Contra Celsum

© Dr M D Magee
Contents Updated: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

The True Word

Celsus wrote the True Word or Alethes Logos, a criticism of Christianity which helps the modern inquirer understand why such noble men as Marcus Aurelius might have sought to suppress it. Christians have not thought the work itself worth preserving but Origen wrote a reply to it many years later, and, in citing passages to refute, has preserved part of it. It shows why people of high character and attainments in the second century rejected Christianity.

Celsus was an Epicurean—a man who sought to understand Nature by natural means, disdaining appeals to the supernatural. He was the equivalent of a modern scientist, honest and clear-headed, and one who objected to vice and folly. Miracles and such supernatural phenomena were either honest misconceptions of natural events, or were frauds perpetrated on the gullible. All superstition, even when it seemed at first to have good effects, he decided was mischievous in the long run. Then, as now, there were sleight of hand magicians and mountebanks who fooled the credulous with supposed messages and missions from an invisible world.

The purveyors of Christianity were only one group of charlatans among many. Today they are the main one remaining in the west, and now are praised by politicians and even intellectuals instead of being criticized. Celsus was one of the intellectuals then who realized the folly of it and set himself against it. Regrettably, right causes do not necessarily succeed. Celsus and the rational school did not, and after 1500 years of darkness, the same battles are still being fought against superstition and ignorance.

Celsus did not think that Christianity was the most important irrational target of the time. He had written a much bigger work against the eastern magicians, of whom Christianity was merely a shoot. Lucian, another second century Epicurean, exposed Alexander of Abonitichus, a well known magician, and dedicated the study to Celsus whom he admired for his “wisdom, truthfulness, gentleness, composure and uprightness.” Lucian cannot have considered these the characteristics of the Christians he knew.

From the ending of the True Word, it was written not just to refute the “false word” of Christianity but to explain why it had to be suppressed. Roman intellectuals were impressed by the work and it proved such an obstacle to Christianity spreading among the educated classes that the greatest intellectual in Christianity was required to reply to it. But it took 80 years before a man with the intellectual stature to face up to Celsus was found among the Christian ranks—Origen. Origen obviously ultimately prevailed, but Celsus was no longer around to defend his arguments or even his words against whatever the church selected to refute.

Origen is considered by most scholars to have been too serious a man to have misrepresented his opponent, but his opponent could not guard against misrepresentation. Professor J A Froude of Oxford University said that Origen presented Celsus’s arguments such that they could be most easily overthrown, but hesitated to say that Origen would have cheated, giving the opposite impression. We do not know. Froude does say that Origen plainly misunderstood Celsus in places, that some passages might be what Celsus wrote or Origen’s paraphrase of it, and that some quotations are unintelligible from lack of a context which has to be restored as best as possible from Origen’s reply. Argument is rarely about honesty, less so in the church than anywhere else, the outcome being what is important.

Today, Celsus’s arguments seem remarkably modern in outlook, showing what has been lost by the Christian superstition. The argument though depends on reconstructing it from what Origen quotes and even from the arguments Origen presents in opposition, when he does not bother to quote the original. Origen could have omitted points he could not answer, or points he did not want to raise for fear of propagating them rather than disposing of them. Celsus argued with humour and sarcasm, but they were above the lofty religious aspirations of Origen, a man who had deliberately castrated himself in his horror at his sexuality. Origen took everything Celsus said to be in earnest, and replied to it as if it were, even if it had been meant as a joke.

The Appeal to Ignorance

Celsus seems to begin by commenting that the barbarous origin of Christianity was not relevant because what was barbarous was not necessarily wrong. By barbarous, in those days was meant foreign, it having the connotation that what was foreign was uncivilized, whence the modern meaning. He seems also to accept that the secrecy of Christian rites was a necessity in a climate that frowned on them. In this he seems to concede that Christians were not unduly unseemly in behaviour or in the lives they led. Nor were they reprehensible in refusing to worship statues nor disbelieving the myths of the Greeks. Greek and Roman intellectuals like the Epicureans and the Stoics did not either. What the Christians had done wrong was to build a new superstition using the conjury of the eastern mountebanks and magicians.

Celsus did not criticize the Christians for doing what they thought was right, even if doing so was unpopular or even dangerous, because it was the duty of the soul to do God’s will, but doing what was right did not involve neglecting the intellect as an aspect of human make up. Intellect could not be set aside in a misguided desire to do God’s will irrationally. Celsus’s complaint was that Christians would “neither reason nor listen to reason,” on the grounds that “anyone who believes people without doing so is certain to be deceived.” He compares those who believe without rational thought to the…

…begging priests of Cybele and soothsayers, and to worshippers of Mithras and Sabazius, and whatever else you might meet, apparitions of Hecate or some other “daimones.” For just as among them, scoundrels frequently take advantage of the lack of education of gullible people and lead them wherever they wish, so also this happens among the Christians. Some do not even want to give or receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as, “Inquire nothing. Believe and your faith will save you. The world’s wisdom is evil, and the world’s foolishness is insight.”

Only those who have decided in advance to believe and forbid any inquiry into such matters can believe. These are not educated people, and Christian publicists had no power over people of knowledge and learning. Christians called human wisdom folly, and had no appeal to the wise. Is it any wonder that Christianity led to the Dark Ages?

Celsus denounces Christian missionary methods. Celsus accuses the Christians of “overwhelming men beforehand by playing flutes and music.” The form of the religion is to dazzle rather than to convince, and the substance of the religion likewise contains nothing worthy of attention. Their creed preserved the original stamp of Egypt, grand and impressive in appearance but inwardly ridiculous.

Christian faith rested only on hopes and fears, and, to magnify the fears, they had invented the most extraordinary terrors. Celsus himself hoped that no man would cease to accept that wicked men would be punished hereafter and good men rewarded, but the Christians had taken this “ancient doctrine,” distorted its meaning and howled it out like Corybantes, “as if no one had ever heard of it before!” The attack on Christian missionary practice continues Celsus’s argument that Christianity represents a revolt against accepted practices and canons of authority. Celsus views conversion to Christianity as a profoundly antisocial act. The new religion threatens to overturn structures of authority in the home, in education and in tradition. Christian missionaries are like incompetent physicians who “destroy those whom they profess to cure.”

Celsus’s perception of the Christian message as more style than substance provides the basis for his repeated charge that Christianity drives away intelligent people and attracts only “stupid and low-class folk.” Celsus sees Christian communities as illegal, secret societies made up of the poor, the marginal and the ignorant, who have been seduced by empty threats and vague promises. Ignorance and childish timidity were the qualifications needed for conversion. The orators in the market places gathered crowds around them but they were urchins, petty criminals, down-and-outs and slaves, the typical street life of the time—those described for centuries as “the mob.”

Their injunctions are like this: “Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near for these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.” By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonourable and the stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.

Origen is defensive against Celsus’s accusations of gullibility and non-sophistication of Christians, defending them reluctantly. He is more critical of “simple” Christians than of philosophers. His real concern was with the esoteric teaching of “true,” Christians—the philosophical ones. Origen concedes that there is a large contingent of the poor and uneducated among Christians. He distinguishes “perfect,” or intelligent Christians from “ordinary,” or stupid ones, apparently embarrassed by the ordinary Christians. Origen insists that Christians sought to convert philosophers as well, but practical necessities prevented most Christians from being reflective, and he is proud that irrational people have been converted to Christianity. Out of “philanthropia” Christians teach all people, even the “boorish,” to live and to worship God in a suitable manner. He stresses that the moral transformation of these reflects Christianity’s power, and that even the simple are led to deeper spiritual understanding.

Here Celsus makes his famous statement that weavers and cobblers, required to enter private houses, would say nothing if the master of the house was present. If no authoritative person was present then they would “produce their marvels.” Fathers and tutors, they said, were mad or blind, unable to understand or do any good thing and given over to vain imaginings. The Christian weavers and cobblers were the wise ones, who had the secret of life, peace and happiness, and urged the children to defy their parents. Should the father ot tutor return, the Christians concluded with a whisper that they could tell them no more until they were alone, and then went silent. They might though have been able to secure an invitation to the women’s appartments or been able to invite them to their own workshop for further tuition.

In private houses also we see weavers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and school teachers, but must obey them. They say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to do anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter. But they alone, they say, know the right way to live, and if the children would believe them, they would become happy and make their home happy as well. And if just as they are speaking, they see one of the school teachers coming, or some intelligent person, or even the father himself, the more cautious of them flee in all directions, but the more reckless ones urge the children to rebel. They whisper to them that in the presence of their father or schoolmasters they do not feel able to explain anything to the children, since they do not want to have anything to do with the silly and obtuse teachers who are totally corrupted and far gone in wickedness, and who inflict punishment on the children. But, if they like they should leave father and their schoolmasters, and go along with the women and little children who are their playfellows to the weaver’s shop, or to the cobbler’s or the washerwoman’s shop, that they may learn perfection. And by saying this they persuade them.

How similar all this is to modern sects like the Moonies, uniformly condemned by Christian parents, is remarkable. Celsus declared that he was bitter about it, and contrasted the Christian invitation with that of the mystery religions. The mystagogues said:

Come to us ye who are of clean hands and pure speech, ye who are unstained by crime, ye who have a good conscience towards God, ye who have done justly and lived uprightly.

The Christian bishops said:

Come to us ye who are sinners, ye who are fools or children, ye who are miserable. and ye shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The gentile bishops, even if they had known the proper teachings of the Essenes and Jesus originally, had by now forgotten it. That teaching was that the sinners had to repent of their crimes before they could be admitted into God’s kingdom, and they could not then risk a single sin even inadvertently. Later, cynical converts like Constantine would not be baptized until their deathbeads so that they could not have the chance of sinning once they had repented. Others, at the time of S Augustine, would repent and be baptized only to immediately commit suicide, expecting to enter heaven because they had not had the chance to sin. S Augustine it was who made suicide a mortal sin to stop the practice!

Celsus saw the Christian recruiting those he describes as rogues, thieves, burglars, poisoners, despoilers of temples and tombs, saying that these were their proselytes because Christ was sent to save sinners. Celsus implies that the Christians would not accept there was any such thing as a just Pagan. God would not look on the just man only the unjust one who had repented and humbled himself. Even the just Pagan had to confess themselves sinners and beg sobbing for pardon. The Church has always regarded the main sin as not believing, crimes generally not being sins, unless specifically picked out as such.

It all appalled Celsus who wondered why God should be moved by appeals to his pity, when people were criminals. The magistrate judges by truth, not by tears and lamentations. Those who had formed evil habits were past cure, and unalterable by punishment or tenderness. To be just and honest was difficult and to Celsus, those trying to be good and honest to their fellows were the ones who needed God’s attention and help, not wasters and crooks.

He says that the Christians accused the well-conducted of self-conceit and an unwillingness to be reproved, but Celsus points out that the Christians did not address well-behaved people, but only the ignorant. He says the Christians are like drunkards who accuse sober people of being drunk. or the badly sighted telling fully sighted people they cannot see. Ultimately any real hope that exists for degenerate people to reform, Celsus thought was being destroyed by Christianity which only had visionary hopes and nothing practical to help them, especially giving them the knowledge of what was really good.

Jesus and the Jews

Celsus knew that Christianity had begun in Judaism whose great prophet was Moses, another magician, but he noted that the Jews had themselves rejected the claims of the new prophet who was a Son of God. Celsus thought the Jewish scriptures were late compositions, and he labelled Christianity “blockheaded wisdom” to accept the Jewish scriptures yet reinterpret them allegorically. To give the Jewish viewpoint, Celsus introduces a hypothetical Jew, who says to the Son of God:

You were born in a small Jewish village. Your mother was a poor woman who earned her bread by spinning. Her husband divorced her for adultery. You were born in secret and were afterwards carried to Egypt, and were brought up among the Egyptian conjurers. The arts which you there learnt, you practised when you returned to your own people, and you then persuaded them you were God. It was given out that you were born of a virgin. Your real father was a soldier named Panther. The story of your divine parentage is like the story of Danaë.
You say that, when you were baptized in Jordan, a dove descended upon you, and a voice was heard from heaven declaring that you were the Son of God. Who saw the dove? Who heard the voice, except you and another who suffered as you suffered? The prophets have foretold that a Son of God is to come. Granted. But how are we to know that they referred to you? They spoke of a glorious king who was to reign over the world. You, we know only as wandering about with publicans and boatmen of abandoned character.
You tell us that the wise men of the east came at your birth to adore you, that they gave notice to Herod and that Herod killed all the children in Bethlehem to prevent you from becoming king. You yourself escaped by going to Egypt. Is this story true? And, if it be, could not the angels who had been busy about your birth have protected you at home? When you grew up, what did you accomplish remarkable? What did you say? We challenged you in the temple to give us a sign as your credential. You had none to give.
You cured diseases, it is said. You restored dead bodies to life. You fed multitudes with a few loaves. These are the common tricks of the Egyptian wizards, which you may see performed every day in our markets for a few halfpence. They too drive out devils, heal sicknesses, call up the souls of the dead, provide suppers and tables covered with dishes, and make things seem what they are not. We do not call these wizards sons of God. We call them rogues and vagabonds.

The church father, Epiphanius, explains away the allegation of Celsus that the Christian god had a father called Panther by admitting that Joseph’s father, Jesus’s grandfather, was called Panther. John of Damascus however corrects Epiphanius when he copied and extended his work on heresies, saying that Panther was Mary’s grandfather. The Talmud agrees with Celsus that Panther was the husband of Mary and therefore the father of Jesus. Origen excuses the description of the boatmen as of abandoned character as because they had rejected the law of Moses, along with Jesus—misunderstood as lawless. Celsus’s Jew then addresses his fellow countrymen.

What madness can have possessed you to leave the law of the fathers? Can you conceive that we, who were looking for the coming of the Messiah, should not have recognized him had this been he? His own followers even were not convinced, or they would not have betrayed and deserted him. If he could not command those who daily saw and spoke with him, shall he convince you now that he is gone? He suffered, you pretend, to destroy the power of evil. Have there been no other sufferers? Was he the only one?
He worked miracles, you say, he healed the lame and the blind, he brought the dead to life. But, oh light and truth, did he not himself tell you, is it not written in your own books, that miracles could be worked by imposters? He calls Satan a master of such arts, so that he admits himself that they are no evidence of divine action. Are you to argue from the same works that one man is god, and another a servant of Satan? Why is one a servant of Satan more than the other?
You say he prophesied that he would himself rise from the dead, and he did rise. How many others produce wonders like this to convince simple hearers whom they exploit by deceit? Zalmoxis, the slave of Pythagoras, told the Scythians that he had come back from the dead. So Pythagoras told the Italians. Rhampsinitus pretended to have played dice with Demeter in Hell, and he showed a golden napkin which Demeter had given to him. Orpheus among the Odrysians, Protesilaus in Thessaly, Hercules at Tænarum, Theseus, all are said to have died and risen again. But did anyone really rise—really—in the body in which he had lived? Or shall we say that all these stories are fables, but that yours is true?
Who saw your prophet after he rose—an hysterical woman or some of his own companions who dreamt of him or were deluded by their enthusiasm—an experience that has happened to thousands? More likely they wanted to impress others with this fantastic tale and so provide a chance for other beggars with this cock-and-bull story. All the world were witnesses of his death. Why were none but his friends witnesses of his resurrection? Had he desired to prove that he was God, he would have appeared to his accusers and his judge, or he would have vanished from the cross.
We hope that we shall rise again in our bodies and have eternal life, that he will be a guide and example in the resurrection, and that one who is to come will prove that with God nothing is impossible. Where is your prophet now that we might see and believe? Did he come among us that we might reject him? He was a man—such a man as truth shows him to have been and common sense declares.

Bodily Resurrection and Sedition

Christians, Celsus claimed, only grudgingly praised the Creator “though he promised the Jews… that he would… raise them up from the dead with the same flesh and blood.” Origen states that Christians do not believe in a resurrection “with the same flesh and blood” as the original, natural body. R Wilken in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them notes that the general resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus appear frequently as topics in Celsus’s work and suggests that Pagan critics of Christianity saw these ideas as particularly vulnerable because of their irrationality and their centrality to Christian doctrine. Celsus was especially concerned to expose the basic irrationality of Christianity. He criticized not only the concept of resurrection but also the stories of Jesus bringing others back to life.

The original concept of resurrection in the apocalyptic literature was that of resurrection in to a new physical, earthly kingdom of God. Origen departs from this idea, which seems to have grown in part out of frustration with oppressive political authority. In the non-apocalyptic, Roman and Hellenistic worlds, the doctrine of resurrection was a problem. Politically, it expressed a disdain for and even rejection of civil authority—a criticism of the state. The debate between Pharisees and Sadducees over resurrection appears several times in the New Testament. One incident is in Mark 12:18-27 and parallels, where the discussion follows directly upon the Pharisees’ question to Jesus about paying taxes to Cæsar. Is the juxtaposition of these stories significant in a political sense? Intellectually, resurrection emphasized the importance of the body over reason, life after death was something other than a continuation in the journey of the immortal soul.

Josephus had resolved the problems and potential political implications of resurrection by redefining the concept. In War, while discussing the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees, he describes resurrection as the immortality and reincarnation of the good soul and the punishment of the wicked soul. Furthermore, in a similar context in the later Antiquities, he does not mention the concept. He wants to circumvent a topic which might have made a Roman or Hellenistic reader uncomfortable with the idea of resurrection or with the threat of rebellion often associated with it.

How literally did Origen take the stories of Jesus reviving dead people? He seems to have allegorized some of them. His theological position on resurrection may be clarified from some of his other works. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen argues strongly against the idea that the resurrected body will be physical in nature. In Homily 27 on Numbers he relates the resurrection to “the ascent of the soul to heaven.” In general, Origen seems both to “spiritualize” the idea of resurrection and to depoliticize the apocalyptic perspective which at one time was closely linked to the resurrection concept, just as Paul did.

Yet, Origen was fully conscious of the radical political implications of Christian belief, and came close to encouraging civil disobedience. He did not attempt to mute the political implications of his own views. Celsus fears that the Christian message will result in both philosophical deception and social and political instability. In his view the dogmatic Christian insistence on one and only one God instigates problems in all these areas. He might have preferred a Hellenized Judaism to a latently apocalyptic Christianity which had the potential to become both anti-social and anti-state, thus creating a threat to intellect, social order and government. The Stoics conformed to legal and religious norms even when these norms were seen as invalid. By comparison with this ultra conservatism, Origen’s position of civil disobedience was indeed seditious, but had some integrity.

Celsus has seen that even so early the Christians had split into numerous sects and offers as explanation that the Jews were Egyptian rebels against the established Egyptian religion, and the Christians had rebelled against the Jews. The cause in both cases was the same—a seditious and revolutionary temper. Obviously Celsus knew that the Nazarenes were rebels who had participated in a sedition, and he knew, of course, of the later Jewish wars. Their fractious spirit had continued into internal dissension and mutual recriminations leading to the formation of sect upon sect, each condemning the other, and having only the name “Christianity” in common.

Celsus complained further at Christian hypocrisy in that they would not accept the Greek idea that heroes become gods but insisted that Christ was seen after his death by his friends. Yet Christians get irate that Greeks and Romans would not believe them. Even then, hundreds of Greeks swore they had seen Æsculapius busy about sick beds. Aristeas of Proconnesus often disappeared mysteriously, appearing in various places elsewhere. Abaris travelled on an arrow. Hermotimus of Clazomenæ was locked into a box, and when the box was opened, he had gone. Heroes, the men who had once lived noble lives and been admitted to the ranks of the gods, had temples everywhere. Even the emperor Hadrian’s boy lover, Antinous, worked miracles daily at Actinopolis. The Christians would have none of any of it, declaring they are fables, but their own equivalent story of Jesus was to be believed.

God Incarnate

Celsus is baffled by the idea of God coming down to earth in whatever form. “Why should God come down?” he asks. God knows all things and has no need to come down to earth to check things out or to make things right. If it were necessary for God to show himself for some salvific reason, the implication is that God has neglected or forgotten humanity for some unspecified but long time and for that reason they needed saving. Celsus cannot imagine a God that would do any such thing. As Froude paraphrases it:

You tell us nothing of God with any savour of truth in it. You terrify fools by pictures of the horrors which await the impenitent, pictures like the spectres and the phantasms which we are shown in the mysteries.

Celsus says the Christian idea is a false interpretation of the Greek cycle of catastrophes, the last of which was Deucalion’s flood and the next of which would be fire, God coming to earth as a consuming flame. He argues that any entrance into the world by God would necessarily entail change, thus compromising God’s divinity and contradicting the “ancient doctrines” that Celsus prizes.

God, my friends, is all-perfect and all-blessed. If He leaves His present state, and comes down as a man among men. He must pass from blessedness to unblessedness and from perfection to imperfection, from good to bad, and no such change is possible with Him. Change is the condition of mortality. The immortal remains the same for ever.

God can neither change into a man without ceasing to be Himself, a god, nor can He seem to change without being Himself a deceiver. Origen agrees with Celsus in principle, claiming that God as the Word remains “unchanged in essence” and “suffers nothing of the experience of the body or the soul.” In short, God was never a man! Origen subscibes to Celsus’s category of deception.

Celsus likens the squabbling sects of Jews and Christians to ants, frogs or worms on a mud heap discussing who of them had sinned, and all claiming to have had the secrets of God revealed to them. Each thinks God has left heaven for them, and forgets the whole of the rest of creation just for them. Each has messenger after messenger sent to say that He would attach Himself to them only. They are God’s children, made in His likeness, but others have sinned and for them God would come in person, or send His son, to burn up unrepentent offenders and give the rest of the frogs, worms or ants eternal life.

Celsus mockingly reviews the founding legends of the Jews, concluding that it is all illusion and correcting it with a Zoroastrian image of God as the Good Spirit being purely Good and incapable of making anything imperfect or corrupt. The soul is God’s work, but the corruptible body is not. All material things whether worms or human bodies are mortal and have an end. Evil is not in God but in matter. Life and death succeed each other in an unchanging law of succession. Humanity is simply part of the cosmos, and is born and perishes for it. It was not therefore made for mankind. Hence what might seem evil is not necessarily evil in itself because it is good to something else or to the whole.

Humans refer everything to themselves, but the rain was no more sent from heaven for humans than it was sent for grass, and grass is more use to animals than people are. Animals have in fact a better claim to be God’s special interest because they do not have to sow or plough to live, but men have to toil. Celsus asks whether we are superior to animals because we capture and eat them, pointing out that some animals do the same to us, but humans have to use weapons, traps and hounds, but God has equipped animals with what they require.

The higher place might be claimed because humans live in cities according to laws, but so too, Celsus notes, do bees and ants.

They too have their chiefs, their wars, their victories, their captured enemies. They have their towns and suburbs, their division of labour, their punishment for drones. They have their cemetaries for their dead. They converse and reason while they are on the road. To one looking down from heaven, no such mighty differences would appear between what men do and what ants do.

No created being whether man, eagle or dolphin, is better than another. All is part of the perfect whole and that is in the providence of God, which he does not forget about for awhile then suddenly remember when it has become corrupt. He does not get angry with it on mankind’s account any more than on the account of apes or flies. Each thing fulfils its allotted work. God rules in justice and righteousness, not to gratify the appetites of disordered minds. Finally, Celsus says that while the Jews and Christians say that for God all things are possible, He is Himself the reason of all things and He cannot contradict His own nature. Flesh is therefore corruptible and can be nothing other than corruptible, because that is how God has ordained it. Contrary to the Jewish and Christian idea of a God of whimsy, Celsus saw God like the Greek philosophers as the pure reason—the Logos—of everything.

Different communities should be preserved as they have grown because different people have their own modes of thought. So, the Jews had their own religion and institutions which the Roman government did not suppress. The earth might even have been split into different prefectures under different rulers, which were best left as they are, each nation preferring its own. The Jews held on to their positions under this idea and could not be blamed for that.

What they could be blamed for was claiming they had special knowledge and secrets, and refusing to accept communion with the rest of mankind as unclean. They ought to realize that their dogmas are not peculiar. They worshipped the God of Heaven just as the Persians sacrificed on hilltops to the god Dis who was the circle of the sky. Whether human beings called this god, “Dis”, or “the Most High” or “Zeus” or “Adonai” or “Sabaoth ”or “Amon” or “Papa,” like the Scythians, did not matter. Egyptians and Cholchians were circumcized before the Jews. Egyptians did not eat pigs and other animals besides. The Pythagoreans would not eat meat at all. What external signs has God given that he had a special attachment to the Jews? What has become of them? Celsus answers:

Not knowing the truth and enchanted by vain illusions, they have been swept away out of their country and bear the penalty of their arrogance.

Since Origen cannot dismiss out of hand similarities between Christianity and belief in Æsclepius, Dionysus and other accepted gods, he proposes a difference in degree rather than in kind, focusing upon the effects in the lives of the adherents. Origen emphasizes moral transformation, stressing at the same time that one of the most important aspects of Christianity is its philosophical truth. Christianity is a force for social renovation rather than disintegration.

However, while Origen stresses the moral and spiritual benefits effected by Christian belief, Celsus is concerned with the tangible physical and social values brought about by forms of religious piety. Celsus adopts the stance of a “conservative intellectual,” viewing society as a hierarchically organized system in which authority is grounded in tradition. He sees Christianity as a threat to this system. For Origen, moral reformation takes precedence over concerns for social stability and tradition.

Answering the question of how God could be known unless He appeared as a man, Celsus answers by opening the eyes of the intellect. The quacks and conjurers were no guides in this. He says Christians should put away their vain illusions, their marvellous formulas, their lion and Amphibius, their God-Ass and their celestial door keepers, in whose names they allowed themselves to be persecuted and impaled! Christians tell us that these symbols are not Christian but Gnostic, in which case, the people being persecuted were Gnostics not Christians as we are now told.

Christian Lord

Turning to the Christian Lord, Celsus asks the reader to suppose that he was some kind of angel, asking whether he was the only one that had ever visited the world. Hot springs were said by the Christians themselves to be the tears of the rebellious angels who were confined to the hollow of the earth. Some Christians thought that the Creator was not the father of Christ, but that Christ was sent to bring humanity from the clutches of the Demiurgos into the protection of his Father. Others were Simonians who worshipped Helen or Helena, or Marcellina, or Salome, or Mariamne, or Martha. There were the Marcionites. Others prostrated themselves in darkness to imagined demons with abominable rites comparable to those of Antinous (presumably homosexual ones). They cursed each other with imprecations, keeping up a mutual reproach while singing on one note:

The world is crucified to me and I to the world.
If you will be saved, believe or else depart from us.

The Ophiatæ worshipped the serpent in the Tree of Knowledge regarding the Creator (Demiurgos) as the evil spirit. Celsus aludes to a whole raft of Christian mysteries now mainly forgotten—prophetic oracles, circles within circles, water flowing from the church on earth, virtues distilled from the Prunic Virgin (the celestial mother of the Valentinians) , the soul living, the sky slain that it might live again, the earth stabbed with an altar knife, human beings sacrificed and then restored, death ceasing out of the universe when sin shall die, the narrow road, gates flying open of their own accord, practioners of incantation and exorcism with diagrams, spells and mystic numbers. Plainly many early Christians were sorcerers.

Dominant among it all was the tree of life, and the resurrection, everywhere. Celsus supposes that the crucifixion and the saviour being a woodworker led to the dominance of the tree of life images, and that had he been thrown from a cliff the image would have been the rock of life, or the gulf of resurrection had he been thrown into a pit, or the rope of immortality had he been hanged, or the holy leather, the blessed stone, or the steel of charity had Jesus been a shoemaker, a mason or a smith.

What nurse would not be ashamed to tell such fables to a child?

Christians believed that God had an antagonist, Satanas, who sought to thwart God when He wanted to benefit humanity, and who killed God’s Son. Satanas would come again working miracles and pretending to be God, but no one was to believe him, and people were to defy him. Celsus’s point must be that there is no certainty that it had not already happened, but he contents himself with equating the Christian belief with those of the Greeks who saw Saturn leading a heavenly army against Orphiucus, the vanquished falling into the ocean while the victors reigned in heaven. The mystery religions had the fables of the Titans, Typhon (Set) and Horus and Osiris. Celsus was curious to know why God could not just punish the devil in a like manner and have done with his mischief.

Celsus was not impressed by the Jewish prophecies that Christ must suffer either. Prophets and diviners could be found everywhere, in cities, temples and camps surrounded by crowds, declaring:

I am God [or the son of God, or the Holy Spirit] and I have come because the world is to perish, and you, oh men, are like to perish, too, in your iniquities. But I will save you. Hereafter you will see me coming in the power of heaven. Blessed are those who believe me now. The rest I will burn with everlasting fire, repentance will then be in vain. Only those who now listen will escape.

Celsus declares that some of them have admitted to being imposters, and asks whether God must fall sick and die because these prophets say so. Yet the prophets of Judæa were apparently infallible. Yet Moses promised the Israelites prosperity and earthly dominion, that they should destroy their enemies sparing neither young nor old, while the Son of God said they must turn the other cheek when struck, and condemned riches and ambition, for God would give food and raiment like the ravens or the lilies. One of Moses or Christ must have been wrong, unless God changed His own mind.

Celsus mentions Plato, the philosopher who was adopted as an honorary Christian because Christianity had no philosophy of its own, as saying that the Architect and Father of the Universe was not easily found, and could not, in any case, be made known to common minds. Hard and narrow is the way that leads to light and few can find it. The wise give us some glimpse of the awesome and eternal being. That which is intelligible is perceived by the mind while the eye only sees what is visible. Just as the sun is the power that enables the eye to see, so God is the power that allows the mind to understand, implying that Christians are rejecting God by refusing to reason. Celsus says he is not sure whether the reader follows him but, those who cannot comprehend should remain silent, plainly meaning the Christians, who should not go around saying those are blind whose eyes are open.

Celsus offers the Christians seeking a new doctrine, the names of Hercules, Æsculapius and Orpheus, who also died violently, illustrious people suited to the divine. If Orpheus was considered unsuitable, Anaxarchus was beaten to death, while mocking his executioners, saying, “Pound on. You can pound the sheath of Anaxarchus. Himself, you cannot pound.” If scientists have already appropriated Anaxarchus, then take Epictetus, the slave whose leg, being pulled on a rack by his master, smiled at him and said, you will break it. When he did, Epictetus said calmly to him, “I told you.” Even Daniel or Jonah, among Jewish legends would have been better choices.

Christian Claims

Celsus turns to the Christian boast that they had no temples, altars or images, principles that the Christian churches long since abandoned, and only a few have returned to. Celsus points out that these principles were not exclusive to Christianity. Nomadic Scythians and Africans have none, and nor do the Persians, who say the gods are not like men and so should not be represented as them. Of course, the Persians were themselves nomads from the steppes, like the Scythians, and probably had no temples and images for the same reason, but Celsus was perhaps not to know, and modern Jews and Christians deny in the face of transparent evidence, that the Persians gave their concepts to the Jews that they had planted in Yehud as a temple colony, 600 years before Celsus wrote.

Heraclitus said that praying to an image is like praying to a house wall, or in the Jewish mockery of Yesha, just to to a brick. Celsus agrees with this but says that the Christians were inconsistent in their condemnation of images, because they magnify humanity by saying they were made in the image of God. Celsus continues in Froude’s paraphrase:

The images in the temple, you pretend are images of genii. If this is so, and there be genii, why should not they be adored? Is everything not directed by God? Is God’s providence not over all? Angels, genii, heroes, have they not each their own law prescribed by God. Are they not ministering spirits set over their several provinces according to their degree? And why, if we adore God, should we not adore those who bear rule under Him?

That is indeed what the church eventually did, so Celsus must have impressed the Christians with his arguments. The Christian heroes were called Saints, but were given their own domains and certain types of Christians pray to them still.

No man can serve many masters, Celsus quotes as a Christian maxim, and calls it seditious, and worse because God was enrolled in it. A slave cannot serve two human masters without wronging one, but God could suffer no such wrong. God cannot resent those who worship inferior spirits who are only an aspect of the Himself. To say one only is Lord is to disobey and rebel against what is God’s. Celsus then points out that the Christians had two Lords despite their “subtle contrivance” to make the Son into God. He was not impressed by Christian monotheism.

If you taught them that Jesus is not His son, but that God is father of all, and that we really ought to worship Him alone, they would be no longer willing to listen to you, unless you included Jesus as well, who is the author of their sedition. Indeed when they call him Son of God, it is not because they are paying very great reverence to God, but because they are exalting Jesus greatly.

The true God is the common father of everyone and needed nothing from humanity. He could not be jealous or malicious, otherwise He would not be Good. If idols are presented at public festivals for adoration, it could not hurt God, because they had no power to injure, and, if they represented spirits, they represented spirits sent by God, and as such deserved the honour and services assigned to them. Again, the church came to accept what Celsus said. They did not accept the old idols and gods, but invented the saints, and made some of the old gods into them. Saints are considered as holy spirits doing God’s work. That is just what Celsus considered the idols were, if they were anything at all.

The Christians abstained from the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice to idols, something which must have been argued was extraordinary, yet Celsus thought it mundane. As far as he was concerned they need not eat flesh at all, if they so wished. That was what the Pythagoreans did. Celsus objected to the fact that these foods had in them some sort of evil spirit, but he thought all food possessed spirits within them—the spirits that presided over them. The Christians could not therefore logically escape from these spirits, if they ate at all. Celsus thought it dangerous to insult these supermundane spirits, but, although the Christians apparently agreed on this, it was all right as long as they spoke Latin or Greek. Zeus and Apollo could be cursed and would take no notice. Celsus goes on to say the same is true of the Son of God. Those who put him to death suffered nothing extraordinary.

Celsus asks whether there is any sign of God’s spirit in the established religions. Prophecies were announced from shrines as the oracles. Auguries similarly made revelations. Many cities had been founded at the bidding of an oracle. Many had been rescued from plague and famine. Many had perished when oracles were ignored. Divine beings were actually seen in visions. Childless parents had obtained their wishes. The sick and maimed had recovered their health. Those who had blasphemed God had gone mad and confessed,or killed themselves, or died of vile diseases. Some had even been slain on the spot.

Christians claimed eternal torments awaited the wicked but the mysteries said just the same, and indeed, both declare the same penalties against each other. As an aside, it got worse within the church because at some stages rival bishops were excommunicating each other! Celsus notes that both sides were equally confident they were correct, so who was? The mysteries also had miracles and prophecies, so that was no difference. Yet Celsus accepted that the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked would suffer everlasting punishment. He criticized the Christians for their exclusive possession of the notion. It presupposes an everlasting soul, and not a resurrected corpse which Celsus would not even bother to discuss believing it was “vain to reason” with such people.

Good Citizens

The appeals of Celsus toward the end of Contra Celsum—that good citizens should “help the emperor… and cooperate with him… and fight for him” and “accept public office… if it is necessary” are significant in the context of the persecutions.

For Celsus, God is assisted by “daimones,” the traditional gods, who administer the material world. All the “daimones” are positive forces, which people show appreciation for and the benefits they receive from them through traditional worship. Thus, worship of the “daimones” honors the one God. Although Celsus does admit some limitations to the power and beneficence of the “daimones,” who act as jailors to souls who are bound in human bodies, nevertheless, they administer the material benefits necessary for life, and one ought to acknowledge and thank them.

Origen sees a hierarchy of beings, descending from the One God, which is different from that seen by Celsus. First is the One God, next is the Logos, incarnate in Jesus, and next are the angels who perform positive functions. Origen cannot conceive of a “good” “daimon,” but defines them as negative forces, even the “gods” of Paganism. The “daimones,” rather than receiving their powers from God, seek to prevent the worship of the One God. Sacrifice entails feeding these evil powers and is against the One God, even though Jesus has broken their power—a bit of a contradiction that Origen cannot see. For Origen, the positive aspects of the “daimones” envisaged by Celsus are taken over by angels, to whom is given the role of administration of nature and the various peoples of the world.

Celsus thought, where religious customs were extravagant and superstitious, wise men would judge what credit they deserved. But the Christians wanted the Romans to abolish all their laws and customs and worship only the Most High, though he would not defend them from their enemies. He had done little for the Jews or for the Christians themselves. Jews had no country and Christians were subject to execution if they did not conceal themselves. God must be kept in mind constantly, but the rulers of the world also had to be obeyed unless they command that which God forbids to be done. To salute the sun or sing a hymn to Athena are not in that category, because they are then glorifying God through His ministers.

Christians wanted the benefits of society and none of its obligations. Celsus warned the Christians that they must submit to the conditions of life and the commonwealth of society to share in them, even though they might not be wholly to their taste. Everyone had to bear with things they would wish otherwise. It was a law of nature for which there was no remedy. Life involved duties that must be discharged until its bonds were released.

Nor is it unlawful to swear by the emperor, for to the world the emperor is given in charge, and under him you hold all you have. God enthrones monarchs on earth, and they have a right to punish those who refuse to serve the state or in the army. If all citizens were like the Christians the emperor would be left alone and unsupported while the barbarians overran the empire and destroyed all sound knowledge, your own superstition with it. Celsus is remarkably prophetic here except that he did not realize that the barbarians would themselves have been converted to Christianity before they overran the empire. He urges the Christians to make themselves worthy members of the commonwealth.

In short, earthly rulers ought also to be propitiated, since they hold their positions by the will of the “daimones,” dispense all earthly goods, and guarantee public order and safety. Celsus argues that the Christian ideal of one law is impossible, that their own God does not protect them, and that they should help the emperor by practicing civil obedience.

Celsus argues that the emperor, through his “genius,” is a mediator of good things from God to the people, while Origen denies this intermediate role, never conceding completely to a position of civil obedience. Celsus holds that, since there is a direct connection between the emperor and higher spiritual powers, the emperor requires the support of the citizens. Origen denies this connexion and insists that Christians benefit the state by worshipping God directly—not through “daimones,” emperors, images, or even angels. Christian worship is so beneficial to the commonwealth that Christians ought not to be pressed into military or civil service, but should be exempt from these as priests of the One God. In fact, Origen maintains that Christians are better Platonists than Celsus because they offer rational worship directly to the One God and refuse to worship in ways inappropriate to the God of philosophy.

Origen replies that the Christians would assist the emperor by donning the “armour of God.” they would pray for the success of the imperial armies! Priests were excused from military service and Christians wanted to keep their hands pure on the same grounds. Praying for the defeat of the evil spirits who were causing the war against the emperor would benefit him more than Christians fighting in the armies. They could try to force them to be legionaries but they would not do it. J A Froude comments that the Christians generally refused to serve and “we need no further explanation of the persecutions. Liability to military service is a universal condition of citizenship, and no nation modern or ancient would tolerate such a plea” Christians approved the shooting by firing squad of Christian objectors to the first world war. They were more considerate in the second, sending them out to collect the wounded in the midst of the crossfire.

And so the treatise of Celsus ends.


After the first century AD, Christians realised the path to intellectual and cultural respectability for Christianity was not to oppose Pagan philosophy but to appropriate it. Origen argues that biblical religion, rightly understood, and Platonic philosophy grow from the same source and so have the same outcome. He distinguishes between Christianity and Paganism in soteriological effectiveness, in respect of Pagan idolatry not Pagan philosophy—or rather Plato’s philosophy. Origen’s criticism of philosophy focuses on two points:

  1. philosophy is suited for the few, while Christianity is for the many;
  2. some Greek philosophers knew God but did not glorify him.

Origen seems to take the standard Christian Platonist position on the status of Pagan philosophers as individuals. Before the incarnation, true philosophers knew the “logos,” but after it, only Christians can have the blessed future life. Some of the arguments that he uses against philosophy are arguments that occur within the philosophical schools themselves, but Origen’s criticism of philosophy was modest, and modern Christians have thought it necessary to rescue him from charges of heresy.

Already Origen would escape difficult questions about the scriptures by claiming allegory, a popular Christian let off since, though no one can explain how any one of them is certain they have the proper allegorical interpretion. Allegorical methods were used, in the Hellenistic period, to interpret ancient Greek mythology and poetry in terms of current philosophical opinions. Philo interpreted various parts of the Jewish scriptures allegorically as containing philosophical truth. Although Philo defended a literal conformity to the biblical laws, he seemed to regard the literal observance as of secondary importance. The Qumran sectarian literature finds then current historical realities allegorized in the scriptures.

For Origen, the biblical text must bear allegorical meaning because it is divinely inspired, the same reasoning as those who interpreted the Homeric poems as allegory. Origen claims Celsus argues circularly—he assumes the bible cannot be inspired because it cannot be interpreted allegorically, and it cannot be interpreted allegorically because it is not inspired. Origen justifies allegorical interpretation of the bible in two ways. Allegorical interpretation is ancient, having been practiced by the author of the Psalms, the Hebrew prophets and ancient Hebrew priests. Allegory is used within the writings of the New Testament. Origen appeals especially to the Pauline epistles, where he identifies allegorical interpretation in several passages.

Origen’s main commitments are to scripture, the church, and Platonist metaphysic. He wishes to uphold both the literal truth of the bible and the spiritual truth of Platonism. He is also committed to the belief that the writings of the Hebrew bible prophesy Jesus and his redemptive program literally. So, Origen interpreted scripture allegorically, but he was not a “pure” allegorist since he admits literal interpretation as well. He stresses both literal and allegorical, holding that scriptural texts have levels of meaning, meant for readers of different levels of spiritual understanding.

Origen believes in an absolute dimension and an historical dimension of biblical philosophy. His Platonic commitment to the former caused him to seek philosophical truth in scripture through allegorical interpretation. Yet he was also committed to the historical reality of the bible. Although he always regarded the “spiritual” as superior to the “literal,” Origen believed that contact with the metaphysical is gained through the historical. The deeper, allegorical meaning of scripture is intended mainly for the spiritually mature. There must be some correspondence between literal and allegorical interpretation, and the literal must be true for the allegorical to be true. He criticizes Celsus for not sticking to these principles.

Thus the Canaanites murdered wholesale by the Israelites were really symbolic of their own evil dispositions. For the allegory to be true, though, it must have really happened too, so the allegorical interpretation does not let God off the hook of large scale brutality and genocide. If it was pure allegory and the bloodbath did not really happen, then God seemed not to think that His bloodthirsty allegories might easily be taken at face value and used as an excuse to perpetuate the same brutality. The problem about the ark being too small for the whole of the animal kingdom was dealt with in a simpler way—it was made much bigger than the bible says. Origen therefore admitted the bible in this instance was neither historically correct, nor allegorical, but just wrong.

For Origen, the literal value of the text is salvific for the masses, and the intelligent have no inherent moral superiority. Yet spiritual knowledge deepens one’s relationship with God, and “salvation” is less important than spiritual “progression.” So, the intelligent are morally superiority, albeit in a subtler way that leaves the masses feeling appreciated.

Origen’s tendency to spiritualize is also apparent in his treatment of the book of Revelation in Contra Celsum. Origen interprets Revelation and the eschatological passages of Ezekiel and Numbers as allegories of the soul’s journey toward its goal, rather than a literal, material one as representing the physical manifestation of a “new Jerusalem.” Origen interprets the eating of the scroll in Revelation 10:9-10 as a justification for secret, esoteric teaching in the church. He finds in Revelation “deeper truths about the way the soul enters into the divine realm.” In the process of spiritualization he has also depoliticized the apocalyptic content of the material.

Celsus and Origen

In the True Word, Celsus has the tone and thoughtful impartiality of a modern analyst. Origen cannot equal him on questions of science, history and statesmanship. Just as today, few people, even Christians, would accept a story of miracles contrary to the duties of citizenship, so Celsus had the same beliefs then, 1800 years ago. Yet he was not a prophet. He was giving the world view of the Roman governing class in the second century, the century of the enlightened Antonine emperors. It was an enlightened age altogether but already being undermined by Christianity and the internal failings it was already creating. As Christianity grew, the empire became more dependent of barbarian recruits in the legions to keep out the barbarians. It could not last.

Origen replies from the viewpoint of contemporary delusion, of which he was as possessed as the lowest of his converts. Celsus tries to explain that “names” are not things, just signs and different objects can have different names in different places. Origen cannot accept that the common Father of Humanity can be called Jupiter in Rome, Zeus in Athens, Dis in Persia as well as Yehouah in Judæa. Origen’s reply is that miracles can be worked with the proper magical formula using the name Yehouah, but not with the others! Origen is a theurgic Platonist, as were Iamblichus, Julian and others, but not Plotinus. Origen believed in the effectiveness of magical formulæ and practices, and modern Christians, as ever, feel the need to rescue him from theological absurdity.

Celsus was disparaging about magicians and conjurers whom he knew were tricksters and charlatans, but Origen thought they had devils behind them. He was convinced that everything he could not understand was the work of demons. Origen was, wilfully or inadvertantly using popular delusions to propagate Christianity which depended upon the same phenomena. Thus he quoted the story of the vision which forbade Ariston from seeking a sexual encounter with his wife until Plato was born, as an example of the same phenomenon as the vision of Joseph. Yet, he could have believed neither that the story was true unless it was the work of the “daimones,” and nor could he have accepted that Plato was a Son of God, 500 years before Jesus. Since Origen was supposed to be the best that Christianity had, it is hard to see these are simply naiëvete. It must have been opportunism. Celsus knew that these were simply psychological or enthusiasm, as it was then called.

Origen is no less opportunistic, apparently in discussing the resurrection, again turning to Plato who said that “Heras, the son of Arminius, had returned to life after being twelve days dead.” He adds that “many others were known to have risen out of their graves after they had been buried.” He seems not to realize that he is disposing of the singular miracle upon which Christianity has been built by telling us that it was commonplace. What then was singular about the raising up of Christ?

The point of it, the Christians say, is to prove that God sent His son to save us, yet Origen says Jesus was invisble to all those except a very few who already had particular powers—those, like the disciples, who had been already saved! that is why only they saw him risen up. So God was not trying to prove to the world that He had sent His son on a mission at all.

Origen is positive that the whole purpose of God was to make man, and so the whole of creation merely led up to it. Celsus was much more humble before the majesty and extent of nature.

Origen, by today’s Christian induced standards, seemed to take the moral high ground, in claiming that the conventional religions had not stopped the wickedness in society. Then, Christianity was new, now it is older than most of those religions were then. What has Christianity cured? It has got rid of the gladiatorial contests and introduced global warfare and global destruction of nature instead. Celsus, even then, saw Christianity as the same in character as the popular superstitions of the day. Now we know it was.

We can agree with Origen against Celsus that the strong and successful are not always good and the wretched are not necessarily wicked, but though Celsus was wrong on these points, modern Christianity has virtually forgotten them. The odd crypt of a church given over at Christmas to hoboes and street drunks, and the occasional shabby town center mission for drug addicts and the mentally unstable, are what Christianity uses today to salve its conscience. Modern Christian morality as shown by the principal Christian leaders in the world is to take revenge for the cruel death of innocent people by inflicting a cruel death on other innocent people 12,000 miles away. Their excuse is that they are not the target, as the innocents killed by terroism are. They are collateral damage. Punishment of crimes is just in any world, not just Celsus’s, but killing someone else in revenge is not justice—except to Jews, Christians and Moslems!

There was hope with Celsus but none was left when Origen took him on in debate when he could no longer reply, on his own chosen ground and with no referee. That is typically Christian. We no longer have the excuse of being slaves or fools. It is time Christianity was ditched. Instead, in the UK, absurd blasphemy laws will be strengthened in the wake of 11 September 2001. Are we heading back to the Dark Ages, or will wisdom and the wise prevail?