Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.59

Marie-Odile Boulnois, Christoph Riedweg, Jean Bouffartigue, Pierre Castan, Cyrille d'Alexandrie: Contre Julien, tome II (livres III-V). Sources Chrétiennes, 582.   Paris:  Les Éditions du Cerf, 2016.  Pp. 663.  ISBN 9782204117548.  €59.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Aaron P. Johnson, Lee University (

Although Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum is our single most important source for the emperor Julian’s Contra Galilaeos and thus central to any attempt to reconstruct his religious thought, and in spite of the fact that Cyril provides one of the more striking instances of Christian-pagan polemic in all Late Antiquity, there has been no complete critical edition of Cyril’s work against the long-dead emperor until the last year. We are now indebted to the painstaking work of Christoph Riedweg et al. for a copiously annotated edition of the ten fully extant books and substantial fragments of the remaining books up to the nineteenth for the series Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller.1 Furthermore, aside from the French translation of the first two books of the Contra Julianum for the Sources Chrétiennes series in 1985 there has been no translation into any modern language of this key text. The present volume is a long-awaited continuation of that project (based upon the critical text of Riedweg, aside from several divergences; see below). In addition to the highly reliable French translation of Books Three through Five by Boulnois and Castan (with the early involvement of Bouffartigue, which was cut short by his untimely passing), the volume provides a highly useful introduction and several appendices by Boulnois on particular thematic or textual problems.

Boulnois’ introduction covers three main areas of interest: the structure and argumentation of the Contra Julianum (Section I); thematic issues (Sections II and III); and the sources of Cyril’s many citations of pagan authors (Section IV). The ten extant books are marked by a pentadic structure (11). Each pentad seems to be further structured into two units of two and three books respectively. So, within the first pentad, Books Three to Five form their own unit, addressing Julian’s critique of Christianity as an apostasy from Hellenism (12). Boulnois concludes that Cyril follows the order of Julian’s original Contra Galilaeos “assez fidèlement” (13); yet, Cyril abridges the original “assez considérablement” (14). This position of moderate trust combined with due caution if not suspicion is fair, although this reviewer finds himself with a higher degree of skepticism about Cyril’s faithfulness even as to the ordering of his citations of Julian, especially since Cyril admits that the flow of criticisms from Julian’s “ungated mouth” were often chaotic and needed to be brought into proper ordering (Contra Jul. 2.2). At the same time, Boulnois usefully identifies passages where Cyril summarizes material not directly quoted or admits to skipping over other material, while at other times giving clear indications of following the order of Julian even when it did not fit the proposed arrangement of his response (14-16, also 25).

The arguments of each individual book in this volume receive lucid delineation: Book Three dealt with Julian’s critique of Genesis 2-3 and appealed to Platonic philosophy; Book Four addressed the diversity or unicity of nations and national gods; Book Five defended the goodness of the biblical God against Julian’s emphasis on the divine anger and jealousy depicted therein (19-28). A discussion of the larger themes that persist throughout these three books (28-41) provides a nice opening to the delineation of two major points of contention between Julian and Cyril that will take up the next two sections of the introduction: the issue of the status and proper interpretation of the Bible (43-68) and the issue of the status of the Jewish-Christian God as either the Supreme God or merely a local ethnic god (70-103).

The final section (105-125), addressing itself to Cyril’s citations of pagan authors, strikes a fine balance between scrupulous analysis of Cyril’s use of his sources (especially Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea, from whom he drew many of his pagan quotations, 107-112) and lucid assessments of his citational techniques. Following previous scholarship, Boulnois posits that Cyril may have been tipped off to the importance of a pagan text by one of his earlier Christian sources, but then shows clear indications of having returned to the sources themselves, sometimes quoting lengthier sections of their texts. In addition, there are numerous quotations that are unique to Cyril. This is especially true of quotations from otherwise lost works of Porphyry of Tyre, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and the Corpus Hermeticum (116-124), as well as several quotations from the poets that are passed over in silence by other Christians (125).

In general, the translation is remarkable for its accuracy and carefulness, extending as far as possible to the conveying of many of Cyril’s stylistic traits. These include his sometimes difficult periods (made more lucid, however, in the French), his frequent use of anadiplosis, and anacolouthon. Although Riedweg is listed on the title page as the editor of the critical text, Boulnois admits in the introduction to a small handful of divergences from his GCS text (127), which then receive explanatory notes throughout the text. I noticed the following four instances: 3.5.24; 4.29.43; 5.13.7-8; 5.33.10. Significantly, the notes indicate that some of these instances are a result of making a judgment on ms. κ (the now lost Capnioneus that must be reconstructed from Oecolampadius’ Latin translation of it), sometimes resisting Riedweg’s adoption of κ’s reading (as at 484-5 n.2), at others preferring κ (and V) over Riedweg’s determination (as at 542 n.2). Boulnois’ notes defending the divergences from Riedweg’s text are cautious and judicious; they should provide an essential supplement to any reader of the GCS edition.

Unfortunately, no note is found in a passage (at 3.31.10) where the given text follows the reading of κ where Cyril informs us about a lost work of Porphyry, the Ad Nemertium, for which Cyril is our exclusive source of quotations: only κ, if it can be trusted, adds the vital piece of information that the quotation from Porphyry came from the “first book” of that work, thus prompting the conclusion that it was a multi-volume work. Only when Riedweg’s GCS edition is consulted is the reader alerted to the slender thread on which the reading hangs: the reconstruction of a lost manuscript through its Latin translation. Riedweg, followed by Boulnois here, may be correct to trust Oecolampadius’ translation of an important witness to the text, but it was the feeling of this reviewer that a notification would benefit the reader.2

While I found the translation to be admirably accurate throughout, I would like to register the following reservations. At 3.35.1, it is unclear why a plural “les voies” has translated the singular in Greek, as it presents a slightly different conception than that offered by Cyril. The “stale accusation” of aitias heōlou at 3.49.30 could have probably received a stronger rendering than “mauvaise querelle.” I wonder if the use of “le droit” is a bit anachronistic for a simple metestin at 4.5.30. The translation of Cyril’s negation of a positive act, “not inciting them to approach the virtuous life,” at 4.7.19 is made to bear a somewhat different valence when it becomes “en lui interdisant tout accès à la vie vertueuse.” The phrase “pensée médiocre” seems somewhat weaker than warranted by the more morally charged mochthēras dianoias at 4.7.46. I think the French translators’ insertion of “risquent” where there is no Greek equivalent in Cyril’s quotation of Porphyry’s De abstinentia (at 4.13.17-19) can mislead: Porphyry asserts that the animal sacrifices do in fact draw wicked daemones to the person sacrificing, not merely that there is a danger of such beings approaching the sacrifice.

Most readers will be comfortable with “hellénisme” as a fair translation of ta Hellēnōn (at 4.21.3), but this reviewer prefers greater caution in our use of Hellenism and attention to the precise range of significations for late antique usage of Hellēnismos and Hēllenes. At 5.3.23, the term endea should probably not be rendered as “incapable” but as denoting merely the need of acquiring what is lacking (in this case, knowledge of what is beneficial for humans), as a comparison with 4.35.20 shows (in addition, Boulnois’ note, 458 n.3, points out the seeming contradiction in Cyril’s thought as expressed in this passage, though I wonder if part of the issue cannot be resolved by appreciating Cyril’s earlier differentiation between gnōsis, which designates experiential knowledge, as stated at 3.26.30-33, and epistēmē, which does not require experience and is used in the parallel passage at 4.35.20-21). The hoi theēgoroi probably refers to prophets rather than “les théologiens” at 5.6.27 (though arguably Cyril would have been quite content to consider Hebrew prophets as theologians). I would prefer to take Cyril’s hoi logades (at 5.9.2 and throughout) consistently in a military sense (“the picked men” or “the special forces” of the Greeks), rather than “les sages de la Grèce.” After all, Cyril adopts military metaphors with some regularity in his depiction of the conflict between Christianity and its critics. For instance, “the picked men of the Greek side” resonates well with references to Julian as a “fellow shieldsman” of Plato (5.12.17) or to his “making war” against the cult of the Christians (5.13.5). The sexually provocative pun at 5.19.9-10 could have easily been translated with a corresponding pun in French (e.g., “il a percé la femme qui a été pénétrée avec le pénétrateur”). The occurrence of ptuchtheis in a quotation of Porphyry’s Ad Nemertium (at 5.20.34) may be a more literal reference to unrolling a papyrus scroll (rather than the more generic sense of being revealed, as “une fois percé `a jour”).

While the translation of to periergazesthai as “des recherches déplacées” at 3.19.18 is sound, a note (197 n.2) asserting that this term, along with polypragmosunē, is part of a consistent critique of extraneous inquiry in Cyril needs a good deal of nuance, at least for the Contra Julianum. In fact, in this work Cyril has a frequent penchant for claiming that he will “busy himself” with various matters of historical or philosophical inquiry. His persistently positive use of a term that usually carries a negative connotation is probably somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it remains a striking rhetorical move – especially given the fact that Julian had forbidden his Christian respondents from “busying themselves with external material” (fr. 2.6 Masarrachia = Contra Jul. 2.7.4). In Book Three alone, see 3.5.19; 3.13.1; 3.20.29; 3.21.1; and 3.39.7-8.

In spite of the above reservations, I hope to avoid giving the false impression of inadequacies or deficiencies in the quality of the translation: it is a remarkably fine and illuminating one. It will be an indispensible resource for all future work on Cyril’s apologetic work. Having made substantial progress on an English translation of this text,3 I can attest to having learned a great deal from this translation. Indeed, when reading this translation one feels that one is sitting at the feet of master translators whose years of sustained attention to Cyril’s corpus are generously brought to bear in the translation and notes.4 It is a rich and rewarding experience.


1.   Chr.Riedweg, ed., Kyrill von Alexandrien I. Gegen Julian. Teil 1: Buch 1-5 (Berlin, 2016); W. Kinzig and Th. Brüggemann, Kyrill von Alexandrien I. Gegen Julian. Teil 2: Buch 6-10 und Fragmente (Berlin, 2017).
2.   It should be noted that the Sources Chrétiennes series has a policy of restricting textual notes to only the most essential. As a reviewer with keen interests in the reception of Porphyry, it is natural that I might find this passage particularly in need of such a textual note. I am grateful to Volker Drecoll for general discussion of this passage.
3.   I am currently collaborating with Matthew Crawford to provide a first English translation of the work.
4.   For an indication of Boulnois’ immense contribution to Cyril studies, see the bibliography of Riedweg’s GCS volume.

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