Epiphanius of Cyprus

A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

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Andrew S. Jacobs
Christianity in Late Antiquity
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , July
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Epiphanius is coming into vogue. Following recent English translations of his major works and Young Richard Kim’s published dissertation, Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World (University of Michigan Press, 2015), late antiquity’s curmudgeonly heresiologist and scholarly punching bag is emerging onto the academic radar. Author Andrew S. Jacobs’s book, the second volume in the new official book series of the North American Patristics Society, gets extra credit for methodological ingenuity. In an introduction which surveys Epiphanius’s life and writings, Jacobs proposes to produce what he calls a “cultural biography”: a biography of the broader Christian culture of Epiphanius’s day. By analyzing Epiphanius’s celebrity, his treatment of conversion, discipline, scripture, and salvation, and Epiphanius’s “after lives” in two later hagiographies, Jacobs purports to “use Epiphanius to reimagine certain core cultural concepts of late ancient Christianity” (5).

Chapter 1 draws upon celebrity studies to discuss how Epiphanius’s fame made him a vehicle for the deployment of Christian discourse. Since Epiphanius’s fame was detached from his accomplishments, early Christians “were willing to see in him reflections of their own cultural values” (63). Jerome, Sozomen, Socrates, and the Apophthegmata Patrum refract through Epiphanius their ideas/ideals about imperium, paideia, and askesis. Epiphanius’s unmoored “well-knownness” as a Christian icon allowed Christians to imagine Christianity through him, as Jacobs illustrates compellingly and creatively.

Chapter 2 examines identity shifts Epiphanius imputes to various people: the Christian shift from lay to clergy; conversion from Christian to heretic; conversion from Christian to Jew; and all of these conversions in the opposite direction. Jacobs illustrates Epiphanius as an author attempting to contain/control realities surrounding “proliferating borders” and “blurred boundaries” within imperial discourse. Less convincing is Jacobs’s final comment that “only from our [postcolonial, postmodern] perspective”—not from Epiphanius’s—does the “anxiety of change” imbuing his narratives appear (96). This chapter does not show this, and one could read, for example, the “unresolved ambiguity” in Ephiphanius’s presentation of the “converter of heretics, convert to heresy” Origen as evincing anxiety without a too creative deconstruction. This chapter separates itself from Arthur Darby Nock and William James; these concerned themselves with the embodied dynamics of conversion, whereas Jacobs treats conversion as a discursive tool.

Chapter 3 explores Epiphanius’ deployment of church discipline through the lens of improvisation. Epiphanius’s ad hoc action—foisting promotions upon unwilling clergy, deciding between candidates for Antioch’s bishopric—for Jacobs looks spontaneous while relying upon extant authority structures, which it simultaneously reinforces and circumvents. This chapter would benefit from further contextualizing Epiphanius’s actions, even hypothetically, because phenomenological argument or not, expedience has always been a value of leadership—and while Jacobs speaks in terms of “Epiphanius’ … Christian imperial power” (131), there are a myriad of explanatory factors behind any leader’s adaptability. Also, while this chapter reimagines post-Constantinian Christianity’s institutional developments (101), it needs clearer connection between Epiphanius and broader cultural narrative.

Chapter 4 surveys Epiphanius’s works as products of his antiquarianism: Jacobs argues Epiphanius’s many digressions are more about power accretion than literary strategy. Yet Jacobs betrays several rhetorical strategies at work through antiquarianism: intertextual exegesis, apologetic for literalism, and demonstration of biblical accuracy. Moreover, Jacobs chalks up Epiphanius’s “totalizing discourse” to a Christian imperialism made to contain “all the knowledge of the world” (175). This is an excellet point, and the chapter’s integration would have benefitted from expanded discussion.

Chapter 5 argues that Epiphanius’s theology and anthropology form around the same moral unity, like his ecclesiology and heresiology: the unity of action constituting the Nicene-trinitarian God defines the human being and the Church, presently and eternally. Such a view has no room for Arius’s divided God or Origen’s body-trapped soul. This theological chapter—containing a monograph’s worth of material—sits awkwardly in a not-so-theologically oriented book until one realizes on its last page that Jacobs is describing thought systems that “won the day,” making this chapter the theological contribution to his “cultural biography.” Jacobs also explains how Epiphanius’s asceticism informed the moral unity that directed his theology and would later inspire, among others, Theophilus and Shenoute, thus allowing Jacobs to engage another pocket of recent scholarship.

Chapter six traces a fifth/sixth-century hagiography and a nineteenth-century novel which remanufacture Epiphanius’s celebrity. These address culturally current concerns by inventing/recounting Epiphanius’s Jewish identity and playing on ambivalent relations between religion and empire. Jacobs concludes that such fixations demonstrate that Epiphanius qua saint had utility for later Christians, but the trenchant heresiologist exists in such fiction only via “cursory reference” (261).

A short conclusion ties together the other chapters in recasting the field of late antiquity. If Epiphanius is placed at the “center” of late antiquity, there emerges “a late antiquity invested in the promotion and stigmatization of difference” which contradicts the “period of liberalism, diversity, and expansiveness” that scholars have invented since the 1970s (274). Epiphanius and Peter Brown’s 1971 book The World of Late Antiquity (W.W. Norton & Co.) paint explicitly divergent pictures. For Jacobs, Epiphanius represents a late ancient reality “negative” given its emphasis on alterity—negative, that is, from the viewpoint that “tolerance” and “diversity” are absolute social values (whereas unity, truth in argument, and doctrinal purity are what Epiphanius might call his social values).

Overall, Jacobs’ book is sophisticated and compelling. His work springs from a consciously situated postmodern scholarship and the immediate preoccupations that entails. As such, Jacobs’ approach and questions would no doubt raise the eyebrows of a different generation of scholarship. Terms like “tool of domination” and “totalizing,” “hierarchical,” and “imperializing” (131) have nicer names when we like what they stand for. Nevertheless Jacobs’s Epiphanius of Cyprus is a creative, valuable contribution to scholarship on Epiphanius particularly, and fourth-century Christianity generally. Jacobs’s “cultural biography” idea is noteworthy, and while his bridge between Epiphanius and his culture could be more explicit, this volume manageably realizes that method. Good scholarship merits critical scrutiny, but this reviewer wholeheartedly recommends this book—ingenious, analytic, and readable—to today’s generation of ancient Christian scholars.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carson Bay is a doctoral candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University and Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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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