The Ascetic Impulse in Ancient Christianity

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Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity | Classics | Comparative Methodologies and Theories | History of Religions of Western Origin | Religion


"It is important to understand ... that the difference between the non-elites (the weak) and the elites in Corinth is not that between a world-rejecting ethic (the 'weak') on the one hand and a world-embracing ethic (the pneumatic elites) on the other. Clearly, both groups shared the imperative to renounce the world; the fact of membership in this new social group, the Jesus movement at Corinth, suggests as much,"

In spite of the long and impressive legacy of scholarship in New Testament and Christian origins and the exacting critical attention to the texts of the earliest Christians, it remains unclear just how much we know and understand about the people behind these texts. What motivated them? How did they construct "worlds" for themselves, and what were their primary frames of reference?

The sociological study of a group's "response to the world," a category advanced by Bryan Wilson, is one attempt to go beyond the history of ideas, beyond the quest for the understanding of texts alone, toward the recovery of a group's self-definition. Applied to the study of the earliest followers of Jesus in the context of groups in Greco-Roman antiquity, response to the world as a heuristic device holds much promise since it encourages comparative studies and produces general theories. Especially important in this regard is the study of ascetic behavior, popularly understood as the most radical response to the world, because it provides an opportunity to reconsider ancient Christianity within a broader conceptual framework than is customary in historical or literary critical work.

It is the "world, " after all, that all individuals and groups in all cultures in history have in common, must always engage, must always exist or work in or over against to be defined. This is why greater clarity about the ascetic impulse as response to the world is so important. Behind the ascetic impulse there may be a key to an understanding of the continuing legacy of Christianity itself for cultural self-definitions. Could it be that the part of the ascetic impulse that represents resistance to the world is the most powerful legacy, perhaps the only relevant aspect, of ancient Christianity for our times? Far too often, asceticism is broached as though its meanings and functions were clear and simple. Yet, in the last couple of decades, scholarship on asceticism across many different fields and disciplinary boundaries has wrought some significant changes, the most important of which are the deepened consciousness of the diversity of ascetic expressions in the ancient world and the consistent attempt to understand asceticism as a complex, multi-form, multi-motivated, almost elusive phenomenon. Even in the West, asceticism is no longer thought to have originated in (or is to be defined by) one tradition-Christianity-or one period in history-late antiquity. Conversely, no longer are some traditions (for example, Judaism) defined over against asceticism, as though either asceticism or those traditions could be explained simply. It is tempting to argue that the modern revival of academic interest in asceticism is influenced by the shift in the United States (and probably in Western Europe and other places, too) from the widespread, unquestioned valuing of consumption and desire to the questioning of such and a turn toward moderation, self-control, the search for the contemplative life, and even renunciation and discipline. This interest does not yet, by any means, define all of contemporary Western culture, but it represents a recognizable change in sensibility and has not gone without notice, as a fairly recent New York Times article on modern-day renunciation indicates.

Whether or not current ascetic impulses in the "secular," modern West directly influence scholarship, there is hope that such contemporary sensibilities can continue to help scholars-including students of ancient Christianity-to free their imaginations to go beyond the stereotype of asceticism as a single-issue, singly-motivated, cultural or religious phenomenon that originated in the third and fourth centuries among the monks.

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©1993 Princeton Theological Seminary

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