Summing up the ancient accounts of the Borborites-Phibionites

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:

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.).[1]

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).[2]  (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.[3]  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.

  1. [1]Most of us are not familiar with Mandaean literature.  The “Right Ginza” is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, which links to Lidzbarki’s German translation here.
  2. [2]All these references I take from R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony, Brill, 1971, p.69-70.  Preview here.
  3. [3]The newspaper report may be found here.

6 thoughts on “Summing up the ancient accounts of the Borborites-Phibionites

  1. What a well-timed post, Roger! I had just come across the Borborites in the ‘Chronicle’ of Michael the Syrian, and was wondering who on earth they were. I think I would prefer to consult your post than anything Wikipedia might have to say on the subject.

    I don’t suppose you would happen to know anything about the heresies of ‘the Kanteans and the filthy Dositheites’ as well? According to Michael the Syrian (ii. 148), they broke out in Persia in the fifth century. I thought I was fairly widely read on the Church of the East, but these people have not so far crossed my radar.

    There is nothing like contemplating an obscure and esoteric Christian heresy to set one up for the day.

  2. Dositheites are some kind of Samaritan sect founded by a Samaritan guy named Dositheos, and his followers believed that D never died. They’re in with the Mandaeans somehow.

  3. I’ll tell you what Michael says about the Borborites when I have translated Chabot’s text … 🙂

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