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  • Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ. The Monasteries of Palestine, 314–631
  • Andrea Sterk
John Binns. Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ. The Monasteries of Palestine, 314–631. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 276. $55.00.

In Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ John Binns makes an important contribution to the study of monasticism in Late Antiquity. The groundbreaking work of scholars like Derwas Chitty, Arthur Vööbus and Peter Brown has helped to unearth the rich ascetic traditions of Egypt and Syria and has inspired further study of monastic culture and organization in these regions. Meanwhile the unique context and contours of Palestinian monastic life have until now received relatively little attention. (We still await a comparable study on the monasteries of Asia Minor.) Bracketed between the appearance of the first monastic church in the Jerusalem desert (c.314) and the writing of the last of the Palestinian saints’ Lives (631) just prior to the fall of Jerusalem to the Arabs, Binns’s study not only covers the Byzantine era of Palestinian monasticism but also throws light on political realities and theological controversies during a crucial period for the church as a whole.

The main body of the work comprises three sections. The first examines the sources for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism, primarily the works of monastic writers themselves. Binns surveys the lives and writings of Cyril of Scythopolis, our best and most prolific witness to Palestinian monastic life, and several other desert holy men who attest to different areas and stages of the monastic movement. He also devotes a chapter to the monastic culture that shaped the careers of these holy men. Based primarily on his examination of Cyril’s library, Binns demonstrates the influences of the Bible, Egyptian monastic literature and Theodoret’s Religious History on Cyril in particular and on Palestinian monastic communities in general. He explains, however, that the spoken word was even more important in the formation of Palestinian ascetics, confirming what Philip Rousseau has demonstrated with regard to Egyptian monasticism. Cyril’s own writings are based largely on stories he has collected from older monks. The lives and exploits of famous holy men were passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next, contributing to a rich oral tradition which is only partly preserved in the extant writings.

The second part of the study focuses on the unique environment in which Palestinian monasticism arose and flourished. In particular Binns emphasizes the significance of Jerusalem. Following the building program initiated by Constantine, the holy places became a constant attraction for monks as well as pilgrims. Thus, Binns comments, for the monks of Palestine “withdrawal is not to the solitude of the desert but to the communal life of the city” (84). Connections between monks, cities and the church of Palestine are developed in detail in a chapter on the city of Scythopolis. This section also includes five maps, which indicate the locations of monasteries and illustrate the distinctive geographical and climatic factors that shaped the monastic movement in this region.

Major themes of Palestinian monastic life form the subject of Part III. Based on his analysis of Cyril’s Lives, Binns traces three main themes: the development of [End Page 541] the institution of monasticism, the struggle against heresy, and the role of miracles. Those interested in theological developments in the post-Chalcedonian era will find this section particularly helpful. Binns presents convincing arguments for how and why Palestine and the church in Jerusalem eventually adopted Chalcedonian Christology despite the strength of Monophysitism in neighboring regions. The book concludes with two appendices, one concerning the episcopate of John of Scythopolis and the other on the identity of Leontius of Byzantium.

Given the title of this work, one might have expected some discussion of monks as “ambassadors” to pagan areas of Palestine, but the use of this term has very little to do with the role of monks in the task of evangelization. In his Preface and in chapter 7 Binns describes the double vocation of monks as “ascetics” and “ambassadors.” The latter term refers primarily to a later stage of monasticism when communities of ascetics became...