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E00089: Coptic Life of *Onnophrios, the Anchorite (Egyptian anchorite, 4th c., S00055), attributed to Paphnoutios, probably Paphnoutios of Scetis (4th c.). Written probably in the 5th/6th c. in the Scetis (Lower Egypt). Presents Onnophrios as a model anchorite.

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posted on 2014-10-21, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Paphnoutios of Scetis, Life of Onnophrios, the Anchorite

ⲡⲃⲓⲟⲥ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲧⲡⲟⲗⲓϯⲓⲁ ⲙⲡⲛⲡⲉⲧⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ ⲛⲉⲓⲱⲧ ⲉⲧⲧⲁⲓⲏⲩ ⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲥⲙⲟⲧ ⲛⲓⲙ ⲁⲡⲁ ⲟⲛⲛⲟⲫⲣⲓⲟⲥ ⲡⲁⲛⲁⲭⲱⲣⲓⲧⲏⲥ ⲛⲧⲁϥϫⲱⲕ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ
ⲙⲡⲉϥⲃⲓⲟⲥ ⲛⲥⲟⲩ ⲙⲛⲧⲁⲥⲉ ⲙⲡⲉⲃⲟⲧ ⲡⲁⲱⲛⲉ ϩⲛ ⲟⲩⲉⲓⲣⲏⲛⲏ ⲛⲧⲉ ⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ

'The life and conduct of our holy and in every aspect precious father Apa Onnophrios, the anchorite, who completed his life on the 16th day of the month Paoni in God’s peace.'

ⲁⲩⲥⲟⲛ ⲛⲁⲛⲁⲭⲱⲣⲓⲧⲏⲥ ⲉⲡϥⲣⲁⲛ ⲡⲉ ⲁⲡⲁ ⲡⲁⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ ⲉⲝⲏⲅⲓⲥⲑⲁⲓ ⲉϩⲉⲛⲥⲛⲏⲩ ⲙⲙⲁⲓⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ ⲛⲁⲓ ⲇⲉ ⲛⲉ ⲛϣⲁϫⲉ ⲛⲧⲁϥϫⲟⲟⲩ

'A hermit monk named Apa Papnoute told a story to pious monks; and these are the words he spoke.'


Paphnoutios (Papnoute) presents to his fellow monks the stories of formerly unknown hermits living in the remote desert. He claims he has made his way deep into the desert, to see whether any hermits were living there. He found a few and recorded the information they gave him about their reason for going to the desert and their way of life there.

Paphnoutios (Papnoute) asks each one he finds for their names, how long they have been in the desert, and how they manage to live there. He records everything they tell him for the benefit of the people in Egypt so they hear about them and remember their names. His immediate audience consists of the brothers of the Scetis who write down the account of his findings as a book which they place in the church in the Scetis to be read out to others.

The hermits he found in the remote desert are:
1. A hermit who sat in his cave, but was already dead. Paphnoutios buries him and moves on.

2. A hermit named *Timotheos, a former monk, who decided to become an anchorite (S00056). Living through the works of his hands alone, he met a female monk and eventually had a sexual encounter with her lasting for six months. Filled with remorse he finally retreated deeper into the desert, where he remained undisturbed for thirty years, living only on dates and water. The only other interaction, apart from Paphnoutios' visit, having been with a spiritual being who healed his liver.

3. Onnophrios himself who left his monastery near Hermopolis sixty years ago to live as a hermit in the remotest part of the desert. He lives of dates, water, and provisions miraculously appearing for him through an angel, as well as the Eucharist administered to him by an angel. After telling Paphnoutios about his life and visions, he negotiates his future cult with him and dies. His soul is taken up by angels and sweet voices are heard. Paphnoutios buries his body by placing it in the cliffs and covering it with stones. He wishes to remain in the saint’s hut, but upon his burial, the hut collapses and the date tree falls, which Paphnoutios takes as a sign from the saint that God wants him to move on and to fulfil his vocation to make the life of the hermits known.

4. Four monks who have also been in the desert for 60 years share a meal with Paphnoutios, but refuse to disclose their names.

5. Four monks from Oxyrhynchos, John, Andrew, Heraclamon, and Theophilos, anchorite friends for six years in the desert, who meet each other regularly on the weekends to receive the Eucharist together from an angel. Paphnoutios stays with them for a week to eat and tell them of his encounters and to receive the Eucharist with them through an angel.

The angel then orders him not to remain with these brothers, but to get back to Egypt to tell the life stories of the hermits he encountered.

6. Paphnoutios reaches the place of ten monks from Scetis, staying with them he informs them of all his encounters and finds in the remote desert, and they write everything down and place the manuscript in the church of Scetis for the benefit of a wider audience.

Text: Budge 1914. Translation and summary: Gesa Schenke.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Paphnoutios : S00063 Onnophrios, Egyptian Anchorite : S00055 Timotheos, Egyptian Anchorite : S00056

Saint Name in Source

ⲁⲡⲁ ⲡⲁⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ ⲁⲡⲁ ⲟⲛⲛⲟⲫⲣⲓⲟⲥ ϯⲙⲟⲑⲉⲟⲥ

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint Late antique original manuscripts - Papyrus codex Late antique original manuscripts - Parchment codex


  • Coptic

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Egypt and Cyrenaica Egypt and Cyrenaica

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Scetis ϣⲓⲏⲧ

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Hermopolis Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Ashmunein Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Scetis Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Ashmunein Hermopolis ϣⲓⲏⲧ

Major author/Major anonymous work

Paphnoutios of Sketis

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Other liturgical acts and ceremonies

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - monastic

Cult activities - Activities Accompanying Cult

  • Feasting (eating, drinking, dancing, singing, bathing)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Burial ad sanctos

Cult Activities - Miracles

Assumption/otherworldly journey

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits


The Coptic Life of Onnophrios, the Anchorite is known through three complete manuscripts, two in Sahidic: British Library, London, Oriental 7027, fols. 1–21v, from Edfu, with a colophon giving the year 1004/5 (ed. Budge, Coptic Martyrdoms) and Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M580, fol. 1–36, from Hamuli in the Fayum, dated to the year 889/890 (unpublished), one in Bohairic (Vatican Library, Coptic 65, fols. 99–120v, dated to the year 978/979). There are also codex fragments: a papyrus leaf dated on palaeographical grounds to the 7th century (ed. Lefort, 1945, 97–100), a fragmentary papyrus leaf from the end of the story, dated on palaeographical grounds to the 6th/7th century (ed. Orlandi), and two parchment leaves of a codex from the so called White Monastery (ed. Till). There are therefore good reasons to think that the text is 6th century or earlier.


The Life of Onnophrios, the Anchorite, attests to the production of hagiographical texts. New saints to venerate are actively sought out and their names and lives recorded. Trips into the desert to find anchorites might be a literary genre, but it also shows the keen interest in a systematic ascetic anthropology. Paphnoutios records the motives and daily struggle for survival of these hermits living for decades in complete isolation. The encounter with Onnophrios forms the centre of Paphnoutios' record, as he has spent the longest time in isolation (the first hermit is dead, the second has spent thirty years, Onnophrios has spent sixty years, the four unnamed ones do not give a time span, and the four named hermits from Oxyrhynchos have spent only six years in the desert). The idea seems to be that the deeper one moves into the desert, the more consecrated one's existence becomes. In this respect Onnophrios' life is the quintessential perfection of ascesis. Onnophrios relates to his visitor not only how he deals with a minimal amount of nutrition, but also how anchorites escape their constant isolation. If they desire to see anyone, they are taken up to heaven and meet and greet the saints who comfort them to such a degree that they forget all worldly toils. This report recalls not only of the trip to heaven undertaken by Abraham (led by the archangel Michael) in the Testament of Abraham, but also of the visit to the various layers of heaven in the Apocalypse of Paul from the Nag Hammadi collection (NHC V,2). Particularly interesting is the negotiation process concerning the future cult of Onnophrios, with Onnophrios stating just before his death how much worshippers should give as an offering in Onnophrios' name, to ensure their salvation through Jesus in return. Onnophrios seems to favour a physical offering at first, until Paphnoutios points out that someone poor may not be able to make an offering to a saint. Onnophrios then asks for worshippers to feed the poor instead, to which Paphnoutios reacts in a similar way. The saint then asks for a little scent in his name, but Paphnoutios rejects that too on account of possible poverty, and demands instead that the saint's grace be bestowed freely upon everyone. The final compromise is a triple prayer which the saint asks in his name to ensure the salvation of worshippers. The burial of Onnophrios seems to indicate no interest in the Saint’s physical remains. Once the soul is taken away by the angels, the corpse is simply laid to rest. Generally, the account of the lives of the hermits as presented by Paphnoutios is in effect also self-promoting hagiography as each hermit tells him repeatedly of his special vocation to make their life known. Similar in many respects are the Stories of the Monks in the Desert, another work attributed to a Paphnoutios, possibly the same one.


Editions: Budge, E.A.W., Coptic Martyrdoms etc. in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (Coptic Texts 4; London: British Museum, 1914), 205–224. Lefort, L.T., “Fragments coptes,” Le Muséon 58 (1945), 97-120. Orlandi, T., Papiri copti di contenuto teologico (Vienna: In Kommission bei Verlag Brüder Hollinek, 1974), 158-161. Till, W.C., Koptische Heiligen- und Martyrlegenden. Vol. 1 (Rome: Pont. institutum orientalium studiorum, 1935), 14–19. Translations: Vivian, T. (trans.), Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and the Life of Onnophrius (Cistercian Studies 140; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993). [With an introduction and evaluation of the text, as well as an English translation, all three of rather questionable value] Further reading: Coquin, R.-G., “Onophrius, Saint,” in: A.S. Atiya (ed.), The Coptic Encyclopedia. 8 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1991), vol. 6, 1841–1842. O'Leary, De L., Saints of Egypt (London: SPCK, 1937), 210. Sauget, J.-M., “S. Onofrio anacoreta in Tebaide,” Bibliotheca Sanctorum 9 (1987), 1187–1197. Williams, C.A., Oriental Affinities of the Legend of the Hairy Anchorite. Part II: Christian (University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 11/4; Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1926). For a full range of the documentary evidence on *Onnophrios: Papaconstantinou, A., Le culte des saints en Égypte des Byzantins aux Abbassides (Paris: CNRS, 2001), 161-162.

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