Monasticism: A Reaction against the Cities

The growing presence of Christianity in the cities of the Roman Empire was seen by many Christians as a positive development. Not only was it an important witness to the increasing influence of the Christian faith; it was a means by which Christianity could begin to work for the transformation of urban culture and society. Christianity, some argued, was like yeast in bread dough – a small presence, which would gradually grow, and eventually change things for the better.

Other Christians, however, were not so sure that this development was quite such a positive thing. While they did not rule out the possibility that urban expansion of the Christian faith might bring about a moral and spiritual transformation of the degener- acy of the imperial cities, it was quite possible that the reverse might happen. Might the immorality and debauchery of the cities – a frequent topic of concern in early Christian sermons – end up contaminating and corrupting the church?

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One of the most important developments to take place within early Christianity was the rise of monasticism. (The terms “monk” and “monasticism” both come from the Greek word monachos, meaning “solitary” or “alone.”) The origins of the monastic movement are generally thought to lie in remote hilly areas of Egypt and parts of eastern Syria. Significant numbers of Christians began to make their homes in these regions, in order to get away from the population centers, with all the distractions that these offered. Anthony of Egypt, who left his parents’ home in 273 to seek out a life of discipline and solitude in the desert, is an excellent representative of this growing trend.

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