On Not Buying into Ancient Propaganda

When I was working on Gnostic and New Testament Studies and stuff like that at the GTU in the 1970s, there was one especially important book I could not get hold of: the Panarion (“Medicine Chest for Heresies”) by Epiphanius (d. A.D. 403).  More precisely, I could not find a translation of it. The Greek text I could find, in Professor Migne’s collection of all the writings by the Church Fathers, in Greek and in Latin, from many centuries. Not a vast number of libraries own the complete set of about a hundred volumes, but it was there on the shelves of the University of California library.

I must confess my misdemeanor to my colleagues: I just could not face the prospect of spending an unforeseeable number of hours trying to plow through that Greek text, not knowing whether I would find any useful information not available from the other heresiologists. Fortunately, when I did my comprehensive exam in that field for Professor Antoinette Wire, she overlooked my shortcoming. She was a delightful but tough lady. She rejected my first exam and made me do it over. As a result, I was able to document a textual connection between the Gospels of Thomas and John, more evidence in favor of Marvin Meyer’s classifying John as a Gnostic gospel. I still miss Marv. We were not close buddies, but he was an ally, and there were conversations I was hoping to have with him.

So, fast forward. At some time in more recent years, I ran across a discussion of a passage in Epiphanius that promised to be quite enlightening. (Perhaps I found it in the Hennecke-Schleemacher-Wilson New Testament Apocrypha). This morning, taking a breather from working on rewriting my Goddess Murder novel and from the string quartet I’ve been composing—thanks to MuseScore, free software by wonderful Aussies, I can finally hear music I scored decades ago—I wondered if I could find a translation of Epiphanius online. One Google search—and there it was. Hit control-F, type in “seduce,” and there was the passage I wanted. It’s Epiphanius, I, 26, “Against the Gnostics,” chapters and verses as cited below; available at http://www.masseiana.org/panarion_bk1.htm.

At 72, I don’t feel old, and I don’t think old. I am blessed with still being teachable. But this curmudgeonly voice wants to tell all you young whippersnappers that you just don’t know how easy you’ve got it. When I started at Stanford University Press in 1964, the typesetting was done on linotype machines, and proofs were created by putting a long galley sheet on the inked slugs of metal and running a roller over it—essentially the same technology used by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. In the early 1970s, at Scientific American Books, Robert Ishikawa and I created history’s first boldface italic font, to be used for phototypesetting the Misner-Thorne-Wheeler Gravity and thus getting the math notation right for the first time ever. Ten years later, a kid with an Apple II could do better. And when I typed my dissertation on an IBM Selectric in 1980, its advanced technology was being able to change the typeball in order to type in the Greek font. What a revelation Word 5 was: never having to retype anything, having footnotes automatically renumbered. So now I don’t regret not having wasted hours on Epiphanius in the bowels of the UC Berkeley library; it has worked out.

Now, let’s consider the passage from Epiphanius. It is important because it is one of the very few passages based on a firsthand, face-to-face encounter. I’ve edited it down to eliminate most of his vicious language and emphasis the facts he lets slip through.

4:1 they hold their wives in common.  4:2 And if a guest who is of their persuasion arrives, they have a sign . . .  to show that the visitor is of their religion. 4:3 And once they recognize each other from this they start feasting right away . . . 4:4 And the husband will move away from his wife and tell her . . . ‘Get up, perform the Agape [love feast] with the brother.’

5:8 [They] say, ‘Fasting is wrong; fasting belongs to this archon who made the world. We must take nourishment to make our bodies strong, and able to render their fruit in its season.’

10:7 In departing this world the soul makes its way through these archons, but no one can get through them unless he is in full possession of this ‘knowledge’ . . . and escapes the archons and authorities because he is ‘filled.’

 17:4 I happened on this sect myself, beloved, and was actually taught these things in person, out of the mouths of people who really undertook them. Not only did women under this delusion offer me this line of talk, and divulge this sort of thing to me. With impudent boldness moreover, they even tried to seduce me themselves . . .because they wanted me in my youth. . . . 17:6 . . . when I was reproached by the baneful women themselves, I laughed at the way [they] were whispering to each other . . . ‘We can’t save the kid; we’ve left him in the hands of the archon to perish!’ . . . 17:9 I lost no time reporting them to the bishops . . . they were expelled from the city, about 80 persons,

18:1 . . .  . . . I have . . .  shown what this one of the sects which came my way is like. 18:2 And I could speak plainly of it because of things . . . which I knew by learning them in exact detail from persons who were trying to convert me . . .

Let’s unpack this. These are people who believed in the sacredness of sexuality. They also believed that this world is ruled by evil angels who control (or perhaps are) the planets and who must be overcome for the soul to return to heaven. They believed that initiation into their sacred mysteries conferred the secret knowledge needed to overcome the angels. And they believed that such an initiation had to be sexual, just as some Witches believe now.

So, in this passage we see that a young woman explained her sincere beliefs to the young doofus and offered to initiate him (or maybe work sex magic, or maybe just have sex as an act of worship), and, being a devout heretic, he turned her down!  But the young woman was apparently not offering casual sex. She believed the initiation was essential to his salvation; that’s why she says, ‘We can’t save the kid; we’ve left him in the hands of the archon to perish!’ And in the last line I quoted, he lets slip that he knew this was not casual sex, that she was offering to convert him to the faith she sincerely believed in.

So, not only did he then call them whores and spread malicious gossip about them, he destroyed their lives by getting them exiled! It is fair to say that they offered him what they believed to be the highest good, and he responded, with evil, with gratuitous malevolence. The Catholic Church should be ashamed to call such a man a Church Father. At least he wasn’t canonized—or maybe he was. Need to look that up.

So what is my point? This is a rare case in which we can see what the people attacked by a Church Father were actually like. There were standard forms of propaganda used to attack enemies back then; even the Romans accused the early Roman Christians of eating babies, having incest, etc. I propose that in every case where a Church Father is accusing “heretics” of having “promiscuous intercourse” and “common wives” and so on, what he was attacking was a faith community that believed sex is sacred, our greatest blessing, and essential for salvation. We can see such propaganda continuing into the Middle Ages, as in the Holocaust perpetrated against the Cathars. The irony or tragedy here is that such pro-sexual teaching could go back to Jesus himself. These communities could have had just as valid a claim to be genuine Christians as the Roman types did. The indubitable historical fact is that the Roman Church, once it was given governmental power at the Council of Nicaea, drove every other version of Christianity, as well as every other religion, out of existence (or underground) by force, violence, military might, and just plain flat-out slaughter. It is important that the community Epiphanius encountered was still  thriving about 50 years after Nicaea.

As I’ve mentioned, the Nag Hammadi scriptures were buried in that cemetery in Egypt to keep them from being destroyed, I suppose in the hope that a future generation might read them and learn what the “Gnostics” sincerely believed to be true. We are that future generation. We have a moral responsibility to read those documents and revise our map of what Christianity was all about. I’m not going to remake the case here, but I am beginning to see that the earliest form of Christianity may have been far more like Wicca than either Witches or Christians are willing to believe right now. But I am making out such a case in my Goddess Murder novel. I guess I’ll talk more about what I’m trying to do in it next time.


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