Sayings of the Desert Fathers

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Sogdian Christian copy of the text written in Syriac

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Latin: Apophthegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum; Greek: ἀποφθέγματα τῶν πατέρων, romanizedApophthégmata tōn Patérōn[1][2]) is the name given to various textual collections consisting of stories and sayings attributed to the Desert Fathers from approximately the 5th century AD.[3][4]

The collections consist of wisdom stories describing the spiritual practices and experiences of early Christian hermits living in the desert of Egypt. They are typically in the form of a conversation between a younger monk and his spiritual father, or as advice given to visitors. Beginning as an oral tradition in the Coptic language, they were only later written down as Greek text. The stories were extremely popular among early Christian monks, and appeared in various forms and collections.[5]

The original sayings were passed down from monk to monk, though in their current version most simply describe the stories in the form of "Abba X said ..." The early Desert Fathers also received many visitors seeking counseling, typically by asking "Give me a word, abba" or "Speak a word, abba, how can I be saved?" Some of the sayings are responses to those seeking guidance.[6]

Many notable Desert Fathers are mentioned in the collections, including Anthony the Great, Abba Arsenius, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius of Egypt, Abba Pachomius the Great, Abba Amoun the Hermit and Abba Moses the Black.[7] The sayings also include those of three different ammas, most notably Syncletica of Alexandria.[6] Sayings of the Desert Fathers influenced many notable theologians, including Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.[8]

History of the text[edit]

The Desert Fathers spoke Coptic, the latest stage of ancient Egyptian. The sayings were originally passed on orally in Coptic, but the original written version was Greek.[9] The earliest written record of the sayings appears to be from the end of the 4th century AD. Two versions from the 5th century, the Collectio Monastica, written in Ethiopic, and the Asceticon of Isaiah of Scetis, written in Greek, show how the oral tradition became the written collections.[5] There are surviving fragments of the Sayings in both the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects of Coptic, but they represent back-translations from Greek. They were collected and published by Marius Chaîne.[5]

The Sayings have been translated in whole or in part several times. Pelagius and John the Deacon made the first translations into Latin. Martin of Braga also translated some of the Sayings into Latin, followed by a more extensive translation by Paschasius of Dumium in approximately 555.[10] That work may contain only one fifth of the original Greek text.[11] In the 17th century, the Dutch Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde compiled and translated all the available sources on the Desert Fathers and published them in Latin as the Vitae patrum.

Two translations in Aramaic were made: the Nestorian monk Ânân Îshô's translation into Classical Syriac from the early 7th century, known as the Paradise of the Fathers; and a Christian Palestinian Aramaic translation known from dispersed fragments for the early transmission (6th to 7th century AD)[12] as well as a fragmentary version for the later period (ca. 10th to 11th century AD), originating from or still housed at the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai[13][14][15] There are also Armenian translations of both the Alphabetical and Systematic collections.[5] In the period 867–872, Methodius of Thessaloniki translated the text into Old Church Slavonic, of which the original was lost in the 14th century, but several dozen copies of the Paterik' (Патерікъ) survived.[16] Some of the Sayings are preserved in Arabic and Georgian translations.[5] Through the Asceticon, some of the Sayings made their way into Sogdian.[17]

Helen Waddell translated a selection of elements from the Vitae patrum into English in the early 20th century.[18] The first complete translation of the alphabetical "apophthegmata" into English is that of Benedicta Ward (1975).[19] English translations of the alphabetical,[20] systematic,[21] and anonymous collections[22] were also later published by John Wortley from 2012 to 2014. The most comprehensive critical edition of the alphabetical "apophthegmata" was published by Tim Vivian in two volumes (2021, 2023).[23][24]


  • One time, the blessed Abba Theophilus the archbishop went to Scetis. But the brothers gathered and said to Abba Pambo: 'Tell the Father one word that he may benefit.' The old man told them: 'If he does not always benefit from our silence, then if we speak he will still not benefit.'[25]
  • Abbot Pastor said: 'If a man has done wrong and does not deny it, but says: "I did wrong," do not rebuke him, because you will break the resolution of his soul. And if you tell him: "Do not be sad, brother," but watch it in the future, you stir him up to change his life.'[26]
  • A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, "We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?"[27]
  • Abba Longinus said to Abba Acacius: 'A woman knows she has conceived when she no longer loses any blood. So it is with the soul, she knows she has conceived the Holy Spirit when the passions stop coming out of her. But as long as one is held back in the passions, how can one dare to believe one is sinless? Give blood and receive the Spirit.'[28]


Different Sayings collections include the Alphabetic Sayings, the Systematic Sayings, and the Anonymous Sayings.[9]

Anonymous Sayings[edit]

The sections of the Anonymous Sayings (Wortley 2013) are:[22]

Sayings English Greek
37–54 Concerning imperial officials Περὶ τῶν Μαγιστριανῶν
55–131 Concerning the holy habit of monks Περὶ τοῦ σχήματος τοῦ ἁγίου τῶν μοναχῶν
132 Concerning anchorites Περὶ ἀναχωρητῶν
133–143 That we should pursue hêsychia and grief for sin Ὅτι δεῖ τὴν ἡσυχίαν καὶ τὴν κατάνυξιν μεταδιώκειν
144–215 Concerning temperance Περὶ ἐγκρατείας
216–253 On discretion Περὶ διακρίσεως
254–255 That one must be on his guard against judging anybody Ὅτι φυλάττεσθαι χρὴ τὸ μηδένα κρίνει
256–263 That nothing should be done for ostentation and that avarice should be avoided Περὶ τοῦ μηδὲν εἰς ἐπίδειξιν ποιεῖν, καὶ πλεονεξίαν ἀποστρέφεσθαι
264–280 That one should always be vigilant Περὶ τοῦ δεῖν πάντοτε νήφειν
281–289 On the necessity of being joyfully compassionate and hospitable Ὅτι χρὴ ἐλεεῖν καὶ φιλοξενεῖν ἐν ἱλαρότητι
290–297 On obedience Περὶ ὑπακοῆς
298–334 On humble-mindedness Περὶ ταπεινοφροσύνης
335–343 Concerning forbearance Περὶ ἀνεξικακίας
344–358 Concerning charity Περὶ ἀγάπης
359–453 On those who have the gift of second sight Περὶ διορατικῶν
454–474 Concerning porneia Περὶ πορνείας
475–518 On not passing judgement Περὶ τοῦ μὴ κρίνειν
519–765 Concerning grief for sin [katanyxis, compunctio] Περὶ κατανύξεως

Alphabetical Sayings[edit]

The Alphabetical Sayings (Ward 1984) list the sayings of 131 Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. Although some of the Desert Fathers quoted in the collection are well known, other names are obscure and difficult to identify.[29]

Systematic Sayings[edit]

The 20 chapters of the Systematic Sayings (Wortley 2012) are:[21]

Chapter Title
Prologue Prologue to The Book of the Elders Called Paradise
1 An Exhortation of Holy Fathers on Advancing toward Perfection
2 Every Effort Should Be Made to Pursue Hesychia
3 Sorrow for Sin [Katanyxis, "Compunction"]
4 Self-Control [Egkrateia] Should Be Achieved Not Only in the Case of Food but Also in Other Movements of the Soul
5 Various Narratives for Security in the Wars Arising against Us from Porneia
6 Poverty [Aktemosyne] and That It Is Necessary to Guard against Covetousness
7 Various Narratives Preparing Us for Patience and Courage
8 One Should Do Nothing for Show
9 One Should Guard against Judging Anybody
10 Discretion [Diakrisis]
11 One Should Ever Be on Watch
12 One Should Pray without Ceasing
13 One Must Joyfully Practice Hospitality and Show Compassion
14 Obedience
15 Humility
16 Forbearance [Anexikakia]
17 Love [Agape]
18 Those Who Have Second Sight [Dioratikoi]
19 Wonder-Working Elders
20 Virtuous Living


There are four major versions of the Systematic Collection, in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian. The contents of each are:[9]

The Greek Systematic Collection
Book Chapter Titles No. of Sayings
Book I Exhortation of the holy fathers concerning progress toward perfection 37
Book II Concerning peace (hesychia) to be pursued with all eagerness 35
Book III Concerning compunction 56
Book IV Concerning temperance in food and concerning the mastery of all 104
Book V Various stories to keep on guard against assaults of luxury 54
Book VI Concerning poverty and the necessity of keeping oneself from avarice 28
Book VII Various stories training us to patience and courage 62
Book VIII That nothing be done for show 32
Book IX To be on watch to not judge anyone 26
Book X Concerning discernment 194
Book XI Concerning the necessity of constant vigilance 127
Book XII Concerning unceasing prayer 28
Book XIII Concerning hospitality and almsgiving done with joy 19
Book XIV Concerning obedience 32
Book XV Concerning humility 136
Book XVI Concerning long-suffering 30
Book XVII Concerning charity 35
Book XVIII Concerning great visionaries 53
Book XIX Concerning those who work miracles 21
Book XX Concerning virtuous behavior 24
Book XXI Sayings of those who endure in asceticism, showing their eminent virtue 66
Total 1199
Verba Seniorum of Pelagius and John (Latin)
Book Chapter Titles No. of Sayings
Book I Concerning the perfecting of the fathers 23
Book II Concerning quiet 16
Book III Concerning compunction 27
Book IV Concerning continence 70
Book V Concerning fornication 41
Book VI Concerning [the idea] that a monk should possess nothing 22
Book VII Concerning patience, or fortitude 47
Book VIII Concerning [the idea] that nothing should be done for show 24
Book IX Concerning that we should judge no man 12
Book X Concerning discernment 113
Book XI Concerning [the idea] that it is right to live soberly 54
Book XII Concerning [the idea] that we ought to pray unceasingly and soberly 15
Book XIII Concerning [the idea] that it is best to be hospitable and show mercy with cheerfulness 14
Book XIV Concerning obedience 19
Book XV Concerning humility 89
Book XVI Concerning patience 19
Book XVII Concerning charity 25
Book XVIII Concerning foresight or contemplation 36
Book XIX Concerning the holy old men who used to work signs 17
Book XX Concerning the best sayings of various saints 18
Book XXI The 7 chapters that Abba Moses sent to Abba Poemen [and other miscellaneous sayings] 24
Total 725
The Syriac Paradise of the Fathers by Ânân Îshô
Book Chapter Titles No. of Sayings
Book I, Chapter 1 Palladius on flight from men and silent contemplation Sayings 1–62
Book I, Chapter 2 Concerning fasting and abstinence Sayings 63–104
Book I, Chapter 3 Concerning the reading of the scriptures, night vigils, the service of the Psalms, and constant prayer Sayings 105–135
Book I, Chapter 4 Concerning the weeping and mourning for sins Sayings 136–157
Book I, Chapter 5 Concerning voluntary poverty Sayings 158–182
Book I, Chapter 6 Concerning patient endurance Sayings 183–237
Book I, Chapter 7 Concerning obedience to God and man Sayings 238–247
Book I, Chapter 8 Concerning watchfulness in thought, word, and deed Sayings 248–392
Book I, Chapter 9 Concerning love, charity, and hospitality Sayings 393–443
Book I, Chapter 10 Concerning humility Sayings 444–558
Book I, Chapter 11 Concerning fornication Sayings 559–597
Book I, Chapter 12 Concerning the acceptance of repentance Sayings 598–613
Book I, Chapter 13 Concerning the fathers who wrought wonderful works Sayings 614–630
Book I, Chapter 14 Concerning the greatness of the solitary life Sayings 631–635
Book II, Chapters 1–15 Questions and answers on the ascetic rule Sayings 1–539
Book II, Chapters 16–17 Questions and answers by the fathers and monks Sayings 540–576
Book II, Chapter 18 Questions and answers on the vision of the mind Sayings 577–602
Appendix Sayings 603–705
The Armenian Paterica
Book Chapter Titles No. of Sayings
Book I Concerning perfect virtue 46 + 116R
Book II Concerning quiet 28 + 37R
Book III Concerning compunction and tears 50 + 36R
Book IV Concerning abstinence 58 + 63R
Book V Concerning fornication 81 + 47R
Book VI Concerning destitution 20 + 23R
Book VII Concerning strength and forbearance 45 + 49R
Book VIII Concerning doing nothing for show 18 + 15R
Book IX Concerning discernment 27 + 19R
Book X Concerning divine and right judgment 79 + 114R
Book XI Concerning vigilance and sobriety 34 + 51R
Book XII Concerning prayer 11 + 14R
Book XIII Concerning being hospitable and merciful 17 + 19R
Book XIV Concerning obedience 17 + 19R
Book XV Concerning humility 71 + 100R
Book XVI Concerning forgetfulness of injuries 9 + 18R
Book XVII Concerning loving God and neighbor 26 + 35R
Book XVIII Concerning spirit-seeing and wonder-working of the fathers 93 + 39R
Book XIX Concerning the conversation of the fathers 28 + 26R
Total 1598

See also[edit]


  1. ^ From the Greek: apo, from; phtheggomai, to cry out; pater, father.
  2. ^ Orthodox Encyclopedia, in Russian, Vol. 3, pp. 140-142.
  3. ^ Gould, Graham (2001). Papers presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1999. Studia Patristica. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 978-90-429-0922-9.
  4. ^ W. Bousset. Apophthegmata. Tuebingen, 1923, p. 68.
  5. ^ a b c d e Burton-Christie, Douglas (1993). The Word in the desert: scripture and the quest for holiness in early Christian monasticism. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 76–86. ISBN 0-19-508333-4.
  6. ^ a b Chryssavgis, John; Ware, Kallistos; Ward, Benedicta (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: Revised Edition: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World's Religions). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-933316-56-7.
  7. ^ "Chryssavgis, pp. 19-29.
  8. ^ Flood, Gavin D. (2004). The ascetic self: subjectivity, memory and tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60401-X.
  9. ^ a b c Harmless, William (2004). Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516222-6.
  10. ^ Barlow, Claude (1969). Fathers of the Church: Iberian Fathers: Martin of Braga/Paschasius of Dumium/Leander of Seville. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 0-8132-0062-8.
  11. ^ Barlow, p. 5-6.
  12. ^ Müller-Kessler, Christa (2022). "Piecing together Christian Palestinian Aramaic Texts under Georgian Manuscripts: (St Petersburg, NLR, Syr. 16; Sinai, Georg. NF 19, 71; Oslo, Martin Schøyen, MS 35, 37; Princeton, Garrett MS 24; Göttingen, Syr. 17, 19, 23, 25)", Digital Kartvelology 1, 41–44
  13. ^ Brock, Sebastian P. (1995). Catalogue of Syriac Fragments (New Finds) in the Library of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Athens: Mount Sinai Foundation, 89, 309.
  14. ^ Desreumaux, Alain apud Philothée du Sinaï (2008). Nouveaux manuscrits syriaques du Sinaï, Athens: Mount Sinai Foundation, 540–548.
  15. ^ Desreumaux, Alain (2010). "Les manuscrits araméens christo-palestiniens du nouveau fonds du monastère de Sainte-Catherine du Sinaï,” Comptes rendus des scéances l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 154:3, 1325, fig. 6.
  16. ^ Veder, William (2012). The Scete Patericon v1-3. Amsterdam: Pegasus. ISBN 9789061433323.
  17. ^ "Abbā Isaiah". Encyclopaedia Iranica. 2021-05-17. Retrieved 2021-11-12.
  18. ^ Helen Waddell, The desert fathers (translations from the Vitae Patrum), London: Constable & co., 1936.
  19. ^ Benedicta Ward, The sayings of the Desert Fathers : the alphabetical collection, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975 (revised edition, 1985).
  20. ^ a b Wortley, John (2014). Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Popular Patristics Series. Vol. 52. Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88141-497-4.
  21. ^ a b Wortley, John (2012). The Book of the Elders – sayings of the Desert Fathers: the systematic collection. Trappist, KY; Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-87907-201-8.
  22. ^ a b Wortley, John (2013). The anonymous sayings of the Desert Fathers. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-50988-6.
  23. ^ Vivian, Tim, ed. (2021). The sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: A–H (Ȇta). Vol. 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 978-0-87907-109-7.
  24. ^ Vivian, Tim, ed. (2021). The sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: Th–Ō (Thêta–Ōméga). Vol. 2. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 978-0-87907-292-6.
  25. ^ Anonymous. Krawiec, Rebecca; Marquis, Christine Luckritz; Schroeder, Caroline T.; Zeldes, Amir; Davidson, Elizabeth (eds.). "Apophthegmata Patrum Sahidic 114". Coptic Scriptorium. Translated by Zeldes, Amir. Retrieved 23 July 2023.
  26. ^ Merton, Thomas (2004-11-16). The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (Gift ed.). Shambhala. p. 184. ISBN 1-59030-039-4.
  27. ^ Ward, Benedicta (2003-07-29). The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Revised ed.). Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044731-8.
  28. ^ Benedicta Ward, ed. (1984), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Rev. ed.), Cistercian Publications, p. 123.
  29. ^ Ward, Benedicta (1984). The sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 0-87907-959-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Williams, Rowan (2004-11-19). Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. Lion Publishing plc. ISBN 0-7459-5170-8.
  • Ward, Benedicta (2003-07-29). The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Revised ed.). Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044731-8.
  • Sourozh, Metropolitan Anthony of; Benedicta Ward (June 1987). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Revised ed.). Cistercian Publications. ISBN 0-87907-959-2.
  • Merton, Thomas (2004-11-16). The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (Gift ed.). Shambhala. ISBN 1-59030-039-4.
  • Wortley, John, ed. (2013). The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation (in Greek and English). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-50988-6.
  • Wortley, John (2014). Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Popular Patristics Series. Vol. 52. Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88141-497-4.
  • Wortley, John, ed. (2019). More sayings of the Desert Fathers: an English translation and notes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-47108-4.
  • Vivian, Tim, ed. (2021). The sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: A–H (Ȇta). Vol. 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 978-0-87907-109-7.
  • Vivian, Tim, ed. (2021). The sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: Th–Ō (Thêta–Ōméga). Vol. 2. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 978-0-87907-292-6.
  • Nomura, Yushi. Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001.
  • Regnault, Lucien. Les chemins de Dieu au désert: collection systematique des Apophtegmes des Pères. Solesmes: Éditions de Solesmes, 1992. (complete French translation of the Greek Systematic Collection)
  • Dion, J. and G. Oury. Les Sentences des Pères du Désert: recueil de Pélage et Jean. Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1966. (complete French translation of the Latin Systematic Collection (Verba Seniorum of Pelagius and John))
  • Chaîne M. (ed). Le manuscrit de la version copte en dialect sahidique des "Apophthegmata Patrum". Bibliothèque d'études coptes 6. Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1960. (Sahidic Coptic text)
  • Regnault, Lucien. Les Sentences des Pères du Désert: troisième recueil et tables. Sablé-sur-Sarthe: Solesmes, 1976. (French translation of the Bohairic Coptic version in p. 139–194, and of the Armenian version in p. 253–275)
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Sayings and Stories of the Christian Fathers of Egypt: The Syrian Version of the "Apophthegmata Patrum" (2 vol.). Reprint of 1934 ed. London: Kegan Paul Limited, 2002. (English translation of the Syriac Collection)
  • Palladius of Galatia (1907). The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Volume 2: Sayings of the Desert Fathers . Translated by Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge. Chatto & Windus.
  • Leloir, Louis (ed). Paterica armeniaca a P. P. Mechitaristis edita (1855) nunc latine reddita. CSCO 353, 361, 371, 379. Louvain: Secrétariat du Corpus SCO, 1974–1976. (Armenian text)

External links[edit]