The Biblical Theory of Epiphanius (Part 1)


Epiphanius was bishop of Salamis (technically Constantia from the latter half of the fourth century) on the island of Cyprus within the second half of the fourth century (d. 402/3). He was born in Israel and sojourned also in Egypt for a time. He was praised by Jerome as having known five languages (pentaglossa). He wrote a famous work of heresiology entitled the Panarion (“medicine chest”), and yet many probably have never heard of Epiphanius. I became interested in Epiphanius when I first researched Origen, specifically his Hexapla. Later, I realized that Epiphanius had his own story and significance, not necessarily a uniqueness and a distinction like an Origen, but certainly a voice that needed to be heard.

In this post and the ones to follow, I plan to comment on his biblical theory; that is, how did Epiphanius view the Bible? (1) What books were contained in his Bible? (2) How would he explain the all burning question of the relationship of the Hebrew text to the Greek translation of the Seventy-Two (aka the Septuagint)? In this post, I want to take a pass at the issues included under first question which involves some spillover into the second, but I will answer that question more fully in subsequent posts.

Epiphanius’s Bible

Epiphanius drafted four different canon lists, that is, lists of “specified and established books,” essentially what is meant by “canonical” today (Panarion 8, 76; On Weights and Measures 4–5, 22–23). Panarion 76 contains a summary of the books of the Old and New Testaments, while the other three contain lists of Old Testament books. From the summary list, he basically affirms the traditional twenty-seven book New Testament canon (though he does not number the books of the New Testament explicitly), including the then disputed book of the Revelation of John. What books did he include in his Old Testament lists? Although his lists manifest three different orders (a topic for another post), they all include basically the twenty-two(-seven) books of the Jewish TaNaK and the Protestant Bible. The key differences are: the book of Jeremiah includes Lamentations, Baruch, and the Epistle of Jeremiah all counted as one book; and Esdras A (a literary version of Ezra-Nehemiah with some additional material from Chronicles) and Esdras B (literal translation of Ezra-Nehemiah) are counted as one book.

How does Epiphanius come to list these twenty-two(-seven) books and no more as part of his canon? The greatest constraint appears to be the Hebrew alphabet and the books that correspond to it:

For the Jews have twenty-two names of letters, but five of them are double. For the Chaph is double and the Mem and the Nun and the Phi and the Sade. Therefore, also the books are numbered twenty-two in this manner, but twenty-seven are found, because five of them are double (Weights and Measures 4).

Epiphanius notes that there are twenty-two names of letters but truly twenty-seven forms of letters because in Hebrew five letters have medial and final forms. Therefore, for example, 1 Kings and 2 Kings could be counted separately or as one book, which they most often were. This numbering also assumes the Twelve Minor Prophets are counted as the one Book of the Twelve after the Jewish pattern.


In an essay in The Canon Debate, Albert Sundberg comments, “Epiphanius has the most elaborate embellishments to the Aristeas story. He argued that the Greek translation was actually better than the Hebrew text” (p. 72). I will return to this quote and its context with more intention in later posts, for there is some truth to what Sundburg says. However, it is crucial not to miss the forest for the trees in Epiphanius’s biblical theory. The linchpin of his biblical theory is the Hebrew alphabet and its twenty-two letters corresponding to the twenty-two books of his Old Testament canon. In most (but not all) ways, Epiphanius would probably be confused by the question over whether the Hebrew or the Greek was “better,” since he essentially held to the Hebrew Canon in Greek dress.

In the next post, I will focus on Epiphanius’s positive appraisal of the Hebrew from his work On Weights and Measures in order to show its crucial role in his biblical theory. Then I will turn to places where he speaks very positively of the merits of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures and consequently places where his theory could be misunderstood if not kept in tension with his complete thought on the matter.


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