1902 Encyclopedia > Celsus

Early anti-Christian religious writer
(fl. in the time of Hadrian)

CELSUS is the first writer against Christianity of whose objections we have any record. His history is involved in complete uncertainty. Our knowledge of his treatise is derived from Origen's work written against it. We should have expected some information from the Alexandrian in regard to the writer whose book he refutes. But when we examine Origen's statements carefully, we are led to the conclusion that Origen knew nothing about him. Celsus's treatise had been sent to him by Ambrosius with the request that he should grapple with its arguments. Origen had not heard before of the work or of the author. He thought that Christianity did not require a defence, but to please his friend, and with the hope of benefiting those who were not Christians, he set about the task assigned. In the performance of this task he could not help making conjectures in regard to the author. He speaks of him in the preface " as long ago dead " (c. iv.). " We have heard," he says in another passage (i. 8), "that there were two Epicurean Celsi, one in the time of Nero and this one [the author] in the time of Hadrian and after-wards." But he could not make up his mind definitely that the Celsus, the author of the treatise, was an Epicurean. He says that he is proved to be an Epicurean from other writings (i. 8). He again and again calls him an Epicurean (i. 10, 21 ; ii. 60). He allows that Celsus did not state in the treatise that he was an Epicurean (v. 3). He lays before his readers three suppositions in regard to him, either that he concealed his Epicurean opinions, or that he had changed to a better state of mind, or that he had merely the same name as the Epicurean (iv. 54). And he expresses his doubt quite distinctly,—" The Epicurean Celsus, if indeed he is the person that composed the other two books against the Christians" (iv. 36), The "other two books" here mentioned are in all probability, as Neander and Baur have shown, two parts of the book which Origen tries to refute, or that book and another which is mentioned as having been promised by Celsus. Origen expresses a similar doubt as to the authorship of a work ascribed to the Epicurean Celsus. '' You see how in these expressions he as it were accepts the reality of magic. I do not know if he is the same as the person who wrote several books against magic " (i. 68).
From these passages the inference may be drawn that Origen was very much in the dark as to who Celsus was and when he lived. The indications in the work itself are not much more satisfactory. But there is at least a clear indication of a period before which it could not have been written. Celsus makes mention of Marcellina (v. 62), who, according to Irenaeus (i. 20, 4), came to Rome in the time of Anicetus (154 or 155 to 166 A.D.) In the same passage he mentions Marcion and his followers, and whatever may be the date of Marcion's first arrival in Rome, we may again accept the statement of Irenaeus (iii. 4, 3) that he flourished in the time of Anicetus. As the followers of Marcellina and Marcion are spoken of, we may infer that both Marcellina and Marcion had had con-siderable success in propagating their opinions at the time Celsus wrote. A third clue to the date might be found in the mention of Dionysius, an Egyptian musician with whom Celsus had associated (vi. 41). In all probability this Dionysius was the younger Dionysius of Halicarnassus who was termed _______, and who discussed in his books just such points as those to which Celsus alludes. If this were the case, Celsus must have lived in the time of Hadrian, the period in which Suidas says that Dionysius flourished. But there is no conclusive evidence that this Dionysius lived in Egypt, though the epithet " of Halicarnassus " proves nothing to the contrary, as it merely denotes that he was descended from the rhetorician and historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Some have found an indication of a date in the circumstance that oftener than once Celsus speaks of " the king " (viii. 68, 73), while in one passage (viii. 71) he speaks of " those who now rule." They infer from this that there were two emperors associated together in the government, but that one of them was far more prominent than the other, in fact that they were Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus (Keim, p. 265). But the inference is not warranted. The last expression is a general expression, not applicable to the emperors only but to all rulers of the period, and if the other statements were to be pressed they would rather point to a time when only one emperor was on the throne.

In this deficiency of evidence it is not wonderful that critics have varied widely as to the date of Celsus, but most have assigned a date somewhere between 150 and 180. Peter Faidit maintained that he flourished in the time of Nero, and in recent times Volkmar has argued for the opinion that Celsus was a contemporary of Origen (see Supernatural Religion, vol. ii. p. 228,/!).

Outside of Origen's work we find no clue to the history of Celsus. The name was very common. Upwards of twenty persons of the name are mentioned within the first three centuries of the Christian era (see Keim for the list, p. 276). But there is only one for whom any one has claimed identity with the Celsus of Origen. This is the Celsus to whom Lucian sent his treatise Pseudomantis, giving an account of the imposture of Alexander of Abonoteichos, We think that this identification is a mistake. The Celsus of Origen is unquestionably not an Epicurean, The Celsus of Lucian could scarcely be anything else. The tractate of the satirist is full of extravagant praises of Epicurus. The defence of Epicurus as "a man truly holy and divine in his nature, and who alone with truth ascertained what was beautiful," is said to be specially agreeable to Celsus. The followers of Plato and Chrysippus and Pythagoras are alluded to con-temptuously,-—an allusion which would have applied pointedly to the Celsus of Origen. If an identity could have been proved, the date of Celsus would have been ascertained; for Lucian mentions the war of Marcus Aurelius with the Quadi and Marcomanni as a con-temporaneous event. It is very likely that the Epicurean Celsus mentioned by Origen as living in the time of Hadrian is the same as the Celsus of Lucian.

Happily we are not left in the same doubt in regard to the treatise of Celsus as we are in regard to his life. In refuting it Origen adopted the plan of going through it in regular sequence, taking one passage after another in the order in which he found them in the book. He has not adhered to this rule with absolute fidelity, but his devia-tions from it are few, and as he generally quotes the exact words, a large portion of the treatise has thus come down to us. The remains of it are so numerous that we can form an accurate notion of the whole work. The treatise was called a "true discourse" (Aoyos ak*qQr)<;). Origen states at the end of his work against it (viii. 76) that Celsus intended to write a sequel to it, in which he was to supply rules of practical life for those who wished to embrace his opinions. Whether he ever carried out his intention history does not state.

In the True Discourse, Celsus shows great philosophical and critical powers. He takes note of almost every objec-tion which has been brought against Christianity, and hi& position is substantially that which is assumed by the scientific opponents of Christianity in the present day. The True Discourse is divided into two parts. In the first he does not speak in his own person, but introduces a Jew who discusses from the Jewish point of view the credibility of the statements made by Christians in reference to the life of Jesus. There was considerable advantage in this mode of procedure. Celsus himself did not believe in the supernatural. The only possibility of the existence of such a person as the Christian Jesus that he could conceive depended upon his being daemonic, but Jesus showed nothing of that majesty, that grandeur, that energy of will in worldly affairs which he deemed essential to the daemon. He therefore rejected his pretensions entirely as inconsistent with his philosophy; but he believed that even on the basis of a philosophy which permitted the supernatural the claims of Jesus must be rejected. And so his arguments are made to come from a Jew. The Jew rejects the miraculous birth of Jesus. Mary was divorced from her husband, and wandering about fell in with a Eoman soldier, Panthera, who was the father of Jesus. Jesus being needy went down to Egypt and there learned all the tricks by which he could work apparent miracles, and on the strength of this knowledge he claimed to be God when he returned to Judea. But who could believe the statements made in regard to him,—who heard the voice at his baptism? None but himself and a companion who shared his dream or rather his imposture. The miracles ascribed to him are absurd. Any one could see such miracles by paying a few obols to an Egyptian juggler. If Jesus was God, would he have chosen such wicked and worthless men as his apostles 1 If he knew that Judas would betray him, why did he make him his companion ? But the story of the resurrection especially seemed absurd. He was condemned publicly before the eyes of all. No one could doubt this. If he rose again, why did he not make his justification as public'( Would he not have confronted his judge, his accusers, the general public, and given indubitable evidence that he was not a malefactor ? And who saw him after he rose again 1 A half insane woman and one or two followers who were in the very humour to trust to dreams or to an excited fancy. In this way the Jew discusses many of the statements made in the gospels, and comes to the conclusion that Jesus was an ordinary man.

In the second part Celsus tests the beliefs of the Christians by his philosphical principles. He then shows that the Greeks had all that was true in Christianity, but in a nobler and better form, and he ends with a practical application, urging Christians to give up their separatist tendency, to worship the daemons, and to join in all civil and military duties imposed on citizens by the state. Before dealing with the principles of the Christians he draws attention to the false position which they occupy. They are, he thinks, essentially rebellious. They wish to separate themselves from the rest of mankind. The Jews show this tendency, but they are so far to be excused in that they adhere to their national beliefs. These beliefs indeed are often silly and puerile, and perversions of what is wiser and better in Greek poets and philosophers. But the Christians belong to no nationality, and separate themselves from the ordinary beliefs without any good cause. They object to the divinity of the Dioscuri, Hercules, and others, in regard to whom the Greeks believe that they became gods from being men. And yet they worship a man who was a prisoner and died. This worship is on a level with that of Zamolxis by the Getae, of Mopsus by the Cilicians, and of others whom he names. It is unreasonable. Accordingly the Christians do not invite the wise or the good. It is ignorant slaves, women, and children whom they try to influence, not publicly but in corners and private places. And their divisive tendencies are shown in the number of the sects which exist among them.

After this introduction Celsus proceeds with his philosophical argument. God is good and beautiful and blessed. He therefore cannot change. For if he were to change, it could only be for the worse. Therefore God cannot come down to men. He cannot assume a mortal body, He cannot do it in reality, for that would be contrary to his nature; he cannot do it in appearance, for that would be to deceive, and God cannot deceive. Indeed the idea is absurd. What advantage could be gained by his coming 1 Does he not know all things t Has he not power to do all things without assuming a body ? Is he not able as God to do everything that he could do as incarnated God ? And no real advantage is got for men ; for they do not know God better by seeing him in bodily form. God must be seen by the soul, and men are deceived if they imagine they know Him better by seeing Him in a corruptible body than when they see Him with the pure eye of the soul. Indeed Christianity is in this respect marked by a gross anthropomorphism. Nor can the purpose which Christians assign for this incarnation be regarded as true. The nature of the whole is alwaj^s one and the same. There is always the same amount of evil in the world. There is nothing evil in God. The evil is in matter. But God is continually making the evil serve for the good of the whole. If this is the case, then, it is absurd to suppose that God would be especially interested in a few of the human race. He works always for the whole. And the Christian notion is peculiarly absurd. Did God at that particular time waken from sleep and resolve to rescue a few from sin 1 Was He indifferent to all mankind before, to all the nations of the earth 1 And is He to continue to show the same special favour only for a select number? Not only are the Christians wrong in this, but they are wrong in supposing that the world was made for man. Again it is the whole that is cared for. And we can see signs in nature that animals are equal if not superior to man in many points. If he hunts the deer, the lion hunts him and feeds on him. Bees have cities and rulers. Some animals speak to each other. Some can foretell the future. Some are religious. In fact neither for animals nor man was the universe made, but that the world as God's work might be perfect in every part. In these arguments we have a remarkable anticipa-tion of many of the points which come out in our present Darwinian discussions (see Teleologie und Naturalismus in der altchristlichen Zeit: Der Kampf des Origenes gegen Celsus um die Stellung des Menschen in der Natur, dargestellt von Dr Phil. Aug. Kind : Jena, 1875).

In exhibiting the superiority of the Greek doctrines over the Christian, Celsus points to the circumstance that the Greeks appeal to reason, the Christians cry out, " Believe, believe." The doctrine of the Son of God, he thinks, was borrowed from Plato. The Devil owed his origin to a distortion of a Greek opinion. He compares the prophecies of the Greeks with those of the Christians, and he contrasts Greek and Christian doctrines of a future state, and speaks of the resurrection as a ridiculous belief.

In the practical application he maintains that the daemons are subordinate ministers of God, and that there-fore any worship paid to them is worship also of the Supreme God himself. Especially the Christians have no good reason for objecting to such worship since they already worship a dead man.

Our abstract of this work is necessarily very imperfect, and many important points we have been compelled to omit entirely. From what has been given, it will be seen that Celsus was a Platonist. He believed in a Supreme God, the Supreme Good, higher than all existence. This God was everywhere and in everything. Alongside of I this God was original uncreated matter, the source of all evil. These two made up the universe, which remained a constant quantity. There could, therefore, be no real redemption from sin. There could be nothing super-natural. There was merely the apparent evolution and involution of the same reason and matter. This mode of thought is fatal to final causes, fatal to a special aim on God's part, fatal to a special interest in man, and therefore fatal to Christianity.

The writers who have discussed Celsus and his opinions are numerous. Most of them are mentioned in the most recent work on the subject, Celsus' Wahres Wort: älteste Streitschrift antiker Weltanschauung gegen das Christenthum vom Jahr 178 n. Chr., von Dr Theodor Keim, Zürich, 1873. This is a translation of the True Discourse, with dissertations on the life, date, arguments, &c. of Celsus. The best expositions of the opinions of Celsus are given in Redepenning's Orígenes (Bonn, 1841); in Baur's Die Christliche Kirche der Drei Ersten Jahrhunderte (Tüb., 1860); and in Kellner's Hellenismus und Christenthum (Cologne, 1866). The fragments of Celsus in Greek were collected by Jachmann (1836). (J. D.)

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