Greek Philosopher Celsus on the Historical Jesus

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This article looks at some of the criticisms the ancient Greek writer Celsus posited against Christianity and Jesus Christ. We will attempt to engage the value of Celsus’s testimony and the various points and contentions he raises.

Who was Celsus?

Celsus was a Greek philosopher of the second century CE remembered for his polemics and critiques of the Christian religion and its founder, Jesus Christ. Although his works, which he wrote between the years 175 and 180, have been lost to history we are fortunate to have him quoted carefully and extensively in the writings of the third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria. Origen attempted to answer Celsus’s charges in his work Against Celsus. It seems that Celsus derived his knowledge of the Christian religion from talking to Christians and from reading some of their materials, such as the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and perhaps a letter of the Apostle Paul. Celsus likely knew the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from Matthew’s gospel. As a Neo-Platonic philosopher, Celsus believed God, the Logos, to be ineffable and the Source of all things. The human soul is also divine in origin but imprisoned in the body because of some primordial sin.

Critique of Christianity

Scholars Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter explain that “Sometime around 175 CE, the Neo-Platonist thinker Celsus wrote a comprehensive attack on Christianity entitled True Doctrine. This work perished, but not before a large amount variously estimated at between 60 and 90 percent was incorporated into Origen’s vigorous response, Against Celsus, about 250 CE.” (1). Important to note is that given the lengthy period of seventy or so years between Celsus’s writing of the True Doctrine and Origen’s rebuttal, it seems that True Doctrine must have had a significant impact on Christianity. Around the year 240 CE, a copy of Celsus’s work found its way to Origen who was requested to write a refutation of it. Celsus’s criticisms attempted to discredit Christ’s conception, birth, childhood, ministry, death, resurrection, and continuing influence (2). He also appealed to Christians to adopt paganism instead of Christianity.

Christ Divinity, Miracles, and Resurrection

Celsus rejected the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, which he knew to be a central belief to the Christian religion. Not only was Christ ugly and small, states Celsus, but he also did not fulfill the Messianic expectations of the Hebrew people (3). Even during his public ministry, Christ could not convince his fellow countrymen of his divine mission. As for his followers, Christ had ten or twelve “infamous publicans and fishermen” whom he taught the worse of habits, such as begging and robbing (4). Such is not the company that befits a god, argues Celsus. In fact, it is implausible to even suggest God could come down among men,

“God is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that in the best and most beautiful degree. But if he come down among men, he must undergo a change, and a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst” (5).

On Christ’s miracles, Celsus argues that he worked his miracles by “sorcery” and that they were no more superior to the deeds of the Egyptians and others in the magic arts (6). The miracles are just fables invented by the disciples. Further, Christ’s prediction of his own death was invented by the disciples and his purported resurrection is nothing unique in comparison to the likes of Zamolxis, Pythagoras, and Rhampsinit (7). In fact, the resurrection has its origin in a hysterical female as well as in the wishful thinking of Christ’s followers (8). This is why Celsus ridicules Christians for their use of blind faith instead of reason: “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 to receive a reason for what they believe” (9).

The Problem of Evil

Celsus then posits a challenge that many thinkers throughout history have made against the Christian concept of God and that still remains a topic of lively debate today. This is the challenge over the compatibility of a good and just God and evil,

“But if these [Eden, Adam and Eve] are Truly creator’s works, can it be that god should make what is evil? How can he repent when they become ungrateful or wicked? How can he find fault with his own handiwork, or threaten to destroy his own offspring? Where is he to banish them, out of the world that he himself has made?” (10)

Celsus’s charge touches on the so-called problem of evil. His logic is that if there is evil in the world, and the world is itself God’s creation, then God must have created evil. However, a good God would not have created an evil which would “threaten to destroy his own offspring.”

The Virgin Birth

Christ, alleges Celsus, claimed to have been born of virgin birth. He calls this a fabrication and alleges Christ to have “invented his birth from a virgin,”

“Let us imagine what a Jew — let alone a philosopher— might say to Jesus: ‘Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumours about the true and insavoury circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in the royal David’s city of bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town, and of a woman who earned her living by spinning?” (11).

Celsus then proposes his own theory which is that Christ’s mother, a married Jewish woman who made her living from spinning cloth, actually had an affair and committed adultery with a Roman soldier. Christ’s mother was “turned down by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Pantera” (12). Pantera was a common name among Roman soldiers of the period, although most commentators think that some Jews used this name because of its similarity to the term parthenos (“virgin”) (13).

Borrowing and Misunderstanding Greek Philosophy

Celsus claims that many of the ideas Christians have are expressed better and earlier by the Greeks who were “modest enough to refrain from saying that their ideas came from a god or a son of god” (14). The teachings and doctrines of the Christians were borrowed from the Greeks and then given an inferior reconceptualization, thus leading Celsus to claim that there is nothing new in Christianity’s ethical teachings and that when one compares it to other philosophies its simplemindedness becomes apparent (15). The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is borrowed and is little more than the Greek idea of the transmigration of the soul (16). Celsus invites the Christians to leave their “cult” and embrace reason and the religion of the majority.

Celsus’s Value as a Witness to Christianity and the Historical Jesus

What is the value of Celsus’s testimony and the various claims he makes about Jesus? As noted already, we do not have Celsus’s own words, only quotations from Origen, which means one needs to hold many of the quotations somewhat tentatively. Most scholars do believe, however, that Origen quotes Celsus with a degree of reasonable accuracy (17).

Celsus makes a number of striking claims that are historically disputable. For example, to the best of our knowledge, the historical Jesus did not himself teach that he was born of a virgin, despite this becoming an orthodox Christian belief. Although Christ might well have taught such a thing at some point during his ministry (we just don’t know), one only learns of his unique birth from the gospels of Matthew and Luke written roughly forty years after his ministry. Further, no credible and early historical sources support Celsus’ contention that Christ was conceived due to an affair between his mother and the Roman soldier Pantera. Although very few scholars have ever supported this idea, most would say that Celsus’s testimony, along with some other later polemical Jewish sources making the same claim (such as the Talmud), is insufficient to support this idea, especially when compared to earlier sources claiming otherwise. Celsus’s value as testimony is limited because of his strong anti-Christian agenda, which suggests him not to have been particularly impartial when authoring his material. He is also much too late as a writer to be viewed as a reliable writer on the historical Jesus. In fact, Celsus was writing later than some other very legendary and embellished Christian texts, such as some of the Apocrypha, that few deem historically reliable. Christ’s ministry dates to the first half of the first century CE, over 150 years before Celsus’ time of writing, more or less. According to Van Voorst, Evans, and Chilton,

“[T]he value of Celsus’s comments about the historical Jesus is limited. Because we do not have the exact wording of True Doctrine and cannot be sure that Origen has given us the order of Celsus’s book, conclusions must be tentative. Nevertheless, Celsus’s main attack on Christianity is philosophical, not historical. His more detailed information about Jesus, which by virtue of his knowledge of Christian writings should be fairly accurate, is distorted by his sharp polemic, a part of which is lampooning” (18).

Celsus’s value does lie, however, in him informing historians of Christian belief, in particular the belief in the virgin birth of Christ within the second century. Belief in the virgin birth was evidently well-known in the second century and was for some, like Celsus, an item of ridicule. Further, Celsus provides historians with valuable information on Jewish responses to Christianity in the second century given his extensive use of Jewish polemic reflected in his criticisms. Van Voorst, Evans, and Chilton conclude,

“Nevertheless, it is evident that Celsus is a rich source for pagan and Jewish polemic agains Christianity, and to a lesser degree, its Christ. Indeed, among pagan authors Celsus is unique in relaying both Jewish and Greco-Roman objections to Christianity… Polemical and tendencious, his treatment of Christ is of little value in our knowledge of the historical Jesus” (19).

References

1. Holmén, Tom., and Porter, Stanley E. 2010. Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Netherlands: BRILL. p. 2165.

2. Holmén, Tom., and Porter, Stanley E. 2010. Ibid. p. 2165.

3. Origen. 1980. Contra Celsum, edited and translated by Henry Chadwick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 12.

4. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 515

5. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 192.

6. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 107.

7. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 111.

8. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 112

9. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 12

10. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 370.

11. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 28-29

12. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 31.

13. Van Voorst, Robert., Evans, Craig A., and Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing. p. 67

14. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 316

15. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 8.

16. Origen. 1980. Ibid. p. 195

17. Van Voorst, Robert., Evans, Craig A., and Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Ibid. p. 65

18. Van Voorst, Robert., Evans, Craig A., and Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Ibid. p. 67-68.

19. Van Voorst, Robert., Evans, Craig A., and Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Ibid. p. 68.

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