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Pagan Philosopher Prophyry’s Attack on Christianity, and the Patristic Response

Introduction

G

enerally, the scope by which the Catholic Church is examined in the second and early third century is narrowed down to the internal threat it faced from false teaching and from the external threat of persecution it faced as a result of local and national Roman laws and edicts. Yet, what should not be overlooked is the external threat the Church faced from pagans and Jews, which, in no small measure, empowered the former two.

This paper will broadly discuss the environment, character, and scope of the attacks on Christianity in the second and third centuries, by drawing from the writings of the pagan philosopher Porphyry and how he was responded to by the Patristics (most notably Eusebius, Pactus, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo).

The major scholarly works in the field of Jewish and pagan apologetics have been Pierre de Labriolle’s 1948 Reaction Pagan, anti-Christian Polemic Study of the 1st to the 6th Century, Robert Wilken’s 1984 The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, and John Granger Cook’s The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Like most others in this field, Cook primarily used German liberal theologian, Adolf von Harnack’s, 1916 collection of Porphyry Contra Christianos.

The Difficulty of Procuring Pagan Source Text

What is significant to note about anti-Christian writings during this period of time is that none of them have been fully preserved. What we do have to study in each case is fragments of the text or what we know about the writings based upon those who opposed them, such as in Origen’s Contra Cesum (Against Celsus), A.D. 248, and Prophyry’s Philosophy Drawn from Oracles, quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea (Pamphili), St. Theodoret, St. Augustine, and John Philoporus and Contra Christianos (Against Christians), which was twice ordered burned by the Roman Empire, but was also quoted by Eusebius in Praepartio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel) and in various commentaries by St. Jerome and by Augustine in Letter 102.

The fact that well-read and accepted Christian texts survived and flourished during this time, despite the ongoing persecution, not only points to the providence of God in preserving and protecting His word, but also informs us that the anti-Christian texts were not able to find an audience interested enough in promoting their sustained promulgation.

The major difficulty with relying on fragments of these texts is that we never know the full scope of the author’s argument, and where we have to rely on their opponents quotes of their text, we never know for certain whether their quote is completely accurate.

Religious Traditionalism in Pagan Rome

Perhaps, the first thing to understand about the world in which Catholic Church was growing, being corporeally persecuted, and being attacked by Jewish apologists and pagan philosophers is that the cultural ethos during Pax Romana embraced religious traditionalism as the means to perpetuate the normalcy that promotes societal peace. Christianity, as an innovative cult of Jewish deserters and atheists (i.e. monotheists) were abnormal and, therefore a threat to that peace. For Porphyry, “. . . ancient law is best law,” but for Tertullian, “With you pagans too it is almost a religion to demand belief on the basis of age.”[1]

Indeed, the Pagan attack against Christianity embraced the prevalent thought that ‘new’ was bad and ‘old’ was good. For this reason, many of the Catholic apologists always engaged in lengthy recapitulations to demonstrate how the claims of Christianity are consistent with the religion of the Jews, and, therefore, older than Hellenism and Platonic philosophy, in order to attempt to present it as normal and traditional.

Yet, the reason why Christianity ended up winning over so many converts from Paganism was not because they had come to believe in it because they found it was ancient. To the contrary, they had come to believe in it because they found it was true. MacMullen writes, “Converts sought reality, they sought truth, and the definition of what they sought can be seen in what produced a change in their allegiance.”[2]

Being that both Pagans and Christians were using the art of rhetoric to persuade hearers to follow their way, it is a testament to the divine beauty of Christianity that truth was able to persuade so many, even in the face of persecution prior to the Edict of Toleration (A.D. 260 – 303) and the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313).

Religious Platonism in the Roman World

To arrive at the influence of Neoplatonism in third century Rome, we must first begin with the movement of Gnosticism (after gnosis, Gk. For “knowledge” or “insight) and its search to answer the primordial questions of ‘who am I’, ‘where did I come from’, ‘where am I here’, ‘why is there something other than nothing’, and ‘where am I going’. The Gnostic pursuit of these questions built, over time, as far back as the second and first centuries B.C., a philosophical system of thinking and speculation that soon found itself as an ever-developing syncretic and mystic religious doctrine.

Gnosticism is better defined as a movement or an idea, because it never binds itself to a central authority, while maintaining to naturally influence the way people reason about cults and religion. Through binding together psychology, existentialism, and hermeneutics, the loose system of Gnostic schools developed a common way to think about the world, the gods, and eschatology. They had a common understanding of one Supreme Being, lesser divine beings known as Aeons, a distinct creator god (demiurge), mythological drama and interplay between the divine beings, and a process by which humanity could seek the gods to work out their individual salvation.

In Christianity, and its central truth that the one Supreme God had sent His only begotten beloved Son (the Logos) to suffer and die for the sins of many, so that they might inherit eternal life beyond with the Father and Son, Gnosticism found many similarities, a new material to wrap into its syncretism, and a new way to talk about first, middle, and last things.

Christians too found a way to illegitimately marry Gnosticism with the truth. Christian philosophers such as Basilides of Alexandria, Marcion of Sinope, Ptolemy, and Valentinus and his school, all attempted to used Gnostic principles as way to discover the hidden things of Christian revelation, and all met the firm rebuke of Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 130 – 202) in his Against Heresies.

About two centuries prior to the emergence of Gnosticism was Plato, who in his work Timaeus also had set forth the idea of cosmological dualism of two contrary worlds – one that always is and does not change and another that comes to be and passes away, but never really is.[3] Once Timaeus had come into contact with the LXX (Septuagint) and Gnosticism in the Greek intellectual circles, the philosophers began to comingle all of these ideas – syncretizing them to explain the primordial questions through cosmology.

The culmination of that period of thought on Plato, LXX, and Gnosticism finally found its best systematic presentation in Plotinus (A.D. 204 – 270) Enneads, which is a series of complete treaties, primarily composed from lectures and debates with his students. Enneads, edited by his student Porphyry, outlines the three foundational elements of his cosmology: the Supreme (from which all things are), the Intelligence (how our knowledge and everything else comes to us), and the Soul (by which we are). It is through the productive unity of these three Beings that all of existence emanates.[4] While Plotinus did not address Christian theology directly in his Enneads, his most famous disciple Porphyry did.

Porphyry’s and the Inception of His Attacks on Christianity

Porphyry was a pagan intellectual, probably born in A.D. 234 was originally named ‘Malchus’ (meaning King in the native language of Tyre (Phoenician)) by his parents. Later, by his teacher Longinus, he was later given name ‘Porphyry’ (meaning purple, and relating to play on this birth name; that is, the color of imperial clothing and the purple goods industry of his native country Tyre).

According to the Christian tradition we have received from Eusebius’ of Caesarea treatise against Porphyry, it is claimed that Porphyry had originally been a Christian, but abandoned the faith after having been beat up by some Christians. There is some evidence by Wolfram Kingzing that this story certainly conceivable.[5] Nevertheless, in his work prior to Contra Christianos, did maintain an admiration of Jesus as a teacher.

Eusebius, in his book on Church History, notes that Porphyry knew Origen in his youth, and was incensed by his effort to comingle Greek philosophy with Jewish tradition. While he remarks that Origen was highly honored by teachers of [Catholic] doctrine and proficient in philosophy as any in the present day, he also lumps him in together with a group of people whom he considers to be apostates from paganism, who are gravely inerrant in their attempt to make Christianity a respectable philosophy:

“Some persons, desiring to find a solution of the baseness of the Jewish Scriptures rather than abandon them, have had recourse to explanations inconsistent and incongruous with the words written, which explanations, instead of supplying a defense of the foreigners, contain rather approval and praise of themselves. For they boast that the plain words of Moses are enigmas, and regard them as oracles full of hidden mysteries; and having bewildered the mental judgment by folly, they make their explanations.”[6]

Indeed, for the aforementioned reasons to normalize Christianity in a world which was hostile towards it because it was thought to be novel, Origen did reach into the LXX to explain how faith in Christ Jesus is not a departure from it. Such attempts, as in the example below, is one that would have concerned Porphyry.

“And the Lord,” it says, “spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel; and you shall say to them, “A woman, if she shall have received seed, and if she shall bear a male child, shall be unclean for seven days.”’” The expression if she shall have received seed, which is placed before the words if she shall bear a male child, would seem to be superfluous. But I wonder whether perhaps the whole statement has been made in this manner. Lest Mary, who, according to the Prophets, would bear a male child without have received seed, should otherwise be thought to be unclean by reason of the birth of the Savior. Yet, even without the interjection of the words if she shall have received seed, Mary were still able to be understood to be not unclean. For she was not simply a woman, but a virgin. Woman, indeed, bear the burdens of the Law. Virgins, however, have immunity therefrom.”[7]

Porphyry was also prone to depression and at one point, during a bought of melancholy, seriously contemplated suicide, which may serve as a sign that he was unhappy with the temporal world, and, therefore, either had a predisposed temperament for the dualistic worldview of Neoplatonism, or unfortunately affected by its philosophical consequences.[8]

Persuaded by Plotinus, rather than kill himself, Porphyry went to Sicily in 268, where he recovered his health, attended the lectures of Probus, and also wrote Contra Christianos, which was, arguably, the most threatening work against the Catholic Church in its time.

After the death of Plotinus, he returned to Rome where he began lecturing on philosophy and writing prolifically on Neoplatonism and pagan apologetics. In his later years he married a woman named Marcella, whom Christian tradition later claimed to have been Jewish.[9] The precise date of his death is uncertain, but it is thought to have occurred in Rome during the reign of Diocletian (by A.D. 305, the year of Diocletian’s abdication).[10]

De Philosophia ex Oraculis Haurienda (On Philosophy Derived from Oracles)

De Philosophia ex Oraculis Haurienda only known to us today in fragments and quotes (primarily Eusibus of Caesarea’s Praeparatio Evangelica), originally consisted of three books, and was Porphyry’s first attack on Christianity. Often employing the voice of pagan Greek gods to give oracles, Porphyry makes the following arguments about Christianity that fit into his Neoplatonic system:

  1. That demons have a necessary operation with humans in the material world.
  2. Christ Jesus has an immortal soul and is immortal like Greek heroes, such as Dionysus and Hercules, and his immortality is due to him because of his faithfulness. He should be praised for being a hero, but he should not be worshipped.
  3. Because Christians worship Jesus and His body, they are polluted, contaminated, and hemmed in by error (ignorant).
  4. Porphyry uses the goddess Hecate to explain the consequences of the Crucifixion was that Christ’s soul gave other souls the fatal gift of entanglement in error: “Of this very pious man, then, Hecate said that the soul, like the souls of other good men, was after death dowered with immortality, and that the Christians through ignorance worship it. And to those who ask why he was condemned to die, the oracle of the goddess replied, The body, indeed, is always exposed to torments, but the souls of the pious abide in heaven. And the soul you inquire about has been the fatal cause of error to other souls which were not fated to receive the gifts of the gods, and to have the knowledge of immortal Jove. Such souls are therefore hated by the gods; for they who were fated not to receive the gifts of the gods, and not to know God, were fated to be involved in error by means of him you speak of. He himself, however, was good, and heaven has been opened to him as to other good men. You are not, then, to speak evil of him, but to pity the folly of men: and through him men’s danger is imminent.”
  5. Because Christians are in error, do not practice justice and philosophical contemplation as Neoplatonists do, they actually miss true worship of God, and end up revering demons.

In City of God, Augustine responds to Porphyry’s claims by arguing that one would have to be foolish not to see that “. . . oracles were either composed by a clever man with a strong animus against the Christians, or were, uttered as responses by impure demons with a similar desire.” Augustine mocks the tool Porphyry is using to show admiration for Christ, while attempting to convince Christians that worship in Him in improperly place – we can admire such a great and faithful hero, but let us not give him more his due.

Augustine also notes the clear contradictions throughout De Philosophia ex Oraculis Haurienda. In one place Apollo gives an oracle that Christ “was put to death by right-minded judges, implying that He was unrighteous”, yet in another place Hectate proclaims an oracle that Jesus was a most pious man, but no more. Augustine doesn’t bother belabor the question he raised, but moves to state that the purpose of the contradiction is the same; that is, “to prevent men from becoming Christians, because if this be secured, men shall never be rescued from their power.”

Contra Christianos (Against the Christians)

In this more substantial and threatening work, Contra Christianos (consisting of thirteen books) Porphyry continued to attack the Christian interpretation of the LXX and their understanding of Jesus Christ as God. This work was a systematic refutation of the Genesis, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles (primarily the miracle accounts), some Pauline texts, Christian worship, the role of women in the Church, and Eschatology.

Contra Christianos stirred such a threat to the Church that it was condemned to be destroyed both the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea and by Emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III on February 17, 444. The Council of Chalcedon in 451(?) prohibited possessing or even speaking about Porphyry’s work. Emperor Justinian also, along with other works of heretics, ordered Porphyry’s book burned in 536(?).[11] With Contra Christianos Severian, Bishop of Gabala in Syria, claims Porphyry drew many people away from the faith.[12]

The major arguments in Contra Christianos by Porphyry are:

  1. Christians, such as Origen (see above) are in error for misappropriating, allegorizing, and errantly interpreting Moses. Even though Porphyry had a low view of the Jewish Scriptures as ‘myths’ and ‘wickedness’, he still persisted in believing that the Christian allegorizing of them was foolishness.
  2. There is an inconsistency between the first two chapters of Genesis, the four different beginnings of the four Gospels,[13] the two birth stories, and the call of the first disciples.
  3. Along with Celsus and Julian, Porphyry seems to claim that the Gospel authors wrote falsehoods. Jerome responded to these claims by discussing the problems concerning the accuracy of Matthew 1:22-23 in relation to Isaiah 7:4, Mark’s conflation of two prophets (Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:1-13, and Mark’s mention of Abiathar in Mark 2:25-26 instead of Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:16).[14]
  4. There is an inconsistency between the genealogies found in Matthew and St. Jerome does not cite the actual objection, but it seems to deal with Matthew having “skipped a generation between 1:11 and 1:12 because Jerome argues that 1:11 end with Jehoiakim and 1:12 begins with Jehoiakin.[15] Pactus also responds to Porphyry concerning this apparent contradiction.
  5. Porphyry is offended by the Jesus walking on water narratives, Jesus in John being called the Logos (doesn’t fit with Neoplatonism), eternal punishment, and Jesus being the only Way to Salvation.
  6. Using the resurrection of Lazarus, Porphyry questions how Christians can be born again through the Resurrection of Christ, because he was not born like of us a seed. In Letter 102 Augustine responds to Porphyry by demonstrating the error in him using Lazarus as an example.
  7. Porphyry objects in Acts a common interpretation that Peter called down death on Ananias and Sapphira, the Apostles use of Jewish Scriptures as evidence in their orations, and the Apostles using their miracles as evidence. This was also a popular line of attack for Celsus.
  8. In Galatians letters Porphyry doesn’t like Paul attacking the Apostles. Nor can he reconcile the curse in 5:12 (“I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves”) with Christian teaching of love and peace.
  9. With Christian Worship Porphyry inveighs against Christian’s use of sacred ceremony, sacrifice, burning incense and other aspects (the Mass). This is also a line of attack that Celsus enjoyed prior to the philosopher. In paragraphs 17 through 21 in Letter 102, Saint Augustine counters Porphyry by explaining the true meaning of the use of sacrifices and symbols, and demonstrating the error in comparing them to what the pagans are doing. Porphyry also thought women held too much power and influence in the Church; to which Saint Jerome responds that women do not rule Church or state, but are supporters of it.

Conclusion

The challenges presented by Porphyry in the third and fourth century of Church would not be thought of much today. The philosopher, as Saint Jerome called him, had come along at the time when the Church was still being persecuted and just emerging from persecution. Porphyry was presenting well-thought-out challenges to a Church who was just beginning to formulate what She believed about Jesus’ divinity. She was not yet equipped to deal with the intense precision found in Contra Christianos. Burning the texts repeatedly and banning the mere mention of it was the best remedy for an ill-timed attack such as this.

The beauty of the record we have a Porphyry’s writings through those later theologians and historians, such as Eusebius, Pactus, Jerome, and Augustine demonstrate that even a pagan in the late second and early third century knew what Christians believed. He’s inveighing against the New Testament, Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, Eschatology, and Christian worship as if these things were commonly believed and held to be true at the time. Porphyry offers us some of the best evidence we have for the consistency of our faith prior to the Council of Nicea.

Porphyry also helps to inform us about how influential and dangerous pagans thought Christians were, even while they were being persecuted. The Philosopher was not using a sword and threats, as many were, to convince Christians to worship the pagan gods. To the contrary, he was using the same art of rhetorical persuasion that the Christians were using to accomplish what their common goal; that is, to lead people who were lost to the truth. Unfortunately, what Porphyry never had was the faith to understand that Neoplatonism isn’t true.

Although, while Neoplatonism isn’t true, and Christianity has well-survived its attack, the fundamental basis of the arguments which Porphyry set forth seventeen hundred years ago are as alive as ever in secular thought today.

_______________________________________________

ENDNOTES:

[1] MacMullen, Ramsay. Paganism in the Roman Empire. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. 1981. 3. Print.

[2] MacMullen, Ramsay. Paganism in the Roman Empire. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. 1981. 95. Print.

[3] Arendt, Hannah. Love and Saint Augustine. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. 1996. 62. Print.

[4] Plotinus. The Six Enneads. Retrieved July 15, 2016, from http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.mb.txt

[5] Cook, John Granger. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts. 2002. 104. Print. Cook is drawing from War der Neuplatoniker by Wolfram Kinzing (324-25) here, who argues that given the symbiotic development of philosophy and theology in the liberal religious atmosphere of the first half of the third century that a Christian background for Porphyry is certainly conceivable. He also argues that the settling of the story in Caesarea of Palestine is a sign of authenticity since no other stories describe a stay of Porphyry in that place.

[6][6] Eusebius. H.E. 6.19.4.

[7] Origin. Homilies on Leviticus.

[8] Sipe, Dera. Struggling with Flesh: Soul/Body Dualism in Porphyry and Augustine. 7. (concept.journals.villanova.edu/article/viewFile/266/299).

[9] Cook, John Granger. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts. 2002. 106. Print

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cook, John Granger. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts. 2002. 126. Print

[12] Ibid.

[13] We don’t have any of Porphyry’s objections to Genesis. We only have Pacatus’ response to him.

[14] Cook, John Granger. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts. 2002. 135. Print

[15] Cook, John Granger. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts. 2002. 136. Print

Summary
Pagan Philosopher Prophyry's Attack on Christianity, and the Patristic Response
Article Name
Pagan Philosopher Prophyry's Attack on Christianity, and the Patristic Response
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In the third century, the pagan philosopher Prophyry was the most prolific and dangerous opponent of Christianity. This article outlines his attack and how the patristic writers responded to him.
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Saint Dominic's Media, Inc.
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Summary
Pagan Philosopher Prophyry's Attack on Christianity, and the Patristic Response
Article Name
Pagan Philosopher Prophyry's Attack on Christianity, and the Patristic Response
Description
In the third century, the pagan philosopher Prophyry was the most prolific and dangerous opponent of Christianity. This article outlines his attack and how the patristic writers responded to him.
Author
Publisher Name
Saint Dominic's Media, Inc.
Publisher Logo