Useful books or peddling hate?

I learned from the bar of advertisements at the top of this page that a certain R.J.Hoffmann has published a translation of the fragments of Julian the Apostate Against the Galileans (i.e. Christians), through Prometheus Press.

Hoffmann published first a translation of Celsus’ work against the Christians, as reconstructed from the quotations in Origen’s Contra Celsum, which has often been translated in full. This was published by Oxford University Press, but received only two scholarly reviews, one nominal and the other which accused him of rewriting the text to ‘improve’ it and make Celsus Philosophus sound like a modern atheist. The translation is very punchy. But I had occasion to examine a couple of passages, and found that Hoffmann’s version did not represent the text in Origen at all accurately. On the other hand these passages were extremely acceptable to the lower forms of online atheist.

Next up was a translation of Porphyry’s lost work against the Christians. This in fact consisted not of a translation of all those fragments but only of those which came from the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes. In other words, he was translating only what already existed in an English version. The general accuracy of translation is better, and the book only let down by poor editing and the omission of all the material for which at that time no English translation existed. It seems to have attracted less scurrilous use than the first.

In 2004 the new book appeared. The fragments originally come from Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum, which unfortunately does not exist in English; but Dr. H. has only translated those portions which have already been translated. Again he has used Prometheus Press. It will be interesting to see if the book is listed in l’Annee Philologique, since the Porphyry was not.

A good translator is a benefit to us all. A translator who shares the religious sympathies of his subject can be a great boon, and can make a text far more accessible. I have long believed that Tertullian should only be translated by young men, who can relate to the fire of his thought! Those influenced by the flower-power generation are ideal to translate those muddled-mystic gnostic texts, which sensible people like myself can only yawn over. We all benefit, and no-one is the worse for the enterprise.

But there is also the risk that shared sympathy can go too far. An early 20th century Italian priest-translator of Tertullian introduced into De praescriptione haereticorum a phrase which completely changed the meaning of the sentence in a papalist direction. No doubt the change was an honest mistake, but an editor of a different confession would have preserved him from it. This problem is still more acute when it comes to shared hatreds.

Dr Hoffmann has a talent for expressing ancient anti-Christian writing in an accessible way. But so long as he continues to rewrite ancient polemic while omitting material not already translated, certain doubtless unworthy suspicions will continue to fester. Do any of these books serve any pleasant or scholarly purpose? I would like to hope so. But if so, what?


8 thoughts on “Useful books or peddling hate?

  1. Not very keen, but, hey, it’s your blog so its your call. Who decides what books appear there?

    Btw, I thought the blog used to email me every time there was a comment? Nothing appeared for this comment… Any ideas?

  2. Books above are decided by a) the content matter of this site, and b) cookies on your computer. Everybody sees different books depending on what you have browsed on Amazon.

    Also, I have no idea why it didn’t send an email… Did it now? If not, it may just be because I’m the admin or something…hrm…

    Finally, I’m open to ideas. Shoot!

  3. I’ve got the Hoffman Porphyry. To be blunt: it sucks. The annotations, such as they are, are juvenile. The “translation” appears to be simply a paraphrase of those English ones previously existing. The partisanship of the author makes it a mere pretense of scholarship. The whole is just shoddy and cheap. Waste no money nor any time on it.

  4. I suspect that any of us could do a better job of these books, it is true. Perhaps it is best to see them as confessional products and leave it at that.

    I marked up some errors in the Celsus, after coming across usenet posts quoting these passages for faith-hate purposes:

    I included the two academic reviews of the volume. I’ve not looked at this for a while, since the use of it seems to have died down.

    I then did a review of the Porphyry (there were no academic ones, according to l’Année Philologique) which is online at:

    I was much more excited about this, and I wrote to Dr. H. as I thought that it would be interesting to see if he would go and search for the lost manuscript of Macarius Magnes. However I got no reply. A few years later I got a one-line email (not in reply) asking why I was so venomous about him; odd really, since I thought that I had been rather temperate and given praise where it was due. I replied seeking to open communications; again I got no reply. A web page by him containing abuse directed at me personally appeared at some point in all this, which I saw only a few weeks ago.

    He has published a number of genuine papers on Marcion which I have not seen. He was due to give one at the Oxford Patristics Conference in 2003, and I went along to the session to see if I could talk to him. But he didn’t turn up, to the surprise of all.

    It’s all rather odd behaviour, in my opinion.

    The annotations in the Porphyry mainly summarise what Macarius Magnes responded to the argument although Dr. H. did not actually understand this always; he wasn’t familiar with the usage of Hellene=pagan, for instance. The rest of the content of the volume appears of doubtful value.

    I think the Porphyry book has a value; it makes it far easier to understand what is being said than the old Crafer version does. I really did get from it a sense of how Porphyry was arguing and what buttons in his listeners he was trying to press. The Celsus is less useful in a lot of ways since so much of it is imaginary.

    But it is desperately unfortunate that he only ever translates material for which translations already exist.

  5. You’re certainly more charitable than I am on the subject! If he wanted the book to be taken as a truly scholarly pursuit, then he should have done the following:
    1.) translate all “fragments,” (really, I think we should be talking about allusions or reformulations for the most part, with “fragments” vanishingly rare), explaining variant/textual issues in the notes, which is standard practice
    2.) provide more than just “Yeah!” or paraphrastic footnotes, which I find characteristic of adolescence, and which led to my characterization of his notes as “juvenile”
    3.) interact not only with current scholarship (which was most certainly not sufficiently done) but ancient patristic writers (which he was roundly critical of, even though they’re responsible for his texts!)
    4.) know more about ancient Christianity and be able to contextualize the fragments and responses within it, rather than within a modernistic secular worldview

    I’m afraid it will simply require someone else to produce a modern, definitive compilation of the approach of Porphyry to Christianity. In the end, it would be fascinating to have, but not so earth-shattering as some think and want.

  6. I agree.

    Robert Berchman has finally translated all the fragments of Porphyry, albeit with a somewhat strange introduction (he seems to be a philosopher, not a historian). BCMR review and bibliographic details here:

    Someone wrote to me a few years ago offering to work on the same idea for my site, and compiled lots of the bits that already existed (although not terribly well). But he didn’t have Greek or Latin, so the whole thing never got far. I did a little more myself, but never finished it. One day…

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