The Lost Gospel
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Introduction & Map

Monasticism Emerges

A.D. 250

St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai in Egypt is the oldest continuously operating monasteries and home to one of the largest collections of Coptic manuscripts and priceless paintings, such as this painting of Jesus.
St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai in Egypt is the oldest continuously operating monasteries and home to one of the largest collections of Coptic manuscripts and priceless paintings, such as this painting of Jesus.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic

The practice of Christian monasticism began in fourth-century Egypt when devout believers sought hermetic lifestyles dedicated to an ideal of self-denial. These early monks may have been inspired by the deprivations endured by Jesus during his 40 days in the desert.

Earlier, Paul the Hermit became the first recognized Christian recluse. He fled to the desert around A.D. 250 to escape persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Decius.

Paul's simple life of prayer and reflection is reported to have been an exceptionally long one. His biographer, St. Jerome, wrote that Paul lived to the age of 113. In Paul's final years St. Anthony of Egypt may have visited him. Anthony was a dedicated ascetic and is considered the founder of the Christian monastic tradition. The once wealthy Egyptian renounced his fortune for a truly spiritual existence.

He lived for nearly 20 years in solitude on a mountain known as Pispir (today called Dayr al-Maymun). It was a time of personal trial and temptation that Anthony attributed directly to the devil. Whether physical or psychological, the battles that Anthony waged against these demons later became a common subject of Christian devotional art.

After his ordeals Anthony attracted young hermits and monks hoping to emulate his contemplative lifestyle in remote surroundings.

Despite their isolation monasteries and monks played an enormous role in the life of the mainstream church, with monks in the vital vocation of scribes. Monks painstakingly copied texts so that the words of the scriptures might be preserved and passed on. This was true for New Testament Gospels and alternative writings as well—even those later deemed heretical.

The surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, found not far from the site of Anthony's retreat, was likely copied down and hidden by monks who were receptive to its ideas. The oldest continuously used Christian monastery, St. Catherine's, boasts an incomparable ancient library attesting to the industriousness of its own scribes. The remote Sinai Peninsula mountains surrounding St. Catherine's evoke the ascetic monasticism of early Christian monks who sought a spiritual life in isolated natural locales. Today, Greek Orthodox monks carry on an ancient tradition that began inside these walls during the sixth century.

St. Catherine's stands at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) on the flanks of Egypt's Mount Sinai. Old Testament scriptures say that Moses received the Ten Commandments on this mountain, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. Byzantine Emperor Justinian I founded St. Catherine's in the year 527 at the traditional location of the biblical burning bush.

The monastery's Byzantine architecture and harmony within its natural environment helped to earn it acclaim as a World Heritage Site. Equally valuable is the site's historical tradition as one of the very earliest of the remote Christian monasteries and a popular Christian pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages.

St. Catherine's contains a priceless historical record, including pre-eighth-century Christian icons and one of the world's largest and most important collections of ancient codices and manuscripts. The multilingual library was greatly enhanced in 1975, when workmen damaged a wall and stumbled upon some 3,000 hidden manuscripts.