In his preface Tim Vivian tells us that “this volume has been a long time gestating” (xv). It’s not hard to see why. Daniel of Scetis was one of the most important Desert Fathers of the sixth century, and the surviving Patristic accounts of his life come to us in eight languages: Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian, Latin, Old Church Slavonic and Arabic. (The Greek version is the fountainhead of all the others, although the Coptic and Ethiopic accounts also include materials absent from the Greek texts.) To render such a wide array of texts into English, and to provide the necessary critical apparatus, Vivian assembled a team of thirteen scholars, and he openly wonders if his efforts have been “a bit foolhardy.”
They haven’t been. Or at least for those interested in ancient Christian monasticism they haven’t. The translations are sparkling, and the historical, philological and theological scholarship is impeccable. Indeed, the front matter, chapter introductions, bibliography, notes and index run to nearly two hundred pages—about half of the book—and reflect Vivian’s team’s extraordinary erudition. Academics will readily understand the time it took Vivian and company to produce such a complex piece of scholarship.
But many of those who read the tales of the Desert Fathers and Mothers are seeking edification rather than erudition, and they indeed might doubt whether all this effort was worthwhile. The complete dossier includes some twenty-three distinct tales: in many, Daniel is not the “hero,” but the narrator, and in some, he features only tangentially. With complete translations of all the surviving accounts of all these tales in eight different languages, there is much duplication. For example, we read the story of Eulogius the stonecutter seven times, though its point isn’t clarified or amplified by repetition. Worse yet, some of the stories may not edify the contemporary reader at all. The story of Thomäis, who allowed herself to be sliced in half by her lecherous father-in-law rather than sacrifice her chastity, was regarded by Daniel as a case of glorious martyrdom, but to us it sounds more like a ghastly tragedy. And the fact that, in later years, young monks would prostrate themselves on Thomäis’ grave to find relief from sexual temptation will raise the eyebrows of a post-Freudian generation.
Yet in the end this book is edifying, and precisely because it is so erudite. There are two reasons for this. First, the various ways in which the same stories are told by Christians of different provenances gives us a glimpse of the diverse spiritualities of the churches of the East. The Coptic and Ethiopic accounts highlight Daniel’s stout opposition to the Council of Chalcedon, whereas the Greek and other accounts silently suppress this fact: yet both Monophysites and Chaledonians equally venerate Daniel’s sanctity—a cheering note at a time when ecumenical dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches is struggling forward in the face of strident opposition from “conservatives” in both camps. Second, the tales of Daniel are edifying because, unlike many hagiographical writings from the late Patristic period, fabulous and thaumaturgical elements play such a minor role in them. Daniel’s holiness consists not only in his own rigorous asceticism, but more importantly, in his capacity to identify the hidden virtues of others, including such fascinating characters as “Mark the Fool” and “the Drunken Nun,” who appeared insane or disreputable to the conventionally pious. What’s more, the disciple who recorded many of the surviving tales of Daniel carefully suppressed his own name and, when he himself appeared in the stories, often cast himself as naïve or short-tempered. So if, as the book’s title indicates, Daniel was a discerning witness to the holiness of others, his disciple was a self-abnegating witness to Daniel’s capacity for spiritual discernment. Such “indirect communication” is, as Kierkegaard understood, the most appropriate way to edify readers in our skeptical and secularized age.
This volume, then, is a fine piece of “spiritual theology,” which sheds welcome light on the manner in which the tales of an important figure in the later period of Egyptian monasticism were redacted, received and used by most of the major strands of Eastern Christianity. I doubt it will replace the standard works by Chitty, Ward or Waddell on the reading lists of undergraduate courses on Orthodoxy. But it might be useful for graduate-level courses on the Desert tradition, and certainly to research specialists, because it shows how the masters of that tradition could subject their own life and spirituality to severe criticism, and how the diverse heirs of that tradition could use it to deflate the self-righteousness and complacent respectability to which epigones are always prone.