December 12th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
Now that we have access to all the relevant ancient sources, we can see what they say about this gnostic group, the Borborites or Phibionites, and evaluate what Epiphanius has to say a bit better.
The sources, in chronological order, are:
- The Pistis Sophia 147, 3rd c.?
- The Second book of Jeu 43, 3rd c.?
- Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns against heresies 22, before 373 AD.
- Epiphanius, Panarion 26, 374-7 AD
- Filaster, Diversarum haereseon liber 73, ca. 381 AD.
- Theodoret, Compendium Fabularum Haereticarum 1, 13, 5th c.
- The Theodosian Code, 430′s AD.
That’s a reasonably impressive dossier of data. A couple of points may be noted.
Firstly, the existence of this teaching, which involved those following it consuming human seed and menses, is witnessed (and condemned) by the two gnostic texts listed first. The date of these is uncertain, but they have both been assigned to the 3rd c. AD. Probably the teaching is older still.
Secondly Ephraim the Syrian is aware of the group, even though he died before Epiphanius wrote his Panarion. Ephraim’s testimony is independent of Epiphanius, therefore.
Thirdly, the events graphically described by Epiphanius took place when he was a young man — possibly a very young man. Epiphanius died in 403 AD, and was born some time after 310 AD. He became bishop in 367 AD. So his encounter with them should be dated to 330 AD or perhaps a bit later, at the end of the reign of Constantine I or the beginning of that of Constantius II. Epiphanius’ account was written down some 40 years after the events took place, and in a world that had become perceptibly different in many ways. He also describes the involvement of the church authorities in rooting out the heretics from the congregation, so the matter was clearly public knowledge at the time.
Ephraim’s knowledge of a depraved group called the Borborites, who seem to be purely Egyptian, is perhaps explained by the hypothesis that there was a public scandal featuring the group when Epiphanius was young, and the gossip about the dreadful practices of the Borborites circulated widely in the East at that time. In this way the (limited) knowledge displayed by Ephraim is explained.
Filaster’s account may be disregarded as secondary, I think. We know from Augustine that the Panarion of Epiphanius was being read in the west, and it seems unnecessary to suppose that a Borborite group had appeared anywhere that an Italian bishop could obtain independent knowledge of it. Filaster tells us nothing, in any event. Likewise the Theodosian code tells us nothing except that the compiler had access to a compendium of heresies.
The accounts of Theodoret and Epiphanius are different in kind. Epiphanius does not give us a systematic picture of the cosmological mythology of the group, whereas Theodoret does. The very rambling account of Epiphanius is devoted instead mainly to their practices, which Theodoret passes over very briefly with the words:
So who is thrice-unhappy as to their mystical rites as to wish to utter orally the things that they have performed? For all the things done as divine works by those men transcend every immoral conception and every abominable thought. And to speak the name is sufficient to hint at their all-abominable adventure. For the Borboriani were so called because of this.
This could be derived from Epiphanius. But the remainder of Theodoret’s text is based on independent information, so it seems unnecessary to suppose borrowing as well. The only question we might ask is whether we are certain that Theodoret is addressing the same group as Epiphanius.
Let’s now consider what Epiphanius says about this group.
The account given by Epiphanius in the Panarion is quite rambling. It’s not altogether coherent, and it is quite repetitious, where the same idea is illustrated again and again from a different angle. Speculating for a moment, I wonder whether perhaps we are dealing with a verbal account, written down by a scribe, rather than a formal literary composition? It is also quite difficult to read. The reader may find it rather easier to gain a sense of the whole chapter from the version that I posted earlier, sans footnotes, than from turning the pages of the printed text.
Epiphanius labels this group “gnostics” – we may speculate that this is what they called themselves -, and then gives a series of further names for them, of which “Borborites” seems to be the most obvious for us to use. He begins by telling us that the group are libertines, and that they have composed various forged texts in the names of apostles, supposedly quoting Jesus (Pan.26.3.1), which themselves advocate fornication. Interestingly he states that they include elements of pagan myth borrowed from Aphrodite. He describes, as little as may be, their meetings in which the seed and menses are consumed and in which fornication takes place. He also states that, at least once, they procured an abortion and ate the body of the dead baby (5). They use both Old Testament and New, but only use the OT selectively as convenient.
They revere the female archon Barbelo; and have books of Mary; and it was women of the cult that Epiphanius himself met and who tried to recruit him. In fact, on reading this, I was reminded of New Age groups, and in fact began to wonder whether this was a cult where women were in control. I am told that in the “swinging” scene in California, such groups are controlled by the women, and I speculate that the group dynamics that led to this might also be relevant here?
It is well-known that Epiphanius was an eye-witness of these matters:
For I happened on this sect myself, beloved, and was actually taught these things in person, out of the mouths of people who really undertook them. Not only did women under this delusion offer me this line of talk, and divulge this sort of thing to me. … after reading their books, understanding their real intent …., (9) I lost no time reporting them … I indicated before that I have encountered some of the sects, though I know some from documentary sources, and some from the instruction and testimony of trustworthy men who were able to tell me the truth. So here too … I … have shown what this one of the sects which came my way is like. And I could speak plainly of it because of things which I did not do—heaven forbid!—but which <I knew> by learning them in exact detail from persons who were trying to convert me to this and did not succeed.
All this seems plain enough. Yet the testimony of Epiphanius has often been impugned, and for obvious reasons. For his description of a communion ritual which involves fornication and eating babies is uncomfortably like the accusation made against the Christians, and rebutted by Athenagoras (c.31-36) and Tertullian (Apol. 7). Origen tells us that Jews accused Christians of immorality and eating babies (Contra Celsum 6, 27). Mandaean heretics also accused Christians of ritual horrors (Right Ginza IX = Lidzbarski 227, 8 ff.).
In turn similar accusations are made against Montanists by Epiphanius (Pan. 48.14.6) and Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat. 16, 18), although queried by Jerome (Ep. 41, 4.1) and in Praedestinatus (chap. 26). Augustine accuses the Manichaeans of the same in De haeresibus 46. Even Tertullian, as a Montanist, accuses some Catholics of immoral agapes (De ieiunio 17). (It might be interesting to compile all of these on a single page)
We know very well that Christians do not do such things and never did. Since the accusations to which Athenagoras replies are clearly malicious, the argument goes, plainly this accusation is merely a rhetorical trope, rather like accusations of “hate” in our own day. It is designed to play upon the emotions of the hearer, rather than to convey factual information.
There is obviously a problem with this argument. If the argument is reduced to the form “some accusations of this type are false, therefore all such accusations are false” , we can see it clearly: that type of argument is unsound in general. But we are not here, however, to chop logic, and it is true that hate-literature has certain characteristics of its own.
Let’s set that to one side for a moment. The idea of ritual immorality may have seemed improbable to Victorian scholars, but we are less fortunately situated. There are few ancient immoralities not practised in modern California, if we can believe press reports. Nor need we question that some people would eat human refuse, for the same reason. And although I know of no examples of people eating dead babies, a court case found one revolting individual guilty of obtaining aborted babies, freeze-drying them and turning the corpses into ear-rings. Like Epiphanius, I find myself reluctant to document modern parallels, for fear of injury to myself and my readers, so I will look no further.
In the end these claims are inscrutable. We have no more evidence than we started with as to whether X or Y did, or did not, eat babies and practice fornication in their assemblies. We can discuss whether these accounts are “credible”; but I see no easy way to ensure that such discussions are more than “I can’t really imagine that this is true”, without more data.
Returning to Epiphanius, we might observe that his most controversial statements are mostly confirmed by the texts from Nag Hammadi. Perhaps we may suppose that the story he was told about the aborted baby was just that; a story circulating in the group. He does not tell us that he witnessed it. In fact he tells us that he witnessed “this line of talk”. Whether the story was true or not we cannot now say. Whether, after thirty years, this story was actually told to him by the gnostics, or whether he misremembered and it was part of the scandal at the time, we cannot tell. Whether we should treat his rambling statements as something equivalent to a modern scholar writing for peer review and stating that he is the exclusive source of all that he states; or whether we should treat it as more like a modern journalist, working from one source and sticking in whatever else he can find, we cannot know. The latter seems more likely to me. Ordinary people often do this. Whether … but we have moved into the realm of speculation.
Let me offer a little more speculation. It seems possible that the aborted baby-eating story really does reflect something real, something tried once and found revolting and not done again, and told to the young Epiphanius (and quite possibly misunderstood by him). Life was cheap. Those involved in ancient magic might do horrible things, and at the low end of society, there might not be a great distance between a gnostic, a sorceror, or a wandering sophist-cum-conman. We are entirely familiar today with those who try to push the boundaries, to gain notoriety. But then again … maybe it was just a cheap rumour, circulating at the time, and included willy-nilly by Epiphanius.
At this time of day we cannot tell. In the end, his statement cannot be confirmed or refuted. Perhaps we should simply leave it at that.
December 10th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
Just a quick note to signal an important article: Martino Diez, “Amid et Ibn Haldun. Notes pour une histoire de la tradition, in: Studia Graeco-Arabica 3 (2013), 121-140. (In this and what follows, don’t presume I have every letter just correct: WordPress won’t allow me to!)
The abstract tells it all:
The Coptic Historian al-Makin Girgis ibn al-`Amid (1206 – after 1280) is the author of a universal history known as al-Magmu` al-Mubarak (‘The blessed collection’). This work is divided into two parts: a section on pre-Islamic history, still unpublished, and a summary of Islamic history, edited by Erpenius in 1625 and completed by Claude Cahen. The article analyzes the two recensions of the first part of the Magmu` through the comparison of three manuscripts, in particular as regards the sections on Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine history. After discussing the particular version of the Testimonium Flavianum which can be found in the longer recension of the Magmu`, the article traces the fortune of al-Makin in subsequent Islamic historiography, especially al-Qalqašandi, al-Maqrizi and Ibn Khaldun.
Al-Makin is the big unpublished Arabic Christian history. His version of the Testimonium Flavianum in the first half of al-Makin’s work was referenced by Shlomo Pines in his well-known article on the subject, when discussing Agapius, but a look at the French translation of Agapius reveals that Pines must have used Al-Makin’s version extensively.
The article is in French, but promises to be very interesting! Watch this space!
December 10th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
A very interesting article (in English) by J. Gruskova has appeared on the web, discussing recent work with Byzantine palimpsests, at the Austrian National Library. Somewhat annoyingly the PDF doesn’t allow copying of the text, so I can’t give you more than snippets here.
The article notes various palimpsests where modern technology – multi-spectral imaging – is producing spectacular results, even compared with the use of UV lamps less than 10 years ago.
The most interesting is the discovery of two leaves from a manuscript of Eusebius’ Chronicon book 1, otherwise preserved only in a single Armenian manuscript. The ms. is Vienna Iur. gr. 18, fol. 32 and 39, which must have been an internal bifolium of a quire. Comparing it with Karst’s GCS edition, it contains the text from Karst p.9, line 1, to Karst p.10 line 27. It was digitised under UV in 2007 and 2008, which allowed only 60% of the text to be read; MSI will now be applied to it.
Other items discussed are 33 folios of Herodian’s De prosodia catholica, a 2nd century AD exposition in 20 books of the rules for accentuating Greek; an anthology of Byzantine legislation known as the Basilica; possible fragments of the lost 3rd c. Scythica (about the Goths etc) of Dexippus; and a new manuscript of Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ De cerimoniis.
It’s all extremely valuable stuff; but also very encouraging! We have the technology.
December 9th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
A week ago I was searching to see if there was an English translation of the Byzantine history by George Cedrenus. An awful lot of Byzantine chronicles have been translated (for the first time!) by Australian scholars, so I knew that it was a possibility.
Well, I drew a blank. No English translation exists. The old Bonn edition with a Latin translation at the bottom is what you have to use, and be grateful.
However I have heard from Byzantinist Roger Scott that a translation is in progress! Apparently Paul Tuffin, John Burke and himself have been at work on it for some years, and have translated some 500 pages, with a draft commentary. The Bonn edition is 1,500 pages, but they intend to leave aside the last 650 pages, which Cedrenus copied pretty much verbatim from John Scilitzes, as there is an excellent English translation of the latter by John Wortley. So they have around 350 pages to go. The work probably won’t appear for at least two years.
Dr Scott also tells me that an Italian team are at work on a new critical edition, with Italian translation.
It will be good to have Cedrenus! Let us wish them all plenty of success!
December 9th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
A correspondent points out some very different attitudes towards chronological accuracy between Greek and Syriac historians.
In his monster-sized world chronicle, Michael the Syrian (12th c.) quoted frequently from earlier historians. I will let my correspondent describe what he found.
“One of the sources Michael used was Ignatius of Melitene, whose preface he reproduced in full (iii. 115).
“Ignatius of Melitene was charmingly offhand about dates and their importance:
If anyone finds that some of the dates in my chronicle are either slightly high or slightly low, he should not blame me. Sometimes, when a king died, his successor had to wait around six months or a year before he ascended the throne. Similarly, when a patriarch died, a year or thereabouts might elapse before his successor was ordained. As a result, some events have become confused with others. As a matter of fact, this kind of thing does no great harm, as all scholars will readily admit.
“Ignatius demonstrates his insouciance later in Michael’s narrative by giving a date for the accession of one of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchs that is six or seven years out.
“Michael himself, though I think he did his best, knew that some of his dates would be questioned, and wisely covered his back in his own preface (i. 2):
In my opinion, scholars should not waste their energy in trying to calculate dates with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. As the Saviour truly said, ‘The Father has kept for himself the knowledge of times and dates.’ For example, there are many divergences between the Septuagint and the translation possessed by the Syrians, which was first made by King Abgar and was later revised by Ya‘qob of Edessa, who pretended to convert to Judaism so that the Jews would not hide the truth from him.
“When one thinks of how much care Thucydides took to get his dates right, and the stress that he rightly laid on accuracy (akribeia), the sloppiness of the Syriac writers is all the more remarkable.”
December 9th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
Via the Macrotypography blog I learn of some very bad news indeed:
Java Disaster in Florence
The digital library of 3,000-plus manuscripts at the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence was introduced on this blog as outstanding news three years ago. This year, disaster struck as hackers round the world exploited security vulnerabilities in Java software. Java’s security had to be tightened to such a degree that the current plug-ins for browsers can no longer access the digital library in Florence.
This mess has been evident for several weeks. The library has just issued a notice
about the problem which offers little solace other than a promise to act in “a short space of time” to achieve a permanent solution. The notice (digitally dated December 6) blames “security controls in the latest version of the Java interpreter that no longer allow the execution of our viewer.”The interim solution proposed is not satisfactory: uninstalling your current Java version and downgrading to the old low-security version, SE 6, which is “still compatible with our application”.Oracle
warns that this version is “not recommended for use” and is reserved for developers and administrators doing debugging. Running an unsafe Java version would, in my view, only be feasible if you were to reserve a dedicated computer to visit the Laurentian site alone. Otherwise the risk would be too great of catching a virus while the PC was used to visit other parts of the internet. And who has computers to spare?
Curse these criminals. The powerful of our day are rushing to ensure that we don’t say anything online that might offend the wealthy and well-connected, but indifferent to the threat from cyber-criminals.
Of course the other moral to learn is … would libraries please stop messing about with producing custom “viewers” and just make PDF’s available? or else place the files at Archive.org, as the Cairo Patriarchate did recently?
December 9th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
I’ve seen a few twitter posts about St. Nicholas punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Now this (via Dyspepsia Generation):
December 7th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
There are quite a few of the fathers who we don’t know anything about, despite having their works. Titus of Bostra is perhaps one of the most important of these. We — i.e. almost everyone aside from one or two scholars — don’t know anything about him because his work Against the Manichaeans in 4 books has never been translated. Worse than that, it’s never had a critical edition. In fact I don’t think I even have a pre-critical text on my hard disk, it’s so hard to obtain.
Back in 2007, I blogged on this here.
But today there is news! This evening a comment appeared on the article from Paul-Hubert Poirier, who has been working on an edition and translation for a while:
I am very pleased to announce the publication of the first critical edition of the Greek and Syriac versions of the Against the Manichaeans of Titus of Bostra, along with the excerpts from the Sacra Parallela of John of Damascus:
ROMAN, A., POIRIER, P.-H., CRÉGHEUR, É., DECLERCK, J., Titi Bostrensis Contra Manichaeos libri IV, (Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca, 82), Turnhout, Brepols Publishers, 2013.
A synoptic translation of both versions will follow in 2014 in the series “Corpus Christianorum in Translation”
This is excellent news! And it will be more excellent when a translation appears too!
December 6th, 2013 by Roger Pearse
I have already mentioned a passage in the Pistis Sophia, found in the codex Askewianus, that refers to Borborite practices.
But there is also a reference in the texts known as the “Books of Jeu” (the name is modern), in the so-called Bruce codex. This was obtained by the Scottish traveller James Bruce ca. 1769, who bought it at Medinet Habu near Luxor in Egypt while on his journey to Ethiopia. It is today in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where it has the shelfmark Ms. Bruce 9. It has suffered damage since it arrived there, and a transcription by C. G. Woide is of great value, as preserving a number of leaves now lost.
The Bruce codex contains two works, to which the first editor, Schmidt, gave the name of the First and Second books of Jeu, plus an untitled work. Schmidt presumed that a reference in the Pistis Sophia to “two books of Jeu” referred to these books. The actual title found in the manuscript at the end of the “first book” is The book of the Great Logos corresponding to Mysteries. No other title is present in the manuscript.
These works were probably composed in the first half of the third century AD.
In the Second book of Jeu, chapter 43, it says:
43. But when he [Jesus] had finished saying these things, he said to them once more: “These mysteries which I shall give to you, guard them and do not given them to any man except he is worthy of them. Do not give them to father, or mother or brother, or sister, or relative, or for food or for drink, or for a woman, or for gold, or for silver, or for anything at all of this world. Guard them and do not give them to anyone at all for the sake of the goods of this whole world. Do not give them to any woman or to any man who is in any faith of these 72 archons, or who serves them. Neither give them to those who serve the eight powers of the great archon, who are those who eat the menstrual blood of their impurity and the semen of men, saying : “We have known the knowledge of truth, and we pray to the true God.” However, their God is wicked.
Emphasis mine. Note the reference to the the cultists talking about “knowledge of truth”, i.e. gnosis. Did they call themselves Gnostics, we might ask?