(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Epiphanios, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Once applied, the adhesiveness of a sobriquet can become so tenacious that it cannot be dislodged from a man no matter how incongruous it may appear, nor how inconsistent it might be, not only with the man’s makeup but with his lifestyle as well. Such is the case with an archbishop of fourth-century Cyprus, known and remembered by the wholly improbable name of Epiphanios the Jew, whose nickname suggests an intimacy with a synagogue and not the Christian Church he championed in a parade of fundamental causes for which he is revered.
Had this dedicated prelate been called Epiphanios the Convert it might seem more appropriate, with no reflection on the Jewish people, but he was born a Jew and was so dubbed, and it is with affection and respect that he was referred to throughout a glorious lifetime as Epiphanios the Jew, a man who marched to the beat of the drums of tradition in a lifetime battle against heresies both great and small. Born of poor Jewish parents, he was befriended by a wealthy Jewish merchant who not only saw to his education but bequeathed to him his entire estate. Left to his own devices, he came under the influence of Christian friends and embraced Jesus Christ much as St. Paul had when he encountered the Messiah on the road to Damascus.
After having been baptized, Epiphanios undertook the serious study of the classics and theology, in the course of which he mastered Greek, Latin, Syrian, Hebrew and Egyptian, the five languages which earned him the surname of Pentaglosson (five-tongued), which never did supplant his original appellation. He became a monk and with all the wealth bequeathed him he founded a monastery in Egypt where for five years as abbot he established himself as an astute educator, a traditional theologian of the highest order and an unquestioned man of God. His reputation brought him recognition and an appointment to the prestigious post of bishop of Salamis on the island of Cyprus. He held sway in the influential see of Constantinis and as archbishop made known his conservative concept of Christian dogma.
In 367, Epiphanios embarked on a tour of the churches of Syria, Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome, discovering discrepancies in dogma and worship that were not only inconsistent with accepted tenets, but amounted to heresy as well. The First Ecumenical Synod of 325, convened for the purpose of setting forth central principles to be observed in all churches in conformity with the teachings of the Church Fathers, had failed to root out evils enhanced in certain communities over a period of years. Even in the religious centers of Antioch and Alexandria, two cities respected for intellectual integrity and deep philosophy, there was wide disagreement on the vital aspects of church dogma, particularly the concept of the Holy Trinity, not to mention the great fuss about the conflicting celebration of Easter with the Passover. These indiscretions distressed Epiphanios to the point where he challenged some of the most potent figures of the Church.
It was inevitable that a traditionalist as unyielding as Epiphanios would clash with prelates, who sometimes followed the path of least resistance and simply looked the other way when tradition was not being followed. The basics as he saw them took preference over anything that others condoned in the interest of preserving harmony, and where some practices were seen as innocuous, he sounded an alarm lest they magnify to proportions that could ultimately destroy the Church. In his adamant pursuit of perfection, he incurred the displeasure not only of ranking clergymen but that of no less than the great St. John Chrysostom, who was the incumbent patriarch of Constantinople.
Epiphanios was loud in his rejection of Origen, one of the early Church Fathers whose Hellenic philosophy had no place in Christian dogma, a concept which Epiphanios considered to smack of heresy. His most vociferous condemnation was reserved for Arianism, the heretical teachings of Arius of Alexandria, whose ideology repulsed Epiphanios as no other heresy, and he called for a return to the accepted theology by everyone. He was prolific in his writing and oratory on these matters, a series of religious expressions that are a part of the precious archives of Christianity. He is believed to have died at the age of 115.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.