Original Research - Special Collection: Holiness

Holy feigning in the Apophthegmata Patrum

Rachel Wheeler
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 72, No 4 | a3457 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i4.3457 | © 2016 Rachel Wheeler | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 May 2016 | Published: 21 November 2016

About the author(s)

Rachel Wheeler, Graduate Theological Union, Berkley, USA; Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa, United States

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The purpose of this article is to uncover the meaning of holy feigning in the late-antique Christian text the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers]. Whereas stories in this text depict demonic feigning as a regular occurrence (demons often appearing in the guise of a fellow desert dweller), what I call ‘holy feigning’ depicts one desert Christian expressing empathy for the situation of another – and helping the other to change. By looking at two stories that are paradigmatic of holy feigning, I show that exemplary deceptive behaviour, though explicitly defying the otherwise consistent rhetoric of ‘radical self-honesty’ in the Apophthegmata Patrum, paradoxically marks out the person who feigns as holy, discerning and imitative of Christ. In this article, I offer several suggestions for accounting for this seeming contradiction in the desert literature and propose how a spirituality of holy feigning might remain meaningful to readers of this literature today.


Apophthegmata Patrum; Holy; Feigning; Spiritual change


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