An anti-Christian writer and Platonist philosopher whose Alethes Logos (True Discourse), written about 178, is the oldest surviving literary attack on Christianity. All that is known of its author is contained in ORIGEN’s reply, the eight books of Contra Celsum, written in Caesarea (Palestine) about 248.
Celsus was most probably a Syrian, for he is best informed about Christianity in Palestine and Syria (compare Origen, Contra Celsum vii.9, where Celsus professes a firsthand knowledge of the ways of Christian prophets in Phoenicia and Palestine).
Origen enables a very considerable amount of the True Discourse to be reconstructed, and it is clear that Celsus had made himself well informed about Christianity before he launched his attack. He was acquainted with the Gospel of Matthew and probably the Gospel of John, as well as Genesis and Exodus.
He also knew of the Book of Enoch and the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, and in addition a number of apocryphal Jewish writings, such as The Life of Adam and Eve (see Contra Celsum vi.27; Chadwick ed., p. 342, n. 2), as well as some Gnostic and Marcionite writings. He was well aware of the division of Christianity in the second century between the “Great Church” and numerous dissident (Gnostic and Marcionite) bodies.
These, while sharing the name “Christian” and refusing to be known by any other name, had nothing in common with each other (Contra Celsum iii.12)—indeed, they hated each other (Contra Celsum v.63).
Nonetheless, Christianity was a danger to the society in which Celsus lived. His principal charge against the Christians was that they formed an “illegal association” (i.1). Theirs was a secret society (i.3), born from revolt against Judaism (iii.14), that persuaded stupid individuals, by means of fear-inspiring propaganda, to desert true religion (iii.15) and give unquestioning obedience to them (i.9). Christian proselytism disrupted society and threatened the traditional authority of the pater familias over his household (iii.55), and the Christians stood aside from civic duties and gave no help to the empire (viii.69-75).
The issue of loyalty therefore lay at the heart of Celsus’s attack; but to make his accusation stick, he went deeply into the origins of the Christian doctrines of God and of man, and the life and claims of Jesus. He himself believed that “there is an ancient doctrine which has existed from the beginning which has always been maintained by the wisest nations and cities and wise men” (i.14). Judaism, though in many ways repellent, had a claim to tolerance, since it was a religion based on ancient tradition (v.41). Christianity could make no such claim.
With considerable acumen, Celsus introduced a Jew into the debate for the dual purpose of demonstrating that the Jews were an ignorant and rascally people, deceived by Moses’ teaching (1.23; compare iv.36), and that the Christians were even worse, being simply a rebellious offshoot from Judaism (ii.4).
Celsus’s Jew sought to prove that Jesus could claim neither miraculous birth (i.32) nor divine call at baptism (i.41), that he had picked up a knowledge of magic in Egypt (i.38), that his miracles were not extraordinary, and that in the end he had been unable to save himself from disgraceful punishment (ii.35, ii.39). Even his disciples did not believe him (ii.39).
To Celsus, a Platonist, it was impossible for God to come into contact with the material universe, and in no way did He behave like the angry and vengeful old man of Christian belief, roasting His enemies alive (iv.11). God was God of the whole universe, not of man only—let alone of the Christians (iv.99).
The latter behaved “like frogs holding a symposium round a swamp . . . debating which of them was the most sinful, and saying, “God reveals all things to us beforehand, and gives us warning. He forsakes the whole universe and the course of the heavenly spheres to dwell with us alone'” (iv.23). Christian teaching concerning God, man, and the universe was nonsensical.
Celsus’s True Discourse must have had considerable success, for copies survived some seventy years after it had been written, and Origen thought it worth a great deal of time and argument to refute. Though he wrote Contra Celsum as an exile in Caesarea, copies of his work circulated in Egypt, and parts of books i and ii were found in the papyrus library discovered at Turah, south of Cairo, in 1941 (Chadwick ed., p. 30).
Celsus’s views of Egypt and its religion were more liberal than those of many of his contemporaries, such as the satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. A.D. 170). The Egyptians were an ancient people, the original inhabitants of their land (iv.36). They were to be numbered among the “wise nations” of the world (1.14); and their religion, though apparently full of mystery, superstition, and animal worship (iii.18-19), nonetheless “respected invisible ideas and not as most people think, ephemeral animals” (iii.19).
On the other hand, trafficking in magic “for a few obols in the market-place” (i.69) could be charged against them, as could providing the origin of the Jewish customs of circumcision and abstinence from eating pigs (v.41).
Celsus’s knowledge of the Egyptians was probably no more than that of an educated provincial of his time. His attack was on Christianity in general, especially where he knew it at first hand, in Palestine and Syria. He has less to say about Egypt, and his importance in the history of Christianity there is less direct. It lies in his contribution toward shaping Origen’s ideas at a mature period of his life, in the incidental light he throws on the relations between Gnostics and the “Great Church” at a time when Gnosticism in Egypt was particularly strong, and in what he indicates as the attitude of educated pagans toward Egypt and its religious practices in the latter half of the second century.
- Andresen, C. Logos und Nomos: Die Polemik des Kelsos wider das Christentum. Berlin, 1955.
- Labriolle, P. de. La Réaction païenne. Paris, 1934.
- Miura-Stange, A. Celsus und Origenes. Beiheft zur Zeitschrift fur neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 4. Giessen, 1926.
- Wifstrand, A. “Die wahre Lehre des Kelsos.” In Humanistiska ventenskapassamfundet, Lund. Arsberättelae 1941-1942, pp. 391-431. Lund, 1942.
- Witt, R. E. Albinus and the History of Middle Platonism. Cambridge, 1937.
W. H. C. FREND