Literary Authenticity in Porphyry

In a fragment preserved only in medieval Arabic (apparently by way of Syriac), Porphyry (c. 232– c. 304), Neoplatonist philosopher and perhaps former student of Origen, reports on the early efforts to establish Pythagoras’ authentic literary corpus. Apparently, one Archytas (fl. early fourth century BC) took it upon himself to sift out the forgeries under Pythagoras’ name. Porphyry writes,

There are eighty books by Pythagoras the Wise, the collection of which we owe to Archytas, the philosopher of Tarentum. Those that he gathered, assembled and collected with all his efforts from the disciples of Pythagoras the philosopher, who belonged to his faction and school and were the heirs of his knowledge, man by man, amount to two hundred in number. Archytas, who was distinguished for his clear intellect, put aside and segregated from these the books written in the style and name of Pythagoras that had been fabricated by dishonest men.[1]

After listing a series of spuria and shaming the self-interest of the forgers, Porphyry continues:

Those books of Pythagoras that are undoubtedly authentic come to two hundred and eighty. They fell into oblivion until a group of determined and pious wise men appeared. They sought, gathered and compiled these books, which had passed unnoticed in Hellas because they had been kept in Italy.”[2]

Look again at what Porphyry claims in these two paragraphs. First, Archytas gathered those books written by Pythagoras himself. Then, Archytas found another two hundred texts written by Pythagoras’ immediate, closest disciples. Therefore, claims Porphyry, the full authentic collection of “the books of Pythagoras” come out to two hundred and eighty.

Why bother with this arithmetic? According to Armin Baum, this excerpt demonstrates that an ancient audience might not consider a text pseudepigrapha if it faithfully reflected the content of a given teacher, if not necessarily his verba ipsissima. Because this fragment was preserved only in medieval Arabic, there was some dispute between Baum and Bart Ehrman as to what Porphyry actually said in the passage.[3] (Neither Baum nor Ehrman could read this Arabic.) With a new translation of the larger book holding this quotation, however, we can now better judge for ourselves what Porphyry was trying to say.

One reason Baum and Ehrman have debated this item in the first place is that there are some potentially significant implications for certain books of the New Testament. For example, in the cases of the so-called “deutero-Pauline” books, many scholars have doubted Paul’s authorship because of the divergence from his acknowledged style. If Baum is correct—and as I read the full excerpt from Porphyry, I believe it bolsters his position—then it would have mattered less to the original readers whether Paul himself penned the words to, say, 1 Timothy and much more if the words faithfully reflected the content of his teachings. Of course, this is not how we tend to think of literary authenticity in the modern world.

Besides the canon, one can also see similarities with the logic of apostolic succession as argued by early advocates, such as Irenaeus. Much as with Pythagoras and his students, many Christians deemed the apostles’ successors to be dispositive witnesses as to what their masters had taught. Indeed, this notion of diadochē, “succession” in leadership, has several parallels in Greek institutions, including philosophical schools and libraries.

  1. See the new translation in Emilie Savage-Smith et al., eds., A Literary History of Medicine: The “Uyūn al-Anbā” Fī Ṭabaqāt al-Aṭibbā’, of Ibn Abīuṣaybi’ah, Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section One, Near and Middle East, Volume 134/1 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020), 4.3.6.

  2. Ibid.
  3. See the back and forth: See A. D. Baum, Pseudepigraphie und literarische Fälschung im frühen Christentum (Tübingen: Mohr, 2001), 53–4; Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery, 109; A. D. Baum, review of Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, by Bart D. Ehrman, Novum Testamentum 56, no. 4 (2014), 429–30.


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