Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.12.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.12.05

M. David Litwa, Refutation of All Heresies. Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, 40.   Atlanta:  SBL Press, 2015.  Pp. lix, 824.  ISBN 9780884140856.  $99.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (

In the 20s of the 3rd century CE, the leader of a schismatic Christian group in Rome, whose name we do not know, wrote a lengthy treatise (10 books, in Greek) to ‘refute all heresies’ of his time. One of his main theses is that all Christian heresies can be traced back ‘genealogically’ to earlier Greek philosophers, or philosophical schools, or are indebted for their ideas to magicians and astrologers. The author tries to deal exhaustively with all ‘heresies’ known to him (and these are many!). He goes to great lengths to ‘prove’ that most or all elements in the abstruse mythological systems of the various Gnostic sects are inspired by tenets of Greek philosophers (for instance, Marcion’s doctrine is traced back to Empedocles!). It is a work that contains, aside from the usual nasty invectives and vituperative language, a treasure trove of doxographical information about the ideas of early Greek philosophers, although it is a problematic source.1 This Refutatio omnium haeresium has often been attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, but without much reason: the author never calls himself Hippolytus and the manuscripts do not attribute it to him but to Origen, which is impossible — the attribution to Hippolytus is modern, but mistaken. There are five manuscripts for book 1 and only a single one for books 4-10; books 2 and 3 are lost. All mss are late, 14th – 16th cent., and the single ms for books 4-10 is badly preserved. For the greatest part of the 20th century, scholars had to rely on the 1916 critical edition by Paul Wendland in the Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller series (Leipzig: Hinrichs), a rather conservative edition. Seventy years later, in 1986, Miroslav Marcovich published a new and revolutionary edition in the Patristische Texte und Studien series (Berlin: De Gruyter). His edition is characterized, however, by innumerable emendations in which he went so far that he was rightly criticized for his libido emendationis.2 Marcovich left no stone unturned and almost rewrote the text.

The new edition by David Litwa offers, after an introduction, a new Greek text, a fresh English translation on facing pages, explanatory notes, a bibliography, and indices locorum et rerum. Litwa understandably is critical of Marcovich’s cavalier treatment of the manuscript tradition and opts for a more conservative approach, although he does adopt quite a few readings proposed by Marcovich. The problem is that Litwa does not present us with a critical apparatus. Occasionally he offers some text-critical comments in his explanatory notes, but if the user wants to be informed about what is in the mss he/she still has to turn to Marcovich’s apparatus criticus. So although this edition should have replaced Marcovich’s idiosyncratic one, it does so only partly. That is not to say that Litwa’s text is not better than Marcovich’s. A random check of several dozen of places convinced me that it is. Yet another reason why we cannot discard Marcovich’s edition altogether is that it contains a very valuable index verborum (at pp. 436-541).

The translation adheres rather closely to the Greek original but is free enough to yield a very readable text. On the whole the translation is reliable. Occasionally I did find reason to disagree. To give just a few examples, in Book 1, Praef. 1.8-9, the author uses in no more than 12 lines the words epicheirêma, epecheirêsan, epikecheirêmena, and epicheiroumenon. Litwa’s translations of these words are ‘argument,’ ‘they schemed,’ ‘manufactured,’ and ‘(my) project.’ This suggests a much greater variety of diction than the Greek warrants. At 1.2.18 axiopistos sophia is not ‘a wisdom given only to those (who are) trustworthy,’ but rather ‘trustworthy wisdom.’ When at 1.14.2 Xenophanes’ deity is said to be homoios pantêi, that does not mean that he is ‘similar to all,’ it rather means that in every part, or in all directions, the deity is the same and that there is no diversity in him; he is ‘homogeneous.’ In 9.20.1 hoplon is not ‘equipment’ but ‘weapon’ (see Josephus, BJ 2.125). In 9.28.3 onomata kyria is not ‘technical designations’ but ‘proper names.’ Also the explicative function of kai (‘namely,’ ‘that is to say’) is not always recognized, e.g., at 4.43.10 (initio).

The explanatory notes are numerous (some 1850) but they do not constitute a commentary (and Litwa does not claim they do). The notes mainly list parallels from other ancient writings or mention the sources the author used (often from Marcovich’s apparatus fontium). Only occasionally is there a discussion of exegetical issues. Sometimes passages need more explanation than they receive, e.g., in the case of the author’s obscure reference to the encephalo-myelogenic doctrine of embryogenesis in 5.17.12. In the notes to book 1 (often called the Philosophoumena), where inter alios the Presocratic philosophers pass review, Litwa sometimes adds references to the standard numbering of the Presocratic fragments in Diels-Kranz’s edition, but sometimes he fails to do so, for unclear reasons. But in general it should be said that for students who are studying this difficult text for the first time the notes are helpful for a start.


1.   See J. Mansfeld, Heresiography in Context: Hippolytus’ Elenchos as a Source for Greek Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 1992).
2.   See, e.g., D. Hagedorn, Review of Marcovich’s edition, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 32 (1989) 210-214. At p. 211 Hagedorn speaks of Marcovich’s “massenhafte unnütze und müßige Eingriffe in die Überlieferung.” The term libido emendationis is Litwa’s (ix).

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