Many people, in many religions, live and practice a monastic lifestyle.
Within those that profess Christianity, this practice is the most widespread within various orders of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Was monasticism taught in the New Testament or by the early Christian church? If not, when did this start?
This brief article will look to the Bible, early church writings, and even Roman Catholic sources to answer these questions.
Roman Catholic History
The Catholic Encyclopedia recognizes that monasticism, as it now recognizes it, did not begin until the 3rd century among any who professed Christ:
The first home of Christian monasticism is the Egyptian desert. Hither during persecution men fled the world and the danger of apostasy, to serve God in solitude. St. Anthony (270-356) is counted the father of all monks. His fame attracted many others, so that under Diocletian and Constantine there were large colonies of monks in Egypt, the first laurai (Fortesque A. Transcribed by Marie Jutras. Eastern Monasticism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
The introduction of monasticism into the West may be dated from about A.D. 340 when St. Athanasius visited Rome accompanied by the two Egyptian monks Ammon and Isidore, disciples of St. Anthony (Huddleston G. R. Transcribed by Marie Jutras. Western Monasticism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Thus since monasticism, as we now understand it, did not begin until the late 3rd century, nor did it become popular until the fourth century, it is fair to conclude from Roman Catholic sources that the early church did not have monks, sisters, or similar monastic orders.
However, there apparently was an earlier possible beginning in Alexandria, Egypt. Eusebius wrote:
7. Philo bears witness to facts very much like those here described and then adds the following account: "Everywhere in the world is this race found. For it was fitting that both Greek and Barbarian should share in what is perfectly good. But the race particularly abounds in Egypt, in each of its so-called nomes, and especially about Alexandria...
9. And then a little further on, after describing the kind of houses which they had, he speaks as follows concerning their churches, which were scattered about here and there: "In each house there is a sacred apartment which is called a sanctuary and monastery, where, quite alone, they perform the mysteries of the religious life. They bring nothing into it, neither drink nor food, nor any of the other things which contribute to the necessities of the body, but only the laws, and the inspired oracles of the prophets, and hymns and such other things as augment and make perfect their knowledge and piety"...
19. For they say that there were women also with those of whom we are speaking, and that the most of them were aged virgins who had preserved their chastity, not out of necessity, as some of the priestesses among the Greeks, but rather by their own choice, through zeal and a desire for wisdom. And that in their earnest desire to live with it as their companion they paid no attention to the pleasures of the body, seeking not mortal but immortal progeny, which only the pious soul is able to bear of itself (Eusebius. Church History, Book II, Chapter XVII. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two, Volume 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, 1890. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
In other portions of the above account Eusebius claims that Philo (c. late 1st century) reported that those in Alexandria were ascetic, had mysteries, seem to have been gnostics (ones who claimed to have special knowledge/wisdom was essential for salvation), had some promotion of celibacy, and allegorized scripture. This seems to have been where a major departure from the true faith occurred (more details on this can be found in the article on Apostolic Succession)--and it also apparently laid the foundation for monasticism.
Mithraism, a sun-god worshipping religion that many felt was in competition with Christianity in the Roman Empire for the first several centuries of the Christian Church, encouraged monasticism. Franz Cumont noted this as a similarity between the Greco-Roman "Christians" and those that followed Mithras:
The adepts of both formed secret conventicles, closely united, the members of which gave themselves the name of "Brothers."(Cumont, Franz. Translated from the second revised French edition by Thomas J. McCormack. The Mysteries of Mithra. Chicago, Open Court  p. 190).
Thus, monasticism was practice that various non-Christian religions practiced according to Catholic and other sources.
History and the Bible
It appears that these type of orders are unbiblical. Noted historian Latourette wrote:
"Although it has been prominent in the churches in which the majority of Christians have been enrolled, monasticism was unknown in the first two centuries of Christianity...In a least one place in the New Testament those who forbade Christians to marry and commanded them to abstain from some kinds of food were deemed untrue to the faith". (Latourette K.S. A History of Christianity, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1975, p. 223).
Furthermore, the perhaps the first group affiliated with Christianity to endorse a portion of the monastic lifestyle was the heretical Marcionites, a group that Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and others consider to have been heretics. Latourette notes:
...the Marcionites forbade marriage (Latourette K.S. A History of Christianity, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1975, p. 224).
Hence history teaches that the idea of monasticism came from pagans and heretics and was not in any legitimate Christian churches in the second century.
Perhaps it should noted here that history also records that the Christian leader Polycarp of Smyrna went to Rome, confronted Marcion (and other heretics), and turned them back to the true church.
To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time -- a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles...(Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4).
Hence, the first major one in Christendom to get a following and suggest a semi-monastic lifestyle (Marcion) was denounced by the early Christian leader (a leader from around 100-156 A.D.) Polycarp of Smyrna.
It should be noted that celibacy is encouraged/required within most monastic circles (there is no such equivalent in the Churches of God). The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
Celibacy was from the beginning an essential note of monasticism (Fortesque A. Transcribed by Marie Jutras. Eastern Monasticism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Part of the reason for this is based upon the logic of such teachers as John Chrysostom. But John Chrysostom did not hold a very high view of women. Within the monastic system of John Chrysostom's day, one had a year from when one decided to be a monk and when one finally became a monk (in the first year, the potential monk was considered to be a novice).
Well one such novice was a man named Theodore. Theodore became interested in a woman named Hermione and wanted to leave the monastery, before his first year was up, and marry her. This upset John Chrysostom greatly and here is part of his long letter to Theodore on this subject:
I know that thou art now admiring the grace of Hermione, and thou judgest that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her comeliness; but if you choose, O friend, you shall yourself exceed her in comeliness and gracefulness, as much as golden statues surpass those which are made of clay.
For if beauty, when occurs in the body, so fascinates and excites the minds of most men, when the soul is refulgent with it what can match beauty and grace of this kind? For the groundwork of this corporeal beauty is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and humor, and bile, and the fluid of masticated food. For by these things both eyes and cheeks, and all the other features, are supplied with moisture; and if they do not receive that moisture, daily skin becoming unduly withered, and the eyes sunken, the whole grace of the countenance forthwith vanishes; so that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness. Morever when you see a rag with any of these things on it, such as phlegm, or spittle you cannot bear to touch it with even the tips of your fingers, nay you cannot even endure looking at it; and yet are you in a flutter of excitement about the storehouses and depositories of these things? But thy beauty was not of this kind, but excelled it as heaven is superior to earth; or rather it was much better and more brilliant than this (John Chysostom.Two Exhortations to Theodore, Chapter 14. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series One, Volume 9. Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D. American Edition, 1889. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
Essentially, John Chrysostom appears to be saying that a celibate monastic life is better than marriage, and that a woman is no better than the type of phlegm one would find on a filthy rag. It is my opinion, that this, and similar views of certain Roman associated leaders about women, is what led to the notion of a celibate clergy.
Monasticism involved celibacy, and that definitely was not the practice of the early Church. More information can be found in the article Was Celibacy Required for Early Bishops or Presbyters?
Shaving the Centers of their Head Bald
For centuries, many monks have shaved the center of their heads to make themselves bald.
This seems to be discouraged and/or prohibited by sacred scripture:
1 "Speak to the priests...5 'They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh. (Leviticus 21:1,5)
15 "But the priests, the Levites...20 "They shall neither shave their heads, nor let their hair grow long, but they shall keep their hair well trimmed. (Ezekiel 44:15,20)
Yet some monks and priests persist in this type of practice today. It was the practice of some pagan priests who were involved in sun-god worship to do this in ancient times, which may be why God prohibited it.
It was not an original practice of the apostles or those in the early church. Furthermore, even the late 4th/early 5th century Roman Catholic saint and doctor Jerome condemned it:
Tonsure A sacred rite instituted by the Church by which a baptized and confirmed Christian is received into the clerical order by the shearing of his hair and the investment with the surplice...St. Jerome (in Ezech., xliv) disapproves of clerics shaving their heads. Indeed, among the Greeks and Romans such a custom was a badge of slavery. On this very account, the shaving of the head was adopted by the monks. Towards the end of the fifth, or beginning of the sixth, century, the custom passed over to the secular clergy. As a sacred rite, the tonsure was originally joined to the first ordination received, as in the Greek Church it still is to the order of lector. In the Latin Church it began as a separate ceremony about the end of the seventh century, when parents offered their young sons to the service of God...In Britain, the Saxon opponents of the Celtic tonsure called it the tonsure of Simon Magus. ("Tonsure." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 10 Apr. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14779a.htm>)
The tonsure originated prior to the time of the apostles. Notice the following references:
The tonsure of the priests and monks is an exact imitation of that of the priests of Isis; (Higgins G. Anacalypsis an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis: Or an Inquiry Into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions, Volume 2. Longman, 1836. Digitized March, 29, 2010, p. 78).
Isis...Her worship advanced over nearly the entire Roman world...The tonsure (shaving of hair from the head) of her priests prefigured that of Christian monks. (Dunstan WE. Ancient Rome. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, p. 465)
the infant Brahmin...in India...In the second or third year, after his birth, the ceremony of tonsure must be performed; this was an old practice of the priests of Mithra, who, in their tonsures, imitated the solar disk. (Maurice T. Indian antiquities: or, Dissertations, relative to the ancient geographic divisions, the pure system of primeval theology ... of Hindostan: compared, throughout, with the religion, laws, government, and literature of Persia, Egypt, and Greece, the whole intended as introductory to the ..., Volume 7. T. Maurice, 1806. Digitized August 24, 2007, pp. 339-340)
Mithraism had its monks and nuns, as Tertullian admits, with the tonsure in honour of the disc of the Sun. To be shorn of hair is, doubtless, a sign of asceticism ; but it is the form of the tonsure (Khwaja K. The Sources of Christianity. The Basheer Muslim Library, 1924. Original from Oxford University Digitized 21 Dec 2007, p. 100)
Those monks and others who practice the tonsure are following a pagan religious practice that the Bible opposes. This should not be for those that claim to follow the Jesus of the Bible--and He did not have a tonsure either. While the Bible does tell of a shaving of the head related to a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:18), which the Apostle Paul did once do (Acts 18:18), this was not a permanent situation for display like the practices of ancient pagan priests as various Catholic monks. And the hair shaving came AFTER a period of separation and hair growth (Numbers 6:5)--which is another difference from the tonsure.
The tonsure is in conflict with Leviticus 21:5 and Ezekiel 44:20, and while some may suggest that those prohibitions were done away, Jesus and His apostles did not teach that Christians should attempt to look like pagan priests. And those that do so, give those, such as Muslims, reasons to question and dismiss the whole idea of Christianty.
The tonsure should be a sign to everyone that sees it that those who practice it are not being faithful to the Bible or the practices of the early apostles.
The Apostle Paul
Perhaps it should be noted, that although the out-of-context writings of Paul are sometimes cited by those endorsing monasticism, Paul seemed to argue against it when he wrote
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-10 NKJV).
While it is true that Paul once probably took a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:21), and apparently a few others in the New Testament may have as well (Acts 21:23-24), these vows were only temporal and were not intended to be permanent as both the Old (Numbers 6:1-21) and New Testament show (Acts 18:21;21:23-24), as in every New Testament passage discussing them, it discusses them being ended.
Everyone knows that Jesus taught:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 19:19).
Also notice what Paul taught:
We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification (Romans 15:1-2).
But notice what John taught:
If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also (1 John 4:20-21).
Living a truly hermetic monastic lifestyle does not fit with this. It is a selfish thing that does not generally show love toward neighbors (though there are some monastic orders that do not neglect these scriptures, many seem to).
The area of Cappadocia in what is now central Turkey was a popular area for monks in the fourth and later centuries. Many of the monks there lived in hollowed out lava rock formations there.
My wife and I visited "Monk Valley" and other such sites in Cappadocia in 2008. Our licensed guides said that the earliest monks there were trained in Egypt. For pictures and more, please see go to the Joyce's Pictures of Cappadocia page.
The idea of a permanent monastic lifestyle neither is scriptural, nor consistent with the teachings or practices of the first and second century Christians.
The Bible shows that Christians are to love their neighbors, which means that they would tend to have neighbors. Including ones that do not profess Christ. An monastic lifestyle would seem to be in conflict with that.
Thiel B. Did The Early Christian Church Practice Monasticism? www.cogwriter.com (c) 2006 2008 2009 2013 0425
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