"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. Our forum on Epiphanius continues this week with a piece from Dr. Rebecca Lyman."
Our current studies of the discursive construction of “heresy” in ancient Christianity began with Le Boulluec in 1985 (La notion d’hérésie dans la literature grecque IIe-III siécles), who via Foucault put new methodological legs under our studies of the polemical portrayal of the varieties of ancient Christian experience. Two new studies of Epiphanius now seek to give one of the most notorious heresiologists his due: Young Kim in his thorough “cultural” biography wishes to restore his complexity as an active and integral man of his times, who had to act as he did.[i] He was a “stabilizing force” theologically and institutionally with some theological ability, especially his imaginative shift in turning dissenting opinions into dangerous serpents in a vast wilderness.[ii] Andrew Jacobs characteristically brings a wonderful kaleidoscope of new filters (celebrity, improvisation, antiquarian) to the text and also insists that Epiphanius has been discounted institutionally and intellectually.[iii] Scholarly discomfort and underestimation of him stems from our mistaken views of Late Antiquity; unlike our beloved intellectuals such as Augustine or the Cappadocians he does not worry, but seemingly delights in fractious identity through his own sense of mastery and encyclopedic knowledge.[iv]
I am not sure that Epiphanius is as unjustly marginalized as these authors protest. He is, after all, a saint and a bishop. I think that he is rather like the genre of heresiology itself, a fascinating grotesque from whom you cannot take your eyes and who does not quite fit the usual categories, especially religious ones. In reflecting on my own discomfort with Epiphanius, I want to question a common methodological assumption shared in these two very different studies. Are our current discursive categories of “heresiology” (i.e. a totalizing discourse of authority and exclusion) adequate given the historical diversity of place, belief, identity or intention of ancient Christian authors? Or do we still follow orthodox assumptions of continuity and genealogies even in our deconstructions? I am not certain that I agree with Averil Cameron, looking back from the Byzantine age, that the Panarion was “the most baroque and most classical” or “the culmination” of the genre.[v] One of Le Boulluec’s contributions was precisely to distinguish between the authors who had very different views on the origin and purpose of “heresy” and its rhetorical portrayals. I think this focus on social and historical multiplicity confirms the recent work of Heidi Wendt concerning “the religion of freelance experts” (At the Temple Gates. The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire, 2016) and Kendra Eshleman’s study of the varied means of the production of discursive authority in the second and third centuries among various intellectuals, some of whom were Christians (The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire. Sophists, Philosophers and Christians, 2012). In his book on Epiphanius (too recent to include for this session), Todd Berzon also reflected critically on questions of multiplicity and totalizing discourse (Classifying Christians. Ethnography, Heresiology and the limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, 2016).
I want to characterize Epiphanius and his work a bit differently by thinking about a central image of his work which seemed to get surprisingly little attention in both books: physical violence and death in the Panarion. As we know, Epiphanius not only has dehumanized his opponents into a range of dangerous serpents and lizards, he “discursively” dispatches them after each section of description and refutation:
“But since we have repelled this sect once more—splitting a serpent’s head when it is already lying on the ground with a cudgel of faith and truth let us approach the other beast like sect.” (27.8.4)
Gnostics): “now that we have beaten its head, its body and its offspring here with the wood of life, let us go on to examine others calling for aid, on God to whom be honor and might forever and ever, Amen.” (26.19.3)
“But we have struck its rot, poison, and fangs and thrashed me with the cudgel of truth, as I said by the power of God let us hasten to go on to the rest.” (28.8.4)
Young has done a fascinating job cataloging the various vipers used by Epiphanius and the means of their dispatch. However, I am not sure that it is enough to read this as only “discursive violence”, which is part of a genre that is inherently violent.[vi] Andrew doesn’t seem to address this aspect of Epiphanius at all. There are of course biblical proof texts for trampling or defeating evil in serpent form (Genesis 3; Luke 10.19; Revelation 12), martyr exemplars like Perpetua, and the surrounding cultural images of military victories. Yet, why has this become the centerpiece of theological disputation in a fourth-century Christian text?
We need to place Epiphanius as an author more specifically into a world distinguished by a great deal of actual and valorized religious violence in the middle of the fourth century. As Michael Gaddis outlined, these decades saw the rapid growth of the cult of the martyrs as well as the escalating physical confrontations among Nicene and other Christians and between “pagans”, Jews, and Christians, including government interventions (There is No Crime for Those who Have Christ. Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, 2005). If Epiphanius spent his youth in Egypt (330-350), returning to Palestine in 350 before going to Cyprus in 367, he was in the midst of violent confrontations involving Athanasius and others with regard to Nicene orthodoxy. Historians of ancient theology often sum this period up as “bitter or contentious debating” or “consolidating orthodoxy” through a maze of theological definitions or alliances—which Young has mapped very helpfully-- but these descriptions not only omit, but occlude our knowledge of the routine accusations of physical destruction, ejection, and fist fights. The violence among pagans and Christians with regard to pagan temples and sacred images seemed to have been steady as well, culminating with Julian’s policies of reversal in 361-363. In 370 Valens directed the praetorian prefect of the east to investigate those monks who might be evading curial responsibilities; later he drafted them into the army with death to those who refused, including a massacre of monks in Nitria. While we have to treat reports of violence as cautiously as those of seductive Gnostic women, so troubling to the young Epiphanius, I think we need to acknowledge these events as an essential part of mid-fourth-century Christian theological identity and discourse.
Ongoing physical and spiritual violence is also the historical backdrop of Epiphanius’ monastic formation. Within monastic community life, “coercive harmony” included vigilance for dissent or error, but also a degree of corrective violence, including beatings. At this time as episcopal functions were increasingly defined, the use of physical force was contested: compare Apostolic Constitutions 8.47: he was struck and did not strike back to Chrysostom for whom blasphemy justified force.[vii] Epiphanius, according to the accounts of his forced ordination of a priest and ripping down an offensive curtain with the image of Christ, had little problem with necessary physical force. As outlined by David Brakke and others, martyrdom, after all, was not merely passive endurance, but active combat against the demons who stood behind the Roman agents or deities.[viii] Resisting the embodied agents of Satan in holy warfare had a long history in the corporeal imaginations of Christians. Athanasius had to persuade the monks to deny hospitality to heretics, but defeating physical idols, and the demons who stood behind them had always been in continuity with the work of the monks as the successors of the martyrs. Demons were the spiritual instigators of idolatry and heresy, who stirred up both pagans or invented new heresies. Of course, deception and disguise were essential elements of the work of the demons, and the power of the holy man included unmasking and defeating them in whatever form they took. As Virginia Burris pointed out, the wilderness was the stage for the ascetic performance of “shameless” witness, in which a distinctly voyeuristic literature of combat between ascetics and demons made the invisible visible; this was an imagined world which was the site of aggressive combat, with resistance both imperative and ultimately impossible to complete. [ix]
This historical evidence of a “necessity of combat” physically and spiritually among Christians and within their communities underlies the particularly violent discursive performance of Epiphanius. His work is not only a conflict of intellectual leadership or authority as in Irenaeus or Hippolytus. As outlined by Eshleman, they “were reliving in the text the key feature of face to face identity formation.”[x] For Epiphanius the style of establishing discursive leadership is less focused on genealogy or unity, but rather performed as a relentless opposition to error as the ultimate spiritual warrior. This is revealed in how he read his predecessor Irenaeus “he wrestled the whole silly subject down and beat it…He seemed to want to drag his opponent after he had already been thrown and beaten, to make public spectacle of him to find the shameless though feeble challenge of weak-mindedness in him even when he was down.” (31.33.1)
“Shameless” is one of Epiphanius’ common descriptions of his opponents, but I think our discomfort with him as a theological controversialist lies not in the quality of his Greek nor his limited intellectual scope nor his version of episcopacy, but his own shamelessness, which foregrounds the ceaseless violence of his era into his text (Blossom Stefaniw, “Shame and Normal in Epiphanius’ Polemic Against Origen” 2013). In her discussion of the inversion of shame into shamelessness among ancient Christians, Virginia Burris described the “defiant edge of culture and political critique” of Roman honor by martyrs. Drawing on Carlin Barton’s work, she also noted the dark side of this transition within imperial Roman culture. As the earlier reciprocal negotiations and competition which maintained and restored honor in the Roman republic were displaced in the imperial age, they were replaced by a smaller circle of trust and a call to obedience and respect for authority over common consent: “the man or woman of conscience in passion of truth need have no shame.”[xi] This new conscience lacked the moderating compensatory reciprocal acts, resulting in less humor or reconciliation; arrogance and humility become indistinguishable.[xii]
As well described by Young and Andrew, the Panarion is indeed a new and particular spectacle of cultural and spiritual warfare. Yet, this is not the mopping up of Nicene orthodoxy after Athanasius or the culmination of a genre, but rather a glimpse of a new religious psyche of the mid-fourth century, the “sorrows of the ancient Christian” to paraphrase Carlin Barton. I think Andrew was apt in describing it not as a heresiological manual, but rather a cultural treatise akin to “The City of God.” These violent images of the punishment and execution of dehumanized and embodied cognitive errors are the signs of a religious movement marked by dissent and disorder. Epiphanius, therefore, gives us a shameless and corporeal fantasy of exactly what is not happening in 370s after Julian and under the policies of Valens: the defeat and mastery of all error, whether idolatry or heresy. The contemporary proliferation of spiritual and physical violence called forth the shameless exorcist, who fused disputation with death.
[i] Young Kim, Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 4.
[ii] Kim, Epiphanius, 237.
[iii] Andrew Jacobs, Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity, Christianity in Late Antiquity Series (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 129.
[iv] Jacobs, Epiphanius, 6-8.
[v] Averil Cameron, "How to Read Heresiology," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.3 (2003), 475.
[vi] Kim, Epiphanius, 174.
[vii] Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those who Have Christ. Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California, 2005), 258.
[viii] David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk. Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). Cf. Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those who Have Christ, 169-181.
[ix] Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints and Other Abject Subjects (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 35, 108.
[x] Kendra Eshleman, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire. Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 159.
[xi] Burrus, Saving Shame, 281.
[xii] Burrus, Saving Shame, 288.
Dr. Rebecca Lyman is Professor Emerita of History at Church Divinity School of the Pacific