Monday, January 30, 2017


Matthias Becker, Porphyrios, 'Contra Christianos'. Neue Sammlung der Fragmente, Testimonien und Dubia mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen. Texte und Kommentare, Bd 52. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. x, 667. ISBN 9783110440058. $196.00.

Reviewed by Ariane Magny, University of Ottawa (

Version at BMCR home site


In this colossal and meticulous work, Matthias Becker offers a new collection of the fragments of Against the Christians by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry of Tyre. C. Chr. has survived only fragments in the works of late antique, Christian scholars. Becker's is the first fragment collection to be produced by a German scholar since Adolf von Harnack first published his in 1916. Recently, other collections have been produced in English, Spanish, and Italian.1 A French one is currently in progress for Les Belles Lettres (by Sébastien Morlet). This interest in C. Chr. is part of a wider, renewed interest in Porphyry's work in general,2 and contributes to our understanding of late antique inter-religious debates, for it seeks to reconstruct an anti-Christian treatise that was destroyed on the orders of various Christian emperors.

In the first section of a lengthy introduction, Becker explains that his work is meant to discuss Porphyry as a pagan Neoplatonist, a philologist and an educated man, not to study the transmission of C. Chr., nor attempt its reconstruction (p. VI). He then proceeds with the minutiae of the scholarship on Porphyry's biography and the C. Chr.. Of particular interest is his presentation of Porphyry's time towards the end of his life (AD 268 and 272/3) in Lilybaeum, Sicily, a Christian city that, according to Becker, was a dynamic commercial, political and religious centre. Lilybaeum, Becker argues, might have been central to Porphyry's anti-Christian project, which he produced late in life (12-3). The philosopher may therefore not have sought intellectual isolation in that place, as Eunapius had led scholars to believe in his biography of the man (11). Becker is thus distancing Porphyry from Rome (14).

In the second section of his introduction, Becker applies critical theory to Porphyry's corpus. Scholarly views on the role of Porphyry in the politics of the late Roman Empire diverge. While some ascribe a purely philosophical agenda to Porphyry's work, 3 others have interpreted it as politically oriented, arguing that Porphyry and his circle had strong ties with their political world. 4 Becker seems to belong to the latter group. He has in fact rooted his discussion of the political role of C. Chr. in the sociological and political theory developed by Werner Schirmer.5 Schirmer's theory is a hermeneutical instrument used to analyse the modes of communication between historical and contemporary figures. It posits a model of "communication of threat" (Bedrohungskommunikation) in which a given group identifies a specific threat to its physical integrity (or security), whether it is initially real or merely perceived. The said group then collectively develops a rhetorical discourse that engages the opposite party into a war of words. Becker shows that Porphyry and his circle identified the expansion of Christianity as a threat to traditional piety, and thus formed a Platonic resistance group. This, according to Becker, explains Porphyry's lengthy project, which aimed to counter the Christian threat by using pagan literary strategies as a mode of communication (36). According to Becker, it is therefore possible that Porphyry's intended audience was the political élite of his time. Becker thus argues in favour of a political agenda by applying Schirmer's theory to the remnants of C. Chr. (39). He does so, however—and by his own admission—with mitigated results, given the fragmentary state of Porphyry's corpus (40). For instance, Becker's position as regards Eusebius' first fragment is invalidated by this theory. Indeed, if we reject fragment 1, as Becker (and others) suggest we do (25 and 456-7),6 we lose an important piece of evidence for Porphyry's recommended punishment for Christians (death) for disobeying divine law. Becker thus has to use passages from other Porphyrian works, such as On Abstinence, for instance, in order to show how Porphyry held divine law in high regards (50). Furthermore, he does not explain whether Schirmer's theory influenced his fragment collection.

But Becker's analysis makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the contemporary pagan reception of the rapid rise of Christianity amongst the elites. Using Porphyrian fragments, he notably identifies how Porphyry belonged to an anti-Christian, philosophical movement that was used as a political weapon, leading to the Great Persecution of 303-311 (53-5). Becker reminds us, however, that we have no evidence that C.Chr. ever called for anti-Christian resistance, or that Porphyry himself ever helped plan the Great Persecution (57). Becker also introduces a new and interesting dichotomy between Origen and Porphyry by opposing Origen's main argument in Against Celsus—that Jesus is the only way to worship God—to surviving ideas from C. Chr.—that Jesus is the biggest threat to religious polytheism (58-9). Scholars had not previously analysed the corresponding Eusebian fragments in connection with Origen's argument.7

Becker's aim is to find, amongst the authentic fragments of C. Chr., evidence for a "communication of threat" between Porphyry and the Christians. However, whilst he does so, Becker regularly resorts to using Porphyry's other works to deduce some of the unknown content of C. Chr. For instance, he used a combination of fragments from Phil. Or. and C. Chr. to support the idea that the anti-Christian treatise did contain a "threat scenario" (Bedrohungsszenario), that is, an important aspect of the "communication of threat" (59-60). But Becker's original analysis of Porphyry's Greek language allows him to draw interesting conclusions as regards Porphyry's portrayal of Origen as a 'sophist', that is, a manipulative rhetorician and teacher using the allegorical method of interpretation to read Scripture and lie to his followers about its real content (81). This portrayal of Origen, an apostate of Hellenism and fake philosopher, allowed Porphyry to construct the image of the enemies of polytheism (81). Porphyry, Becker suggests, wished to show that Christianity, a new religion (84), was threatening polytheism by appropriating Platonism and turning it against Hellenism (67-70).

In the third section of his introduction, Becker discusses previous approaches to the fragment collections of C. Chr. since the 17th century, and then exposes the elaborate methodology for his own collection. The author is very clear: his new collection is not a critical edition, but rather offers a new presentation for 132 fragments and testimonies gathered from late antique, Byzantine and post-Medieval sources (86). Becker's collection presents significant additions to the renowned Harnack collection (1916) comprising 97 fragments, of which 52 came from the Anonymous Greek in Macarios Magnes' Apocriticos. But Becker does not think that Macarios should be considered as a source for Porphyrian material, as opposed to Harnack and Jurado et al. (see n. 1 above), but in line with Muscolino (n. 1 above).8 All additional fragments therefore come from recent collections (Jurado et al. and Muscolino, in particular) and a series of articles by authors who found new Porphyrian fragments.9

In the second part of the volume, Becker presents his fragment collection. Between the maximalist approach of Harnack and the minimalist approach preached in recent papers,10 Becker has opted for a middle way (94). He did not consider the fragments that have been overly contested in the literature (the Macarios fragments, for instance); however, he included all the sure fragments, as well as testimonies and the passages of the works in which they were embedded, thus answering a call I made to present the fragments within their contextual framework (94-6).11 He chose to let the reader make their own judgement as to the authenticity and meaning of fragments / testimonies, but has provided them with a most useful commentary on each fragment / testimony in order to help with their decisions (94-6).

The collection is thus divided into three, innovative sections: (I) Fragments (F) and testimonies (T) mentioning Porphyry by name and associated with a book number (46 texts); (II) Fragments and testimonies mentioning Porphyry by name, but not associated with a specific volume (35 texts); (III) Uncertain fragments (D, for Dubia), that is, those mentioning neither Porphyry, nor a volume, but which content can be linked to passages from sections (I) or (II) (51 texts). Each section is comprised of the text in its original language followed by the author's translation and then remarks meant to guide the reader through the contentious aspects of each fragment or testimony discussed in the scholarship. The emphasis of the collection is rightly on the authenticity of fragments and testimonies, rather than on reconstruction (which would be impossible). Indeed, the texts (Texte) are ordered according to their level of authenticity, not chronologically, and ordered thematically within sections (I) and (II). As a result, the Porphyrian attacks on the Evangelists, for instance, are spread over sections (I) and (II), which can be rather misleading.

I have identified, in addition to the few problems mentioned above, a minor error that does not impede the general argument. Becker states that Porphyry read the Septuagint, when Jerome, in order to discredit the philosopher's biblical source material, states in Commentary on Daniel that he actually read the non-canonical version of Theodotion (28).12

Becker's study is at the forefront of the latest scholarly developments on C. Chr. Scholars working on Porphyry's C. Chr. can no longer ignore the problems related to the authenticity of the fragments and testimonies, and Becker's collection equips them well to navigate the complexities laid by its fragmentary state. It is a must-read for any Porphyrian scholar, and will certainly also be of great use to those working on the gathering of late antique, polemical fragments.


1.   R. M. Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians (Brill, 2005); E. A. Ramos Jurado et al. (eds.), Porfirio, Contra los Cristianos. Recopilacion defragmentos, trad., introd. y nota (Publicaciones de la Universidad de Cádiz, 2006); G. Muscolino, Porfirio Contro I cristiani. Nella raccolta di Adolf von Harnack con tutti i nuovi frammenti in appendice (Bompiani, 2009).
2.   By Gillian Clark, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Mark Edwards, Aaron Johnson, Sébastien Morlet, Jeremy Schott, Michael B. Simmons, Andrew Smith and myself to name a few.
3.   A. Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism (CUP, 2013), in particular.
4.   See, for instance, D. O'Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (OUP, 2003); E. DePalma Digeser, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution (Cornell University Press, 2012); M. B. Simmons, Universal Salvation in Late Antiquity. Porphyry of Tyre and the Pagan–Christian Debate (OUP, 2015).
5.   W. Schirmer, Bedrohungskommunikation. Eine gesellschaftstheoretische Studie zu Sicherheit und Unsicherheit (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2008).
6.   See, in particular, A. Johnson, "Rethinking the Authenticity of Porphyry, c. Christ. fr. 1," Studia Patristica 46 (2010), 53-8. The passage indeed occurs in this collection as 88D, among the 'Dubia'.
7.   Eusebius, PE 5.1.10 and HE 6.19.7. In this respect, Becker's overall commentary within his fragment collection serves to highlight, interestingly, Porphyry's debt to Celsus's argument.
8.   On this topic, Becker might also want to consult J. M. Schott and M. J. Edwards (trans.), Macarius, Apocriticus: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Liverpool University Press, 2015). Schott raises doubts as to the Porphyrian origin of the Macarios fragments.
9.   See S. Morlet, "Un nouveau témoignage sur le Contra Christianos de Porphyry?" Semitica et Classica 1 (2008), 157-66; R. Goulet, "Cinq nouveaux fragments nominaux du traité de Porphyry 'Contre les Chrétiens'", VChr 4 (2010), 140-59; and C. Riedweg, "Ein neues Zeugnis für Porphyrios' Schrift gegen die Christen: Johannes Chrysostomos, Johanneshomilie 17.3f." in I. Männlein-Robert and M. Becker (eds.), Die Christen als Bedrohung? Text, Kontext und Wirkung von Porphyrios' Contra Christianos, forthcoming.
10.   Cf. Muscolino (n. 1 above); S. Morlet (ed.), Le Traité de Porphyre contre les Chrétiens (Brepols, 2011); Johnson (n. 2 above).
11.   A. Magny, "Porphyry in Fragments: Jerome, Harnack, and the Problem of Reconstruction", JECS 18 (2010), 515-55 (online at Project Muse).
12.   Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, 4.11.44-5.

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