Monastic Parenting Practices: Children Endangered and Protected in Early Egyptian Monasteries

Document Type

Conference Presentation


Religious Studies

Conference Title

Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)


Washington, D.C.

Conference Dates

November 18-21, 2006

Date of Presentation



The Apophthegmata Patrum alphabetical collection recounts a simultaneously horrifying yet iconic story about parents and children in early Egyptian monasteries. A father who seeks to join a monastery is commanded to throw his son in the river as a requirement of admission. He is halted at the last minute, and he then abandons his son to become a monk. The story, which clearly draws on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, exemplifies the extent to which one must embrace the ascetic imperative to renounce one’s biological family in order to join a new ascetic family. Yet, the story also leaves unanswered the fate of the son—this despite the evidence that early monasteries reared many children. This paper will examine the roles of children in early Egyptian monasteries based on documents from the fourth- and fifth-century communities of Pachomius and Shenoute. Although the monastery provided an alternative means of rearing children—and for some children from impoverished families a means of survival—the presence of children also posed complications. Children required protection from hazards posed by the physical labor and corporal punishment endured by adults as well as from sexual advances by other monks. Children were novices, and yet much more vulnerable than adult novices. Monastic leaders had to integrate these children who would become monks into the ways of the community — into their new ascetic families — and to accommodate their communities to the challenges posed by their presence.

This document is currently not available here.