- Porphyry in Fragments: Reception of an Anti-Christian Text in Late Antiquity by Ariane Magny
Of Porphyry’s diverse corpus the contra Christianos has provoked more wide-ranging interest on the part of historians than nearly any other work. Our knowledge of this banned book of Late Antiquity is irremediably clouded with the dust stirred up in the early Christian polemical arena of quotations, paraphrases, allusions, and highly emotional retaliation from authors who themselves may never have read the work. In part due to its fragmentary mystique, the anti-Christian treatise has garnered the reputation of being antiquity’s most powerful and trenchant critique of Christianity and its scriptures. The reputation seems well deserved since the work appears to be cited or alluded to by nervous or enraged Christians more frequently than the anti-Christian writings of Celsus, Hierocles, or Julian (though in the case of each of these we have fully-extant Christian responses). The now fragmentary remains of the contra Christianos, however, are beset to an unusually extreme degree by the kinds of problems and ambiguities that characterize almost every ancient work preserved solely by later sources. Our witnesses to the treatise are all hostile opponents, only one of whom can with any conviction be confirmed as having read the entirety of the original (namely, Eusebius of Caesarea). To make matters worse, in the era of fragment-collecting in other areas of ancient literature by such scholars as Nauck, Diels, and later Jacoby, Adolf von Harnack published the fragments of Porphyry’s treatise in an edition containing an indiscriminate mix of Fragmente und Referate which follow its presentation of Zeugnisse. Harnack’s “fragments and references” range from verbatim quotations (which were directly attributed to the contra Christianos by an ancient source) to carefully crafted material assigned to “some Greek” by other sources.
At least since the seminal criticism of Harnack’s collection by Timothy Barnes in 1973, an ever-deeper dissatisfaction has grown with respect to the methodology behind his collection.
Yet, while unrest has been mounting, successor collections have been produced in the last decade (in particular by Italian and Spanish scholars) that have retained Harnack’s collection as their basis even while reorganizing the fragments (in the case of the Spanish collection) and including additional finds (some of which are of rather high value). In the near future we may expect to see a properly critical methodology on display in Matthias Becker’s collection (DeGruyter, forthcoming, with German translation and commentary). Until then, the current scholarly situation has left a bewildering diversity of approaches and [End Page 231] reconstructions of Porphyry’s anti-Christian project. A few trusting traditionalists continue to base their assessments of Porphyry’s work on Harnack’s collection along with more recent supplements; more critical minimalists have bracketed the anonymous fragments (especially the material from Macarius) and prioritize the directly attributed fragments; skeptical revisionists have assigned some of the fragments to other Porphyrian works (especially the Philosophy from Oracles) or altogether denied the existence of an independent work bearing the title contra Christianos.
In this welter of competing and widely varying accounts, Ariane Magny’s Porphyry in Fragments offers a signal word of caution to the overly exuberant gatherers of fragments and encourages a resolute skepticism among those who would trust late antiquity’s belligerents for a fair handling of their erstwhile pagan critic. Following an introduction to her contextual methodology, which asserts that due emphasis needs to be placed on the rhetorical manipulations of the Christian sources (or “cover-texts” which conceal more than they reveal) even when they claim to be quoting Porphyry, the bulk of the book is dedicated to assessing the treatments of our primary witnesses, Eusebius, Jerome, and Augustine.
Throughout, her conclusions are sobering. In chapter 2 we find that Eusebius, in spite of claiming to quote word for word, cannot be trusted: his quotations are “treacherous” (41). Rather paradoxically, however, and in explicit opposition to a preliminary study of this reviewer (though...