May 12, 2021

Life, Works and Thought of Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky

I. Life.

Epiphanius was born in Palestine around 315. Exactly where he studied is unknown, but from his works it is evident that he was an extremely well-read man. He knew five languages: Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, and some Latin. Epiphanius was an ascetic from his early youth. He was a close friend of Hilarion and visited the monasteries in the Egyptian desert. When he returned home, he founded a monastery near his native town of Eleutheropolis, which he directed for many years. He was a well-known figure far beyond the borders of Palestine, and in 367 he was elected bishop of Constantia (Salamis) in Cyprus. There he became renowned as an ascetic, thaumaturge, and defender of orthodoxy. From 370 he was involved in polemics with the Apollinarians. Epiphanius developed a close friendship with Jerome on the basis of their common interest in ascetic discipline, and through Jerome he became involved in the Origenist controversy in Palestine.
In 394 Epiphanius made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he came into conflict with John of Jerusalem on the subject of Origen. Epiphanius' conduct throughout the course of their violent argument was defiant and provocative. He soon left Palestine, but the Origenist controversy had broken out in Egypt as well. Theophilus of Alexandria managed to convince Epiphanius that this quarrel with John Chrysostom was essentially a struggle against Origenism. Epiphanius then set out for Constantinople, where he regarded Chrysostom with extreme suspicion and refused to have anything to do with him. However, it seems that Epiphanius was eventually enlightened as to the true state of affairs. He decided to return home, and his parting words are reported as: "I leave you your capital, your court, and your hypocrisy." He died on the voyage home in 403.

II. Works.

Epiphanius displayed a zealous interest in the detection and denunciation of heresy. He considered that the uncovering of false teachings was his main task and calling in life, and his chief compositions are dedicated to the dissection of heretical doctrines. His most important work is the Panarion [Medicine Chest; usually cited as Haereses] which was compiled in 375-377. This survey of all known heresies is not so much an examination as a vituperation. Epiphanius collected everything concerning heresy contained in the previous denunciatory literature of Justin, Hippolytus, and especially Irenaeus, and he supplemented this with material drawn from his personal experience. Unfortunately he presented his own material carelessly and without discrimination, and all too frequently he allowed himself to be guided by his extreme suspiciousness. Furthermore, Epiphanius had a poor knowledge of Greek philosophy and confused the Pythagoreans with the Peripatetics, and Zeno of Elea with Zeno the Stoic. He was overly credulous of malicious rumors and in his narrow dogmatism he was instantly on the alert at the faintest hint of any difference of opinion, even on minor questions. He was distrustful of the major theologians of the fourth century, and he was especially hostile to the Alexandrians. Epiphanius regarded Origen with total horror and absolute disgust, and considered that his teachings were not merely false but "the worst of all heresies."

A large part of Epiphanius' writing is based on his memory and on rumor. This explains his constant inaccuracy, particularly in chronology. His denunciations are the weakest feature of his work, largely because he had absolutely no sense of history. In the most ancient times there was neither heresy, nor paganism, nor Judaism, and from this Epiphanius concludes that "the faith of the first men was similar to Christianity and was the same as that which was revealed later." He ascribes the knowledge of the Trinity to Adam and all the just men of the Old Testament until Adam, and he begins his enumeration of Christian heresies even before the Flood, transforming all dishonest men into heretics. The exact number of heresies must be eighty because this is what has been revealed in the Song of Songs: "I have sixty princesses and eighty concubines and young women past counting (6:8)." The first heresy was barbarianism and the coarsening of morals which occurred before the Flood. The second heresy was Scythianism, which lasted until the building of the Tower of Babel. This was followed by Hellenism, with its philosophical sects, and then Judaism. Epiphanius' exposition of the theoretical viewpoints of different heresies is limited, and his attention is mainly devoted to their moral aspects. In his biased presentation the lives led by heretics are dismal. The Panarion is important as a collection of facts relating to heresies, but the material Epiphanius has provided must be used with great caution.

Epiphanius had completed an earlier volume in 374, the Ancoratus (Aγκυρωτος). The title expresses the conception of the true faith as a reliable anchor for man in his voyage through the sea of life, which is filled with the temptations and deceits of demons and heretics. The rules of faith contained in it are primarily directed against contemporary false doctrines, but the views of ancient heretics are included as well. Epiphanius is primarily concerned with setting forth the dogma of the Trinity and emphasizing the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In conclusion he cites two expositions or creeds of faith, one of which, designated as the "creed which is taught in the Church in the holy city" (that is, Jerusalem), coincides almost literally with the creed of Constantinople. The history of this creed is still unclear.

Epiphanius' Biblical commentary was written during the last years of his life. His book On Weights and Measures [De men suris et ponderibus] (of the ancient Hebrews) is intended as an introduction to the study of the Bible. Epiphanius discusses the canon of the Old Testament, its various translations, the geography of Palestine, and deals with "measures and weights" in passing. Only part of the book has been preserved in the original Greek, and the rest is known in a Syriac translation. Another book, an allegorical interpretation titled On the Twelve Precious Stones [De XII gemmis], treats the twelve precious stones adorning the breastplate of the High Priest of the Old Testament. It was dedicated to Diodore of Tyre, not Diodore of Tarsus. The Greek text is shorter than a Latin translation which has survived. It is possible that Epiphanius wrote on other Biblical subjects but these writings, if they existed, have not come down to us. These works have a certain interest for the archaeologist and the Biblical scholar. As an exegete Epiphanius was not a defender of literal interpretation but was more inclined to symbolism and allegory in his explanation of the Old Testament texts.

Certain works which have been ascribed to Epiphanius on the veneration of icons deserve particular attention. They were frequently cited by iconoclasts, especially at the council of 754, but the defenders of the veneration of icons, the iconodules, considered them spurious. This was also the judgment of the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 787), who wrote that "we reject these writings, but we consider the holy father Epiphanius a teacher of the universal church." The patriarch Nicephorus wrote specifically against these books and we can judge them for ourselves on the basis of the few fragments which are contained in his denunciations. It is almost certain that they do not belong to Epiphanius, despite the conclusions of some modern scholars. Apparently an episode which is presented as if narrated by Epiphanius himself in a letter to John of Jerusalem is a later addition. This has long been known in Jerome's translation, and in Nicephorus we have the Greek text. According to the narration, in a Church in a city in Palestine Epiphanius saw a picture of a man, either Christ or a saint, on a curtain. In irritation he tore the curtain to pieces and gave it to be used as shrouds for the poor. In return he presented the church with an unadorned cloth.

It is not without reason that these writings against the veneration of icons have been incorrectly attributed to Epiphanius. He was not a supporter of iconolatry or of the use of icons in general. In his Testament he commands that icons "not be brought" into churches or burial vaults. Commemoration should be realized in the heart, and there should be no need for its reinforcement by visual images. Epiphanius was not alone in this opinion. It was shared by Eusebius of Caesarea, who also denied the admissibility and the possibility of the representation of Christ, thus rejecting both the historic and graphic aspects of iconography. The writings of Epiphanius which can be found in his genuine works contain an implicit rejection of any form of sacred representation. Images are always anthropomorphic and effect the senses, and for this reason they distract the mind from God and turn it to creation. Epiphanius denounced the Gnostics for their use of images, which were all the more reprehensible because they depicted Christ as the Gnostics actually conceived Him, as a simple man.

III. Thought.

Epiphanius was more of a symbolist than a realist, and his rejection of visual images was in keeping with his psychological orientation. This was, of course, poor theology, but such a "theological opinion" does not discredit Epiphanius' authority in the Church. To a certain extent this way of thinking is an understandable result of the historical conditions of the fourth century, which was a period of struggle against paganism and active defense of the "consubstantiality" of the Word. Given these circumstances, the transition from symbolism to realism in iconography might well have seemed to be heretical.
From The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century.