BMCR 2006.03.44

Porphyry Against the Christians. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, 1

Berchman, Robert M., Porphyry against the Christians. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition ; v. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2005. xvi, 242 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004148116 hardback : alk. paper €129.00.

Robert M. Berchman (B.) presents fresh translations of the fragments and testimonia of Porphyry’s lost Against the Christians (αξ which he supplements with brief notes and textual remarks and which are “arranged chronologically according to author” (ix). The translations are preceded by investigations into author, title, date of composition, and sources, the structure of AC, and its religious, philosophical and cultural background. In contrast to earlier approaches and methodologically correct, B. refrains from reconstructing the original edition of Porphyry’s AC. By making all the fragments and testimonia available and accessible in one volume, B. does students and scholars a service, even if the discussions of introductory issues are occasionally quite brief and do not offer much new. Even without the original Greek or Latin texts (or the Armenian of a few fragments) the English translations provide an adequate first access to Porphyry’s AC. The book is the first volume in the series “Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition (SPNPT 1)” edited by Robert M. Berchman himself and John F. Finamore.

In his preface (ix-x) B. points out what the readers may expect from his volume about Porphyry’s AC. First, he intends to “situate this text in its religious, philosophical, and cultural contexts” and then he will present “a translation of the fragments and testimonia that refer to Porphyry’s lost work”. However, the reader must not expect to be confronted with an attempt at reconstructing the original text of AC, as, for instance, Adolf von Harnack had once been up to.1 Since then some additional fragments and testimonia have been attributed to Porphyry and, above all, according to B. such a reconstruction “is impossible” (ix). As far as the translations themselves are concerned, B. utilizes other translations of AC and follows them when he regards it as appropriate. He seems to apologize somewhat for his translations when writing that (ix) “[t]here are better philologists than myself” and “[t]he result is a straightforward and literal translation which at times sounds idiomatically rough to modern ears.” Basically, it is a wise decision to offer more literal than free translations, when the sources are not reprinted in their original languages together with the translations. Every translation is a kind of interpretation, and so there is nothing to be that self-critical or even reticent about. Besides, B.’s translations are quite fresh and enable their readers to sense the syntax and style of their original Greek, Latin, or even Armenian sources.

The book offers a list of abbreviations of journals, monograph series, titles of sources, and standard reference works, to mention the most significant categories of reference (xi-xvi), before it opens with brief discussions of introductory questions such as author, title, date of composition, sources, and geographical provenance (1-6). Here B. mostly remains on the surface, which is justified by the intended addressees (“undergraduate and graduate students”, according to the preface, x, but “historians of religion, philosophy, and Biblical Studies”, as printed on the back cover) and the main focus of the book, the translations of the fragments and testimonia of Porphyry’s AC. Nonetheless, even if his discussion of the date of composition (3-5) is appropriate for the purpose of the volume, the attentive and interested reader will have to turn to other titles dealing with this issue, some of which apparently were not used by B. or just not mentioned in the footnotes and the bibliography.2

Similarly short is chapter two on structure, genre, and taxonomy (7-16). As previously about the date (3), B. here points out the impossibility of certainty about the original structure of AC (6). However, the goal of his book is “to offer the evidence extant on Porphyry’s wide-ranging attack” in AC, and, thus, the fragments are arranged in chronological order: Porphyry of Tyre (fragments nos. 1-9; pages 124-34), Methodius (10-11; 134-5), Eusebius of Caesarea (12-24; 135-42), Didymus the Blind (25-27; 142-44), Epiphanius (28; 144-45), Arnobius (28-49; 145-50), Lactantius (50-63; 150-55), Jerome (64-108; 155-70), John Chrysostom (109-110; 171), Augustine of Hippo (111-61; 171-91), Nemesius of Emesa (162; 191), Theodoretus of Cyprus (163; 191), Severianus (164; 192), Macarius Magnes (165-210; 192-219), Anastasius Sinaita (211-12; 219-20), Arethas of Caesarea (213; 220), Theophylactus (214; 220), and Diodore of Tarsus (215; 221). All in all, Porphyry employed literary and historical criticism to approach the Bible (8), and the AC is best characterized as (11) “a defense of traditional Roman religion … aimed against active recruiting measures by Christians such as Origen among Platonists.” Consequently, B. assigns AC to three genres of literature: problems, apologetic, and chronological literature (11-16).

The third chapter is dedicated to religious and philosophical elements (17-71). Here B. reports on Roman religion (focusing on its significance for the state and the Emperors), Judaism, and Christianity (concentrating on its interactions with the Roman state), before he presents an overview of philosophical ideas and currents (44-56), mainly of Neoplatonic philosophy and religion. Finally, B. reflects upon the diverse attitudes towards and criticism of the Bible (Hellenic, Jewish, and Christian) with reference to similarities and differences between these and Porphyry. In some ways, the third and the fourth chapter belong together, as the fourth is about cultural background (72-117), which is inseparably linked with religion and philosophy. Here B.’s own background and his expertise in the works of Origen, Philo of Alexandria, and the Neoplatonic writers becomes evident. Clearly basing his remarks on commanding knowledge, B. explains the importance of the philosophical and cultural conceptions of Plutarch, Lucian of Samosata, Galen, Celsus, Plotinus, and eventually Porphyry.

Somewhat misleadingly, the next two sections (“Fragments, Orthography, and Languages”, 118-21; “Sigla”, 122) are called chapters, although they are not more than the introduction of chapter seven (“Fragments, Translation, and Exegetical Notes”, 123-221). The fragments and testimonia can be categorized into four groups (119):

1) direct quotations from Porphyry; 2) direct references to quotes from Porphyry; 3) indirect references to quotes from Porphyry; and 4) testimonies that may be derived from the writings of Porphyry.

The fragments are then presented in a chronological order according to authors and numbered consecutively from 1 to 215. In addition to exegetical notes, B. supplies indispensable information about the most significant features of the various sets. For instance, he instructs his readers to be careful because “[t]he works of Methodius are mostly lost” (134 n. 9) or underlines the importance of the testimony of Eusebius of Caesarea who “is our earliest extant source” on AC (135 n. 11). While it may be unfortunate not to have the fragments and testimonia in their original languages side by side with the English, B’s straight translations in combination with the concise notes are very rewarding on their own. As expected the testimonies are diverse in length, content, and character. So, Lactantius may have had Porphyry’s AC in mind or not (150 n. 31), whereas Jerome not only knew the AC, he almost counterattacked it (155 n. 32); John Chrysostom just rarely and vaguely refers to Porphyry’s work (nos. 109-110), but Augustine directly argues against him (nos. 111-61). It is a pity that B. refrains from taking a specific position on the trustworthiness of the Apocriticus commonly attributed to Macarius Magnes that has often been assumed as an apologetic composition against Porphyry’s AC (192-93 n. 44; nos. 165-210). However, Arethas of Caesarea’s testimony from Contra Julianus (no. 213) is accepted as “clearly taken by Julian from the writings of Porphyry” following Harnack (220 n. 46).

In his conclusion B. sees Porphyry’s influence in five areas (222):

1) Neoplatonism; 2) Neoplatonic religion; 3) Patristic Christianity; 4) influences upon Patristic approaches to scripture which continues down to our own times by; 5) a historical and literary approach to the Bible.

Nonetheless, the most lasting influence of the AC is that of literary and historical interpretation combined with each other. In other words, Porphyry could read “Homer allegorically and Plato straightforwardly” (223). B. correctly raises the question whether such an approach might have been applied by Augustine to the New Testament and Old Testament. Without doubt Porphyry’s AC motivated and even urged Christian writers to shape and develop their ways of biblical interpretation.

The book comes with a selective bibliography of works referred to (ancient authors, 227-29; modern authors, 229-35) and indexes (an Index Locorum, 237-39; general index, 240-42; index of ancient authors, 243).

The publishers Brill, Leiden, did a good job and produced a quality book with a fine binding. There are occasional problems with orthography and correct citation, above all with the German titles referred to in the notes (for instance, the abbreviation of Harnack’s work on page ix, note 1, correctly cited below in my note 1, or “die allegorischen Auslegung” instead of “allegorische”, or the use of parenthesis for a monograph series on page 5, note 26). Moreover, references to works in the notes and the bibliography are not always consistent. Page 134, note 10, has “Holl, Texten [Sic!] und Untersuchungen 20.2 208f.”, which should be “Holl, Fragmente vornicänischer Kirchenväter aus der Sacra Parallela, 208f.” in the notes; its complete form is “Holl, Karl, Fragmente vornicänischer Kirchenväter aus der Sacra Parallela (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 20.2; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1899).

In his preface, B. explicitly names undergraduate and graduate students for whom he composed the introductory chapters on history, religion, philosophy, and culture (x). The back cover text mentions “historians of religion, philosophy, and Biblical Studies” as intended readers of this volume. One may wonder how students should be in the position to afford a book of this price. Moreover, specialists will not find much new in this account on Porphyry’s AC. However, sad to say, knowledge of classical languages is decreasing and so translations like B.’s are very welcome. They help to ease the pain even historians may feel and the challenge they have to face when they are confronted with a Greek or Latin text, to mention only the most common languages. All in all and apart from the criticism brought forward above, B.’s work on Porphyry’s AC is a helpful and interesting contribution to the research on early Christianity and Neoplatonism, and may serve as a starting point for further investigations into the relevant subject matters.


1. A. von Harnack, Porphyrius, “Gegen die Christen”, 15 Bücher, Zeugnisse und Referate. Abhandlungen der königlichen preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaft. Philos.-histor. Klasse 1916.1. Berlin, 1916.

2. B. refers to two studies by Timothy D. Barnes, but misses his “Scholarship and Propaganda? Porphyry Against the Christians and its Historical Setting”, BICS 39, 1994, 53-65, which is relevant for any discussion of the date of Porphyry’s AC. Additionally, he does not involve John Granger Cook, who supplies an in-depth account for the question of the date of AC; cf. J.G.Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum/Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity, 23. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000 = Peabody/Massachusettes: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002 (paperback edition), 119-25.