Playing the Harlot in an Egyptian Monastery: The Rhetorics of Sexuality and Prophecy in Shenoute’s Letters

Document Type

Conference Presentation


Religious Studies

Conference Title

American Academy of Religion (AAR)


San Antonio, TX

Conference Dates

November 20-23, 2004

Date of Presentation



In his earliest letters, the Egyptian monastic leader adapts the scriptural traditions of the prophets of the Christian Old Testament to style himself as a prophet for his community. He then uses the tropes of sexual promiscuity from the prophetic books to condemn sins in the monastery. Writing before he became the leader of the community, Shenoute represents himself as a prophet to critique his community and the authority of its second leader. This paper will argue that Shenoute’s references to sexual sins should not necessarily be interpreted as references to violations of the monks’ vows of celibacy. Rather, Shenoute uses prophetic rhetoric and applies specific Biblical passages to the monastery in order to construct the monastery as a highly sexualized feminine entity in need of discipline and punishment. The monastery, like the faithless Israel or Jerusalem in the prophetic books, has played the harlot in its faithlessness and disobedience.

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