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Reviewed by:
  • Christianity, Empire and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity
  • Aaron P. Johnson
Christianity, Empire and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity Jeremy M. Schott Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 254, ISBN 978–0–812–24092–4.

Given the highly fragmentary state of much of Porphyry of Tyre's vast literary output, it is not surprising to find modern scholarly engagement with the third-century philosopher in a state of strong disagreement over the range, authenticity, and interpretation of those fragments. Recent treatments of the fifteen-book treatise Against the Christians have worked themselves into a juggernaut of opposing approaches, ranging from pleas to limit the freehanded collection of fragments made by von Harnack to more questionable attempts to include Against the Christians within another work entitled the Philosophy from Oracles (or vice versa). Corresponding to this latter argument is the assumption that at least part of this (completely hypothetical) Überwerk was presented at Diocletian's court as grist for the persecutors' mill. Although there are all manner of variations on this theme, the North American "consensus" seems to be decidedly on the side of a firm link between the melancholic philosopher and the Tetrarchy's violent aversion to Christianity. It is also the case, however, that Christoph Riedweg and Richard Goulet's criticisms of this position have yet to receive sufficient attention in Anglophone scholarship on Porphyry (including the work under review here).

Furthermore, often connected to conclusions about Porphyry's whereabouts on the eve of the Great Persecution are assumptions concerning the nature and extent of his presence in the sudden explosion of Christian apologetic literature in the following decades. The fervor, magnitude, style, methodology, and particular arguments of the apologies of Lactantius and Eusebius frequently have been explained by recourse to the great anti-Christian polemicist. Here again, caution is rarely exercised and overreaching claims about the nature of Porphyry's arguments are constructed from alleged traces in the apologists. At least in the case of Eusebius, however, much of this conjectural impulse will be chastened by Sebastien Morlet's La Démonstration évangélique d'Eusèbe de Césarée. Étude sur l'apologétique chrétienne à l'époque de Constantin (Paris, 2009).

The debate, however, is far from over, and indeed, may only be heating [End Page 393] up. Jeremy Schott's recent monograph now stands as a powerful ally to those envisioning Porphyry as a philosophical supporter of persecutors and a primary instigator of the Christian apologetic backlash. Even if this reviewer finds the continental scholarship noted above to be more compelling, the overwhelming strength of Schott's book lies in locating pagan polemicists (like Celsus and Porphyry) and Christian apologists (like Aristides, Tatian, Lactantius, and Eusebius) within shared, ongoing traditions of ethnology, philosophy, and imperial ideology. In this, he lays out not only the proper context for understanding pagan-Christian debate in the third and fourth centuries, but also presents the benefits of a post-colonial approach to that debate.

The book opens by placing Porphyry and his Christian antagonists within the broader context of Greek intellectual traditions that practiced cross-cultural research (ch. 1). Philosophers such as Plutarch and Numenius, Schott argues, sought to discover a universal truth through (often allegorical) engagement with the myths and teachings of barbarian peoples. Yet, their juxtaposition of Greek and barbarian wisdom was "not an isometric exercise," for "by reading barbarian texts in Greek and interpreting them for a Greek readership, these philosophers were engaged in a process of intellectual despoliation homologous to the Roman conquest of peoples and territory" (26–7, emphasis in original). The hegemonic vision of the interpretatio Graeca thus served as something of a border patrol confiscating some native elements and filtering others that did not pose a threat to an unstable Greek identity (or security, to continue the metaphor). In a similar manner, Porphyry, Schott suggests, invoked the customs or teachings of other nations while nonetheless working "to secure the integrity and superiority of Greek identity" (56; generally, ch. 2). Porphyry's immersion in the heartland of Hellenicity (Athens) and imperial power (Rome) allowed him, according to Schott, to perform a complete "erasure" of his...


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