Ehrman on Epiphanius and the Borborites – some notes

We have now gone through all the ancient evidence concerning the gnostic cult known as the Borborites (here).  This includes the long chapter (26) in the Panarion of Epiphanius in which he recounts their practices, says something about their mythology, and tells us of his own personal encounter with the group.

The time has now come to review what Bart Ehrman has to say about it, in his recent book Forgery and counterforgery.  After all, the comments about Epiphanius, in the review copy sent to me, are the reason why we looked into this in the first place![1]  Now that I know what the data is, I can discuss his ideas about it.

Ehrman’s argument can be summarised very briefly as follows.  He argues that the account of the Borborites given by Epiphanius is factually wrong.  He then highlights that Epiphanius claims personal knowledge of the cult, and uses this to “show” that Epiphanius must be lying.  Once he has convicted Epiphanius of lying, he then dismisses the quotations from gnostic texts in Epiphanius as being forgeries.  On this basis, he calls Epiphanius a forger.  He then takes this forward into the rest of the book as evidence of early Christian dishonesty.

Of course an argument stated so baldly may misrepresent the author.  I don’t believe that I have done so, however.  E.’s treatment of the subject is itself brief, and a good proportion of it is given  over to summarising what Epiphanius says.   It would have been better, tho, if E. had given the text and translation of chapter 26 in his book, perhaps as an appendix, so that the reader could decide for himself whether Epiphanius was saying what E. suggests.  But E.’s summary of the chapter is fair enough.

All the same, regardless of the subject, an argument of that form raises doubts in my mind.  This kind of argument is the sort made by a prosecutor, not a scholar.

A couple of other red flags spring out. It is fairly obvious that a man may be wrong, without being dishonest.  Further, a dishonest man who is writing a polemic against a hated foe will not necessarily compose fake quotations.  My own experience of such a process, examining just such a book eleven years ago, revealed a host of errors, but all of them consisted of repeating uncritically from others, or else taking out of context.  Surely it is obvious that the polemicist would prefer to use true quotations?

On the face of it, then, the argument has difficulties.  But we are not here to chop logic.  If E. has not made his argument very well, that is not our concern.  The question remains; is it true that Epiphanius  lied about the Borborites and forged supposed quotes from their books?  This we need to investigate.

I have already examined Epiphanius’ account here, and I came to no such conclusion.  So what does E. know, that did not strike me when examining the data?

We need to review what E. says for his argument.

E. discusses Panarion 26 on p.19-24.  He claims that Epiphanius composed the quotations from gnostic texts which appear within chapter 26.  He gives the quotation of the Greater Questions of Mary, given by Epiphanius, and asks whether such a text actually existed.  On p.21 he enters what he considers is the main question: how reliable is Epiphanius as a source?

Here a red flag comes up.  The question is a perfectly reasonable one to ask about any ancient source.  But there are pitfalls in this, and indeed E. falls squarely into one.

Scholars in the 19th century became notorious in the 20th century for le hyperscepticisme, for debunking material selectively where a piece of data was inconvenient to the theory being advanced.  The conclusions reached often have been overturned since.  Texts dismissed as forgeries have been found in the sands of Egypt.  We must never confuse data with deduction, nor must we selectively ignore unwelcome portions of texts that we use without question elsewhere.  For E. to question the reliability of Epiphanius is entirely in order; so long as his argument does not then use Epiphanius as a source himself, or treat material by him as reliable when convenient.

Anyway, E. introduces the question by an appeal to authority:

The prior question is whether Epiphanius’ description of the activities of the group is at all plausible. Historians have long treated Epiphanius in general with a healthy dose of skepticism.[26]

And then responds to historians who do not think so with:

[These arguments] may just as well show that he has invented a set of scandalous rituals imagined as appropriate to the nefarious theology of the group. How would we know?

It is a reasonable, if somewhat morose question.  Similar questions can be asked about every ancient text on every subject whatever, of course.  But the question is not answered.

Instead, as if answering it, E. moves on to query the reliability of the account:

One obvious place to start is with Epiphanius’ sources of information. Because he had some contact with the group as a young man–was nearly seduced into it–it is sometimes claimed that he had special access to their liturgical practices. But this is scarcely plausible. Epiphanius indicates that he spurned the advances of the two attractive Phibionite women before being drawn into their orb. This must mean that he was never present for any of the ritual activities. And it defies belief that missionaries would inform outsiders about the scandalous and reprehensible activities of the group before they were admitted into the inner circle. Potential converts were not likely to be won over by accounts of ritualistic consumption of fetuses.

These are reasonable questions by themselves, although Epiphanius tells us that he spent rather more time with the cult and with their books than the reader may realise from E.’s comment.  But it is certainly true that Epiphanius did not take part in the rituals he describes.  The inference that this means that he had no certain knowledge is problematical; we don’t know this.  The appeal to what we today find credible, however, seems unsatisfactory; what we want, surely, is data.  In its absence, we must refuse to reach conclusions.

Fortunately we do have some evidence on this.   The Nag Hammadi texts confirm some of the “liturgical practices” recorded by Epiphanius, as we have seen.   But E. does not reference this, although he does reference Benko’s article which quotes it.  This is a slip-up.

So far, then, we have very little.  E. has said that Epiphanius’ account “defies belief”, and points out that Epiphanius’ status as eyewitness extends only to talking to cultists and reading their books.  The former point we must reject; the latter seems reasonable enough.  None of this proves Epiphanius a liar and forger, however.  But E. is not done yet.

Next, E. suggests that, because other Christian writers have recorded libertine gnostic cults, that it must be a piece of common rhetoric rather than anything factual.  The point of this is to infer that Epiphanius must have done the same.

There are several problems here.

Firstly, it is always unwise to rush into explaining why people are wrong before we have established that they are indeed mistaken.  E. does not offer evidence that all of these writers are mistaken.  Until he does, their testimony is data in the historical record.  To offer an explanation of why they were all so silly as to say it – that they were conforming to a stereotype – and then class Epiphanius with them, seems like placing the cart before the horse.

Secondly, it seems odd for E. to suggest that there are no such things as groups of religious libertines.  We all know different.  Some of the 60’s cults were libertine; the Children of God and the followers of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh come instantly to mind, and one recalls such a group being mentioned by John Wesley.  A long list of antinomians could probably be provided.  No doubt a list of false accusations could also be supplied.  Whether a given group is of this kind must be resolved by investigation.

However E. does indeed have a reason to suppose that the Fathers are mistaken about the gnostics; he merely hasn’t given it yet.  After a page of not-very-useful commentary, his reasoning appears on p.24, and it is worth quoting in full:

The proto-orthodox heresiologists uniformly assumed that since various Gnostic groups demeaned the material world and bodily existence within it, they had no difficulty in demeaning the body. Moreover, since for Gnostics the body was irrelevant for ultimate salvation, reasoned the heresiologists, then the body could be used and abused at will. And so, for their opponents, the Gnostics engaged in all sorts of reprehensible bodily activities, precisely to demonstrate their antimaterialist theology.

This heresiological commonplace has been effectively refuted in modern times. The one thing the Nag Hammadi library has shown about Gnostic ethics is that the heresiologists from Irenaeus (and no doubt before) to Epiphanius (and certainly after) got the matter precisely wrong. Many Gnostic groups did devalue the body. But that did not lead them to flagrant acts of immorality. On the contrary, since the body was the enemy and was to be escaped, the body was to be treated harshly. One was not to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh precisely because the goal was to escape the trappings of the flesh. The Nag Hammadi treatises embody a decidedly ascetic ideal, just the opposite of what one would expect from reading the polemics of the proto-orthodox and orthodox heresiologists.

The argument may be summarised as follows.  (A) the Nag Hammadi library is representative of all gnosticism (b) any opinion not included in it was never held by any gnostic (c) the Nag Hammadi library reflects ascetic ideas and (d) that proves that all the early Christian writers who describe libertine gnostic practices are wrong and lying.

Now arguments that absence of evidence is evidence of absence are notoriously weak.  But in the first place, we must ask whether there is any reason why we should suppose that the contents of the Nag Hammadi library are anything but a selection, one assembled by a person or persons unknown for purposes unknown, some time in the 4th century AD?  It is not clear why the collection ‘must’ be designed to reflect the entire width of gnosticism, useful as such a selection would be for modern students of gnosticism.

For if it is not, then E.’s argument collapses immediately.  Unless we know for sure that it is indeed representative of all cults from the second century to the fourth, again E.’s argument collapses.  Unfortunately the book simply skates over these problems.  But we cannot.  Can we find anything to make this argument work?

What do we know about the collection?  The origin of the jar containing the books found at Nag Hammadi is not known.  But we do know that Pachomian monasteries in Egypt in the 4-5th c. had some wild stuff on their shelves.  And there was a Pachomian monastery, not far from the find site.  We know because letters from Shenoute and others exist, condemning the practise or even recording episcopal calls for purges of libraries (the references do not come to hand).

But if the books did indeed come from a Pachomian monastery – although we do not know this -, then it would hardly be surprising to find that such a collection was rather ascetic in outlook.  This origin is an alternative to E.’s proposal, and is better, in that, while still speculative, it is based on some actual evidence from the period.

We have already seen that the Nag Hammadi documents, far from  being silent on the Borborites, do indeed mention them.

In short, E.’s argument that no such gnostic groups exist fails.  The gnostics say that they did, the Christians say that they did, and our own experience of New Age groups tell us that people do such things.

But let us return to E.’s argument.  He believes that E.’s description of the Borborites is fiction.  Because Epiphanius states it, that makes Epiphanius a liar, since he claims to know personally.  And, somehow, this makes him a forger too.  But we have yet to see anything very solid in this direction.

But by this point he is almost done! For we are now at the foot of p.23.  And in fact he has nothing more to offer: only his conclusion, which we may give here:

Epiphanius almost certainly fabricated the accounts of these activities: he had never seen them, no one from within the group would have told him about them, they could not have been described in their other literature, and they stand at odds with what we do know of the ethical impulses of all other Gnostic groups from antiquity. On these grounds I would propose that Epiphanius made up the account of the Greater Questions of Mary. The Phibionites may have had a long-lived reputation for scurrilous activities – thus Gero – but if they were like every other Gnostic group for which we have firsthand knowledge – and why would they not be? – then their antimaterialist theology did not lead to socially scandalous and illegal promiscuity, but to ascetic dismissal of the passions of the flesh. The conclusion seems inevitable: Epiphanius got the matter precisely wrong and then fabricated his accounts, and at least one document, in order to make his point.

And that’s it.  That’s the end of E.’s discussion of Epiphanius.  He doesn’t even attempt to explain why Epiphanius’ statements make him a forger, but just “propose”s it.

It is all very well to assert that Epiphanius was wrong about the Borborites – a  group of people whom even E. accepts he knew personally – and then that that he fabricated the texts he quotes.   But the value of such claims is very low indeed.

We have already looked at Epiphanius’ chapter, and evaluated what we might make of it.  To some extent it is impossible for us to be sure what to t hink.  We are in no sense obliged to believe that every word in it is accurate, nor witnessed personally by Epiphanius.  I think it is a great mistake to strain the words of a man of that generation for evidence that he is, or is not, attesting personally every line of a text writing down the memories of 30 years earlier.   But that he wrote honestly seems beyond doubt.  He records a peculiar and disgusting libertine group, of a kind known elsewhere in history, and whose pecularity is attested in gnostic texts also.

One final point.  I have drawn attention above to the dangers of using texts selectively.  There is a nemesis that awaits those who do so.

There is another chapter in Epiphanius, where he quotes extensively from the books of a cult whom he knew slightly himself: the Ebionites.  The material is very valuable.  Rightly it is used without question in a book discussing them, by Bart Ehrman himself, who adds of the quotations, “we should like to have more.”[2]  Indeed we should.  But a writer can hardly be abused as a fraud and liar in one book, only to be used as a reliable source in another.

This is the peril that any of us can fall into, once we start on the dangerous road of finding excuses to ignore, in an ancient writer, what is inconvenient for our own theories.  In the end this perhaps explains E.’s treatment of Epiphanius: E. had a book to write, and used Epiphanius too hastily and without sufficient consideration of the facts.

NOTE: I have revised this post after rereading it.  It is quite hard to review a thesis that one disagrees with profoundly without ranting, and I felt that the style could usefully be changed accordingly.

  1. [1]My thanks once more to Oxford University Press for a review copy.
  2. [2]Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.102.

6 thoughts on “Ehrman on Epiphanius and the Borborites – some notes

  1. But 60s cults weren’t developed from a historical founder who argued that it is better to cut off your jolly roger than miss out on salvation. The earlier we go back in time the more pronounced the ascetic tendencies especially in Egypt. This is the problem with your analysis. You have personally stated your averse to extreme ascetic practices. Nevertheless if we imagine that the original reports about “the filthy” came out of that milieu it is not hard to imagine that any fellow sectarian group that tolerate sexual relations as such (the Valentinians perhaps) were condemned with this sort of exaggerated fornication accusation.

    We know Epiphanius is the worst sort of witness. Plooij has a funny line when dealing with Epiphanius’s claims about the Diatessaron. I should dig it up. The problem is that he not only misrepresents his sources time and again but can’t seem to distinguish gossip and slander from factual reporting. In fact he seems to revel in building factual sounding reporting from the most slanderous tidbits of extraneous statements in serious reporting from previous ages.

    The difficulty with your hypothesis is that we know that scurrilous accusations against Christians existed in this same period. It would be unfair to accept the charge that gnostics did these abominable things but reject the charges known from Tertullian which circulated among the pagans.

    One has to be consistent across the board. To follow your logic one should be allowed to accept that Jews at one time used the blood of children to make their sacramental foods. It is better to consistently take outlandish statements in questionable sources like Epiphanius with either a pinch or indeed a lot of salt especially when dealing with groups or individuals he didn’t like

  2. It would seem that Mr. Ehrman is fairly sheltered, when it comes to knowing stuff about esoteric and occult groups from personal experience, or from first-hand accounts of friends and acquaintances in such groups, or from standard texts of such groups.

    The point is that members of an occult or esoteric group can be fairly little-known by the public, preserve a low profile or even be sworn not to reveal group secrets, yet also be constantly talking their heads off about their religion, magic, and/or occult knowledge.

    I’ve never been a neo-pagan of any stripe nor wished to be. But simply by virtue of being an sf/f fan who reads broadly in the genre, and by having a taste for general nonfiction reading, I knew a fair amount about various stripes of neo-paganism before I ever met my first self-described witch.

    If you hang out with people who are interested in religion and mysticism, or even just weird stuff, you will quickly run into people interested in the occult who will try to get you interested. And you will hear a great deal of gossip and description of various parties, religious events, and occult events which they will wish you to be impressed and interested by.

    I thought Ehrman lives in freaking Chapel Hill. That place is a freaking hotbed of weird stuff. I’m happy that God has preserved him from running into the occult guys, but how the heck does he manage it in Religious Studies?

  3. Anyway, my point is that Epiphanius’ account struck me as having the ring of truth, and the description of the women’s joking hits the tone of occult religionists attempting to impress one. It’s not an account that has the dry feel of a scholar; it has the sound of panicked remembrance of a very bad time in his own life. The repetition of certain phrases and ideas has that quality of fear and near-despair that you hear in people recounting their personal experience of nightmarish true events.

    Had Epiphanius made it up, there would be a much more rounded story, all told in order, about how he was so very noble and brave and bold, and the cultists were all so vile and wicked, hiss boo! This sounds more like he’s trying not to lose his mind or his lunch.

  4. It’s very easy to read the account in the light of our own experience. Our experience today may be rather broader than some of Epiphanius’ Victorian critics – I was unable to locate again a striking criticism by one of these, who talked loftily of Epiphanius experiencing a “moral shock” at it all, seemingly oblivious of the vice to be seen at every street corner of the ancient world.

  5. Sorry: hit submit too soon.

    But the problem is how to remove ourselves from the equation, and to find some objective way to evaluate it all. This is difficult, but essential unless we wish to merely express our opinions.

    Fortunately on a blog we are allowed to say “I don’t know” when faced with some account of events.

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