« Cellites (Cellitæ) Celsus Celtic Church in Britain and Ireland »


CELSUS: A pagan philosopher and controversialist against Christianity.

Origen's Contra Celsum.

In the period of peace which the Church enjoyed under the emperor Philip in the year 248, Origen brought to notice, by an exhaustive reply (the Contra Celsum), a treatise written about seventy years earlier against Christianity by a highly educated Platonist. The occasion of this reply may have been the celebration in that year of the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome, which gave the Christians reason to fear religious excitement on the part of the pagan population. Origen gives the arguments of Celsus sometimes word for word, sometimes in substance; in the latter case there is little abbreviation and not many omissions, so that there is very fair material for an attempt to reconstruct the original text of Celsus. This attempt was first made, not very systematically or successfully, by Jachmann in 1836; in 1873 Keim undertook a restoration of Celsus in a German version which, in spite of its defects, has many merits, and this was partially improved on in the French version of Aubé in 1878. The recent reconstruction by Neumann in the Greek shows that not more than one-tenth of the original has been lost, and that three-fourths of what we have is word-for-word quotation.

The "True Discourse" of Celsus.

The "True Discourse" of Celsus was composed in the last years of Marcus Aurelius. It notices the rescript of that emperor, issued in 177 (or 176 at the earliest), against popular tumults caused by the introduction of a new religion (viii, 69). In viii. 71 the author speaks of two emperors reigning at the time, which fixes the date in the joint rule of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, from 177 to 180. He was thus at least a contemporary of the Celsus to whom Lucian dedicated his "Alexander," and some have supposed the two to be identical. Lucian's friend, however, was an Epicurean, while our Celsus, in spite of Origen, stands out clearly as a Platonist; and the books κατά μάγων (Lucian, Alex., lxi.; Origen, i. 68, κατά μαγείας do not seem to fit in with the conception and tone of the "True Discourse." 467The latter, though usually divided into eight books, seems to have been but one originally; and, according to Origen (viii. 76), Celsus intended to write another, "in which he engaged to supply practical rules of living to those who felt disposed to embrace his opinions." In iv. 36 Origen mentions two more books written by a Celsus whose identity with ours he leaves uncertain; but as he seems to know nothing of these, it is at least possible that he has misunderstood a notice referring to the two already mentioned: Keim, followed by Pélagaud, places the home of Celsus in the West, probably in Rome, where he thinks the "True Discourse" was written—partly on the ground that the Jew depicted by Celsus is a Roman and not an Eastern Jew. The old view, adopted also by Aubé, that the book was composed in the East, probably in Alexandria, rested upon its accurate knowledge of Egypt; and this view might be supported by the contention that as a matter of fact Celsus's Jew is really not the Roman type, but belongs to those Eastern Jewish circles in which the doctrine of the Logos was familiar; thus in Origen, ii. 31, the Jew of Celsus says, "If your Logos is the Son of God, we also give our assent to the same."

Criticism of Celsus.

After the introduction, there follow objections against Christianity from the Jewish standpoint, which should be compared with Justin's dialogue with Trypho. With book iii. begins the direct attack, which is directed not against Christianity alone, but also against Judaism, although a slight preference is shown for the latter. Celsus shows a good knowledge of Genesis and Exodus; Aubé thinks he can prove an acquaintance with the Prophets and with the Psalms, and a reference to Jonah and Daniel is indeed found in vii. 53. His knowledge of Christianity is sufficient to be of some value to the historian of today, and Harnack has used it in his Dogmengeschichte. The manner in which Celsus employs the New Testament corresponds to the stage of development of the canon which the Acts of the Martyrs of Scili show in 180. He knew and used our Gospels, showing a preference for the synoptic type; his acquaintance with the Acts is disputed, while familiarity, with Pauline ideas, though not with the epistles themselves, is generally admitted. Gnosticism he knew well; his relation to Marcion needs further investigation. His whole criticism is not irreligious; it is that of a pious pagan of Platonic tendencies, though his Platonism is that of his age, as we meet with it, for example, in Plutarch. It is the religion of well-to-do, self-confident people, and shows no conception of those crying needs of the time which helped Christianity to spread so rapidly, of the reasons why it was welcomed by the poor and oppressed. Again, he fails to appreciate the significance of the church idea, though he under stands the relation of the local communities to the Church at large (v. 59, 61), and knows that all Christians do not belong to the latter (iii. 12). But it presents itself to him rather in its opposition to the Gnostic sects than as a great bond of unity, whose importance he undervalues while seeing in the conflict of sects a sign of weakness. Still, Christianity seems to him important enough to make him desirous of winning back its adherents; and he closes, not, as he began (i. 1), with the accusation of secret and illegal association, but with the hope that an understanding may be reached.

Later History of His Work.

The book had no influence on the attitude of the Roman government, and scarcely a trace of acquaintance with it can be found in classical literature. Such traces have been seen, on the other hand, in Minucius Felix and in the Apologeticum of Tertullian; but Origen was the first to call general attention to it. The Neoplatonic controversialists naturally went back to it; certain fundamental thoughts reappear in Porphyry, whom Julian follows, and the Λόγοι φιλαλήθεις "Truth-loving Discourses") of Hierocles point to it in their very title. Meantime, however, the canon of the New Testament had been completed, and it was possible for assaults on Christianity to take the form of assaults on its sacred writings. Later Christian antiquity saw the typical literary attack from the pagan side not in Celsus but in Porphyry; Theodosius II. ordered the books of Porphyry, not those of Celsus or of Julian, to be burned in 448.

(K. I. Neumann.)

According to the account of Origen, the principal charges brought by Celsus against Christianity were as follows. The Christians were members of illegal secret associations which were necessary to them because they would suffer death if their practises were known. The origins, of Christianity were derived from secondary sources, some of these even barbarous, and Moses himself simply borrowed the ordinances which he promulgated. The alleged divinity of Jesus can not be proved from his miracles, since they were the mere tricks of a juggler, while the indications of his life and character are equally against the doctrine. Jewish converts to Christianity were ipso facto renegades, since the new religion was no improvement upon the old. Both the Jewish and the Christian religions were really rebellious against the state. The alleged theophanies were really the, appearances of demons, and the Christian eschatology is, irrational and incredible.

Bibliography: The best edition of Origen's Contra Celsum is by P. Koetschau, Leipsic, 1899, and the translation is most accessible in ANF, iv. 395 sqq. T. Keim, Celsus' Wahres Wort, Zurich, 1893, puts together in German the quotations by Origen and so reconstructs the original text. Consult: K. R. Jachmann, De Celso philosopho, Königsberg; 1836; B. Aubé, La Polémique païenne à la fin du deuxième siècle, Paris, 1878; E. Pelagaud, Un conservateur au second siècle. Étude sur Celse, Lyons, 1873; C. Bigg, Christian Platonists of Alexandria, pp. 254–268, Oxford, 1886; idem, Neoplatonism, pp. 98–118, London, 1895; K. J. Neumann, Der römische Staat and die allgemeine Kirche, i. 58–59, 256–273, Leipsic, 1890; J. A. Robinson, On the Text of Origen Contra Celaum, in Journal of Philology, xviii. (1890) 288–296; P. Koetschau, Die Gliederung des Alethes Logos des Celsus, in JPT xviii. (1892) 604–632; J. Patrick, Apology of Origen, Edinburgh, 1892; F. M. Müller, Die wahre Geschichte des Celsus, in Deutsche Rundachau, lxxxiv. (1895) 79—97; Harnack, History of Dogma, vols. i. ii., passim, Boston, 1895–97; idem, Litteratur, II. i. 314–315; A: C. MeGiffert, in his edition of Eusebius, NPNF, i. 278–279; Moeller, Christian Church, i. 169–170; Neander, Christian Church, vol. i., passim; Schaff, Christian Church, ii. 89–93; DCB, i. 435–436.



« Cellites (Cellitæ) Celsus Celtic Church in Britain and Ireland »
VIEWNAME is workSection