Mark the Deacon on the destruction of the statue of Aphrodite

Following my last post, I find that the Life of Porphyry of Gaza, by Mark the Deacon, is online.  Mango states (p.56):

At Gaza there stood in the center of town a nude statue of Aphrodite which was the object of great veneration, especially on the part of women. When, in 402, Bishop Porphyry, surrounded by Christians bearing crosses, approached this statue, “the demon who inhabited the statue, being unable to contemplate the terrible sign, departed from the marble with great tumult, and, as he did so, he threw the statue down and broke it into many pieces.” We may doubt that the collapse of the statue was altogether spontaneous.

The text is here and reads (slightly modernised):

59. But when we came into the city, in the place that is called the Four Ways, there was a statue of marble which they said was a statue of Aphrodite; and it was upon a base of stone, and the form of the statue was of a woman, naked, and having all her shame uncovered. And all they of the city did honour to the statue, especially the women, kindling lamps and burning incense. For they reported concerning it that it gave answers in dreams unto those who wished to make trial of marriage, but they deceived each other, speaking falsely. And often, being bidden by the demon to make a contract of marriage, they were so unfortunate that they ended up in divorce, or lived together in an evil way. These things we learned from those who turned aside from error and acknowledged the truth.

60. But some of the idolaters also, being unable to bear the calamity of the grievous marriages to which they had been led by the bidding of the demon of Aphrodite, were indignant and confessed the deceit. For that is what the demons do: deceive and say nothing at all that is true; for it is not in them to know for sure, but by guesses they delude and win over the people who are enslaved to them. For how can they speak truly who are fallen away from the truth? Even if they happen to prophesy something correctly, it is by chance that this happens, even as among men it often happens that one foretells concerning a matter and by chance it happens. When therefore they foretell the event correctly by accident, seeing that this is only seldom, we marvel; but though they continually get it wrong, of this we are silent. Thus much concerning demons and their error.

61. Now when we had come out of the ship into the city, as has been said, when we came to the place where was this idol of Aphrodite (but the Christians were carrying the precious wood of Christ, that is to say the figure of the Cross), the demon that dwelt in the statue beholding and being unable to suffer the sight of the sign which was being carried, came forth out of the marble with great confusion and cast down the statue itself and broke it into many pieces. And it happened that two men of the idolaters were standing beside the base on which the statue stood, and when it fell, it split the head of the one in two, and for the other it broke his shoulder and wrist. For they were both standing and mocking at the holy multitude.

62. And many of the Greeks when they beheld the sign which had come to pass, believed, and mingled with the lay­folk and entered with them into the holy church which is called Peace. …

Mango’s suggestion that Porphyry and his followers actually vandalised the statue is a little odd; surely it defeats the point of the story?


8 thoughts on “Mark the Deacon on the destruction of the statue of Aphrodite

  1. Hi Roger,

    Isn’t it now beyond dispute that the Life of Porphyry of Gaza is a pious fiction from a later century? It tells us more about what was imagined about the conversion of Gaza rather than what really happened (which was probably a lot less exciting!).

    Best wishes


  2. Hi James,

    I know that the suggestion has been made. I wasn’t aware that this was the general consensus (which is ignorance, of course, not a contradiction); do you have a source for that?

    I don’t have a view either way on this, I should add.



  3. Hi Roger,

    I think Ramsay MacMullen (sp?) has a chapter on this in Christianity and Paganism and IIRC Robin Lane Fox takes it for granted in Pagans and Christians.


  4. I was able to find online an article which discusses the question of consensus here. J.W. Childers, “The Georgian ‘Life of Porphyry of Gaza'”, Studia Patristica 35. Ascetica, Gnostica, Liturgica, Orientalia: Papers Presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 1999, Volume 2 (2001), 374-384. The detail is on p.376: “…many judge the vita to be an essentially accurate, though somewhat reworked, account of this chapter in the Christianization of Gaza.” I think MacMullen is perhaps a minority voice.

    I think the problem with the Vita Porphyrii is simply that, if you read it, it has solid wodges of irrelevant-looking hagiographical material seemingly inserted into a historical -looking account. You get the odd chapter which looks very like a later insertion. Anyone reading this will tend to think of tampering.

    It would be interesting to hear the argumens.

  5. Searching for Childers’ article, I find more discussion. In p.301 of Natalie B. Dohrmann, ‎Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire” (2013) I can see the words: “The arguments for/against the authenticity of either version of the VP have been reexamined recently by Jeffrey W. Childers, “The Georgian Life of Porphyry of Gaza,” StPatr 35 (2001): 374–84; and see Childers, “The Life of Porphyry: Clarifying the relationship of the Greek and Georgian versions through the study of New Testament citations” in “Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text Critical and Exegetical Studies”, Gorgias 2006, 154 f..” The latter is here in preview.

    Holger M. Zellentin, “Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian Literature”, p.193 tells us that the prologue quotes Theodorets’ “Religious History” (?) which was written in 444 AD, so is at least that late.

  6. Doing a little more searching:

    Jitse H. F. Dijkstra in “Philae and the end of ancient Egyptian religion: a regional …”, 2008, p.264 says: “However, the case is not settled, see J.W. Childers, ‘The Georgian Life of Porphyry of Gaza’ , in M.F. Wiles, E.J. Yarnold (eds). Studia Patristica XXXV (Leuven, 2001) 374-84, and Hahn. Gewalt und religidser Konflikt, 203 (n. 57). 46 Marc. ….” (A snippet-only link, to me anyway).

    According to this link, Barnes, “Early Christian hagiography” 260-283 dates the redaction of an original account, written soon after the death of Porphyry in 420, to the 6th century; the link suggests this is too late.

    In short there seems no evidence of a clear consensus. It is clear that the Georgian text is derived from the Greek via a lost Syriac intermediary, as Childers has shown from studying the NT quotations. It is clear that the Greek contains quotes from Theodoret’s HE in the prologue and chapter 6. These mean that it cannot date, in its present form, any earlier than 444 and may well be later. It also contains odd errors on the names of bishops, which Childers suggests may be due to a later editor substituting “safe” names for bishops whose orthodoxy had since become doubtful. But the immediacy of much of the text keeps attracting historians to suppose that most of the text, with these reservations, is near contemporary and written soon after Porphyry of Gaza’s death.

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