Minnesota in Egypt

Fourth Century

Persecution, Gnostcism, a Monk and a Bishop, Sources

This page gives additional information about eventsmentioned in timeline

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Great Persecution

In 305 the great persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors began. The contemporary writers Eusebius and Lactantius attest to its severity.

According to Eusebius, this empire-wide persecution raged with particular brutality in Egypt (Frend 1965, 496, 506, 508, 509. )It .left a particularly strong mark on the Egyptian church (Martyrs 1984).

A calendar starting in the year of Diocletian's accession and called the Calendar of the Martyrs is still in use in the Coptic Church.

Many stories of martyrs survive. Most of them were composed or edited at later dates, so they convey the ideals and emotions associated with persecutions and martyrdom, rather than accurate eye witness accounts.




On the martyrs' stories, see Delahaye 1922. On the development of the stories and the cults, see Baumeister 1872 and Horn 1986, 1992.


Gnosticism : the Nag Hammadi find.

The body of Gnostic writings known as the Nag Hammadi library wree discovered in 1945 by local farmers. Older papyrus scraps reused to pad their bindings (called "cartonnage") date the writings to the end of the fourth century( Barns et al. 1981).

Since Pachomius (see below) had founded several monasteries near by, Elaine Pagels has suggested that these texts were once in a monastic library, and were removed because Athanasius (see below) and others were drawing a precise line between what was and was not "orthodox."

The connection of these texts with a monastic library remains conjecture.

icon of Athanasius displayed on numerous websites.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria

A towering figure in the Early Christian Church . As a young man he attended the church council of Nicea, participating in discussion there about the nature of Christ and of the Trinity. These subjects would concern him for the remainder of his life, since his concept of salvation arose from his concept of the Incarnation.

From 326 to 374 he was Bishop of Alexandria. Bitter conflicts over doctrine often brought him into disfavor with the Imperial court, so that he went into exile five times. He took refuge with monks in the desert, where he continued his writing.



Athanasius wrote extensive theological tracts; his Life of Anthony set a pattern for saints’ lives, and his Easter letters circulated widely.

A formulation of Faith in the Trinity that has come to be known as the "Athanasian Creed": may have been composed under his influence, but not by him.

Modern opinions of Athanasius differ.
Many revere him as a figure of great learning and devotion; others suggest he was a "virtual mafioso" (Haas 1997: 178: cf. . Arnold 1991, "Athanasius" 1991, Barnes 1993)

Pachomius and his follower David, ikon depicted on www.byzantinefranciscans.org

Pachomius was born in neighborhood of Esna (south of the White Monastery) probably in the last decade of the third century.

Raised a pagan, he encountered Christians while serving in the army. He left the army, was baptized, undertook charitable work for a while, and then in 316 withdrew into the desert to live the life of a hermit.

In 320 he decided to found a community where monks would live together. This foundation marked the beginning of cenobitic monasticism.

During the first half of the Fourth century he founded nine monasteries for men and two for women (overseen by men).

His earliest monasteries were near the modern town of Nag Hammadi, and a later group in or near modern Akhmim (see neighborhood).

He wrote various instructions for monastic life, known as his "rule," that dealt primarily with practical issues. (The text known today is probably not entirely his work.) Among his precepts were a limited ascetiscim--milder than that of many of the hermits--, regular prayer alternating with productive work, and obedience to the head of the monastery.

He had a lively correspondence, and was well-known in Egypt. Bishop Athanasius visited his monastery in 330. Several versions of his life exist, and disagree in details (Rousseau 1985,, Goehring 1986).


Sources: Rufinus and others.

By the second half of this century, the fame of Egyptian monasticism had spread. Many people came from the Near East and Europe to visit the monasteries and wrote accounts of what they saw. These accounts give us vivid pictures of the monks' lives. They had a great influence on the development of monasticism in other areas of the Christian world.

One of the important writers was John Cassian (see Fifth Century). Others were Palladius, Rufinus, and an unknown traveller on whom Rufinus depended. for a brief description of the texts and theories about their composition, see Ward 1981.