Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

by Andrew S. Jacobs

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Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus from 367 to 403 C.E., was incredibly influential in the last decades of the fourth century. Whereas his major surviving text (the Panarion, an encyclopedia of heresies) is studied for lost sources, Epiphanius himself is often dismissed as an anti-intellectual eccentric, a marginal figure of late antiquity. In this book, Andrew Jacobs moves Epiphanius from the margin back toward the center and proposes we view major cultural themes of late antiquity in a new light altogether. Through an examination of the key cultural concepts of celebrity, conversion, discipline, scripture, and salvation, Jacobs shifts our understanding of "late antiquity" from a transformational period open to new ideas and peoples toward a Christian Empire that posited a troubling, but ever-present, "otherness" at the center of its cultural production.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520291126
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Series: Christianity in Late Antiquity , #2
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.


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Epiphanius of Cyprus

A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

By Andrew S. Jacobs


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96498-3




In the late fourth century, caustic monk and scholar Jerome recalled to his bishop, John of Jerusalem, a recent confrontation between John and Jerome's mentor, Epiphanius:

Is it not the case that, when you were going forth from the Resurrection Church to the cross, a crowd flowed together toward him, of every age and sex, holding up their children, kissing his feet, pulling at his fringes; and when he couldn't move forward a step, and in one place he could scarcely hold up against the sweeping flood of people, you — twisted with envy — shouted against this pompous old man (gloriosum senem)? And you did not blush to say to his face that he wanted and schemed to be held up.

Epiphanius, the "pompous old man" (gloriosus senex, which we might also translate as "famous old man"), showed up his episcopal rival later that same day in his rival's church, rising after the sermon to more rejoicing (risus) and applause (acclamatio). The sheer frenzy of the crowds and the utter loathing of the rival bishop and his cronies are two sides of the same coin: Epiphanius is at one and the same time "an old blowhard" (fatuus senex) and "the father of bishops" (pater episcoporum) One way to describe Epiphanius, in this account — this double-sided figure of fame and renown who also draws down accusations of falseness and scheming for attention — is as a celebrity.

I am interested in this chapter in how we might use Epiphanius's particular form of prominence to reimagine authority in late ancient Christianity in ways distinct from more familiar terms like status, authority, or the nebulous but compelling term power? When we frame our analyses of the authority of Christian figures in terms of power, we are often aiming to imagine a broader field of social relations in late antiquity. Power allows us to compare Christian authorities (bishops, abbots, patriarchs, and so forth) to analogous Greek and Roman authorities (governors, emperors, and generals). Applying such power or status analysis to individuals — such as Augustine, Athanasius, or John Chrysostom — coheres with our familiar narratives of continuity and transformation in late antiquity: their style of prominence makes sense in terms of larger trends and patterns.

An analysis grounded in celebrity, however, works differently. I delve more deeply into the nuances of fame and celebrity below, but for now let me point out two of the most useful and obvious connotations of the term. First, a focus on celebrity rather than authority shifts our emphasis away from cause to effect: we no longer imagine stable channels of power producing figures of authority (bishops, governors, and so forth), but instead trace the effects of a person's prominence across multiple social fields. Once we stop asking where authority comes from, a question often slippery if not impossible to answer, we can attend instead to how it works. Second, and similarly, celebrity signifies (among other things) both immediacy and transience: the celebrity is that person with whom the crowds identify and whom they adore (or despise), but whose fame is fleeting and impermanent. Celebrities function, therefore, as condensed icons of precise historical moments.

Epiphanius was, I argue, such a historically precise icon, whose shining omnipresence in the last third of the fourth century defies analysis through our standard rubrics of episcopal advancement. His otherwise inexplicable fourth-century celebrity makes him historically valuable. Tracing the origins of his authority is practically impossible, but its effects are multiple and vivid. If we want to understand the cultural contours of imperial Christianity, we should take seriously those leaders who were famous in their time. Their transient fame might tell us more about their specific and contingent contexts than we might otherwise appreciate.

I am not arguing that Epiphanius was somehow more important or beloved in his time, raised up by talents far above his peers in ways now lost to us. He was, as my opening anecdote shows, as much despised as adored. But he was indisputably known: by the 370s Epiphanius was suddenly, it seems, everywhere. How he moved from a Palestinian monastery to the episcopacy of Constantia (Salamis) on Cyprus remains a mystery; modern historians guess he must have already gained some acclaim as an ascetic and vocal opponent of heresy. Once bishop,

Epiphanius not only reformed and united the churches of Cyprus, but extended his hand throughout the Christian East, and even to Rome. He involved himself in disagreements over the date of Easter, the tangled episcopal elections in Antioch, theological debates on the Trinity (especially the newly controversial role of the Holy Spirit), and, eventually, conflicts over the speculative theology of Origen of Alexandria. We do not see Epiphanius rising through the ecclesiastical ranks, forging allegiances, establishing a reputation, courting supporters. He is simply, all at once, there, from Constantinople to Rome, well known (if not always well liked), riding a wave of episcopal celebrity.

In this chapter I reframe Christian authority in the late fourth century through this lens of celebrity: how can the fame of Epiphanius tell us how Christians during this crucial time grappled with major cultural and social issues? We find in Epiphanius not a stable model of a new Christian Roman Empire, but rather an amenable screen on which Christians of his time, and soon after, might imagine the fraught and often contradictory possibilities of Christian empire. The function of Epiphanius's celebrity, rather than the substance of his person, guides us toward new historical possibilities. I begin with a brief survey of the rich field of celebrity studies, which has likewise struggled since the 1960s to detach the social and cultural functions of celebrity from our (often) judgmental dismissal of the persons of celebrities. I then proceed to place Epiphanius's celebrity in its social context, among his peers in the last part of the fourth century. Finally, I explore the cultural deployment of Epiphanius's fame — his "celebrity-function" — in several major discourses of the fifth century.


The critical study of celebrity in the twentieth century began as a form of cultural critique of sudden forms of fame grounded in ephemeral popular culture. In the 1960s, in a caustic essay, Daniel Boorstin famously described the celebrity as "a person who is known for his well-knownness. ... He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness." By characterizing the celebrity as a "pseudo-event," Boorstin assumes and valorizes his or her opposite: a "real" event, a "great" person who has achieved prominence for true and substantive reasons. Such a reading asks us to separate the emptiness of celebrity from more durable and institutional forms of public recognition, such as status (Weber) or distinction (Bourdieu). Some sociologists and theorists still persist in distinguishing between fame (which is earned) and celebrity (which is not). Yet attempts to create language that distinguishes the pseudo-event of celebrity from the presumably more substantial categories of fame, status, or renown reflect contingent and particular presumptions and judgments about social meaning and merit: some prominent people we approve of (the famous) and others we do not (celebrities). We can imagine how such presumptions would allow us to dismiss certain historical figures as unimportant while elevating others to become representatives of an age. If Epiphanius is simply "known for his well-knownness," why should we take him seriously? Epiphanius's lack of substance undermines his historical importance for us.

Yet other students in the growing field of celebrity studies have rejected this broad pronouncement; instead of judging "good" and "bad" forms of renown, these scholars focus on the way celebrity works, particularly by linking the phenomenon of celebrity to considerations of culture and society. Instead of focusing on the celebrity, we can look to the "celebrity-function." Earlier critics like Boorstin judged celebrity based on its causes: why someone had achieved fame determined whether or not we should credit that fame. But the function of celebrity operates independently of its origins. While celebrities might become famous for something (e.g., acting in movies or being enmeshed in a public scandal), their ongoing celebrity, once launched onto a broader platform, transcends its original noteworthiness.

Celebrities do not, however, remain contentless ciphers: rather, they become available receptacles for cultural production and critique. Indeed, precisely what Boorstin lamented in the 1960s — the seeming vacuity and transitoriness of the "famous person" — makes that person an ideal vehicle for great numbers of people to reflect on the cultural issues of their day. Celebrities become, as Leo Braudy notes, "vehicles of cultural memory and cohesion." The celebrity does not merely reflect, but also potentially transforms, cultural identities. Graeme Turner, another theorist of celebrity, specifies "the celebrity's role as a location for the interrogation and elaboration of cultural identity." Celebrities delineate cultural spaces within which particular ideologies or cultural positions might be upheld, subverted, or destabilized. We see below how this emphasis on the cultural role of celebrity, rather than its validity or authenticity, can be useful in gauging the impact of Epiphanius in his time and soon after: it was precisely the fluidity and even seeming groundlessness of his fame throughout the eastern Mediterranean that allowed him to be so useful in cultural critique and debate.

Modern studies have also fleshed out the ways in which celebrity is a thoroughly social phenomenon, emerging out of the interaction between a celebrated persona and an audience (whether appreciative or disapproving). To explore celebrity is to approach networks of social relations and locations from new angles. To the extent that celebrities are commodified — integrated into economies of exchange and value — they can be shaped and reshaped, their signification transformed, by those who possess them. Often fans are more interested in engaging their social world through that celebrity. Movie stars, to take the most current spectacular example, are rarely famous simply for the craft of filmmaking: seemingly unrelated issues of power, identity, and social hierarchy can be projected onto the celebrity, and in that celebrity nexus these issues can be transformed, contested, and reframed.

Many studies insist that fundamentally modern structures undergird celebrity, such as mass media, democracy, or capitalism. I am not arguing that we should extend the modern genealogy of celebrity into late antiquity; rather, I am noting that several of the insights of this theoretical field prove useful when we turn to the premodern era. Students of the Roman world are already attuned to the ways in which personas could be broadcast, popularized, and even commodified. Classicist Thomas Habinek engages profitably with the celebrity of Seneca the Younger, a figure who, like the modern celebrity, was "famous at least in part for being famous." By studying Seneca's fame, Habinek can access "aspects of Roman society not easily spelled out in a straightforward narrative of political history." In the equally fraught context of the post-Constantinian Christian empire, personalities could also be magnified and circulated to embody crucial and historically specific tensions of Christian Roman cultural and social identity. Instead of pursuing the rutted paths of ancient "authority" in our explorations of episcopal power, I suggest insights from the notions of celebrity may allow us a more fluid approach to a period in flux. Epiphanius's prominence in the fourth century may be an enigma to the modern historian; for the ancient Christian, it was an opportunity.


As we have seen, modern celebrity studies in recent decades have shifted our focus from a reflexive rejection of "mere" celebrity to analyzing specific sites of society and culture through the magnified celebrity of an individual. In the same way, we do not need to figure out why Epiphanius was so well-known and influential, nor to gauge the substance and quality of his fame against others'. Rather, we can analyze his celebrity-function: how does the fame of Epiphanius give us access to particular modes of cultural and social critique?

We can approach the production of Epiphanius as a celebrity from two, complementary angles: the social and the cultural. First we can try to gain a sense of the social deployment of Epiphanius's celebrity: the ways we see his celebrity being generated among his various friends and admirers. Incontestably, Epiphanius was — seemingly overnight — a famous bishop, "renowned for his renown." Only a few years after his ascendancy to the episcopal throne we see him involved with most of the major ecclesiastical controversies of his period. Certainly in his own writings Epiphanius portrays himself as an influential participant in ecclesiastical politics: he consults with Athanasius of Alexandria; he responds to theological disputes over the Virgin Mary in Arabia; he presumes to vet the various contenders for the disputed episcopal see of Antioch. We do not, however, have to rely on Epiphanius's own self-reporting to gauge his renown. Epiphanius's role as a player also emerges out of his surviving correspondence with episcopal colleagues. A letter from Athanasius of Alexandria survives in fragments, and even in its fragmentary form makes it clear that the two bishops desired to operate as allies. A letter from Basil of Caesarea also survives in which he heaps praise on Epiphanius. To be sure, much of Basil's flowery obsequiousness is formulaic: Epiphanius is "your holiness," "your wisdom," and "your excellency," while Basil is "unworthy and insignificant" and "awestruck." Basil is also gingerly seeking to put off several ecclesiastical and theological demands conveyed by Epiphanius's prior letter and his emissaries. In gauging Epiphanius's celebrity, we should find Basil's tone more significant than any actual concessions he does or does not make to Epiphanius. As modern studies make clear, celebrity is produced in social interactions, a give-and-take between celebrity and audience. The conciliatory tone of one bishop to another, as well as the tacit acknowledgment of Epiphanius's right to intervene in various foreign episcopal venues, serves to affirm the stature of Epiphanius among his episcopal colleagues.

In the thick of the Origenist controversy, Theophilus of Alexandria sent a letter to Epiphanius that was meant to serve as a cover letter for his circular letter to all the bishops of the East. Again the tone is one of subservience and respect: Epiphanius is the hardened warrior who has preceded Theophilus into the battle they now wage together against heretics; Epiphanius should take charge and push the battle forward. Even at the time people mistrusted Theophilus's motives, accusing him of duping Epiphanius, flattering him, and using him to strike out at his enemies. Nevertheless, the very fact that Theophilus finds it useful to dupe Epiphanius speaks to Epiphanius's fame: he is someone whose value in the public sphere is worth exploiting.

As I noted in the introduction, Epiphanius seems to have composed all of his surviving writings upon request from monks and bishops from around the Greek-speaking world. We do not know why these various parties chose to write to Epiphanius — that is, how he had become so famous that others might solicit his written advice. What we can trace, however, are the social networks through which Epiphanius's celebrity was channeled. As far as we know, Epiphanius had not published any theological treatises in the 370s when he received two different letters from clergy and monks in the city of Syedra in Pamphylia (south-central Asia Minor). Yet the writers implore Epiphanius — "god-honored" and "master" — to provide for them "correct and healthy faith," particularly concerning the godhead of the Holy Spirit. The result, produced in 373/74 (less than a decade into Epiphanius's episcopacy), was the long and somewhat rambling Ancoratus, a work at once highly idiosyncratic and yet deeply embedded in the theological controversies raging in the years building up to the Council of Constantinople in 381. The pre-existing celebrity of Epiphanius results, in this instance, in a moment of theological solidarity among pro-Nicene partisans.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xiii

Introduction: Epipbanius, Now and Then 1

1 Celebrity 31

2 Conversion 65

3 Discipline 97

4 Scripture 132

5 Salvation 176

6 After Lives 221

Conclusion 263

Bibliography 279

Index 309

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