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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Phibionites

I just finished read Bart Ehrman's book Peter, Paul & Mary, which I enjoyed, about the life of the three followers of Jesus - Simon Peter, Paul of Tarsus and Mary Magdalene. And in one his sections on later legends about Mary, he notes the story of the Phibionites (or Borborites as they're also called), who took Mary to be of central importance to their doctrine. And the practices attributed to the Phibionites are quite interesting.

We only have two sources for description of the beliefs of the Phibionites, Theodoret and Epiphanius of Salamis, and it's only in Epiphanius' description in The Panarion that we find the more sordid details. Before telling us about these intriguing practices, Epiphanius acknowledges that, though "It is a shame even to speak of the things that are done of [the disobedient] in secret"(25 2,5, [trans. Frank Williams], quoting Ephesians 5:12), he will tells us about these secret practices, not in order to titillate us (in his words "not to dirty the ears of the listeners or readers"), but to excite our enmity against these Phibionites (25 3,3). And what are these secret practices that it is a shame to speak of? To begin with, Epiphanius says that during communion, after feasting (communion was more commonly a potluck feast at this time in Christian history than just consuming wafers and wine) they would partner-swap. In his words, each would man tell his wife "Get up perform the Agape [Christian love] with the brother"(26 4,4), at which point, the wife would go have sex with some other man.

But Epiphanius is not done at this point, and he braces his readers for these even more sordid detail, noting again that though it may be shameless to relate these things, these Phibionites are much more shameless in doing them. He tells us that the men climax by ejaculating into each others' hands. Then they raise their hands, saying "We offer this gift, the body of Christ" and they both consume the sperm (26 4,4-7). In other words, they eat sperm instead of bread for the communion

Now, you might be wondering, "Ok, so they've got the first part of the communion, with the body of Christ. But what about the other part? Did they do something to consume the blood of Christ?" Well, I'm glad you asked. In fact they do. They used menses for this purpose. While saying "This is the blood of Christ" they, in Epiphanius' words, "likewise take the unclean menstrual blood they gather from her, and eat in common," (26 4,8).

Surprisingly, it actually gets worse. According to Epiphanius they extolled non-procreative sex and forbade procreation (at least in the context of the ritual, one presumes). For this reason, if one of the women got pregnant during the ritual, they would extract the fetus. Then they would grind it up, spice it with honey, pepper and other spices and then they eat it, communally, with their bare hands.

Epiphanius claims to have first-hand knowledge of at least some of the beliefs and practices of the Phibionites, saying that he learned about their practices from members who tried to lure him into the sect. He says that he was for a time tempted to join their sect, but backed away when he discovered some of their more nefarious practices (26 17,4-9). One imagines that he probably heard about their sex rituals, thought it sounded awesome, saw the beautiful women that were in the sect (he admits that the women that tried to entice him to join the sect were beautiful (26 27,8) and was thinking of joining. Then he heard about the sperm-, menses- and fetus-eating and though better of it. Or on the other hand, perhaps Epiphanius made the whole thing up. He's not exactly considered the most reliable historian and he's been frequently accused of profoundly distorting the beliefs and practices of the various sects he discusses. For all we know, Epiphanius was in love with one of their members, was jilted by her, and then reported the sect to the Bishop (26 17,9) and then made up scandalous tales about them as revenge. People have done pettier things.

1 comment:

  1. Is there any real reason to suppose that Epiphanius is not simply telling the truth? Libertine groups have existed at many periods, after all.