Why Isn’t the Rhetorical Real? The Case of Epiphanius of Cyprus – By Todd S. Berzon

Todd S. Berzon on Young Richard Kim’s Epiphanius of Cyprus

Young Richard Kim, Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World, University of Michigan Press, 2015, 296pp., $85
Young Richard Kim, Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World, University of Michigan Press, 2015, 296pp., $85
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Epiphanius of Cyprus (ca. 315–403 C.E.) has never been held in especially high regard by scholars of early Christianity. The Cypriot bishop has been described as a vapid, polemical, derivative, boorish anti-intellectual. No one has done more in the past few years to correct (and complicate) this assessment among scholars than Young Richard Kim. In a series of articles and essays over the past decade, Kim has explored a host of issues raised across Epiphanius’s literary corpus. He has explored Epiphanius’s geography of heresy, his ecclesiastical authority as a heresy-hunting bishop, his pastoral obligations, and the genre of the Panarion, Epiphanius’s massive heresiology. Kim has also produced a wonderful translation of the understudied Ancoratus, the precursor to Epiphanius’s Panarion. In all of these works, Kim’s goal has been to demonstrate Epiphanius’s depths and skill as a theological thinker. He has rightly shown that the prevailing assessment among scholars is in need of serious re-evaluation. With his monograph, Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World, Kim has offered an expansive and detailed analysis of the nuances, context, and complexity of Epiphanius’s works and life. The book, in fact, is the first English-language biography of the bishop. As “a fresh look at the life and work of this eminently fascinating and provocative man,” it is a welcome resource for those interested in Epiphanius, fourth-century ecclesiastical history, and heresiology.

This capacious biographical portrait charts the ideational, ecclesiastical, and theological networks Epiphanius traversed, shaped and transformed. For, as Kim boldly announces in the opening sentence of the book, “Epiphanius was late antiquity.” And while the claim is problematic insofar as it assumes late antiquity to be a self-evident monolith (and a Christian one at that), it does, I think, signal Kim’s desire to push the study of Epiphanius outward into the world he both inhabited and imagined — that is, into the world of orthodoxy, monasticism, heresy, and ecclesiastical succession. Epiphanius of Cyprus is thus a centrifugal study: it is an investigation of a learned Christian writer who was part of a wider constellation of thinkers and theologies, councils and controversies. The seven chapters of Kim’s book chronicle Epiphanius’s capacities as monk, historian, intellectual successor (to Athanasius of Alexandria), heresiologist, theologian, bishop, and naturalist.

Of the many facets of Epiphanius’s expertise, the idea of the Panarion’s naturalism — what Kim defines as the branch of knowledge that classified and studied the nature of wild animals — best captures Kim’s plan to treat Epiphanius as a theological and ecclesiastical touchstone. To that end, Kim uses the discourse of naturalism to expound the depths of the Panarion’s unabashedly violent rhetoric. Each of the sixty entries on Christian heresies concludes with a naturalistic coda. For instance, Epiphanius ends his entry on the Carpocratians (entry twenty-seven in the Panarion) in terms that are emblematic of the text’s discourse of naturalism. He writes, “but since we have beaten this sect back once more — like splitting a serpent’s head with a cudgel of faith and truth when it is (already lying) on the ground — let us approach the other beast-like sects <that have appeared in the world> for its ruin and because of our promise force ourselves to begin <their refutation>.” The heretics were consistently described as deadly, wild, venomous creatures. The disease of heresy was fashioned as the venomous bite of a snake or the toxic sting of a scorpion: the heretics were, in short, infesting the landscape of the Christian world. The heretics were wildness embodied and brought into the world. Danger, Epiphanius warned, lurked everywhere.

Kim not only links Epiphanius’s naturalistic discourse to the bishop’s desire to provoke alarm amongst Christians, but also to the need to address the conditions of the natural world. The purpose of the Panarion, then, was not simply medical, as a curative against the disease of heresy, but also naturalistic, an exploration of the dangers of the natural world in distinctly Christian terms (and vice versa). Like the ancient naturalists, who wrote about wild beasts at length, in order to frighten people in the interests of their own safety, Epiphanius fashioned the heretics as inhuman beasts in order to frighten Christians to be proactive in their dealings with the heretics. It was the job of the heresy-hunter to provide his readers with the theological knowledge to crush these deadly beasts. The dehumanization of the heretics served to magnify the necessity of responding to the heretics with violence. This violent language, cast via metaphorical association, was still targeted, explicit, and omnipresent. Thus, as Kim importantly concludes, “his heresiology contained a literary, discursive violence, which left the door open to physical action.” Kim’s perspicacious reading adds new salience to the idea of Epiphanius as heresy-hunter. Indeed, the Panarion’s cure is as much an act of destruction and as it is an act of rehabilitation. Within the logic of the Panarion, violence is restorative. Violence and orthodoxy are inextricably linked.

While Epiphanius of Cyprus is obviously designed for a very specialized audience — students of fourth-century ecclesiastical history as well as those interested in late antique heresiology — it does invite a broader discussion about the writing of intellectual biography (as a scholarly genre). What, after all, does it mean to study a figure “in his own terms” if those terms are, as Kim writes of Epiphanius, imagined? The structure of Kim’s book provides a useful point of analytical entry. Kim has chosen to juxtapose what he calls “biographical chapters” concerning Epiphanius’s monastic commitments and experience, his rise as bishop of Cyprus, and his involvement in debates over the terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy with what he calls “thematic chapters.” The latter are detailed readings of sections of Epiphanius’s Panarion that are designed to complement the biographical chapters. Each set of chapters, Kim explains, operates as a hermeneutical couplet, designed to understand Epiphanius’s personal beginnings, transitions, and ascents. Kim concedes both that his work is “not a traditional biography.” Instead he sees it as a “complex examination of the intersection of words and deeds, convictions and tensions, perceptions and practices that undergird the pages of the Panarion.” I understand Kim’s description here to mean that Epiphanius of Cyprus, while perhaps not structurally conventional — it does not narrate a linear series of events, even though it does proceed chronologically and positivistically — is nonetheless designed to be read as an intellectual biography.

Kim’s method for uncovering the details of the various roles that Epiphanius played in the fourth century pivots around the idea of two distinct but related Epiphanii. There is the Epiphanius of history or the “real” Epiphanius: the Epiphanius who lived the Mediterranean world in the fourth century, participated in theological disputes, became bishop of Cyprus, and wrote a series of texts. There is also the self-styled Epiphanius of these texts — a cultivated, rhetorical persona, defined by ecclesiastical, heresiological, and theological expertise and authority. Overall, Kim’s investigative method is guided by a cautious historicism: “we should not read Epiphanius’s own recollections at face value…However, neither should we dismiss the autobiographical stories outright as mere fabrications. I maintain that despite the obvious self-construction, the stories were nevertheless grounded in real experiences.” For Kim, the most important demonstration of Epiphanius’s real experience (and experience influencing his authorial trajectory) — is his encounter with a group of Gnostic women in Egypt. Recounted in the twenty-sixth entry of the Panarion, the story describes (in first-person terms) these heretical women of the desert as beautiful seductresses, who offer a false promise of salvation. With God’s help, Epiphanius valiantly resisted their depravity. His heresiological authority, then, was grounded in his life experience.

Kim insists, at one point in his book, that this encounter with Gnostic women really did happen: “in his youth, his interactions with women of a Gnostic heresy profoundly shocked him, especially their presence within the congregation of his church community and perhaps because of how close he came to joining them.” But why, for the sake of an intellectual biography, does this event need to have really happened? Isn’t it just as plausible that Epiphanius imagined the account to bolster his credibility as heresiologist par excellence or that, even if it did happen, something which is all but unknowable, it was rewritten in the language of the Panarion? Earlier in the book, Kim seems to take this very position: “for our purposes, questions on the reliability and authenticity of Epiphanius’s account are of less importance than his rhetorical presentation of himself and the heretics.” I think these two observations — and the seeming disjuncture between them — gesture toward a broader conversation about the convergences and divergences between the idea of the historical persona and the idea of the rhetorical persona. Kim is implicitly asking how students of antiquity (or any time period for that matter) narrate and relate these twin selves.

The unconventional structure and historical positivism of the book operate as a solution to this methodological issue. And although Kim reads the thematic chapters as outgrowths or extensions of the biographical ones — there are obvious continuities between biography and text — there is a way in which these comparisons perpetuate the idea that “real” events and experiences are what render texts genuinely historical. The underlying assumption of Kim’s biography is that the rhetorical self of the Panarion is less historical than the real Epiphanius buried within the text (in various personal recollections). It is his real life experiences that give added meaning — historical meaning — to the themes developed in the Panarion. Rhetoric is subsumed and given real meaning by history. The self-constructed persona of the Panarion is by itself a historical persona. It is a historical persona apart from any underlying biographical truths it might contain. Insofar as the structure of the book makes exegesis dependent upon historical truths, it cements a hierarchal relationship between the personas. While Kim has given us a detailed, rich biographical study, he has also written a book that, at a certain level, contradicts its own aims. The distinction between the biographical/historical Epiphanius and the thematic/rhetorical perpetuates a false distinction. The fluidity between these two roles, both of them historical, is hindered by both the structure of the book and its historical positivism (or just historicism). A more conventional approach, a linear biography that included textual analysis as part of that narrative, would have underscored the fluidity between the historical Epiphanius and rhetorical Epiphanius; it may well have collapsed the distinction altogether. Or perhaps Kim should have jettisoned the pretense of intellectual biography altogether and framed his book as an investigation not of Epiphanius broadly but of the Panarion specifically. Ultimately, I think the book uses a structural device, built around a flawed methodological claim, in an attempt to broaden its rather narrow focus (often narrowness is a good thing). Still, Kim’s book initiates an important conversation, not just about the bishop of Cyprus, a fascinating figure in his own right, but about how scholars of early Christianity, study, classify, and write about the authors we read.