Extract from Dutch Reformed Theological Journal, part XXXVI, number 2, June 1995; Dr Benno Zuiddam; University of the Orange Free State



Old critics and modern theology

This article deals with the rise of Bible criticism.  Until recently it was commonly assumed among theologians that the critical approach of the Bible was a post enlightenment development.  The rise of this historic criticism can be traced back to Middle and Neo-Platonic philosophy of the second and third century after Christ.  This is shown by central elements of the teachings “Against the Christians” of the philosophers Celsus and Porphyry.




According to Porphyry religion was mere projection of the human mind.  In his commentary on the teachings of Parmenides he writes: “Cést nous qui projectons en Dieu notre relation à Lui”(III.Fol.94r.).

Why? “Dieu est inconnaissable”(IX. Fol.92r.).

God could not be known.

This conviction had some consequences for his view on supernatural selfrevelation. If God could not be related to, and what we think to know about Him is merely a projection of our own minds and feelings, supernatural revelation about God should not be seriously reckoned with.  It is therefore not strange that Porphyry sharply criticized the rapidly growing Christian religion of his day.


Christianity taught the incarnation of God in the world and His revelation in history and Scripture. In Porphyry’s philosophical tradition such pretensions could never be accommodated, though he apparently knew that the tide of Christianity could not be turned.  When describing a man in Didyma having problems with the Christian beliefs of his wife, Porphyry cites an oracle of Apollo. “Als jemand fragte, welchen Gott er versöhnen solle, um sein Weib wieder vorm Christentum abzubringen, erwiderte Apollo in folgenden Versen: Eher möchtest du wohl in lesbarer Schrift auf Wasser schreiben oder als Vogel leichtbewschwingt durch die Lufte fliegen, als den Sinn der befleckten, gottlosen Gattin ändern”.  But like other pagan leaders of those days, the philosopher continued to deem the traditional Roman and Greek way to honour the divine powers sacrosanct.


Acquaintance with Christianity

In his early days Porphyry made himself familiar with some of the teachings of Christianity. As he said it: “when I was at a very early age”.  Porphyry met the Alexandrian scholar and Egyprian church leader Origen (Eusebius: H.E. VI.19).  He seemed to have sympathized with Christianity, but broke away after being assaulted by some Christians in Ceasarea, Palestine (Socrates: H.E. fol.365).  It could be that this account is based on second hand information from the lost work of Eusebius against Porphyry, but “die Tatsche ist so gut bezeugt, daB man die nicht, wit gewöhnlich geschieht, für apokryph halten darf”.

Porphyry’s acquaintance with Christianity is furthermore confirmed by St Aurelius Augustine: “Quam (virtutem et sapientiam) si vere ac fideliter amasses, Christum Dei virtutem et Dei sapientiam cognovisses, nec ab resiluisses” (De Civitate Dei, X.28).


Against the Christians

Towards the end of the second century Porphyry wrote fifteen books “Against the Christians”.  In those days he was probably living on the Italian island Sicilia (Eusebius: H.E. VI.19, followed by Socrates: H.E. fol.113 and Harnack, 1916:1).  This generally accepted view is only challenged by a remark of St Augustine (Retract. II.57 on epis.102, cf. Harnack, 1916:XXI), which could suggest the existence of another Porphyry.  But nowhere in his works the patriarch mentions that he has heard of Porphyry’s books against the Christians, being sufficient reason for most to prefer the testimony of Eusebius.  The latter deserves some credit in this case, because he happened to write an exhaustive response in defence of Christianity against the pagan philosopher. (Hieronymus: Ad Magnum Orator: ep.70.3).



Attacking the Holy Scriptures of the Christians


The Holy Scriptures of the Christians was the main object of Porphyry’s attack. “Als sicher darf angenommen werden, daB die Bibel von Porphyriius als der zu bekämppfende Feind angesehen worden ist”, stated the German historian Von Harnack (1916:11).  This is not strange, if one takes his views on god and the possibility of selfrevelation into account.

The original books of Porphyry are lost, likely to have been burned under the rule of Theodosius II.  The vast amount of Porphyrian criticism seems to be conserved in the “Apokritikos” of the church father Macarius Magnes.  He wrote in the middle of the fourth century, encouraged by his friend Theostenes. However, Porphyry’s name is not mentioned in the two hundred pages, which are left of the Greek text, and Macarius of Magnesia is not counted among the ones who wrote against Porphyry in the early Church.  That is why P Fougart, who published the text of the Apokritikos edited by the late Blondel in 1876, rather spoke about “sive similia argumenta ab aliquo Porphyrii discipulo repetita”.  But at least one passage in the Apokritikos pleads for the conviction that we have to do with very old criticism, written down more than three hundred years after Christ, namely Apokritikos IV.5 (1876:163), where Apollonius of Tyana is mentioned as the only possible anti-Christ of the past three hundred years.

Von Harnack preferred the thought that Macarius used a summary of “Against the Christians” for his Apokritikos.  The German scholar brought the remaining Greek and Latin fragments of and about the writings of Porphyry together in Porphyrius “Gegen die Christen”, 15 Bücher; Zeugnisse, Fragmente und Referate. These were published during 1916, in Berlin.  For several of the fragments that will be cited in this article, the reader is referred to this work, except when indicated otherwise.


The father of Bible criticism

Porphyry may be called the father of Bible criticism.  “Sein bestes hat er in philologischen Schriften, in der Streitschrift gegen die Christen, die moderne Methoden der Bibel kritik vorwegnimmt.”

Porphyry criticized the credibility of apostolic writings and taught his readers to look behind the text for “how it really happened”.  He didn’t like the account of the annatural death of Ananias and Saffira in the book of Acts, chapter five.  It was rather the apostle Peter himself, who had killed those two, because he wanted all their money for the Church (Apokritikos II.21, Fougart 1876:101).


The suggestion that we are dealing with Porphyrian material in the Apokritikos is supported by a letter of St Jerome (Ep. 130 ad Demitrius) who makes a direct reference to the special opinion of Porphyry: “The apostle Peter did not wish the death of Ananias or Saffira; of which he is falsely accused by Porphyry”.  The latter also made a distinction between what Jesus had taught and his disciples had made of it.  He held Matthew responsible for a prediction of the coming end of the world (24:14).  Jesus himself would not have taught something unbelievable like that (Apokritikos IV.3, Fougart 1876:161).



The things the evangelist wrote about the incarnation of God’s Son in a human body must therefore be explained otherwise.  This incarnation could hardly be reconciled with the writings of Porphyry’s master Plotinus.  This Neo-Platonic philosopher taught that the cosmos contained different degrees of God’s presence.  Man is such an entity and cannot grasp the higher divine reality because he is too far away.  For a god to have a body and suffer trials could not be easily accommodated in this worldview. 


This last philosophical sytem of the Greek-Roman Antiquity manifested itself during the third century, but may be traced back to Philoon of Alexandria (30 BC –40 AD).  Ammonius Sakkas (175-242 AD) is considered to be the founder of neo-Platonism.  We don’t know much about him, save the interesting connection that he was an apostate Christian, like Porphyry would become.  Plotinus was one of Ammonias’ pupils.  He lived from 204 until 269 AD and studied in Alexandria.  Porphyry in turn systemized his writings. 


Plotinus taught a radical dualism between God and the material world.  God was a higher entity, or as Plotinus called Him: the One.  He consisted of three degrees or hypostaseis, the lesser being the soul or phychè.  The material world was an emanation of this third degree of God.  Only the nous, the mind of man was able to see something of God and that only by means of a mystical upstairs walk.  But even then it could not be possible to state something positive about the One.  Earthly terms from a material world could not suffice.


The (im)possibility of Divine selfrevelation in neo-Platonism is to be distinguished from the messages of the ancient oracles, which were accommodated in Neo-Platonism.  The oracles did not concern themselves with reliable divine selfrevelation, but with horizontal guidance on a religious level.  The former was no option in the philosophical system.  They are literally worlds apart. Having this background, one understands Porphyry’s problems with the virgin birth and incarnation. “Even worthier of doom is the conviction of those who believe that God entered the womb of the Virgin Mary, even became a baby!”(Fougart 1876:202).


Jonah go home

It is quite interesting to see how Porphyry criticized the Old Testament prophets.  “With the prophets Porphyry is very concerned”(Theodoretus: Graec. Affect. Cur. VII.36).   From the perspective of the “historisch –kritische Theologie”, which prevailed during the nineteenth and twentieth century, it is fascinating to see how Porphyry treated the prophets Jonah and Daniel.  About Jonah he wrote (Augustine, ep. 102 ad Deograt.): “And what should we think about Jonah, who is said to have been in the belly of a big sea fish?  This is most unlikely and unbelievable!”.


Daniel a fake

Porphyry was the first one to criticize the book of the prophet Daniel, dated in the sixth century BC by orthodox early Christian scholarship.  Hieronymus preserved the arguments of the philosopher in his commentary on Daniel. 

“Against the prophet Daniel Porphyry wrote his twelfth book.  He didn’t believe that the one who’s name it bears, wrote it.  No, someone else, who was in Judea at the times of Antiochus Epiphanes, did it.  Daniel could never have spoken about the future things.  Consequently, everything said concerning Antiochus should just contain a description of true history.”  Hieronymus then continues to explain how Eusebius and Apolinaris answered the arguments of Porphyry.


Porphyry particularly attacked Daniel’s prophecy about “the abomination that maketh desolate” (Daniel 12:11).  The philosopher had his special reasons for this.  The Founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth Himself, interpreted this abomination as something still to happen in the future.  If Porphyry could demonstrate that it was something of the past and had not been a prophecy at all. He would manage to disqualify Jesus’ testimony.  Hieronymus was well aware of that.  “About this text, the abomination that maketh desolate, where the prohet Daniel spoke about, Porphyry uttered lots of blasphemous thing in his thirteenth book of this writings against us”(Commentary on Matthew 24:16ff).


Questioning Christian eschatology

Porphyry showed his contempt for the Christian eschatology.  In his view Jesus Christ made a false prophecy, when He stated that many should come and try to lead the disciples astray (Matthew 24:5).  The Greek philosopher claimed that Jesus had been wrong in this regard, because after three hundred years the world had not seen an anti-Christ yet, except for Appolonius of Tyana.  But he was only one, and Christ had spoken about “many” (polloi) (Apokritikos IV.5, Fougart 1876:163).


The Neo-Platonist ridiculed the Christian creed about the resurrection of the flesh.  He wonders how on earth all those deceased bodies should rise again!  Any reasonable person “will consider the matter of the resurrection to be one of utmost folly; because it does often happen that people get drowned in the sea and that their bodies are swallowed by fish.  Many were also eaten by wild animals and birds.  How could one think that their bodies should be returned one day?” (Apokritikos IV.24, Fougart 1876: 204,205)

Porphyry then continues and contemplates on the example of a shipwrecked person, who dies and is eaten by the living creatures of the sea.  But these unlucky ones are caught by fishermen and provide for a nice meal.  The fishermen however, become the object of an assault.  Dogs devour their murdered bodies.  Most unfortunately the dogs die as well and are eaten by the bird of the air.  Porphyry satirically wonders how the victim of the sea will ever get his body back again, since it became part of so many other bodies in the meantime.


The reliability of the Gospel writers

Porphyry also tried to undermine the reliability of the Gospel writers.  In this way he promoted distrust in their accounts. 


Matthew showed irresponsibility by suddenly leaving his job to follow Jesus (Hieronymus on Matthew 9:9).  The apostles were poor men who used tricks and sorcery to attain the riches of well to do women (Hieronymus on Psalm 81).  To trust such men was irrational!  “They were very uncapable men, not only concerning the things of this world, but even when it comes to the divine Scriptures”(Hieronymus in De Principio Marci).

The Evangelist didn’t even know the difference between Isaiah and Malachi (Hiernoymus on Matthew 3:3).  The same was true about Matthew not distinguishing Asaph and ascribing the prophecy “I will open my mouth in parables”(Psalm 78, LXX:77) to Isaiah.


Inconsistency of St Paul

Only to be improved upon by some post-enlightenment theologians, Porphyry hunted eagerly to trace alleged discrepancies in the Christian Scriptures.  The apostle Paul taught and practised contradictory things about circumcision in Acts 16:3 and I Corinthians 9:19.  He was inconsistent regarding his teachings about the Law as well.  On the one hand he says that “all who are founded on the works of the Law are cursed, but while writing to the Romans: “The Law is spiritual; and again: The Law is holy and the commandment is holy and just”(Apokritikos III.33, Fougart 1876:128)”.


Ignorance versus astronomy

The eclipse of the sun on Good Friday was not something supernatural at all.  It was the disciples, being ignorant as they were, who correlated the disappearing sun to the sufferings of Christ. They were too young and incapable to realise that it was a common predictable event (Hieronymus on Matthew 27:45).


Shaking foundations

The echoes of Porphyry’s statements would reappear on the stage of the eighteenth century.  Despite of his criticism, the early Church always maintained the historical reliability of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.  In Proof of the Gospel (Demonstratio Evangelica), Book III.v, Eusebius writes against those who disbelieve the historical account of the disciples in the Gospels (especially verse 117 and 123).

For early Christianity establishing the truth could not be disconnected from the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts.  “Geschichte” and “Historie” could not be separated without shaking the foundations of faith itself.