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A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Vita of Epiphanius of Salamis

Claudia Rapp, University of California, Los Angeles, Fellow 2004–2005, Spring

These months at Dumbarton Oaks have enabled me to complete the research for several chapters of my commentary on Life of Epiphanius of Cyprus, the great church father and heresiologist of the late fourth century. The Vita itself must have been composed between 439 and 478.

In order to make the most of the DO’s rich library resources in history, archaeology, and art history, I have concentrated on three locations of Epiphanius’s life: Palestine, Persia, and Cyprus.

According to his Vita, Epiphanius was born into a poor Jewish family near Eleutheropolis. He eventually converted to Christianity, became a monk, and later established his own monastic community at “Spanhydrion.” I have found that the Vita is quite accurate in describing the general surroundings in late Antique Judaea. Excavations at Beth Guvrin (Eleutheropolis) show a prosperous city and confirm the presence of Jews and Christians in the area.

Shortly after he became a hermit, Epiphanius traveled to Persia in order to heal the king’s daughter of a demon. Comparison with descriptions of Persian court ritual and the reception of foreigners and guests at the court again confirms the accuracy of detail in the hagiographer’s account. The narrative of this episode is closely modeled on a similar account of miraculous healing performed by the pagan philosopher Eustathius recorded in Eunapius’s Lives of the Sophists.

Epiphanius spent the last decades of his life as bishop of Constantia (just north of modern Famagusta) in Cyprus. Again, the archaeological record contains nothing to contradict the Vita. The presence of lavishly appointed private villas in Constantia as well as Paphos and Kourion attests to the enduring power of the local aristocrats whom, according to the Vita, the new bishop struggled to convert to Christianity. The five-aisled basilica he is reported to have built is still standing, complete with several spaces for specially honored tombs in the south aisle. Its close proximity to a massive temple of Zeus must have inspired the hagiographer to assert that Epiphanius miraculously found a large amount of gold in this temple with which to finance his building project.

A further valuable resource at DO has been the ease of access to digital resources, especially the online Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. This has enabled me to identify that the hagiographer puts three words from Homer’s Iliad I 225, “kynos ommat’ echon,” in Epiphanius’s mouth as the saint chastises a recalcitrant deacon as “having the eyes of a dog.” The hagiographer also refers to Dionysius of Halikarnassos and Hesiod—thus demonstrating his erudition.

The combination of accurate detail with the use of classical allusions and pagan sources are unusual for a hagiographical work of this period and attest to the historical interest and literary value of the Life of Epiphanius.