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Did Early Christian Heretics Promote Outrageous Sex Rituals?

In my post a few days ago I mentioned the widespread rumor in the ancient Roman world of the first couple of centuries CE that Christians were flagrantly immoral, engaging in wild sex and infanticide and homicide in their weekly meetings.  A couple of readers have asked if that might have been true for *some* of the Christian groups of “heretics,” and that Roman outsiders who knew of their activities assumed all Christians engaged in them.

Great question!  I’ve thought about this one for over thirty years.  What I concluded about twenty-nine years ago is what I still think now: these kinds of charges were commonly leveled in the Roman world against whomever you didn’t like and suspected and there is very little any evidence that they were ever true.  Almost always they are just slanders.  It is worth noting that very similar charges were leveled by pagans against Christians, pagans against Jews, pagans against each other, Christians against pagans, Christians against … Christians!

I’ve talked about this in some of my publications, most fully in a passage in my book Forgery and Counterforgery, where I discuss the slurs leveled by the heresy-hunter (technical term: “heresiologist”) Epiphanius, a very rigorous Christian thinker and theologian at the end of the fourth century, who wrote a book called the “Medicine Chest” (Greek Title: Panarion).  The book describes and attacks eighty different heretical groups, most infamously one that he calls the Phibionites, a group of Gnostis with some, well, rather unusual ritual practices.

His charges are quite, uh, graphic and scurrilous, and he claims he has evidence to back it up.  This will take me two posts to lay out.  Here is what I say about it in my book.  (You may think this is all completely scandalous, but hey, don’t blame me: I’m just tellin’ you what he says!):



Epiphanius is particularly well informed about the Phibionites and their literature, he tells us, because as a young man he was nearly seduced – literally – into their sect.   According to his autobiographical, yet imaginative, account, as a young man he was approached by two attractive women who urged him to join with them in their sectarian worship, which, as we will see, was anything but sanctified.  He nearly succumbed, but in the end managed to escape their clutches, and he reported to the authorities what they were doing.  The authorities went on a search and dispelled the band.

In the course of his near seduction, Epiphanius tells us, he managed to procure and to read a number of the Phibionites’ sacred  books.  One that particularly struck him was the Greater Questions of Mary (which we no longer have) from which he quotes a passage in order to highlight its extraordinary, not to say completely scandalous, character.   The passage concerns an encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and replicates in Gospel form the interests and activities of the Phibionites who had allegedly forged it: “For in the book called The Greater Questions of Mary (they have also forged one called the Lesser), they indicate that he [Jesus] gave a revelation to her [Mary].  Taking her to the mountain he prayed and then extracted a woman from his side and began having sexual intercourse with her; then he gathered his semen in his hand, explaining that “This is what we must do in order to live.”  When Mary became disturbed and fell to the ground, he again raised her and said to her, “Why do you doubt, you of little faith?””[1]

Epiphanius need only cite this passage to show how outrageous it was as a forgery, and how  …

It gets worse.  Or better, depending on your perspective.  But either way it’s definitely worth reading, since this ain’t the kind of thing you normally hear about the early Christians.  Wanna see what happens next?  Join the blog and you’ll be able to.  Joining is easy and inexpensive, and all fees go to charities.  Though not to any sponsored by the Phibionites.

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How I First Learned About the Gospel of Judas Iscariot
The Outrageous Immorality of Early Christians (!) (?)



  1. Avatar
    RiskManager  July 14, 2020

    I sincerely hope none of the events mentioned here are historical, especially the one involving the fetus. My hands tremble when thinking about the alleged criminal act involving fetus and i’m afraid might’ve involved infants if the account is true. In the last related post Dr. Ehrman asked readers to brace themselves. Yes, the information is really graphically disturbing but definitely needed in order to understand the early periods of Christianity.

    Yes, just in case to inform other blog members, the movie ‘The Search – Manufacturing Belief’ is available in Vimeo now. I just downloaded. Yet to watch! I live in Canada, so I couldn’t get it from Amazon Prime.

  2. Avatar
    allisonvantilborgh  July 14, 2020

    The note about abortions is interesting indeed. Were there any rumors/conspiracy theories about Christian suicides or murders made also in the name of escaping the entrapments of the flesh?

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 14, 2020

    It does not seem impossible to me that some Christian sects might have engaged in a variety of activities that might seem surprising to us today, if not scandalous. Whether or to what extent any of them engaged in the precise sorts of activities attributed to them by the Romans or by people like Epiphanius is an open question, but we have examples of cult behavior from contemporary sources, involving cults that were ostensibly “Christian”, and accounts of child abuse, and various forms of sexual activity. So it’s certainly not impossible. In fact, it would not be surprising to find that at least some early Christian sects were very cultish. Those would be the days before beliefs and practices became standardized and dominated by a top down authority. A biological analogy would be the strange lifeforms of the Burgess Shale, at the very beginning of the Cambrian. Some early Christian sects might have been as bizarre as Hallucigenia.

  4. Avatar
    Christian David  July 14, 2020

    Wow, this was hilarious. I was literally in tears by the time I finished this article lol. How could anyone take this seriously? To me, it sounds like Epiphanius was trying to be funny.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2020

      Yeah, it can seem that way. But he was not known for a sense of humor!

  5. Avatar
    Patrick Reeves  July 14, 2020

    “They nearly loved up Epiphanius and turned him into … a horny toad….”


  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 15, 2020

    I believe there actually *is* a group that practices holy masturbation, so it’s not completely outrageous. The ceremonial abortion and fetus-eating on the other hand…

  7. Avatar
    toejam  July 15, 2020

    Random question that just popped into my head: Are there any known sects in early Christianity (perhaps mentioned by Irenaeus or some other heresy-hunter?) who are *explicitly* said to have denied the apostleship of Paul and who were NOT of some sort of Jewish-Christian persuasion? I know there is some question over whether Justin Martyr revered Paul, but, IIRC, this is only derived from an argument from silence. But I’m thinking of something more explicit where it is stated that ‘sect x’ reject Paul, and yet ‘sect x’ are not some sort of Jewish-Christians group… I hope my question makes sense!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2020

      The question makes sense, yes. But no, I don’t know of such groups — or at least nothing comes to mind.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 15, 2020

    So, making up stuff about political/religious opponents has been going on a very long time because humans are well human. On the other hand, calling people “radical leftists” or “socialists” or “people who want to destroy the suburbs” or “people who don’t want windows” seems rather benign compared to the extent of this ancient name calling.

    • Avatar
      Stephen  July 15, 2020

      Ronald let’s not forget the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s. Folks lost their jobs, had their reputations smeared beyond repair, and some spent years in jail because of the belief in Satanic conspiracies. We’ve not advanced beyond the ancients as much as we like to imagine.

  9. Avatar
    jonas  July 16, 2020

    These Phibionites sound remarkably like the infamous Carpocratians mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (including in the controversial Mar Saba Letter discovered by Morton Smith). I don’t have my copy of Lost Christianities handy at the moment, but is there any connection there?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      No direct, connection though; but the same *kinds* of orthodox Christians were leveling similar *kinds* of assaults, which makes one wonder if any of them was true….

  10. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  July 17, 2020

    There’s never been a time where propaganda levied against opponents was as common, as it was in Roman times. It’s plastered on the ancient architecture. They were the North Korea of propaganda. Not much has changed 1800 years later. The use of propaganda.

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