Journal of Early Christian Studies The Johns Hopkins University Press Porphyry on Christians and Others: “Barbarian Wisdom,” Identity Politics, and Anti-Christian Polemics on the Eve of the Great Persecution*

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Journal of Early Christian Studies 13:3, 277–314 © 2005 The Johns Hopkins University Press

Porphyry on Christians and

Others: “Barbarian Wisdom,”

Identity Politics, and

Anti-Christian Polemics on the

Eve of the Great Persecution*


This paper argues that we can better appreciate the motivations behind

Porphyry of Tyre’s anti-Christian polemics if they are placed in the context of

his larger philosophical project. Porphyry’s investigations of “foreign” religions

and philosophies were based on asymmetrical distinctions between Greeks and

barbarians that paralleled, and in many cases dovetailed with, the division of

the Roman Empire into metropolitan center and provincial periphery.

Christian intellectuals, however, imitated Porphyry’s project in ways that

disrupted these distinctions. Porphyry’s polemics were motivated by a need to

contain the threat that this disruption posed to the social and material

privilege he enjoyed as a Greek philosopher in the Roman Empire. By situating

Porphyry’s polemics in the contexts of imperial power and subjugation, this

paper challenges the divisions between “philosophical” and “political” fields

of knowledge and action that underlie many discussions of political and

religious change in late antiquity.

At the turn of the fourth century, the philosopher Porphyry was nearing

the end of his long career.1 Besides authoring numerous works on ethics,

* Earlier versions of portions of this article were presented at the Fourteenth

International Conference on Patristic Studies, 2003, and at the Society for Late

Antiquity’s Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity VI conference, 2005.

1. The date of Porphyry’s birth and the basic outline of his career can be

reconstructed from the few autobiographical comments he makes in the Vita Plotini

(text in Plotini Opera, ed. P. Henry and H. R. Schwyzer [Oxford: Clarendon, 1964];

trans. in Mark Edwards, Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by


physics, music, rhetoric, and religion,2 he was responsible for the standard

edition of Plotinus’ Enneads and would exert an influence on both

pagan and Christian philosophers for centuries to come. Despite his age

(he was in his late sixties at the opening of the new century), Porphyry

married Marcella, a widowed Roman matron with several children.3

After only a few months of marriage, however, Porphyry undertook a

major journey “because the needs of the Greeks called, and the gods

confirmed their appeal.”4 Porphyry’s itinerary is unknown, but some

scholars have proffered strong arguments that he traveled to Nicomedia,

where during the winter of 302–303 c.e. Diocletian and his advisors were

debating the “Christian problem.”5 They argue that Porphryry’s anti-

Christian polemics may have had a direct impact on the policies that

would result in the outbreak of the Great Persecution on February 23,

303.6 Although some scholars do not agree in associating Porphyry’s

polemics directly with Diocletian’s policies, there is a growing consensus

in placing his polemics in the more general context of growing anti-

Christian sentiment at the turn of the fourth century. A repressive streak

was certainly a component of Porphyry’s anti-Christian polemics: “To

what punishments,” he wrote, “may fugitives from ancestral customs,

who have become zealots for the foreign mythologies of the Jews which

Their Students [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000]). On the chronology of

Porphyry’s life, see Edwards, “Appendix,” in Neoplatonic Saints, 117–19.

2. Joseph Bidez, Vie de Porphyrye. Le philosophe néoplatonicien (Ghent, 1913;

repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964), 65*–73*, lists at least seventy-seven works; A.

Smith, ed., Porphyrii Philosophi Fragmenta (Stutgart: Teubner, 1993), L–LIII, an

equally impressive sixty-nine.

3. Ad Marc. 1 (Porphyrii Philosophi Platonici Opuscula Selecta, ed. Augustus

Nauck [Leipzig: Teubner, 1886], 273–74).

4. Ad Marc. 4 (Nauck, 275).

5. See most recently Pier Franco Beatrice, “Antistes Philosophiae. Ein Christenfeindlicher

Propagandist am Hofe Diokletians nach dem Zeugnis des Laktanz,” Aug

33 (1993): 1–47; and Elizabeth Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire:

Lactantius and Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); and see the in-depth

discussion below.

6. De Mort. 12.1 (CSEL 27:186); the first edict was promulgated on the day of the

Terminalia, quae sunt a.d. septimum Kalendas Martias. The history of the Great

Persecution must be reconstructed from the highly biased accounts of Christian

writers, especially Lactantius and Eusebius. Modern literature on the subject is vast,

but see Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (London: Batsford

Ltd., 1985), esp. ch. 14 (“The Great Persecution”); T. D. Barnes, Constantine and

Eusebius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 18–24; and K. H.

Schwarte, “Diokletians Christengesetz,” in E fontibus haurire: Beiträge zur römischen

Geschichte und zu ihren Hilfswissenschaften, ed. R. Günther and S. Rebenich

(Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1994), 203–40.


are slandered by all, not be subjected?”7 Once the philological, textual,

and historical details of Porphyry’s relationship with the Great Persecution

have been worked out, however, a more substantive question remains:

why was Porphyry so antipathetic to Christianity, and why would

his distaste for Christians have driven him and the pro-persecution party

in Diocletian’s court to become odd allies against the Christians?

Porphyry understood himself as heir to the “pure” tradition of Plato

and Pythagoras, as bequeathed to him by his teacher Plotinus. Following

the example of Plotinus’ Middle Platonic predecessors such as Plutarch

and Numenius, however, Porphyry also researched and wrote about Egyptian,

Persian, Indian, Phoenician, and Jewish religious and philosophical

traditions.8 Although not stated explicitly in his extant writings, implicit

assumptions about the relationship between cultural universality and particularity

undergirded Porphyry’s methodology. Porphyry’s interest in “barbarian

wisdom” has led to his being labeled “eclectic” or even “orientalizing.”

9 For all of his interest in other cultures and traditions, though,

Porphyry staunchly identified himself as Greek. If he examined other

cultures and traditions, it was only in so far as he could mine them for

contributions to his own philosophical projects. Thanks to this encyclopedic

knowledge, Porphyry believed he was able to distill a truly ecumenical

philosophy that transcended cultural and ethnic particularity. His

philosophy was universal, and therefore authentic.

Such radical assertions of universality had a particular tenor in the

context of Roman imperialism. In the Roman world, difference was

polarized and hierarchical, with Greco-Roman cultural formations privileged

as universally authentic and other provincial (or “barbaric”) literatures,

religions, and philosophies considered ethnically specific, contextually

bound by geography and history in a way that Greco-Roman culture

was not. Porphyry’s writings on religion and philosophy deploy an asymmetrical

distinction between Greek and barbarian that parallels, and

7. Porphyry, Contra Christianos fr. 1 (text in Porphyrius, ‘Gegen Die Christen,’ 15

Bücher. Zeugnisse, Fragmente und Referate, ed. Adolph von Harnack, Abhandlungen

der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische

Klasse 1 [Berlin: Verlag der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften,

1916], 45). This and all other unattributed translations are my own.

8. On Porphyry’s relationship with Middle Platonism, see Heinrich Dörrie, “Die

Schultradition im Mittelplatonismus und Porphyrios,” in Porphyre, Entretiens sur

l’antiquité classique 12 (Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1966), 1–32; J.-H. Waszink,

“Porphyrios und Numenios,” in ibid., 35–83; and Marco Zambon, Porphyre et le

moyen-platonisme (Paris: J. Vrin, 2002).

9. E.g., Mark Edwards, “Introduction,” in Neoplatonic Saints, xxx–xxxi.


dovetails with, the division of the Roman Empire into imperial center and

provincial periphery.

But the difference between center and periphery was not always as

secure as it appeared.10 One of the most potent threats to imperial hegemony

are “mimic men”—provincial subjects who successfully imitate the

habits, literature, religion, language, or other discourses of their imperial

masters.11 Straddling the supposedly fixed gulf between ruler and ruled,

mimic men are “almost totally the same, but not quite,” and “almost

totally different, but not quite,” nearly identical to those who occupy the

metropolitan center, yet threateningly foreign at the same time.12 Christians

disrupted the polarized Greek/barbarian distinction by mimicking

Greco-Roman philosophers like Porphyry. Throughout the centuries leading

up to Porphyry’s clash with Christianity, Christians echoed Paul’s

assertion that “there is no longer Jew nor Greek.”13 Eusebius of Caesarea

summarized Porphyry’s quandary at encountering such liminal figures:

“In the first place, one might well raise the aporia—who are we [i.e., the

Christians]? . . . [are] we Greeks or Barbarians, or what could there

possibly be in between these?”14 Christians originated in the provinces

(Palestine) and centered their religion on a set of admittedly barbarian

(Jewish) texts. Yet like Porphyry, Christians claimed that their religion

and philosophy was universal and transcended cultural particularity. Porphyry’s

conflict with the Christians, then, was one between remarkably

similar yet competing attempts to negotiate cultural and ethnic difference

within the context of Roman imperialism.15 Christians imitated Greco-

10. Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the

Discourse of Colonialism,” in idem, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge,

1994), 67, notes that the fixity and immutability of boundaries between rulers and

ruled in imperial regimes in fact “enables a transgression of these limits from the

space of that otherness.”

11. “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the

ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority” (Homi Bhabha, “Of

Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in idem, Location of

Culture, 88).

12. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” 91.

13. Gal 3.28.

14. Porphyry, Contra Christianos fr. 1 (Harnack, 45) (= Eusebius PE 1.2.1).

15. I have opted for the terms “ethnicity” and “culture,” and their derivatives, to

translate the fluid and overlapping vocabularies Porphyry deploys to indicate group

identity. These terms have particular meanings in the twenty-first century and come to

us fraught with their associations with European imperialism and American identity

politics. Rather than introducing a less contentious, and necessarily more artificial,

terminology, I follow Patrick Geary’s suggestion that it is more important to consider


Roman philosophers so well, in fact, that they threatened to turn Porphyry’s

carefully polarized world upside down. When the tenuous boundaries

between center and periphery are threatened by this sort of mimicry,

stereotypical distinctions between civilized and savage, metropolis and

province, Greek and barbarian must be reasserted.16 While Porphyry

certainly had many philosophical, theological, and philological bones to

pick with the Christians, I will argue that his polemics were also motivated

by a need to reestablish the difference between Greek and barbarian

and thus contain the threat that Christians posed to the social and material

privilege he enjoyed as a Greek philosopher in the Roman Empire.

the specific historical uses of this terminology in specific historical contexts, ancient,

medieval, and modern (The Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe

[Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002], 41–42). To describe “peoplehood”

based on shared geography, language, and “descent from a putative ancestor,”

Porphyry uses the terms ¶ynow and g°now, both of which have a long history in Greek

literature, going back at least to Herodotus (see esp. Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in

Greek Antiquity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997]). At the same time,

Porphyry uses a set of terms including paide.a and polite.a to describe collectivities

based on shared cultural forms, such as a common constitution (i.e., the citizens of

Athens or Rome), religion, or literature. In general, “ethnic” identity differs from

“cultural” identity in that the former is held to be indelible, in contrast to the latter,

which is not held to be determined entirely by geography or biology and is to some

extent elective. Thus, one may become “acculturated”; e.g., Timothy Whitmarsh,

“‘Greece is the World’: Exile and Identity in the Second Sophistic,” in Being Greek

under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of

Empire, ed. Simon Goldhill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 299–

303, points to Favorinus’ ascription of Greekness to himself gained through paide.a.

The vocabulary of “ethnicity” and “culture,” however, is never rigidly separated, and

the connotation of various ancient terms is better determined based on context than

on fixed lexicographical rules. My approach here has benefited from the recent work

of Denise Kimber Buell, “Race and Universalism in Early Christianity,” JECS 10

(2002): 432–33, who argues that “far more important than the presence of specific

vocabulary are the maneuvers performed . . . by rhetoric about peoplehood.” As I will

demonstrate in the third section of this article, it is the complex interplay of these

categories, their simultaneous malleability and apparent solidity, that makes them

potent polemical tools for Porphyry.

16. When the secure, fixed identities posited by stereotype are threatened, these

stereotypes are asserted all the more vehemently: “. . . the same old stories of the

Negro’s animality, the Coolie’s inscrutability or the stupidity of the Irish must be told

(compulsively) again and afresh, and are differently gratifying and terrifying each

time” (Bhabha, “Other Question,” 77).




Like so many of Porphyry’s treatises, Against the Christians survives only

in fragments.17 In his edition, Harnack ascribed ninety-seven fragments to

Against the Christians; most are found in the writings of the late fourthcentury

apologist Macarius Magnes, Jerome, and Eusebius. A few years

before Harnack’s edition, Joseph Bidez dated Against the Christians to ca.

270 c.e., based on Eusebius’ testimony that “Porphyry, who settled in

Sicily in our time, issued treatises against us, attempting in them to

slander the sacred scriptures,” along with Porphyry’s own testimony that

he traveled to Sicily to recover from a bout of depression ca. 270 c.e.18

Noting Porphyry’s use of Callinicus Sutorius’ History of Alexandria (a

text known to have been written in the early 270’s), Alan Cameron has

argued for a terminus post quem of 271–275.19 T. D. Barnes, however,

pushes for a much later date, asserting that scholars have misread Eusebius’

remarks about the composition of Against the Christians. According to

Barnes, Eusebius’ phrase NO kayE ≤mcw §n sikel.& katastaw PorfEriow

does not refer to the time or place of composition, but rather is a descriptive

phrase intended to insult Porphyry for living in an “intellectual backwater.”

20 Barnes goes further, identifying Harnack’s Fragment 1, in which

Porphyry calls down “just punishments” on apostates from ancestral

traditions, as a summary of Porphyry’s argument. This intolerant tone, in

Barnes’s estimation, makes ca. 300 c.e., with anti-Christian sentiment

growing and the Great Persecution looming, a likely date of composition.21

17. That so little is left of Against the Christians may be due to the issuance of two

imperial edicts ordering Porphyry’s text destroyed. Constantine issued the first edict at

the Council of Nicea (Gelasius HE 2.36, Socrates HE 1.9.30). The second edict was

issued over a century later by the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III (Cod.

Just. 1.1.3).

18. Bidez, Porphyrye, 67. Eusebius HE 6.19.2 (GCS 6:558); Porphyry went to

Sicily on Plotinus’ advice, Vita Plotini 11 (Henry and Schwyzer, 15–16).

19. This history was dedicated to the Palmyrine queen Zenobia, who conquered

Egypt as part of her short-lived empire in the early 270’s c.e. Extrapolating from the

amount of time it would likely have taken Callinicus to research and compose a work

of history and Porphyry to acquire this text and subsequently write a fifteen-book

polemic, Cameron, “The Date of Porphyry’s kata Xristian≪n,” Classical Quarterly

17:2 (1967): 382–84, argues that Against the Christians dates, at the earliest, to late

271 and may have been composed as late as 275 c.e.

20. Barnes, “Scholarship or Propaganda? Porphyry Against the Christians and Its

Historical Setting,” Bulletin of the Institute for Classical Studies 37 (1994): 61, argues

that Eusebius uses the participle with the definite article descriptively, not temporally.

21. Barnes, “Scholarship or Propaganda,” 65.


Harnack argued that Against the Christians consisted of fifteen books,

but the exact structure of the text is impossible to discern from the extant

fragments.22 The title Against the Christians is itself a construct; Eusebius

introduces quotations from the work with descriptive phrases such as

suggrammata kayE ≤m≪n. . . (ktl.) and ı kayE ≤mcw tOn kayE ≤m≪n

pepoihm°now suskeuOn §n dA t∞w prUw ≤mcw Ipoy°sevw . . . (ktl.).23 The title

Against the Christians will be used in this article, however, for the sake of

convenience. Aside from the discovery of several “new” fragments,

Harnack’s edition remained largely unchallenged for over half a century.

In the early nineteen-seventies, however, T. D. Barnes called for a more

rigorous approach to the fragments, arguing for the rejection of the fifty

fragments taken from the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes.24 In his recent

critical edition of Macarius, however, Richard Goulet argues convincingly

for the authenticity of the fragments based on parallel vocabulary

and similarity of style and argument.25 Harnack’s division of the extant

fragments into five categories is still a fairly accurate outline of the treatise:

(1) criticism of the character and the reliability of the evangelists and

apostles, (2) criticism of the Old Testament (including a long fragment on

the historicity of the book of Daniel), (3) mockery of Jesus as a crucified

criminal, (4) dogmatic criticisms, and finally (5) denigration of the contemporary


In addition to the textual and historical criticism of Against the Christians,

Porphyry also attacked Christianity in his Philosophy from Oracles.27

22. Harnack’s assumption was based on the Suda, which lists the title and number

of books as Kata Xristian≪n lOgouw i° (Harnack testimonia III); however, the extant

fragments do not provide enough information to corroborate this assertion.

23. HE 6.19.2 (GCS n.f. 6:558); PE 1.9.20 (GCS 43:39).

24. T. D. Barnes, “Porphyry Against the Christians: Date and the Attribution of

Fragments,” JTS 24:2 (1973): 424–42; reiterated by Anthony Meredith, “Porphyry

and Julian Against the Christians,” ANRW II.23.2 (1980): 1127–28.

25. Richard Goulet, Macarios de Magnésie: Le Monogénès (Paris: J. Vrin, 2003).

26. Harnack, Porphyrius ‘Gegen die Christen’, 43.

27. First pointed out by Robert Wilken, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity: Greek

Religion and Christian Faith,” in Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual

Tradition, ed. W. Schoedel and R. Wilken, Théologie historique 53 (Paris:

Éditions Beauchesne, 1979); and reiterated in Wilken, The Christians as the Romans

Saw Them, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 148–56. Variations on

Wilken’s thesis have been argued more recently by Pier Franco Beatrice, “Le Traité de

Porphyre contre les chrétiens: L’État de la question,” Kernos 4 (1991): 119–38, and

idem “Towards a New Edition of Porphyry’s Fragments Against the Christians,” in

Sof.hw maiAtorew: Chercheurs de sagesse. Hommage a Jean Pépin, ed. M. Goulet-

Cazé, G. Madec, and D. O’Brien (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1992), 347–55; and

by Digeser, Christian Empire, 93–102.


This work was esoteric; Porphyry warns his readers “not to make these

things public, or cast them before the uninitiated.”28 The extant fragments

suggest a compilation of oracles glossed by Porphyry’s own exegeses

and commentary in which he presented an ecumenical philosophy, or

as Porphyry puts it: “Our present collection will contain a record of many

philosophical doctrines according as the gods through oracles declared

the truth to be.”29 The extant fragments come from three books, though

the total number of books remains disputed.30 Of the known books, the

first concerned the worship of the gods, the second dealt with daimones,

and the third with heroes and holy men.31 In addition to discussing the

nature of these various divine entities, Porphyry also commented on the

forms of cult each should receive.32 Porphyry’s anti-Christian polemics

come in the third book, as part of his discussion of heroes and holy men.

Augustine preserves three of these oracles, two from Apollo and one from

Hecate. Porphyry quotes and glosses these oracles to argue two points:

(1) the Jews, like all peoples of good repute, worship the highest god,

while Christians mistakenly worship a crucified man; and (2) Jesus is a

wise, but entirely human, sage. We will see shortly that this oblique attack

in Philosophy from Oracles was at least as damaging as the philological

and historical arguments of Against the Christians.

Because he could discern no clear Plotinian influence in the text and

thought that it expressed a “superstitious” concern for traditional religion,

Bidez surmised that Philosophy from Oracles must have been composed

before Porphyry joined Plotinus’ school.33 Bidez’s notion of developmental

periods continues to exert an influence on contemporary

scholarship, but this method of dating Porphyry’s works has been challenged.

Andrew Smith, in particular, points to the inappropriateness of

28. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 304F, lines 4–6 (in Smith, Porphyrii Philosophi Fragmenta,

353) (= PE 4.7.2).

29. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 303F, lines 30–34 (Smith, 353) (= PE 4.7.2).

30. Pier Franco Beatrice notes that two early studies publish a fragment from a

purported tenth book of the Philosophy from Oracles (Augustine Steuchus, De

perenni philosophia III, 14 [Lugdunum, 1540], 155–57; and Angelo Mai, Philonis

Iudaei, Porphyrii philosophi, Eusebii Pamphili opera inedita [Milan, 1816], 59–64;

both cited in Beatrice, “Towards a New Edition,” 351 nn. 28, 29). See also A. E.

Chaignet, “La Philosophie des Oracles,” RHR 41 (1900): 337; H. Kellner, “Der

Neuplatoniker Porphyrius und sein Verhältnis zum Christentum,” TQ 47 (1865): 86–

87; and the discussion in Beatrice, “Towards a New Edition,” 351–52.

31. Gustavus Wolff, Porphyrii De Philosophia ex Oraculis Haurienda (Berlin,

1856; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), 42–43.

32. Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 150–51.

33. Bidez, Porphyre, 25–26, 28.


importing contemporary distinctions between “superstition” and “authentic

philosophy” into ancient contexts.34 In general, more recent scholarship

focuses on two related issues: dating the text more securely and

understanding its relationship to other Porphyrian compositions. By pointing

out important similarities in theme and content, John O’Meara has

argued for identifying the fragments of Porphyry’s On the Return of the

Soul, preserved only by Augustine, with the Philosophy from Oracles.35

Other reshufflings of Porphyry’s works have also been proposed. For

example, Pier Franco Beatrice has proposed that all of the fragments of

Against the Christians and Philosophy from Oracles must come from the

same work.36 More recently, Elizabeth Digeser has given a weaker version

of Beatrice’s argument, asserting that certain fragments ascribed to Against

the Christians should be counted among the fragments of Philosophy

from Oracles.37 Nevertheless, it does not seem likely that Against the

Christians and On Philosophy from Oracles are one and the same. Although

Beatrice and Digeser are correct in arguing that the exact structure

of each work is unknown, it is important to note that Porphyry’s

anti-Christian fragments do fall into two distinct categories: those based

on polemical interpretations of oracles and those focused on critiques of

Christian texts and exegetical practices. The former belong to the Philosophy

from Oracles and the latter to the work known as Against the


The 270’s c.e. may be a secure terminus post quem for Against the

Christians, but when, and more importantly why, did Porphyry compose

his polemics? While Barnes argues for a loose connection with rising anti-

Christian sentiment ca. 300, other scholars have sought for a more specific

context. Considerable debate has focused around a passage in Lactantius’

Divine Institutes in which the Christian apologist reports hearing two

anti-Christian polemicists speak at Diocletian’s court immediately before

the outbreak of the persecution.38 One of these polemicists was Sossianus

34. The methodologies of the late twentieth century, he notes, show that “theurgy

and critical philosophy could exist side by side” (Andrew Smith, “Porphyrian Studies

since 1913,” ANRW II.36.2 [1987]: 731).

35. John O’Meara, Porphyry’s On Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine (Paris:

Études Augustiniennes, 1959); and idem, “Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in

Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel and Augustine’s Dialogues of Cassiciacum,”

RecAug 6 (1969): 103–39.

36. Beatrice, “Traité de Porphyre,” 119–38; and idem, “Towards a New Edition,”


37. Digeser, Christian Empire, 101.

38. Lactantius Inst. Div. 5.2.2 (CSEL 19:403).


Hierocles, governor of Bithynia and author of The Lover of Truth, which

unfavorably compared Jesus with the pagan holy man Apollonius of

Tyana.39 Lactantius does not identify the other polemicist, but several

pieces of evidence suggest that he may have been Porphyry. First, Lactantius

reports that the speaker claimed to be a “priest of philosophy.”40 These

are precisely the terms Porphyry himself uses to describe a true philosopher

in his Letter to Marcella, a document that dates, perhaps not coincidentally,

to the turn of the fourth century.41 Second, the gist of the unnamed

speaker’s attack on Christianity, at least as reported by Lactantius,

is remarkably similar to the plan of Porphyry’s polemics.42 Finally, in the

Letter to Marcella Porphyry himself reports that the reason for his absence

from Rome and from his wife is because “the needs of the Greeks

called and the gods confirmed their appeal.”43 A trip to Diocletian’s conferences

in Nicomedia—an affair explicitly concerned with the preservation

of traditional religion and the worship of the gods—would explain

this otherwise enigmatic passage.44

Two pieces of evidence mitigate against identifying Porphyry as Lactantius’

unnamed philosopher. First, Lactantius states that this polemicist

“vomited forth three books against the Christian religion and name.”45

Against the Christians, however, is known to have been a fifteen-book

treatise. Second, some assert that the depraved and licentious lifestyle

Lactantius ascribes to the unnamed philosopher simply cannot square

with Porphyry, who was known for his abstemious lifestyle.46 The second

of these arguments is easier to discredit than the first. Lactantius’ description

is clearly polemical, in the same way that Porphyry’s own descriptions

of Christians are polemical. It would be more surprising if Lactantius

39. Lactantius describes Hierocles’ polemics in Inst. Div. 5.2.12–17 (CSEL

19:405–6) and mentions him by name in De Mort. 16.4 (CSEL 27:189).

40. Inst. Div. 5.2.3 (CSEL 19:403–4): antistitem se philosophiae profitebatur.

41. Ad Marc. 16 (Nauck, 285): mOnow oOn flereAw ı sofOw. Pier Franco Beatrice

offers a detailed argument in “Antistes Philosophiae,” 31–47.

42. Compare Lactantius Inst. Div. 5.2.5–6 (CSEL 19:404) and Contra Christianos

fr. 1 (Harnack, 45) (= Eusebius PE 1.2.1–4): both Lactantius’ unnamed critic and

Porphyry accuse the Christians of “wandering” (errare/error; planh) from the truth

and encourage the use of coercion to encourage a return to ancestral traditions.

43. Ad Marc. 4 (Nauck, 275).

44. Henry Chadwick, Sentences of Sextus, Texts and Studies 5 (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1959), 66; reiterated by Digeser, Christian Empire, 91–


45. Inst. Div. 5.2.4 (CSEL 19:404).

46. First argued by Barnes, “Porphyry: Date and Attribution,” 438–39; and often

reiterated, most recently by Anthony Bowen and Peter Garnsey, “Introduction,” in

Lactantius: Divine Institutes (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004), 2.


failed to cast aspersions on the moral fitness of his opponent. As for the

discrepancy between the three books presented by Lactantius’ unnamed

opponent and the fifteen books of Against the Christians, Digeser and

Beatrice argue that it was not Against the Christians that Porphyry presented

at Nicomedia, but the three books of Philosophy from Oracles.47

As a constructive treatise that offered a philosophical paganism to an

educated elite,48 they argue, Philosophy from Oracles better fits the conferences

at Nicomedia, at which the emperor and the court were concerned

as much with the renewal and protection of traditional religion as

dealing with the Christians.

The exact circumstances in which Porphyry composed his polemics

remain difficult to discern. Porphyry’s attendance at Diocletian’s conferences

remains hotly contested. Without more data, unfortunately, a conclusive

historical answer may be impossible. Left only with recourse to

educated conjecture, one could posit a number of possible scenarios.

Porphyry may have composed Philosophy from Oracles for the conferences

at Nicomedia, and written Against the Christians at almost the

same time. Or Porphyry may have presented an early three-book draft of

Against the Christians at Nicomedia, a draft which he later expanded into

a fifteen-book treatise. Or Porphyry may have brought an entirely different

text to Nicomedia, one that was neither Against the Christians nor

Philosophy from Oracles. He may have composed both treatises in the

middle of his career, yet traveled to Nicomedia later in life to avail himself

of an opportunity to influence imperial religious policy against his old

rivals.49 Or, finally, Porphyry may never have visited Nicomedia. Perhaps,

as Barnes suggests, Porphyry did compose his polemics amid the heightened

anti-Christian sentiment of the early fourth century, but had no

direct impact on imperial policy.50 One piece of evidence that is beyond

dispute, however, is the prominence of Porphyry and his polemics for

Christian apologists writing during and immediately after the Great Persecution.

These questions of date and circumstance aside, a more substantial

question remains: why did Porphyry so despise the Christians? If we

consider Against the Christians and Philosophy from Oracles in light of

47. Digeser, Christian Empire, 101–7.

48. Digeser, Christian Empire, 102, calls Phil. ex Orac. an “apologia for traditional


49. Is this the scenario behind Eusebius’ description of Porphyry as “that friend of

the demons who, living in our time, distinguished himself by means of his lies against

us” (PE 4.6.2 [GCS 43:176])?

50. Barnes, “Scholarship or Propaganda,” 65.


Porphyry’s attitudes toward ethnic and cultural difference, a clearer picture

of the motivations behind his antipathy to Christianity emerges.



We can better appreciate Porphyry’s attitudes toward foreign philosophies

and religions by juxtaposing passages from two Porphyrian texts. In

the tenth book of the City of God, Augustine of Hippo offers a curious

summary of Porphyry’s On the Return of the Soul. According to Augustine:

“Porphyry states that there is no tradition in any one particular sect

[unam quondam secta] that contains a universal way for the liberation of

the soul—not in any philosophy [in the strictest sense], nor in the discipline

and practices of the Indians, nor in the learning of the Chaldeans,

nor in any other tradition [via].”51 Porphyry thought that a thorough

investigation of foreign religions and philosophies was an important part

of the philosopher’s task, but Augustine suggests that Porphyry ultimately

failed in his quest. “He confesses without doubt that some such way

exists,” Augustine jibes, “but that it had not yet come to his attention.”52

Eusebius of Caesarea, in contrast, preserves a fragment of Porphyry’s

Philosophy from Oracles suggesting that Porphyry’s cross-cultural approach

was fruitful. According to Eusebius, Porphyry’s Philosophy from

Oracles also had universal philosophy, or “‘theosophy,’ as he liked to call

it,” as its subject.53 Porphyry included an oracle that suggests an ecumenical

approach to philosophy:

The way of the blessed is difficult and rough.

The entrance is through brass gates.

The paths within are beyond number,

which the earliest of humans revealed for eternal use—

those who drink the fine water of the Nile.

Later, the Phoenicians learned the ways of the blessed,

as did the Assyrians, Lydians, and the Hebrew people.54

51. De Reg. An. fr. 302F (in Smith, Porphyrii Philosophi Fragmenta, 347–50)

(= Augustine De Civ. Dei 10.32.5–16).

52. Ibid.

53. Eusebius PE 4.6.3 (GCS 43:176).

54. Porphyry Phil. ex Orac. fr. 303F (Smith, 351–53) (= PE 9.10.2). It should be

noted that this is an oracle in Porphyry’s collection and not his “own” words.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to take this and other oracles from Philosophy

from Oracles as expressions or indications of Porphyry’s own thought. The extant

passages of Philosophy from Oracles give the strong impression that Porphyry only

included oracles that served his “theosophy.” Philosophy from Oracles, like Porphyry’s


Indeed, this ecumenical “way of the blessed” was the principal subject of

Philosophy from Oracles. Here, in apparent contrast to the doubts expressed

in On the Return of the Soul, Porphyry tells his readers: “Secure

and steady is he who takes his hope of salvation from this as from the

only secure source.”55 In other words, Porphyry claims to have discovered

a via universalis. How is this claim to offer a universal philosophy reconcilable

with On the Return of the Soul?

The relationship of these two texts remains a problem for Porphyrian

studies. Did Porphyry, as Joseph Bidez argues, write Philosophy from

Oracles, which extols the wisdom of the barbarians and purports to offer

an ecumenical philosophy, during a period of youthful exuberance, only

to retract this assertion years later in On the Return of the Soul?56 Or is

On the Return of the Soul the earlier work and Philosophy from Oracles

a later attempt to craft a more inclusive philosophical theology?57 I would

like to suggest that there is no contradiction between these two works.

Rather, in both texts the goal of Porphyry’s intellectual peregrinations

was the discovery a universal, and therefore truly authentic, philosophy.

To explain the relationship between Porphyry’s apparently contradictory

remarks in Philosophy from Oracles and On the Return of the Soul

and to understand fully his quest for a via universalis, one must first grasp

the complexity of Porphyry’s negotiations of Greek and barbarian identity.

On the one hand, Plato held a central place in Porphyry’s conception of

philosophy. On the other hand, Porphyry did not think that truth was to

be found in Plato alone. As Porphyry admits in On the Return of the Soul,

other exegetical texts (such as On Statues and On the Cave of the Nymphs), does

consider various interpretations of texts, though Porphyry invariably prefers Platonic

allegories to the “physical” allegories and etymologies of the Stoics. Eusebius often

edits Porphyry’s work to make it appear that the philosopher advocated contradictory

exegeses, but nowhere does Eusebius include an oracle out of which Porphyry did not

extract some aspect of his “theosophy.” Moreover, Porphyry states (Phil. ex Orac. fr.

303F [Smith, 351–53]) that he has edited the oracles in his collection, which

strengthens the impression that he has edited the oracles to make them conducive to

his Platonic exegeses. Furthermore, Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (San

Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 196–97, has noted that Porphyry’s collection of

oracles was likely composed of oracles that were themselves “Platonic,” much as the

third-century collection of Chaldean Oracles was a product of later Platonism.

55. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 303F (Smith, 351–53).

56. Bidez, Porphyre, 18–19, 95–97.

57. As argued by Michael Bland Simmons, “Via universalis salutis animae

liberandae: The Pagan-Christian Debate on Universalism in the Later Roman Empire

(A.D. 260–325),” forthcoming in Studia Patristica. My sincerest thanks to Dr.

Simmons for permission to cite his manuscript and for his helpful criticisms of this

portion of this paper.


the via universalis was not to be found in any particular philosophical

school or among any single people (unam quondam sectam).58 Wisdom

and knowledge were not uniquely Greek. Although Augustine relishes

Porphyry’s apparent failure to discover the via universalis, he seems to

have missed the point of Porphyry’s remark, or twisted it for polemical

effect.59 Porphyry does not mean that such a via universalis does not exist,

nor does he mean that he has failed to discern it. Instead, his claim is that

the via universalis is not bounded by the limits of any single people or

tradition. As such, the via universalis is only discernible when one’s

pursuit of philosophy is sufficiently ecumenical. Philosophy from Oracles

confirms this ecumenical imperative. Porphyry alerts the reader to his

cross-cultural methods: “The way [ıdUw] of the blessed is difficult and

rough,” he notes, but “the paths [etrapito‹] . . . are beyond number.”60

Porphyry’s choice of vocabulary is not simply a function of meter. There is

one ıdUw, but it can be known only by investigating the diverse etrapitoi.

For Porphyry, even language, that quintessential marker of difference,

is no boundary to the ecumenical investigation of these diverse foreign

traditions. At the opening of the third book of On Abstinence, Porphyry

compares human and animal language to help prove that animals participate

in the logos. To prove his point, he mocks the classic, chauvinistic

Greek attitude to language. Those who assert that language is solely the

province of humans, Porphyry asserts, err in the same way as “the people

of Attica [who said] that Attic is the only language, and thought that

others who do not share the Attic way of speaking lack logos. Yet the

Attic speaker would understand a raven sooner than he would a Syrian or

Persian speaking Syrian or Persian.”61 Porphyry also places Greeks and

barbarians on the same plane in the fourth book of On Abstinence when

he draws upon examples from Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Syrian, Persian,

and Indian sources to argue that all peoples impose dietary restrictions on

religious functionaries. Porphyry hopes to prove the general rule by collating

specific examples: “[Abstinence] applies whether you consider Greek

or barbarian custom, but different peoples have different restrictions; so

58. De Reg. An. fr. 302F (Smith, 347–50); and see quotation at opening of this


59. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 302F (Smith, 347–50) (= De Civ. Dei 10.32).

60. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 323F (Smith, 371).

61. De Abst. 3.5.2–3 (Nauck, Porphyrii Philosophi Platonici Opuscula Selecta,

192; trans. Gillian Clark, Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals [Ithaca:

Cornell University Press, 2000], 83); see also Gillian Clark, “Translate into Greek:

Porphyry of Tyre on the New Barbarians,” in Constructing Identities in Late

Antiquity, ed. R. Miles (London: Routledge, 1999), 119–21.


that if you consider them all together, it will be apparent that those taken

from all regions abstain from all animals.”62 Porphyry can discern a genuinely

universal ethic only by looking beyond Greece.

On Abstinence is an example of Porphyry’s cross-cultural project at its

best. In Book 4, Porphyry draws from Egyptian, Phoenician, Mesopotamian,

and Jewish sources to construct a consensus concerning philosophical

asceticism. Porphyry appropriates Chaeremon the Stoic’s “account of

Egyptian priests” to recount the temperate lifestyle of Egyptian philosophy.

63 This way of life included periodic sexual continence and a rigorous

regimen of bathing and other purificatory rites along with abstinence

from animal food. He cites Neanthes of Cyzicus and Asklepiades of

Cyprus for material on Phoenician customs.64 According to Asklepiades,

“at first no animate creature was sacrificed to the gods.”65 Porphyry’s

sources for Persian and Mithraic traditions are more difficult to discern.66

In support of vegetarianism, Porphyry describes the importance of animal

symbolism in Mithraism: “They symbolize our community with animals

by giving us the names of animals: thus initiates who take part in their

rites are called lions, and women hyenas, and servants ravens.”67 For

information on Indian customs, Porphyry looks to the Book of the Laws

of Countries, a document from the school of Bardaisan. The vegetarianism

of Indian Brahmins supports the ascetic consensus.68 Porphyry also

compares Brahmin asceticism more broadly with the philosophical life

practiced by Greek philosophers such as the Pythagoreans. Finally, Porphyry

draws upon Josephus’ and Philo of Alexandria’s accounts of the

Essenes. He is impressed by Essene svfrosEnh: “They shun pleasure as

vice . . . they despise wealth, and the community of goods among them is

remarkable.”69 More to the main point of Porphyry’s argument, the Jews

avoid alimentary excess. In one of the few passages in pagan literature in

praise of kashrut, Porphyry praises Jewish abstinence from pork, fish

without scales, and the meat of animals without cloven hooves.70

62. De Abst. 4.5.5 (Nauck, 236; trans. Clark, 104).

63. De Abst. 4.6–10 (Nauck, 236–45).

64. De Abst. 4.15 (Nauck, 252–53).

65. De Abst. 4.15 (Nauck, 252; trans. Clark, 111).

66. He cites a “Eubulus” as a source on Mithraism in De Abst. 4.16 (Nauck, 253–

55). This may have been the Eubulus who ran a Platonist school in Athens (cf. Vita

Plotini 15 [Henry and Schwyzer, 18–19]); see Clark, Porphyry, 187 n. 634.

67. De Abst. 4.16 (Nauck, 253–54; trans. Clark, 112).

68. De Abst. 4.17 (Nauck, 256–58).

69. De Abst. 4.11.4–5 (Nauck, 246; trans. Clark, 108).

70. De Abst. 4.14.1–2 (Nauck, 251).


Porphyry takes a similarly comparative approach to religion and philosophy.

In Philosophy from Oracles, he blends various traditions to offer

“an account of many philosophical doctrines that the gods declared to be

true.”71 The oracular material Porphyry collects supports a “syncretistic”

theology combining Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Hebrew sources.

For example, Porphyry quotes from an oracle in which Apollo identifies

himself with Osiris, Horus, and Helios.72 Laying out his demonology,

moreover, Porphyry equates Sarapis and Pluto; and in analyzing the symbolism

of his cult for information on how to drive away evil daimones, he

writes: “Among the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and among all peoples

who are wise concerning divine matters, whips are cracked in the temples,

and animals are dashed to the ground in the rites of the gods as the priests

drive away these demons by giving them the breath and blood of the

animals.”73 Some have argued that the Chaldean Oracles also figured in

Porphyry’s oracular compilation, but this remains contested.74 The Chaldean

Oracles had an important role, however, in On the Return of the

Soul.75 Summarizing the work, Augustine reports that Porphyry “could

not keep quiet about his borrowing of ‘divine oracles’ from the Chaldeans,

those oracles which he refers to so continuously.”76 Several Byzantine

sources also credit Porphyry with a commentary on the Chaldean Oracles.77

A cross-cultural impetus also lies at the heart of Porphyry’s religious

musings in his Letter to Anebo. In this text, Porphyry looks to the ancient

wisdom of Egypt to find answers to a series of theological questions

concerning the nature of the gods,78 the differences between the gods

assigned to various “spheres,”79 and how material objects (like the sun

and moon) can be called “gods” if divinity is incorporeal.80 Porphyry also

poses specifically “Egyptian” questions. He asks Anebo to explain the

71. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 303F (Smith, 353) (= PE 4.7.2).

72. PE 3.15.3 (GCS 43:155).

73. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 326F (Smith, 376) (= PE 4.23.1–2).

74. Hans Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy, ed. Michel Tardieu, new edition

(Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1978), 449–59; and Pierre Hadot, “Bilan et perspectives

sur les Oracles Chaldaïques,” in Lewy, Chaldean Oracles, 711–12.

75. Hadot, “Bilan et perspectives,” 712.

76. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 302aF (Smith, 350) (= De Civ. Dei 10.32; trans. Henry

Bettenson, St. Augustine: City of God [London: Penguin, 1984], 421).

77. Chaldean Oracles fr. 362T, 363T; 364aF–368F (in Smith, Porphyrii Philosophi

Fragmenta, 435–40).

78. Ep. ad An. 1.1b (Porfirio Lettera ad Anebo, ed. A. R. Sodano [Naples: L’Arte

Tipografica, 1958], 3).

79. Ep. ad An. 1.2b (Sodano, 4).

80. Ep. ad An. 1.3c (Sodano, 6).


myth of Isis and Osiris and wonders why Egyptian priests keep their

knowledge of philosophy and religion secret.81 Finally, he inquires after

“the way of happiness.”82 Porphyry’s interest in foreign theologies, philosophies,

and histories reveals a Greek intellectual who, like Herodotus,

might justly be termed a filobarbarow.83 But if Porphyry thought that the

intellectual traditions, myths, and religions of other peoples were valuable,

did he believe that all peoples were of equal value?

Although Porphyry compares Greeks and other peoples in ways that

appear, initially, to place them on the same level, he never allows his

comparative project to threaten the security of Greek identity. Consequently,

he never abandons the asymmetrical distinction between Greeks

and barbarians. Barbarow and its derivatives appear thirty-nine times in

Porphyry’s corpus, and in at least eighteen of these instances they are set

in explicit contrast to UEllhnew and its derivatives.84 While Porphyry

draws many favorable comparisons between Greeks and barbarians to

bolster his arguments in On Abstinence, elsewhere in the same treatise he

denigrates barbarians with stock stereotypes. For example, he mocks the

masses who take Egyptian animal worship too literally.85 Against someone

who might claim that abstinence would compromise the practice of

divination, Porphyry jibes: “This person should destroy people too, for

they say that the future is more apparent in human entrails; indeed many

barbarians use humans for divination by entrails.”86 By imputing human

sacrifice to his opponents Porphyry hoped to make them seem savage,

worse perhaps than the animals they were wont to consume. Finally, even

when he wishes to posit the most basic commonality among peoples—

their common humanity—Porphyry does so by asserting a distinction

between Greeks and barbarians: “Thus also we say that Greek is related

and kin to Greek, barbarian to barbarian, all human beings to each other.”87

Shared humanness cannot bridge the gulf between Greeks and others.

But where does Porphyry situate himself in respect to the Greek/barbarian

divide? He prefaces his cross-cultural examples in Book 4 by stating

81. Isis and Osiris: Ep. ad An. 2.8c (Sodano, 20); priestly secrecy: Ep. ad An. 2.12a

(Sodano, 23).

82. Ep. ad An. 2.19a (Sodano, 29).

83. Plutarch, De Herodoti malignitate 2.857a.

84. Quaest. Hom. ad Od. 1.42.9; 1.42.13; 2.362.4; 8.267.10; Quaest. Hom ad Il.

3.236.48; 20.67.56; Phil. ex Orac. fr. 317F (Smith, 365); Contra Christianos fr. 1 (3

times, in lines 2, 5, and 11), 39, 69 (Harnack, 45, 64–66, 88); De Abst. 1.13.25;

1.42.3; 2.51.6; 3.3.12; 3.25.13; 4.5.33 (Nauck, 96, 117, 177, 188, 221, 236).

85. De Abst. 4.9.10 (Nauck, 243).

86. De Abst. 2.51.1 (Nauck, 177; trans. Clark, 75).

87. De Abst. 3.25.2 (Nauck, 221; trans. Clark, 96).


that he will proceed “people by people: the Greeks, as the most closely

related to us among the witnesses, shall lead off.”88 Porphyry thus ranks

himself (and Castricius, his addressee) among the Greeks. The difference

between the locutions Porphyry uses to discuss his Greek and barbarian

examples of abstinence also indicates his self-identification with the Greeks.

In his account of Greek customs, Porphyry recounts the ethical ideas of

individual Greeks—Dicaearchus and Lycurgus. In contrast, when providing

Egyptian, Jewish, Syrian, Persian, or Indian examples of abstinence,

Porphyry employs the third person plural and its derivatives almost exclusively

to denote his subjects. Porphyry also employs a partitive genitive

to introduce his account of Jewish customs: t≪n d¢ ginvskom°nvn ≤min

EIouda›oi. . . .89 This construction draws attention to the differences between

the collectivity of ethnic otherness and “we” Greeks. These grammatical

choices help Porphyry to construct an ethnographic distance between

his own (Greek) perspective and the various barbarian objects of

his research.

The ethnographic material in Book 4 of On Abstinence, moreover, does

not come from his own firsthand observations. This is “armchair ethnography”;

Porphyry’s journeys to Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and India took

place in the library. Indeed, his source material is itself written in Greek:

his knowledge of the Jews comes entirely from the Greek of Josephus; and

Chaeremon, his source for Egyptian traditions, was an Alexandrian philosopher

of the first century c.e., while his comments on Persian and

Indian traditions are so common among Greek ethnography that it is

difficult to name a specific source.90 And although Porphyry asserts that

Philosophy from Oracles will consider barbarian oracles alongside those

of the Greeks, in actual practice his citation of foreign sources is rather

limited. Likewise, Porphyry’s knowledge of Egyptian tradition in his Letter

to Anebo comes almost exclusively from his reading of other Greek

philosophers—Plutarch, perhaps, or the Hermetic Corpus.91 Moreover,

Porphyry owes his account of Mithraic cosmology in his allegorical On

the Cave of the Nymphs to the Greek allegorical tradition, rather than to

any direct knowledge of Persian religion. Porphyry is immersed in foreign

wisdom, but nothing from Egypt, Phoenicia, Judaea, or any other province

is valuable unless it can be filtered through a Greek lens.

88. De Abst. 4.2.1 (Nauck, 228; trans. Clark, 100).

89. De Abst. 4.11 (Nauck, 245).

90. Smith, “Porphyrian Studies since 1913,” 764.

91. Clark, “Translate into Greek,” 124.


Considering Porphyry’s own origins, this Hellenocentric approach to

barbarian wisdom is somewhat ironic. His Greekness resounds throughout

his works, but in at least one important respect Porphyry was not

Greek: he was born in the Phoenician city of Tyre, in the Roman province

of Syria.92 In fact, “Porphyry” was not his given name. For the first

decades of his life, this scion of later Greek philosophy was known by his

original, Semitic name “Malchus.”93 As Malchus traveled, first to Longinus

in Athens and then to Plotinus in Rome, his name began to change.

Eunapius reports that it was Longinus who first called Malchus “Porphyry,”

after the color of royal garments.94 After learning philology with

Longinus, Porphyry traveled to Rome, where, Porphyry reports, his fellow

student Amelius translated his name more literally as “Basileus.”95

These translations of Porphyry’s name are indicative of a much deeper

transformation, that from Syrian provincial to Greco-Roman philosopher.

The journey from Tyre to Athens to Rome involved, in fact, an

erasure of Porphyry’s ethnicity. Porphyry, who famously refers to himself

in the third person throughout the Life of Plotinus, never calls himself

“Malchus.” The Semitic name of his birth is simply a palimpsest. Plotinus

too had translated himself from the East to Rome. In the Life of Plotinus,

Porphyry recounts how little he really knew about his teacher’s origins:

“[H]e could not endure to talk about his race, his parents, or his country

of birth.”96 Of Plotinus’ life before his teaching career in Rome, we are

told only that he was born in Egypt and that his first teacher was the

Alexandrian Ammonius.97 Yearning to explore barbarian wisdom, he

enlisted in the Roman army for Gordian’s eastern campaigns.98 That

Porphyry found Plotinus’ past impenetrable was due partly to his teacher’s

design. Plotinus’ goal of dissociation from all corporeal particularity

included eliminating ethnic specificity. For Porphyry and Plotinus, this

meant abandoning the culturally specific world of the provinces for the

more ecumenical perspective of Rome itself. In becoming Greek philosophers

in Rome, Plotinus and Porphyry established themselves in the intellectual

and political centers of the Greco-Roman world. No wonder, then,

92. Eunapius, Vitae Philosophorum 355 (text and trans. in W. C. Wright,

Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists [Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 1922], 352).

93. Vita Plotini 17, 21 (Henry and Schwyzer, 20–21, 27–28).

94. Eunapius, Vitae Philosophorum 456.

95. Vita Plotini 17 (Henry and Schwyzer, 20–21).

96. Vita Plotini 1 (Henry and Schwyzer, 1; trans. Edwards, Neoplatonic Saints, 1).

97. Vita Plotini 3 (Henry and Schwyzer, 3–5).

98. Ibid.


that Porphyry approached foreign wisdom with a chauvinism that mirrored

the hegemonic relationship between Rome and her provinces.

Porphyry’s attitudes toward religious texts and religious practices parallel

his disposition toward his own origins. The many texts that Porphyry

plumbed for universal truth made no claims of their own to transcend

their specific Greek, Egyptian, or Persian contexts. Articulating a

universal philosophy based on a cross-cultural synthesis of these diverse

traditions required the application of particular interpretive strategies.

Just as his journey from Syria to Rome marked a translation from the

specific to the ecumenical, so also Porphyry’s figurative reading of texts

and intellectualizations of traditional cult served to establish a hierarchical

distinction between that which is universally (and therefore truly)

authentic and that which is merely culturally specific.

Porphyry’s commentaries on Homer are some of the earliest and bestpreserved

examples of figurative readings of Greek poetry and myth.99

Figurative readings of Homer developed largely in response to critics who

called the morality of Homer’s poetry into question,100 or as a means of

recovering ancient philosophical concepts hidden in the mythical compositions.

101 Nonliteral reading practices, however, were more than academic

exercises in interpretation. The quest for meanings beyond the

literal could serve important social and political functions. Figurative

readings can never be dissociated from historical conflicts and negotiations

of identity, authority, and power.102 Most important for the present

study, moreover, figurative reading offered a means to differentiate between

the apparent, explicit meanings of texts and less evident, but more

authentic, readings.103 Under Middle Platonic and Plotinian influence the

99. I follow David Dawson in opting for the more general term “figurative” to

describe a wide range of nonliteral reading practices, including allegorical, typological,

and etymological readings. As Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural

Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California

Press, 1992), 5, notes, concentrating on rigid distinctions between interpretive

strategies runs the risk of “minimizing the extent to which different non-literal

strategies inform one another.”

100. Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian (Berkeley and Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 1989), 19–20.

101. The Stoic exegete Cornutus, e.g., is not an apologist for Homer, but rather

seeks to uncover the hidden physical and philosophical allegories contained in the

epics (Dawson, Allegorical Readers, 38).

102. “The very tensions between literal and non-literal readings that characterized

ancient allegory stemmed from efforts by readers to secure for themselves and their

communities social and cultural identity, authority, and power” (Dawson, Allegorical

Readers, 2).

103. Dawson, Allegorical Readers, 8–9.


discovery of these more obscure meanings became equated with the discovery

of universal meanings; Homer “the poet” became Homer “the

theologian,” whose poetry conveyed truths about the human soul and the

cosmos.104 As Porphyry intimates in his treatise On the Cave of the

Nymphs, the Odyssey is more than a Greek epic from the eighth century

b.c.e. It is a text with universal implications. Odysseus’ adventure is a

representation of the soul’s travails in the material world and its ascent to

the noetic realm. Odysseus, for instance, “bears a symbol of the one who

passes through the stages of genesis and, in doing so, returns to those

beyond every wave who have no knowledge of the sea. . . . the deep, the

sea, and the sea-well are . . . material substance.”105

Just as Porphyry differentiates the authentic meaning of the Odyssey

from its Greek context, so too does he subject barbarian myths and texts

to figurative readings that serve to sift universal truths out of otherwise

culturally specific artifacts. In the course of discussing the significance of

caves, for example, Porphyry crafts a figurative reading of Mithraic traditions

to support his claim that “caves” signify “the cosmos.” “The Persians,”

he writes, “call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate

into the mysteries, revealing to him the path by which souls descend and

go back again.”106 The first of these caves was built by Zoroaster to

represent “the Cosmos which Mithras created and the things which the

cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with

symbols of the elements and climates of the Cosmos.”107 Similarly, Porphyry

glosses many of the oracles he compiles in Philosophy from Oracles

with figurative readings in order to draw universalizing conclusions. Porphyry

explains the symbolic meanings of the different sacrifices described

in an oracle of Apollo: “Four-footed land animals,” he elaborates, are

sacrificed to terrestrial gods because “like rejoices in like.”108 The mode in

which one sacrifices is also symbolic. For example, sacrifices are carried

out in the spheres assigned to different classes of deity; terrestrial gods

receive sacrifices on altars set up on the ground, while sacrifices to subterranean

deities are performed in trenches.109

104. Lamberton, Homer the Theologian, 22–31.

105. De Antro Nympharum 34 (text and trans. in Porphyry: The Cave of the

Nymphs in the Odyssey, rev. text with translation by Seminar Classics 609, State

University of New York at Buffalo, Arethusa Monographs 1 [Buffalo: Dept. of

Classics, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1969]).

106. De Antro Nympharum 6.

107. De Antro Nympharum 6.

108. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 315F, line 30 (Smith, 363) (= PE 4.9.3–7).

109. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 315F, lines 21–45 (Smith, 363–64) (= PE 4.9.3–7).


Porphyry also extended the interpretive strategies he used to understand

Homer beyond texts to offer figurative readings of various cultic

practices. In his On Statues, for example, Porphyry proposes “to teach

how to read from statues, just as from books, the things written there

concerning the gods.”110 There was more to statuary than wood and

stone: “It is remarkable that the uneducated believe that the statues are

nothing but wood and stone, just as the unintelligent see steles as stones,

tablets as pieces of wood, and books as nothing other than woven papyrus.”

111 This special literacy to which Porphyry lays claim helps him to

find universal truths in otherwise embarrassing aspects of traditional

iconography. Anthropomorphic representations of Zeus, for instance, are

not the result of theological immaturity. Instead, “theologians . . . have

made the representation of Zeus anthropomorphic because mind was

that according to which he wrought, and by generative laws brought all

things to perfection; and he is seated, indicating the steadfastness of his

power; and he is naked on top, because he is evident in the intellectual

and heavenly parts of the cosmos; but his feet are clothed, because he is

not evident in the hidden things below.”112

Yet Porphyry does not limit his reading of iconography to Greek sources.

Eusebius preserves a lengthy passage from On Statues in which Porphyry

distills a late Platonic cosmogony out of Egyptian iconography. Porphyry

interprets the Egyptian god Cneph as “the demiurge” because “they say

that this god produces an egg from his mouth, from which a god is born

whom they call Phtha . . . and the egg they interpret as the cosmos.”113

Egyptian zoological iconography is also explicable: “They consecrate the

hawk to the sun and make it their symbol of light and breath, because of

its swift motion and its soaring up on high, where the light is. And the

hippopotamus represents the western sky, because of its swallowing up

into itself the stars that traverse it.”114 Porphyry also interprets this zoological

iconography symbolically in On Abstinence to buttress his argument

that humans should refrain from consuming animals. The Egyptian

sages recognized that animals, as well as humans, had souls; and “for this

reason they used every animal to represent the gods . . . for they have

images which are human in form up to the neck, but with the face of a

bird or a lion or of some other animal, or alternatively the head may be

110. Per‹ egalmatvn fr. 351F, lines 18–20 (in Smith, Porphyrii Philosophi

Fragmenta, 408) (= PE 3.6.7–7.1).

111. Per‹ egalmatvn fr. 351F, lines 20–24 (Smith, 408) (= PE 3.6.7–7.1).

112. Per‹ egalmatvn fr. 354F, lines 48–55 (Smith, 413–14) (= PE 3.8.2–9.9).

113. Per‹ egalmatvn fr. 360F, lines 11–13 (Smith, 429) (= PE 3.11.45).

114. Per‹ egalmatvn fr. 360F, lines 62–67 (Smith, 432) (= PE 3.12).


human and the rest of the body from other animals. In this way they show

that . . . these creatures are in community with each other. . . .”115

All of these interpretive strategies are intended to reveal universally

authentic truths about theology and philosophy. None of these strategies,

however, disavows more explicit, literal meanings. The precise relationship

between these two levels of meaning is hierarchical; the more authentic

meanings of statues, myths, or poems are primary, while the culturally

contextual meanings are secondary. Porphyry never denies that the Iliad

and Odyssey contain narratives that are potentially scandalous. Nor does

he deny that Greek iconography is anthropomorphic or that animals are

central to Egyptian cult. Although these texts, iconographies, and rituals

are culturally specific, they yield universal truths if properly excavated.

Having sifted his barbarian artifacts, Porphyry removes “universal” meanings

from their “native” contexts. Fitting these “universal” elements into

his ecumenical bricolage, he leaves behind everything specifically “Greek”

or “Egyptian.”

Recognizing that Porphyry posits this hierarchical relationship between

higher and lower meanings in texts and religious iconographies helps in

making sense of his attitudes toward traditional religion. On the one

hand, Porphyry never denies the validity of sacrificial religion; in fact, he

offers explicit praise of tradition: “For this is the greatest fruit of piety, to

honor the divine according to ancestral customs.”116 On the other hand,

an intelligent person, who is able to discern the different levels of signification

in ritual acts, recognizes that “the consecrated altars of god do not

harm and, if neglected, do not help.”117 Porphyry draws an important

distinction between the cult of the highest Platonic god and the cults of all

other, culturally specific, deities. An intelligent person should offer sacrifice,

but “to the god who rules over all . . . we shall offer nothing

perceived by the senses, either by burning [i.e., traditional animal sacrifice]

or in words [i.e., praying aloud].”118 The intellectual cult of the Platonic

One may be found in different instantiations in different cultures. Nonetheless,

the universal—and therefore singular—cult of the One is not to

be confused with the plurality of culturally specific cults.

The difference that Porphyry posits between levels of meaning and

forms of cult also correlates with a distinction among various peoples.

Porphyry does not mince words about those who do not comprehend the

115. De Abst. 4.9 (Nauck, 241; trans. Clark, 106).

116. Ad Marc. 18 (Nauck, 286).

117. Ibid.

118. De Abst. 2.34.2 (Nauck, 163; trans. Clark, 69).


deeper meanings within various cultural expressions: such people are

ignorant and live in error.119 Porphyry’s estimation of Egyptian animal

worship provides an excellent example of this differentiation between

those who truly comprehend Egyptian religion and those who do not:

An ignorant person would not even suspect that they [the wise people

among the Egyptians] have not been carried away by the general opinion

which knows nothing, and do not themselves walk in the ways of stupidity,

but that they have passed beyond ignorance of the multitude which

everyone encounters first, and have found worthy of veneration that which

to the multitude is worthless.120

While Porphyry indicates that the more authentic meanings behind zoological

iconography signify truths about the relationship between animals

and humans, he denigrates a more literal reading of this iconography

simultaneously. Here too one can see the power dynamic that Porphyry

establishes through his readings of cultural artifacts. A true philosopher

like Porphyry can see and understand things that the natives cannot. This

knowledge grants Porphyry a privileged relationship with Egypt: by so

thoroughly and accurately understanding the universal truths behind animal

iconography, Porphyry can stake a claim to Egyptian tradition that

the mass of ignorant Egyptian natives cannot properly claim as their own.

Porphyry’s readings of ethnic traditions help him to establish mastery

over the traditions of various peoples, and by extension to establish

power and control over the peoples themselves.

Porphyry and others looked abroad in their search for a universal

philosophy, but they did not consider philosophy to be a free-for-all. If

Porphyry’s knowledge brought great privilege and authority, it also brought

great responsibility; the authentic philosopher was also a guardian of the

truth. Wisdom could be found among many peoples, but “truth” was

singular. Polemics were part and parcel of a philosopher’s training: knowing

the truth was not enough; one must be able to defend it as well.

Dissention was an integral part of Porphyry’s philosophical career; he

wrote a polemical critique of Plotinus before he ever became his student.121

His most famous polemics, however, are those he composed against the

Christians. Setting Porphyry’s anti-Christian texts in the context of his

attitudes toward universalism and cultural difference will result in a more

nuanced understanding of his antipathy toward Christianity.

119. De Abst. 4.9.10 (Nauck, 243).

120. De Abst. 4.9.10 (Nauck, 243; trans. Clark, 107).

121. Vita Plotini 18 (Henry and Schwyzer, 21–22).




In the Life of Plotinus, Porphyry offers an instructive portrait of the

important place of polemics in Plotinus’ school. Plotinus did not hesitate

to criticize and refute “Christians of many kinds” in his lectures.122 Plotinus

also offered a textual refutation of gnostics in Ennead 2.9, which Porphyry

would later title Against the Gnostics. Plotinus had focused his

polemics on the general doctrines of his opponents, but Porphyry, ever the

philologist and literary aesthete, attacks their texts. Porphyry recounts

that he and his fellow student Amelius each composed extensive refutations

of gnostic texts. Amelius wrote no less than forty books to refute the

book of Zostrianus, while Porphyry, for his part, wrote “numerous refutations

of the book of Zoroaster.”123 His polemics were aimed at “proving

the book to be entirely spurious and recent, a fabrication of those who

upheld this heresy to make it seem that the doctrines which they had

chosen to acclaim were those of the ancient Zoroaster.”124 Porphyry’s

assault on the historicity and literary value of his opponents’ text, along

with the aspersions he casts on the moral fiber of its authors, is remarkably

similar to the methods he uses in Against the Christians.

The extant fragments of Against the Christians reveal a critic who is

quite familiar with the texts of his enemies. Porphyry’s criticism of the

gospels concentrates on discrepancies in individual gospels and among

the gospel accounts. For example, he critiques both Mark and Matthew

for misquoting and conflating citations of the Hebrew Bible.125 He also

points out the inconsistencies between the birth narratives in Matthew

and Luke.126 Moreover, Porphyry levels an attack against Paul, arguing

that the disagreements Paul reports in Galatians are evidence for both

Paul’s error and the factiousness of Christianity.127 Porphyry also chastised

Christian readings of the Hebrew Bible. Porphyry’s critical acumen

rivals that of many modern biblical critics. Two of these fragments concern

the date of Moses.128 The context of these passages is difficult to

determine, but they likely countered the apologetic claims of Christians

122. Vita Plotini 16 (Henry and Schwyzer, 19–20).

123. Vita Plotini 16 (Henry and Schwyzer, 19–20; trans. Edwards, 29).

124. Ibid.

125. Contra Christianos fr. 9, 10 (Harnack, 48–49).

126. Contra Christianos fr. 12 (Harnack, 49–50).

127. Contra Christianos fr. 21 (Harnack, 53).

128. Contra Christianos fr. 40, 41 (Harnack, 66–67).


about the antiquity, and therefore primacy, of Moses.129 By far the most

incisive of Porphyry’s critiques, however, concern the book of Daniel.

Porphyry argues very astutely that this prophetic book cannot have been

written during the Babylonian captivity, as the Christians claim, but

rather is an example of prophecy ex eventu that dates to the time of

Antiochus IV Epiphanes.130 Porphyry based his attack on careful philological

and historical analyses. He realized, for example, that some of the

word play in the narrative of Susanna works only in Greek.131 Moreover,

while Christians interpreted the “four beasts” in Daniel’s vision as four

world empires (Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman), Porphyry

argues that they signify only three; for according to Jerome, Porphyry

“assigned the last two beasts to the single reign of the Macedonians,

wishing the leopard to be understood as Alexander himself, but the beast

different from all the other beasts as the four successors of Alexander.”132

Reading Against the Christians with an eye toward the imperial context

in which Porphyry penned his polemics, however, reveals a text

concerned as much with issues of power and identity as with matters of

history and literary taste. We have already seen Porphyry use figurative

reading strategies to take possession of Egyptian tradition while simultaneously

positing a hierarchical difference between himself and ignorant

Egyptian natives. The philosopher’s attack on Christian literature and

reading strategies is similar. First, Porphyry counters the Christian threat

129. On this motif in Christian apologetics, see Arthur Droge, Homer or Moses?

Early Christian Interpretations of the History of Culture (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr,

1989); and Daniel Ridings, The Attic Moses: The Dependency Theme in Some Early

Christian Writers (Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1995).

130. Contra Christianos fr. 43A (Harnack, 67) (= Jerome Comm. in Daniel.

Prologue): Contra prophetam Danielem XII librum scripsit Porphyrius, nolens cum

ab ipso, cuius inscriptus est nomine, esse compositum, sed a quodam qui temporibus

Antiochi, qui appellatus est Epiphanes, fuerit in Judaea, et non tam Danielem ventura

dixisse, quam illum narasse praeterita. Denique quidquid usque ad Antiochum

dixerit, veram historiam continere; si quid autem ultra opinatus sit, quia futura

nescierit, esse mentitum.

131. Contra Christianos fr. 43B (Harnack, 68) (= Jerome Comm. in Daniel.

Prologue): Et hoc nosse debemus inter cetera Porphyrium de Danielis libro nobis

obicere, idcirco illum apparere confictum nec haberi apud Hebraeos, sed Graeci

sermonis esse commentum, quia in Susannae fibula contineatur dicente Daniele ad

presbyteros epU toE sx.nou sx.sai ka‹ epU toE pr.nou pr.sai quam etymologiam

magis Graeco sermoni convenire quam Hebraeo.

132. Contra Christianos fr. 43L (Harnack, 68) (= Jerome Comm. in Daniel.

Prologue): Porphyrius duas posteriores bestias Macedonum et Romanorum in uno

Macedonem regno ponit et dividit, Pardum volens intellegi ipsum Alexandrum,

bestiam autem dissimilem ceteris bestiis IV Alexandri successors . . . (etc.).


by eliminating any appeal to the writings of the New Testament. Egyptian,

Chaldean, Indian, or Phoenician texts are ancient, and therefore worthy

to be investigated as potential sources for a universal philosophy. The

writings of the evangelists and Paul, however, are new. The sages of Egypt

and the Persian Magi were ancient philosophers who carefully veiled the

truth so that it could be discovered by educated philosophers like Porphyry.

The apostles and evangelists, on the other hand, were “poor country

bumpkins [rusticani et pauperes] who performed second-rate magic

merely ‘for profit.’”133 Similarly, wise barbarians like Philo of Byblos

provide philosophers with reliable histories upon which to base their

research, while the apostles are guilty of simplemindedness and extreme

ignorance when it comes to history.134

Porphyry goes on to castigate his Christian contemporaries for their

misguided reading practices. First, Porphyry rejects any figurative interpretations

of the New Testament for the same reasons he rejected the

gnostic book of Zoroaster—texts that are recent fabrications do not merit

figurative readings. Because “the evangelists were such vulgar people, not

only in the way they lived, but also in their sacred writings,” their texts

simply cannot contain anything that is universally authentic.135 Christian

exegesis of the Hebrew Bible is a different sort of problem for Porphyry.

Porphyry had included the Hebrews among those peoples with a knowledge

of the via universalis in Philosophy from Oracles. Indeed, Christians

read the Hebrew Bible in much the same way that Porphyry read Egyptian,

Chaldean, and Phoenician texts, as sources of universal truth. How

could Porphyry criticize Christians for reading texts that he too believed

contained “barbarian wisdom”? This similarity lies at the heart of

Porphyry’s antipathy toward the Christians.

Since they first began to respond to the criticisms of philosophically

minded pagans, Christian apologists had been articulating a specifically

Christocentric ecumenical philosophy that stood in direct opposition to

the Hellenocentric projects of Porphyry and his Middle Platonic predecessors.

136 Christian intellectuals used the same cross-cultural methods to

133. Contra Christianos fr. 4 (Harnack, 46).

134. Contra Christianos fr. 6 (Harnack, 47): Arguit in hoc loco Porphyrius et

Julianus Augustus vel imperitiam historici mentientis vel stultitiam eorum qui statim

secuti sunt salvatorem.

135. Contra Christianos fr. 9 (Harnack, 48–49).

136. The limits of this article do not permit a detailed excursus on the relationship

between Porphyry and the Middle Platonists, but see Heinrich Dörrie, “Schultradition,”

1–32; and Waszink, “Porphyrios und Numenios,” 35–83. On the important relationship

between Porphyry’s uses of foreign traditions and the interest of Middle


arrive at conclusions similar to Porphyry’s: no single ¶ynow monopolizes

truth, and the authentic philosophy has no borders. But where Porphyry

and his Middle Platonic predecessors focused their readings of barbarian

wisdom through a Greek (i.e., Platonic) lens, Christians argued for the

privilege of decidedly barbarian texts (i.e., the Hebrew scriptures). Christian

intellectuals thus mimicked Greek philosophers like Porphyry by

using the same comparative studies of “barbarian wisdom” to construct

asymmetrical relationships between the traditions of different peoples.

Having subjected Greek and Christian wisdom to a critical comparison,

for instance, Justin argues for the superiority of the latter “not because

Plato’s teaching is something different from Christ’s, but because they are

not in every respect equal. . . . What has been said correctly among all

people is ours, the Christians’.”137 Justin’s student Tatian went even further

in challenging Greek philosophical chauvinism. In his estimation,

Greek paide.a was itself nothing more than an incoherent bricolage of

found objects: “If each city was to take away its own teaching from your

own, they would deprive your sophistries of all power.”138 Consequently,

Greek identity is merely a chimera: “What I ought to call ‘Greek’ perplexes

me,” Tatian mocks.139 In the early third century, Clement of Alexandria

would accuse the Greeks, saying: “You have learned geometry

from the Egyptians, astronomy from the Babylonians, . . . you are indebted

to the Hebrews.”140

Porphyry’s riposte was simple: Christians did not know how to read the

Hebrew Bible properly. Jerome and Augustine each preserve examples of

Porphyry’s attack on the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. In

Porphyry’s estimation, Christians attempted figurative readings of passages

that had overtly objectionable meanings on a literal level. Jerome

reports that Porphyry refused to accept a figurative reading of Hosea 1.2,

in which God urges the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. While

exegetes like Jerome could provide figurative exegeses for such objectionable

passages, Porphyry argues that some texts are not worthy of a true

philosopher’s attention. Augustine records another Porphyrian objection

Platonists such as Plutarch and Numenius in “barbarian wisdom,” see especially

Zambon, Porphyre et le moyen-platonisme.

137. Justin Martyr 2 Apol. 13.2; 13.4 (Iustini Martyris Apologiae Pro Christianis,

ed. Miroslav Marcovich [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994], 157).

138. Tatian Orat. ad Gr. 26.1 (Tatiani Oratio Ad Graecos, ed. Miroslav

Marcovich [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995], 50).

139. Tatian Orat. Ad Gr. 1.4 (Marcovich, 8).

140. Clement of Alexandria Protr. 70.2 (Clementis Alexandrini Protrepticus, ed.

Miroslav Marcovich [Leiden: Brill, 1995], 106).


to Christian exegesis. “What ought one to think of Jonah,” the critic asks,

“who is thought to have been in the belly of a whale for three days? It is

ridiculous and unbelievable for him to have been swallowed with all his

clothes and to have been inside the fish. But if this is to be taken figuratively,

then deign to explain it!”141 Porphyry’s opposition to Christian reading

practices is especially clear in a passage preserved by Eusebius:

Some, being zealous to find a way to exculpate the wickedness of the Jewish

writings rather than to simply abandon them, turned to interpretations that

are inconsistent and inharmonious with what has been written, and they

offer no defense of the foreign aspects of their work, but rather offer

approval and praise of their own work. Bragging that the things said plainly

by Moses are enigmas and conjuring them up as oracles full of hidden

mysteries and enchanting critical abilities with obscurities, they offer their


Not all literature should be read figuratively. Some texts, like the more

“offensive” parts of the Hebrew Bible, have nothing to offer a philosopher,

no matter how hard one may try to conceal the inadequacies of his

or her critical abilities. In Porphyry’s judgment, a philosopher should use

barbarian texts only if exegesis will reveal ecumenical wisdom that can be

separated from its “foreign” context. In the hands of Christian exegetes,

the Hebrew Bible fails to yield any universal, authentic philosophical

knowledge. Among Christians, the Hebrew Bible—like Egyptian animal

worship—is simply barbaric.

As we have seen already, Porphyry’s readings of various traditions are

marked by a process of sifting the wheat of universal truth from the chaff

of cultural specificity. Gillian Clark has noted the ambivalent character of

Porphyry’s attitudes toward cultural diversity: “Porphyry saw in religion

both a common philosophical culture uniting all devotees of truth, and a

Herodotean display of cultural diversity.”143 Cultural particularity was

perfectly acceptable when interpreted correctly and packaged for the consumption

of Greco-Roman philosophers. Culturally specific traditions,

like Egyptian zoological iconography or even Greek sacrifice, were thus

perfectly acceptable—provided that the uneducated masses that practiced

such traditions made no universalizing claims of their own. The masses

should know their place. It was quite unacceptable, however, for the

barbarians to make universalizing claims of their own. Christians, who

by their own admission claimed to possess an ecumenical philosophy

141. Contra Christianos fr. 46 (Harnack, 74).

142. Eusebius HE 6.19.4 (GCS 6:558).

143. Clark, “Translate into Greek,” 126.


based on a set of barbarian texts from the very edges of the Greco-Roman

world, were disrupting Porphyry’s carefully constructed, hierarchical world.

Porphyry attacks Christians’ rival universalizing claims explicitly in

Against the Christians: “Why did a compassionate and merciful god

allow all peoples, from the time of Adam to Moses, and from Moses to

the advent of Christ, to perish through ignorance of the laws and regulations

of God?”144 Porphyry impugns Christianity on the grounds that it is

not a universal philosophy at all, but something novel. A tradition that is

newly revealed (or “invented”) cannot offer a via universalis: “If Christ

claims to be the way of salvation . . . what did the people of the world do

before Christ?”145 Christianity, moreover, bases its claims on a set of

Jewish texts with little or no currency outside of Judaea: “For Britain . . .

and the people of Scotland, and all barbarian peoples throughout the

entire circuit of the Ocean are ignorant of Moses and the prophets.”146

Christians cannot offer a truly universal philosophy because they originated

at a specific time in a specific cultural context:

Why did the one who is called “savior” hide himself for so many centuries?

But do not let them claim that the human race was saved by the ancient

Jewish law, for the law of the Jews appeared only after a long while, and

was in force over only a small region of Syria . . . later it spread across the

borders of Italy, after Caesar or during his reign. What then happened to

the souls of the Romans and Latins, which were deprived of the advent of

Christ until the time of the Caesars?147

Unlike Porphyry’s own philosophy, which he claims transcends cultural

particularity, Christianity belongs to a specific time and place: first century

Judaea, an insignificant region of Syria. Moreover, Porphyry’s temporal

location of Christianity in the time of the Caesars is an effective

retorsion of Christian arguments for the synchrony of Christ’s advent and

the beginning of the Principate. Porphyry slyly reminds Christians that

they are mere provincials subject to Roman hegemony.

Christian assertions of philosophical and soteriological universalism

were a direct affront to Porphyry’s own ecumenical endeavors. But the

Christian threat ran even deeper. Christians claimed that their faith rendered

all cultural and ethnic specificity irrelevant. Always the skilled

philologist, Porphyry responded by returning to primary sources. Por-

144. Contra Christianos fr. 82 (Harnack, 95).

145. Contra Christianos fr. 81 (Harnack, 94–95).

146. Contra Christianos fr. 82 (Harnack, 95).

147. Contra Christianos fr. 81 (Harnack, 94–95).


phyry attacks this radical challenge to traditional identity by going to its

source: Paul’s declaration that he had become everything to everyone in

order to save some.148 Porphyry castigates Paul: “How good, or rather

how stupid, such sayings are! . . . If he was without the Law to those

without the Law, as he himself says, and was a Jew to the Jews, and did

likewise for all peoples, then he was really a captive of many-faced wickedness

and a stranger and foreigner to the truth.”149 For historical proof of

Paul’s mendacity, Porphyry looks to Acts. How could Paul declare to the

tribune that he was “a Jew born in Tarsus” when later he would declare

his Roman citizenship to the same tribune?150 Porphyry’s criticism is far

from airtight. Paul’s declaration of Roman citizenship was in no legal

sense a denial of his Jewish identity. Porphyry would surely have known

this, if not from a basic knowledge of Roman citizenship before 212 c.e.

then from reading the conclusion of the narrative in Acts, where Paul’s

citizenship is acknowledged by the tribune and later by the governor

Festus as he grants Paul a trial in Rome before the emperor.151 But Porphyry’s

concern is not with the finer points of Roman enfranchisement; rather, he

intends to draw attention to Paul’s protean ability to pass as Roman, Jew,

or anything else depending on the circumstance. Paul’s slippage from Jew

to Roman, along with his geographic migration (albeit under armed

guard) from Caesarea to Rome, may have reminded Porphyry of his own

move from Tyre to Rome. Even the geography is similar; Caesarea lies

just south of Tyre on the Phoenician coast. But whereas Porphyry erased

his provincial origins to become a scion of Rome’s metropolitan culture,

Paul passed as a Roman only to infiltrate the imperial capital with his

barbaric doctrines. For Porphyry, Paul’s identity play does not signal a

transcendence of provincialism, but a dangerous form of miscegenation:

He who says “I am a Jew” and “I am a Roman” is neither, because he

inclines both ways. . . . Wearing a mask of deception, besieging the

thoughts of the soul with ambivalence, and enslaving the simpleminded with

magical arts, he beguiles plain reality and robs the truth. . . . If Paul,

playing his roles, is a Jew then a Roman, someone without the Law then a

Greek, and whenever he wishes is something foreign and hostile to

something else, then by assuming each identity he renders each impotent,

taking away the distinct identity of each with flattery.152

148. 1 Cor 9.19–23.

149. Apocr. 3.30.3 (= Harnack fr. 27) (text and French trans. in Goulet, Macarios).

150. Apocr. 3.31.1 (= Harnack fr. 28).

151. Acts 23.26; 25.10–12.

152. Apocr. 3.31.4 (= Harnack fr. 28).


Paul’s mimicry of Roman and Greek renders traditional categories of

identity sterile, reducing imperial geography to absurdity. Porphyry responds

by turning Paul into a joke: “Such acrobatics! These theatrics

adorn such laughable scenes!”153 Using theatrical metaphors, Porphyry

turns Paul into a fool whose subversion is really nothing more than a

comic fiction.

To his chagrin, Porphyry saw contemporary Christians engaged in the

same hucksterism as Paul. Eusebius quotes a fascinating fragment of

Against the Christians in which Porphyry denounces the Christian exegete

Origen.154 Porphyry claims that Origen was a student of Ammonius

Saccas, who had also been Plotinus’ teacher, and even claims to have met

153. Apocr. 3.30.2 (= Harnack fr. 27).

154. Scholars continue to disagree about the identities of the “Origens” in

Porphyry’s treatises. In Vita Plotini 3 and 20 (Henry and Schwyzer, 3–5, 23–27),

Porphyry identifies an “Origen” (Origen the Neoplatonist, author of a treatise On

Demons that has been lost) as Plotinus’ compatriot in the school of Ammonius

Saccas. Although some have attempted to identify this Origen with the Christian

exegete, the two Origens are distinct. In the passage of Against the Christians

preserved by Eusebius (HE 6.19.5–8 [GCS n.f. 6:556–60]), Porphyry clearly and

unambiguously refers to the Christian exegete. Confusion arises because Porphyry

also identifies the Christian exegete as a disciple of Ammonius (ekroatOw gar otow

EAmmvn.ou . . .). Some scholars have argued that Porphyry was confused about the

identities of the two Origens (R. Goulet, “Porphyre, Ammonius, les Deux Origénes et

les Autres,” Revue de l’Histoire de Philosophie et Religion 57 [1977]: 471–96), while

other scholars have argued that Porphyry conflated multiple Ammonii (Heinrich

Dörrie, “Ammonios, der Lehrer Plotins,” Hermes 83 [1955]: 439–77; and Mark

Edwards, “Ammonius, Teacher of Origen,” JEH 44 [1993]: 1–13). Wolfram Kinzig,

“War der Neuplatoniker Porphyrios ursprünglich Christ?” in Mousopolos Stephanos:

Festschrift für Herwig Görgemanns, ed. M. Baumbach, H. Köhler, and A. M. Ritter

(Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1998), 320–32, has also explored the

identity of the Origens in the context of later traditions that make Porphyry an

apostate Christian who had made the acquaintance of the Christian Origen. On the

other hand, Pier Franco Beatrice, “Porphyry’s Judgement on Origen,” in Origeniana

Quinta: Historica, text and method, biblica, philosophica, theologica, Origenism and

later developments. Papers of the 5th International Origen Congress, Boston College,

14–18 August 1989, ed. R. J. Daly (Leuven: Peeters, 1992), 351–67, maintains that

Porphyry has not confused two Origens, but in fact had direct knowledge of Origen

during a sojourn to Caesarea early in Porphyry’s career. Beatrice argues that the

aspersions Eusebius casts on the veracity of Porphyry’s account owe more to the

polemical character of Eusebius’ own citation of Porphyry than to an objective

critique of Porphyry’s remarks. Whatever the “historical” value of Porphyry’s

remarks, it is absolutely clear that Porphyry intends to refer to the Christian exegete.

Any “confusion” of Origens or Ammonius may well be the result of Porphyry’s own

deliberate polemical machinations, rather than “forgetfulness” or “confusion.” It is

quite clear that Porphyry is mentioning both Ammonius and the Christian Origen to

draw a polemical comparison between them, not to offer an objective historical



Origen.155 Porphyry acknowledges that Origen was highly conversant in

the same philosophical traditions that influenced his own philosophy:

He [Origen] was always consorting with Plato, and he was conversant in

the writings of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes and Longinus, and

Moderatus, Nicomachus, and the distinguished men among the

Pythagoreans; he used the book of Chaeremon the Stoic and Cornutus,

from whom he learned figurative interpretation, as employed in the Greek

mysteries, but he applied it to the Jewish writings.156

It is not Origen’s interest in barbarian wisdom (in itself) that is objectionable.

What Porphyry found insufferable was Origen’s use of Porphyry’s

own “Greek” interpretive strategies to replace Greek philosophy with a

“foreign” tradition. Porphyry assures his readers (and himself) that Origen

was nothing more than a fool whose research into barbarian wisdom

lacked the necessary critical acumen. Porphyry confronts the problem of

Christian identity by drawing a contrast between Ammonius and Origen:

For Ammonius was a Christian, brought up in Christian doctrine by his

parents; yet when he began to think and study philosophy, he immediately

changed his way of life conformably to the laws; but Origen, a Greek

educated in Greek learning, drove headlong towards barbarian recklessness;

. . . and while his manner of life was Christian [kata m¢n tUn b.on

Xristian≪w z≪n] and contrary to the law, in his opinions about material

things and the Deity he played the Greek, and introduced Greek ideas into

foreign fables [•llhn.zvn te ka‹ ta NEllAnvn to›w Uyne.oiw IpoballOmenow


In Porphyry’s account, both Ammonius and Origen straddle the supposedly

fixed gulf between Greek and barbarian. In Porphyry’s staunchly

polarized world, however, such hybridity threatened the carefully constructed,

hierarchical dichotomy between Greeks and others. Ammonius

resolved this identity crisis by opting for the better (Greek) option. It is

not accidental that Ammonius’ transformation from Christian to Greek

parallels Porphyry’s own abandonment of the provinces for Athens and

Rome. Origen, on the other hand, is merely playacting. Though Origen

and other Christians may hide their barbarism behind the mask of Greek

language and reading practices, Porphyry can see through this disguise.

155. HE 6.19.5 (GCS n.f. 6:558). Among those who argue for the authenticity of

Porphyry’s meeting with Origen, see Beatrice, “Porphyry’s Judgement,” 351–67.

156. HE 6.19.8 (GCS n.f. 6:560).

157. Contra Christianos fr. 39 (Harnack, 64–65) (= HE 6.19.5–9; trans. J. E. H.

Oulton, Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History, Books VI–X, LCL [Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 1932], 59, emphasis added).


The anti-Christian oracles in Philosophy from Oracles are of a piece

with this attack on Christian identity. The oracles fall into two general

categories: comparisons of Christianity with Judaism and oracles concerning

Christian worship of Jesus. The first of these anti-Christian oracles

is preserved in the nineteenth book of Augustine’s City of God. Porphyry

reports an oracle of Apollo in response to a pagan man who wishes to

know how he should deal with a Christian wife. It is futile to make an

apostate of a wife who has turned to Christianity, Apollo prophesizes:

“Let her go as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, singing in

lamentation for a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by

right-thinking judges, and killed in hideous fashion by the worst of

deaths.”158 This oracle repeats a stock anti-Christian polemic. Pagan critics

of Christianity often denigrated what they saw as the worship of a

crucified criminal. But according to Augustine, Porphyry followed this

oracle with a comparison of Christian and Jewish worship. First, Porphyry

asserts that the oracle indicated not only the “incurability” of the

Christians, but also “that the Jews uphold god more than the Christians.”

159 Porphyry, it will be remembered, ranked the “Hebrews” among

the peoples who had “learned the ways of the blessed.”160 Augustine

claims that Porphyry “denigrate[s] Christ in preferring the Jews to the

Christians.”161 Augustine then quotes again from Porphyry’s compilation,

this time citing an oracle that locates elements of universal philosophy

within Judaism: “Truly, at god, the begetter and king before all, the

heavens and earth and sea and the hidden places of the underworld

tremble and the daimones themselves shudder; their law is the father

whom the holy Hebrews honor.”162 It appears that Porphyry wished to

draw a distinction between the Jews, whose traditions contain elements

of universal validity, and the Christians, who in his estimation worship a

mere human. The Jews might be provincials, but the Christians were even

worse, for Jewish traditions, at least, evinced some aspects of universal

truth. Judaism was perfectly acceptable to Porphyry because it was the

158. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 343F, lines 8–16 (Smith, 392–93) (= De Civ. Dei 19.23;

trans. Bettenson, City of God, 884–85).

159. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 343F (Smith, 392–93) (= De Civ. Dei. 19.23; trans.

Bettenson, City of God, 885).

160. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 323F (Smith, 371) (= PE 9.10.1–2).

161. Augustine De Civ. Dei 19.23 (trans. Bettenson, City of God, 885).

162. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 344F (Smith, 393) (= De Civ. Dei 19.23, 30–37); note that

Lactantius, De ira Dei 23.12, preserves the same oracle in Greek: §w d¢ yeUn basil∞a

ka‹ §w genet∞ra prU pantvn, ˘n trom°ei ka‹ ga›a ka‹ oEranUw }d¢ yalassa tartareo.

te muxo‹ ka‹ da.monew §rr.gasin.


ancestral tradition of a distinct people. This sort of locatedness assured

that Porphyry could easily “map” Jews into his ecumenical philosophy.

Straddling the border between Greek and barbarian, however, Christians

disavowed any cultural or geographic rootedness.

In order to reposition Christianity within his ecumenical philosophy,

Porphyry took a somewhat radical approach. If some of Porphyry’s oracles

of Apollo reiterate standard criticisms of Christianity, Porphyry’s second

anti-Christian oracle is something quite different among anti-Christian

polemics. “That which we are about to say may appear to be paradoxical

to some,” Porphyry boasts, “for the gods declared Christ to be most

pious and to have become immortal, and they remember him with

praise.”163 While “Apollo” had uttered a standard denigration of Jesus,

“Hecate” appears to praise Christ as a wise man whose soul has become

immortal after death.164 Hecate’s opinion of Christ is quite different from

that of other anti-Christian polemicists. Most of these polemicists preferred

to disparage Christ in comparison with pagan holy men. Hierocles,

for example, focused his Lover of Truth around a negative comparison of

Jesus with Apollonius of Tyana. Some have argued that Porphyry uses the

Hecatean oracle to establish a kind of entente with the Christians, that is,

on condition that they recognize their error in deifying Jesus and recognize

that he in fact preached the one true religious philosophy shared by

all people of good common sense.165

Though the oracle is preserved by both Eusebius and Augustine, Eusebius

edits the oracle so as to obscure Porphyry’s polemical intentions.166 Eusebius

softens the oracle by excising lines that are much more critical of Christ

and Christianity. Augustine, however, preserves these important lines:

Now that soul of which we speak gave a fatal gift to other souls, . . . that

fatal gift is entanglement in error. That is why they [Christians] were hated

by the gods, because not being fated to know god or to receive gifts from

the gods, they were given by this man the fatal gift of entanglement in error.

For all that, he himself was devout and, like other devout men, passed into

heaven. And so you shall not slander him, but pity the insanity of men.

From him comes for them a ready peril of headlong disaster.167

163. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 345F (Smith, 395–98) (= Eusebius DE 3.7.1); and compare

fr. 345aF (Smith, 395–98) (= De Civ. Dei. 19.23).

164. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 345aF, line 34 (Smith, 397) (= De Civ. Dei 19.23).

165. Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 152–53.

166. Michael Bland Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca. Religious Conflict and Competition

in the Age of Diocletian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 222–29.

167. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 345aF, lines 46–60 (Smith, 397) (= De Civ. Dei 19.23; trans.

Bettenson, City of God, 886).


In its reluctant acceptance of Jesus as a blessed soul at the same time that

it impugns Christians and Christianity, this was an insidiously effective

polemic. Instead of rejecting Jesus out of hand, Hecate usurps the very

object of Christian worship. By assimilating the founder of Christianity

within his universal philosophy, Porphyry makes Jesus innocuous. Christ

becomes one more entry in Porphyry’s encyclopedic collection of foreign

sages, another example of the liberation of the soul—a path open to all

who can understand the philosophy to be gained from oracles (or all

those who can understand Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles).

It was bad enough that Christians placed their hope of salvation in a

mere human being; it was worse that Christians claimed this man as the

sole and universal source of salvation. In reality, Porphyry argued, Jesus

was as mortal as any other human being, and like other souls, Jesus’ soul

was rewarded with immortality only because it had achieved wisdom.168

This misperception about Jesus’ true identity was symptomatic of a confusion

Porphyry thought endemic to Christianity, and Porphyry intended

to put Christians back in their place. The Hecatean oracle helped Porphyry

disabuse Christians of their misplaced universal claims about Jesus.

Similarly, if Christians denied that they were reducible to the hierarchical

differences on which Porphyry’s authority and privilege as a Greek philosopher

in the Roman Empire depended, if they claimed to be neither

Jew nor Greek, Porphyry took it upon himself to remind them that they

were really nothing other than a group of Greeks and barbarians confused

about their own identities.


Diocletian’s conservative religious policies were aimed at securing and

revitalizing the empire through the revival of tradition.169 Galerius’ edict

ending the persecution in 311 c.e confirms that concern for tradition was

one of the principal reasons for beginning the persecution eight years

earlier: Christians had “abandoned the way of life of their own fathers.”170

The notion that the safety and success of the empire depended on the

traditional worship of the gods was shared by emperors and intellectuals.

168. Phil. ex Orac. fr. 345aF, lines 22–39 (Smith, 396–97) (= De Civ. Dei 19.23);

and see Simmons, Arnobius, 226–27.

169. For a brief discussion of Diocletian’s conservative policies, see W. H. C. Frend,

Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1965), 477–81. For an in-depth discussion, see Williams, Diocletian.

170. HE 8.17.6 (GCS n.f. 6:792; trans. N. Baynes, “The Great Persecution,” in

Cambridge Ancient History [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939; repr.,

1989], 12:672).


An anonymous panegyrist captured this sentiment in an oration in praise

of Diocletian’s co-Augustus, Maximian: “You have earned, best of Emperors,

that felicity of yours by your piety.”171 Porphyry, however, was a

philosopher and man of letters whose polemics are focused on philological

and historical critiques of Christian texts. If Porphyry had anything in

common with the persecution hawks in Diocletian’s court, some argue, it

was only this shared distaste for the Christian neglect of tradition.172 In

his Letter to Marcella, Porphyry echoes Maximian’s panegyrist: “This is

the greatest fruit of piety—to honor the divine according to ancestral

custom.”173 According to Eusebius, moreover, Porphyry’s rationale for

the forced repression of Christianity stressed the relationship between the

social good and traditional piety: “How are those who reject the ancestral

gods, on account of whom every people and every city has endured, not in

all ways impious and atheists?”174 Porphyry, of course, had his own

rationale for supporting tradition. While the simpleminded might cultivate

piety merely to avoid the wrath of neglected gods, Porphyry thought

that traditional religion was of real benefit to the worshiper.175 By adhering

to tradition, the human soul progressed in virtue and became more

like God;176 this was the sort of cultivation that made cities and peoples


There was no point-for-point correlation between the “official” grounds

for persecution and any given individual’s reasons for supporting the

persecution. At the same time, we should be wary of the tendency to

distinguish between “pure” academic or religious discourses and the

overtly political discourse of imperial edicts. To do so ignores the political

reality in which an intellectual like Porphyry operated.177 Porphyry and

171. Panegyrici Latini 11.18.5 (text and trans. in C. E. V. Nixon and B. S. Rodgers,

In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini [Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1994], 102).

172. Bidez, Porphyre, 67–68; reiterated by Baynes, “Great Persecution,” 660; and

Beatrice, “Towards a New Edition,” 355.

173. Ad Marc. 18 (Nauck, 286).

174. PE 1.2.2 (GCS 43:8).

175. Ad Marc. 18 (Nauck, 286): “The altars of God, when consecrated, do no

harm, but when they are neglected, they do no good, either.”

176. Ad Marc. 19 (Nauck, 286–87): “Neither many sacrifices nor numerous

offerings honor God, but the finely established god-filled intellect is joined to God, for

it is necessary that like return to like.”

177. “. . . the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical

(and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not ‘true’ knowledge)

obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when

knowledge is produced” (Edward Said, Orientalism [New York: Vintage, 1978; repr.,

1994], 10).


the emperors perceived the Christians as a threat to imperial order, an

order that depended on stark contrasts between ruler and ruled, metropolis

and province. Christians, so similar to Greek philosophers at the same

time that they seemed so entirely barbaric, transgressed these boundaries.

If Christians claimed to be neither Jew nor Greek, they would be put

back in their place. As Lactantius saw it, for instance, officials such as

Hierocles persecuted the Christians “as though he had subjugated a barbarian

people.”178 In Porphyry’s estimation, Christians had done more

than reject tradition; they had exchanged their ancestral gods in favor of

barbaric traditions:

To what punishments may fugitives from ancestral customs, who have

become zealots for the foreign mythologies of the Jews which are slandered

by all [ ka‹ para pcsi diabeblhm°nvn EIoudaik≪n muyologhmatvn

genOmenoi zhlvta.;], not be subjected? How is it not extremely depraved

and reckless to exchange native traditions [tU metay°syai . . . t≪n]

casually and take up, with unreasonable and unreflective faith, those of the

impious enemies of all peoples?179

Porphyry has chosen his words carefully. The antonyms Uyne.ow and

ofike.ow stress the differences between the traditions of one’s home city and

those of outsiders. Not a common word, Uyne.ow connotes an otherness

that is hostile and dangerous as well as “foreign.” Porphyry ascribed the

same sort of “foreignness” to Paul’s masquerade and Origen’s misguided

interpretive practices.180 He can tolerate a Jewish Paul or a Greek Origen,

but he cannot abide either’s attempts to pass as something else. Porphyry’s

vocabulary betrays his anxiety over Christian transgressions of identity at

the same time that it reasserts a difference between center and periphery.

As Christians “cut some sort of new directionless desert path, keeping

neither to the ways of the Greeks or the Jews,”181 Porphyry welcomed the

use of imperial force as a means to give teeth to his verbal efforts to

reestablish imperial geography in the face of its desertification at the

hands of the Christians.

Jeremy M. Schott is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

178. Inst. Div. 5.11.15 (CSEL 19:435).

179. PE 1.2.3 (GCS 43:9) (= Contra Christianos fr. 1).

180. Paul: ı polAw §n t“ l°gein Asper t≪n lOgvn §pilayOmenOw . . . ktl.

(Apocr. 3.31.1 [= Contra Christianos fr. 28]); Origen: ta NEllAnvn to›w Uyne.oiw

EpoballOmenow mEyoiw (HE 6.19.7 [= Contra Christianos fr. 39]).

181. PE 1.2.4 (GCS 43:9) (= Contra Christianos fr. 1).