The first document about Christian monks is the “Life of Antony,” by St Athanasius. Ergo, the history of monasticism begins with Antony (c. 250-350).
The repercussions of this first writing were enormous. But it must not be thought that the “Life of Antony” was the beginning of monastic life. This book appeared in 357. However, a papyrus shows there was a large group of monks round Antony in Lower Egypt already about 305. In Upper Egypt Pachomius founded his monastery about 320 and died in 346, that is, before the publication of the ‘Life of Antony,’ leaving about 6 or 8 thousand monks and nuns. Well before that, there were monks in Syria and even in Gaul, on an island near Lyons.
Monasticism did not begin by being passed from one to another but arose like spontaneous eruptions, or like a spring gushing forth in different places from a source underground.
This sudden emergence of monasticism in several distant geographical points: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Gaul, suggests an underground spring, a secret preparation by the Holy Spirit. There was as it were a prehistory of monasticism: a prehistory within the hearts of men and women, a prehistory, that is, of monastic spirituality, a few features of which we shall try pointers to this preparation by the Spirit.
It seems that among the many causes which could, directly or indirectly, be at the source of the emergence of monasticism in the third century, the following can be identified in chronological order: a vague outline in the Old Testament, more defined ascetical movements among the Jews in the time of Jesus, the radical call of the gospel teaching which gave rise to consecrated virginity faily early on, then martyrdom and finally Origen.