History of Epiphany

Hieromonk Nicholas Pokhilko 

The festival of Epiphany has been present in the life of Christian Orthodox Church since the end of the third century. It has always been the celebration of the appearance of God. The Greek words epiphaneia (appearance, manifestation), theophaneia (the divine manifestation, appearance) and phota (lights) are traditionally used to name this feast. The celebration focuses on the manifestation of the Holy Trinity and of the divinity of Christ, the declaration of divine kenosis, and the fact that God assumed perfect human nature. More generally the Epiphany is a commemoration of redemption accomplished by Christ. The festival has passed through several stages of formation to finally become the celebration of the events described in the story of the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:11-17; Mark 1:7-11; Luke 3:15-22; John 1:29-34). In Eastern Christian liturgical tradition this story unfolds and brings together most of the fundamental principles of faith. In this article we would like to present the development of the Epiphany from an historical perspective.

Alexandrian Tradition

The first mention of the feast is made by Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in his Stromatum 1.21.146. Calculating the dates of the Saviour’s life and more precisely His birth in order to place it in the framework of Roman history, Clement notes that “the followers of Basilides hold the day of His baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings” on Tybi 11 or 15 in the Alexandrian calendar. These dates correspond to January 6 and 10 in the Julian calendar (see Talley, Origins, 119). However, Clement does not mention a similar feast in his Church.


The founder of this Gnostic group, Basilides, was active in Alexandria during the reign of Emperors Hadrian and Antonius Pius (117-161). According to his teaching, Christ became the Son of God at the moment of His baptism and the descent of the Spirit, while His birth was of no significance (see Irenaeos, Haer. 1.26.1; Frend, Saint and Sinners, 37-46; Rudolph, Gnosis, 334).


A piece of papyrus found in Egypt and dated to the beginning of the fourth century presents a liturgical formula for the celebration of Tybi 5. According to the Alexandrian calendar stabilised by the end of the fourth century, the date corresponds to January 5 or to December 31 (see Cullmann, Christmas, 21-36; Merras, Epiphany, 104, 108). Although the papyrus does not present direct evidence of Epiphany, seven lines of the text do convey the themes of the Nativity and John the Baptist’s sermon which appear to form one celebration.


Canon 16 among the canons attributed to Athanasios of Alexandria speaks of two events being celebrated together as Epiphany: the baptism of Christ and the miracle at Cana: 

At the feast of the Lord’s Epiphany, which was in [the month] Tûbah, that is the Baptism, they [bishops] shall rejoice with them [the poor ones]… for it is a day of blessing; in it was the Lord baptised of John… in the month Tûbah did our Saviour appear as God, when, by a wondrous miracle, He made the water wine (The canons are preserved in an eleventh century Arabic translation and fragmentarily in Coptic version in the sixth-seventh century papyrus. See Canons of Athanasius, 26-8). 

John Cassian (360-432) describes the custom of indicating the time of Easter in fourth century Egypt and refers to the Epiphany as the birth and the baptism of Christ: 

In the country of Egypt this custom [of signifying Easter] is by ancient tradition observed that when Epiphany (Epiphaniorum) is past, which the priests of that province regard as the time, both of our Lord’s baptism and also of His birth in the flesh, and so celebrate the commemoration of either mystery not separately as in the western provinces but on the single festival of this day (Conf. 10.2). 

The festival of Nativity on December 25 was adopted in Alexandria only in the fifth century: “there, following the Council of Ephesus, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril on December 25, 432, and again on the following January 1” (Talley, Origins, 141; cf. PG 77.1432.), which marks the first recorded celebration of the Nativity on that date in Alexandria. 

Western Tradition

John Cassian says that the Nativity and the baptism are separate festivals in the West. This was the case even before 354 as can be seen from the Roman Chronograph of 354: the Nativity is set on December 25 as given in Depositio Martyrum (“VIII kal. Ian. Natus Christus in Betleem Iudee”), while the baptism is completely omitted (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 9.1, 1892, 71). Perhaps, the origins of this tradition belong to the end of the third century, as many scholars hold (see  Fendt, Geburtsfest, cols. 1-10; Shepherd, Reform, 854; Mossay, l’Epiphanie, 34; Bernardi, Predication, 205;  Talley, Origins, 87).


Ambrose of Milan reminds his sister Marcellina that Pope Liberius (352-366) professed her on the day of the Nativity of Jesus, December 25 (Virgin. 3.1-2). He also mentions the feeding of the multitudes and the miracle at Cana, which usually appear in the context of the Epiphany.


Augustine of Hippo (350-430) in six orations on the Epiphany speaks only of the adoration of Christ by the Magi (Or. 199-204; cf. Or. 202.2). This particular theme of Epiphany clearly appears in the Western Catholic tradition (see Talley, Origins, 141-7).

Syrian and Antiochene Tradition

Interpolated between chapters 3 and 4 of the Didascalia Apostolorum, the section of the fourth century exhorts: “observe the day of Epiphany (Denha) of our Saviour, the chief of the Church’s festivals, on the sixth day of the kanun hrai (January 6) in the long reckoning of the Greek” (Didascalia Apostolorum 3.8.6-8).


Ephrem the Syrian (306-373) clearly speaks about three feasts, the Epiphany (Denha) being first of them. In his Nativity Hymns (NH) he refers to the Epiphany in Kanun on January 6 (see NH 4.31-32, 58) as the birthday of Christ (see NH 5.13; 22.6-8) and also mentions the baptism among the themes of the festival: “O Great One who became a babe, by your birth again you begot me; O Pure One who was baptised, let your washing wash us of impurity” (NH 23.14; cf. 3.19; 4.210-11; 6.19-22; 16.9-11). In his Epiphany Hymns (EH) he associates the baptism of the faithful with that of Christ (EH 4.1-2, 9, 12) and also touches on the miracle at Cana (EH 3.22; 4.206-7).


The earliest Syriac lectionary of the fifth century under the title “The Epiphany of our Lord on January 6” contains pericope-readings referring to the Nativity as well as the baptism, for example, Psalm 28:3 (“the voice of the Lord is upon the waters”), Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son, today I have begotten you”), Isaias 7:10-9:7 (the virgin birth), Matthew 1:18-2:23 (Nativity and the Magi from the East), Matthew 3:1-17 (baptism), John 1:1-34 (the Incarnation and the baptism; see Ms Brit. Mus. Add. 14528, also see Baumstark, Neuerschlossene, 1.1-22; Merras, Epiphany, 160-2).


According to book 5.13 of the Constitutiones Apostolorum of later Syrian origin, Christians ought to observe the Nativity and the Epiphany “in which the Lord made a display of His own Godhead” separately on December 25 and January 6 accordingly. The same trend appears in the book 8.33 according to which on the Epiphany “a manifestation of the divinity of Christ took place, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism, and the Spirit pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne” (quoted from ANF 7). In the Didascalia and Constitutiones Apostolorum the observance of Lent follows Epiphany.


Although acquainted with earlier Syrian tradition and Ephrem’s views, Epiphanios of Salamis (315-403) in anti-heretical polemics clearly distinguishes two different feasts. He contrasts with both Syrian and Egyptian custom: 

[Jesus] was baptised on what is for the Egyptians the twelfth of Athyr (and for the Romans) the eighth of November, meaning sixty full days before Epiphany, which is the day of His birth in the flesh (Haer. 51.16, Holl, 270.1-3).


Christ was born on the sixth of January, thirteen days after the winter solstice and the increase of light and day. The pagans celebrate that day… on the twenty fifth of December, which the Romans call Saturnalia (Haer. 51.22, Holl, 284.4-19).


Around that same date [January 6 = Tybi 11] thirty years later the first sign was performed at Cana in Galilee, when the water became wine. So it is that in many places even today this occurs because of the miracle which occurred then as a sign to the unbelievers, as in many places springs and rivers attest which turn into wine… An example is the spring of the city of Cibyra in Caria… Many too in Egypt can attest this concerning Nile. So that on what is for the Egyptians the eleventh Tybi, everyone draws water and stores it away in Egypt itself and many other lands (Haer. 51.27-30, Holl, 298-301). 

John Chrysostom (349-407), enumerating three festivals in his sermon on the Pentecost, specifies that the Epiphany at which “God had appeared on earth and lived with men” is the first (Pent. 1.1, PG 50.454). He reaffirms this idea announcing the forthcoming Nativity in the homily for Philogonios of December 20 (year 386): “since if Christ had not been born in the flesh, which matter is celebrated at Theophany, He could not have been baptised” (Anom. 6.3-4, PG 48.752). Highlighting the history of the feast in Antioch in Syria, he clarifies the separation of two festivals in his homily on the Nativity, December 25 (year 386):

Indeed, this date of Christ’s birth [December 25] had been manifest and known for less than ten years… This, which has been known from of old to the inhabitants of the west and has now been brought to us, not many years ago, is suddenly growing and bringing fruit (Nat. 1, PG 49.351).

The name of Epiphany should be applied for the feast of the baptism of Christ, as follows from the Homily on the Baptism of the Saviour (year 387): “The day on which the Saviour was born should not be called Epiphany but the day when He was baptised; for He was not known to all after His birth but when He was baptised” (Bapt. 2, PG 49.366).


As well as Epiphanios, John Chrysostom describes a custom of obtaining sanctified water at midnight on Epiphany from the streams and to keep it throughout the year. However, whereas Epiphanios connects the custom with the miracle at Cana, for Chrysostom it is the remembrance of baptism. The rite of consecration or blessing of the water, which we encounter in the office of Epiphany nowadays, indicates that Epiphanios’ view sank into oblivion.

Constantinopolitan Tradition

The sermons of Gregory Nazianzen (326/330-389/90) also indicate a separation of the Epiphany themes between the Nativity on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6. Perhaps, they witness to the renewal of an early Constantinopolitan tradition which suffered from the Arian controversy. Gregory was the first significant Orthodox bishop of that see after a long period of schism. Some scholars suppose that it was Gregory who introduced the western custom in Constantinople (Usener, Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, 260-69; Mossay, l’Epiphanie, 34). T. Talley disagrees (see Origins, 137-8; cf. Алфеев, Григорий, 195). In the Oration on December 25 entitled “On the Theophany or Birthday of Christ” Gregory mainly explores the Incarnation and sometimes mentions the baptism and feeding of the crowds:

The present festival is the Theophany or Birthday, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth… A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the river Jordan for my purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by His purification (for indeed He had no need of purification who takes away the sin of the world) and the heavens cleft asunder, and witness borne to Him by the Spirit that is of one nature with Him; you will see Him tempted and conquering and served by Angels… and feeding vast crowds with a few loaves (Or. 38.3, 16). 

In the Oration on January 6 entitled “On the holy lights” Gregory says:

The holy day of the Lights… has for its origin the baptism of my Christ, the true light that lightens every man that comes into the world… At His birth we duly kept festival… now we come to another action of Christ and another mystery… Christ is baptised, let us descend with Him [into water] (Or. 39.1, 14). 

The Oration on the one of the following days after January 6, 381 “On Holy Baptism”, refers to the festival “of the Lights” as an occasion for mass baptism, as well as Pascha and Pentecost (cf. Or. 40.1-3).

Cappadocian Tradition

Similar patterns can be observed in two homilies of Gregory of Nyssa (335-394): “On the Birth of Christ”, December 25 and “On the Day of Light”, January 6 (Nat. dub., PG 46.1128; Lumin. Opera, 9.1.221-242): “Christ was born as it were a few days ago… He is baptised by John that He might cleanse him who was defiled” (Lumin. Opera,


In the homily “On the Holy Birth of Christ” ascribed to Basil the Great (330-379) the feast is called “Theophania”. The author speaks about the Incarnation without any mention of the baptism (Hom. in s.Christi generationem 6, dub., PG 31.1473A). The date of the homily is unclear.

Palestinian Tradition

The development of Palestinian tradition corresponds with the reforms of Constantine the Great and the restoration of Jerusalem in the first half of the fourth century. Eusebios of Caesarea writes that Constantine built three church complexes: on the site of the Holy Tomb, at the cave of Nativity (“the scene of the first Theophany of the Saviour”), and on the Mount of Olives (Vita Constantini 3.33-43, see Talley, Origins, 40-2). However, the church at Bethabara, dedicated to John the Baptist, was erected only in the early sixth century by the Emperor Anastasios (see Merras, Epiphany, 152; Ristow, Baptism, 49). The description of the Epiphany festival on January 6 by Egeria focuses on the birth of Christ celebrated at Bethlehem and Jerusalem and does not encompass His baptism (Diary, 25). Some scholars suggested that the missing fragments of Diary 25 could describe a certain ceremony at the Jordan (McArthur, Evolution, 52). According to the Armenian lectionary (Vc.) corresponding with the notes of Egeria, the Epiphany lasted for eight days from January 5 and commemorated the Incarnation without any allusion to the story of Jesus’ baptism (PO 35.163, 168; 36.211-25). December 25 is called the feast of David and James. However, the title of the feast in the manuscript Jerusalem, arm.121 has a note “in other cities the birth of Christ is celebrated” (PO 35.75-8).


During the episcopate of Juvenal (424-458) the December festival was temporarily adopted as appears from two sermons for the Nativity by Hesychios, a preacher in Jerusalem from 412 to his death in 451 (see Talley, Origins, 139; cf. PG 93.1449). However, Kosmas Indicopleustes around the year 530 notes that only Jerusalemites celebrate the birth of Christ on January 6, on the same date as His Epiphany when He was baptised, while the rest of the world has separate festivals (Topograph. 5.10-12). The same evidence is testified by Abraham of Ephesus (530-553) who, in a sermon on the Annunciation, indicated that the Palestinians were alone in rejecting the feast of the birth of the Saviour on December 25 (PO 16.443).


A letter of Justinian dated 561 called upon the Jerusalem authorities to keep the Annunciation on March 25 and Hypapante on February 2, forty days after December 25, rather than February 14. It makes clear that until then the Epiphany still celebrated the Nativity and baptism of Christ. T. Talley suggests that this united celebration was defended by Monophysite forces (Origins, 139-40). The standardization of this tradition was ordered by Emperor Justin II (565-578; see Nikephoros Kallistos, Hist. 17.28, PG 147.292A). Shortly after the death of the patriarch Makarios (567/568) the December 25 festival was adopted in Jerusalem, and the itinerary of Antonios of Plaisance in 570 reports the observance of the Epiphany not at Bethlehem but on the Jordan (Talley, Origins, 140; van Esbroeck, Lettre, 351-71).


Finally, the parts of the Epiphany office: stichera at the Royal Hours and the prayer at the Great blessing of the waters, attributed to Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (633-634), clearly focus on the baptismal story as dominant in the feast of Epiphany and mention the Nativity as a past event: “In the preceding feast we saw you as a child, while in the present we behold you full-grown, our God made manifest perfect God from perfect God” (Menaion, January 6, see translation of Fr Ephrem Lash, http://www.anastasis.org.uk/megagiasm.htm 27.07.2004).


The substance of the celebration of Epiphany varied in different traditions. There were two major trends: Eastern and Western. The birth of Christ, the story of the Magi, Christ’s baptism, His divine manifestation, miracle at Cana, and the feeding of the crowds formed the festival of Epiphany on January 6 as indicated in earlier Alexandrian and Syrian traditions. Alexandrian tradition seems to pay particular attention to the watery mysteries which may be due to the connection with the Nile. Together these events illustrate the appearance of God, His power and glory on earth which echo original concerns of primitive Christianity. The theme of the Nativity or the birth of Christ was dominant in the western feast of Epiphany with the baptism being less significant. December 25 (winter solstice) was the initial date of the Nativity festival in Roman tradition. It seems that Christians in the East hearing about this tradition decided to adopt it. It is also possible that certain Eastern customs may have influenced the West. The Western pattern was adopted by Constantinople, Cappadocia, Antioch and Syria. The representatives of these local traditions segregate the variety of Epiphany themes into two festivals: the Nativity of Christ on December 25, also called Theophania, and the Epiphany (the Lights) on January 6. The latter feast was dedicated to the baptism of Christ and His divine manifestation and was an occasion for mass baptism. This change and the theological development of both festivals obviously correspond to the unfolding of Christological teaching. It could be initiated by certain anti-Arian and anti-Apollinarian concerns in order to emphasise the idea of the Incarnation of the Son of God (cf. Merras, Epiphany, 144, 152).


At the same time, the Churches of Alexandria and Jerusalem were reluctant to accept this change. In Alexandria the Nativity on December 25 was celebrated for the first time some fifty years later than in Constantinople. Perhaps, the rivalry between the see of Alexandria and that of Constantinople (and maybe Rome) was one of the reasons behind the Alexandrians’ reluctance. The Church of Jerusalem kept the tradition of the united Epiphany festival on January 6 till the middle of the sixth century, when the ultimate standardization in the East finally took place with the exception of the Armenian Church which still celebrates the Nativity on January 6. It seems to be impossible to celebrate the Nativity, baptism, and the miracle at Cana simultaneously in Palestine where all the events of the life of Christ were geographically attached to certain places. Such a long survival of Palestinian custom could indicate that the baptism of Christ was not considered as important as His Nativity. An emphasis on the theme of the Incarnation in the feast can indicate some strong influence of Alexandrian tradition, but not necessarily Monophysite. The unique Palestinian case witnesses to the loyalty of the Church of Jerusalem not merely to its own independent tradition, but also, in a way, to the universal tradition because this Church has always been considered loyal to Orthodox Christology.


This is the historical and theological background of the Epiphany feast as celebrated in Palestine in the time of John Damascene. As a clear dogmatic exposition, the iambic Epiphany canon sung at Matins on Epiphany, which is attributed to John of Damascus, plays a significant role in the celebration. A few notes should be made on the contemplation of both the Incarnation and the baptism in this canon, and the relation of this canon to that for the Nativity. It is not surprising that the author uses the same vocabulary and imagery for both canons and for both events. The events celebrated immediately follow each other in the liturgical year and correspond theologically. So both canons form one context of the solemn celebration of the appearance of God and His redemption (perhaps, more obviously united through the idea of birth). It is likely that they were composed in the same time. The author alludes to the same scriptural and patristic sources, most familiar to people, in order to emphasise the most important Christian beliefs.


The peculiarity of the Epiphany canon can also be explained if it is placed in the historical context discussed above. References to the Incarnation and baptism as one redemptive piece reflect the evidence that the themes of Nativity and Epiphany were included in a single Epiphany festival in the East. Thus, the canon caries a reminder that the background of the Palestinian tradition of this united celebration is not totally forgotten. As the author was writing in Palestine only a century and a half after this tradition was changed, he could well be familiar with its history. At the same time the canon clearly reflects the standard: the Nativity precedes the Epiphany historically and theologically.


As for a possible explanation of the Palestinian case, the canon does not show any evidence that the unique Palestinian custom might have been maintained by Monophysite or, perhaps, Origenists. The author does not hesitate to integrate both events and draws a single Orthodox Christological picture from them (no need to say that the Christology of both canons is identical). Whereas the first canon focuses on the Incarnation, the second concentrates on the baptism and the first public manifestation of God the Word, and contemplates the mysteries of Christian baptism. Christian Orthodox Church still holds the same Epiphany tradition which is reflected in the iambic canon attributed to John Damascene.


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