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NAPS Paper

Thomas Whitley

A lot of people are posting what they'll be presenting at the AAR (American Academy of Religion) annual meeting in Baltimore this November. I'm presenting at the same meeting, but on an SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) panel. I'll get around to posting about that paper soon, but more relevant now is the paper I'm presenting at NAPS (North American Patristics Society) in Chicago at the end of the month. The paper is a version of some of my research on the connection between disease and sexual slander in early Christianity. The title is "Ancient Antidotes: Pollution, Sexual Slander, and The Body in Epiphanius’ Panarion." The abstract is below.

The practice of slandering the sexual behavior of one's opponent was far from uncommon in the ancient world. Charges of this sort were widespread and were designed to defame an opponent. This rhetorical device was employed in political discourse when ancient authors were engaged in identity and power struggles. Where Epiphanius’ work differs from that of other ancient heresiologists, though, is how he employs this rhetorical device in the service of his larger heresiological project; namely, as part of his conception of the social body's vulnerability to pollution, which in this case takes the form of heretical teachings.

Epiphanius described the heresies he was combatting as poisons and toxic substances which could invade the social body. He then offered his work, a veritable “Medicine Chest,” as the cure. This rhetoric becomes particularly explicit when he describes those groups which he believes engage in illicit sexual activity. Thus, his heresiology creatively uses a rhetoric of disease to connect pollution, illicit sexual behavior, and the social body.

This paper will examine Epiphanius’ conception of the relationship between disease and the social body and will then analyze the charges of sexual misbehavior in two sections of the Panarion, “Against Simonians” and “Against Gnostics.” For Epiphanius’ use of sexual slander against his (real or perceived) opponents serves as an especially informative exempli gratia for determining the connection that he discerned between his conception of the Church as a unified, social body that is susceptible to pollution and his understanding of the various heresies as diseases. Thus Epiphanius is participating in a larger discourse, wherein he is fully engaged in promoting a particular understanding of heresy and disease along with advocating for the production and maintenance of a certain Christian identity.