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  • Straight Reading:Shame and the Normal in Epiphanius’s Polemic against Origen
  • Blossom Stefaniw

Epiphanius was a vociferous advocate of a totalized, univocal, and normative version of Christianity. How does his agenda of defining and adjudicating the order of things unfold when applied to questions of reading and interpretation? His sexualized polemic against Origen and Origenist textuality shows that a debate that is ostensibly about hermeneutics mobilizes notions of shame and deviance in order to define legitimate imaginings of where truth is and what sort of meaning can be found in the Bible. The textualities of Epiphanius and Origen manifest fundamentally conflicting notions of how truth relates to the text of Scripture, to the physical world, and to bodies. For Origen, Scripture refers to an intelligible realm outside of time and beyond sense experience and the limits of embodied reason or the written word. For Epiphanius, however, the religious truth founded in Scripture can and should be connected to human bodies, and to the physical world. It is within range of common sense and plain language.

Arguing between poles of the normal and the deviant, Epiphanius attacks Origenist textuality on three fronts. In the Panarion, Origen is represented as sexually deviant. The deviance of his textuality follows from that. Epiphanius also affirms a textuality that he portrays as normal and commonsensical. He reads in an imagined world where human bodies remain intact and consistent. He therefore cannot accept the indeterminacy of the body suggested by Origen’s discussion of the resurrection. Epiphanius valorizes physical reality and rejects interpretations oriented to a higher noetic realm as a perversion of the text. Describing this conflict in terms of literal vs. allegorical interpretation fails to account for the ideological aspect of exegesis. Instead, this article argues that what Epiphanius promotes is straight reading. [End Page 413]

Origen of Alexandria lived from 185 to 254. In this period, the state did not recognize Christianity as a legitimate and legal religion and persons discovered to be Christians were intermittently subjected to torture, execution, or disenfranchisement. The communities of Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire described themselves as belonging to a third race or as having their citizenship in heaven. Because of their limited numbers and because of finding themselves at odds with the law and with standards of decency and good comportment, Christians self-identified as aliens, transforming the stigmatization of their identity through public ordeal into ecstasies of martyrdom.1

Epiphanius of Salamis, born roughly three generations after Origen’s death, was among the first cohort of citizens to grow up in a world where Christianity was legal and the emperor himself was a Christian. Dying in 403, however, he did not live to see a world in which the apparatus for exercising coercive force in order to define and impose adherence to doctrines established as constituting right belief had reached its zenith. Epiphanius strongly favored efforts toward the totalization of Christianity and contributed to them significantly through his writings.2 In the Panarion in particular, Epiphanius undertook to make a comprehensive survey of what exactly everyone else was doing wrong. Since Christian doctrine necessarily had to be argued from Scripture, efforts at resolving and defining right doctrine in a manner conducive to totalizing ambitions required a hermeneutic that could be relied upon to produce clear and unambiguous evidence for one doctrinal position and against another. When Epiphanius, in the Panarion and elsewhere, turns his attention to the first great Christian exegete, Origen, he is confronted with a hermeneutic that is entirely unsuited to totalizing efforts. Origen’s way of interpreting Scripture allows for things to remain unknown. It accepts flux and ambiguity both in the text and in human embodiment, and is not much invested in the physical world. Thus Epiphanius’s drive for a form of Christianity that is sorted, which is univocal and totalizable, is offended, and, given the strong and growing heritage of Origenist textuality in his own day, he [End Page 414] must undermine Origen as a legitimate authority as well as undermining the legitimacy of his way of reading.

From Exegesis to Textuality

Late fourth- and fifth-century debates about what constitutes correct exegesis might be understood as...


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