Saturday, November 30, 2013


Aaron P. Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 374. ISBN 9781107012738. $99.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (

Version at BMCR home site


Although we have seen a revival of interest in Porphyry in the last few decades, there is as yet no comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to the world of thought of this Neoplatonist as a whole. Johnson's new monograph, even though it does not claim to do so, comes quite close to fulfilling this desideratum, even though it does not deal with all aspects of Porphyry's intellectual activity focusing as it does on the religious philosophy of Porphyry. It presents us with a careful analysis of Porphyry's extant writings, special attention being paid to the many fragments (now conveniently accessible in A. Smith's Teubner), and paints Porphyry as a thoroughly Hellenized Syrian who is nevertheless involved in a very critical engagement with the processes of Hellenism in late antiquity.

In the introductory chapter Johnson sketches his methodology (with emphasis on the concept of cultural translation, both 'vertical' and 'horizontal'; see below), gives an extensive overview of the fragmentarily preserved works of Porphyry, and introduces the reader to the many problems of reconstruction of these works. His sensible comments on the knotty problem of what to include and what not in a collection of fragments of Porphyry's Contra Christianos are exemplary (47). He also rightly rejects the thesis that this was not a work in its own right but no more than a part of his De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda (27-9).

The rest of the book contains six chapters which are divided into two parts: Porphyry the Theologian (chs. 2-4) and Porphyry the Ethnographer (chs. 5-7). In chapter 2 ('Porphyry's taxonomy of the divine'), Johnson deals with the relation between Porphyry's Platonic philosophy and traditional Greek religion and mythology. As he says, he seeks 'to trace the broad contours of his vertical theological translation – that is, his sustained activity of transferring the knowledge about the god as expressed in various media (especially literary and iconographic) into a Platonic philosophical system' (55). Plotinus' One is often called God by Porphyry ('he translated from an ontological frame of meaning into a theological one,' 60) and for Porphyry the true philosopher's relation to the One is like that of a priest to Zeus, the Father. Porphyry tackles the problem of how the gods of the traditional pantheon could possibly fit within the Platonic or Plotinian system. But he was not simply an apologist for traditional religion, for he was not merely attempting to dress the deities of popular religion in philosophical garb. 'They resided at a great distance from the One, who was their source at many removes' (82). Porphyry created an increasingly elaborate hierarchy of the divine world, in which he situated most of the traditional gods within the level of daimones (both good and bad) of a philosophical system, i.e., well below a Platonic conception of deity. Johnson emphasizes the permeability to the boundary marking the difference between gods and daimones.

Chapter 3 ('Salvation, translation, and the limits of cult') deals with Porphyry's soteriological doctrines. As Johnson says, "The search for salvation appears as a rather emphatic concern in Porphyry's corpus (in comparison to earlier philosophers)" (102). For Porphyry, salvation is the (difficult) return of the soul to its divine origin. In this connection, Porphyry takes a rather critical stance towards popular religious cultic acts performed in the material world – to put it another way, he is against bloody sacrifices of animals and heralds spiritual sacrifice in the form of contemplation of the divine as the highest form of worship. Animal sacrifices are meant for the lower range of the divine world, sc. demons, and these acts are categorized by him as "inappropriate to the transcendent philosophical life and deemed to be misleading to the pursuit of wisdom" (123). Porphyry also had a critical attitude towards deterministic astrology and theurgy. In this context, Johnson convincingly refutes long-standing theories about supposed contradictions between 'earlier' works such as Philosophia ex oraculis haurienda and 'later' works such as De abstinentia.

Chapter 4 ('The master reader: Contexts of "translation"') deals with the philosopher's elitist pedagogical aims. Here, first, the two Eisagôgai are discussed. But also several of his other works "point to the sustained efforts to maintain a spiritual and philosophical elitism in Porphyry's teaching program" (147). These works often evince an attempt "to offer beneficial commentary on texts deemed worthy of exposition for a student reader" (164) who has the right philosophical mindset and Porphyry presents himself as a spiritual guide in this pursuit of truth. These texts may be the poetry of Homer, oracles of Apollo, or an inscription on a temple in Delphi. Johnson points out that throughout Porphyry's corpus this exclusionary sentiment is basic to his pedagogical enterprise.

In chapter 5 ('Knowledge and nations: Porphyry's ethnic argumentation') we turn to the second part of the book. Here, Johnson draws our attention to the overwhelming preponderance of ethnographic material in the philosopher's writings, especially regarding other nations' diet and religious cult, as he wanted to demonstrate that "the univocal language of philosophy was translated into the multiple languages (or ways of life) of the ethnê (nations), gene (races or families), and poleis (cities) of the world" (191). Porphyry made the nations of the world integral parts of his philosophical argument, since in his view among the various nations with all their diversity of location, language, and communal customs, were groups of practitioners of the truly philosophical lives. As Johnson says programmatically, "Thus, if Porphyry performed a sort of vertical translation in organizing and speaking about the divine and rituals relating to the divine within a framework constituted by the scale of Being, from the One to multiplicity, he nevertheless maintained a horizontal translation which not only formulated philosophical truth in terms of the variegated breadth of his ethnic vision, but indeed used ethnographic data to defend and foster philosophical pursuits" (201). This is most visible in his De abstinentia.

Chapter 6 ('Ethnic particularism and the limits of Hellenism') deals with the role of 'barbarian wisdom' and the lack of Hellenocentricity in Porphyry's thought. Here, Johnson helpfully compares him to two other Phoenician authors writing in Greek, Philo of Byblos and Maximus of Tyre, and carefully delineates the agreements and differences. In Philo, "Hellenocentric claims were severely rebuked, while Phoenician claims were privileged, though not to the exclusion of others" (235); in Maximus, on the other hand, "we find a complete lack of evidence that the author was Phoenician at all" (236). In this framework Johnson rightly takes issue with J. Bidez's influential but hypothetical chronology of Porphyry's works in terms of a transition from an Oriental phase to a Hellenocentric phase, but he stops short of "throwing out the Phoenician baby with Bidez's Orientalizing bathwater" (243). Porphyry simply was not the spokesman for Hellenism he is so often held to be, if only because he is so often critical of Greek philosophy and theology, for instance when he stresses that as regards finding the path to the gods the Greeks have been and are misled, whereas the Chaldaeans, the Jews, the Indians and some other barbarian nations did find that path and are the real models of piety and wisdom. "Porphyry had brought the varied voices of representation of barbarian nations into the pages of his transcendental philosophical project" (256).

Chapter 7 ('The way home: Transcending particularism') discusses Porphyry's ideas about the philosophical value of the religions of various 'barbarian' nations (Egyptians, Persians, Chaldeans, Syrians and Phoenicians, Jews, Indians, and Romans). Here one is struck by Porphyry's particular concern to stress the role of the Jews ('Hebrews') in the progress of human knowledge about the divine. "It is impossible to find a pagan intellectual before the age of Constantine with as consistent and overt sympathies for the Jews and their way of life as Porphyry" (273).1 Porphyry's respectful appeal to the Old Testament as an authoritative source (here he is heavily influenced by Numenius) is all the more stunning in view of his sarcastic comments on the New Testament. Striking as well is his negative view of the Romans as far as religion and philosophy are concerned.

Much more could be said about this rich and learned book. The reader should be warned that the book is far from being an easy read (due partly to the sometimes rather theoretical and theorizing terminology of the author). Nevertheless it is a pleasure to read because it is well argued, well organized, and original. Johnson has an intimate knowledge of all the relevant ancient sources and his mastery of the scholarly literature is superb. Anyone interested in the philosophical and religious world of late antiquity should read this indispensable work.2


1.   I came to very similar conclusions in my "Porphyry on Judaism: Some Observations," in Z. Weiss, O. Irshai, J. Magness, and S. Schwartz (edd.), "Follow the Wise." Studies in Jewish History and Culture in Honor of Lee I. Levine, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010, 71-83.
2.   Some minor points: I do not think that "to the ignorant condition of mortals" is a correct translation of meropôn ep' apeirona prêxin (106 n. 19; 338); it is rather "to the endless benefit of humankind." Porphyry's Homeric Questions on the Iliad should now be consulted in the new edition by J.A. MacPhail (2011); see 201 n. 86 where Sodano's outdated edition is referred to. Ad 275: On Theophrastus' view of Jewish sacrificial practice see now B. Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature. The Hellenistic Period, Berkeley etc: University of California Press, 2010, 15-39.

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