Epiphanius didn’t write about a pre-Christian Jesus

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Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (about 315 to 403 CE) was a hard-line defender of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, in modern times there is a surprisingly prevalent misreading of his Panarion (29.3), supposedly telling us that Jesus had lived decades before Herod became king,

For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased. The order [of succession] failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race ; and after this Alexander this lot failed, from the times of himself and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, for the times of Herod the King and Augustus Emperor of the Romans ; …

“Alexander” is King Alexander Jannaeus. He died in 76 BCE, about a century before Pilate first took office in Judea. If Epiphanius really taught that Jesus had lived in a different generation than Pilate, then he would flatly contradict his creedal faith which in reality he aggressively championed.

What are the odds of a seasoned apologist making a mistake like that? Jerome and Origen made huge mistakes about what they had read (link and link), but their mistakes reinforced, not denied Christian doctrines.

The context

The English quoted above is G.R.S. Mead’s translation (Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903 link), chapter 19 (page 391). Mead accepts what is obvious, that Epiphanius makes this statement to explain his own ideas about how Jesus became the eternal Davidic king.

Richard Carrier, a celebrated advocate that Jesus is mythical, counterproposes that Epiphanius was describing the beliefs of a heretical sect, the Nazoreans, who are the overall topic of Panarion section 29 (link, look for panarion). The text is clear, however, that Epiphanius writes here in his own voice, explaining his own approach to a theological problem which he brings up. He brings it up because Nazoreans are not called Jesseans, Jesse was David’s father, and speaking of David, how did Jesus fulfill God’s promises about the Davidic dynasty? Seriously. It is a digression within a digression.

We never do find out what the Nazoreans think about any of that, but Epiphanius does tell us (at 29.9) that the sect accepts the entire Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew (except possibly for the genealogy; Epiphanius says he doesn’t know about that). According to Matthew, Herod rules Judea when Jesus is born, not Alexander. The Nazoreans’ views as Epiphanius presents them would therefore fail to explain the apparent anomaly, even if Epiphanius were talking about the Nazoreans in subsection 29.3, which he isn’t.

Who is this Alexander?

The secular history referred to in the focal passage is uncontroversial. Alexander Jannaeus was the last combined Jewish king and high priest who succeeded in transmitting both those offices to his heirs. Herod was the first non-Jewish King of the Jews, and no king served as high priest ever again. In between the reigns of Alexander and Herod, there was an extended period of political turmoil, but throughout, some heir or descendant of Alexander (his widow Salome Alexandra, or sons Hyrcanus II, Aristobulus II, or grandson Antigonus Mattahias) claimed authority over state, Temple or both. In other words, irregularity in the priestly-king succession set in when Alexander died and the succession ended altogether after Herod’s coronation.

What had earlier Christians written about this?

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Just how did that happen?

Epiphanius’ predecessor and fellow Christian apologist, Eusebius (263-339 CE), had made similar arguments to those of the Panarion 29:3. In his Church History (Book 1, chapter 6, link), Eusebius discusses a Biblical promise to Judah with a Messianic overtone (Genesis 49: 10),

1. When Herod, the first ruler of foreign blood, became King, the prophecy of Moses received its fulfillment, according to which there should “not be wanting a prince of Judah, nor a ruler from his loins, until he come for whom it is reserved.” The latter, he also shows, was to be the expectation of the nations.
2. This prediction remained unfulfilled so long as it was permitted them to live under rulers from their own nation, that is, from the time of Moses to the reign of Augustus. Under the latter, Herod, the first foreigner, was given the Kingdom of the Jews by the Romans…

That much of the argument squares with earlier apologetics from Justin (First Apology 32.1 ff link) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies 4.10.2 link). Eusebius also examines the interval between Alexander and Herod, as had Justin (Dialog with Trypho 52.2-4 link), in the context of this Genesis promise (still Book 1, chapter 6 of Church History link).

6. After their return from Babylon they continued to have without interruption an aristocratic form of government, with an oligarchy. For the priests had the direction of affairs until Pompey, the Roman general, took Jerusalem by force, …Aristobulus, who, by the right of ancient succession, had been up to that time both king and high priest, he sent with his children in chains to Rome; and gave to Hyrcanus, brother of Aristobulus, the high priesthood, while the whole nation of the Jews was made tributary to the Romans from that time.

Trickier to explain was God’s more specific oath that David’s descendants would always be on the throne (Psalms 89: 35-38; a related prophecy attributed to Nathan appears at 2 Samuel 7:8-17). Eusebius rules that promise null and void, as a punishment. According to Proof of the Gospel 7 (chapter 1 link),

God promised all this to David in the Psalms, but through the sins of his successors the opposite actually happened— for the kings of David’s seed lasted until Jeremiah, and ceased on the siege of the holy city by the Babylonians, so that from that date neither the throne of David nor his seed ruled the Jewish nation.

Now for the really tricky part. Even though the Davidic prophecy wasn’t fulfilled, Jesus fulfilled it anyway! To pull that off, Eusebius proposes that after the earthly throne of David ceased, a heavenly version came into being in the time of Jesus (still using Proof 7.1  link).

For no one of the seed of David appears to have sat on the throne of the Hebrews [since the exile] up to the coining of Christ. But when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Who was of David’s seed, was proclaimed King of all the world, that very throne of David, as though renewed from its degradation and fall, was restored in the divine kingdom of our Savior, and will last for ever; and even now, like the sun in God’s Presence, is lighting the whole world…

Epiphanius flatly disagreed with Eusebius’ position that God’s oath about the Davidic line was revocable (Panarion 29.2). Epiphanius therefore declared that the Davidic succession had been regularly maintained until Jesus. From immediately before the focal passage (now using Frank Williams’ 2009 translation of the Panarion published by Brill, a lightly edited transcription of its Section 29 is here),

In time past David’s throne continued by succession until Christ himself, since the rulers from Judah did not fail until he came “for whom are the things prepared, and he is the expectation of the nations,” < as > scripture says.

Note that Epihanius has merged the Genesis promise with the Davidic one from Psalms into a single prophecy which held good until Herod’s time via Eusebius’ argument that holding the priesthood was sufficient authority to maintain rulership. Once Jesus arrived, after the earthly Jewish throne had fallen to a Gentile, Jesus inherited an eternal throne, like the one spun by Eusebius. According to Epiphanius, Jesus has given his spiritual throne to the Christian church.

In any version of this line of argumentation, whether Justin’s, Irenaeus’, Eusebius’ or Epiphanius’, Jesus being born in Herod’s time is crucial to fulfilling the Genesis prophecy. Until Herod, Judea was still actually or arguably  ruled by Jews, even if succession of power became disorderly after Alexander.

Conclusion

Mead's source

Image of Mead’s source

Scholars do not generally dispute the authenticity of the focal passage nor the fidelity of its transmission. The challenge is to make sense of what we have received.

Ancient Greek texts had no punctuation to guide the silent reader in determining which phrases go with which other phrases. Mead chose to stay close to the Greek word order (his source text is available online link; the image of the focal passage on the left is from page 81), but Mead and his modern source are the authors of the punctuation. Epiphanius’ original unpunctuated adjacency simply doesn’t imply that two events were meant to be simultaneous. That’s not even a good guess when the reader knows that Epiphanius  believed the events to have been separated by several decades. The logic of Epiphanius’ argument, built upon lines already established by his predecessors, requires those events to have been separated in order to agree with the known secular history.

A correct English reading of the focal passage can be crafted by a slight change to Mead’s proposed modern punctuation, so that we group events according to what we know that Epiphanius professed.

For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased. The order [of succession] failed – and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judea – in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race ; and after this Alexander this lot failed, from the times of himself and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, for the times of Herod the King and Augustus Emperor of the Romans ;

Or, as Frank Williams has it, even better to change the uninformative Greek word order so as to achieve a fluent English expression of the same thought,

For the rulers in succession from Judah came to an end with Christ’s arrival. Until he came < the > rulers < were anointed priests >, but after his birth in Bethlehem of Judaea the order ended and was altered in the time of Alexander, a ruler of priestly and kingly stock. This position died out with this Alexander from the time of Salina also known as Alexandra, in the time of King Herod and the Roman emperor Augustus.

Photo credit: Images of the mosaic showing an example of unpunctuated Greek and of the painting detail of Christ as king are the work of Cypriot photographer Dimitris Vetsikas. He has generously donated these images to the public, link to his web page; click on the images here to enlarge.

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