Fear of God: The Practice of Emotions in Late Antique Monasticism

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Davis, Stephen


This dissertation offers a first-of-its-kind social history of the practice of emotional piety in Christian monastic communities in late antiquity (ca. 300–700 CE). Beginning from the recognition that monastic life was geared above all toward “training” (askēsis) and that the baseline goal of such training was the formation of a properly emotional monastic subject, the study queries how monastics went about “practicing” emotions in everyday life. What emotions did monastics want to feel, and why? How did they go about enacting those emotions? And how did their linguistic, cultural, and sensorial environments shape their emotional practice? The dissertation addresses these questions by focusing on “fear of God,” which I identify as the most commonly recognized and enjoined emotional practice in late antique monastic communities. The Introduction (“The Practice of Emotional Piety”) contextualizes “fear of God” against the historical backdrop of late antique monasticism in the eastern Mediterranean and lays out my three-pronged approach to emotional piety through the lenses of language, culture, and sensorial environment. It also situates the study’s engagement with and contribution to ongoing scholarly conversations concerning the history of emotions, early Christian piety, and material agency. Chapter 1 (“The Psalter as Emotional Lexicon”) provides the first cross-linguistic study of the emotion terms applied to humanity and to God in the psalms—the bedrock text of daily monastic life. Comparing the semantic fields of human and divine emotion terms from the Greek, Coptic, and Syriac versions of the Psalms, the chapter addresses how monastics in different languages “inherited” different relationships with the divine by virtue of their discrete emotional vocabularies. Chapter 2 (“Scenes of Judgment”) situates monastics’ advice to one another on how to mobilize “fear of God” against the socio-political backdrop of the late antique eastern Mediterranean. Putting monastic guidance literature in Greek and Coptic in conversation with documentary materials such as legal and tax papyri, I show how monastic writers created an “emotive scene” of final judgment before a divine judge that drew on popular stereotypes of interactions with Roman authority. Chapter 3 (“Spaces of Fear and Mercy”) contextualizes emotional piety vis-à-vis the spaces that monastics inhabited. Focusing on archaeological evidence from two late antique monasteries in Egypt, I show how these spaces both supported and nuanced “fear of God” in ways indiscernible from the literary record alone. The Conclusion (“The Ends of Fear”) situates “fear of God” against the larger backdrop of the histories of emotions and of piety.

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