Book Review

John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002. 385 pp., paperback. ISBN: 1-56563-658-9. $24.95.

This is a very important book for at least two reasons. First, it is a summary (in English!) of current scholarship on the anti-Christian polemicists of the patristic era: Celsus, Porphyry, Julian the Apostate, etc. Virtually every angle (date, provenance, authenticity, pagan cultural context) since Harnack is examined anew and brought up-to-date. Second, Cook provides a summary of the (anti-) exegetical principles of the Christian adversaries. In a thoroughly informative manner, he traces the pagan discontent with the Christian Scriptures, including alleged allegorism, historical falsehood and anti-cultural betrayal by New Testament and Patristic writers.

Cook suggests that Christian apologetics is an outgrowth and continuation of Jewish apologetics (the encounter of Hellenistic Judaism with its pagan milieu). From these cross currents, our author isolates the following patterns of similarity. Jewish and Christian apologists addressed: (1) the issue of the allegorical interpretation of the Bible; (2) the relationship of the God of the Bible to the "god" of the philosophers; (3) the charge that the Jews and Christians were immoral atheists. In the case of Christians, we may add the scurrilous accusation of cannabalism (Thyestean banquets) and Oedipal intercourse.

Beginning with Celsus's True Doctrine, Cook reconstructs his anti-Christian remarks "into a sort of pagan's commentary on the gospels." By means of neatly numbered subsections, Cook examines Celsus's hostility to Christology, his rejection of the "argument from prophecy" and "the argument from hell", as well as his opposition to the Christian critique of "image worship and polytheism" (p. 17).

Celsus maintains that the gospels are unhistorical, even fictitious, inventions. The virgin birth is "incredible"; in fact, Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Panthera. Jesus did sojourn in Egypt, but as an adult, where he learned the chicanery of the Egyptian magicians (thus explaining the true source of Jesus' "miraculous" powers). The teachings of Jesus are no more remarkable than that of the philosophers and pagan moralists. Celsus admits that Jesus was crucified, but this is due to his evil and criminal life. Such a person could never be a Son of God or a Savior, according to Celsus. The resurrection is a myth and the alleged testimony to it is based on unreliable reports and hallucinations. In fact, the very concept of bodily resurrection is repugnant to Celsus (as it was to most Greeks, cf. Acts 17:32).

All of this obloquy in Christ makes any talk of incarnation ludicrous. Among other things, the transcendence of God would not allow it (Celsus's god is truly "wholly other"!). Celsus then proposes what Cook labels an "alternative Christology" (pp. 69-70): Jesus is a "pestilent fellow", a "sorcerer", a "corpse" (i.e. he never rose from the dead), even a "demon".

Attempts by Christians to demonstrate their messianic Savior from Old Testament prophecy are reduced to allegories by Celsus. Any use of the "stupid myths" of the Old Testament to prove the claims of Jesus Christ represent a reduction of the Hebrew Scriptures to literary and exemplaristic fictions.

Turning to Christians in Greco-Roman society, Celsus regards them as irrational, irreligious (they refuse to worship the gods) and antisocial (i.e., counter-cultural); as such, they should be persecuted—even executed. This last point leads some scholars to date Celsus's work to the persecution of Christians under the emperor Marcus Aurelius (ca. 177 A.D.).

Cook turns next to the most formidable critic of Christianity in the patristic era—Porphyry. Born perhaps around 234 A.D. in Palestine, Porphyry may have been exposed to (?even embraced) Christianity at one time. But his most famous work (Contra Christianos) is a meticulous attack on Christianity. He was a trained philosopher (tutored by Plotinus) and a capable polemicist.

If suggestions about the date of Porphyry's Against the Christians are correct (ca. 300 A.D.), the learned Neo-Platonist may have been preparing the way (? an apology for) the Great (Christian) Persecution under Diocletian (303 A.D.). The argument runs: Rome experienced a crisis of empire in the third century (barbarian invasions, social turmoil, economic downturns, etc.) which was attributed to disrespect for the traditional gods. Whom to blame? Porphyry alleges that since Jesus, the gods have not been honored. Thus Porphyry is moved to defend pagan traditions by connecting imperial malaise to the advance of Christianity. His book sets the stage for a justification of Diocletian's vengeance.

Cook uses citations and summaries of Porphyry's work from Eusebius, Origen, Jerome and others. (No complete copy of Contra Christianos has survived Christian destruction of the work; even Harnack's Neue Fragmente des Werks des Porphyrius gegen die Christen (1921) is an eclectic compilation.)* Porphyry regards the Old Testament as wicked "myths." Christian use of the Old Testament is described as tropological (i.e., allegorical) in order to discover "mysteries" hidden in the plain sense of the text. Porphyry particularly faults Origen for allegorization—a charge which may give us pause, considering the source and its motivation. (Porphyry regards Origen as a traitor to "Greek learning" whose Christian convictions were a sojourn into "barbarism".)

The miracles of Jesus are "creations" of the gospel writers. Eternal punishment is absurd (especially to one, who in Neo-Platonic fashion, believes in the transmigration of souls). That Jesus is the only way to salvation is "incredible". Salvation, for Porphyry, is the return of purified (i.e., wise) souls to God; it is philosophical soteria. In fine, Cook's review demonstrates that much of Porphyry has been anticipated in Celsus, indicating a genre of pagan apologetic.

Cook proceeds next to Macarius Magnes (Apocriticus) wherein a dialogue between a Christian and a pagan is recounted on disputed questions regarding the New Testament. This material is a primary source of "pagan exegesis of the New Testament." Next our author turns to Hierocles and his Truth-Loving Discourse (written to Christians about the time of the Great Persecution). He concludes with Julian ("the Apostate"), Contra Galilaeos ("Against the Galilaeans").

The latter surveys the tragic "conversion" and apostasy of Rome's emperor (361-363 A.D.). His attraction to classic paganism was perhaps the last gasp of a culture fighting against the pricks. Christianity had been declared religio licita by Constantine (313 A.D.) and was slowly silencing the oracles and emptying the temples. Julian's book (as well as his embrace of Greco-Roman polytheism) was a final attempt to turn the tide. Cook provides an excellent summary of this important work: gospels as fiction; Jesus as a "mere man"; the resurrection narratives as contradictory; Logos Christology as antithetical to the Old Testament; Paul as a magician; baptism as a powerless ritual; worship of Jesus as worship of a corpse. All this "evil", Julian contrasts with the virtues and glories of paganism. If his last words are truly as they have been reported ("Thou hast conquered, O Galilean"), then Julian's apostasy was tragic and ironic.

Cook's conclusion (pp. 335-40) is a summary of the pagan apologetic juxtaposed with the Apostles' Creed. Here he measures pagan objections to Christianity by the early confessional definition of faith. At each point, the antithesis is evident. Paganism opposed every element of the Christian confession. It still does—whether in its Enlightenment guise or Modernist/Post-Modernist rags. One of the most arresting revelations of Cook's work is the similarity in attack upon the Scriptures which we find in these Greco-Roman opponents and the comparable views of those devoted to so-called "scientific" Biblical criticism. Indeed, "there is nothing new under the sun."

—James T. Dennison

* A new translation of the fragments is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press: Robert M. Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians.