January 17: The Temptation

January 17 is the traditional date to commemorate St. Anthony (Antony), c. 250-356 A.D., the most famous of the so-called Desert Fathers and a pioneering figure of early Monasticism. He was born somewhere in Middle Egypt (the town of Coma, according to Sozomen’s Church History I.13). As a young man, inspired by the teachings (Matt 6:34; 19:21) and example of Jesus (see below), Anthony sold off his possessions, gave away the money, and embarked on the solitary, ascetic life. Over time, he moved further and further away from his home region—first under the tutelage of an older hermit, then alone in an empty tomb vault (until he was 35), and then for many years in a deserted fort along the Nile (the “outer mountain” at Pispir). At about this time he began to attract disciples around him whom he instructed in the ascetic way (cf. Athanasius’ Life §14-43). Later on, he moved further out across the eastern desert to a favorable location at the base of a mountain (the “inner mountain”, site known as Deir Mar Antonios), where he would reside the rest of his life, while making occasional visits elsewhere and himself receiving many visitors. In spite of this popular ideal of ascetic simplicity, by all accounts Anthony was well-read and familiar with Greek philosophy, fully able to engage in philosophical and theological discussion; according to Athanasius (Life §68-80), he was also a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy (against Arianism). At least partly due to Anthony’s influence, the monastic way of life began to flourish in Egypt, the settlement at Pispir maintaining a prominent position.

The lasting popularity and fame of Anthony was due in no small measure the biography written by Athanasius (the Life of St. Antony), composed within a few years of the Desert Father’s death (356). It proved to be a “best-seller”, and, after the New Testament, perhaps the most widely read writing from the early Church. Athanasius himself (celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches on Jan 18), was a towering figure, holding a position in the East at least comparable to that of Augustine in the West. He was born in Alexandria at the end of the 3rd century (c. 296), and, as a relatively young man, attended the Council of Nicea in 325. Soon after (328), he was consecrated bishop of Alexandria, he became perhaps the most prominent and renowned theologian of his time. He was a staunch defender of the Nicene formula defining the Person of Christ, and fought hard against ‘Arian’ (and so-called ‘semi-Arian’) influence. Indeed, much of what we know of Arius and early “Arianism” comes from Athanasius’ history and famous orations. Battling for Nicene orthodoxy, he became an ambassador and diplomat, seeking to gain support and allies to the cause, working to draft creeds, organizing councils and meetings with high officials; with the changing tides of (Imperial) religious politics, he was forced into exile numerous times, always to return, until his death in 373. With the accession of emperor Theodosius in 379 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Nicene formula (and Athanasius’ theology) eventually won the day. Athanasius’ influence was extensive, as indicated by his many surviving writings, most famous of which are: his treatise on the Incarnation; his Defense of the Nicene Council; the Apology, History and Orations against Arianism; his Easter letters, the 39th of which helped establish the canon of Scripture; and, of course, his Life of Anthony. A well-known creed (the Athanasian) bears his name, testament to his many years of theological and apologetic work.

The Life of Anthony helped to create and define the popular image of Egyptian Monasticism and the character of the Desert Fathers: a life of uncompromising austerity and asceticism, self-denial, enduring hardship and deprivation, bodily discipline, intense spiritual warfare against demonic visions and attacks, miracles, a deep-seated wisdom and personal integrity which attracted many people, and so on. It is a peculiarity of the time that a number of these retiring solitaries ended up becoming celebrities—visitors from miles away would come to receive advice and instruction, inspiration and blessing, from men such as Anthony, Evagrius Ponticus, and Simeon Stylites. A flourishing literature sprang up which recorded the sayings, discourses, and lives of these “Desert Fathers”. It is extremely hard for Christians today, in the modern West especially, to appreciate just how powerful and appealing all of this was to the serious and spiritually minded believer. While having much in common with Greco-Roman ascetic philosophies of the period, the monastic or solitary way of life, typified by the Desert Fathers, was viewed simply as a natural extension (one might say, the purest form) of the New Testament ethic of Jesus and the Apostles.

In this regard, there can be no doubt that the descriptions of the Desert Fathers enduring temptation and demonic attack were shaped, to a large extent, by the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Jesus. The simplest (and most primitive) form of this is found in the Gospel of Mark:

And straight away [i.e. right after the baptism] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (region) [i.e. desert/wilderness], and he was in the desolate (region) forty days, being tested under [i.e. by] the Satan, and he was with the (wild) beasts, and the Messengers ministered to [i.e. attended/served] him. (Mk 1:12-13)

Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) preserve the same tradition (by way of Mark, according to the common critical view), but ‘expand’ it by added a separate tradition—a dialogue or disputation between Jesus and o( diabo/lo$ (“the Accuser”), from diaba/llw (“throw through/across”), i.e. the (one) “casting (accusations) across”. In Matt 4:3, the term o( peira/zwn (“the [one] testing”, i.e., “the Tester/Tempter”) occurs instead of o( diabo/lo$. The figure confronting Jesus in these episodes acts more as a Tester/Tempter than Accuser. The Matthean and Lukan accounts are quite close overall, clearly deriving from a common tradition (part of the so-called Q [Quelle/”source”]), the main difference being in the order of the three tests. Luke has created a much stronger dramatic framework, both in the opening—

And Yeshua (being) full of the Holy Spirit turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in(to) the desolate (region), forty days being tested under [by] the Accuser… (Lk 4:1-2a)

and closing—

And having finished with every test, the Accuser stood [i.e. went] (away) from him until a(n opportune) season. (Lk 4:13)

as well as enhancing the role of the Accuser (v. 5-7). It is probably the Lukan version which best accords with the ascetic traditions attributed to the Desert Fathers.

Interestingly, even though there are (moderately) ascetic teachings and passages in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels here, there is no mention at all of this Temptation scene. The Epistle to the Hebrews provides the only specific mention of Jesus’ being tested/tempted (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15; 5:2), though it can be inferred fairly from the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4) and 1 Cor 10:13 as well. However, the emphasis in Matt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13 here is not merely the testing/tempting that is common to all human beings, but that which relates specifically to Jesus’ nature as the incarnate Son of God—cf. Matt 4:3/Lk 4:3. Even here, the Christological point was, in a sense, passed on into Eastern Orthodox theology, in the doctrine of theosis (“deification”) of the believer—for the self-denial and purification (asceticism) required by the true believer is preparatory to (and functions in tandem with) the sanctifying gift of God’s grace, with the goal of union with God (in Christ and through the Spirit). This synergistic emphasis is generally foreign to mainstream Western (and Protestant) Christian thought, but is fundamental to an understanding of monasticism and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

There is a collection of seven letters apparently written by St. Anthony. Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 88) and other Eastern Fathers mention such a collection; however, scholars have debated whether the seven which have come down to us are authentic or pseudonymous. They are sometimes considered too reasoned, moderate, and philosophically oriented to come from ‘simple’ ascetics such as Anthony. However, by all accounts, many of the Desert Fathers were much more well-read than the popular picture might suggest. One need only consult the works of Evagrius Ponticus, for example, or the Conferences of Cassian, to see that many had a strong knowledge of Greco-Roman and early Christian philosophy. The writings of Origen, in particular, were valued highly by the monks of Egypt and Palestine (until they were condemned as heretical in the 6th century). For a translation with commentary on the seven Antonian letters, cf. S. Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1990, 1995.