Andrew S. Jacobs argues that Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (Constantia) on Cyprus in the later fourth century, is a key figure for understanding the culture of Late Antiquity. This is provocative, as Epiphanius, the compiler of the catalogue of heresies called the Panarion (‘Cure-All’), is often marginalized and mocked in modern times. However, Jacobs argues persuasively that Epiphanius decisively shaped the debates gripping Christianity in Late Antiquity. Jacobs introduces Epiphanius’ life and works, and demonstrates in five case studies how he contributed to discourses on celebrity, conversion, discipline, scripture, and salvation during his lifetime. He concludes with a brief exploration of Epiphanius’ own “After Lives,” first as a Jewish convert and miracle-worker in a fifth-century hagiographic vita, then as a key player in Iconoclasm (on both sides), and finally as a character in a Victorian novel by Thomas Wimberley Mossman. Jacobs succeeds throughout in putting Epiphanius back in his social context, illuminating him, his direct audience, and a larger culture in which Christian bishops increasingly directed the daily lives and choices of congregations all around the Mediterranean sea. This is a well-written and well-argued book which all scholars of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity can read with benefit.
Jacobs situates his scholarship in a groundswell of work on Epiphanius and his later fourth-century context, especially by his mentor Liz Clark, Frank Williams (translator of the Panarion, 2009–2013), and Young Richard Kim (translator of Epiphanius’ Ancoratus, 2014, and author of a 2015 monograph on Epiphanius). Jacobs starts with Epiphanius’ own writings. These include the treatises Ancoratus and the Panarion, two biblical commentaries preserved mainly in translation, and his letters (especially those to his student Jerome, and to Basil of Caesarea). Ancoratus is presented as a reply of circa 373–4 sent to the churches of Asia Minor, on the divinity of the Holy Spirit and as a defence of the Trinity. Though this might not have been a real “request,” the treatise circulated widely. Photius called it “a kind of synopsis of the Panarion,” Epiphanius’ next major work and his best-known. This catalogue of 80 heresies is often seen as the founding work of the genre of heresiology (though it preserves earlier texts such as Irenaeus, Against Heresies). The 80 in question include 20 before Christ and 60 after, ranging beyond Christianity into improper religion of all sorts including comparison to concubines in the Song of Songs (6:8–9), refutations of some 44 Greek philosophies, and a list of Church rules. The Panarion, compiled about 375–8, is presented as a response to “Acacius and Paul,” who had read Ancoratus and wanted to know more. Epiphanius’ biblical commentaries are similarly concerned with correct as well as incorrect Nicene Christianity. De mensuribus et ponderibus (preserved in Syriac, with fragments of other translations and the original Greek) is ostensibly on biblical weights and measures, but includes commentary on Origen's bible, sites in the Holy Land, and a list of emperors and consuls down to 392, when it was published, supposedly at the behest of a Persian priest Epiphanius met in Constantinople. De XII gemmis, on the symbolism of the 12 gems on the breastplate of the high priest in Exodus 28:17–21, was published about 394. Partially copied in Latin translation into the Collectio Avellana in Rome in the 6th century, it was also widely translated from the (now fragmentary) Greek, and survives in longest form in Old Georgian.
Jerome recalled Epiphanius as a gloriosus senex who received a glowing reception from a crowd in Jerusalem, in contrast to their own bishop. Jacobs argues that Epiphanius was a celebrity, and his function as such helps define the shifting sands of status, authority, and power in the later fourth century. Chapter 1 (“Celebrity”) could have pushed deeper into how and when Epiphanius first became famous, while specific parallels like Symeon Stylites could have helped to outline the path to becoming, as well as being, a celebrity. Yet Jacobs does a fine job characterizing the new terms of celebrity among churchmen and how Epiphanius fulfilled them. Besides the crowds, there were treatises or letters read aloud, copied, and sent on, as well as sermons or written contributions to debates on the liturgy, theology, and controversies around episcopal elections. Epiphanius traveled and was part of social networks beyond Cyprus and the East. His letters and treatises reveal both his mentors (Hilarion) and his students (Jerome). In the Origenist controversy, Theophilus of Alexandria sought after his support. Posthumous references in historians, Apophthegmata, and his fifth-century vita reveal his celebrity status turned to serve wider cultural concerns with imperium, paideia, and askesis. He appears in Constantinople as an opponent of John Chrysostom; Socrates makes him a pawn of the empress, who goes away cursing John (and cursed in return, Epiphanius dies on the ship home). Sozomen, though, makes him a more moderate figure seeking reconciliation.
Jerome and Augustine judged the writings of Epiphanius as valuable, as both learned and accessible to the people. Their style and content illuminate the challenges that Christian authors posed to traditional paideia, and how Epiphanius stands in contrast to the Cappadocian fathers, though I am not as sure as Jacobs seems to be that Epiphanius’ attacks on Hellenic wisdom were largely rhetorical. There is confusion in the fifth-century sources as to whether Epiphanius’ ascetic fame led to his episcopacy in Cyprus or resulted from it; in either case, the tradition was that he was schooled in the desert monasteries of Egypt as a youth, and founded a monastery in his native Palestine which he continued to run from Cyprus. He was therefore one of the first monk-bishops, a group which grew over time. Jacobs concludes that Epiphanius is like an icon, less real to us, but more real and charged to his contemporaries and inheritors, from his potential social and religious symbolism.
Chapter 2 (“Conversion”) considers the clerical hierarchy, various heresies, and the border between Christianity and Judaism. Epiphanius helps us understand the external and social aspects of conversion in parallel to Augustine's more famous account. The social reality of the nascent Christian clergy is illuminated by Epiphanius’ accounts of his forcible ordination of Jerome's brother, and his distaste for an ex-priest, ex-monk, but still dangerously charismatic hermit. Epiphanius’ heresiology allowed him to appear in control of Christian orthodoxy by defining its borders, and his popularity shows his success. He illustrates the social or personal reasons for schism, and the erratic presence of imperial authority (both pre- and post-Constantine). Epiphanius’ obsession with Origen and almost ahistorical Arius de-emphasizes personal belief for context. He devoted his longest tales to Jewish rather than pagan converts. Jacobs argues that he thus delineated Judaism by claiming Christianity as the center and the secret religion of many Jews, dismissing polytheism as mere superstitio.
Chapter 3 (“Discipline”) explores Epiphanius’ episcopal style, noting his monastic influence, but also his flexibility and improvisation in tackling local and ecumenical issues. Jacobs gives a very wide-ranging and thoughtful examination of the grounds for fourth-century clerical authority, in both education and cultural assumptions. This was still a written and oral performance culture which valued improvisation within defined limits and reinforced power relations between the performer and the audience (or congregation). A new Christian “culture of exclusion, hierarchy and constraint (p. 108),” especially around sexuality and the body, drew upon and then replaced the existing performance culture of courtroom or theater. Epiphanius criticized both extremes, including asceticism, by comparing people to the various woods of ship-building, suited to different stresses and hence Christian behaviours by their nature. He advocated a rigorous yet flexible approach to issues of food, sex, and marriage under debate since the days of St. Paul, especially in the conclusion to the Panarion, where he appends the “brief and elastic” list of rules. The application of this approach is visible in his efforts to mediate among rival bishops of Antioch, and his travels to both Rome and Constantinople. His writings reveal the outlines of his growing personal status, reflecting the larger upward progression of clerics into authority over all spheres of society in the Theodosian era.
In post-Nicene trinitarian theology, Epiphanius is currently studied as a source rather than a shaper, but Jacobs argues in Chapters 4 and 5 that he was clearly the latter. He was known and respected by most famous Church Fathers, central to orthodox opposition under Julian and the Arian emperors, and then at the heart of movements against Origen's teachings and (probably) John Chrysostom. We have been taken in by Epiphanius’ assertion that he was not one of the scholars (philomathoi). He had a coherent and consistent position for the consubstantiality of the Trinity, and the unity of human body and soul. Jacobs outlines how these ideas are based on moral rather than metaphysical philosophy, and its concerns with the essential unity of the human body, humanity, and the divine. Epiphanius argued for “unified moral agency,” and the consequent salvation of Christians as individual people to be justly judged for the piety or sin of the whole body and soul as one. The Nicene Creed thus became a route to a unified pious humanity, and Origen's allegorical reading of scripture a dangerous attempt to divide up the human body and the divine. Epiphanius’ views had opponents, but more importantly they found powerful adherents, especially in Egypt.
Epiphanius once ruled monasteries and was famed as a bishop from Cyprus to Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, and deep into Egypt. He wrote in an accessible style that was widely read, copied, and translated. He clearly found his contemporary audience, and only grew in power and celebrity throughout the later fourth century and into Late Antiquity. The reader of this book will learn much about Epiphanius and his works, but even more about the concerns, power-relations, and culture of his audience in Late Antiquity.