The stark image of desert simplicity has created a view of early Egyptian monasticism as a turn against culture and society, a movement of illiterate fanatics. However, a detailed study of the archaeological and literary evidence shows that this is a misinterpretation and that the roots of monasticism are rather to be found in the school traditions of late Antiquity. While keeping the ideals and methods of schools of rhetoric and philosophy, the monasteries exchanged ancient literary texts for Biblical material, thus creating a new corpus of wisdom literature consisting of collections of sayings, parables and anecdotes. Transmitted as the apophthegmata patrum or verba seniorum, these were rapidly translated into all the languages of medieval Christianity and have played a crucial role in the history of European education.
Samuel Rubenson was born and grew up in Ethiopia. He studied theology and Oriental languages in Lund, Tübingen and Cairo. His dissertation on the Letters of St. Antony became a turning point in the study of early monasticism. Since 1999, he is is Professor of Church History at Lund University and Senior Professor of Early Christian Studies at Stockholm School of Theology. He has taught as visiting professor in Jerusalem, Beirut, Budapest, Oslo, Aarhus and Kiel, and has published widely on early monasticism and on the history of the Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac traditions. He is currently engaged in the preservation of Ethiopian medieval churches and in ecumenical dialogues.