Celsus the Platonist
An eclectic Platonist and polemical writer against Christianity, who flourished towards the end of the second century
Celsus the Platonist, an eclectic Platonist and polemical writer against Christianity, who flourished towards the end of the second century. Very little is known about his personal history except that he lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, that his literary activity falls between the years 175 and 180, and that he wrote a work entitled al?th?s logos (“The True Word”, or “The True Discourse”), against the Christian religion. He is one of several writers named Celsus, who appeared as opponents of Christianity in the second century; he is probably the Celsus who was known as a friend of Lucian, although some doubt this, because Lucian’s friend was an Epicurean, and the author of the “True Discourse” shows himself a Platonist. It is generally supposed that Celsus was a Roman. His intimate acquaintance, however, with the Jewish religion and his knowledge, such as it was, of Egyptian ideas and customs incline some historians to think he belonged to the Eastern portion of the empire. Those who believe him to have been a Roman explain his knowledge of Jewish and Egyptian matters by assuming that he acquired that knowledge either by travelling, or by mingling with the foreign population of Rome.
Celsus owes his prominence in the history of Christian polemics not so much to the preeminent character of his work, as to the circumstance that about the year 240 a copy of the work was sent to Origen by his friend Ambrosius, with a request to write a refutation of it. This Origen, after some hesitation, consented to do, and embodied his answer in the treatise “Against Celsus” (kata Kelsou). So careful is Origen to cite the very words of his opponent that it is possible to reconstruct the text of Celsus from Origen’s answer, a task which was accomplished by Jachmann in 1836, and more successfully by Keim in 1873. The original of Celsus’s treatise having perished, the text reconstructed from Origen (about nine-tenths of the original has in this way been recovered) is our only primary source.
Celsus’s work may be divided as follows: a preface, an attack on Christianity from the point of view of Judaism, an attack on Christianity from the point of view of philosophy, a refutation of Christian teachings in detail, and an appeal to Christians to adopt paganism. In the preface Celsus forecasts the general plan of his attack by describing in the first place the general character of Christianity and then proceeding to accuse both Christian and Jew of “separatism”, that is to say, of arrogating to themselves a superior wisdom, while in reality their ideas concerning the origin of the universe, etc., are common to all peoples and to the wise men of antiquity. In the second portion, Celsus argues that Christ did not fulfil the Messianic expectations of the Hebrew people. Christ, he says, claimed to be of virgin birth; in reality, He was the son of a Jewish village woman, the wife of a carpenter. The flight into Egypt, the absence of any divine intervention in favor of the Mother of Jesus, who was driven forth with her husband, and other arguments are used to show that Christ was not the Messias. During the course of His public ministry Christ could not convince His countrymen that His mission was divine. As followers He had ten or twelve “infamous publicans and fishermen”. Such is not the company that befits a god. (This is one out of many instances in which Celsus suddenly passes from the Jewish to the pagan point of view.) As to the miracles ascribed to Christ, some, said Celsus, were merely fictitious narratives, the others, if they did really take place, are not more wonderful than the deeds of the Egyptians and other adepts in the magic arts. He next proceeds (cf. Orig., “Contra Celsum”, II) to upbraid those Jews who, “abandoning the law of their fathers”, allowed themselves to be deceived by one whom their nation had condemned, and changed their name from Hebrew to Christian. Jesus did not fulfil His promises to the Jews; instead of succeeding as they should have expected the Messias to succeed, He failed even to keep the confidence and loyalty of His chosen followers. His alleged prediction of His death is an invention of His Disciples, and the fable of His Resurrection is nothing new to those who remember the similar stories related of Zamolxis, Pythagoras, and Rhampsinit. If Christ rose from the dead, why did He appear to His Disciples only, and not to His persecutors and to those who mocked Him?
In the third portion (cf. Origen, op. cit., III) Celsus inaugurates a general attack on Christianity from the point of view of philosophy. He upbraids both Jews and Christians with their ridiculous disagreement in matters of religion, whereas, in fact, both religions rest on the same principles: the Jews revolted from the Egyptians and the Christians from the Jews; sedition was in both cases the true cause of separation. Next, he upbraids the Christians with lack of unity among themselves; so many sects are there, and so different, that they have nothing in common save the name Christian. Like almost all the pagan opponents of Christianity he finds fault with Christians because they exclude from their fellowship the “wise and good”, and consort only with the ignorant and sinful. He misunderstands the Christian teaching regarding the Incarnation, “as if”, he says, “God could not by His own power accomplish the work which He sent Christ on earth to accomplish”. With this misunderstanding is connected Celsus’s false view of the Christian teaching on the subject of Divine Providence and God‘s special care of mankind as compared with the plants and animals. The world, he says, was not “made for man’s use and benefit”, but for the perfection and completion of God‘s plan of the universe. In the fourth part of his “True Discourse” (cf. Origen, op. cit., V) Celsus takes up the teachings of the Christians in detail and refutes them from the point of view of the history of philosophy. Whatever is true in the doctrines of the Christians was borrowed, he contends, from the Greeks, the Christians having added nothing except their own perverse misunderstanding of the tenets of Plato, Heraclitus, Socrates, and other Greek thinkers. “The Greeks”, he says, “tell us plainly what is wisdom and what is mere appearance, the Christians ask us at the outset to believe what we do not understand, and invoke the authority of one who was discredited even among his own followers.” In like manner the Christian teaching concerning the Kingdom of God is merely a corruption of Plato’s doctrine; when the Christians tell us that God is a spirit, they are merely repeating the saying of the Stoics that God is “a spirit penetrating all and encompassing all”. Finally, the Christian idea of a future life borrowed from the Greek poets and philosophers; the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is simply a corruption of the world-old idea of transmigration of souls. In the fifth, and last, portion of his work (cf. Origen, op. cit., VII, lxii sqq.; VIII) Celsus invites the Christians to abandon their “cult” and join the religion of the majority. He defends the worship of idols, the invocation of demons (daimones), the celebration of popular feasts, urging among other considerations, that the Christian who enjoys the bounties of nature ought, in common gratitude, to render thanks to the powers of nature. He concludes his treatise by an appeal to Christians to abandon their “vain hope” of establishing the rule of Christianity over all the earth; he invites them to give up their “life apart”, and take their place among those who by word and deed and active service contribute to the welfare of the empire. In an epilogue he promises another work (whether it was ever written we do not know) in which he is to explain in detail how those who would and could follow his philosophy of life should live.
The aim of Celsus’s work is different from that of the other opponents of Christianity in the early centuries. He exhibits comparatively little of the bitterness which characterized their attacks. He does not descend to the lower level of pagan polemics. For instance, he omits the customary accusation of atheism, immorality, “Thyestian feasts and (dipodean gatherings”, accusations which were very commonly urged against the Christians for the purpose of rousing popular indignation. His aim was, perhaps, eirenic. His appeal to his Christian contemporaries to abandon their separatism and make common cause with the pagan subjects of the empire may have been more than a rhetorical device. It may have been inspired by a sincere wish to “convert” the Christians to an appreciation and adoption of the pagan philosophy of life. Indeed, Origen acknowledges that his opponent is not blind to the unfavorable side of pagan religion, especially to the abuses of particular cults and the absurdities of popular mythology. It is only just to Celsus, therefore, to ascribe to him all possible sincerity in his wish to “help all men”, and to bring all men to the ideal of “one religion”. On the other hand, Celsus’s attitude towards the Christian religion was, it hardly need be said, that of a pagan not well informed on all points and devoid of that sympathy which alone would enable him to understand the meaning of the most essential tenets of Christianity. He was remarkably well read in pagan literature, and, besides, was acquainted with the religious ideas of the “barbarous” peoples.
His knowledge of Judaism and Christianity was such as could not have been obtained from books alone. He must have consorted with Jewish and Christian teachers, and with the representatives of the Gnostic sects. Hence arose the danger of confounding with the official doctrine of Christianity the tenets of a particular school of Gnostic interpretations, a danger which Celsus did not succeed in escaping, as is evident in many passages of his work, and as Origen was very careful to point out. He was acquainted with the Old Testament only in part. He used the “books of the Christians”, the Gospels and, possibly, some of the Pauline Epistles, but on the latter point there is room for doubt. Celsus may have obtained his knowledge of St. Paul’s teaching by conversation with Christians. There can be no doubt, however, that he used the Gospels, not merely some proto-evangelical documents, but the four narratives substantially as we have them today. Celsus took pains to make himself acquainted with the beliefs of his Christian contemporaries, and he is unquestionably conscious of his knowledge of Christianity. Yet, he has no suspicion of the distinction between the universally accepted teachings of the “great Church” of the Christians and the doctrines peculiar to Ophites, Marcionites, and other heretical sects. Moreover, he is, if indeed well-intentioned, yet a partisan; he adopts the current Roman notion that Christianity is merely an offshoot of Judaism; in regard to the person of Christ he exhibits none of that respect which the later Platonists manifested towards the founder of Christianity; towards the miracles ascribed to Christ he shows a sceptical spirit, at one time describing them as fables invented by the Disciples, at another paralleling them with the wonders wrought by Egyptian sorcerers; he looks upon the Resurrection of Christ as either a silly story invented by the followers of Jesus, or a ghost-apparition such as is narrated of many of the heroes of antiquity. Above all, he fails to attain a correct understanding of the doctrine of Incarnation and atonement. When he comes to speak of the manner of life of his Christian neighbors, he, in common with all his pagan fellow-writers, cannot see the reasonableness of Christian humility, nor can he reconcile with the Christian hope of conquering the world to Christ, the fact that Christian proselytizers shun encounters with the learned and powerful and seek out the poor and the sinful, women, children, and slaves, and preach the Gospel to them. His manner too, in spite of the probable eirenic scope of his work, is that of a special pleader for paganism who uses all the resources of dialectic and rhetoric, all the artifices of wit and sarcasm to make his opponents seem ridiculous. Perhaps the secret of his efforts to render Christianity ridiculous is betrayed in his open disapproval of the attitude of aloofness which Christians adopted towards the interest and welfare of the empire. “You refuse to serve the state,” he says, “in peace or in war; you wish its downfall; you use all the force of your magic arts to accomplish the ruin of mankind”.
Celsus anticipated in his criticism of the New Testament the objections which have in our own time become identified with the names of Strauss and Renan. Similarly, in the objections which he urged from the point of view of philosophy he anticipated in a striking manner the arguments used by modem rationalists and evolutionists. Too much stress has, perhaps, been laid on the last point. Nevertheless, it is interesting, to say the least, to find a second-century opponent of Christianity off-setting the Christian idea of a direct divine origin of man by the theory that men and animals have a common natural origin, and that the human soul is sprung from the animal soul.
Celsus is generally described as a Platonist in philosophy. This is correct, if not understood in a too exclusive sense. Although he antedates Plotinus, the first great neo-Platonist, by almost half a century, he belongs to the age of syncretism in which Greek philosophy, realizing the inadequacy of its own resources, developed an eclectic spiritualism which welcomed and strove to assimilate the religious teachings of the various Oriental peoples. This syncretic tendency was resorted to as a remedy against the materialism and scepticism in which philosophy had, as it were, run to seed. Thus Celsus draws his philosophy not only from the genuine works of Plato, but also from the pseudo-Platonic writings, especially the so-called letters of Plato, from Heraclitus, Empedocles, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and from the religious systems of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Hindus, etc. The fundamental principles, however, on which he builds this syncretic system, are Platonic. God, he teaches, is the ineffable, unknowable One, the Source of all things, Himself without source, the All-pervading Logos, the World-Soul. God is a spirit, and whatever has come directly from His hands is spirit. Material things He made through the agency of created gods. The substance of material things is eternal matter; all force is spirit (angel or demon) indwelling in matter. The human soul is divine in its origin; it was placed in the body on account of some primordial sin. All change, all growth and decay in the universe, is not the result of chance or violence but part of a plan of development in which spirits minister to the design of an all-seeing, infinitely beneficent spirit. Even the vicissitudes of the idea of God, the various religions of ancient and modem times, are, says Celsus, part of the divinely appointed scheme of things. For no matter how the religions of the world may differ among themselves, they all hold that there is one God who is supreme. Moreover, the various mythological concepts must be understood to mean the same powers (dunameis) which are worshipped in different countries under different names. Those are the beneficent powers which give increase and fruit to the tiller of the soil. Christians are, therefore, ungrateful for the gifts of nature when they refuse to worship the deities who symbolize the forces of nature. Finally these powers, spirits, or demons, mediate between God and man, and are the immediate source of prophecy and wonderworking. This last point is important. To understand Celsus’s criticism of the Gospel narrative it is necessary to remember that he was a firm believer in the possibility of cures by magic.