Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.30

Irmgard Männkein-Robert (ed.), Die Christen als Bedrohung? Text, Kontext und Wirkung von Porphyrios’ 'Contra Christianos'. Roma Aeterna 5.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 9783515115377.  €56.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (

Table of Contents

This volume contains 14 papers that were presented in 2014 at a conference in Tübingen on a variety of problems concerning Porphyry’s Kata Christianôn and its cultural context. The conference took place in the larger framework of the Sonderforschungsbereich 923, called ‘Bedrohte Ordnungen’ (hence the title of the book). In a short Introduction, the editor presents a concise overview of the recent spate of scholarly work on Porphyry’s polemical treatise 1 and outlines the contributions in the volume. In the compass of this short review it is impossible to discuss all contributions in detail and do justice to them. Hence I will briefly indicate their contents and conclude with some general remarks.

Dominic O’Meara deals with the various strategies by which Platonists in the second and third centuries (Numenius, Atticus, Plotinus) claimed – in polemical treatises directed against other Platonists – to be the only true heirs of the legacy of Plato (with an original interpretation of Ennead 2.9.10). Although the relevance of this topic to the main theme of the book is limited, O’Meara claims that the methods these Platonists employed “may provide at least part of a wider context in which Porphyry’s voluminous polemic with the Christians might be placed” (30).

Andrew Smith, the editor of Porphyry’s fragments,2 first draws attention to the paucity of evidence in which Porphyry attacks Christian dogmas (he criticizes mainly the Bible), and then deals with a fragment in which the philosopher argues that Christ cannot be the logos (see John 1:1) since he can be neither a logos endiathetos nor a logos prophorikos. Smith shows that, in spite of the Stoic terminology, this statement should be interpreted in terms of the Plotinian metaphysical concept of logos.

In a refreshing contribution, Aaron P. Johnson, author of one of the most important recent books on Porphyry,3 advocates a minimalist approach to the problem of how to identify fragments of Porphyry’s work. The only secure evidence we have are the verbatim quotations explicitly attributed to Porphyry, amounting to no more than some 30 fragments (in Harnack’s edition of a century ago there were more than one hundred!). The rest of the attributed material (paraphrases, etc.) has to be graded in categories of decreasing reliability, and all non-attributed material should be discarded (e.g., the many anonymous passages from Macarius Magnes’ Apokritikos that loomed so large in Harnack’s edition). This re-evaluation of the evidence has important consequences for the interpretation of Porphyry’s Contra Christianos (for example, almost all negative remarks about the Old Testament and Judaism should be discarded and only the positive ones remain). What all this leaves us with is that for Porphyry the Christians “presented philosophical and theological confusion through worship of a pious man as a god, their frequent disagreements amongst themselves, their prizing of contradictory and deceptive authoritative writings, and their inability to adopt sound interpretive principles and instead to play fast and loose with the allegorical approach to Scripture” (57). Fortunately, in his new edition, Matthias Becker (see below) by and large agrees with Johnson’s approach.

In an intriguing chapter, Christoph Riedweg argues that a hitherto overlooked fragment of Porphyry’s work is to be found in a homily on the Gospel of John by John Chrysostom. Although the philosopher’s name is not mentioned in the text, Riedweg adduces a wealth of circumstantial evidence to make his point. While he succeeds in making his case a very probable one, the fragment certainly cannot be promoted to the category of ‘secure evidence’ in Smith’s classification. In his new edition, Becker now includes it as Testimonium 80.

After a rather theoretical discussion of the definitions of metaphor and allegory and their relationship to each other, Karla Pollmann highlights the agreements and differences of their uses by Origen and Porphyry respectively, with special emphasis on the question of why Porphyry regards allegorical exegesis of the Bible as wholly inappropriate (unlike Homer, the biblical books were not written with the purpose of being decoded by means of allegory).

Matthias Becker, the most recent editor of Porphyry’s Contra Christianos,4 discusses the question of how the philosopher dealt with the threat Christianity posed to the traditional values and the political order. After a theoretical discussion of definitions of polemic, Becker distinguishes three areas in which Porphyry regarded Christianity as a threat: “Indem Porphyrios den Fortbestand der politisch-gesetzlichen Ordnung des Imperium Romanum, die religiösen Routinen paganer Spiritualität sowie die Deutungshoheit über das pagan-philosophische bzw. pagan-platonische Erbe als durch die Christen infrage gestellt kommuniziert, nimmt er eine entschieden negative Beurteilung der christlichen Religion vor” (134). Becker then shows which rhetorical strategies Porphyry employed in order to counter this Christian threat.

In a lengthy and fine contribution, Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler studies the fragments dealing with Christ and the Christians from Porphyry’s De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda. She explains, inter multa alia, why and how Porphyry created an opposition between Jesus, who is pictured as a very wise and pious man whose soul has ascended to heaven, and the Christians, who completely failed to see who he really was. What makes this paper hard to read is that the numerous and long footnotes take up far more space than the main text so that consulting them makes for many long interruptions when reading the main text.

In an excellent essay, Irmgard Männlein-Robert analyses the fragments of Porphyry’s Peri agalmatôn, which she describes as “eine platonische Exegeseschrift über symbolische Bilder als Medien mit Verweischarakter auf Götter und göttliche Potenzen” (190), directed against Christian critique of pagan ‘Bilderverehrung.’ Porphyry here poses as a hierophant who initiates the reader into the insight that images of the traditional gods should be ‘read’ as “allegorische Repräsentationsformen des Göttlichen im Raum des Ästhetischen (...), deren Bedeutungen genau festgelegt sind” (189). Furthermore, she discusses some instances of Porphyry’s Platonic ‘reading’ of a Zeus statue and, finally, she positions the treatise in the history of later Platonism. Even though one may not agree with all interpretations by Männlein-Robert, this is a very rich chapter.

Udo Hartmann discusses the presence of Neoplatonist philosophers at the courts of the Tetrarchs and Constantine. The evidence for that phenomenon is meagre (“die Quellenlage [ist] ... mehr als dürftig,” 208), but Hartmann squeezes all possible information out of it. He argues at some length that there is no secure evidence at all that Porphyry was one of the philosophers at Diocletian’s court before and during the great persecution that started in 303: Lactantius’ antistes philosophiae (highpriest of philosophy) cannot have been Porphyry, as Hartmann convincingly argues against quite a number of scholars. He could have strengthened his case by pointing out that, as far as we know, in his anti-Christian writings Porphyry never advocates violence against the new religion. Next, he discusses what little information we have about the activities of three anonymous philosophers (pupils of Iamblichus) at Licinius’ court. Finally, the chapter analyzes the position of Sopatros of Apameia at the court of Constantine, even as late as the 330s (after a court intrigue, Constantine had him executed). Even though this essay has little to do with Porphyry’s Contra Christianos, it is an interesting read.

Stefan Freund deals with the opponents of Christianity in Lactantius’ Divinae institutiones, the anonymous antistes philosophiae, and the unnamed but certainly identifiable Sossianus Hierocles (author of the Philalêtheis). Freund analyzes Lactantius’ rhetorical and argumentative strategy and shows how the church father aims to prove that the philosophers adhere to ideas that had already been decisively refuted (by Lactantius himself). There is little of Porphyry in this essay but it adds to the picture of the latter’s Umfeld.

Ariane Magny, author of a recent book on Porphyry,5 presents us with some excerpts of parts of this book in which she deals with methodological problems in the use of Eusebius as a source for Porpohyry’s Contra Christianos. Eusebius not only “made a personal selection from Porphyry which would have allowed him to portray the man negatively” (264), but there is also “evidence that he tampered with the original text” (265). Comparison with Eusebius’ quotations from, e.g., Plato, where we can check them against manuscripts of Plato, shows the degree of this tampering, and this should make us sceptical of the literalness of Eusebius’ ‘quotations’ from Porphyry. One would like to know how Andrew Smith reacted to this thesis at the conference – his ‘secure evidence’ is mainly from Eusebius.

In a paper that hardly deals with Contra Christianos, Volker Henning Drecoll analyzes how Augustine deals with Porphyry’s oeuvre as a whole (the bishop mentions him 60 times). This is a technical paper in which a thorough knowledge of the works of both authors is presupposed. I for one found it hard to follow the thread of the argument.

In an eminently readable paper, Ulrich Volp deals with Macarius Magnes’ Apokritikos, of which he is the most recent editor.6 He first presents the main arguments leveled against Christianity by the anonymous “Hellene” (who, ever since Harnack’s edition, has been too easily identified with Porphyry), and then analyzes Macarius’ apologetic strategy with special attention to what Volp calls “die homiletische Ausrichtung seiner Apologie” (when Macarius indirectly addresses his own community).

Finally, in an insightful paper, Susanna Elm discusses Julian the Apostate’s Contra Galilaeos and the ‘Nachleben’ of Porphyry’s anti-Christian polemic in the fourth century. She shows how Julian carried Porphyry’s legacy forward, even though he was not a fan of the latter – as a follower of Iamblichus he disagreed with Porphyry on several philosophical tenets, which he knew partly and only as filtered through Eusebius. Julian also reacted to Eusebius’ refutation of Porphyry. “Even when ostensibly addressing Christians, Julian at the same time addressed contemporary followers of Porphyry by highlighting Iamblichan teachings” (322).

The book has only an index locorum, not one of names and subjects, regrettably so, for that would have made it more useful. The conference at which these papers were read was held more than a year before Becker’s new edition of the fragments was published. However, fortunately enough, before submitting the final version of their papers the contributors were enabled to update their papers on the basis of this edition. Another felicitous fact is that none of the contributors follows Harnack any longer in taking the many anonymous anti-Christian passages in Macarius Magnes as Porphyrian, even though Richard Goulet, in his excellent recent edition of the Apokritikos, still defends Harnack’s position, albeit tentatively.7 All contributors are real experts in their field, and the papers accordingly have a high level. They bring the reader up to date with the present state of research on one of the most intriguing figures and writings of Late Antiquity.


1.   She also lists R.M. Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians (Leiden: Brill, 2005), but fails to mention that this book is a very unreliable guide full of errors; see my review in Vigiliae Christianae 60 (2006) 239-241.
2.   Porphyrius. Fragmenta (Stuttgart/Leipzig: Teubner, 1993). For unclear reasons Smith did not include the fragments of Contra Christianos in this edition.
3.   Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); see my review in BMCR at 2013.11.63.
4.   Porphyrios, Contra Christianos. Neue Sammlung der Fragmente, Testimonien und Dubia mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen (Texte und Kommentare 52; Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2016).
5.   Porphyry in Fragments: Reception of an Anti-Christian Text in Late Antiquity (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014).
6.   Makarios Magnes: Apokritikos. Kritische Ausgabe mit deutscher Übersetzung (TUGAL 169; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013).
7.   R. Goulet, Macarios de Magnésie, Le Monogénès, Tome I: Introduction générale; Tome II: Édition critique, traduction française et commentaire (Textes et Traditions 7; Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 2003); see my review in Vigiliae Christianae 58 (2004) 332-341.

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