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date: 28 November 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Christian asceticism began not in the desert or other monastic settings, but within the urban churches of the first three centuries. Teachings attributed to Christ and the Apostles, together with older beliefs from Judaism and Greek philosophy, variously influenced patterns of communal and individual asceticism: abstention from foods, sexual relations, and wealth. Communal fasting was practised weekly by many, and by most before the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Literature, especially the apocryphal Acts, celebrated or advocated sexual abstention, but the relationship between these texts and social practices remains opaque. Widows and virgins were honoured for their sexual renunciation, which strengthened the purity of heart essential for prophecy and prayer. However, in the mid-third century Origen offered a highly persuasive account of asceticism within the individual’s struggle for holiness, and it was this struggle which was finally carried into the desert and the cloister.

Keywords: abstention, apocryphal Acts, asceticism, fasting, Origen, prayer, sexual renunciation, virgins, wealth, widows

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