Possibly one of the most party-hearty Christian sects ever to grace the extended Holy Land, the Syrian Phibionites were part of a large family of gnostic denominations whose presence crossed many classical religions and philosophies - Christianity, Judaism, Mithraism, Neoplatonism - and whose origins stretched even farther, to strains of Hinduism and Buddhism from the East. While many gnostic theologies rejected the body and the earthly world as an evil illusion or barrier to reunification with the "One", a universal deity or constant, the Phibionites were not as sweeping in their judgement as to what was ill on the earth and what was holy in heaven.
This group became known far and wide not just for the sensationalism of their rites (events that mirrored many other gnostics: Eucharist intermingled with reverence towards the serpent as an embodiment of Christ, or loud and racuous exclamation during Mass, for example), but for their overt sensuality and sexuality during worship. Were the Phibionites as uniquely "perverse" as they were portrayed in documents of the time? Not necessarily; the ancient and Eastern physiological belief in the creation of life via the intermingling of menstrual blood and semen had led to similar rites all across Asia. These vehicles of life, under the Christian doctrine of the Phibionites and others, were "one" perfect substance of life, seperated merely into female and male. They were, in fact, "the very Body of Christ" - the power of the crucified Son that lies, trapped and suffering, within humanity. By releasing and honoring this power in holy rite without creating more children in the process (which would entrap more souls in the pain of physical existence), the Phibionites saw their ceremonies as the purest expression of Christian and Gnostic sentiment. Consuming semen and menstrual blood was a purer communion to the sect than the symbolism of bread and wine.
The most descriptive and lurid account of the Phibionites comes to us from one St. Epiphanius, who, well before his sainthood, was reportedly seduced into a Phibionite circle by women "in the forms of their appearance, very beautiful of feature;. . .in the spirit of their corruption, such as had earned for themselves all the hideousness of the Devil" (in his own words). In his Panarion, Epiphanius describes the Mass of the Phibionites, interjecting his own post-conversion doctrinal complaints and an outright distortion or two.
Their women, they share in common; and when anyone arrives who might be alien to their doctrine, the men and women have a sign by which they make themselves known to each other. . . when they have so assured themselves, they address themselves immediately to the feast, serving up a lavish bounty of meats and wines, even though they may be poor. And when they have thus banqueted. . .they proceed to the work of mutual incitement. Husbands separate from wives, and a man will say to his own spouse: "Arise and celebrate the "love feast" with thy brother." And the wretches mingle with each other, and although I am verily mortified to tell of the infamies they perpetrate, I shall not hesitate. . .
For after they have consorted together in a passionate debauch, they do not stop there in their blasphemy of Heaven. The women and the men take the man's ejaculation into their hands, stand up, throw back their heads in self-denial towards Heaven - and even with that impurity on their palms, pretend to pray as so-called Soldiers of God and Gnostics, offering to the Father, the Primal Being of All Nature, what is on their hands, with the words: "We bring to Thee this oblation, which is the very Body of Christ." Whereupon, without further ado, they consume it, take housel of their shame and say: "This is the Body of Christ, the Paschal Sacrifice through which our bodies suffer and are forced to confess the sufferings of Christ." And when the woman is in her period, they do likewise with her menstruation. The unclean flow of blood, which they garner, is taken up in the same way and eaten together. And that, they say, is Christ's Blood. For when they read in Revelation, "I saw the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month" (Rev 22:2), they interpret this as an allusion to the monthly incidence of the female period.
Yet, in their intercourse with one another they nevertheless prohibit conception. For the goal of their corruption is not the begetting of children but the mere gratification of lust, the Devil playing his own game with them and so ridiculing the imagery derived of God.
(Here Epiphanius inserts a detailed slander commonly applied to Christians of the day by pagans: that the eating of "the flesh and blood of Christ" extends to cannibalism, specifically ritual abortion and dismemberment of a fetus, followed by a group feast upon its remains. There is no more evidence to substantiate this Roman Christian testimony about the Phibionites than there is to support similar claims against the Church of Rome by pagan authorities, and the reader is left to wonder whether Epiphanius meant to shift the manufactured "blame" onto a smaller sect or even realized his parroting of earlier deprecations.)
They preen their bodies, night and day, both the women and the men, with ointments, bathing and self- indulgence; they take it easy, lolling and drinking. They execrate on those who fast, and say, "One should not fast. Fasting is the work of the Archon by whom this present world-age was produced. One should take nourishment, so that bodies may be strong and able to render their fruits in their time."
This doctrine was certainly not in tune with the Christian majority at the time, and subsequently disappeared altogether along with larger Gnostic and non-Gnostic heresies when Roman hegemony and state power was extended to the Church. Neoplatonist and gnostic ideals, the concept of the universe as the cross on which the Son was crucified, and most certainly the idea of sexual ecstasy as a direct revelation of Christ's power, was almost totally eliminated in the centuries to follow, to be replaced by a centralized authority as established in a series of councils that continued even as the political power of Rome receded and collapsed.
But these guys, they knew how to rock the house.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God
, Volume IV: Creative Mythology
. Penguin Books Ltd., New York, 1976.
Pulver, Max. "Von Spielraum gnosticher Mysterienpraxis". Eranos-Jahrbuch, Zurich, 1944.