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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is Sozomen:

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

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

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

All the same, it is an amusing picture.

  1. [1]doi:10.1017/S0009640718002354

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.

Epiphanius and the veil – a 4th century attitude to images

While searching for old commentary on Epiphanius and the Borborites, I stumbled across something even more interesting.

In The Catholic Layman in 1853[refTwo articles are referenced: ]”The Story of St. Epiphanius and the Veil”, The Catholic Layman, 2.17 (1853), 50, 56.[/ref] appear a couple of quotations from Epiphanius.

The first (p.56) appears in a discussion of purgatory.

… we refer to Epiphanius’s letter to John, bishop of Jerusalem* (works, vol. ii., p. 314, Paris, 1622) in which, after calling Origen the father of Arius, and the root of other heresies, he goes on: “And this, too, which he maintains, I know not whether to grieve or laugh at ; for this excellent teacher, Origen, dares to teach that the Devil will again be what he was once, and will return to the same dignity, and will ascend the kingdom of heaven!  O shocking!  Who can be so senseless and so foolish as to believe that John the Baptist, and Peter, and John the Apostle, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and the rest of the prophets shall be co-heirs with the Devil in the kingdom of God ?”

The second (p.50) is more interesting still:

Having had occasion, in another column, page 56, to quote the letter of St. Epiphanius to John of Jerusalem, we give here, according to our promise, an extract which will explain some of the circumstances which gave rise to the letter.

“I heard that some are murmuring against me, for the following reason:-

When we were going together, to the holy place, which is called Bethel, that I might there hold a service with you, according to the ecclesiastical custom, and when I had come to the village called Anablatha, I saw, as I was passing by, a light burning there.  So I asked what place it was, and, being told that it was a church, I entered in, to pray there; and I found there a veil, hanging on the doors of the same church, dyed and painted, and having the likeness of Christ, I believe, or of some saint or other, for I don’t exactly remember whose likeness it was.

So, when I saw this–the likeness of a man hanging in the church of Christ, contrary to the authority of the Scriptures–I tore it, and I gave directions to the keepers of the place, to roll up some poor dead person in it, and bury him in it.

But they murmured against me, and said, ‘If you wished to tear our veil, it would be only right that you should give us another in exchange for it.’  So, when I heard this, I acknowledged that it was reason.able, and promised that I would give it, and would send one forthwith. Some delay, however, has taken place, because I was anxious to send a very good veil, instead of it, for I thought I ought to send one from Cyprus [his own diocese]; but now I send the best veil I could find, and I beg you will give directions, to the priests of that place, to’ take it from bearer, and will give orders that no veils of that kind, which are contrary to our religion, should henceforth be hung up in the church of Christ, for it becomes you to be more careful to take away this cause of offence, which is unworthy of the church of Christ, and of the people who have been committed to you.”

It’s worth noting that Epiphanius was not on the best of terms with John of Jerusalem.   But evidently this was something of no relevance to their disagreement.

I shall have to locate that letter in full and see what else it says.


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.

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.

From my diary

Home, with piles of electronic gear.  But when will I get time to set it up?  That said, being unable to use my main machine is becoming increasingly irksome. 

I’ve been looking for possible Greek texts to get translated.  There’s a little pile of sermon material by Chrysostom.

Most interesting of these are three items which appear in Migne in very truncated form.  De Regressu Sancti Joannis (PG52, col. 421), De Recipiendo Severiano (col. 423), and Severian’s reply De Pace (col. 425).  All three are given in Latin, and seem far too short to be full versions.  Now I know that the Greek exists of Severian, and indeed a full version of it.  But I am unclear about the others.

It turns out that I did enquire of a scholar who had published about these, and got the response that I should look in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum vol. 2, from 4438 onwards, and also in the supplement.  I believe that there are oriental translations of this stuff also.

And that, dear reader, is why I am annoyed that I can’t access my main machine, on which resides my copy of CPG2!

There are also some short tracts by Epiphanius of Salamis, in which he expresses strong antipathy to icons.  These would be of general interest: but it turns out that a translation exists already, by Stephen Bigham, in Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? (2008).  Of course this is offline (drat).

Never mind.  There are still lots of Chrysostom sermons!


Legends about what the Chronicon Pascale says

After Eusebius invented the idea of the “Chronicle of World History”, subsequent writers produced considerable numbers of these.  As a rule these start with Adam, using the Bible and Eusebius to cover stuff up to Constantine, and then whatever continuations and paraphrases were available.

The Chronicon Pascale is an example of this genre.  It’s a Greek World Chronicle, composed around 630 AD in the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius, just half a dozen years before the Arabs charge out of the desert and find no-one in any shape to resist them.  No translation of the whole thing exists, apart from the renaissance Latin version printed in the Patrologia Graeca 92.  Whitby and Whitby made an English translation of the portion from 284 AD onwards.

Bill Thayer of Lacus Curtius forwarded me an email in which someone raised an interesting query:

…in “The Story of Religious Controversy”, a book written in 1929 by Joseph McCabe. In the chapter entitled “Morals in Ancient Egypt,” he is speaking of the son of the goddess Isis–Horus–and says: “An early Christian work, the ‘Paschal Chronicle’ (Migne ed. xcii. col 385), tells us that every year the temples of Horus presented to worshippers, in mid-winter (or about December 25th), a scenic model of the birth of Horus. He was represented as a babe born in a stable, his mother Isis standing by.”

I hope we all know better than to believe the crude falsehoods about Christian origins circulated by bitter atheists online.  But does the CP say any such thing?  I went off to look.

Skimming over the Latin side , I find a discussion of Jeremiah’s prediction of Christ, starting in col. 383, “De Jeremia”.  This starts with one of the messianic passages, mirrored in Matthew – which he quotes – and then says is also in Hebrews.  Then he goes on (my own rough translation of key points):

“Jeremiah was from Anathoth, and was killed in Taphais in Egypt by being stoned by the people, and sleeps in the place where Pharaoh’s palace is, (..because he was very respected..) because when they were infested with the aquatic animals, called Menephoth in Egyptian and crocodiles in Greek. Even today those faithful to God who take some of the dust of that place can drive crocodiles away”

One may hope that no-one actually experimented with live crocodiles to verify this.

Then follows a story that Alexander, when he came to Egypt, and heard about the “arcana” which he had predicted, removed the prophet’s relics to Alexandria, for some other similar magic which I can’t quite make out.  It then continues:

“This sign Jeremiah gave to the priests of Aegypt, predicting the future, that their idols would be destroyed and ? by a boy saviour born of a virgin, and laid in a manger.” 

It goes on:

“Quapropter etiamvero ut deam colunt virginem puerperam, et infantem in praesepi adorant.

For which reason (?) they honour a pregnant virgin goddess and worship an infant in a manger.

When king Ptolemy asked why, they told him that they received this secret from the holy prophet handed down by their fathers. The same prophet Jeremiah, before the destruction of the temple, …”  (more stuff about prophecy).

Migne quotes a note by DuCange (25) which says that this bit about a virgin comes from Epiphanius and Simon Logothetes (who?).  No reference is given, unfortunately, and I was unable to find it in the Panarion.

This last bit is probably the kernel of the story that we see in highly embroidered form above.


Epiphanius: A new edition of “Panarion” in English; and an old one of “De Gemmis”

There is one really important patristic text that isn’t online.  I refer to the massive compendium of heresies, the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis.  An English translation was made by Frank Williams, and published by Brill.  Massively expensive, I cracked and bought a copy some years ago.  It is the main source for the Ebionites and Nazorean heretics, for instance.

It seems that a new edition of the translation has appeared.  Kevin Edgecomb has done a rather excellent review of it, which indicates that it is a thorough reworking.  Indeed the old one was rather stilted, so it needed it.  Unfortunately he still translates “heresy” as “sect”.  It will be a while before I lash out for it, tho!

I found Kevin’s post quite by accident.  This evening I was browsing Quasten’s Patrology vol. 3 casually, and found that an English translation existed of Epiphanius work De gemmis.  The work itself is lost in Greek, but a complete version exists in Old Georgian, and was translated in 1934 by R. P. Blake.  Fragments also exist in Armenian and Ethiopic.

A google search revealed that Blake’s book was on Archive.org here, much to my delight since it turns out to be a rare book.  I will try running that PDF through Finereader 9 and see if we can get an OCR’d text of the English translation.