In contrast to his father, the Gnostic Carpocrates, Epiphanes is known through several preserved passages of a treatise “On Justice” which the lad composed while he was yet very young, since he died at age seventeen. The treatise illustrates that his thought “was not dualistic, since responsibility for evil was attributed to human law” (OEEC 1992: 281). No specific reference to him occurs in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, or Jerome.
Only Clement of Alexandria (160-215) preserves the fragments of this treatise, with its concern for the “justice of God,” understood to be “a kind of sharing along with equality” among all creatures: “For all see alike, since here <under “the light of the sun” poured out by God from above> is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment” (Stromateis III.2.6 apud Grant 1961b: 39). But the implication of such an “egalitarianism” could include sexual promiscuity, which Clement criticized, precisely for the libertarian notion of sharing wives (Grant 1961b: 40; Carrington 1957: II.68-69). “Epiphanes advocated a community of goods,” going so far “as to demand that women should like all other property be common to all” (Q184.108.40.206 pp. 267-268).
Upon his death Epiphanes “was adored as a god at Sama in Cephallenia,” of whence his mother, Alexandra, was a native (Carrington 1957: II.69, citing Clement, Stromateis III.2.5): A temple had been built there of massive stone blocks, with altars, shrines and a museum. On the new moon the people of Cephallenia celebrated ‘his birthday, when he was taken up among the gods,’ with sacrifices, libations, banquets and hymns.
It has been argued that neither Carpocrates nor Epiphanes were really Christians at all, but only interested in Christianity as another episode in the history of religions (Grant 1946: 131), but they were recalled within the developing Tradition as examples of that tendency to interpret and to add to the growing corpus of Scripture from vantage points at variance with the developing norm. And along the way they raised issues with respect to the application of the philosophy associated with Hellenized Judaism with which the Tradition ultimately had to deal.
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
PG 7; CPG 1.1123; TLG 1348
Q220.127.116.11; DECL 200 (RHanig); OEEC 281 (EPrinzivalli)
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Grant 1946 Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, by Robert McQueen Grant. London: SPCK.
Grant 1961b Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York: Harper and Brothers.
This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.