Document Type


Publication Title

Journal of Early Christian Studies


Religious Studies







First Page


Last Page


Publication Date

Summer 9-1-2012


The Apophthegmata Patrum tells the story of a man who, wishing to join a monastery, reenacts Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac by proceeding to throw his son in the Nile River on the command of the monastic father. Like Isaac, the boy is spared. This account of extreme familial renunciation in the service of the ascetic life is not the only account of a child killing or attempted killing in monastic literature. Nor does the biblical prefigurement of ascetic renunciation exhaust these narratives' significance. This essay examines accounts of child killings in Egyptian monastic culture through the lens of various textual and visual sources: the Greek Apophthegmata Patrum, paintings of the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter and the averted sacrifice of Isaac at the monasteries of Saint Antony on the Red Sea and Saint Catherine at Sinai, and exegesis of the same biblical narratives in the writings of the Egyptian monk Shenoute and other ascetic authors. What we will see is that powerful moments or rituals of transition and transformation accompany these stories. Thus the textual and visual representations of these killings or attempted killings are theologically, politically, and even socially generative. They reaffirm priestly authority and theological orthodoxy in the monasteries at the same time as they invite male monks to identify with both male and female exemplars. As these paintings and texts reveal, child sacrifice in monastic culture represented not merely an ascetic injunction to abandon family, but, perhaps more radically, an ascetic reproduction of monastic community and genealogy.