Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.60

Andrew S. Jacobs, Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity. Christianity in Late Antiquity 2.   Oakland:  The University of California Press, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 335.  ISBN 9780520291126.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Rebecca Lyman, The Church Divinity School of the Pacific (


In his study of the fourth-century bishop and ascetic Epiphanius, Andrew Jacobs makes another illuminating intervention into the history of ancient Christianity. This book received the Philip Schaff Best Book Prize from the American Society of Church History in 2017. His contribution joins several other recent books on Epiphanius, including Young Kim’s historical and theological biography and Todd Berzon’s examination of difference and ethnology.1 Jacobs’ historical skills in using literary and post-colonial methods to explore the construction and exploitation of difference in late antiquity have been well demonstrated in his previous books, Remains of the Jews and Christ Circumcised.2 Noting that Epiphanius, a tenacious heresiologist, is one bishop most scholars of ancient Christianity would prefer to ignore (or at least not include in the company of Augustine or Basil of Caesarea), Jacobs explores his undeniable importance to his contemporaries through categories not always found in their holy vitae: celebrity, conversion as creating social boundaries, scripture as an antiquarian treasure house, salvation as necessarily corporeal, and sanctity as social transgression. Through these lenses Jacobs argues that contentious Epiphanius embodies ancient Christian sensibilities, which challenges the current, and perhaps complacent, narratives of religious change in the Anglophone sphere of late antique studies. This is the Christianization of eastern Roman society through a holy Krakatoa rather than a learned Athos.

In the introduction, Jacobs sets out a thorough review of scholarship, demonstrating the incoherence of the modern distaste that marginalizes Epiphanius as a dishonest heresiologist and defender of literal interpretation. His historical peers felt quite differently about Epiphanius; he is ubiquitous in their works and indispensible to their analyses. The introduction includes a summary of his life and a thorough review of his extant writings. Methodologically, Jacobs understands heresiology to be the ordering of theological difference in line with Roman imperial attention to otherness and difference: management and incorporation rather than eradication and destruction. Epiphanius’ management of theological error in his encyclopedic heresiological work, the Panarion, and heavy-handed interventions in local disputes are then essentially congruent with the surrounding culture, and reveal the construction and reception of a totalizing Christian discourse.

In the first chapter, the category of “celebrity” helps to re-imagine Epiphanius’ influence and interventions. Celebrity, in contrast to power or authority, first traces the effects of prominence over a variety of social fields rather than focusing on its cause, e.g., ecclesiastical office. Secondly, celebrity signals immediacy and transience. The polarizing and charismatic effects of Epiphanius’ fame therefore signal him as a historically precise icon. His “celebrification” challenges our ordered narratives of Christian unity and culture. Epiphanius was used within contemporary narratives about imperium, paideia, and askesis to exemplify the variety of conflicting values within ancient Christianity. He is both a defender of a Christian empire and a gadfly; he is both learned and rustic; he is distinguished by his asceticism and his episcopal authority. In these ways Epiphanius as a celebrity encompassed the contradictions of his era and reveals the complexity of Christian culture and authority.

“Conversion” is the means to explore the centrality of Epiphanius in Chapter Two. Jacobs draws on recent work on boundaries and borders, including D. Boyarin’s description of borders as constructed by those in power to mask and occlude hybridity and L. Nasrallah’s work on conversion and colonial discourse.3

Conversion, when defined as a social expression of religious identity and power rather than an interior shift of religious experience provides insights into the social management of status and difference. Jacobs explores changes in status within Christian hierarchies, the conversion from orthodox to heretical, and from Jew to Christian. These changes reveal unstable zones of authority as well as the collapse of boundaries themselves within a totalizing identity. The famous forced ordination of Paulinian, Jerome’s brother, illustrated the control of Epiphanius over himself and others. The slippage of Christians such as Origen or Arius into heresy was framed by Epiphanius with reference to the force or failure of empire. The conversion of Jews to Christianity presented the absorption of Judaism into Christianity. Epiphanius thus displayed control and dominance as well as the anxieties of loss and change in his narratives and episcopal actions.

In Chapter Three on “Discipline,” Jacobs uses improvisation as a performative mode to explore the conventional narratives of the drift of fourth-century institutions toward exclusion, hierarchy and constraint. Ancient improvisation was linked to a perception of spontaneous creativity, which often evoked relations and negotiations of power that were received within institutions, i.e., it presupposed an audience familiar with certain models or traditions. Epiphanius enforced discipline on the body and the community through a self-consciously improvisational style. Thus, he criticized immoderate ascetics because of their lack of discipline; their inflexibility limited the diverse levels of asceticism needed within the Church. This rigorous flexibility indeed emphasized his authority in varied circumstances. With regard to the larger Church, Epiphanius’ interventions in his own self-representations performed a sense of improvisation and dialogue, though they did not always satisfy his peers, such as John of Jerusalem. This style of episcopal authority was not necessarily unique to Epiphanius, but instead revealed a crucial strategy within the development of the imperial Church after the divisive Trinitarian debates by presenting orthodox rigor in a spontaneous style. S. Greenblatt has argued that improvisation was a tool of domination by masking its dominating goals.4

In Chapter Four on “Scripture,” Jacobs portrays Epiphanius as an antiquarian whose knowledge and defense of detail portrayed his mastery of the world. Ancient antiquarian treatises supported Roman claims to a totalized mastery of the world, resulting in “compilatory” texts, i.e., encyclopedic summaries of collected knowledge. Epiphanius’ attacks on Origen’s allegorical exegesis displayed this sort of antiquarian aesthetic: literalism, digressions, lists, and logical gaps. This kaleidoscopic effect is not to persuade, but to catalogue and know. Thus the Ancoratus and Panarion are full of long chains of proof texts and digressions on history, geography, and ethnography. This is clearly shown in his works On Weights and Measures and On Twelve Gems. Epiphanius’ treatment of the Bible therefore reflects the “aesthetics of discontinuity” or the jeweled style of late antiquity.5 Rather than ranking the intellectual and philosophical exegesis of Origen or Augustine over the literalism of Epiphanius, one needs to understand the cultural significance of antiquarian exegesis which demonstrated the mastery and display of all the knowledge of the world.

In Chapter Five on “Salvation,” Jacobs reframes Epiphanius’ infamous theological misreading of Origen by defining the importance of physicality to salvation as a moral rather than philosophical view. Epiphanius modestly and shrewdly declared his own theological simplicity, while consistently enforcing Nicene formulas. This defense of the consubstantial Trinity and physical resurrection in the Ancoratus and Panarion was based on an idea of the body and soul as a moral unit fashioned in the complete image of God. Just as the Panarion should be read not as a heresiological handbook, but, like The City of God, as treatise on moral destiny in ancient culture, Epiphanius’ opposition to Origen was located in his perception that Origen’s exegesis and theology dissolved the moral and divine unities which structured human salvation. Epiphanius, and it seems Jacobs, believed that Origen had a theology of personal transformation rather than personal continuity. Epiphanius’ defense of moral unity and divine unity was therefore continued in later controversies by Theophilus and Shenoute that resulted in his victory over the legacy of Origen.

In Chapter Six, Jacob explores the “After Lives” of Epiphanius as a saint. Using F. Meltzer and J. Elsner rather than P. Brown, he defines the saint as a model of holiness, but also as one who transgresses cultural values and reveals the uncertainties and ambiguities of culture.6 His two examples are a Greek Vita Epiphanii from the sixth century and a Victorian novella, Epiphanius: The History of his Childhood and Youth, Told by Himself; A Tale of the Early Church, which both explore empire and holiness. In the ancient account, the boundaries of Roman and Christian identity are defined and defended, while the figure of Epiphanius as a Jewish convert and his troublesome excesses also allow the reader to question the unity of Christianity and Rome. In the later Anglo-Catholic account, the Victorian perplexity around the boundaries separating Church from state and Judaism from Christianity shape the narrative of the life: continuities are obvious and disturbing, which must be regulated by Catholic orthodoxy.

In his conclusion, Jacobs argues that retrieving Epiphanius as an “ impresario” of difference and confrontation should both challenge and perhaps shame historians who have preferred to understand a late antiquity made in their own image: humane, learned, and tolerant. Rather than being a boorish outlier, Epiphanius in fact represents the strong cultural values of the fourth century that shaped the resulting structures of imperial Christianity. Difference and its mastery is not a problem for Epiphanius. This stands in contrast to the 1970s liberalism that fostered the rise of “Late Antiquity” as an era of change and transformation. Epiphanius’ standing as a central ecclesiastical actor therefore requires scholars to inquire what twisted uses our present multi-cultural societies may also be making of difference.

Jacob’s reading of Epiphanius is exemplary and brilliant in stripping away traditional assumptions about the social power of ecclesiastical definitions and displaying the different ways in which power and authorial presence work in ancient culture. Yet this fine study with its own teleology of re-centering Epiphanius would have attained more nuance within a broader historical horizon. The antiquarian Epiphanius whose disconnected exegesis opposed Origen in Chapter Four seems difficult to reconcile with the cultural apologist whose moral and theological unity defeated Origen in Chapter Five. Eusebius of Caesarea’s reading of Origen, together with his own antiquarianism and heresiology, would have provided a helpful contemporary foil. A significant omission in a cultural definition of difference is a treatment of Epiphanius’ violent rhetoric. Epiphanius routinely closes the chapters of the Panarion by trampling his opponents or beating them to death, often with the cross of Christ. Jacobs’s account of the monastic Epiphanius opposing the philosophical Origen on salvation would have been more intelligible if it were set within the variety of unsettled opinions about image and corporeality among ascetics as well as theologians from Marcellus to Apollinarius to the Manichees, rather than connected to the later monasticism of Shenoute. Finally, beyond the work of Peter Brown and Late Antiquity lie the horizons of traditional “patristic” studies and the post-Reformation apologetics that saturate the field. Ironically, the distaste for Epiphanius is linked to the Catholic humanism of Anglicans such as Henry Chadwick and connected to his own rehabilitation of Origen, the perennial outlier.


1.   Young Kim, Epiphanius of Cyprus. Imagining an Orthodox World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015); Todd S. Berzon, Classifying Christians. Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).
2.   Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity, Divinations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference, Divinations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
3.   Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, Divinations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Laura Nasrallah, “The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Construction of the Experience: The Case of Justin Martyr,” SP 40 (2006) 467-474.
4.   Stephen Greenblatt, “The Improvisation of Power,” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
5.   Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1989).
6.   Françoise Meltzer and Jas Elsner, eds., Saints: Faith without Borders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

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