Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Reaction to the Bible in Paganism

Although pagan authors were aware of the LXX before the advent of Christianity, apparently the Christian apologists' use of LXX texts to buttress their faith made the pagans look deeply into the LXX. They attacked LXX texts as part of their larger project of undermining Christianity. The pagans faded away, but some of their criticisms experienced a resurgence in modern biblical scholarship. Some of the questions they raised (e.g., monotheism and Christology) continue to play a role in Christianity's dialogue with other world religions.

By John Granger Cook
LaGrange College, LaGrange, Georgia

One of the most neglected areas of the reception history of the Bible is the pagan philosophers’ attack on the Bible in the Christian era. [1] There were a number of philosophers who responded negatively to the Bible (Greek OT and the NT) — similar to the response the Stoics and Epicureans gave Luke’s Paul in Acts 17:16-34 (whatever the historical value of Luke). Others with philosophical training such as Justin and Augustine became Christians. Some (like an unusual figure named Amelius Gentilianus) admired part of the scriptures such as the prologue of John but did not join the new religion. It is impossible to say, given the surviving evidence, how many philosophers like Amelius may have existed in late antiquity before the Byzantine Empire closed Plato’s academy in Athens, and pagan philosophers faded away.

The investigation helps reveal how certain highly educated individuals in antiquity responded to the Bible with cultured disdain. Their reaction was not purely theoretical since it came in the context of persecutions of Christian believers — and one of the pagans I will discuss below (Hierocles) actually participated as a magistrate in the persecutions of Diocletian. Porphyry may have written his book against the Christians in service of one of the persecutions. [2]

The pagan philosophers I will briefly survey below include: Celsus (II C.E.), Hierocles (III-IV C.E.), Porphyry (III-IV C.E.), Julian (IV C.E.), and a composite figure based primarily on Porphyry who is found in a Christian writer named Macarius. [3] They are all philosophers in the tradition of Plato’s thought, although they used other elements of the Greek philosophical tradition. What they have in common is the way they constructed identity: Christians were neither Jews nor Hellenes. It is clear that they knew that their own tradition was in danger. Celsus argues, "You will certainly not say that if the Romans were persuaded by you, were to neglect their customary practices towards gods and people, and should call on your Highest or whomever you wish, he would descend and fight for them, and there would be no necessity for any other force." He also makes a comment in which a hypothetical Christian speaks of persuading those "who now reign over us." If those are banished, then the Christian would persuade the next and so forth; each is in turn persuaded and banished until a wise ruler arises who can see what is happening and who then destroys the Christian persuader "with your whole race." Macarius’ anonymous philosopher expresses regret at the persecutions and notes that they could have been prevented if Jesus had appeared to the Roman senate and others including the High Priest.

Celsus subjects the Genesis creation narrative to an extensive critique by objecting to characteristics such as a seven-day creation. He believes the story is a myth for old women. In his view (even though allegorists are a higher class of Jews and Christians), the allegories written about OT texts are more absurd than the myths themselves. Jewish laws are not particularly admirable. Moses was their exegete of magic. The Jews are of Egyptian origin and are fugitive slaves from that country. He accepts the inspiration of the Hebrew prophets but believes many inspired oracles also exist in paganism. He knows the Jews expect a great ruler to come, but he rejects that belief. Pagan culture offers a better alternative to an angry God who needs to rest and has a "mouth."

With regard to the NT, Celsus formulates a relentless attack on Jesus. He is the child of an adulterous liaison with a soldier. Jesus learned magic in Egypt, and his miracles are no better than the deeds magicians can perform in the marketplace. His teachings are derived from Plato. Celsus mocks Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrected appearance to a "frantic woman" and "another victim of the same bewitchment" who perhaps had a delusive dream. He also denies the possibility of resurrection on philosophical grounds. The prophecies of the OT could apply to many others besides Jesus (Celsus speaks sometimes in the persona of a "Jew" who rejects Christianity). For Celsus, Christians are simpletons who can offer no reasons for what they believe. The Christian evangelists (leatherworkers, fullers, and such) target slaves, children, and "silly" women. A nineteenth-century French scholar described Celsus as a social conservative. Celsus wanted Christians to integrate themselves back into Roman society and abandon their groundless faith.

Around the time of the Great Persecution of Diocletian (303), Sossianus Hierocles wrote a two-volume work for the Christians entitled The Lover of Truth. It comprised a comparison of Jesus and the first-century holy man, philosopher, and wonder worker named Apollonius of Tyana. Hierocles served in various administrative positions in the Empire. In Bithynia, as governor, he participated in and helped plan Diocletian’s persecution. Later, as prefect of Egypt, he delivered Christian virgins to brothel keepers. But shortly before he began this activity, he seems to have written his work to "humanely and kindly counsel them." Presumably he was counseling the Christians to abandon their faith and avoid physical destruction. For Hierocles, the scriptures were contradictory, and he accused Peter and Paul of being sowers of falsehood. Christ was a magician because he did miracles. One of his comparisons between Apollonius and Jesus is as follows: "Why have I remembered these things? In order that it might be possible to compare our precise and certain judgment on each point with the lightheadedness of the Christians. For on the one hand we think that the one [Apollonius] who did such things is not a god but a man favored by the gods, but they proclaim Jesus god on the basis of a few prodigies." He believed Jesus gathered 900 men and committed robberies. Hierocles also denigrated the trial of Jesus. When Domitian wanted to punish Apollonius, he (Apollonius) suddenly disappeared, but when Jesus was arrested, he was crucified. Apparently shortly after he finished his "humane" book, Hierocles began the less humane work of killing and enslaving Christians.

Porphyry’s book Against the Christians created such a furor in the church that it was burned twice by Christian emperors (Constantine in IV C.E. and Theodosius II in V C.E.). It exists now only in scattered fragments. One church father says that Porphyry drew many away from the faith. His fifteen-volume work included an extensive critique of the Greek OT (LXX), probably because he knew Christians used the LXX as a foundation of their faith. He objected to the apostles’ use, for example, of ancient "testimonies" (prophecies) to persuade their audience. In his other writings, one must note, when Porphyry was not targeting Christianity, he expressed great admiration for the Hebrews’ God and even certain texts in Genesis that he interpreted philosophically concerning the soul. He was fascinated by the Essenes and used them in his work on vegetarianism.

Porphyry cannot understand, for example, why God refused the knowledge of good to humans. In one text, he describes the Mosaic writings as depraved. They are so clear that they cannot be interpreted allegorically. He objects strenuously to critics such as Origen who wanted to allegorize the LXX. He may have mocked the stories of Jonah and the beast and Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute. Eccl 4:8 in its LXX version was proof for Porphyry that God has no "Son." The most numerous surviving references to Porphyry’s interpretation of the LXX concern Daniel. He was certainly interested in showing that the Christians’ apocalyptic interpretation of it was false. He argued, using many ancient historical sources, that Daniel was a fabrication of the Maccabean era (II C.E.). His arguments (on the date) have by and large been accepted by modern scholarship — without Porphyry’s denigration of the text.

Porphyry’s critique of the NT can be described as "superficial," but his flair for finding "contradictions" was apparently unmatched in antiquity. He notes divergences in the genealogies of Jesus, for example. He objects to Mark’s conflation of Malachi and Isaiah in 1:2. In Luke 14:12-3, Porphyry finds an insoluble problem: if one’s friend happens to be lame or sick, then that person cannot be asked to the meal. Porphyry objected to the phrase "all things are possible to God" by saying lying (by God) would then be possible. He argued that if "all things are possible to the believer" then he or she could create a bed. The argument between Paul and Peter (Cephas) in Galatians was a topic of ridicule for Porphyry. He apparently accused the Christians of letting women be "our Senate" in the churches. One could go on. His attack must have been so powerful in the eyes of the Church (unlike any other known pagan philosopher) that it merited destruction in the eyes of the Christian imperium.

The emperor Julian (331/32-363) was raised a Christian and was even a lector in the church. He had pagan leanings from his youth, however, and around twenty years of age, he had what one could call a pagan "mystical experience" and converted to Hellenism. Cyril of Alexandria, who transmitted (over 70 years later) the fragments of Julian’s work Against the Galileans, wrote that it shook up many people who then became "the sweet prey of demons"! Julian’s short-lived revival of paganism did not include violent persecutions of the church, but Christians breathed a sigh of relief when he died in a campaign against the Persians.

Ancient Christian writers described Julian’s desire to rebuild the Jewish temple, and he (if the text is authentic) mentions it himself. Julian appreciates the Jews’ ancient practice of sacrifice and accepts most of the ten commandments (with the exception of those about polytheism and the Sabbath). He can, however, criticize the LXX. He thinks the Genesis creation narrative needs allegory: "Accordingly, unless every one of these is a myth that involves some secret interpretation, as I indeed believe, they are filled with many blasphemous sayings about God." He does not think God should have refused to humans the knowledge of good and evil. The "Hebrew" God should not have been "envious" of letting them eat of the tree of life. He argues continuously that LXX texts do not prophesy Jesus. He also believes that there is an ambiguity in the LXX: the God of the Hebrews may be only a narrow, geographically limited God and not the universal Creator (which for him is itself below Plato’s transcendent Good).

Julian mounts an extensive attack against the NT. Jesus was not from the tribe of Judah in his view, and the genealogies are contradictory. With regard to Luke 12:33, he notes that if all obeyed Jesus, then society would break down. Some of his greatest ire is reserved for Johannine Christology which he believes contradicts LXX monotheism. Paul he calls a magician. Porphyry made the same charge against the apostles to explain their ability to do miracles. Julian believed that the study of Christian texts would result in children having the qualities of "slaves." In one of his letters, he objects to Christians who teach Greek literature but do not believe in the gods. For Julian, Christians worship a corpse. He was deeply concerned about their benevolence because it promoted "atheism."

Little is known about Macarius bishop of Magnesia except that he appeared at the Synod of the "Oak" in 403. His Monogenes (Discourse of a Unique Genre) is found in an incomplete manuscript, and even that has disappeared. The treatise comprises a set of objections to NT texts by a pagan philosopher which are answered by the Christian (a fictional debate). His colorful objections are probably for the most part based on those of Porphyry. With regard to the exorcism in Mark 5:1-20, he asks, for example, "If the incident is really true and not a fiction— as we explain it — it convicts him of much baseness." Jesus is at fault because he sent the demons into helpless pigs and terrified the swineherds. The philosopher cannot understand why Jesus gives Peter (Matt 16:16-23) the keys to the kingdom and then calls him Satan: "Either when he called Peter ‘Satan’ he was drunk and overcome with wine, and he spoke as though in a fit; or else, when he gave this same disciple the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he was painting dreams." Jesus’ images in the parables are "base." He objects to the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) by asking why Peter "killed" them. Paul is the subject of many of his objections. The philosopher sees a contradiction, for example, between Paul’s decision to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:23) and his denigration of the practice in Phil 3:2. He does not believe that simply by being baptized (1 Cor 6:11) a person could set aside pollutions like adultery and drunkenness. 1 Thess 4:15-17 is incredible because 300 years have passed by since Paul’s "lie" and no one has been caught up on the clouds — an impossible act. He objects to Christian monotheism by noting that angels are what the Greeks call gods. Resurrection is also impossible. He gives a hypothetical case in which a human body is eaten by a number of different creatures (including fishermen who eat the mullets that ate an original shipwrecked person) and wonders to whom the body will belong in the resurrection.

The philosophers’ reactions to the LXX and NT are indicative of the cultural struggles of late antiquity. Most of them knew that Christian evangelists were quite persuasive, and they felt that their culture was under attack. Although pagan authors were aware of the LXX before the advent of Christianity, apparently the Christian apologists’ use of LXX texts to buttress their faith made the pagans look deeply into the LXX. They attacked LXX texts as part of their larger project of undermining Christianity. The pagans faded away, but some of their criticisms experienced a resurgence in modern biblical scholarship. Some of the questions they raised (e.g., monotheism and Christology) continue to play a role in Christianity’s dialogue with other world religions.


[1] J. G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity 3; Tbingen 2000; reprinted by Hendrickson in 2002) / J. G. Cook, The Interpretation of the Old Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (STAC 23; Tbingen, 2004).

[2] For a translation of many Porphyrian (and other) texts, see R. M. Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians, Ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Texts and Contexts 1, Leiden 2005 (this useful book includes texts probably not by Porphyry as Berchman is aware; it is difficult to tell in many cases).

[3]  Below I am not going to cite my references. Cf. my books on the OT and NT in paganism, which include translations of the texts I discuss. English translations of the pagans<92> material include (in scattered form): Origen: Contra Celsum. Translated with an Introduction & Notes, ed. and trans. Henry Chadwick, Cambridge 1953 (a magisterial translation that includes the material from Celsus); part of Hierocles<92> material is in The Treatise of Eusebius which can be found in Philostratus. The Life of Apollonius, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F. C. Conybeare, London/Cambridge 1969 (a new translation by C. P. Jones will appear in 2006); the Against the Galilaeans of Julian may be found in The Works of the Emperor Julian, ed. and trans. W. C. Wright, vol. 3, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA/London 1923. For a grand collection, see Biblia Gentium <85>, ed. Giancarlo Rinaldi, Rome 1989 (a collection in Latin and Greek of pagan authors on the Bible with accompanying ET).