The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1


III. Direct Attack on Twin Citadels of Prophecy

Origen’s allegorical interpretation was not a direct blow at the church’s concept of the prophecies of the advent but a flanking attack. Origen believed firmly—however fantastic his speculations might have been—in the inspiration of the prophecies, and the canonicity of the books of Daniel and the Revelation. PFF1 324.1

But following Origen, in the same century, came two direct attacks on these prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse. These assaults were begun: (1) on the book of Revelation about A.D. 255, by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, who in opposing the chiliasts denied the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse, thus influencing subsequent questions arising over its canonicity; and (2) on the prophecy of Daniel, about 270, by Porphyry of Rome, who contended that Daniel was written after the events portrayed, by someone in Judea in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes who deceptively employed the future tense to give an appearance of futurity to that which was actually past. Because of the vital future effects of these assaults, it is essential to understand their origin and intent. PFF1 324.2


Born a pagan, DIONYSIUS OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 190-265) was converted to Christianity by Origen. A diligent student, he became head of the Alexandrian school in 231 or 232. About 247 he succeeded Heraclas as bishop of Alexandria, which at that time was the greatest and most powerful see of Christendom. His episcopate was filled with trouble. He was driven into the Libyan desert by the Decian persecution, returning in 251. Under the Valerian persecution, in 257, he was banished by the prefect of Egypt. Since he was taught by Origen, it is not surprising that he. refuted the chiliastic doctrine. But he went beyond his master so far as to impugn the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse in order to defeat the millenarians. It seems that the doctrinal controversy was the basis for his attack, although he offered some critical grounds, such as an alleged difference in style and diction from John’s Gospel and Epistles. Yet he was convinced that the Apocalypse was written by a man inspired of God. He opposed it chiefly because of its millennial teachings. 55 PFF1 324.3

Already there had been an attack on the Apocalypse by the Alogi in the second century, 56 and by the presbyter Caius against the millennium, 57 as well as Origen’s spiritualization of the prophetic symbols to deprive them of all force. It was about A.D. 255 that dispute arose concerning the chiliastic opinions taught in a book entitled Refutation of Allegorists, by Nepos, a bishop in Egypt. Dionysius succeeded through his oral and written efforts in checking this Egyptian revival of chiliasm. This was but natural, for from its very beginning the allegorism of the Alexandrian school had exerted a pernicious influence, endeavoring to explain and harmonize Bible truth with Greek dialectics after the manner of Philo. PFF1 325.1

Bishop Nepos in his Refutation of Allegorists had insisted on the interpretation of Revelation 20 as referring to a literal “millennium of bodily luxury” on earth. Dionysius now sought to refute his position. He could not follow the former opponents, who had set aside the entire Apocalypse, pronouncing it without sense; yet he reproduced some of the same arguments, with modifications. Said Dionysius: “`I could not venture to reject the book, as many brethren hold it in high esteem,”’ yet he ascribed it to another John—some “holy and inspired man”—but not the apostle John. 58 PFF1 325.2

Thus Dionysius sought to combat chiliasm by undermining confidence in the apostolic character of the Apocalypse. His influence was felt in later doubts concerning the canonicity of the Apocalypse, which caused much discussion in the church, and which lingered in the East for several centuries. And it was this dispute about millenarianism that led Dionysius to deny its Johannine authorship, though he accepted it as canonical. 59 PFF1 325.3

Thus it was that certain leaders began to recede from millennialism in precisely the same proportion as philosophical theology became ascendant. In this sense the later uprooting of the millennial expectation is one of the most momentous factors in the history of early Christianity. With the loss of millennialism, men lost a living faith in the impending return of Christ, and the prophetic Scriptures pointing to the reign of Christ came to be applied to the church, with far-reaching results. PFF1 326.1


PORPHYRY (233-c. 304), Syrian sophist and Neoplatonic philosopher, was born possibly at Tyre, or more likely at Batanaea in Syria, and died at Rome. A disciple of Plotinus, who developed the Neoplatonic system, Porphyry became a teacher of philosophy at Rome. Many scholars challenge the tradition that he was ever a Christian, or could rightly be called “Porphyry the Apostate.” While in retirement in Sicily he composed a treatise (c. 270) comprising fifteen books and titled Adversus Christianos (Against the Christians). It was ably answered by numerous Christian apologists—Methodius, Eusebius, Apollinaris, Jerome, and so forth some thirty in all. In fact, all the knowledge we have of Porphyry’s arguments is transmitted to us through these refutations, chiefly Jerome’s, as Theodosius II had the extant copies of his work publicly burned in A.D. 435, and this proscription was renewed in 448. Jerome declares: PFF1 326.2

“But as to the objections which Porphyry raises against this prophet, or rather brings against the book, Methodius, Eusebius, and Apollinaris may be cited as witnesses, for they replied to his folly in many thousand lines of writing.” 60 PFF1 326.3

Porphyry, the Syrian Sophist, First to Attack Authenticity of Daniel and Project the Antichus Epiphanes Theory (Left) Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in Whose Diocese the Waldenses Later Flourished (Center), Church Historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, Who Changed His Earlier Exposition of the Prophecies of Daniel 2 and 7, to Advocate the Earthly Church as the Kingdom of God-a Major Step in Supplanting Primitive Interpretation (Right) (See Chapters 14, 18, and 17)

Porphyry became one of the most determined pagan opponents of Christianity of his time, seeking to turn back the tide of this rival religion. Former attacks had proved futile, because the Gospel had a supernatural origin. Porphyry, seeking supernatural support for his own pagan system—a composite made up of paganism, Judaism, and a little Christianity—boldly attacked the supernatural in Christianity. He sought to disprove not so much the substance of Christianity’s teachings, as the records in which that substance was delivered. 61 Biographical records state, incidentally, that Porphyry’s mind twice lost its bearings, and that the second time, in his old age, he had hallucinations. PFF1 327.1


Jerome contends that Porphyry was driven to attack the prophecy of Daniel because Jews and Christians agreed in pointing to the historical fulfillment of its prophecies as a conclusive argument against heathen positions. Daniel must be confuted in order to parry the force of the predictions concerning Christ, specifically those which give the kings in order and the time of His coming, even to enumerating the years—obviously a reference to the seventy weeks. Porphyry, seeing these things to have been fulfilled, and being unable to deny that they had taken place, had recourse to calumny. These prophecies, he maintained, were written not by Daniel but by some Jew who in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (d. 164 B.C.) gathered up the traditions of Daniel’s life and wrote a history of recent past events but in the future tense, falsely dating them back to Daniel’s time. Here are Porphyry’s words, quoted by Jerome: PFF1 327.2

“Daniel did not predict so much future events as he narrated past ones. Finally what he had told up to Antiochus contained true history; if anything was guessed beyond that point it was false, for he had not known the future.” 62 PFF1 328.1

Porphyry contended also that the book of Daniel was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew, and based part of his hostile argument on the apocryphal Susanna section. To this Jerome, Eusebius, and Apollinaris replied that the story of Susanna was not part of the original Hebrew book of Daniel but a spurious Greek addition. 63 The Greek text originated when, as all antiquity agreed, Daniel was translated from original Hebrew into Greek some time before Christ, and later by Theodotion, which latter version Porphyry quoted. 64 PFF1 328.2

Porphyry’s book 1 dealt with the Bible’s alleged discrepancies. Book 4 was a criticism on the Mosaic history and Jewish antiquities, and books 12 and 13 were devoted to an examination of the prophecies of Daniel. Porphyry projected essentially the same argument, be it particularly noted, that has since been followed by modern criticism. The first part of Daniel, with the exception of the dream in Daniel 2, is historic, not prophetic. Porphyry, attacking only the prophetic portion, declares it to be merely a late anonymous narrative of past events, purporting to have been predicted long before by Daniel. Thus Porphyry’s scheme—the most ancient as well as most formidable direct attack on Daniel—was based on the supposed spuriousness of Daniel’s prophecies. PFF1 328.3

In order to get rid of the prophecy, Porphyry’s explanation confined the third prophetic kingdom to Alexander in person, reserving the Macedonian Ptolemies and Seleucids for the fourth kingdom. From among these he chose ten kings, making the eleventh—the one having the mouth speaking great things—to be Antiochus Epiphanes. Thus he adroitly threw his main strength against the book of Daniel, sensing that if this pillar of faith be shaken, the whole structure of prophecy must tremble, for the times and symbols of Daniel form the foundation of the New Testament Apocalypse. Further, if the writer was not Daniel, then he lied on a frightful scale, ascribing to God prophecies which were never uttered, and making claim of miracles that were never wrought. 65 And if Daniel’s authorship could be shown to be false, then Christ Himself, the “faithful witness” and true (Revelation 1:5), would be proved to bear witness to an imposter. (Matthew 24:15.) PFF1 329.1


The Jews remained aloof from Porphyry’s seductive argument, but Jerome laments that it had beguiled “some unskilful ones of our own people.” And only a few Christian writers accepted it, these being confined entirely to the East. Four names are to be noted, says Maitland: PFF1 329.2

a. Jacob of Nisibis (d. 338), a Syriac writer, supported this new arrangement of the empires. PFF1 329.3

b. Ephraim the Syrian (Ephrem, or Ephraem Syrus) (d. 373), pupil of Jacob of Nisibis, and the greatest light of the Syrian church. PFF1 329.4

c. Polychronius, bishop of Apamea (c. 430), one of Porphyry’s Christian admirers. PFF1 329.5

d. Anonymous Greek Writer in Fifth Century (Catena Graeca in Danielem) completes the list of ancient adherents of Porphyry. 66 PFF1 329.6

Porphyry’s line of attack was so well chosen as to leave his successors little room for improvement, for, after lying largely dormant for more than a thousand years, his argument springs forth again to plague the Reformation positions on prophecy. 67 It is likewise interesting to note that Porphyry’s thesis was adopted by the infidel Gibbon, the English deist Collins, and most modernist scholars. 68 PFF1 330.1

This chapter has been extended to include Porphyry in order to combine the two third-century writers who made direct attacks on the books of Daniel and the Revelation within a few years after Origen’s flanking attack on the older prophetic views. The next chapter, then, must return to pick up the thread with Cyprian, a contemporary of Origen. PFF1 330.2