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.

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.

The Borborites-Phibionites in the “books of Jeu”

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.[1]

These works were probably composed in the first half of the third century AD.[2]

In the Second book of Jeu, chapter 43,[3] 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?

  1. [1]V. Macdermot, p.xi-xii.
  2. [2]Stephen Benko, “The libertine gnostic sect of the  Phibionites according to Epiphanius”, Vigiliae Christianae 21 (1967), 113.
  3. [3]V. Macdermot, “The books of Jeu and the untitled text in the Bruce codex”, Nag Hammadi Studies XIII (1978), p.100.

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.

    *    *    *    *

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.

Ephraim the Syrian on the Borborites / Phibionites

A rather baffling reference to “Ephraem the Syrian, Contra Haereses 79″[1] turns out to be a reference to Hymns against Heresies 22, 4, which, by happy chance, was translated for us a while back here.  Here’s the relevant section:


The Arians, because they added and erred;
The Aetians, because they were subtle;
The Paulinians, because they acted perversely;
The Sabellians, because they acted with guile;
The Photinians, because they were cunning;
The Borborians, because they were defiled;
The Katharaites, because they kept themselves pure;
The Audians, because they were ensnared;
The Mesallians, because they were unrestrained.

Response: May the good one turn them to his fold!

(This stanza has no main verb: it seems to be a list of why these groups are considered heretics.)

This does not tell us much.  But it would seem that this was written before Epiphanius wrote the Panarion, as Ephraim died on 9th July 373 AD,[2] and the Panarion was written as a continuation of the Ancoratus (374 AD), and was in progress in 375 and completed in 377.[3]  If so, it must be independent of it.

The same source also refers to “Pseudo-Ephraim, Testament 58″.  I have not been able to discover what this text is, unfortunately.

  1. [1]Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of early Christianity, 2nd ed.
  2. [2]S. Brock, A brief outline of Syriac literature, Moran Etho 9, Kottayam:SEERI, 1997,  p.22.  One wonders how so precise a date is known.
  3. [3]Panarion 1, 2; Panarion 66, 20; Quasten, Patrology III, 386 and 388.  I do not know how the Anchoratus is dated, however.

Filaster on the Borborians / Phibionites

A further witness to the Borborians or Phibionites mentioned by Epiphanius is to be found in the catalogue of heresies by Filaster or Philaster in his Diversarum haereseon liber (PG12, col. 1186):

LXXIII. Borboriani.

Alia est haeresis Borborianorum, qui vitiis implicati saeculi, et malis concupiscentiis servientes, non sperant judicium futurum, sed potius carnalem saeculi concupiscentiam laudant.  Hi itaque in coenum euntes, et inde obliti de coeno facies et membra sua deformantes, eadem re cunctis velut culpandam Dei creaturam demonstrantes: cum illa vorago culparum, et vitiorum perniciosa damnatio ex hominum voluntate, non Legis divinae permissione descenderit.

73.  The Borborians.

Otherwise is the heresy of the Borborians, who, entangled in the vices of the times, and enslaved to evil lusts, do not look forward to a future judgement, but rather approve the bodily lust of today.  And so these, entering into filthiness, and so [their] appearance forgetful of filth and defiling their limbs, [do] everything in the same way, as if showing off a creature that must be condemned by God: since such an abyss of crimes against chastity, and the certain damnation of vices voluntarily carried out by humans, will not be lessened by the sanction of the divine law.[1]

Filaster[2] was bishop of Brescia in 381 AD.  A google search suggests that his work is at least partially dependent on Epiphanius; indeed Augustine compared the two works in Ep.222, and didn’t think much of Philaster’s version

Even if we did not know this theory – I was unable to learn what data requires this conclusion -, I would tend to feel that this is not an independent witness.  Nothing about this passage suggests personal knowledge of the cult, to my eyes, but rather the abbreviation of some other written source.

  1. [1]Translation by myself.  P.625 in the PDF of the Migne volume.
  2. [2]J. Quasten, Patrology133.

A further reference to the Borborites-Phibionites in the Codex Askewianus

A 4-5th c. Coptic manuscript now in the British Library (Ms. BL. Addit. 5114), acquired under unknown circumstances by a Dr Askew, contains a gnostic text which bears the title of the Pistis Sophia.  Another copy was found in a 5th century codex unearthed at Akhmim in 1896 also containing three other texts (now P.Berol. 8502).  The text of the Pistis Sophia was translated from the first copy by G.R.S Mead in the late 19th century.

In the Pistis Sophia, chapter 147, on p.381, l.6-20 of Schwartz’s edition (Copenhagen, 1925)[1] appears a condemnation of a Borborite practice recorded by Epiphanius.  It appears in a list of sins and penances to be endured in the afterlife.  Here is Mead’s translation.

Thomas said: “We have heard that there are some on the earth who take the male seed and the female monthly blood, and make it into a lentil porridge and eat it, |387. saying: ‘We have faith in Esau and Jacob.’ Is this then seemly or not?”

Jesus was wroth with the world in that hour [p. 322][ and said unto Thomas: “Amēn, I say: This sin is more heinous than all sins and iniquities. Such men will straightway be taken into the outer darkness and not be cast back anew into the sphere, but they shall perish, be destroyed in the outer darkness in a region where there is neither pity nor light, but howling and grinding of teeth. And all the souls which shall be brought into the outer darkness, will not be cast back anew, but will be destroyed and dissolved.”

Or as Tardieu puts it:

For the sacrilegious gnostic … there is neither instruction nor judgement; he is sent directly into the exterior darkness to be destroyed.

The ascetic gnostic does not care much for the libertine gnostic, it seems.

UPDATE (6/12/13): I have corrected some misunderstandings about the contents of the manuscript and added more detail, and a note about the Berlin copy.

  1. [1]I have been unable to access this.  My knowledge of it comes from Tardieu Michel. Conférence de M. Michel Tardieu. In: École pratique des hautes études, Section des sciences religieuses. Annuaire. Tome 87, 1978-1979. 1978. pp. 311-316.  Here.

Theodoret on the Borborites / Phibionites

Epiphanius of Salamis devotes a section of his Panarion to the Borborites or Phibionites, a bunch of libertine gnostics of a pretty disgusting kind.  But few will know that Theodoret also mentions this group, in his Compendium haereticarum fabularum book 1, chapter 13.  The English translation of this is itself little known.[1] Let’s hear what Theodoret has to say.

Chapter 13: Concerning the Barbelioti,[50] that is to say the Borboriani.

The pollution of those called Barbelioti, that is to say, Borboriani, or Naasenes, or Stratiotici,[51] or Phemioniti, sprouted from the seeds of Valentinus. For they set forth a certain Aeon who continues indestructible in virginal spirit, which they call Barbeloth; and Barbeloth asked for Prognosis from him. But after Prognosis came forth, then, asking again, Aphtharsia came forth, then Zoe Aionios. And they say that after Barbeloth was rejoicing, she became pregnant and bore Phos.

They said that Phos, having been anointed by the perfection of the spirit[52] , was called Christ. Again this Christ asked for Nous, and he received (it). And the Father added also Logos. Then Ennoia and Logos, Aphtharsia and Christ, Zoe Aionios and Thelema, Nous and Prognosis were joined in pairs.  Again they said that Autogenes was emanated from Ennoia and Logos, and with him Aletheia, and again there was another pair from Autogenes and Aletheia. And why is it necessary to speak of the other emanations, (namely) those from Phos and Aphtharsia? Because the myth is long, and, in addition to the impiety, it is unpleasant.

And they had put upon them also the Hebrew names, trying to astound those more simple. And they said that Autogenes emanated a perfect and true man, whom they call Adamas. He emanated with him a yoke-mate: Perfect-Knowledge. Hence, again, (they said that) the mother, father and son were manifested. A Tree grew from Anthropos and Gnosis; and this they also called Gnosis.

But they say that the Holy Spirit emanated from the first Angel, whom they term Sophia and Prunicus.  This one, they say, desired a husband, [and] and she begot Work, in which was Ignorance and Arrogance.  And they called this Work Protarchon and they say that he is the maker of creation.

Now [they say that] this one, having coupled with Arrogance, begat Evil and the [various] categories of this. Therefore, these things I have narrated summarily, passing over the immensity of the fiction. 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.

50.  See: Irenaeus, Adv. Her. 1.29-30; The Apocryphon of John; and Epiphanius, Pan. 25.2-5; 26.1-19. For further references see: Dizionario Patristico e di Antichita Cristiane, ed. A. di Berardino, Roma 1983, vol. 1, 474-5; W.Foerster, Gnosis: A selection of gnostic texts, tr. R. McWilson, 2 vols., Oxford, 1972-74, pp. 100-120; R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony, tr. J.F. Hendry, Brill 1971, pp. 66-69.
51.   Epiphanius,  Pan. 25.2.
52.  Irenaeus, Adv. Her. 1.29.1, states this was done by the Father.

The obvious question is to what extent Theodoret is relying on Epiphanius, and therefore not independent of him.  To evaluate this, we need to see what Epiphanius has to say.

  1. [1]Glenn M. Cope, An analysis of the heresiological method of Theodoret of Cyrus in the ‘Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium’, (Diss.) Catholic University of America, 1990.  The title of the thesis gives no clue that an English translation of all five books is contained therein.

Haefner and Salvian on forgery

In Forgery and Counterforgery, Bart Ehrman makes a series of statements about Salvian of Marseilles, suggesting that the 5th century monk and moralist was guilty of forgery, and also that Salvian actually confesses to the deed in his Letter 9.

In earlier posts, I have evaluated E.’s statements against the text of the letter — not given by E., curiously — and other pieces of evidence.  These posts are accessible here.

But the outcome is that E.’s statements seem remarkably unsatisfactory.  It wasn’t at all clear to me why he believes that, e.g. Salonius was Salvian’s “own bishop”; that Salonius’ comments are angry, that Salvian circulated the work without sending it to Salonius, and so forth.   No other commentator has inferred these statements from the text, or the extraordinary conclusion.

But all the time I lacked an important piece of evidence.

In F&C, E. references, not the standard American translation of Letter 9, by Eva Sanford, which I have given in full here, but an obscure paper by Alfred Haefner, published in 1934 in the Anglican Theological Review in Canada.[1]  The journal itself was not held in some major research libraries outside the USA, and I was unable to access it.

Fortunately a correspondent has come to my rescue, and supplied me with a copy.  In view of the difficulty of access, I have placed a PDF here.

On reading it, much is explained.  For here we find the curious mis-statements which I have discussed earlier.

It would certainly be surprising under these conditions if an author, after publishing his book pseudonymously, would proceed to make an open declaration of his “fraud” and publish his reasons for resorting to such an expedient. He would seem to be thwarting his own purposes.

Yet this is precisely the kind of document we have before us. About the year 440 A.D. there appeared a pamphlet entitled Timothei ad Ecclesiam Libri IV inveighing against the avarice of the times and appealing to the church to renounce its wealth and luxury. The pamphlet begins in the biblical epistolary style: “Timothy, least of the servants of God, to the Church Catholic in all the world, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.” The tract was issued under the name of Timothy, with no indications as to its true authorship. When Bishop Salonius got this tract into his hands, he seems quickly to have guessed who wrote it, and forthwith sent a letter of protest to Salvian, presbyter of Marseille. Salonius feared that the work might be mistaken for an apocryphal work of the Apostle Timothy, and demanded reasons for publishing the book pseudonymously. Thereupon Salvian wrote an answer to Bishop Salonius—the ninth of his preserved letters—in which, always speaking of the author in the third person, he set forth his reasons for adopting the pseudonym and thereby strikingly exemplified the contemporary attitude toward the practice.

This letter of Salvian’s thus seems to be a unique document. The very man who has published a pseudonymous book is divulging his reasons for doing so. It is as though we had caught the “criminal” in the act.

Here we have the ideas from F&C, in their original (and somewhat milder) form.  E. has merely dramatised them.

H. himself, if I understand his career correctly, wrote this paper while a PhD student, or little more.   He has indeed propounded an interesting theory; although not one that will resist much investigation.  His area of expertise is the New Testament; of patristics he knows nothing.  Of the milieu of southern Gaul in this period he knew less than most of us, we who have benefited by the works of Peter Brown.  Nevertheless H. — unlike E. — rightly gives a translation of most of the letter in the article, so that the subject under discussion may be accessible to the reader.

H. ends in the following words:

Even so, I do not mean to exaggerate the importance of Salvian’s letter. For on the one hand, Salvian gives us little information about pseudonymity beyond what could be inferred from our previous sources; and on the other hand the letter is too late (ca. 440 A.D.) to permit of definite and unqualified conclusions with respect to the practice of pseudonymity in New Testament times.

Emphasis mine.  H. has the common-sense to realise that the letter’s importance can be exaggerated.  It is interesting to wonder what he would have made of F&C.

Then H. points out a couple of ways in which the letter is of interest, which will again ring bells to the reader of F&C:

[the letter] seems to be the only document in which the pseudonymist is speaking in his own defense (as it were), and it may fairly be called unique in this sense.  …  Finally, the document is one of two or three which may aid us in forming a judgment on the difficult question of the ethics of pseudonymity in ancient times.

It seems very much as if E. read this article and took it for gospel truth, without investigating further.  This explains why, whenever he refers to Salvian, he presumes him already guilty, rather than demonstrating anywhere in the book that he actually is so.

In any survey of a wide area, of the sort found in F&C, it is inevitable that much must be skipped over.  But sources are primary; if they are unsound, then the mass of the book is nothing.  Here E.’s failure to engage properly and critically has betrayed him badly.

UPDATE: I have revised this post to remove some over-hasty language.  The perils of blogging when tired!!

  1. [1]A. Haefner, “A unique source for the study of ancient pseudonymity”, Anglican Theological Review 16, 1934, 8-15.

Some observations on Bart Ehrman’s presentation of Salvian’s letter 9 and “Ad Ecclesiam”

The last few posts have been concerned with establishing some basic facts about the priest Salvian of Marseilles.  I have discussed his Ad Ecclesiam; the text of “letter 9”, which he seems to have prefaced to the work; about his relationship with his friend and pupil Salonius, bishop of Geneva; and about the manuscript tradition of his work.  A previous post discussed why Salvian used the pen-name of Timothy for the Ad Ecclesiam, and whether he intended to be mistaken for Timothy the Apostle, in which I concluded that we can’t know.

It is now time to review the cause of all this activity: the statements of Bart Ehrman in Forgery and counterforgery[1] on this matter.  E. mentions it on just 8 pages of his immense tome; but it is crucial to his argument and indeed is referenced on the final page of the conclusion.

The first mention is on p.84:

Sometimes forgers were called to account, as when the fifth-century ecclesiastic Salvian was caught by his own bishop forging a writing in the name of Paul’s companion Timothy. As we will see, Salvian wrote a self-serving justification in his own defense. For now it is enough to note that his bishop, Salonius, was not at all amused when he discovered that his former colleague and current underling had tried to promote his own views in the name of an authority who had been dead for four hundred years. That Salonius was upset and incensed is clear; how he reacted to Salvian’s self-defense we will never know. We learn of the incident only from Salvian himself.

It is not ideal that a scholarly writer should anticipate his conclusions without qualification so early in the book, as doing so is liable to prejudice the unwary reader. This is particularly the case when using emotive language, and imaginative speculation that such-and-such “is clear”. For, at this point, E. has yet to show whether any of these statements are true.

A number of questions arise immediately. Salonius was bishop of Geneva. Was he really the superior of a monk of Lerins? Did 5th century monks owe obedience to secular bishops? Likewise wasn’t Salonius a friend and pupil of Salvian, rather than merely “his own bishop”.  Elsewhere I have discussed these questions, and E.’s claims do not seem to hold water.

The prose saying that  Salvian “was caught … forging”; that Salonius was “not amused … upset and incensed”, is colourful, but does anything in the source record any of this? Is E. taking his own imagination for fact, the reader begins to ask. Certainly the long-term and friendly relationship between the two men does not preclude the idea that their friendship could not hit a bump; but nothing in the data justifies us in supposing that it did.  Again, all this tends to prejudice rather than inform.

The next portion of the book to mention Salvian is the main body of E.’s criticism of him, on p.94-6.  Here, if anywhere, Salvian may be described, and the claim of forgery made against him and evaluated from all angles.  What does E. say?

Before creating a kind of taxonomy [of the motivations of forgers] of our own, we might consider the one instance, from a slightly later period, in which a forger attempted to justify his actions once they were detected.


The author was a Christian presbyter of Marseille named Salvian, who around 440 CE published the book Timothei ad Ecclesiam Libri IV.[4] The name “Timothy,” of course, had clear apostolic connections from Pauline times. In his letter to the church, “Timothy” inveighed against a community that had grown rich and soft, while advocating radical almsgiving to the church (in the divestment of property). In his concern for total commitment to the gospel and an ascetic style of life, Salvian was not far removed from the concerns of another author, from about the same time, a pseudonymous “Titus” (the other of Paul’s Pastoral companions) who wrote a scathing attack on Christians who indulged in the joys of the flesh, condemning anyone, married or not, who engaged in sexual activities. The author of the forged letter of Titus was never discovered. But the author of the forged letter of Timothy was, by none other than his own bishop, Salonius of Geneva.

Long before the incident, Salonius and Salvian had been members of the monastic community at Lerins, where, for a time, Salvian was Salonius’ teacher. But eventually the student surpassed the instructor in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and when the letter of “Timothy” came to his attention, he immediately, for reasons never given, suspected that in fact it had been written by his former teacher and colleague. He evidently confronted Salvian on the matter, and Salvian wrote a letter in self-defense.

Note that forgery is presumed from the first line of the discussion.  But is E. a scholar making a judgement, or a prosecuting counsel hammering home his charges?  Surely the claim of forgery be the conclusion of whatever investigation E. proposes to do?

It is also unfortunate that he introduces a spurious “letter of Titus” (unreferenced); this merely helps to fix the accusation in the mind of the reader.  But this letter has nothing to do with Salvian, and it would surely be better to demonstrate forgery before alleging it.

The portrait of the relationship of the two men is colourful, but unsatisfactory.  No indication is given that much of this is merely speculation; the picture of Salonius discovering the work, suspecting Salvian, and “confronting” him is imagination, given by no source but based entirely on how E.’s interpretation of the text.  Likewise the reader will not learn from this parapraph that Salonius was a son of Bishop Eucherius, and was sent to the monastery at Lerins at age 10.  Far from being co-members, Salonius was Salvian’s pupil.

In this, his ninth letter, Salvian does not directly admit to having written Timothei ad Ecclesiam. But there is really no doubt about the matter, as he explains why the pseudonymous author (of whom he speaks in the third person) did what he did. That is to say, he explains his motivations.

That Salvian is the author is generally accepted, not least because of the similarities in style and content between the work and De gubernatione dei, which quotes it.  But it is surprising to find that E., so often referred to as a textual critic, is so uninterested in the question of linguistic style, and the relationship between the two ancient texts.   Something on this question would surely have been useful to the reader.  Few will accept the argument offered instead; E. claims that one man cannot know the motivations of another, and so discussion of motivation proves authorship.

On one hand, Salvian insists, the name of an author should not matter to a reader: “In the case of every book we ought to be more concerned about the intrinsic value of its contents than about the name of its author.” So too, “Since the name [of the author] is immaterial, there is no use in asking about the author’s name so long as the reader profits from the book itself.” These pleas ring hollow, however, in light of the rest of Salvian’s self-defense: If he really thought that an author’s name did not matter, why would he write pseudonymously? Why not write in his own name? Or even better, if names do not matter, why not write the book anonymously? The question is exacerbated by the fact that Salvian otherwise wrote extensively in his own name. His De gubernatione dei still survives, and other works were known in Christian antiquity.

Salvian certainly suggests that the reader should judge the work by its content, not by the name attached to it.  This was good advice and still is.  But it is not clear how this is connected to the question of why Salvian chose to use a pen-name.  His motive for not using his own name is stated in the letter; that he was so unimportant that the objects of his sermon — very rich optimates — would ignore his book as by a mean man.  Any name was better than his own.  So the objections raised here seem more like vituperation.

As the date of his works are not known, and De gubernatione dei is later than the Ad ecclesiam, the objection in the final two sentences seems to have no force.  Salvian may have found that it was safer than he first thought to speak openly; we cannot tell.

Still, Salvian’s answer is straightforward. He recognizes his own insignificance and knows that readers do in fact think it matters who produced a writing. He therefore “wisely selected a pseudonym for his book for the obvious reason that he did not wish the obscurity of his own person to detract from the influence of his otherwise valuable book.” If the authority of a book is rooted in the prestige of an author, then obviously a pseudonym is necessary: “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.”

The abbreviation of Salvian’s argument here obscures what I believe we should understand Salvian to be claiming, as we shall see.  Since the letter is not long, and yet is one of the longest of his “proof texts”, E. would have been far wiser to follow Armin Baum in his Pseudepigraphie and give the texts that he is referencing in full, in the original language and in translation.

Given this confession of motivation, what Salvian claims next may seem a bit surprising, if not downright duplicitous. Why did he choose the name Timothy in particular? Readers naturally took the name to refer to Paul’s Pastoral companion, hence Salonius’ distraught reaction. But in clear tension with his earlier assertion that an unknown person would not be accepted as an authoritative source, Salvian claims that he chose the name purely for its symbolic associations. Just as the evangelist Luke wrote to “Theophilus” because he wrote “for the love of God,” so too the author of this treatise wrote as “Timothy,” that is, “for the honor of God.” In other words, he chose the pseudonym as a pen name.

The “distraught” Salonius — really, the language is so emotive that one imagines that E. must have had dinner with him, and dried his tears! — is again an invention; as, indeed, are the “readers”, plural, who “naturally took the name” to refer to the apostle.  Speculation as to duplicity does not advance the argument at all.

The final objection – that using the name of Timothy contradicts Salvian’s assertion that an unknown person would not be heard – seems to misunderstand Salvian’s point in letter 9.  He is well aware that Salvian the humble monk would not be heard.  A book under a pen-name might be, precisely because it could be by anyone, and so could not be dismissed so easily.  Important people have used pen-names, after all, he may have reasoned.

Even though many critics today continue simply to take Salvian’s word for it, the explanation does not satisfy. If Salvian meant what he said, that the reason for choosing a pseudonymous name was to authorize the account—since a treatise written by an obscure or unknown person has no authority—then how can he also say that the specific pseudonymous name was not that of an authority figure (Paul’s companion Timothy) but of an unknown, obscure, and anonymous person intent on honoring God?

We may wonder how many who have published on Salvian have taken E.’s line.  Sadly he does not say.

On the last point, there seems no indication in letter 9 that Salvian thought using the name of Timothy would gain him the authority of an apostle.  His point is rather that using his own would lose him authority.

Scholars determined to follow Salvian’s lead in getting him off Salonius’ hook have pursued various angles. Norbert Brox thinks it significant that Salvian claims in the letter to be humble (“we are urged to avoid every pretense of earthly vainglory. … The writer … is humble in his own sight, self-effacing, thinking only of his own utter insignificance”); for Brox, the choice of the pseudonym was consistent with ascetic practices of self-abnegation that Salvian, in part, endorsed in the treatise of “Timothy.” Brox notes that on two other occasions in his writings Salvian quotes himself, both times anonymously. He chose, in other words, to keep himself, and so his name, out of the limelight.

E. does not explain why he is certain — for what else does the reference to “scholars determined to…” mean? — that other scholars are merely prejudiced.

Brox’ article[2] is accessible through JSTOR, so may be readily consulted.  The reader who has seen only F&C may be surprised to learn that it does not discuss the forgery issue at all.  Instead B. examines how ascetic authors treat the issue of authorship.  He concludes that several consider that it is entirely acceptable to use evasion, not for advantage, but in order to avoid advantage, to avoid being credited for doing something good.  The self-sacrifice of reputation is aimed at.  In this way B. highlights that Salvian is following a tradition in what he says, not simply making a random excuse.  E. does not seem to have adequately understood the argument made, which renders what follows somewhat irrelevant.

There is some merit to this view, but it does not really solve the problem. Quoting oneself in the third person is not the same thing as writing in the name of someone else: if keeping out of the public eye was the key, then, as I have pointed out, Salvian could have written Ad Ecclesiam anonymously. Moreover, the other examples of the literary self-abnegation that Brox cites—starting with Pauls discussion of his ecstatic removal to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians—involve instances in which an author actually uses his own name (i.e., 2 Corinthians is orthonymous). Brox does not, that is, adduce anything analogous to Salvian’s letter. What is completely analogous is the slew of forged writings from the early Christian tradition, numerous texts put in circulation by authors claiming to be apostles and companions of apostles, including letters allegedly written both to and by Timothy and Titus, canonical and noncanonical. Moreover, it should be reemphasized that Salvian did write other books using his own name.

Again this fails because it does not grasp the point that Salvian is part of a tradition, where names are concealed.  The argument that this is not precisely the same in implementation is not relevant; Brox is showing that the motive is the same, and we may suppose that the same impulse might appear in many ways.

But E. then falls into a circular argument.  His book is intended to show that Christians habitually composed apocrypha – an idea which would be news to Salonius, whether angry as E. depicts him, or not — and so he argues that Salvian is an example of this.  But in fact E. is using the example of Salvian as evidence for his proposition.

Even less convincing is the more recent claim of David Lambert that Salvian’s ninth letter was actually written as a preface to Ad Ecclesiam. It is true that in the scant manuscript tradition it is located there; but one can easily imagine why a scribe might arrange Salvians writings in that order, so as to explain the true nature of the authorship of the tractate. It can hardly make sense for Salvian to have put it there initially: the letter is a response to objections raised subsequent to the publication of the tractate, a self-defense for having circulated it under the name of someone else.

Lambert’s article is also accessible online on Google Books, in part at least, and his suggestion is interesting but not as strongly stated as it might be.

The difficulty with E.’s argument here is that there is no trace of an independent manuscript tradition for letter 9; nor of a copy of Ad Ecclesiam under Salvian’s name.  A medieval scribe could not readily associate the two, other than by finding the two together already.  The reason that the letter must certainly have been attached to the work by Salvian is that otherwise it would not serve the purpose for which it was written, in highlighting that Ad Ecclesiam is a modern work.  This I have discussed earlier.

The argument from circulation is also misconceived.  It is possible that the text circulated before letter 9 was added to it, but we do not know of any such circulation.  What we do know is that a copy reached Salonius.  But surely the most obvious reason for this is that Salvian sent it to him?  Why multiply hypotheses?  The hypothesis of general circulation at that point is not based on any evidence, it should be noted.  It should be remembered that Salvian actually dedicated the next book, De gubernatione dei to his friend, which perhaps suggests that Salvian and Salonius were in some way linked in a literary sense on a regular basis.

We do not know how Salonius reacted to Salvian’s defensive ninth letter. But it is relatively clear how he reacted to the tractate Ad Ecclesiam itself. He considered it a forgery, he objected to the literary practice, and he called the author to account for it. Moreover, it is difficult to take Salvian at his word that he never meant anyone to think that he really was Timothy, the companion of Paul. Otherwise his explanation that no one would heed an unknown or obscure author makes no sense: Who is more unknown or obscure than a person who does not exist, or one whose name is not even given? But his explanation for why he could not write the book orthonymously is of considerable value: it shows that one of the motivations for producing pseudepigraphic works was to get a hearing for ones views, by claiming to be someone who deserved to be heard. That will be a fundamental point for the rest of our study.

Before stressing its importance for the polemical forgeries of early Christianity, we would do well to consider the range of motivations for forgery attested in our ancient sources.

And suddenly we have the end of the argument: a serious of assertions and pieces of speculation.  These are all rather unsatisfactory.  Where does E. intend to show that the claim of forgery, and only of forgery, is required to explain the statements in letter 9, if not here?  But he does not.

Firstly, nothing in the letter 9 of Salvian — our only source of information — tells us that Salonius considered it a forgery.  He merely warned that it might be considered an apocryphon, and so not read, unless Salvian added a statement explaining why it was written under the name of Timothy.  Nothing in it tells us that Salvian is “defensive” – this is more invention.  We have already addressed E.’s misunderstanding of the argument from a pen-name.

Of course E. may sincerely believe that Salvian ‘must’ have meant to play with the name of Timothy the apostle.  He is, of course, entitled to his opinion; we are entitled to disagree, unless evidence is forthcoming, out of simple good breeding.  But there is no evidence for the question; and the speculation that E. then gives us does nothing to help.

E. then goes on to generalise from what he understands Salvian to say; that this shows that works may be written under the name of an apostle in order to be heard.  In fact Salvian has made no such point; rather he has advocated concealing his identity as a poor monk in order to avoid being dismissed, not taking the name of an important person in order to be heard!   But suppose that he had: to use such a statement as a general rule outside of Lerins in 5th century Gaul requires more evidence than a solitary statement, surely?  One senses that E. is tired of Salvian, and eager to get on with other topics.

So what should we make of all this?  For these are the core pages in the book at which E. attempts to show that Salvian is not merely writing under a pen-name, but is engaged in deliberate, wilful, intentional forgery of a work as being that of Timothy the Apostle.  He himself states that this is his sole example of a forger explaining himself.  The stakes for E. could hardly be higher.

Clearly the argument is flawed at many points, as we have seen.  But a case may be made in a less than ideal manner, and still be valid.  Defects of detail should never derail us from examining the merits of a case in an objective and detached manner.

There is likewise nothing of contemporary importance at stake.  Emotion is out of place.  It should be of no importance to most of us whether an obscure 5th century presbyter was, or was not, engaged in something morally dubious.  Corrupt and vicious men holding a post of clergyman have existed from Caiaphas himself down to the Glasgow Presbytery of 2012 .  Corrupt clergy certainly existed in the 5th century in Gaul, as Sidonius Apollinaris tells us.  Let us suppose that Salvian was a forger, and that Salonius caught him at it.  What is the evidence?

The fundamental problem with E.’s argument is that at no point has E. attempted to argue his case.  He has instead relied primarily on assertion, made quite a number of arguments, and indulged in a rather excessive amount of imagination and speculation.  But he has not made an argument for his case.  He has merely claimed that Salvian must have intended forgery, and let the rhetoric take care of the rest.

Certainly we may suspect that the use of the name of an apostle was less than accidental.  But we do not know this because we have no evidence on the matter.

In general it is unseemly to allege deliberate fraud without evidence.  If E. finds himself shortchanged at his college canteen at the Christmas dinner, he will be well advised to presume the server is suffering from mistake, muddle, tiredness, and confusion rather than fraud in the first instance.

Let us review the other references to Salvian in F&C.  On p.119-20:

So too in the one instance we have from late antiquity of a Christian detected in the act of forgery, Salvian of Marseilles, who indicates that had he written the book Ad Ecclesiam in his own name, rather than in the name of Timothy, no one would have paid it any heed. And so he “wisely selected a pseudonym for his book for the obvious reason that he did not wish the obscurity of his own person to detract from the influence of his otherwise valuable book.” Or, as he then says, “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.”

Here we have merely reiteration of the guilt of Salvian as a forger, and its use for a more general argument.

On p.113:

The one instance in which we have an ancient forger explain himself is the fifth-century Salvian of Marseille. As we have seen, Salvian refuses to admit guilt but states, as we have seen, that whereas readers should not assign authority to a mere name, he wrote in the name of Timothy because his own name carried no weight or authority. Salvian claims that he did nothing wrong: the “Timothy” named in the letter was not meant to be the apostolic companion of Paul but a pure pseudonym. He was writing “for the honor of God.” This claim, as we have seen, stands in direct tension with Salvian’s simultaneous insistence that for the book to be read it needed to be produced in the name of an authority. In any event, Salvian carefully avoids any admission of guilt, and if he refuses to acknowledge what he has done, then it is impossible for us to know how he justified it to himself. Possibly Salvian and most other forgers were so conflicted by what they were doing—deceiving others when they believed deceit was wrong—that they were unable even to explain to themselves why they did what they did.

This merely repeats the earlier claims, and misunderstandings.

Finally, on p.548, the very last page of the conclusions of the book, we find this:

At an early stage of our study we considered the one instance of a Christian forger who discussed his motives for lying about his identity, Salvian of Marseille, who, among other things declared: “For this reason the present writer chose to conceal his identity in every respect for fear that his true name would perhaps detract from the influence of his book, which really contains much that is exceedingly valuable.” He had an important book to write, and no one would read it if it were attributed to a nobody like Salvian. And so he wrote it in the name of Timothy, in hopes that it would have a wide influence.

It’s a long way from all those bland phrases in the opening chapters, where the existence of pen-names and novelisations is acknowledged.  Salvian is now not writing under a pen-name; he is a forger; and not just a forger, a liar too!  The reader is led to suppose that he probably cheats at scrabble too!  The stern moralist, who dared to criticise the vicious and powerful … is not even mentioned by E. in all this.

The characteristic in all of these passages which strikes the reader most forcibly is the closed-mindedness of the author.  Salvian is introduced as a forger in every single passage.  Not once does E. consider the possibility that the subject needs investigation.  On the contrary, the allegation is considered proven as soon as made.  Everything that follows is merely elaboration, or the brushing aside of objections.  The combination of narrowness and arrogance is really very repulsive to the critical reader.

Now most sensible people subscribe to the “cock-up” theory of history, in preference to the conspiracy theory in which every action must be interpreted as deliberate and malicious.  Indeed whenever we find someone engaged in interpreting the actions of another in the most negative way possible, we may be sure that we find a polemicist with an axe to grind.

There is nothing wrong with E. advancing the hypothesis of a dishonest presbyter attempting to pass off an apocryphon upon the church, and then examining the evidence for it.  Such people have certainly existed, although a little knowledge of human nature will suggest that the majority of those so described were probably muddle-headed rather than coldly malicious.  But others were dishonest and self-serving.  Let us, by all means identify them; and let us also point out that the church was very hostile to even the suggestion of such conduct.  Nobody is invested in attempting to show that every person ever associated with the Christian Church was above any moral failing whatever; the implicit accusation is a strawman argument if ever there was one.

But it is quite surprising that E. does not engage in a critical evaluation of his own hypothesis.  By all means raise the question: but then look at it from all sides, and ask what can be said against.  Of this there is no trace.

It is the task of the scholar, not merely to advance ideas, but also to inform the discussion of them.  He should examine his own ideas critically, from all sides, and with an open mind.

E. does not do this.  He puts forward his claim, elaborates it, and then moves on.  The claim itself is false in some minor particulars.  But if we look at Peter Brown’s discussion of Salvian and his circle and his aims, and then back at Forgery and counterforgery, we see at once that E. gives us no real information.  Salvian for E. is merely a stage villain, introduced to be hissed by the audience.  In a work intended to be scholarly this will not do.

Something must be allowed for the brevity inevitable in a book of this kind, of course; but why be brief, when the example is sufficiently important to the argument of the whole book?

We are driven to say, therefore, that E.’s treatment of Salvian is neither satisfactory nor scholarly.

  1. [1]Oxford University Press, 2013.  My thanks to the press for kindly supplying me with a review copy.
  2. [2] Norbert Brox, “Quis ille auctor? Pseudonymitat und Anonymitat bei Salvian,” Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986): 55-65.