“Why were you so ungrateful to our gods
as to desert them for the Jews?”
—Julian, addressing the Christians
The memoir of Julian Augustus
“Homoiousios. What does that mean?”
I knew. I rattled my answer like a crow taught to speak. “It means that Jesus the son is of similar substance to God the father.”
“Homoousios. What does that mean?”
“That Jesus the son is of one substance with God the father.”
“In the first case, Jesus was created by the father before this world began. He is God’s son by grace but not by nature.”
“Because God is one. By definition singular. God cannot be many, as the late Presbyter Arius maintained at the council of Nicaea.”
“Excellent.” I received a series of finger-snappings as applause. “Now in the second case?”
“Homoousios is that pernicious doctrine”—I had been well-drilled by Eusebius—“which maintains that the father and the son and the holy spirit are one and the same.”
“Which cannot be!”
“Which cannot be,” I chirruped obediently.
“Despite what happened in Nicaea.”
“Where in the year 325 Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria…”
“A mere deacon at the time…”
“Opposed my cousin Bishop Eusebius as well as Presbyter Arius, and forced the council to accept the Athanasian doctrine that the father, son and holy spirit are one.”
“But the battle is far from over. We are gaining ground every year. Our wise Augustus believes as we believe, as the late Presbyter Arius believed. Two years ago at Antioch we Eastern bishops met to support the true doctrine. This year shall meet again at Sardica and, with the Emperor’s aid, the true believers shall once and for all destroy the doctrine of Athanasius. My son, you are to be a priest. I can tell. You have the mark. You will be a great force in the church. Tomorrow I shall send you one of my deacons. He will give you religious instruction, both of you.”
“But I’m to be a soldier,” said Gallus, alarmed.
“A God-fearing soldier has the strength of twenty,” said Bishop George automatically. “Besides, religious training will do you no harm.” And curiously enough, it was Gallus who became the devout Galilean while I, as the world knows, returned to the old ways.
But at that time I was hardly a philosopher. I studied what I was told to study. The deacon who gave me instruction was most complimentary. “You have an extraordinary gift for analysis,” he said one day when I was exploring with him John 14:24, the text on which the Arians base their case against Athanasius. “You will have a distinguished future, I am sure.”
“As a bishop?”
“Of course you will be a bishop since you are imperial. But there is something even more splendid than a bishop.”
“Martyr and saint. You have the look of one.”
I must say my boyish vanity was picked. Largely because of this flattery, for several months I was confident that I had been especially chosen to save the world from error. Which, in a way, turned out to be true, to the horror of my early teachers.
Bishop George was an arrogant and difficult man but I got on with him. Largely because he was interested in me. He was a devoted controversialist. Finding me passably intelligent, he saw his opportunity. If I could be turned into a bishop, I would be a powerful ally for the Arians, who were already outnumbered by the Athanasians, despite the considerable help given them by Constantius. Today, of course, the “pernicious” doctrine of the three-in-one God has almost entirely prevailed, due to the efforts of Bishop Athanasius. Constantius alone kept the two parties in any sort of balance. Now that he is dead the victory of Athanasius is only a matter of time. But today none of this matters since the Galileans are now but one of a number of religious sects, and by no means the largest. Their days of domination are over. Not only have I forbidden them to persecute us Hellenists; I have forbidden them to persecute one another. They find me intolerable cruel!
Was I a true Galilean in those years at Macellum? There has been much speculation about this. I often wonder myself. The answer is not clear even to me. For a long time I believed what I was taught. I accepted the Arian thesis that the One God (whose existence we all accept) mysteriously produced a sort of son who was born a Jew, became a teacher, and was finally executed by the state for reasons which were never entirely clear for me, despite the best efforts of Bishop George to instruct me. But while I was studying the life of the Galilean I was also reading Plato, who was far more to my taste. After all, I was something of a literary snob. I had been taught the best Greek by Mardonius. I could not help but compare the barbarous back-country language of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to the clear prose of Plato. Yet I accepted the Galilean legend as truth. After all, it was the religion of my family, and though I did not find it attractive, I was unaware of any alternative until one afternoon when I was fourteen.
I had been sitting for two hours listening to the deacon sing me the songs of Presbyter Arius… yes, that great religious thinker wrote popular songs in order to influence the illiterate. To this day I can recall the words of half a dozen of his inane ballads which “proved” that the son was the son and the father was the father. Finally, the deacon finished; I praised his singing.
“It is the spirit what matters, not the voice,” said the deacon, pleased with my compliment. Then—I don’t know how it happened—Plotinus was mentioned. He was only a name to me. He was anathema to the deacon. “A would-be philosopher of the last century. A follower of Plato, or so he claimed. An enemy of the church, though there are some Christians who are foolish enough to regard him highly. He lived at Rome. He was a favorite of the Emperor Gordian. He wrote six quite unintelligible works which his disciple Porphyry edited.”
“Porphyry?” As though it were yesterday, I can remember hearing that name for the first time, seated opposite the angular deacon on one of the gardens at Macellum, high summer flowering all about us and the day hazy with heat.
“Even worse than Plotinus! Porphyry came from Tyre. He studied at Athens. He called himself a philosopher but of course he was merely an atheist. He attacked the church in fifteen volumes.”
“On what grounds?”
“How should I know? I have never read his books. No Christian ought.” The deacon was firm.
“But surely this Porphyry must have had some cause…”
“The devil entered him. That is cause enough.”
By then I knew that I must read Plotinus and Porphyry. I wrote Bishop George a most politic letter, asking him to lend me the books of these “incorrigible” men. I wished to see, I said, the face of the enemy plain, and naturally I turned to the Bishop for guidance, not only because he was my religious mentor but because he had the best library in Cappadocia. I rather laid it on.
To my astonishment Bishop George immediately sent me the complete works of Plotinus as well as Porphyry’s attack on Christianity. “Young as you are, I am sure you will appreciate the folly of Porphyry. He was an intelligent man misled by a bad character. My predecessor, as bishop of Caesarea, wrote a splendid refutation of Porphyry, answering for all time the so-called ‘inconsistencies’ Porphyry claimed to have detected in scriptures. I am sending you the Bishop’s works too. I cannot tell you how pleased I am at the interest you are showing in sacred matters.” What the good Bishop did not know was that the arguments of Porphyry were to form the basis for my own rejection of the Nazarene.
My two ¢:
Porphyry was a thinker in real history—outside Vidal’s novel—; in my opinion, a thinker more important than Plato or Aristotle because, hadn’t Julian life been taken so early during his reign, Porphyry’s exegesis of the New Testament would have prevented the dark ages of Europe.
Alas, every singly copy of Porphyry’s book was destroyed by the triumphant Church, with only a few fragments being exegetically unearthed by Joseph Hoffmann as late as… 1994!
I have typed some of these fragments directly from Hoffmann’s book for WDH, here.