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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible and Monasticism

From the monastic traditions we learn three basic facts that have survived up till now:

  • Louvre, Paris/Bridgeman Art Library.

    Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/Bridgeman Art Library.

    1. The memorization of the scriptures according to the rules of Pachomius: novices must learn by heart the Psalter and the New Testament. It is in this context that the memorization or learning by heart became the most obvious mark of early monasticism. The scriptures are called the ‘breath of God’, and monks were encouraged to sing the psalms, recite them, and meditate on them in order to gain inward purification and holiness.

  • 2. Reading the scriptures does not necessarily mean reading all of them. Certain texts assumed a prominent place in the life of some of the Desert Fathers. Particular words remained a goal to be achieved in the inner life. More specifically, at least in the Coptic tradition, a monk is called the ‘bearer of the cross’, and for someone like John the Dwarf the cross is a law of life. ‘Live by the Cross, in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in purity of soul’ (Saying 34). Meditation on the scriptures is described as follows by Leclercq: ‘For the ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one's whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it; with the memory which fixes it; with the intelligence which understands its meaning and with the will which longs to put it into practice’ (The Love of Learning, 26). Or, to use the words of another scholar, the Desert Fathers lived in the Bible, in other words, they used it, not just to read it and meditate on it, but applied it to the environment itself. St Seraphim gave names to certain parts of the forest such as Gethsemane, Calvary, and so forth. It was not just reading the scriptures and applying them to the environment but also taking statements which were uttered by the great heroes of faith, as a law for their personal life. The words of the prophet Elijah (‘As the Lord lives, in whose presence I stand today’) meant, for St Antony of Egypt, to regard every day as a fresh beginning.

  • 3. Monasticism reshaped eastern Christian life as a whole. The Bible is read for edification and truth is examined in order to be applied to the personal life of every individual. The Bible was not criticized, because it is the breath of God, which has brought the message of salvation. Thus Antony of Egypt heard the words of our Lord to the rich young man and went and sold everything and followed the commandment. Thus we reach the famous saying ‘you cannot become a disciple and a judge at the same time’. Eastern Christianity, which regards the life of holiness as a mark of true faith, does not favour biblical criticism, because the Bible was read to judge us rather than to be judged by us.

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