"In 2016, the Development of Early Christian Theology SBL section hosted a review panel of two recent monographs about Epiphanius of Cyprus: Young Richard Kim's Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World and Andrew Jacobs' Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity. Dr. Kim begins the panel with an introduction to the work of Andrew Jacobs."
Andrew Jacobs first wrote me an email on May 6, 2010, in which he described his interest in conducting research on Epiphanius and disclosed that he had downloaded and started reading my dissertation. My first thought was, “how splendid,” Andrew has just doubled the number of scholars in North America interested in Epiphanius, but my second was, “oh my goodness,” why would anyone want to read my dissertation? But in his usual gracious and supportive way, Andrew initiated a conversation that over the years—and after several conference paper sessions, a few historic unheard of Epiphanius panels at NAPS and at the Oxford, and many a conversation in between—has been for me an example of the best of our scholarly community: collaboration, constructive criticism, and good humor, especially over food and drink. Furthermore, I am especially pleased that our conversations have extended to others with interests in our wily bishop from Cyprus, and it is gratifying to see so many of your here in this room. This session today represents in many ways the culmination of our respective studies, and I am certain that while Andrew and I have approached and analyzed our subject from different disciplinary angles and methodologies, together we have produced two different but complementary studies of Epiphanius.
In a word, Andrew’s book is brilliant. We have already seen in his earlier books his keen ability to apply contemporary theoretical approaches to our ancient subjects, and he has deftly refracted ancient Judaism and Christianity through psychoanalytic, literary critical, exegetical, and theological lenses with innovative and at times surprising results. This book is no exception, and the Epiphanius that Andrew has written about is one that I certainly could never have imagined. But this is more than a study of Epiphanius. Andrew takes us from present theory to past subject and ultimately brings us back to the present, rendering us the subject, and challenges us, the reader, to ponder our assumptions about what Late Antiquity was and is and how the pieces of our extant puzzle fit into it. Epiphanius, in our Late Antiquity, is a proverbial square peg trying to fit into a round hole. We don’t like him and we think we know why, but over the course of 277 elegantly written pages, Andrew provokes us to think otherwise.
In his introduction, Andrew offers a compelling case to reconsider the scholarly reception and perception of Epiphanius, beginning with the premise that, “if Epiphanius was influential in his own time, we should take that influence seriously.” In addition, Jacobs’ framing of his book as a “cultural biography” opens the door to further reflection on developments in late ancient Christianity. He suggests that scholars in the past have used Epiphanius less for what he had to say and more for what he preserved in his writings, and he identifies how Epiphanius negotiated the tenuous nature of Christian identity in ways different from his more illustrious contemporaries. Herein, perhaps, is one clue as to why we don’t like him so much. The introduction continues with a useful review of the authentic and spurious works attributed to Epiphanius, which provides a valuable starting point from which Andrew offers several suggestive ideas on what we can discern about Epiphanius from what he wrote (and what he did not).
The remainder of the book unfolds in six thought-provoking chapters. In Chapter 1, Andrew applies modern theoretical reflections on the concept of “celebrity” to Epiphanius to great effect. Again, in his efforts to debunk modern dismissals of Epiphanius as a minor or fringe figure, Andrew underscores the extent of Epiphanius’s fame and how it was augmented both by individuals in his broader social network and by his own literary efforts. Andrew applies the concept of the “celebrity-function,” which focuses less on why Epiphanius may have been famous and more on how his celebrity reveals broader complexities and ambiguities in what we often assume to have been teleological developments in Christian culture. Through others’ presentations of and anecdotes about Epiphanius, we have the opportunity to reflect on the manifold, and at times contradictory and unstable ways in which Christians in late antiquity thought about empire, knowledge and education, and the body. His admirers appropriated his fame, using it as a sort of prism, which refracted their own views on these subjects. Epiphanius, famous and infamous, reveals to us the cultural volatility at play in Christian late antiquity.
Chapter 2 begins with the story of three conversions that Epiphanius included in his treatise, De mensuris et ponderibus, and through them Andrew introduces his theoretical reflections on borders and boundaries, perceived areas of control that are in fact (unstable) loci of identity formation and breakdown. In what follows, Andrew shows us how Epiphanius’s stories of religious “conversion” (broadly conceived) can illustrate the complex social and cultural forces at work in the (failed) assertion of control over the ecclesiastical hierarchy, in the difficult negotiation Christians had with respect to the relationship between church and empire, and finally in the “absorption of Judaism into Christianity,” all of which reflect the tensions within the totalizing discourse of Christianity, a markedly late antique phenomenon.
Chapter 3 explores what Andrew calls Epiphanius’ “improvisational” style of ecclesiastical leadership, and again modern theoretical reflections on improvisation in music/theater/dance become a tool to understand Epiphanius and his world. Andrew roots his argument in an insightful overview of the improvisational quality of ancient higher education and public performance, and from here we make the leap to improvisation as a possibility in any locus of institutionalized power, and Andrew explores examples in the exercise of power in the Roman family, the imperial court, and of course, the Christian church. Through an examination of Epiphanius’s attitudes toward the ascetic life, he shows how Epiphanius, whom we might presume to be rigid and dogmatic about the right kind of practice, was in fact flexible and accommodating, which in turn reflected an “improvisational” imposition of bodily discipline. We see this played out in the church as a whole as well: too rigid an approach to church discipline leads to fracture. Andrew concludes the chapter by challenging us again to consider how Epiphanius embodied distinct developments in late antiquity, in this case the solidification of institutional power by means of patterns of behavior that on the surface appear to undermine the structures of power but in fact reinforce them.
In Chapter 4, Andrew challenges the modern scholarly criticism of Epiphanius’s biblical hermeneutic as overly literalist and a jumbled mess, and he demonstrates instead that what we see in Epiphanius’s approach to the Bible is an antiquarian aesthetic at work. The late antique Bible becomes a source of antiquarian interest, a collection of disparate and fragmented pieces of knowledge that in the hands of Epiphanius become ordered and exhibit his complete and comprehensive command over the material. By “collation and citation,” Epiphanius establishes his theological authority, and so we are challenged to think differently about Epiphanius’s seeming lack of theological and exegetical sophistication. Andrew’s fascinating and original discussions of De mensuris et ponderibus and De XII gemmis are especially valuable, since there is very little scholarly assessment of these works, and through his adroit handling of dense and seemingly disparate material, we discover a completely different and more compelling Epiphanius than imagined before.
Chapter 5 is an exploration and reassessment of Epiphanius’ theology, which is typically ignored or marginalized in modern scholarship. We find again an Epiphanius who made unique and meaningful and perhaps even coherent theological contributions to the ongoing disputes of the late fourth century. Specifically, Andrew argues that “Epiphanius’s beliefs are structured by an insistence on the moral unity of both human and divine being.” While certainly polemical, Epiphanius’s theology sheds its modern critique as entirely reactive and instead appears constructive and coherent. He maintained a deep concern for a proper understanding of human salvation, rooted in the moral unity of the human person, necessarily comprised of body and soul, which in turn shaped and informed his Trinitarian theology. The consubstantial unity of the persons of the Trinity is mirrored in the unity of body and soul in the human person, and the incarnate Christ embodies both. There is a theological consistency that undergirds Epiphanius’s thinking, which again, gives us a very different picture of the bishop than often assumed.
In turn, Epiphanius’s theology informs his heresiological framework. Andrew continues the chapter by showing us how the entirety of the Panarion, again regularly denigrated as a dense and disparate mass, reflects a thematic consistency: heresy is a disruption of divine and human (and ecclesiastical) moral unity. The conclusion of the chapter revisits the much explored (and maligned) dispute Epiphanius had with the theology of Origen, and again, Andrew’s focus on Epiphanius’ moral theology reveals the bishop’s coherent criticism of what he understood to be Origen’s mistaken beliefs. Both theologians were concerned with the body, but each differed on what he understood the spiritual and physical functions of the body to be and in what form that body would be resurrected. For Epiphanius, the body was not merely a point of transition toward spiritual perfection; it was to be physically trained and morally disciplined, to rise again in full. The chapter finishes with an important example, Shenoute, whose link with the theology of Epiphanius, while known, is fleshed out further by Andrew.
Chapter 6 considers “how Epiphanius the saint became a cultural signifier,” how his afterlife can be a lens through which we observe the cultural, religious, and imperial tensions of late antiquity. Andrew devotes careful attention to the Vita Epiphanii, a known text (but largely ignored by modern scholars), and gives to it new life. First, Saint Epiphanius traverses the Roman Empire and beyond, working miracles and embodying the unity, albeit unstable, of Roman Empire and Christian faith and second, he is the Jew who converted to Christianity, in whom the vestiges of his “other” origin lie just beneath the holy veneer of the saint. Andrew then turns to the reception and appropriation of Christian hagiographies in post-Reformation Europe, in particular, Victorian England. This discussion is absolutely fascinating and original and focuses on a semi-hagiographical novel on Epiphanius written by Thomas Wemberley Mossman, whose retelling of the life of the ancient bishop reflects more his own tense late nineteenth-century, Anglo-Catholic views on the relationship between church and state and Judaism and Christianity. In both hagiographies and the historical contexts in which they were composed, Andrew suggests that Epiphanius becomes the “patron saint of the anxieties of religious difference in the space of empire,” and in both, the “real” Epiphanius, he of the Panarion, whose views on culture, power, and control over difference were sources of discomfort to the sensibilities of his hagiographers.
The chapter (and book) concludes with a thoughtful reflection on Epiphanius’ place (or present lack thereof) in our current understanding of and conversation on “late antiquity.” Culture is at the heart of our interest in the period because its evaluation in late antiquity has served as a lens through which we can gaze at our own hopes and ideals. And so for most modern scholars, Epiphanius simply does not fit into our late antiquity; his approach to the world, with its obsessive attention to and condemnation of the “other,” clashes with what we hope late antiquity can be. Yet as Andrew has skillfully shown in this book, Epiphanius was Late Antiquity, granted, not necessarily the transformative, even positive period through which we want to view ourselves and affirm our liberal convictions, but late antiquity nonetheless. This book will challenge us to come to grips with this tension and add further nuance to the ongoing reevaluation of late antiquity itself.
Dr. Young Richard Kim is an associate professor of Classics at Calvin College