—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 129–133

Bentley Layton’s The Canons of our Fathers marks the first collection and translation of the rules of Shenoute of Atripe (CE 347–465). These Coptic rules, assembled primarily from the Canons of Shenoute, are the primary evidence for communal life within the White Monastery Federation, a fourth century CE monastic federation founded by a Pachomian monk named Pcol in Upper Egypt (near the modern city of Sohag) on the western bank of the Nile River across from the Pachomian Federation in Panapolis-Shmin (modern Akhmim).

These rules should be viewed in the tradition of St. Pachomius, though they are much more extensive than the Pachomian rules. In addition to the fact that most have never been published, especially as a separate corpus of texts, “the rules in Shenoute’s Canons have hardly been used by historians of monasticism” (p.ix). In other words, the value of Layton's study lies explicitly in his reconstruction of a particular fourth century cenobitic community.

These rules mark one of the most detailed expressions of early cenobitic monasticism prior to the sixth century CE. This fact alone makes Layton's contribution valuable for anyone—scholar and student alike—interested in early Christian history, and even more particularly for those interested in the history of monasticism. Therefore, while the collection and translation of the rules may be worth the price of the book alone, the contextual chapters that precede the rules offer a fruitful perspective on early Christian asceticism.

To situate his reconstruction, Layton helpfully outlines the nature of the rules in four chapters, each of which is concerned with contextual issues that either help in understanding the rules themselves—chapters on the “corpus of monastic rules” and their “historical context”—or sketch a picture of cenobitic monasticism as emphasized in the rules—such as those chapters concerned with “monastic (communal) life” or “monastic (individual) experience.”

In the first chapter, on the historical context of the rules, Layton emphasizes that the “White Monastery Federation”—the scholarly term for the federation of three monastic communities associated with Shenoute of Atripe, who assumed charge of the Federation around 385 CE—had an extensive record of communal rules, which are mostly known in quotations, paraphrases, or allusions in the extensive writings of Shenoute. Providing a highlight to the first chapter, Layton offers the first English translation of the significant Naples fragment. The Naples fragment emphasizes the founding of the northern monastery and its affiliation with the central monastery of Pcol, one of Shenoute’s predecessors. Based on the accounts of the Naples fragment, then, Layton provides a compelling reconstruction of the general history of the Federation (p.19–26).

In chapter two on “The Corpus of Monastic Rules,” Layton shows the extrapolating process of identifying the rules of Shenoute, drawn as they were primarily from Shenoute’s Canons. Layton devotes space to the important question of how such rulebooks might have been used in monastic communities in late antiquity. He, then, also explores questions of authorship for the rules, the language they employ, and the role of the rules in the Federation. Layton argues that such rules were used “primarily by the monastic hierarchy” (which he describes in the third chapter), noting that the Layton even discusses the sanctions and punishments that a few of the rules propose, though he notes that this is a rarity.

I was disappointed that Layton simply shrugged off the interesting questions of why certain rules did anticipate clear punishments (when the vast majority of them are silent on this very issue), and that he never questions from where these particular rules might derive. He humorously quips, “I have to leave these questions unanswered” (p.49), which in all probability is where they must be left although we all might wish he had concerned himself with providing some conjectures. The third and fourth chapters concern communal life in the White Monastery Federation and the individual experiences of monastics, respectively. Of course, Layton rightly warns at the outset to chapter three that any description of cenobitic life in the rules is incomplete and ideal. It is incomplete since the rules are derived primarily from Shenoute’s Canons, which itself is missing many pages. It is an ideal description of the communities since “the rules prescribe behavior—they do not necessarily describe reality on the ground, nor tell us how much the rules were obeyed” (p.51).

With these qualifications set out, Layton then clearly describes the prescription for communal life offered in the rules, structuring his description in six headings: (a) the cenobium as physical plant, which describes the various jobs and duties of the Federation, (b) the community, which describes the social composition of the Federation, (c) ascetic observances, (d) the monastic hierarchy, (e) liturgy, and (f) economical issues. Layton's structure is quite conducive to a clear portrayal of Shenoute's monastic community. Though the fourth chapter is the shortest, Layton turns to discuss the experience of individual monks and nuns in the development of ascetic identity clearly emphasizing the “resocializing” experience of cenobitic monasticism in late antiquity. Layton discusses both the “conversion” to monastic life (p.78–80) and the acquisition and maintenance of monastic life through “relationships with significant others, enabling the newcomer to identify with roles and attitudes” prevalent in their new communities (p.81–85).

The remainder of the book, then, is the collection and translation of the 595 rules. The Coptic text is provided with Layton’s English gloss on the facing page. Layton has provided an invaluable resource for scholars of late antiquity in general and in the development of Christian asceticism—and especially cenobitic monasticism—in particular.

His reconstruction of the ideal monastic community outlined in the rules is clear and lucid, but it seems to me that there yet remains much work to be done in analyzing the rules. For instance, Layton never discusses the theological perspectives outlined in the rules, and there is no evaluation of the way this particular monastic community reads Scripture in the subscription to these rules, which may be surprising in light of the fact that the rules themselves link the reading of Scripture with their communal expectations (cf. Rule 50).

Perhaps two examples of the value of this question will suffice. In a close reading of the rules, one is struck by the prevalence of echoes from Deuteronomy. Could the frequent echoes of Deut 27–28 (cf. Rules 20, 76, 97–99, et al.) provide any direction in answering the questions that Layton leaves unanswered on the origins and uses of the rules which prescribe either a specific curse (ⲥϩⲟⲩⲟⲣⲧ) or a specific blessing (ⲥⲙⲟⲩ).

Similarly, the rules of Shenoute often implicitly use the Pauline reference to “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) as a framework for their ideal monastic life. For instance, in Rule 200, prescribing the proper eating habits during Lent, it is said that each monk must exercise restraint and “eat whatever he needs in trembling and the fear of God” (ⲛϥⲟⲩⲱⲙ ⲛⲧⲉϥⲭⲣⲉⲓⲁ ϩⲛⲟⲩⲥⲧⲱⲧ ⲙⲛⲟⲩϩⲟⲧⲉ ⲛⲧⲉⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ). Similarly, in Rule 42, Shenoute condemns showing preference to anyone under care in light of God's wrath. Instead, one must “take care of one another with fear and trembling” (ⲁⲗⲗⲁ ϥⲓⲡⲣⲟⲟⲩϣ ⲛⲧⲟϥ ⲛⲛⲉⲧⲛⲉⲣⲏⲩ ϩⲛⲟⲩϩⲟⲧⲉ ⲙⲛⲟⲩⲥⲧⲱⲧ).

In such instances, the monastic life is grounded in a Pauline ethic, which itself is intended to placate the curses for disobedience to the rules in toto. In each of these examples, it is the interpretation of Scripture that drives the monastic experience in the Federation.

To be sure, it is more than understandable that Layton could not include this in his work. His reconstruction of the life found in the White Monastery Federation in accordance with the rules of Shenoute is clear and compelling. For this reason alone, the book is an extremely valuable addition to scholarship on Coptic Christianity in late antiquity. Nevertheless, for those interested in the theological reasoning and use of Scripture in the development of Christian monasticism, there remains plenty of work still to be done, and Layton's Canons of our Fathers will be a key voice in this continuing dialogue.

Bibliographical Information

Bentley Layton. The Canons of our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. Pp. xv + 359. ISBN: 978-0199582631. $145.00 [Hardback].
About the Author:
H. Clifton Ward

H. Clifton Ward (Ph.D. Durham University) currently serves as Instructor in Religion at Tusculum College.