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  • Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza by Jennifer L. Hevelone-Harper
  • Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony
Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza. By Jennifer L. Hevelone-Harper. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 223pages. $39.95.

Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza, a revised Princeton University doctoral dissertation, challenges an exciting phase of the monastic culture developed in the area of Gaza, when the ascetic community reached its apogee in the sixth century, the era of Barsanuphius and John (the Old Men), the outstanding spiritual guides of this region. Hevelone-Harper’s book is an important contribution and a welcome addition to the burgeoning study of Palestinian monasticism in general and of Gaza in particular that we witness in recent years. In six chapters, she offers a coherent picture of the monastic leadership in sixth-century Gaza and elucidates some aspects of Barsanuphius and John’s system of spiritual authority. [End Page 697] Barsanuphius’ and John’s self-perception and notion of leadership is revealed in the vivid Correspondence—comprises more than 800 questions and answers—they maintained with their clientele. In chapter 1, the author provides a short history of fourth- and fifth-century Gaza. The deliberately narrow spectrum of the book—which seeks to reconstruct the spiritual and ecclesiastical landscape of the sixth century in Gaza—is regrettable, since in order to understand the powerful authority of the leading figures of this community in the sixth century, one should be well aware of the spiritual legacy and the patterns of leadership developed in the region and in other monastic communities, especially in Egypt, in the previous generations. The author’s claim that this book “leads us from hilltop Gaza into the desert monastery at Tawatha” (5, 7) is misleading, since Tawatha, the birthplace of Hilarion and the location of Seridos’ monastery, is not in the desert but in the rural territory of Gaza. This rural aspect is one of the most distinctive characteristics of this ascetic community and one that might explain many of its peculiarities as well as its social role in the region. This regional case enriches our knowledge of the ascetic culture in the eastern Mediterranean world and constitutes an important contribution to the social history of Byzantine society. To Dorotheos—an upper-class monk, well versed in classical education and medical knowledge—Hevelone-Harper devoted chapter 3, in which she traces his early years in the cenobium near Gaza and his progression from disciple to spiritual director. Next, the author investigates the interaction between Barsanuphius and John and lay people in the region of Gaza (chapter 4). More than a quarter of the questions and answers were written by lay people, touching on diverse aspects of life in sixth-century Palestine, for instance: work on Sunday, contact in church, slaves, debts, agriculture, relations with Jews and pagans, magic, diseases, dreams, timidity in society, seclusion of lay people, and election of a new bishop. These questions provide a clear picture of the spiritual leadership and authority of the holy man, to whom his lay clientele turned for advice regarding not only religious matters but also daily and practical ones. In questions regarding ascetic morality, the Old Men seen seldom to have made essential distinction between monks and lay people. Chapter 5, in which Hevelone-Harper touches on the relationship of the Episcopal and civil authorities to monastic spiritual authority, is for the most part insightful, and she is particularly illuminating in her discussion on the instruction given by the two Old Men on ordination. The specific case of the selection of Aelianos to succeed Seridus in the monastery is treated at length in the final chapter of the book This story of the appointment of the new abbot appears fairly exceptional and indicates certain flexibility in the patterns of organization and leadership in this monastic community. Hevelone-Harper offers an overview, somehow idealized, of the monastic leadership in sixth-century Gaza. One wishes that she had discussed more about the uncommon and composite nature of the Gaza’s literary corpus, and to hear more...


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pp. 697-698
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