Porphyry, Macarius Magnes, and Hoffmann

A Review of R.Joseph Hoffmann, Porphyry's Against the Christians:The literary remains, Prometheus Books (1994)

The 16-book work by the Neoplatonist Porphyry Against the Christians is lost.  Constantine ordered that all copies should be destroyed1; a century later Theodosius tacitly acknowledged that this had not occurred by issuing a similar edict in 4482.  Although Christians were generally interested  in Neoplatonism, and many of Porphyry's major philosophical works still survive3, it is hard to see who would have copied a work calculated to offend everyone reading or writing books between 550 and 1450, even without such a edict.  Books that insult their readers and copyists have few chances of survival.

In 1867, a 15th century manuscript containing an unknown work with the title the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes was discovered in Epirus and taken to Athens by C. Blondel.  The work had been  written in 5 books; the Athens MS contained only the portion from the middle of book 2 to the middle of book 4.  Blondel made an edition of the text from the MS, which was very corrupt, but died before he was able to publish.  The book was published by his friend Foucart in 1876, but without an introduction, and this edition is itself now very rare4.  This remains the only edition of this work.  In 1877 Duchesne examined the manuscript again, and provided a description5.  The MS is now lost6.

This work consists of a series of anti-Christian objections or sneers directed at the Scriptures, much after the manner of Porphyry, or the apostles, quoted verbatim, followed by a refutation by a Christian.  While the authorship of these passages is unknown, and has been attributed to various writers (Crafer prefers Hierocles, the persecuting governor of Bithynia), since Harnack there has been a general consensus that the fragments are derived from Porphyry, albeit in a form condensed by a later writer.  For the purposes of this page, the text will be treated as 'Porphyry'.

Harnack was able to assemble 97 fragments of Porphyry, of which 51 came from the Apocriticus.  For some reason this book contains only those from the Apocriticus. This is rather a pity, as we have a perfectly good English translation of these in Crafer's version, and a translation of the remainder would have been useful.

The book consists of an 18 page introduction, 65 pages of text, and then an 80-page epilogue 'From Babylon to Rome: the contexts of Jewish-Christian-Pagan interaction through Porphyry'.  

The epilogue contains not a single footnote, only passing references to texts, is acknowledged in the introduction as not likely to be useful to the specialist, and, frankly, does not belong in the book.  The standard of this is variable.  For instance, the section on Lucian mentions the discussion of the Christians in the Passing of Peregrinus; but omits any reference to the somewhat different picture in the same author's Alexander the False Prophet. He tells us (p.155) that Porphyry was recognised by Augustine as 'the ablest philosopher of them all', but without a reference, it is impossible to follow this up.  Is it perhaps just an inaccurate recollection of the passages in the City of God?  If not, how is the reader - who Hoffmann knows is not a specialist - to follow this up?  Describing (p.155) Macarius Magnes as the 'worthiest' of those to write a refutation of Porphyry is interesting - but surely only an opinion?  A list of the others would have been helpful - Apollonius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Methodius (all lost).  Was the  unknown Macarius really more 'worthy' than these?  But the issue is not explored.  The editors are to blame for not forcing the author to spend much more time on this.  The section on Porphyry himself is the most interesting, but suffers from being too allusive to the sources of information.  Why should the reader be forced to read everything the author had, just to discover whether or not the presentation of the data is fair?

The introduction is better, but suffers from some of the same editing problems.  On the first page Tertullian is cited as saying "If the emperor were to exterminate the Christians he would find himself without an empire to rule".  The context indicates a quotation from Ad Scapulam is meant -  no reference is given - yet no such words appear in it, and it appears to be a loose recollection of the sentiment of chapter 5 of that work.  This is the reason why footnotes should be given, and checked; and why a good editor such as the one used for the same author's Celsus is essential.  Likewise the discussion of the manuscript tradition (pp.21-23) is vague, and manages to avoid mentioning any of the facts given above - even that there is only the one MS, which surely might have been mentioned in nearly 3 pages.   

The author seems to write from a position of anti-Christian religious feeling:- the publisher issues primarily atheist literature, while the attitude of the author may be gleaned from the first two pages of the introduction where every statement by a Christian is qualified as a 'boast' or 'brag'.  Fortunately the author does not continue in this strain.  

However a shared religious antipathy may actually have been an advantage when it comes to the translation itself.  The translation itself is easily the best part of the book.  The text flows, and the choice of phrasing is far more crisp and interesting than the rather dull phrasing of Crafer.  

However there are risks also in this sort of religious sympathy.  The main risk is of anachronism; that a 20th-century thought will be introduced into a 3rd-century book.  This does happen at least once, as a comparison of Hoffmann, Crafer, and the Greek shows:

"The evangelists were fiction-writers - not observers or eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus" (p.32; Apocrit. II.12 - Hoffmann).

"But he with bitterness, and with very grim look, bent forward and declared to us yet more savagely that the Evangelists were inventors and not historians of the events concerning Jesus." (p.38, Crafer).

Ὁ δὲ δριμύξας καὶ λίαν βλοσυρὸν εἰσαθρήσασ ῶληκτικώτερον ἡμιν ἔφησε νεύσας τοὺς Εὐαγγελιστὰς ἐφευρέτας, οὐχ ἵστορας τῶν ῶερὶ τὸν Ἰησοῦν γεγενῆσθαι ωραξεων. (p.20, Blondel.).

Hoffmann adds (p.33 n.7):

7. Rather puzzlingly Macarius designates the philosopher's view "Hellenic"...

Crafer gives the text:

Thus far and in such words did he declaim, setting forth with boasting the Hellenic view. (p.39, ch.17)

Hoffmann correctly recognises that Macarius is not responding to what he [Hoffmann] understands the text to say.  The reason is that some ideas have arrived which belong to twentieth-century atheism, not third-century paganism.  There is no indication in the notes of why HISTORAS is translated as 'observers or eye-witnesses', when there is a perfectly good English word 'historians' available.  However I find that it is a commonplace in 20th-century atheist polemic that the gospel-writers were not 'eye-witnesses'. Whether or not this is the source of the idea, the coincidence is suspicious.   But this concept is not present in the text - the idea is actually that they were making it up, rather in the manner of pagan fables.  Macarius understands this, and so promptly brands the suggestion 'Hellenic' (i.e. pagan).  Likewise the choice of the term 'fiction-writers' is unfortunate, as in English this means only the authors of modern realistic narrative fiction.  This genre did not exist in antiquity. EPHEURETAS means simply 'inventors'.  These may seem small differences;  but they do create confusion in the minds of the readers, who presume that Porphyry is a witness to ancient writers saying the same thing as modern atheists.   Porphyry is not making any point about whether they were there at the time or not, but rather about whether what they say is true.  He's saying they are - must be - liars, inventors, not historians, and he goes on to show because their accounts disagree.  Macarius replies sensibly that "No-one seeks the truth that is in the nature of the facts from syllables or letters, but starting from the fact he estimates the divergences of language", and goes on to point out that verbal differences are not significant.

The footnotes are described in the introduction as 'critical' (pp.21,22), which might lead the reader to expect philological notes on what is, after all, a badly defective text.  However in fact they consist mostly of summaries in a sentence or two of what Macarius has to say by way of reply.  Since this is not a translation with notes along the lines of the Ancient Christian Writers series, but rather a populist work for a general audience, it would be unfair to complain about this.

The text is properly referenced both to the Apocriticus and to scripture.  The general quality of the book-making is excellent.

What of the text of Porphyry that emerges?  Was the enterprise worthwhile?  Rather to my surprise, the answer is  that it was.  A definite picture of the nature of Porphyry's work emerges, in a far clearer manner than is possible from reading Crafer.  It also becomes clear precisely why the book had such power that it was singled out for destruction as mischievous.

The reason was not the quality of the surface arguments.  Porphyry adopted an 'idiot-boy' literalism as his tool to debunk.  Anything that could be made to sound discreditable, anything that did not fit with the tenor of contemporay prejudice, any statement that could be made to sound contradictory, could be presented as a reason to deride the Christians.  However, such a approach is unimpressive to anyone except a believer.  Such people could have their faith in anti-Christianism bolstered, and be encouraged to sneer and have gibes ready to throw.  But the unconvinced reader would see easily that such statements can be made about anything, however worthy.  

Instead, the essential argument is an appeal to the irrational herd-instinct of mankind and its need to conform.  Many of Porphyry's arguments consist simply of assertion that something is shameful or embarassing, rather than rational discussion.  This can only work if the flavour of the times is such that the subject is unfashionable.  To look for a modern analogy, modern readers will be aware that 'anti-racism' has not acquired the power it has in our society by rational argument.  Instead it relies on repeated assertion and intimidation, to create a climate in which only certain ideas can be said.  In the ancient world, likewise, certain ideas went without saying.  The Christian ethos was not part of this; and indeed, as a novelty, was embarassing.  The idea that the poor might be important was disgusting.  Porphyry simply harps on the subconscious need to the reader to conform to what he knows society expects, rather than reasoning objectively what is right.

But once the times changed, the approach worked in reverse.  It was Porphyry's ideas that went against the tenor of the times.  Doubtless his  sneers simply seemed as out-of-date as a Victorian lecture on public morality does today - by turns silly or embarassing, but not powerful.  And once the book had become embarassing to Porphyry's admirers, silly to a casual reader, offensive to copyists, and illegal to possess, its chances of survival were slim.

All in all an interesting version of an interesting work, and it is good to have the subject of the Apocriticus brought up again.  It is surely time and past time for someone would attempt to locate the MS(S), and do a fresh critical edition of all the fragments.  I have an idea that lack of interest is all that keeps the MS lost.


1.  Constantine:  Socrates, H.E. i, 9. 30; Gelasius of Cyzicus, H.E. ii 36, cf. Athanasius, Hist. mon. ad Arianos, 50 (P.G. xxv, col. 753).  (References from Barnes (q.v.), p.424).

2.  Theodosius & Valentinian: Cod. Theod. xvi. 5. 66 = Cod. Just. i. 5. 6 (435, a reference to Constantines's law); Cod. Just. i. 1. 3 (448), also printed by J. B. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, v (1761), cols. 417 ff. (References from Barnes, p.424; but I found that the ref is in book xvi, not in book xv as given by Barnes):


Idem aa. leontio praefecto urbi. damnato portentuosae superstitionis auctore nestorio nota congrui nominis eius inuratur gregalibus, ne christianorum appellatione abutantur: sed quemadmodum arriani lege divae memoriae constantini ob similitudinem impietatis porfyriani a porfyrio nuncupantur, sic ubique participes nefariae sectae nestorii simoniani vocentur, ut, cuius scelus sunt in deserendo deo imitati, eius vocabulum iure videantur esse sortiti. (435 aug. 3).

3.  No discussion of these, or indeed much about Porphyry in Hoffmann, which is frustrating.

4.  See bibliography.  Crafer (q.v.) says, "...those who wish to study it in the original Greek will find it very difficult to obtain a copy of the only edition." (p.ix); "The only edition is increasingly difficult to obtain..."(p.x).

5.  See bibliography.  Statement from Crafer, p. xii.

6.  Crafer p.x "Such is the chequered history of the work, that the authors' name, date, and country have always been a matter of doubt, while the dialogue which he claims to be reproducing in his book has generally been considered a mere literary device.  It was rescued from oblivion by its use in a bitter controversy in the ninth century, after which there is no mention of it until the sixteenth, when its use was again controversial.  When its genuineness was then called into question, the only Manuscript was found to have disappeared from Venice.  Nothing more is heard of the book until 1867, when a manuscript was found in Epirus, and taken to Athens.  It was collated by a young French scholar, who died before it could be published.  The destructive criticism of a series of German scholars reduced its importantce and checked the study of it.  While I was myself talking of another collation, a German scholar sought it at Athens and found that the manuscript was not in the Library, but in private possession, with the risk of being lost.  The only edition is increasingly difficult to obtain, and there is a danger of the Apocriticus again sinking into oblivion.  I therefore greatly welcome this opportunity of making it more widely known."

Crafer also refers to the Venice MS as being in St. Mark's Library in Venice; present in the catalogue but absent in fact when the search was made in the 1570's (p.xii).  Surely this search should be reprised?  The Athens MS is not the same as the Venice one, which contained book 5, as a careful comparison of quotes of the Venice MS has shown.

The Athens MS was collated while it was in the National Library at Athens; but it passed into private possession by being left by the curator Apostolides to his widow(!).  It is a paper MS of the 15th century, and is described by Duchesnes as badly written with many gaps.  (Crafer, p.xxvii).  I was unable to find an email address on the National Library of Greece website (which is not exactly non-Greek friendly) - it would be nice to ask them whether they have recovered it, or know of it.



1.  ΜΑΚΑΡΙΟΥ ΜΑΓΝΗΤΟΣ ΑΠΟΚΡΙΤΙΚΟΣ Η ΜΟΝΟΓΕΝΗΣ. Macarii Magnetis Quae Supersunt, ex inedito codice. edidit C. BLONDEL .  Parisiis, e typographia publica, M DCCC LXXVI. pp.3+232.  Text is Greek, with Latin notes.  Introduction is by Foucart but says little.  (I have a copy of this).  It begins in Book II, chapter 8, and ends in the middle of Book IV, chapter 30.  A fragment of book I from Nicephorus and a fragment of book V also exist, the latter found by Crafer and so not in this volume.  (see Crafer, p.x).

2.  T. W. CRAFER, The Apocriticus of Macarius Magne, SPCK (1919).  (I have a copy of this before me as I write).  Far superior to Hoffmann in every respect, with a detailed and useful introduction.  Although this is now out-of-date, the defect can be remedied from Barnes.

3.  R. Joseph HOFFMANN, Porphyry's Against the Christians:The literary remains, Prometheus Books (1994).  (I have a copy of this).

4.  T. D. BARNES, Porphyry Against the Christians: Date and the Attribution of the Fragments, Journal of Theological Studies New Series 24 (1973), pp. 424-442.  I have a copy of this splendid article.  Heaps of references.  To read it is a liberal education, and this is where you should start if you are interested.  Hoffmann tells us, though, that Barnes' suggested redating of Porphyry's work to the early 4th century has not generally been accepted, which I believe, interesting though it is.

5. L. DUCHESNE, De Macario Magnete et scriptis ejus, Klincksieck, Paris, 1877. (Ref. from Crafer & Hoffmann).  (I've not seen this).


Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 24th November, 2001.

This page has been online since 24th November 2001.

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