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date: 21 July 2019

Apophthegmata Patrum

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
J. William HarmlessJ. William Harmless

Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers) (late 5th cent.) 

One of the most influential works of Christian monasticism, the Apophthegmata Patrum is an anthology of terse anecdotes about and memorable sayings from (mostly) 4th- and 5th-century Egyptian monks.

While its oral roots and its reliability are disputed, the text, originally composed in Greek, probably comes from late 5th-century Palestine. It exists in two principal recensions: Alphabetical and Systematic. The Alphabetical collects approximately 1,000 stories and sayings and arranges them under the names of 120 monks; appended to certain manuscripts is the Anonymous Collection, an additional 250–600 sayings preserved without names. In the Systematic Collection, versions of these same stories and sayings are arranged under 21 topical headings such as ‘inner peace’, ‘compunction’, ‘discernment’, ‘hospitality’,‘prayer’. The work’s popularity is testified by the abundance of ancient translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Armenian.

Most of the leading figures of the Apophthegmata (Macarius the Egyptian, Moses the Black, John the Little, Poemen) were monks of Scetis in Lower Egypt (modern Wadi al-Natrun). They lived as hermits through the week, gathering on weekends for the Eucharist and common meals. Stories routinely portray young monks approaching an abba (monastic elder), begging him for a ‘word’, a prophetic insight into their calling or deepest struggles.

J. William Harmless


Apophthegmata Patrum (Alphabetical): PG 65, cols. 71–440 reprinting J.-B. Cotelier (1647).Find this resource:

ET B. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (CSS 59, 1984).Find this resource:

Apophthegmata Patrum (Systematic), ed. J.-C. Guy (annotated with FT), Les Apophtegmes des pères: collection systematique (SC 387, 474, 498; 1993–2005).Find this resource:

ET J. Wortley, Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection (CSS 240, 2012).Find this resource:

Verba Seniorum (Latin): PL 73: 855–1022 reprinting H. Roseweyde (1615).Find this resource:

ET B. Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (2003).Find this resource:

Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert.Find this resource:

G. Gould, The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community (OECS, 1993).Find this resource:

J.-C. Guy, Recherches sur la tradition grecque des Apophthegmata Patrum (SubsHag 36, 1962).Find this resource:

Harmless, Desert Christians.Find this resource: