In my previous post I talked about the church Father Epiphanius’s attack on a heretical group of Gnostics called the Phibionites. They allegedly based their practices on a now-no-longer-surviving book the Greater Questions of Mary (Magdalene). Epiphanius indicates he knows the book. Did he? Did it actually exist. Here I conclude the discussion, from my book Forgery and Counterforgery.
The prior question is whether Epiphanius’s description of the activities of the group is at all plausible. Historians have long treated Epiphanius in general with a healthy dose of skepticism. No Patristic source is filled with more invective and distortion; Epiphanius frequently makes connections between historical events that we otherwise know are unrelated, and he expressly claims to write horrific accounts precisely in order to repulse his readers from the heresies he describes (Pan. Proem. I. 2). His description of the Phibionites and their sex rituals, nonetheless, has been taken as historically grounded by a dismaying number of competent scholars. For Stephen Gero, the fact that other heresiological sources down into the Middle Ages mention the group (which he calls the Borborites) and level charges of immorality against them indicates that they did indeed exist and that they were indeed immoral. But surely the perdurance of traditional slander is not the best gauge of historical veracity. So too Stephen Benko argues that the close ties between the ritual activities of the group and their theological views shows that the account of Epiphanius is entirely plausible. But this overlooks the fact that it is Epiphanius himself who establishes the linkage, which 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?
One obvious place to start is with Epiphanius’s 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.
Epiphanius stands in a long line of Christian heresiologists who claimed that their opponents, especially Gnostics, not only subscribed to impenetrable and ridiculous mythological understandings of the world, but also engaged in outrageous and scurrilous behavior, all as part of their religion. As far back as Irenaeus, two centuries earlier, we learn of Valentinians who allegedly taught that
Some strange goings on back there in early Christianity. Join the blog and learn more! Click here for membership options