Porphyry on quotation practices in antiquity

An interesting volume has come my way on the quotations in Eusebius.  It is Sabrina Inowlocki, Eusebius and the Jewish Authors: His citation technique in an apologetic context, Brill, 2006.  This, remarkably, was a PhD thesis in French.

The study is interesting enough that I should like to read the paper volume. I have a PDF but reading more than a bit on screen is impossible. But sadly the price at $150 renders that impossible.  However the PDF is indexed, and as a result I keep finding good things.

Chapter 2 is about the way that ancient authors quoted sources.  In chapter 2E, Faithfulness to the Text Cited, we find the following statements:

The changes brought by an author to the cited passage vary substantially. They generally consist in the omission or addition of words, in grammatical changes, in the combination of citations, and in the modification of the primary meaning of the quotation. These changes may be deliberate, which means that they are made by the citing author specifically in order to appropriate the content of the citation.52 They may also be accidental. If deliberate, the changes result from the author’s wish to adjust the citation to his own purposes, to ‘modernize’ the stylistic expression of a more ancient writer, or to adapt the grammar of the cited text to that of the citing text. It may be noted that deliberate changes do not always stem from the citing author’s eagerness to tamper with the primary meaning of a passage, as modern scholars often suspect and harshly condemn.

A passage from Porphyry, cited in the Praeparatio, is particularly revealing. It shows the methodology applied to the cited text, even by an author who was eager to preserve the primary meaning of that cited text:

(I omit the Greek, since I can’t paste it and don’t have time to retype it tonight)

To such you will impart information without any reserve. For I myself call the gods to witness, that I have neither added, nor taken away from the meaning of the responses, except where I have corrected an erroneous phrase, or made a change for greater clearness, or completed the metre where defective, or struck out anything that did not conduce to the purpose; so that I have preserved the sense of what was spoken untouched, guarding against the impiety of such changes, rather than against the avenging justice that follows from the sacrilege.(53)

53.  De philosophia ex oraculis I, p.109-110 (Wolff) = PE IV. 7. 1.

The sense, in other words, is what Porphyry transmits, not the exact words before him.  This is perhaps easier to understand if we remember that the copies before him were manuscripts, and so could easily contain corruptions.

Inowlocki goes on to say:

This passage emphasizes the prominence of the meaning of the text over its phrasing: The nous is clearly opposed to the lexis.54 Porphyry claims not to have tampered with the noemata of the oracles but he does not claim that he has not changed the terms and expressions of the cited text.55 Yet it should be noted that the respect shown to the meaning of the oracles is due to their sacredness. Similar attitudes are also found among Jewish and Christian authors regarding the modification of the Scriptures. Such changes are even more harshly condemned in the Jewish and Christian traditions.56[1] This was not the case with secular texts, as can be seen from Porphyry’s use of citations in his De abstinentia.57 Porphyry was especially gifted in manipulating texts, although the concept of manipulation hardly applies to antiquity. At any rate, the neo-platonic philosopher was not the only one to do so. Plutarch, who is well known for his extensive use of quotations, does not hesitate to transform the passages he cites by omitting, adding or modifying terms or expressions occurring in the quotation. Not even Plato was spared by him.

However, it should be emphasized that our scholarly criteria of citation are not relevant to the practice of ancient authors. Purpose and methodology differ dramatically. Actually, that which we might consider falsification was viewed by ancient writers as a methodology in explicating the true, authentic meaning of a text. In a sense, in the ancient authors’ view, modifying the text cited was meant to express its essence more clearly.59

In addition to the distinction between sacred and secular texts, the treatment of prose citations differs from that of poetic citations. Indeed, it was more difficult to modify poetic texts because of the metric rules. Moreover, in many cases, the readership knew them by heart. This was especially the case with Homer. As Stanley has pointed out in a study on Paul,60 the status of Homeric poems in Hellenism was to some extent comparable to that of the Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity. Both texts constituted the most authoritative text. Homer had been critically edited in the Hellenistic period and this ‘vulgate’ was in general faithfully copied by second-century C.E. authors. This observation may probably also apply to Euripides’ and Sophocles’ tragedies.

However, the poetic text cited by the ancient authors is not always identical to that which has reached us through direct transmission, i.e., in manuscripts. Several explanations other than the responsibility of the citing authors may be suggested. Firstly, the authors often cited passages from memory and therefore made mistakes;61 secondly, in the case of Homeric quotations, the authors could use a text other than the Alexandrian ‘vulgate;’ thirdly, most authors excerpted passages from florilegia rather than from the original text;62 finally, some differences may be due to the corruptions to which medieval manuscripts were subject.

As for prose texts, they could be more easily modified thanks to the flexibility of their form. They could easily be summarized, paraphrased and transformed. It is worth noting that the faithfulness to the text also depends on the feelings of the quoting author towards the quoted author. An author such as Strabo, whose faithfulness to the Homeric text has been shown by Stanley, proves to be rather loose in his citations from Herodotus.63 Likewise, Plutarch quotes Herodotus faithfully only in half of the cases64 whereas it is well known that he cites Homer faithfully.

The different methodologies in modifying a text may be presented as follows:65 …

But here we must halt our quotation.  Most of the footnotes refer to studies.

Isn’t this fascinating stuff?  It is really useful to hear Porphyry’s statement.  It is really useful to hear some solid examples of how ancient writers handle these things.

The author, Sabrina Inowlocki, is a Eusebius scholar, and her study of the quotations in the Apodeixis (i.e. the Praeparatio Evangelica and Demonstratio Evangelica) is really interesting.  But it’s the kind of book to read through.

What a murder it is, that so useful a volume, funded by a tax grant, should be obscured by such a high price!

  1. [1]56. See, e.g. Josephus, Antiquities I. 17, X. 218 and Against Apion I. 42; Letter of ps.Aristeas 310…

4 thoughts on “Porphyry on quotation practices in antiquity

  1. This is fascinating. Thank you!

    I was looking for similar articles and came across several by Dr. Ariane Magny.


    Especially relevant are her articles entitled “EUSEBIUS’ PORPHYRY” and “Porphyry in Fragments: Jerome, Harnack, and the Problem of Reconstruction.” Thankfully the full articles are available. Her book, “Porphyry in Fragments: Reception of an Anti-Christian Text in Late Antiquity” is expensive, but portions (including some interesting information) is available for viewing on Google books.


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