In yesterday’s post I detailed the scurrilous accusations made by the 4th century heresy-hunter (i.e., “heresiologist”) Epiphanius against a group of Christian “heretics” he calls the Phibionites.  Among other things, he claims they used a Gospel that depicted Jesus engaging in a bizarre sex-act with Mary Magdalene.  But then I asked whether there really was a Gospel that described such a thing and if the Phibionites themselves were engaged in the kind of activities Epiphanius alleges.  He claims he has first-hand knowledge.  Does he?

Here I explain why I don’t think we can trust him on these claims (he is commonly among scholars thought to be untrustworthy in general), that in fact I think he’s just makin’ stuff up.  It’s not just a feeling I have.  I think there are reasons for drawing that conclusion.  Here is what I say about it in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  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 orbit.  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.[1]  As far back as Irenaeus, two centuries earlier, we learn of Valentinians who allegedly taught that …

Amazing what early Christian heresy-hunters said about other Christian groups.  You think it can be bad today!   Wanna see more?  Join the blog!  Costs little, gives lots, and helps charity.  What could be better?