this time: (1) the wandering Christian monks of Syria, (2) the missionaries of the Manichees from Mesopotamia and (3) the more sedentary but equally vocal monks of Egypt.
Already in the 270s A.D., the Fertile Crescent was crisscrossed by extreme religious groups of Christian origin that expected to be supported entirely by the alms of those to whom they ministered. A letter written in the late third century intended to direct the behavior of one such group warned them that, when they passed through pagan villages, they should not burst out into singing the Psalms (which they usually did to hearten the local Christians and encourage donations), lest they be mistaken for a troupe of traveling musicians!
Other charismatic wanderers came from yet farther to the East, from central Mesopotamia. They were messengers of a new prophet, Mani, who had died in 277 A.D. as a martyr at the hands of the Sassanian king of kings. Though vehemently rejected by other Christians, Mani saw himself as the reformer of Christianity. He wished to be the Paul of his age. He sent his emissaries as “Apostles” to establish his “Holy Church” in all regions of the earth—from the Roman Empire in the West to the Kushan kingdom of Central Asia in the East. He had enough vision to know that, in Mesopotamia, he stood at the crossroads of Asia: “The Lord Zoroaster came to Persia … The Lord Buddha, the wise, came to the land of India … Jesus the Christ, in the lands of the Romans, came to the West.”2
And Mani would come to them all.
Mani’s missionaries soon established themselves as the “Elect” of his church. They ministered to local Manichaean communities, called “Hearers.” When they arrived in Syria and Egypt, around 300 045A.D., the Manichaean Elect seemed less foreign to local Christians than we might think. For they modeled their behavior on exactly the same pattern of extreme poverty combined with ceaseless mobility that the radical Christians of Syria of Mani’s own time had come to see as the distinctive mark of all true disciples of Jesus. In the words of a Manichaean Coptic Psalms of the Wanderers:
[T]hey went from village to village.
[They] went into the roads hungry, with no bread in their hands.
They walked in the heat, thirsting, they took no water to drink.
No gold, no silver, no money, did they take with them on their way.
They went into the villages, not knowing anybody.
They were welcomed for His sake, they were loved for his name’s sake.
These dramatic groups of wandering mendicant monks were soon met by an alternative version of the monastic life, primarily associated with Egypt.
In the Life of Anthony, Athanasius of Alexandria writes about one Anthony, a young Coptic-speaking Egyptian and a comfortable farmer (the owner of an estate of some 200 acres) who around 270 A.D. decided to move out of his village. He had been converted by this passage from the Gospel of Matthew concerning a rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).
This differed significantly from the pattern established by the holy wanderers of Syria and the missionaries of the “Holy Church” of Mani. Anthony did not take to the roads. He took to the desert, and he stayed put. He became known as the first “hermit”—a herémitikos (from the Greek word herémos, desert). He was a man of the desert, not a man of the open roads. His renunciation was accompanied by a dramatic act: almsgiving to the real poor:
Selling all the rest of his portable wealth
[his house, furniture, silverware and clothes], when
he had collected all the cash realized by this sale, he gave it to the poor.3
Moreover, once he had divested himself of this wealth, he refused to receive alms for himself. Although established in the desert, Anthony maintained himself by the work of his own hands. His followers imitated him with studied intensity. The words of Paul became the mantra of the monks of Egypt: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
By the time Anthony died in 356 A.D., the debate between Syria and Egypt, as to the correct form of monasticism, which had already rumbled for generations between Mesopotamia and the valley of the Nile, was brought into the open.
The debate was not only about who should receive alms from Christians—the “holy” poor or the “real” poor, wandering charismatics or indigent local beggars—it was overshadowed by much larger issues: How much was society defined by the obligation of all humans to work for a living? How many people could claim to be called by a religious vocation to live without patterns of work that characterized the lives of the majority of their fellows? And, 046last but not least, what claims if any did those who did not work have on the generosity of lay persons who supported them through pious alms?
These were basic questions. They brought to the surface, in Christian form, millennial arguments on the nature of humanity and society. Different regions and different Christian groups answered them in very different ways. Their different answers revealed markedly different attitudes to society as a whole.
A little over a decade ago, a house was excavated in an Egyptian village, 600 miles south of the Fayum, in which was found a cache of Manichaean works. It included a set of personal letters from the Manichaean Elect to their many Hearers. In exactly the same years as Anthony was reaching the zenith of his fame in northern Egypt, the Lady Eirene, a Mani “Hearer,” that is, a lay disciple of the Manichaean Elect, was being praised by the local Elect for putting “treasure in heaven” in the manner distinctive to her sect, by offering the local Elect material support. She too was following the command of Christ in the Gospels: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where no moth or rust destroys and where thieves do not dig in and steal” (Matthew 6:19–20).
The letter then adds an explanation: “[The treasures in heaven] are the Sun and the Moon.”4
It is only this last, tell-tale reference to the sun and the moon as active agents in a cosmic drama of salvation that identifies the writer of the letter as a Manichee rather than an ordinary Christian.
This newly discovered exchange of Manichaean letters shows with the crispness of an X-ray photograph one path by which “treasure on earth” might flow directly upward to become “treasure in heaven.” The Elect needed the Lady Eirene and her fellow “Catechumens.” The letter goes on:
You being for us helpers and worthy patrons and firm
unbending pillars [of the church cf. Galatians 2:9]; while we ourselves rely upon you … I was very grateful to
you, ten million times! [Whether] we are far or [we are near]; indeed, we have found remembrance among [you].
Therefore, [I] beg you, [my] blessed [daughters], that
you will [send] me two choes [two large jars] of oil. For [you] know yourselves that we are [in need] here; since we are afflicted.5
The Manichees’ view of the material world gave a sharp flavor to their notion of almsgiving to the Elect as members of the “holy poor.” For Manichees, the material universe was hopelessly corrupt. Matter was evil. Lady Eirene’s gifts to the Elect were seen as a last vestige of matter, painstakingly pried loose from an inherently evil world and sent on its way (in the form of a solemn gift of food to the Elect) toward some final transmutation in “the treasuries in the heights.” Such wealth, offered in this way, somehow carried with it the very soul of its donor.
These were the “alms” that Manichaean lay-persons gave to their Elect. They were “saving” alms.
The Manichaean Elect were “sealed” off from this earthly process on their mouths, on their hands and on their genitals. They did not join themselves to fully “living” matter through unregulated eating. They did not contribute to the headlong pullulation of human flesh through intercourse and the begetting of children. Above all, they did not lend their hands to manual labor in the fields. With pale faces 047and soft, white hands, the Elect—men and women alike, for, in this, they were indistinguishable—had left “the world.” They already lived on the threshold of the mighty “cessation” that would eventually fall upon the cosmos as a whole. They were what their lay supporters might yet become.
Such a view had palpable social implications. To cease to work was, somehow, to bring to a halt the demonic whir associated with the world of matter. This was how Mani himself was represented as a young man. He had annoyed his fellow villagers by refusing to feed himself through tilling the ground and through plucking vegetables from the lush gardens that surrounded their settlement in southern Mesopotamia. Instead, he would stand outside the gardens and ask to receive his food as an act of almsgiving, as though he were a beggar.
The same surge in population growth that, in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., had covered the highlands of Syria with villages of unparalleled density also cast loose upon the roads an impressive number of charismatic wanderers, who begged in villages that could afford to support them.
This particular world had deep roots here in the past. These areas of Syria and Mesopotamia had produced the famous Atrahasis myth in ancient Sumer in the second millennium B.C. They had in effect produced the opening chapters of Genesis, where Adam was condemned by God to labor “in the sweat of his brow.” The careworn inhabitants of these regions of intensive agriculture had long wondered why it was that human beings had come (in the words of the Sumerian Atrahasis) “to bear the drudgery (the dullum) [passed on to them] by the [toil-less] gods.”
Seen against a truly millennia-long background, the exegesis of the fall of Adam and Eve into toil (which became current in a vocal stream of Syriac Christianity) was only the last of a long series of sad ruminations by which the settled populations of the Fertile Crescent had attempted to make sense (since at least the second millennium B.C.) of the social trauma created by the agrarian revolution of the Late Stone Age.
Like all narratives of the loss of a golden age, where human beings had once enjoyed freedom 048from toil, radical Christian accounts of the fall of Adam and Eve presented human society as caught in the dull creak of ponos, of drudgery. Adam and Eve and their descendants had lost a first moment of sublime leisure. They had declined into the present care-worn state of society, by which human beings were dominated by the need to work to eat.
In the Augustinian tradition in the Latin West, the fall of Adam and Eve had brought about a profound inner weakening of the will, which was shown in its most subtle and enduring form in unregulated sexual desire. Rather, the true fall in the imagination of many Syrians had been a fall from the work-free abundance of Eden into a world of toil. Work, dull work—and not anything as interesting as sex—was the true curse of a fallen humanity.
The Syriac author of the Liber Graduum (The Book of Degrees) explained in the early fifth century that before their fall Adam and Eve had not known drudgery in Eden. They had been workers of the spirit. Their backs had not been broken, their hands had not been hardened by “earthly” toil. Their toil, instead, had been the weightless, ethereal toil of prayer, joining their voices with the angels in ceaseless praise of God, their bodies swaying gently, but without violent effort, as they bowed before God.
Those who admired—and supported—the monks of Syria did so because they saw in them a touch of the long-lost “angelic” leisure of Adam and Eve come back to earth.
Thus, throughout Syria and other eastern provinces, the spread of Manichaeism coincided with a wave of wandering, begging monks who considered that they were fully entitled to the support of the faithful because, being freed from the shame of physical labor, they were engaged in the “weightless” labor of prayer on behalf of all persons. They lived in a symbiotic relationship with lay disciples in whose economic activities they shared in no way, but on whose generosity they depended entirely.
This wing of Christianity prevailed in Syria and Mesopotamia. It claimed to have risen above labor, and to be entitled to support through the alms of the 049laity. The other wing primarily in Egypt (of which we know more because it is more fully represented in the monastic traditions of Western Europe) projected an image of ferocious self-sufficiency, in which sedentary monks were expected to feed themselves by the work of their own hands.
It was because of this wider debate that manual work came to enjoy pride of place in Egyptian monastic folklore. It formed a kind of counterimage to the Syrian practice, in which the monks would receive food as an act of almsgiving.
Work was embraced by Egyptian monasticism because it summed up the worth of the “true” monk to society and to the world around him. For work was a mark of the monk’s abiding humanity. Unlike the ethereal Manichaean Elect and the “angelic” holy wanderers of Syria, who seemed to float above the human condition because they were linked to society only by the thin thread of alms offered by the pious, the Egyptian monk put himself forward as a normal human being. And this was plain for all to see, in the most blunt manner possible. The monk was still linked to his fellows by the crude fact of work and by the need to sell the products his hands’ labor—and even (on occasions) of the labor of his own body, as a seasonal harvester in the fields of local landowners—in order to live.
We sometimes take for granted the monastic model associated with the monks of Egypt because, in later centuries, this version of monasticism became the model for the entire Christian West. We have become used to the image of the Egyptian model of the industrious monk, permanently settled in his monastery, like a holy kibbutznik. But we need to appreciate the power and the sheer geographical extent of the alternative model represented by the Manichees and by the begging monks of Syria.
The ultimate victory of Egyptian monasticism as it traveled to the West and became what we recognize as Byzantine monasticism had enormous consequences: In a nutshell, human society, and the human suffering associated with real divisions between rich and poor, took on a density that was lacking in the “cosmic” option of the Manichees and in the “angelic” option of the Syrian wanderers. For Manichees and the Syrian wanderers, human society somehow lacked substance, dwarfed by the majesty of a fallen cosmos and overshadowed by the great sadness of Adam’s and Eve’s fall into a world of labor.
By claiming to live from the labor of their hands, the monks of Egypt asserted that they were not angels. Rather, they were fully paid-up human members of a human society. They were linked by labor to the sufferings of that society. They were responsible for alleviating its all-too-real ills through real labor. They worked not only to support themselves, but to fulfill a social duty by giving alms to others.
To the “holy poor” or the “real poor”—that is the question. To whom were alms to be directed? This question divided the early monastic movement in the East. Alms to the “real poor” ultimately traveled west and came to dominate modern Christianity.