BMCR 2015.10.18

Porphyry in Fragments: Reception of an Anti-Christian Text in Late Antiquity. Ashgate studies in philosophy and theology in late antiquity

, Porphyry in Fragments: Reception of an Anti-Christian Text in Late Antiquity. Ashgate studies in philosophy and theology in late antiquity. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. 202. ISBN 9781409441151. $104.95.


It has become fashionable in recent years to produce editions of Porphyry’s Contra Christianos, despite the manifest problems associated with the text.1 Ariane Magny’s refreshing examination of the fragments attributed to Porphyry’s work against the Christians is a revised dissertation done under the guidance of Gillian Clark. At this time in Porphyrian scholarship, such a careful monograph is probably of more practical use than another attempted edition of the lost text. After an introduction and a chapter on methodology, Magny limits her investigation to three primary authors from whom most of the alleged fragments have been drawn: Eusebius, Jerome, and Augustine. She does not include other authors such as Didymus the Blind and Theophylact who preserve texts associated with what is usually entitled the C. Christ. of Porphyry. In addition, Magny (11) rather casually dismisses the texts from the anonymous philosopher of Macarius Magnes’ Monogenes (formerly called the Apocriticus) that Adolf Harnack thought derived from Porphyry.2 She calls her method (22-23) “decontextualization” (or “deconstructing the cover-text”)—a method which includes analyzing the rhetorical strategies of the Christian authors who transmit texts and ideas from Porphyry or other pagan critics of Christianity. Herein lies the strength of her book. Such a method is hardly revolutionary, but it does call attention to the problem of working with the fragments of a book whose disappearance is in part explained by an imperial prescription in 448 C.E.3

In her brief introduction, Magny surveys the anti-Christian attacks of Celsus, Julian, and others. She mentions (5, 17-18), in an attempt to determine the setting of the C. Christ., an anonymous “high priest of philosophy” (Lactantius, Div. inst. 5.2.3-4 antistitem … philosophiae) in Bithynia, and accepts his identification with Porphyry – an example of a lapse in her methodological skepticism. The anonymous philosopher was a “professor of continence” ( continentiae magister), but burned with avarice and sexual desires ( non minus auaritia quam libidinibus arderet) according to Lactantius and used his connections to take neighbors’ lands. Most importantly he “vomited three books” against the Christian religion and name ( tres libros euomuit contra religionem nomenque Christianum). None of these descriptions are consistent with what is known of Porphyry’s life (e.g., no evidence he was ever in Bithynia or owned land there) and the extent of the C. Christ. (fifteen books).4 More problematic is her apparent acceptance (16-20) of Paolo Beatrice’s thesis that the C. Christ., the De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda, the Epistula ad Anebonem, De regressu animae and several other texts originally formed one treatise. Although she is aware of the withering critiques of Beatrice’s thesis, at no point does she review the precise argumentation of Richard Goulet and Sébastien Morlet.5 The only title Eusebius knows for the treatise is κατὰ Χριστιανῶν ( H.E. 6.19.2 ταῦτα τῷ Πορφυρίῳ κατὰ τὸ τρίτον σύγγραμμα τῶν γραφέντων αὐτῷ κατὰ Χριστιανῶν εἴρηται).6 This is not just a description of the treatise, but a reference to it.7 In addition, Eusebius explicitly distinguishes the C. Christ. (which he occasionally calls “the defamatory pamphlet against us” P.E. 5.1.9, 10.9.12)8 from the De philosophia ( P.E. 5.5.5: ὁ τὴν καθ’ ἡμῶν συσκευὴν πεποιημένος ἐν οἷς ἐπέγραψε “Περὶ τῆς ἐκ λογίων φιλοσοφίας”). Augustine and Jerome both warrant the use of the title.9

The methodological chapter (21-33) is a discussion of literary theorists’ reflections on the biases introduced by ancient authors who quote or allude to the writings of others. The goal is to recover the original material by isolating it from the “cover-text.” Magny (24) notes that Harnack distinguished testimonia, fragments, and allusions in the title of his edition of Porphyry, and consequently she drops “frag.” in her references to the C. Christ. and uses Harnack’s “Nr.”10 She mentions André Laks’ argument that testimonia are a variety of fragments, but seems to admit (24) that his position is more relevant for doxographies than for references to Porphyry in authors such as Jerome. Magny argues that any hope of “finding among the Church Fathers’ corpus some intact passages from the anti-Christian discourses” (i.e., “fragments”) has been ruined (25). Studies of “citation techniques” in antiquity (to which she refers) do not warrant such an untenable conclusion. Eusebius, e.g, often uses explicit notices (as Magny [41] admits) to delineate his excerpts from other authors, even if he occasionally introduces changes into the texts.

The chapter on Eusebius (35-53), who wrote a twenty-five book long critique of the C. Christ., is illuminating, but its excessive brevity stands in contrast to her long discussion of Augustine’s De consensu evangelistarum (118-147) – a treatise that she concludes preserves no trace of Porphyry’s attack on the Christians. Eusebius is the only author Magny analyzes who had seen the Greek text of the C. Christ. Consequently, her attempt to question the accuracy of his citations from Porphyry is inherently problematic (42, 52 and passim). An example (42) she appeals to (Eusebius’s alteration of Plato, Tim. 28c3-4 [ποιητὴν καὶ πατέρα] in P.E. 11.29.4 [ποιητὴν καὶ δημιουργόν]) should be placed in its larger context. P.E. 11.29.2-4 (GCS Eusebius Werke VIII/2, 66,15-67,3 Mras) is very accurate excerpt of Plato’s text ( Tim. 28a4-28c5 [SCBO Burnet]). Eusebius alters one of Plato’s 156 words and presumably by accident omits three (μετ’ αἰσθήσεως γιγνόμενα). In P.E. 13.13.7 he uses Plato’s ποιητὴν καὶ πατέρα, so not too much should be made of the earlier alteration. Magny’s claim (45, 72 “a Eusebian fragment of Porphyry,” 140) that D.E. 3.4.32 is from Porphyry is intriguing, but unproven.11 She carefully reviews (38-40) the problematic first text in Harnack’s collection ( P.E. 1.2.1-5 = Nr. 1), that is not nominal, but that probably reflects Porphyry’s arguments.12 She mentions (38), but does not analyze, P.E. 5.1.9-11 (Nr. 80 Harnack), which begins with a citation formula (αὐτὸς ὁ καθ’ ἡμᾶς … ἐν τῇ καθ’ ἡμῶν συσκευῇ τοῦτόν που λέγων μαρτυρεῖ τὸν τρόπον) and ends with a claim that these are the ipsissima verba of Porphyry (Ταῦτα ῥήμασιν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πορφύριος). Magny’s attempt to break down the distinction between fragment and allusion cannot be sustained.

Magny devotes a long chapter to Jerome (54-97) and demonstrates that his concern was not primarily to refute Porphyry, but to interpret biblical texts properly. It is confusing that she uses the term “fragments” to describe Jerome’s references to Porphyry (55, 57, 60, etc.), given her skepticism about the concept. Furthermore, it is nearly certain that Jerome did not have first hand knowledge of the C. Christ., since he frequently referred to the Christian responses to Porphyry by Apollinarius, Methodius and Eusebius (60). Jerome rarely gives an actual quotation of Porphyry (cf. Nr. 4 Harnack = Tract. de Ps. 81 [ hoc enim dicit Porphyrius … hoc enim tu dicis ] and possibly Nr. 82 = Ep. 133.9 [ quod solet nobis obicere contubernalis uester Porphyrius ]).13 Porphyry’s most important contribution to OT interpretation is his thesis that Daniel is a Maccabean forgery written originally in Greek (95) – a conclusion Jerome resists heroically (Nr. 43b Harnack = Dan. prol. : idcirco illum apparere confictum nec haberi apud Hebraeos sed graeci sermonis esse commentum). Porphyry bases his argument on the presence of a Greek word play in the story of Susanna and the Elders, which cannot be replicated in Hebrew (ἀπὸ τοῦ σχίνου σχίσει σε ὁ Θεός, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ πρίνου πρίσει σε [Susanna 54-59 Theodotion]).

The question of the attribution of the six pagan objections in Augustine’s Ep. 102 (99-118) receives a skeptical answer due to Augustine’s rhetorical strategies. Augustine associates them with Porphyry, although he wonders if the sixth question about Jonah is Porphyrian ( Ep. 102.30).14 Magny (112) begs the question, however, when she asserts that Porphyry never made objections in the form of questions. She concedes that the questions “may illustrate the kind of arguments Porphyry would have used” (118).

Magny’s conclusion (149-155), which follows her rejection of any Porphyrian source in Augustine’s De consensu (119-147), comprises an admission that she has not set the “fragments” “free from the potential biases of the text” in which they are transmitted. The “only way we could set a fragment free from its ‘cover-text’ would be by comparing it to the original, word by word” (155). Her work illuminates the use Christian writers made of Porphyry and is a stimulating and fruitful study.


1. Porfirio de Tiro, Contra los Cristianos. Recopilación de fragmentos, traducción, introducción y notas, ed. E. A. Ramos Jurado et al., Cádiz 2006 and Porfirio, Contro i Cristiani, trans. G. Muscolino, Milan 2009. Matthias Becker’s edition (with translation and commentary) is forthcoming from de Gruyter (with no fragments from Macarius). Sébastien Morlet is producing an edition for Les Belles Lettres (he will put the fragments from Macarius among the dubia), and Aaron Johnson is preparing an edition for Oxford University Press.

2. Porphyrius, “ Gegen die Christen,” 15 Bücher. Zeugnisse, Fragmente und Referate, APAW 1, ed. A. von Harnack, Berlin 1916. For a defense of a Porphyrian source of the arguments (but not the ipsissima verba) of Macarius’s pagan, see Macarios de Magnésie, Le Monogénès. Édition critique et traduction française, Tome I Introduction générale. Tome II Édition critique, traduction et commentaire, Textes et traditions 7, ed. R. Goulet, Paris 2003, 1.112-149, 269-278. Harnack (ibid., 9) called any attempt to distinguish between absolutely certain fragments of Porphyry and the dubia “hypercritical pedantry.”

3. Not Constantine as so many scholars have insisted (including Magny, 12, 22). Socrates, H.E. 1.9.30 (ἀφανισθῆναι δὲ τὰ ἀσεβῆ αὐτοῦ συγγράμματα), quoting a letter of Constantine, only says Porphyry’s impious writings have “disappeared” – a rhetorical exaggeration. Compare Chrysostom’s use of the same verb for the disappearance of pagan texts against the Christians (except for their presence in Christian libraries) in De Babyla contra Iulianum et gentiles 11,26-30 (SC 362, 106 Schatkin/Blanc/Grillet). Theodosius II and Valentinian on 17 February 448 consigned Porphyry’s book to the flames. Cf. Codex Iustinianus = A. Smith, ed., Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta, BiTeu, Stuttgart 1993, 40T.

4. Cf. Goulet, Macarios, 1.115-120 and idem, “Hypothèses récentes sur le traité de Porphyre Contre les Chrétiens,” in: Hellénisme et christianisme, Mythes, Imaginaires, Religions, ed. M. Narcy and É. Rebillard, Villeneuve d’Ascq 2004, 61-109, esp. 100-104. S. Morlet, “Comment le problème du Contra Christianos peut-il se poser aujourd’hui?” in: Le traité de Porphyre contre les Chrétiens. Un siècle de recherches, nouvelles questions. Actes du colloque international organisé les 8 et 9 septembre 2009 à l’Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne, ed. S. Morlet, CEAug.A 190, Paris, 1-49, esp. 21-22. The description is also not consistent with the known content of the De philosophia.

5. Goulet, “Hypothèses récentes,” passim, Morlet, “Le problème,” 25-6.

6. This corresponds perfectly with Suda Π § 2098 Κατὰ Χριστιανῶν λόγους ιεʹ.

7. Cp. Goulet, “Hypothèses récentes,” 71.

8. Cf. Goulet, “Hypothèses récentes,” 72 on this term. Magny (17) is aware of this problem with the thesis.

9. Aug., Ep. 102.2.8: Item alia proposuerunt, quae dicerent de Porphyrio contra Christianos tamquam validiora decerpta; Hier., Tract. Marc. 1:1-12 = Nr. 9 Harnack: impius ille Porphyrius, qui adversum nos conscripsit et multis voluminibus rabiem suam evomuit, in XIV. volumine etc. Cf. Goulet, “Hypothèses récentes,” 13 for other references.

10. Harnack, Porphyrius, 43 is actually far more discerning: he distinguishes “Fragmente und Exzerpte, Referate und Abgeleitetes”, and he calls (44) his collection a “Fragmentensammlung.”

11. D.E. “3.5.1” is an error based on Ferrar’s trans.

12. S. Morlet, La Démonstration évangélique d’Eusèbe de Césarée. Étude sur l’apologétique chrétienne à l’époque de Constantin, Paris 2009, 44-47 argues that Celsus is the source because of the charges that Christian faith is irrational and is guilty of a double apostasy from paganism and Judaism. However, one can find both charges in Porphyry ( De phil. 343F-346F Smith, C. Christ. Nr. 6 Harnack).

13. Magny, 63 does not discuss the quotation problem in Nr. 4 and omits any discussion of Nr. 82.

14. Cp. Aug., Ep. 102.8 quoted above.