SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Martyrs & Monks in Eastern Christian Writings

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2017/2018
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year

This course explores the contribution of asceticism and monasticism to the Eastern and Orthodox Churches. It focuses on key primary texts (histories, commentaries and sermons) in order to probe the theological, social and historical factors which nurtured martyrdom and asceticism in Late Antiquity and which also gave rise to the growth of monasticism in Syria and Egypt.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module


The course uses primary texts (histories, commentaries, letters and sermons etc. in English translation) to explore the profile of martyrdom, asceticism and monasticism in the Eastern and Orthodox expressions of Christianity, appraising their theological, social and historical dynamics.

Individual martyrdoms are analysed to highlight the role of the martyr, gender issues and responses to society and political authority.

The phenomenon of asceticism is assessed, paying particular attention to the rise of the 'holy man' as well as the interaction between individual and communal expressions of asceticism and monasticism.

A series of case studies (Syria, Georgia, Armenia and Mesopotamia) demonstrate the regional development of monasticism and challenges the traditionally-held dominance of Egyptian monasticism.


Students will reach an understanding of:

  • The matrix in which martyrdom developed
  • The mutual interaction between individual and communal forms of asceticism
  • The role of monasticism, and its contribution to the transmission of learning, political comment and social welfare
  • The mystical tradition of monasticism
  • The overall place of martyrdom, asceticism and monasticism in the Eastern and Orthodox Churches over the centuries

Scope and syllabus

Martyrs and Monks have been an integral part of the Orthodox and Eastern Churches, and still continue to be today.

This course examines: the phenomena of martyrdom and monasticism from the late Roman times until the Communist era.

Particular attention will be given to the emergence of monasticism in Egypt and Syria during the fourth century. Primary texts which will be studied include works by Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, John of Damascus, the Acts of the Persian Martyr as well as the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers.

Method of assessment

2 essays (3,000 words each) (20% each), 3-hour exam (60%).

Suggested reading

  • Price, R (1985) A History of the Monks of Syria Michigan.
  • Chitty, D J (1995) The Desert City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire, Crestwood.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules