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The Journey Up and Down: Pythagoras in Two Greek Apologists

  • Johan C. Thom (a1)


One of the major goals of the early Christian apologists was to demonstrate the cultural acceptability of Christianity. In order to achieve this goal, a number of them (notably Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch) drew comparisons between doctrines of the Greek philosophical tradition and those of Christianity, usually demonstrating the uniqueness and superiority of the latter. They thus unwittingly preserved for us doxographical data concerning Greek philosophers, some of which is to be found nowhere else. When we meet with such a doxographical hapax legomenon, we are faced with the problem of its reliability, since we lack comparative data. Does the author in question give a reliable version of the tradition, or does he misrepresent it because of his own inadequate understanding of the material?



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1. See Grant, Robert M., ed., Theophilus of Antioch Ad Autolycum (Oxford, 1970), pp. ix–x;idem, “The Problem of Theophilus,” Harvard Theologtcal Review 43 (1950): 184.

2. For text and translation, see Grant, Theophilus of Antioch. All translations of Autol. quoted are by Grant, although they are sometimes slightly adapted. A new edition of Autol. is being prepared by Nicole Zeegers-Vander Vorst.

3. Autol. 3.7, 3.26. It is not clear from Autol. 3.26, however, that the last item is also attributed to Pythagoras.

4. Diels, Hermann, ed., Doxographi Graeci, 4th ed. (Berlin, 1965), 587.2.

5. Iambl, . De vita Pythagorica 145.

6. Bardy, G., “Theóphile d'Antioche,” Dictionnaire de thélogie catholique, 15:530;Quasten, Johannes, Patrology, 3 vols. (1950; reprint, Westminster, 1983), 1:239;Goodspeed, Edgar J., A History of Early Christian Literature, rev, and enl. by Grant, Robert M. (Chicago, 1966), p. 118.

7. Grant, , “The Problem of Theophilus,” pp. 181, 182; see also idem, Theophilus of Aritioch, pp. xi-xii.

8. Vorst, Nicole Zeegers-Vander, Les citations des poètes grecs chez les apologistes chrétzens du lie siècle, Recueil de Travaux d'Histoire et de Philologie, 4th series, vol. 47 (Louvain, 1972), pp. 304, 305; see also idem, “Les citations poétiques chez Théophile d'Antioche: Contrastes entre Ia culture classique de Théophile et celle des apologistes grecs du second siècle,” Studia Patristica 10 (1970): 168–174.

9. Diels, , Doxographi Graeci, 59: “non sine gravibus erroribus” (on Autol. 3.7 as a whole), and esp. n. 1: “quam ille [Sc. Theophilus] Pythagoream venditat sententiam, Epicurea est”; see also Grant, Robert M., “Early Christianity and Pre-Socratic Philosophy,” in Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume, American Academy for Jewish Research (Jerusalem, 1965), p. 373.

10. Grant, , Theophilus of Anhioch, p. 107 n. 1;Diels, , Doxographi Graeci, 339b.9–10.

11. In Sender, Jean and Bardy, Gustave, eds., Théophile d'Antioche Trois tivres à Autolycus (Paris, 1948), p. 136.

12. Compare Liddell, Henry George and Scott, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev, and augmented by Jones, Henry Stuart, 9th ed. (Oxford, 1968) (hereafter cited as GEL), s.v.' άνω 2.2.

13. Compare Corpus paroemiographorum Graecorum 2.61 Leutsch.

14. See GEL, s.v.; Lampe, G. W. H., ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1961), s.v.

15. For Pythagoras's tour, see, for example, Isoc, . Bus. 28 (Egypt);Hippol, . Haer. 1.2.18 (Egypt);Al., ClemStrom. 1.66.2 (Egypt, the Chaldeans, the Magi); Diog. Laert. 8.3 (Egypt, the Chaldeans, the Magi, Crete); Porph, . VP 6 (Egypt, the Chaldeans, Phoenicia);Iambl, . VP 3, 1319 (Syria, Egypt, Babylon). Extensive references are to be found in Delatte, Armand, ed., La vie de Pythagore de Diogène Laërce, Mémoires de l'Académie Royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres, 2d series, vol. 17 (Brussels, 1922), p. 105. One notices how the legend grows; compare Festugièrc, A. J., La révelation d'Hermes Trismégiste, 2d ed., 4 vols. (Paris, 1983), 1:2425. See also Grant, , “Early Christianity and Pre-Socratic Philosophy,” p. 373; compare Clem. Al. Strom. 1.66.2; Diog. Laert. 8.3; Iambi, . VP 18, 19. In all these passages the term άσντα is used for the Egyptian shrines.

16. See Bardy in Sender and Bardy, , Théophile d'Antioche, p. 132 n. 1, who incorrectly cites Diog. Laert. 8.3 as evidence for this tradtion. It is referred to in Iambl. Myst. 1.2, however.

17. Compare GEL, s.v. 'Hρακλέης.

18. See Vermander, Jean-Marie, “La parution de l'ouvrage de Celse et Ia datation de quelques apologies,” Revue des Études Augustiniennes 18 (1972): 2742;Kindstrand, Jan Frederik, “The Date and Character of Hermias' Irristo,” Vigiliae Christianae 34 (1980): 341357;Bauckham, Richard, “The Fall of the Angels as the Source of Philosophy in Hermias and Clement of Alexandria,” Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1985): 313330.

19. Jam using the text by Diels, , Doxographi Graeci, pp. 651656. A new edition for the Sources Chrétiennes series is being prepared under the chairmanship of R. P. C. Hanson.

20. See Autol. 3.7: “After saying that the gods exist, once more they reduce them to nothing”; see also lrris. 1–5, 19.

21. Kindstrand, , “Date and Character,” pp. 348349.

22. See Jones, Roger Miller, “Posidonius and the Flight of the Mind through the Universe,” Classical Philology 21 (1926): 97113;Festugière, A. J., “Les thémes du Songe de Scipion,” Eranos 44 (1946): 370388;idem, La réulation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 2:441–458; Koller, Hermann, “Jenseitsreise des Philosophen,” Asiattsche Studien 27 (1973): 3557. One of the earliest occurrences of the topos is to be found in Pl. Tht. 173e: “[The true philosopher's] mind, considering all these things [politicial and social matters] petty and of no account, disdains them and is borne in all directions, as Pindar says, ‘both below the earth,’ and measuring the surface of the earth, and ‘above the sky,’ studying the stars, and investigating the universal nature of everything that is, each in its entirety, never lowering itself to anything close at hand” (trans. H. N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library). According to Alfonsi, Luigi, “Una parodia del Teeteto nello ‘Scherno’ di Ermia,” Vigiliae Christianae 5 (1951): 8083,Hermias, Irris. 17 is a deliberate imitation of the Plato message.

23. Max. Tyr. 10.2f, 38.3d-f Hobein.

24. Trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Loeb Classical Library.

25. See also Hermias, Irris. 5: “They who are unable to find their own soul, are seeking the soul of their God, and while they do not know their own body, they concern themselves with the nature of the universe.”

26. See De migratione Abrahami 136138; see also Arnaldez, Roger, Philon d'Alexandrie De opificio mundi, vol. 1 (Paris, 1961), pp. 115116, on Philo's attitude toward natural science.

27. Capelle, Wilhelm, “Mετέωρος-μετεωρολογία,” Philologus 71 (1912): 414448;Koller, Hermann, “Jenseitsreise des Philosophen,” pp. 3557, esp. pp. 3540; see also idem, “Die Jenseitsreise: Em pythagoreischer Ritus,” Symbolon 7 (1971): 33–52. An important text in this connection is to be found in Hippoc, . De vetere medicina, 1.2024 Jones: “Therefore I do not think that medicine needs a new hypothesis, in the way the unclear and problematical does, concerning which it is necessary to use a hypothesis, as, for example, concerning the things above or the things below the earth” (italics mine).

28. Capelle, Compare, “Mετέωρος-μετεωρολογια” p. 438.

29. Ar. Nub. 225.

30. Nub. 187–194.

31. See P1. Apol. 18b, 19c; Apol. 24b; Euthphr. 2b. In Ar. Nub. 266 the clouds, that is, some of “the things in the air,” are invoked as goddesses.

32. Koller, , “Jenseitsreise des Philosophen,” p. 42. The translation is by H. N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library.

33. P1. Apol. 18bc. The same motif is also found in Philo, Somn. I 153–57.

34. Burkert, Walter, “Das Proömium des Parmenides und die Katabasis des Pythagoras,” Phronesis 14 (1969): 130; Koller (see articles cited in n. 27) suggests that the topos of the flight of the mind was indeed originally based on a Pythgorean ritual; his argument is plausible but not quite conclusive.

35. See, for example, Hippoc, . VM 1.2024 Jones, who refers to “the unclear and the problematical”; also Epicurus, Ep. ad Hdt. 80.4–5, who relates “the things in the air and everything uncertain”; and Philo, Somn. 1 54, who criticizes conjectures about “the obscure”

36. Philo, Migr. 136: “Come forward now, you who are laden with vanity and gross stupidity and vast pretence, you that are wise in your own conceit and not only declare (in every case) that you know what each object is, but go so far as to venture in your audacity to add the reasons for its being what it is, as though you had either been standing by at the creation of the world, and had observed how and out of what its several parts were fashioned, or had acted as advisers to the Creator regarding the things He was forming” (trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Leob Classical Library). See also Min. Fel. Oct. 12.7–13.5.

37. See also Autol. 3.16.

38. See n. 9 above.

39. See also Plut. Nicias 23.3. Aversion to speculations of a cosmological and theological nature, with an accompanying emphasis on an “empirical” approach, is also to be found in Irenaeus of Lyons and was indeed not uncommon during this period; see Unnik, W. C.van, “Theological Speculation and its Limits,” in Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition: 1 Honorem Robert M. Grant, ed. Schoedel, William R. and Wilken, Robert L. (Paris, 1979), pp. 3343; and Schoedel, William R., “Theological Method in Irenaeus (Adversus haereses 2.25–28),” Journal of Theological Studies 35 (1984): 3149.

40. The use of a common tradition, though not conclusive evidence, may also point to a proximity in time between Theophilus and Hermias, which would strengthen the hypothesis of a second-century date for the latter. See Hermippus, Diog, apud. Laert. 8.41; compare Waszink, J. H., ed. Tertultian De anima (Amsterdam, 1947), p. 3571; and Burkert, , “Das Proömium des Parmenides und die Katabasis des Pythagoras,” esp. pp. 2229.

41. Burkert, Walter, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, trans. Minar, Edwin L. Jr (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 136147.

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