Thursday, June 23, 2016


Michael Bland Simmons, Universal Salvation in Late Antiquity: Porphyry of Tyre and the Pagan-Christian Debate. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xliv, 491. ISBN 9780190202392. $99.00.

Reviewed by Satoshi Toda, Hokkaido University (Sapporo) (

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer apologizes for the delay of the submission of this review.]

Michael Bland Simmons (in French it would be appropriate to call him "Mgr. Simmons", since he is the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Americas) published in 1995 a monograph on Arnobius of Sicca,1 which was favorably received by scholars.2 Since then, Simmons continued his research doubtless straightforwardly toward the study of Porphyry; otherwise it would be impossible to compile a bibliography that, even if limited to "secondary sources" (pp. 408-477), enumerates far more than 1700 books and articles,3 not all of which are easy reads4; furthermore, 690 abbreviations are used in the book (explained in pp. xxiii-xliv). This bibliographical apparatus is no mere parade of erudition, because these works are apparently really quoted in the notes, which are quite massive (pp. 269-396).5 Surely the gigantic effort made by the author is to be appreciated, although one might wonder who, other than Simmons himself, can control all the materials quoted.

The major thesis of this book is presented in the preface (pp. ix-xix). As mentioned in Augustine's City of God (X 32), the concept of universal salvation was important for Porphyry, "the last and greatest anti-Christian writer" (p. x), and earlier studies have posited a dual soteriology in his works. According to Simmons, however, while Porphyry at first attempted to offer "two distinct ways for the salvation/cleansing of the soul" (p. xii), later he "modified his soteriological system ... to incorporate another way for the cleansing of the lower soul by means of the virtue of continence" (ibid.). Thus in addition to the way for the uneducated masses and that for the mature Neoplatonic philosopher, there is a "third way for the salvation of the soul" (p. xi), and this tripartite soteriological system of Porphyry as presented in the De philosophia ex oraculis was "the closest that paganism ever came to providing a proactive soteriological universalism" (p. xvii) in the period when Christianity was in the ascendant. Christianity nevertheless prevailed, and "one of the major causes of the triumph of Christianity ... was its unique universalist soteriology". Thus in the history of the Roman Empire, "Constantinian Universalism, with its salient features of One God, One Emperor, and One Empire, took the politico-religious unification policies of preceding emperors to new heights" (p. xix).

Chapter 1 (pp. 3-19) describes and discusses the life and background of Porphyry. The author's wide perspective is shown e.g. in the presentation of a brief history of Tyre from the 2nd millenium B.C. down to Porphyry's time (pp. 5-8). Simmons argues (pp. 10ff.) that probably in late 240s Porphyry attended Origen's lectures. Such an encounter, although hardly ever mentioned, is quite possible, given Porphyry's profound knowledge of Christianity.

Chapter 2 (pp. 20-31) discusses the dating of diverse works of Porphyry, except for the De regressu animae, the Contra Christianos, and the De philosophia ex oraculis. The discussion is not quite clear-cut, but any discussion on dating is necessarily complicated.

Chapter 3 (pp. 32-51) discusses the De philosophia ex oraculis, composed of three books. Simmons criticizes Bidez's influential monograph on Porphyry,6 which suggested that Porphyry wrote the De philosophia while young; this dating is based upon the interpretation that Porphyry was more religious in his youth. Simmons' interpretation is that it was written in 302 or 303, i.e. just before the Great Persecution. Simmons also criticizes Wolff, the editor of the fragments of the De philosophia,7 for having classified Book I as pertaining to the gods, Book II to the demons, and Book III to the heroes. Instead, Simmons argues that Book I concerns the uneducated masses, Book II novice philosophers, and Book III mature Neoplatonic philosophers, which seems quite possible; and he is doubtless right in arguing that the audience of the De philosophia was not limited to those initiated in mystery religion or philosophy. However, the repeated mention of this classification, which already figures in the preceding chapter, rather weakens its persuasiveness, because the reader becomes less certain as to precisely where it is demonstrated. Furthermore, sometimes the discussion is postponed to later chapters, which is also not very good for persuasiveness. The text is intensely repetitive.8

The Contra Christianos, discussed in chapter 4 (pp. 52-91), is famous for its criticism of Christian interpretation of some prophecies of the Old Testament, but here Simmons examines, from a different viewpoint, many Christian writers who wrote against Porphyry and gave some information on the Contra Christianos, in order to see whether they touch upon the theme of universal salvation or not. The conclusion, based on a massive analysis, that the Contra Christianos dealt with Christian universalism, i.e. it "attempted to negate Christ as the one way for the soul's salvation" (p. 88), seems quite possible.

Chapter 5 (pp. 92-104) deals with Eusebius as a witness of Porphyry, especially his work Theophany, which is preserved in its entirety only in Syriac and has been neglected in patristic studies.9 Simmons pays special attention to the expression "Savior of all"10, often used in the work, and argues that the theme of universal salvation is important in the Theophany, which was written "to counter the claims of universalism made by Porphyry and his followers" (p. 103).

Chapter 6 (pp. 107-133), which begins Part II of the book, first discusses various categories and sub-categories implied in the notion of salvation (e.g. category: salvation from the world; sub-category: healing, protection, philosophical escape from the body, etc.). Here one might perceive a pastoral concern of the archbishop. Then comes the analysis (pp. 113ff.) concerning the "third way" for the salvation of the soul, and the key notion σωφροσύνη (continence) is discussed in detail. Simmons' interpretation that Augustine's expression "posse continentiae virtute purgari" (City of God X 28) stresses the importance of the virtue of continence (p. 114) is convincing, and he is doubtless right in arguing that Porphyry's Ad Marcellam "is a propaedeutic philosophical tract", whose purpose is to present "the elementary doctrines of the 'third way'" (p. 117). This chapter greatly reinforces Simmons' major thesis, especially concerning the "third way" or, as used more frequently in Part II of the book, "Path II".

Chapter 7 (pp. 126-133) again discusses the De philosophia ex oraculis, suggesting a reclassification of the fragments into each book of the work. Although I am unable to judge whether the reclassification of each fragment is correct or not, doubt should be expressed whether Simmon's interpretation that Book III of the De philosophia concerns mature Neoplatonic philosophers is correct or not, because, as Simmons himself recognizes, "Book III poses problems because none of its fragments contain philosophical oracles" (pp. 132-133).

Chapter 8 (pp. 134-158) discusses in parallel Porphyry's thought and that of Iamblichus, Porphyry's pupil. Whereas Porphyry thinks theurgy has no value in the life of the philosopher, for Iamblichus theurgical rituals have salvific value "even at the highest stage" (p. 153). Another difference is that "for Iamblichus, the human soul completely descends from the higher levels into the world, whereas Plotinus and Porphyry taught that a higher part of the soul is undescended" (p. 156). Thus Iamblichus' "Soteriology of Descent" (Simmons) is clearly contrasted with Porphyry's "Soteriology of Ascent" (p. 157). The similarity between the two philosophers is also stressed, especially concerning the way for the salvation of the uneducated masses, and also concerning that of novice philosophers.

Chapter 9 (pp. 159-186) discusses eschatological salvation, because "[s]oteriology cannot be separated from eschatology" (p. 159). Starting from various exegeses of Plato's eschatological myths, the discussion stresses the importance of the doctrine of reincarnation. Very much intriguing is that, concerning the "present post mortem location of Plotinus' soul" (p. 176), Simmons argues that, among the three Realms, i.e. Material, Ethereal, and Empyrean (i.e., highest) Realm where the soul can enjoy the presence of the One, according to Porphyry Plotinus' soul is in the Ethereal Realm. The reason is that "attaining permanent escape to the intelligible world and eschatological union with the One required three consecutive philosophical lives" and that Plotinus "has not completed the specific cycle of rebirths required of philosophers" (p. 179). A question: According to Porphyry, does Plotinus' soul, which is now in the median realm, already enjoy salvation (= cleansing?), or is it rather just waiting for the permanent escape (= salvation?) from the cycle of reincarnation?

Chapter 10 (pp. 187-197) briefly discusses the historical context from the reign of Caracalla through Diocletian down to Constantine, a period of about hundred years in which Porphyry's search for the universal salvation should be situated. According to Simmons, Porphyry's tiered soteriology "was supported by Diocletian just before launching the Great Persecution in 303" (p. 187), and the De philosophia ex oraculis "was the result of Diocletian's attempt to unite his empire in the worship of the traditional gods" (p. 194). And after the failure of Diocletianic universalism, Constantine promoted Christian universalism. This argument makes it look as if Diocletian, as well as Constantine, was a bit of a philosopher of religion, which would hardly be the case, at least with Constantine.

Chapter 11 (pp. 198-209) first enumerates "ten salient features of Christian universalism" (p. 198) because of which Christianity finally prevailed. Here one might perceive an apologetic concern of the archbishop. Then, from the viewpoint of universalism, seven salvation cults that competed with Christianity are briefly presented: Isis-Sarapis, Mithras, Manichaeism (mentioned just for reference), Cybele, Jupiter Dolichenus, Sol (Invictus), and the imperial cult. It is interesting to observe that Porphyry's soteriological system is out of the question here, and with good reason, because Porphyry's system, which is purely intellectual, was doubtless hardly influential as such.

The last chapter 12 (pp. 210-226) "Conclusion" is still equipped with 86 (extravagant?) notes. To the question "Why did Porphyry's soteriological system fail?" (p. 226), i.e. as the theoretical foundation for the revitalization of traditional paganism, Simmons' answer is that it was simply too late.

I do not know how to deal with 8 appendices annexed (pp. 227-267); perhaps the author could have more efficiently utilized them in the course of the discussion. The index (pp. 479-491) is thin compared with the massive substance of the book.

Many issues of detail have been neglected, which are reserved for examination by competent specialists (especially mature Neoplatonic scholars), but in my judgment, this book, in addition to being an intellectual tour de force, provokes the reader to reflection in various ways, which I think is admirable, especially because the book seeks to cover several different fields of study that it is nowadays very difficult for a single scholar to cover by oneself. Surely scholars of ancient philosophy, ancient historians, and students of early Christianity will profitably read this book.


1.   M.B. Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca: Religious Conflict and Competition in the Age of Diocletian, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
2.   Some reviews: H.A. Drake, Church History 66 (1997), 305-307; O. Nicholson, Journal of Theological Studies 50 (1999), 319-327.
3.   1829 is the exact number according to my manual counting, but that includes many collections of articles that, in turn, are mentioned in the bibliography.
4.   Some works consulted by Simmons are apparently not included in the bibliography. The following enumeration is limited to the notes of chapter 1 of the book: Adcock, Charlesworth, and Baynes, eds. (repr. 1981) (n. 5); Conquais (2002) (n. 15); Chatonnet (2011) (n. 51); Beschaouch (1968) (n. 78); Lim (1993) (n. 176); Tommasi (2001) (n. 227).
5.   The word "apparently" is necessary, because I realized that attempting a perusal of this book is too quixotic a task for a single review.
6.   J. Bidez, Vie de Porphyre, Gand: E. van Goethem, 1913.
7.   Gustavus Wolff (ed.), Porphyrii De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda librorum reliquiae, Berlin: I. Springer, 1856 (repr. Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1965).
8.   The phrase used by Drake, art. cit., 307.
9.   Simmons' thorough bibliographical investigation detected even my unpublished paper on the Theophany (p. 93), which was subsequently published in my article "Miscellanea Syriaca", accessible in the repository of the university (HUSCAP).
10.   Simmons repeatedly spells this Syriac expression as "ܕܦܪܘܩܐ ܕܓܘܐ ܕܟܠ", but ܕ of ܕܦܪܘܩܐ is superfluous.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.