The Desert in Words

Reading Ascetic Authority in the Apophthegmata Patrum

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Jackson Davis Hase


This paper textually investigates the alphabetical Apophthegmata Patrum, a text written in the late 5th or early 6th century CE that claims to record the sayings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. The purpose of this investigation is to better understand the nature of Christian ascetic authority at this time as it moved from an oral to a written tradition. As this text bases its presentation of authority on sayings, or ‘words’, this paper will begin by focusing on a corpus of sayings which reveal how this text understands the power of ‘words.’ This text understands itself as enacting authority via words with the intention of transforming its readers. Once this paper has demonstrated this understanding, it will continue to outline a new understanding of the text’s contradictions: that ‘words’ must be prescribed based on an individual and their situation, thus rendering contradictions non-problematic. Therefore, self-analysis and self-prescription of ‘words’ became necessary to ascetics as ‘words’ became written and not performed by the Fathers themselves. This aspect of written ascetic authority also exists within the later systematic Apophthegmata Patrum and other ascetic writings, with differences occurring because of their perceived audiences.