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Slurs Against Religious Opponents and Makin’ Stuff Up

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?

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  1. Avatar
    abdout77  July 15, 2020

    Mr Ehrman there’s something i always wondered and i can’t remmeber you talking about it so here i go : you said in one of your debate that we have been aware of the anonymous writing of the bible of 200 years, there forgeries and corruption of atleast 100. So how is it that you are( one of along with Robert price, Richard Carrier and David Fitzegerald) the first to talk about that ? if we have know it for so long why is it not a mainstream kowledge already ? And why are evangelicals and your fellow NT scholars so angry about the fact that you address that publicly ? shouldn’t they strive to spread that knowledge instead of keeping it for themselves ?

    I’m french and i asked that very same question to french bible scholars and to evangelical websites, they either avoid it, deviate from it, or ignore it (they even delete my acount once!) this knowledge is not spread at all in non-english speaking communities.

    Thanks for the time you take to respond and sorry for the possible gramatical errors in my text, once again, I’m french not english.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      Thanks — your English is *so* much better than my French. But there’s a very easy answer: I’m not at all the first to talk about it. That’s actually my point: scholars have been talking about this for many many years — it’s common knowledge.

  2. Avatar
    egordon  July 15, 2020

    You know, there’s no telling what a Christian might do. Lots of churches are pro-choice, lots of churches admit homosexual members and ordain women and homosexuals. The Catholic Church (in particular) has been rocked by pedophelic rape scandals. All of these things are true. The United States (once thought of as a primarily Christian nation) has an astronomical body count from abortion. I’m not making a statement here or taking a side on these social issues. These are just facts.

    So, when I here that early Christian sects may have engaged in bizarre sex rituals or human sacrifice, especially in Roman times–when horrible crimes against humanity were common and even on display in the Colosseum–I mean, sure, it could have happened. Not all Christians are good people, you know.

    And Jesus, well, the elect hear his voice and follow him. That’s all he cares about, I think. I think that’s all he ever cared about. And I don’t think the Church that formed around his name had much to do with the elect he called to.

    • Avatar
      Judith  July 18, 2020

      “As for Jesus, the elect hear his voice and follow him. That’s all he cares about. And I don’t think the church that formed around his name had much to do with the elect he called to.” The Airy Christ by Stevie Smith says the same thing.
      Thank you for this, egordon.

  3. Avatar
    John Morris  July 15, 2020

    Sadly more evidence of the old adage “There is nothing new under the sun”! If you have a different God or a different form of worship you must be wrong and filled with evil! Even after thousands of years Humans rarely change!

  4. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  July 15, 2020

    ‘Self-righteousness is just a compensation for how wrong you feel.’ – Spezzano

  5. Avatar
    Clair  July 15, 2020

    According to his wiki Epiphanius disagreed with almost everyone in what would be the Church? Then as now, cults seem to attract some people with strange or political goals.

  6. Avatar
    AngeloB  July 15, 2020

    It appears that Epiphanius and Ireneus completely misunderstood Gnostic teachings.

  7. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  July 16, 2020

    I can’t help noticing some slight similarity between the strong possibility that Epiphanius fabricateded a ‘secret’ gospel promoting sexual scandal, on the one hand, and the comparable charges made against the scholar Morton Smith and his secret gospel of Mark in modern times.

  8. Avatar
    janmaru  July 16, 2020

    Hope this post won’t be censored.
    I’m always on topic, even tho it seems I’m on the tangent.

    The world has gone penguin-mad.
    1) common knowledge: Penguins hold lifelong loving relationships and are the ideal graceful parents. They are committed to their partners.

    2) reality: Penguins frequently cheat on their partners and engage in homosexual acts. A lack of stones pushes many females into adultery: they mate with other males in exchange for stones.
    Penguin mothers kidnap and abuse each other’s chicks.

    1) common knowledge: European explorers and adventurers invented an idealized Maya history. They had an exotic fascination of a perfect society.

    2) reality: Maya indulged in bloodletting ceremonies of horrible violence, hallucinogenic clysters, blood-deprivation induced visions, deforestation, mass killings.

    We got the gist that Epiphanius had gone raw and the analysis sounds plausible, but I’m not sure that “the conclusion seems inevitable”.
    Since information is lost any reasonable presumption is just common knowledge.

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 16, 2020

    You’ve written a book on the problem of evil. What do you think of Boethius?

  10. Avatar
    jeffmd90  July 16, 2020

    Yet, in the epistles of the New Testament one of the issues that Paul has to address is loose living. For example in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5 – “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”

    Could there be a recurrent problem amongst some early Christians that because Christ died for sin, it gave them to licence to sin as much as they pleased, perhaps with the thought when they died they would go to heaven regardless. Jesus took away your sin, so eat, drink and be merry!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      A close Christian friend of mine in high school was inclined to that view!

  11. Avatar
    fishician  July 17, 2020

    Today there is a broader version in which some Christians believe that since you can’t be moral without God’s guidance and help all non-Christians and non-believers must in some way fall into immorality. Even Paul delved into this in Romans 1:18f. That certainly has not been my observation over the years!

  12. Avatar
    timcfix  July 19, 2020

    Six Decades ago Sunday morning was filled with wonderful programs that no one ever saw because most were at church all morning. One was called Omnibus. Another I do not recall the title, but it was Roman Catholic and featured many of the passages you wrote of here.

  13. Avatar
    Eskil  July 20, 2020

    Wasn’t the Valentinian Bridal Chamber Theology peculiar way to join a sect? It would have been easy for outsiders to misunderstand it as sexual act, wouldn’t it? Could the “indiscriminate copulation” have been an allegory for spiritual conception and rebirth as well? Gospel of Philip says for example: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2020

      I’m afraid we don’t know what the “Bridal Chamber” involved. We don’t have any descriptions of it. Way too bad….

  14. Avatar
    Eric  July 24, 2020

    I believe charges of indiscriminate sex etc continued to be leveled against splintering christian groups (“heretics”) down through the Middle Ages. I think the Cathars were accused of similar activities.

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