Epiphanius on the Borborites or Phibionites

In order to discuss this cult, we do need before us the testimony of Epiphanius from the Panarion 26.  We are a fortunate generation, in that Frank Williams has produced an English translation, although unfortunately the price of this places it outside the pockets of most of us.  The translation has, indeed, reached a second edition,[1]  which is unfortunate for those of us who purchased the first!

To discuss the Borborites/Phibionites, we need to look at this section of the book.  It is long, but only a small part of the immense volume.  The material is also very disgusting, although probably no week goes by in which similar material is not broadcast as “entertainment” on television.  At the same time I am nervous of using only excerpts, a process very likely to mislead the reader.

Rather reluctantly, I post the whole section here, minus the (very useful) footnotes and page references.  (If anyone from Brill objects please email me and I will remove it).  If you want those, why not support the publisher, do as I did, and buy a copy?

WARNING: the descriptions that follow are frankly disgusting, and may corrupt the imagination of some readers.  If you don’t need to read it, don’t.

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26. Against Gnostics, or Borborites. Number six, but twenty-six of the series.

1,1 In turn these Gnostics have sprouted up in the world, deluded people who have grown from Nicolaus like fruit from a dunghill, in a different way—something that is plain and observable to anyone by the touchstone of truth, not only to believers I should say, but perhaps to unbelievers too. For how can speaking of a “Womb” and dirt and the rest not appear ridiculous to everyone, “Greeks and barbarians, wise and unwise?” (2) It is a great misfortune, and one might say the worst of hardships, that these despicable, erring founders of the sects come at us and assault us like a swarm of insects, infecting us with diseases, smelly eruptions, and sores through their error with its mythology.

1,3 These people, who are yoked in tandem with this Nicolaus and have been hatched by him in their turn like scorpions from an infertile snake’s egg or < basilisks > from asps, introduce some further nonsensical names to us and forge nonsensical books. They call one Noria, and interweave falsehood and truth by changing the mythological rigmarole and fiction of the Greeks from the Greek superstition’s real meaning. (4) For they say that this Noria is Noah’s wife. But they call her Noria in order to create an illusion for their dupes by making their own alteration, with foreign names, of the things the Greeks recited in Greek, so that they too will translate Pyrrha’s name by calling her Noria. (5) Now since “nura” means “fire” in Syriac, not ancient Hebrew—the ancient Hebrew for “fire” is “esh”—it follows that they are making an ignorant, naive use of this name.  6) Noah’s wife was neither the Greeks’ Pyrrha nor the Gnostics’ mythical Noria, but Barthenos. (And indeed, the Greeks say that Deucalion’s wife was called Pyrrha.)

1,7 Then these people who are presenting us with Philistion’s mimes all over again give a reason why Noria was not allowed to join Noah in the ark, though she often wanted to. The archon who made the world, they say, wanted to destroy her in the flood with all the rest. (8) But they say that she sat down in the ark and burned it a first and a second time, and a third. And this is why the building of Noah’s own ark took many years—it was burned many times by Noria.

1,9 For Noah was obedient to the archon, they say, but Noria revealed the powers on high and Barbelo the scion of the powers, who was the archon’s opponent as the other powers are. And she let it be known that what has been stolen from the Mother on high by the archon who made the world, and by the other gods, demons and angels with him, must be gathered from the power in bodies, through the male and female emissions.  (2,1) It is just my miserable luck to be telling you of all the blindness of their ignorance. For it would take me a great deal of time if I should wish go into detail here in the treatise I am writing about them and describe one by one the outrageous teachings of their falsely termed “knowledge”.

2,2 Others of them, who in their turn are differently afflicted, and blind their own eyes and (so) are blinded, introduce a Barkabbas as another prophet—one worthy of just that name! (3) “Qabba” means “fornication” in Syriac but “murder” in Hebrew—and again, it can be translated as “a quarter of a measure.” And to persons who know this name in their own languages, something like this is deserving of jeering and laughter—or rather, of indignation. (4) But to persuade us to have congress with bodies that perish and lose our heavenly hope, they present us with a shameful narrative by this wonderful “prophet”; and in turn, they are not above reciting the amatory exploits of Aphrodite’s whoredom in so many words.

2,5 Others of them in their turn introduce a fictitious work of pornography, a fabrication they have named by claiming that it is a “Gospel of Perfection.” And truly, this is not a gospel of perfection but a dirge for it; all the perfection of death is contained in such devil’s sowing.   2,6 Others are not ashamed to speak of a “Gospel of Eve.” For they sow < their stunted > crop in her name because, supposedly, she obtained the food of knowledge by revelation from the serpent which spoke to her.  And as, in his inconstant state of mind, the utterances of a man who is drunk and babbling at random cannot be alike, but some are made with laughter but others tearfully, the deceivers’ sowing has come up to correspond with every sort of evil.

3,1 They begin with foolish visions and proof texts in what they claim is a Gospel. For they make this allegation: “I stood upon a lofty mountain, and saw a man who was tall, and another, little of stature. And I heard as it were the sound of thunder and drew nigh to hear, and he spake with me and said, I am thou and thou art I, and wheresoever thou art, there am I; and I am sown in all things. And from wheresoever thou wilt thou gatherest me, but in gathering me, thou gatherest thyself.” (2) What a devil’s sowing! How has he managed to divert the minds of mankind and distract them from the telling of the truth to things that are foolish and untenable? A person with good sense hardly needs to formulate these people’s refutation from scripture, illustrations or anything else. The acting out of the foolish words of adulterers and the putting of them into practice is plain for sound reason to see and detect.

3,3 Now in telling these stories and others like them, those who have yoked themselves to Nicolaus’ sect for the sake of “knowledge” have lost the truth and not merely perverted their converts’ minds, but have also enslaved their bodies and souls to fornication and promiscuity. They foul their supposed assembly itself with the dirt of promiscuous fornication and eat and handle both human flesh and uncleanness. (4) I would not dare to utter the whole of this if I were not somehow compelled to from the excess of the feeling of grief within me over the futile things they do—appalled as I am at the mass and depth of evils into which he enemy of mankind, the devil, leads those who trust him, so as to pollute the minds, hearts, hands, mouths, bodies and souls of the persons he has trapped in such deep darkness.

3,5 And I am afraid that I may be revealing the whole of this potent poison, like the face of some serpent’s basilisk, to the harm of the readers rather than to their correction. Truly it pollutes the ears—the blasphemous assembly of great audacity, the gathering and the interpretation of its dirt, the mucky (βορβορώδης) perversity of the scummy obscenity. (6) Thus some actually call them “Borborians.” But others call them Koddians—“qodda” means “dish” or “bowl” in Syriac—because no one can eat with them. Food is served to them separately in their defilement, and no one can eat even bread with them because of the pollution. (7) And so, regarding them as outcastes, their fellow immigrants have named them Koddians. But in Egypt the same people are known as Stratiotics and Phibionites, as I said in part earlier. But some call them Zacchaeans, others, Barbelites.

3,8 In any case, neither will I be able to pass them by; I am forced to speak out. < For > since the sacred Moses too writes by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, “Whoso seeth a murder and proclaimeth it not, let such a one be accursed,” I cannot pass this great murder by, and this terrible murderous behavior, without making a full disclosure of it. (9) For perhaps, if I reveal this pitfall, like the “pit of destruction,” to the wise, I shall arouse fear and horror in them, so that they will not only avoid this crooked serpent and basilisk that is in the pit, but stone it too, so that it will not even dare to approach anyone. And so much for the few things I have said about them up till now, as a partial account.

4,1 But I shall get right down to the worst part of the deadly description of them—for they vary in their wicked teaching of what they please—which is, first of all, that they hold their wives in common.  (2) And if a guest who is of their persuasion arrives, they have a sign that men give women and women give men, a tickling of the palm as they clasp hands in supposed greeting, to show that the visitor is of their religion.

4,3 And once they recognize each other from this they start feasting right away—and they set the table with lavish provisions for eating meat and drinking wine even if they are poor. But then, after a drinking bout and, let us say, stuffing their overstuffed veins, they get hot for each other next.

(4) And the husband will move away from his wife and tell her—speaking to his own wife!—“Get up, perform the Agape with the brother.” And when the wretched couple has made love—and I am truly ashamed to mention the vile things they do, for as the holy apostle says, “It is a shame even to speak” of what goes on among them. Still, I should not be ashamed to say what they are not ashamed to do, to arouse horror by every means in those who hear what obscenities they are prepared to perform. (5) For after having made love with the passion of fornication in addition, to lift their blasphemy up to heaven, the woman and man receive the man’s emission on their own hands. And they stand with their eyes raised heavenward but the filth on their hands and pray, if you please—(6) the ones they call Stratiotics and Gnostics—and offer that stuff on their hands to the true Father of all, and say, “We offer thee this gift, the body of Christ.” (7) And then they eat it partaking of their own dirt, and say, “This is the body of Christ; and this is the Pascha, because of which our bodies suffer and are compelled to acknowledge the passion of Christ.”

4,8 And so with the woman’s emission when she happens to be having her period—they likewise take the unclean menstrual blood they gather from her, and eat it in common. And “This,” they say, “is the blood of Christ.” (5,1) And so, when they read, “I saw a tree bearing twelve manner of fruits every year, and he said unto me, “This is the tree of life,” in apocryphal writings, they interpret this allegorically of the menstrual flux.

5,2 But although they have sex with each other they renounce procreation.  It is for enjoyment, not procreation, that they eagerly pursue seduction, since the devil is mocking people like these, and making fun of the creature fashioned by God. (3) They come to climax but absorb the seeds of their dirt, not by implanting them for procreation, but by eating the dirty stuff themselves.

5,4 But even though one of them should accidentally implant the seed of his natural emission prematurely and the woman becomes pregnant, listen to a more dreadful thing that such people venture to do. (5) They extract the fetus at the stage which is appropriate for their enterprise, take this aborted infant, and cut it up in a trough with a pestle. And they mix honey, pepper, and certain other perfumes and spices with it to keep from getting sick, and then all the revellers in this < herd > of swine and dogs assemble, and each eats a piece of the child with his fingers.  (6) And now, after this cannibalism, they pray to God and say, “We were not mocked by the archon of lust, but have gathered the brother’s blunder up!” And this, if you please, is their idea of the “perfect Passover.”

5,7 And they are prepared to do any number of other dreadful things. Again, whenever they feel excitement within them they soil their own hands with their own ejaculated dirt, get up, and pray stark naked with their hands defiled. The idea is that they < can > obtain freedom of access to God by a practice of this kind.

5,8 Man and woman, they pamper their bodies night and day, anointing themselves, bathing, feasting, spending their time in whoring and drunkenness. And they curse anyone who fasts and say, “Fasting is wrong; fasting belongs to this archon who made the world. We must take nourishment to make our bodies strong, and able to render their fruit in its season.”

6,1 They use both the Old and the New Testaments, but renounce the Speaker in the Old Testament.  And whenever they find a text the sense of which can be against them, they say that this has been said by the spirit of the world. (2) But if a statement can be represented as resembling their lust—not as the text is, but as their deluded minds take it—they twist it to fit their lust and claim that it has been spoken by the Spirit of truth. (3) And this, they claim, is what the Lord said of John, “What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” John was not perfect, they say; he was inspired by many spirits, like a reed stirring in every wind. (4) And when the spirit of the archon came he would preach Judaism; but when the Holy Spirit came he would speak of Christ. And this is the meaning of “He that is least in the Kingdom” < and so on >. “He said this of us,” they say, “because the least of us is greater than he.”

7,1 Such persons are silenced at once by the truth itself. For from the context of each saying the truth will be plainly shown and the trustworthiness of the text demonstrated. (2) If John had worn soft clothing and lived in kings’ houses the saying would fi t him exactly and be in direct refutation of him. But if < it says >, “What went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” and John was not such a man, then the saying’s accusation cannot apply to John, who did not wear soft clothing. The reference is to those who expected to find John like that, and who were often hypocritically flattered by persons who lived indoors, in kings’ houses. (3) For they thought that they could go out and get praises and congratulations from John as well, for the transgressions they committed every day. (4) But when they did not they were reprovingly told by the Savior, “What did you expect to find? A man borne hither and yon with you by your passions, like people in soft clothing? No! John is no reed shaken by men’s opinions, like a reed swayed by the authority of every wind.”

7,5 Since the Savior did say, “Among them that are born of woman there is none greater than John,” as a safeguard for us, lest any think that John was greater than even the Savior himself—who was also born of woman, of the ever-virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit—he said that he who is “less” than John, meaning in the length of his incarnate life, is greater in the kingdom of heaven. (6) For since the Savior was born six months after the birth of John, it is plain that he < appeared younger than he >—though he was older than John, for he was always, and is. But to whom is this not plain? So all the things they say are worthless fabrication, good things turned into bad.

8,1 And they too have lots of books. They publish certain “Questions of Mary”; but others offer many books about the Ialdabaoth we spoke of, and in the name of Seth.  They call others “Apocalypses of Adam35 and have ventured to compose other Gospels in the names of the disciples, and are not ashamed to say that our Savior and Lord himself, Jesus Christ, revealed this obscenity. (2) For in the so-called “Greater Questions of Mary”—there are also “Lesser” ones forged by them—they claim that he reveals it to her after taking her aside on the mountain, praying, producing a woman from his side, beginning to have sex with her, and then partaking of his emission, if you please, to show that “Thus we must do, that we may live.” (3) And when Mary was alarmed and fell to the ground, he raised her up and said to her, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”

8,4 And they say that this is the meaning of the saying in the Gospel, “If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe the heavenly things?” and so of, “When ye see the Son of Man ascending up where he was before”—in other words, when you see the emission being partaken of where it came from. (5) And when Christ said, “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and the disciples were disturbed and replied, “Who can hear this?” they say his saying was about the dirt. (6) And this is why they were disturbed and fell away; they were not entirely stable yet, they say.

8,7 And when David says, “He shall be like a tree planted by the outgoings of water that will bring forth its fruit in due season,” they say he is speaking of the man’s dirt. “By the outgoing of water,” and, “that will bring forth his fruit,” means the emission at climax. And “Its leaf shall not fall off” means, “We do not allow it to fall to the ground, but eat it ourselves.”

9,1 And so as not to do more harm than good by making their prooftexts public, I am going to omit most of them—otherwise I would cite all their wicked sayings and go through them here. (2) When it says that Rahab put a scarlet thread in her window, this was not scarlet thread, they tell us, but the female organs. And the scarlet thread means the menstrual blood, and “Drink water from your cisterns” refers to the same.

9,3 They say that the flesh must perish and cannot be raised, and this belongs to the archon. (4) But the power in the menses and organs is soul, they say, “which we gather and eat. And whatever we eat—meat, vegetables, bread or anything else—we are doing creatures a favor by gathering the soul from them all and taking it to the heavens with us.” Hence they eat meat of all kinds and say that this is “to show mercy to our race.” (5) And they claim that the same soul has been implanted in animals, insects, fish, snakes, men—and in vegetation, trees, and the fruits of the soil.

9,6 Those of them who are called Phibionites offer their shameful sacrifices of fornication, which I have already mentioned here, in 365 names which they have invented themselves as names of supposed archons, making fools of their female partners and saying, “Have sex with me, so that I may offer you to the archon.” (7) And at each act of intercourse they pronounce an outlandish name of one of their fictitious archons, and pray, if you please, by saying, “I offer this to thee, So-and-so, that thou mayest offer it to So-and-so.” But at another act he supposes again that he is likewise offering it to another archon, so that he too may offer it to the other. (8) And until he mounts, or rather, sinks, through 365 falls of copulation, he calls on some name at each, and does the same sort of thing. Then he starts back down through the same acts, performing the same obscenities and making fools of his female victims. (9) Now when he reaches a mass as great as that of a total number of 730 falls—I mean the falls of unnatural unions and the names they have made up—then finally a man of this sort has the hardihood to say, “I am Christ, for I have descended from on high through the names of the 365 archons!”

10,1 They say that these are the names of the archons they consider the greatest, although they say there are many. In the first heaven is the archon Iao. In the second, they say, is Saklas, the archon of fornication. In the third, they say, is the archon Seth and in the fourth, they say, is Davides. (2) For they suppose that there is a fourth heaven, and a third—and a fifth, another heaven, in which they say is Eloaeus, also called Adonaeus. Some of them say that Ialdabaoth is in the sixth heaven, some say Elilaeus. (3) But they suppose that there is another, seventh heaven, and say that Sabaoth is in that. But others disagree, and say that Ialdabaoth is in the seventh.

10,4 But in the eighth heaven they put the so-called Barbelo; and the “Father and Lord of all,” the same Self-begetter; and another Christ, a self-engendered one, and our Christ, who descended and revealed this knowledge to men, who they say is also called Jesus. (5) But he is not “born of Mary” but “revealed through Mary.” And he has not taken flesh but is only appearance.

10,6 Some say Sabaoth has the face of an ass;53 others, the face of a pig.  This, they say, is why is why he forbade the Jews to eat pork. He is the maker of heaven, earth, the heavens after him, and his own angels. (7) In departing this world the soul makes its way through these archons, but no < one > can get through them unless he is in full possession of this “knowledge”—or rather, this contemptibility—and escapes the archons and authorities because he is “filled.”

10,8 The archon who holds this world captive is shaped like a dragon. He swallows souls that are not in the know, and returns them to the world through his phallus, here < to be implanted > in pigs and other animals, and brought up again through them.

10,9 But, say they, if one becomes privy to this knowledge and gathers himself from the world through the menses and the emission of lust, he is detained here no longer; he gets up above these archons. (10) They say that he passes Sabaoth by and—with impudent blasphemy—that he treads on his head. And thus he mounts above him to the height, where the Mother of the living, Barbero or Barbelo, is, and so the soul is saved.

10,11 The wretches also say that Sabaoth has hair like a woman’s. They think that the term, Sabaoth, is some archon, not realizing that where scripture says, “Thus saith Lord Sabaoth” it has not given anyone’s name, but a term of praise for the Godhead. (12) Translated from Hebrew, “Sabaoth” means “Lord of hosts.” Wherever “Sabaoth” occurs in the Old Testament, it suggests a host; hence Aquila everywhere renders “Adonai Sabaoth” as “Lord of armies.” (13) But since these people are frantic against their Master in every way they go looking for the one who does not exist, and have lost the one who does. Or rather, they have lost themselves.

11,1 < They do > any number of other < things > and it is a misfortune to speak of their mad behavior in them. Some of them do not have to do with women, if you please, but pollute themselves with their own hands, receive their own dirt on their hands, and then eat it. (2) For this they cite a slanderously interpreted text, “These hands sufficed, not only for me, but also for them that were with me”—and again, “Working with your hands, that ye may have to give also to them that need.” (3) And I believe that the Holy Spirit was moved to anger over these persons in the apostle Jude, I mean in the General Epistle written by Jude. (“Jude” is our Jude, the brother of James, and called the Lord’s brother.) For the Holy Spirit taught, with Jude’s voice, that they are debauched and debauch like cattle, as he says, “Insofar as they know not, they are guilty of ignorance, and insofar as they know they are debauched, even as brute beasts.” (4) For they dispose of their corruption like dogs and pigs. Dogs and pigs, and other animals as well, are polluted in this way and eat their bodies’ discharge.

11,5 For in fact they really do “defile the flesh while dreaming, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. But Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, brought not a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee. (6) But these speak evil of things which they naturally know not.” For they blaspheme the holiest of holy things, bestowed on us with sanctification, by turning them into dirt.

11,7 And these are the things they have ventured to say against the apostles, as the blessed Paul also says, “So that some dare < blasphemously to report > of us that we say, Let us do evil that good may come upon us; whose damnation is just.” (8) And how many other texts I could cite against the blasphemers! For these persons who debauch themselves with their own hands—and not just they, but the ones who consort with women too—finally get their fill of promiscuous relations with women and grow ardent for each other, men for men, “receiving in themselves the recompense of their error” as the scripture says. For once they are completely ruined they congratulate each other on having received the highest rank.

11,9 Moreover they deceive the womenfolk who put their trust in them, “laden with sins and led away with divers lusts,” and tell their female dupes, “So-and-so is a virgin”—one who has been debauched for so many years, and is being debauched every day! For they never have their fill of copulation, but in their circles the more indecent a man is, the more praiseworthy they consider him. (10) They say that virgins are women who have never gone on to the point of being inseminated in normal marital relations of the customary kind. They have sex all the time and commit fornication, but before the pleasure of their union is consummated they push their villainous seducer away and take the dirt we spoke of for food—(11) comparably to Shelah’s perversity with Tamar. < They boast of virginity >, but instead of virginity have adopted this technique of being seduced without accepting the union of seduction, and the seminal discharge.

11,12 They blaspheme not only Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the whole choir of prophets, but the God who chose them as well. (12,1) Indeed, they have ventured countless other forgeries. They say that one book is a “Birth of Mary,” and they palm some horrid, baneful things off in it and say that they get them from it. (2) On its authority they say that Zacharias was killed in the temple because he had seen a vision, and when he wanted to reveal the vision his mouth was stopped from fright. For at the hour of incense, while he was burning it, he saw a man standing there, they say, with the form of an ass. (3) And when he had come out and wanted to say “Woe to you, whom are you worshiping?” the person he had seen inside in the temple stopped his mouth so that he could not speak. But when his mouth was opened so that he could speak, then he revealed it to them and they killed him. And that, they say, is how Zacharias died. (4) This, they say, is why the priest was ordered to wear bells by the lawgiver himself.  Whenever he went in to officiate, the object of his worship would hear them jangle and hide, so that no one would spy the imaginary face of his form.

12,5 But all their silliness is an easy business to refute, and chock-full of absurdity. If the object of their service were visible at all, he could not be hidden. But if he could be hidden at all he could not be visible. (6) And again, we must put it to them differently: If he was visible, then he was a body and could not be a spirit. But if he was spirit, he could not be counted among the things that are visible. And since he was not something visible, how could he provide for the reduction of his size at the jangling of bells? For since he was by nature invisible, he would not be seen unless he wished to be. (7) But even though he was seen, he would not have appeared of necessity because his nature required him to appear; he must have appeared as a favor—not manifesting his appearance inadvertently, fearfully and with unease if there was no sound of bells. And thus their false, spurious statement has failed from every standpoint.

12,8 And there are many other foolish things that they say. < For they say Zacharias was killed—and they are right >—although Zacharias was surely not killed immediately. Indeed he was still alive after John’s birth, and prophesied the Lord’s advent, and his birth in the flesh of the holy Virgin Mary, through the Holy Spirit. (9) As he says, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways. . . . To turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the disobedient to wisdom,” and so on. And how much else is there to say about their lying and their pollution?

13,1 The ones they call “Levites” do not have to do with women, but with each other. And these are their supposedly distinguished and praiseworthy persons! And then they make fun of those who practice asceticism, chastity and celibacy, as having taken the trouble for nothing.

13,2 They cite a fictitious Gospel in the name of the holy disciple, Philip, as follows. “The Lord hath shown me what my soul must say on its ascent to heaven, and how it must answer each of the powers on high. ‘I have recognized myself,’ it saith, ‘and gathered myself from every quarter, and have sown no children for the archon. But I have pulled up his roots, and gathered my scattered members, and I know who thou art. For I,’ it saith, ‘am of the ones on high.’ ” And so, they say, it is set free. (3) But if it turns out to have fathered a son, it is detained below until it can take its own children up and restore them to itself.

13,4 And their silly fictions are of such a character that they even dare to blaspheme the holy Elijah, and say that when he was taken up he was cast back down into the world. (5) For they say that one she-demon came and caught hold of him and said to him, “Whither goest thou? For I have children of thee, and thou canst not ascend and leave thy children here.” And he replied, they say, “Whence hast thou children of me, seeing I lived in purity?” And she answered, “Yea, for when oft, in dreaming dreams, thou wert voided of bodies in thine emission, it was I that received the seeds of thee and bare thee sons.”

13,6 How silly the people are who say this sort of thing! How can a demon, an invisible spirit with no body, receive anything < from > bodies? But if she does receive something from bodies and become pregnant, she cannot be a spirit, but must be a body. And being a body, how can she be invisible and a spirit?

13,7 And their drivel is simply outrageous. They like to cite the text which tells against them, if you please, the one from Epistle of Jude, in their own favor instead—where he says, “And they that dream defile the flesh, despise dominion and speak evil of dignities.” But the blessed Jude, the Lord’s brother, did not say this of bodily dreamers. He goes right on to show that he means dreamers < in mind >, who utter their words as though they were dreaming and not in the waking state of the alertness of their reasoning powers. (8) (Even of the teachers at Jerusalem in fact, Isaiah says, “They are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark, dreaming on their couches,” and so on.) And here in the Epistle of Jude, Jude shows (that this is what he means) by saying, “speaking of that they know not.” And he proved that he did not mean dreaming while asleep, but was saying of their fictitious bombast and nonsense that it was spoken in their sleep, not with a sound mind.

14,1 It is truly a misfortune for me to tell all this; only God can close this stinking pit. And I shall go on from here, praying the all-sovereign God that no one has been trapped in the mud, and that his mind has not absorbed any of the reeking filth. (2) For in the first place the apostle Paul grubs up the entire root of their wickedness with his injunction about younger widows: “Younger widows refuse, for after they have waxed wanton against Christ they will marry; having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith . . . But let them marry, bear children, guide the house.” (3) But if the apostle says to bear children, but they decline procreation, it is the enterprise of a serpent and of false doctrine. Because they are mastered by the pleasure of fornication they invent excuses for their uncleanness, so that their licentiousness may appear to fulfill (Paul’s commandment).

14,4 Really these things should neither be said nor considered worth mentioning in treatises, but buried like a foul corpse exuding a pestilent vapor, to protect people from injury even through their sense of hearing.  (5) And if a sect of this kind had passed away and no longer existed, it would be better to bury it and say nothing about it at all. But since it does exist and has practitioners, and I have been urged by your Honors to speak of all the sects, I have been forced to describe parts of it, in order, in all frankness, not to pass them over but describe them, for the protection of the hearers—but for the banishment of the practitioners. (6) For where can I not find proof of their murders and monstrous deeds, and of the devil’s rites which have been given the nuts by the inspiration of that same devil?

15,1 They are proved wrong at once in what they imagine and allege about the tree in the First Psalm of which it is said that it will “bring forth his fruit in due season, and his leaf shall not fall.” For before that it says, “His delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in his Law will he exercise himself day and night.” But these people deny the Law and the prophets. (2) And if they deny the Lord’s Law, together with the Law they are also slandering the One who spoke in the Law. They are wrong as to the meaning of the truth and have lost it, and they neither believe in judgment nor acknowledge resurrection.

15,3 They reap the fruit of the things they do in the body to glut themselves with pleasure through being driven insane by the devil’s pleasures and lusts. Of this they are altogether and everywhere convicted by the speech of the truth. (4) John says, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine.’’ Which doctrine? “If any confess not that Christ is come in the flesh, this is an antichrist. Even now there are many antichrists”—meaning that those who do not acknowledge that Christ has come in the flesh are antichrists.

15,5 Moreover the Savior himself says, “They which shall be accounted worthy of the kingdom of heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are equal unto the angels.”83 (6) And not only that, but to show (his) manifest chastity and the holiness which is achieved through the solitary life, he tells Mary, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father”—proving that chastity has no congress with bodies and no sexual relations.

15,7 Furthermore in another passage the Holy Spirit says prophetically, both for the ancients and for < the > generations to come, “Blessed is the barren that is undefiled, which hath not known the bed sinfully; and the eunuch which with his hand hath wrought no iniquity”—ruling out the indecencies with the hands which are sanctioned by their myth.

16,1 And how much else there is to say! In one passage the apostle says, “He that is unmarried, and the virgin, careth for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord”—and he says this to show (his) true chastity, at the Holy Spirit’s solemn bidding. But he then says of the lawfully married, “Marriage is honorable, and the bed undefiled; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” (2) Furthermore he cries out against them in his letter to the Romans, and exposes the obscenities of those who commit the misdeeds by saying, “For even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature”—and of the males, “men with men working that which is unseemly.” (3) Moreover in the Epistle to Timothy he says of them, “In the last days perilous times shall come, for men shall be lovers of pleasure”; and again, “forbidding to marry, having their consciences seared with an hot iron.” (4) For they forbid chaste wedlock and procreation, but are seared in their consciences since they have sex and pollute themselves, and yet hinder procreation.

16,5 Indeed it is already shown by the prophet, even from the first, that the very thing they call a sacrifi ce, filthy thing that it is, is snake’s flesh and not, heaven forbid, the Lord’s—for he says, “Thou brakest the head of the dragon, and gavest him to be meat for the peoples of Ethiopia.” (6) For their loathsome worship is truly snake’s food, and those who celebrate this rite of Zeus—a daemon now but once a sorcerer, (7) whom some people futilely take for a god—are Ethiopians made black by sin.

For all the sects have gathered imposture for themselves from the Greek mythology, and altered it by making it mean something else which is worse. (8) The poets introduce Zeus as having swallowed Wisdom, his own daughter. But no one could swallow a baby—and to poke fun at the disgusting activities of the Greek gods St. Clement said that Zeus could not have swallowed the baby if he swallowed Wisdom, but < the myth of Zeus appears > to mean its own child.

17,1 But what else should I say? Or how shall I shake off this filthy burden since I am both willing and unwilling to speak—compelled to, lest I appear to be concealing any of the facts, and yet afraid that by revealing their horrid activities I may soil or wound those who are given to pleasures and lusts, or incite them to take too much interest in this? (2) In any case may I, and all the < body > of the holy catholic church, and all the readers of this book, remain unharmed by such a suggestion of the devil and his mischief ! (3) For if I were to start < in > again on the other things they say and do—which are like these and as numerous, and still more grave and < worse >—and if, for a curative drug, I should also wish to match a remedy, like an antidote, with each thing they say, I would make a heavy task of composing this treatise.

17,4 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. With impudent boldness moreover, they even tried to seduce me themselves—like that murderous, villainous Egyptian wife of the chief cook—because they wanted me in my youth.

(5) But he who stood by the holy Joseph then, stood by me as well. And when, in my unworthiness and inadequacy, I had called on the One who rescued Joseph then, and was shown mercy and escaped their murderous hands, I too could sing a hymn to God the all-holy and say, “Let us sing to the Lord for he is gloriously magnified; horse and rider hath he thrown into the sea.”

17,6 For it was not by a power like that of Joseph’s righteousness but by my groaning to God, that I was pitied and rescued. For when I was reproached by the baneful women themselves, I laughed at the way persons of their kind were whispering to each other, jokingly if you please, “We can’t save the kid; we’ve left him in the hands of the archon to perish!” (7) (For whichever is prettier flaunts herself as bait, so that they claim to “save”—instead of destroying—the victims of their deceit through her. And then the plain one gets blamed by the more attractive ones, and they say, “I’m an elect vessel and can save the suckers but you couldn’t!”)

17,8 Now the women who taught this dirty myth were very lovely in their outward appearance but in their wicked minds they had all the devil’s ugliness. But the merciful God rescued me from their wickedness, so that after reading their books, understanding their real intent and not being carried away with it, and after escaping without taking the bait, (9) I lost no time reporting them to the bishops who were there, and finding out which ones were hidden in the church. < Thus > they were expelled from the city, about 80 persons, and the city was cleared of their tare-like, thorny growth.

18,1 Perhaps someone, if he remembers my promise I made earlier, may even commend me. 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, in all frankness, I have not avoided the subject, but have shown what this one of the sects which came my way is like. (2) 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. They lost their hope of my destruction instead, and did not attain the goal of the plot that they and the devil in them were attempting against my poor soul (3) so that, with the most holy David, I may say that “Their blows were weapons of babes,” and so on, and, “Their travail shall return upon their own head, and their wickedness shall fall upon their own pate.”

18,4 As I encountered and escaped them, read, understood and despised, and passed them by, so, reader, I urge you in your turn to read, despise < their pernicious doctrine > and pass by, so that you will not fall into the depravity of these wicked serpents. (5) But if you should ever happen on any of this school of snake-like persons, may you pick the wood the Lord has made ready for us right up, the wood on which our Lord Christ was nailed. < And > may you hurl it at the serpent’s head at once, and say, “Christ has been crucified for us, leaving us an example’ of salvation. (6) For he would not have been crucified if he had not had flesh. But since he had flesh and was crucified, he has crucified our sins. I am held fast by faith in the truth, not carried off by the serpent’s false imposture and the seductive whisper of his teaching.”

19,1 Now, beloved, having passed this sect by I am going to tread the other rough tracks next—not to walk on them but to teach, from a safe distance, such as are willing to recognize the roughest spots and flee by the narrow, arduous path that leads to eternal life, and leave the road which is broad and roomy, and yet thorny, full of stumbling-blocks, miry, and choked with licentiousness and fornication. (2) The like of this fornication and licentiousness may be seen in the extremely dreadful snake the ancients called the pangless viper.”

19,3 For the nature of such a viper is similar to the wickedness of these people. In performing their filthy act either with men or with women they forbear insemination, rendering impossible the procreation God has given his creatures—as the apostle says, “receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was meet,” and so on. (4) So, we are told, when the pangless viper grew amorous, female for male and male for female, they would twine together, and the male would thrust his head into the female’s gaping jaws. And she, in the throes of passion, would bite off the male’s head and so swallow the poison that dripped from its mouth, and conceive a pair of snakes of the same kind within her, a male and a female. (5) When this pair had come to maturity in her belly and had no way of being born, they would tear their mother’s side and be born like that, so that both their father and their mother perished. This is why they called it the pangless viper; it has no experience of the pangs of birth. (6) It is more dreadful and fearsome than all the snakes, since it carries out its own extermination within itself and receives its dirt by mouth; and this crack-brained sect is like it. And now that we have beaten its head, body and offspring here with the wood of life, let us go on to examine the others calling, as our help, on God, to whom be honor and might forever and ever. Amen.

  1. [1]Epiphanius of Salamis, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis,(2nd ed), Brill, 2009, vol. 1, 90-109.

9 thoughts on “Epiphanius on the Borborites or Phibionites

  1. You know, I always thought that Epiphanius was not a terribly attractive personality. But if he was as young as the Greco-Romans usually liked ’em, he was probably a a pretty young minor by our standards when he ran into the local creepy sex cult.

    That would tend to take away a lot of one’s sense of humor about heterodoxy, and would tend to make you suspicious of all sorts of things.

    It also sounds like he was smart/brave enough to do what a lot of people aren’t — get the heck out, name names, report the whole thing to the authorities, and testify. (So I hope you’re not going to tell me that Ehrman says that Epiphanius was wrong to do what we tell our kids to do, if they run into creepy people who want to groom them and take advantage of them.)

  2. I would imagine so. Particularly when we note that at keast some of the cultists were infiltrating the local church, which meant people could associate with them without realising their end goals. It sounds to me as if Epiphanius rather liked the girl and hung out with them a lot until he realised where it was all going. The fact that wives were in common probably was the killer, if he wanted to marry her.

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