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?””
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.