This paper is about sexual gnosticism, and in particular about the sect of the Phibionites which Epiphanius describes in the 26th chapter of his Panarion, Book 1. The subject matter has however yielded a rather poor scholarly crop. The leading study on the Phibionites is still Stephen Benko's article "The Libertine Gnostic Sect of the Phibionites according to Epiphanius" published in 1967. Almost 20 years later, Benko offered a further study of the sect, in a chapter of his book on Early Christianity. Aside from Benko's work, very few scholars have intelligently engaged in the debate. Reasons for such attitude abound. I will here name the two most prominent ones: on the one hand there is paucity of reliable information from Late Antiquity, and on the other hand, modern scholars have fallen prey to their religious, cultural and moral biases.
as i came across my old paper again, cleaning up my old computer files, i thought, 'hey, i wonder if scholarship has improved on the topic' so i googled the term. sadly enough, the scholarship has not improved a bit but i found this wonderful and yet quite odd video on the topic :
what the .....? who's this dude? and why the phibionites? couldn't find a serious article but i found mister potatohead and his peeps doing a phibionite ritual! now that is amazing. i wonder what my old professors, especially benko, would think of that. sure, the video is a summary of what the phibionites were all about, but it covers the essentials which is secrecy, sex and ritual. here are excerpts from my old paper (without footnotes, sorry), to give you a better idea of the subjet but the video sums it up quite nicely.
We know basically nothing about the Phibionites aside from the testimony of Epiphanius. He wrote his Panarion between 374-378, a massive catalog of heresies, with the hope to rid (Nicaean) Christianity of the cancer which plagued it. He mentions them first in association with the Nicolaitans, but devotes most of the 26th chapter to them. The Phibionites are Egyptian gnostics: "[b]ut in Egypt the same people are known as Stratiotics and Phibionites" (Pan. 26, 3, 7). Although he goes into sufficient details about their system of thought and their practices, to which I will return later, he remains silent about their origins. Some scholars have noted that lacuna, as well as the lack of etymology for the sect's name.
It is my contention that deciphering an etymology for the word Phibionite will offer us a possible origin for the sect. Epiphanius uses the word phibionitai, which does not exist elsewhere as such in Greek. However, Liddell and Scott gives a masculine noun of phibi meaning "name of the Ibis = Hermes Thoth." In Sahidic Coptic, phibi translates as hiboi, ibis (with derivatives), or with the masculine article phiboi. In his Coptic dictionary, Vycichl adds to the linguistic definition that indeed it is "l'oiseau sacré du dieu Thot, hibis."
Hence, at an etymological level, I would connect the word phibionite to the Coptic of ibis, and subsequently, at a religious one, to Thoth, and obviously from Thoth, to Egyptian hermeticism. We know of the definite connection between gnosticism and hermeticism with the presence of texts such as Asclepius in the Nag Hammadi collection. Indeed, we can speak of a hermetic gnosticism. As a matter of fact, the Egyptian Thoth, who in the Hellenistic period comes to be known as Hermes, can be called the gnostic god par excellence: god of writing but also, and perhaps more importantly, god of philosophical and occult sciences. The Egyptian religious ethos is not one of asceticism; we encounter there a rather joyful embrace of creation. The hermetic writings, even in their more austere and gnostic guises reflect that philosophical stance.
However, no scholar has of yet come forth to propose that there may be a sexually-oriented branch of hermeticism, although "the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God's own creative act." And this is precisely the hermetic text that we have in the Nag Hammadi corpus, a text which call intercourse a mystery and a sacrament, not unlike the Phibionites' Agape. I am not implying that the group out of which Asclepius emerged was a sexually-oriented hermetic community, but rather that the Phibionites might have known and used the tractate. Epiphanius does mention a certain "Gospel of Perfection" among the sexual gnostics' literature (26, 2, 5) which he could have mislabeled instead of the Perfect discourse.
In the end, I would suggest that, based on the name and its etymology, on the contemporaneous literature, on the locality, that is as part of the Alexandrian quite syncretic milieu, and on their practices that I will examine in the next section, that the Phibionites might have been a sexual hermetic gnostic Christian sect.
Concerning the Borberites, Gero writes that "they were not just a fiction of the prurient imagination of celibate ecclesiastical heresy-hunters. This group reacted to the--admittedly prevailing--ascetic ethos of fasting and sexual abstinence. In its stead they preached (and acted upon) the view that salvation from the evil powers which rule the world can only be obtained through a deliberate and full exercise of human sexual potentialities, specifically in a ritual form wherein the various sexual emissions, male and female, played a central, sacramental role, and in a manner which was aimed at the prevention of conception and birth."
This observation can be similarly made about the Phibionites. Epiphanius' description is far from being flattering, and he doesn't seem willing to try to understand their theological and mythical systems. However scant and vociferous, he does offer us a portrait of an otherwise unknown group. Like Benko, I will ask "What is Phibionitism?" He gives as an answer the following "The Phibionites believed that the purpose of the work of Jesus was the restoration of the primordial unity of the universe. The creation of the world and the creation of man had divided and reduced the creator's power, since everything in existence possessed a spark of his power. Salvation, therefore, consisted in collecting his power, and leading it back to its original condition."
Theoretically speaking, this theological stance is not too far from biblical thinking: it is a collage of the doctrine of imago dei from Genesis, with the Logos theology of the Gospel of John and the eschatological idea of recapitulatio of Paul. However, the Phibionites diverge from scriptural thinking when the question of the nature of that divine presence in humanity is raised. To them the most sacred substance, thus the divine substance, is the substance which humanity possesses and which controls life and non-life, namely the sexual fluids. Epiphanius explains
But, say they, if one becomes privy to this knowledge and gathers himself from the world through the menses and semen, he is detained here no longer: he gets up above these archons. They say that he passes Sabaoth by and--with impudent blasphemy--that he treads on his head. And thus he mounts above him to the height, where the Mother of all living, Barbero or Barbelo, is; and thus the soul is saved. (26, 10, 9-10)
Like most gnostic systems, the Phibionites' is one of journeying, of ascension, of successive purification, and of return to the Pleroma. Salvation comes through a sacrifice, a perfect offering, that of Christ, of one's divine nature, a personal kenosis restoring the primal unity. Theirs also is an ascesis, a long rigid process of liberation from the power of the archons.
Those of them who are called Phibionites offer their vile sacrifices of fornication, [...], in 365 names which they themselves have invented for archons, if you please. They thus make fools of their female partners and say, "Lie with me, that I may offer you to the archons." And at each sexual act they pronounce an outlandish name of one of their fictitious archons, and pray, if you please, and say, "I offer this to thee, So-and-so, that thou mayest offer it to So-and-so." [...] And until he progresses, or rather, regresses, through 365 instances of copulation, he calls on some name at each, and does the same sort of thing. Then he starts back down through the same series [...]. Now when he reaches a total as great as 730 instances--I mean of unnatural unions and the names they make up--then, after that, a man of this sort has the courage to say, "I am Christ, for I have descended from on high through the names of the 365 archons!" (26, 9, 6-9)
But why sex? Begging the question one can propose "because the myth says so!" And that it does. Barbelo, herself an emission of the Father, engendered Ialdabaoth/Sabaoth. Invoking the words of the God of the Old Testament (Is. 44: 6), the latter took possession of the seventh heaven and ruled it with great carelessness. "But Barbelo has heard this said, and weeps. And continually appears to the archons in some beautiful form and, through their climax and ejaculation, takes their seed--to recover her power, if you please, which has been sown in various of them." (25, 2, 4) It is difficult to know which of the myth or the ritual came first. According to Filoramo, "[i]n pagan mystery cults theology develops from ritual. In the new religious movements, however, unless it is expressly rejected, ritual becomes an expression of theology." Hence in this case, we can assume the latter scenario and conclude that ritual sex has very little to do with pleasure but is a religious act of worship which is both anemnetic and soteriological.
Furthermore, in a comparative study of light and semen as divine substances, Eliade examined the Phibionite theological and liturgical paradigm, asserting that "the ultimate goal of the Phibionites's sexual rituals was, on the one hand, to accelerate the reintegration of the precosmic stage, that is, the "end of the world," and, on the other hand, to approach God through a progressive "spermatization." [...T]he genital secretions represent the two divine modes of being, the God and the Goddess; consequently, their ritual consumption augments and accelerates the sanctification of the celebrants."
Thus the ritualization of the sexual encounter, according to the Eucharistic pattern, enables the participants to access the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, not externally and through mediators, but directly and in themselves. Thus there is a sense in which Phibionitism, unlike the Christianity of Epiphanius, is not corporate but individual.
Let us now turn to the question of women. Acting out of character, Epiphanius seems to be worried about the fate of women in the hands of the Phibionites. He accuses the men of several "crimes" against women: "they thus make fools of their female partners" (26, 9, 6), and "they deceive the womenfolk [...] who put their trust in them, and tell their female victims, 'So-and-so is a virgin.' And she has been debauched for years, and is being debauched daily!" (26, 11, 9). In turn, the deluded women, who boast of their beauty (a beauty which Epiphanius does not deny (26, 17, 8)!), tried to seduce him in his youth (26, 17, 4). He offers us a picture of a bunch of naïve and silly women, yet damned and wicked.
However, if we pay close attention to the text itself, we discern a rather different image: an image of equality, if not reverence, for women; that equality perhaps being an intrinsic feature of both Alexandrian life and Christian gnosticism, as W. Meeks would imply. How does this sense of equality reveal itself? It primarily occur at the level of the Barbelo myth. Indeed, even if Christ, in the Phibionite system as in Nicaean Christianity, plays a significant salvific role, it is however the figure of Barbelo who originates the soteriological unfolding. It is she who gathers the seed of the archons; it is she who guides the ritual life of the community. Hence the place of the woman in the sex act is insured, as representative of Barbelo.
What is more, Phibionitism has been called a "Sperm-Cult" and it is. But the text tells us that the perfect sacrifice is composed of the semen plus the female fluids (sexual secretion and menses). Thus, to borrow from Goehring, "While the Phibionite inclusion of the menses in their ritual may be impart a result of the influence of the eucharistic pattern of "body and blood," it nonetheless argues for the high regard of the female partner. She is not just a victim used to withdraw the female element. She too contains a part of the divine which must and can be gathered!"
I find in this sense of equality an interesting similarity with Coptic Asclepius which I have already quoted.
Outside of the ritual arena, Phibionite women enjoyed a particular status which freed them from the bonds and norms of their society. Within the cultus, they served as link between the world and their community. Indeed, it was the women who tried to seduce Epiphanius. That incident perhaps indicates their function: missionaries. If so, we are witness a shift in gender position: a collapse of the private and the public and a reversal of fortunes, placing the woman in the realm of the public. This shift is further actualized by the rejection of monogamy (26, 4, 1, and 4, 4), if not marriage altogether, and child birth (26, 5, 2-5).
In conclusion then, as Goehring puts it, "it is fair to say that there were Phibionite women who were instrumental in the group's development and that they found in the group an avenue to express their release from societal constraints imposed upon them by their sex. The libertine path offered this possibility to some women in much the same way that the ascetic path did for others."
To that I would add that, unlike their ascetic counterparts, the Phibionites even in their contempt for the world, engaged fully in the upkeep of the flesh. Hence we cannot say that like other gnostics they completely despised the created order--perhaps under the influence of their Egyptian ancestors' optimism (spiritual if not physical). Indeed,"Man and woman, they pamper their bodies night and day, anointing themselves, bathing, feasting, spending their time in whoring and drunkenness. And they curse whoever fasts and say, "Fasting is wrong; fasting belongs to this archon who made the world. We must take nourishment to make our bodies strong, and able to render their fruit in its season." (26, 5, 8)
The social repercussions effected by a sect like the Phibionites upon its society are numerous and varied. We have just mentioned how much of a challenge to the established order were the annihilation of gender roles through promiscuity and the control of procreation, and the involvement of women into the public sphere. There is a sense in which Phibionism stands the most virulent attack of Late Antiquity mores, as it calls for complete freedom. Can we thus term Phibionite ethic antinomian? Epiphanius would say yes. But I think there is more.
Jonas wrote that "the purest and most radical expression of the metaphysical revolt is moral nihilism." One could apply this definition to the Phibionites, and thus justify a label of antinomianism. However I do not think that they actually are metaphysically nihilist. Epiphanius gives no indication one way or the other so we are left to our own speculative mind. But I would argue that if indeed they were nihilist, then what would be the point of a soteriological race? Why then does humanity concern itself with its salvation, and willingly involves itself in the process? Instead, the Phibionite ethic is one of freedom, but a freedom which revolves around the promise of the possibility of knowledge, upon the guarantee of result, of a new dispensation, of an endzeit under the rule of the true god.
i don't remember what grade i received for this paper. i think it was less that i expected, but i truly enjoyed writing it.