- Porphyrios: Gegen die Christen (Contra Christianos). Fragmente, Testimonien und dubia mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen by Matthias Becker
A mountain of scholarship on Porphyry's famous third-century polemic against Christianity has, from the nineteenth century to the present, continued to grow: the last seven years alone have seen at least four books dedicated to Porphyry's [End Page 277] religious thought, two international colloquia dedicated entirely to his contra Christianos, and dozens of articles (whether dedicated to the anti-Christian treatise or to his religious thought more generally). Because the contra Christianos survives in fragments of varying degrees of reliability, the constructions of different scholars predictably vary a great deal. A particularly significant culprit in fanning the diversity of interpretations has been the problematic nature of von Harnack's 1916 edition of the fragments. Under the inclusive label of "Fragmente und Exzerpte, Referate und Abgeleitetes," Harnack included verbatim quotations and paraphrases directly attributed to Porphyry, paraphrases or passing statements about Porphyry and other anti-Christians, and criticisms attributed to anonymous Greeks by Christian authors (such as Eusebius or Macarius Magnes). Critical assessments of Harnack's methodology began to be aired in the 1970s and have increased so that now only a few accept his collection without demur. And yet, in spite of the growing complaints about including anonymous material in an assessment of Porphyry's original work, post-Harnack collections of the fragments have only supplemented his collection with later discoveries rather than trimmed the collection down to the securely attested material. Becker's new collection, in the book under review here, has superseded all previously published collections in its truly critical methodology and commentary (although its minimalist approach was preceded by Muscolino's Salerno thesis, 2008–2009, which is generously made available online).
The book contains a lengthy introduction, the collection of fragments with German translation and commentary following each, and then an exhaustive bibliography and several useful indices. The introduction covers Porphyry's life and the composition of the contra Christianos; an extended account of the anti-Christian work that sets it within the framework of pagan perceptions of Christians as a threat; and an articulation of the methodology used in collecting and arranging the present collection of fragments. Porphyry composed the fifteen-book treatise at some point after he left Plotinus for Sicily and before the beginning of the Diocletianic persecution—any time between 270/271 and 303—and probably at Rome, though, as with the dating, certainty is impossible (22–27). The treatise drew upon a wide range of sources from biblical to Greek philosophical texts and early Christian authors such as Julius Africanus and especially Origen (28–32).
The lengthiest portion of Becker's introduction devotes itself to a presentation of the modern theory of threat communication (Bedrohungskommunikation) as an attempt to render more precise and careful the ongoing scholarly search for what Porphyry might have perceived as threatening in Christianity (32–41). Porphyry's perception of Christians saw them as threatening the religious (44–45, 57–61) and political order (48–57), an interpretation that, I would argue, should devote more attention to those passages which show the clear distance between Porphyry's philosophical position and the standard defense of civic loyalty. Ultimately, however, what may have most provoked Porphyry's sense of a Christian threat was the growing competition felt between pagan philosophers, especially Platonists, and Christians, whose numbers within the educated elite had [End Page 278] been growing, even as these developed intellectual positions akin to those of the Platonists (62–70). Porphyry's Contra Christianos sought to sharpen distinctions between Christians and pagan philosophers that were otherwise increasingly blurred in the third century (68). Several of the main argumentative themes of the fragments resonate with this concern. His rejection of allegoresis of biblical texts, his criticisms of Christian notions of the deity, his attack on the character of persons depicted in the Bible or more recent Christian history, and his historicizing approach...