When saints disagree: the angry parting of St Epiphanius and St John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom started his career as a popular preacher in Antioch in the late fourth century.  Then he was translated to Constantinople, to take up the role of Patriarch.  This was a highly political role, and whoever held it was the target of intrigue and machinations.  So it was with Chrysostom; and eventually his many enemies got him deposed and exiled, and he died while in exile.

This was not the end of his story.  Once his most bitter foes had passed from the scene, it was decided that Chrysostom was actually the victim here, and he was rehabilitated.  He went on to become the most important of the Greek fathers.  His works are preserved in an enormous number of handwritten copies.

The seedy methods of the intriguers are what they always are, except for one unusual point.  Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, was Chrysostom’s enemy, as every Patriarch of Alexandria was a rival with every Patriarch of Constantinople.  He arranged for a “Synod of the Oak” at which Chrysostom was to be put on trial.  Further, he invited the famous Epiphanius of Salamis to attend.

Epiphanius was by this time an old man.  He is best known today from his catalogue of heresies, the Panarion.  This is invaluable as a guide to these groups, which are often today rather obscure.  But the impression given to many readers is of a rather coarse, not too-intelligent man, prone to hasty judgements.  Epiphanius had already got involved in the origenist disputes, which were then just getting underway.  That these were really a pretext for political infighting rather than any genuine doctrinal issue seems to have completely escaped him, as it did many.

So Theophilus got Epiphanius, the heresy hunter, to come to his synod at which he proposed to frame Chrysostom.  Epiphanius came to Constantinople spoiling for a fight.  Chrysostom, wisely, refused to be provoked.  The exact chronology of events is unclear, but it seems that Epiphanius did not in the end attend the synod.  Instead he left Constantinople by ship, intending to return to Cyprus.  We might speculate that the old man had finally realised that he was merely a pawn in someone else’s quarrel, and chose to leave rather than get further involved.

Both Sozomen (H.E. 8, 15:1-7) and Socrates (HE 6, 14:1-4) record that a story circulated about the two saints.  Here’s Socrates, in the old NPNF translation here:

Some say that when he was about to depart, he said to John, `I hope that you will not die a bishop’: to which John replied, `Expect not to arrive at your own country.’ I cannot be sure that those who reported these things to me spoke the truth; but nevertheless the event was in the case of both as prophesied above. For Epiphanius did not reach Cyprus, having died on board the ship during his voyage; and John a short time afterwards was driven from his see, as we shall show in proceeding.

And here is Sozomen:

I have been informed by several persons that John predicted that Epiphanius would die at sea, and that this latter predicted the deposition of John. For it appears that when the dispute between them was at its height, Epiphanius said to John, “I hope you will not die a bishop,” and that John replied, “I hope you will never return to your bishopric.”

Both spoke truly.  Epiphanius died at sea, and never saw Cyprus again, while Chrysostom died in exile.

Both writers express some doubts about the story.  Subsequent hagiographers play down the dispute, as Young Richard Kim has recently discussed in a fascinating article, “An Iconic Odd Couple: The Hagiographic Rehabilitation of Epiphanius and John Chrysostom”, Church History 87 (2018), 981-1002.[1]

All the same, it is an amusing picture.

  1. [1]doi:10.1017/S0009640718002354

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