was a 2nd century opponent of Christianity, known to us mainly
through the reputation of his literary work, The True Word (or
Account), almost entirely reproduced in excerpts by Origen in
his counter-polemic Contra Celsum of 248, seventy years after
that year, though the Church was under no widespread persecution,
owing to the inertia of the emperor Philip the Arab, the atmosphere
was full of conflict. Rome was celebrating the 1000th anniversary
of its founding, and imperial aspirations and ideas were naturally
prominent. Over against the state and the worship of the Caesar
stood as usual the Christian ideal of a rule and a citizenship
not of this world, to which a thousand years were but as a day.
A supernatural pride was blended with a natural anxiety, and it
was at this juncture that Origen brought to light again a book
written in the days of Marcus Aurelius. Sometimes quoting, sometimes
paraphrasing, sometimes merely referring, Origen reproduces and
replies to all Celsus' arguments. His work shows many signs of
haste, but he more than compensates for this by the way in which
he thus preserves a singularly interesting memorial of the 2nd
century. When we remember that only about one-tenth of The True
Word is really lost and that about three-quarters of what we have
is verbatim text, it would be ungracious to carp at the method.
opens the way for his own attack by rehearsing the taunts levelled
at the Christians by the Jews. Jesus was born in adultery, and
nurtured on the wisdom of Egypt. His assertion of divine dignity
is disproved by his poverty and his miserable end. Christians
have no standing in the Old Testament prophecies, and their talk
of a resurrection that was only revealed to some of their own
adherents is foolishness. Celsus indeed says that the Jews are
almost as ridiculous as the foes they attack; the latter said
the saviour from Heaven had come, the former still looked for
However, the Jews have the advantage of being an ancient nation
with an ancient faith. The idea of an Incarnation of God is absurd;
why should the human race think itself so superior to bees, ants
and elephants as to be put in this unique relation to its maker?
And why should God choose to come to men as a Jew? The Christian
idea of a special providence is nonsense, an insult to the deity.
Christians are like a council of frogs in a marsh or a synod of
worms on a dunghill, croaking and squeaking, "For our sakes
was the world created".
is much more reasonable to believe that each part of the world
has its own special deity; prophets and supernatural messengers
had forsooth appeared in more places than one. Besides being bad
philosophy based on fictitious history, Christianity is not respectable.
Celsus does not indeed repeat the Thyestean charges so frequently
brought against Christians by their calumniators, but he says
the Christian teachers who are mainly weavers and cobblers have
no power over men of education. The qualifications for conversion
are ignorance and childish timidity. Like all quacks they gather
a crowd of slaves, children, women and idlers.
I speak bitterly about this, says Celsus, because I feel bitterly.
When we are invited to the Mysteries the masters use another tone.
They say, Come to us ye who are of clean hands and pure speech,
ye who are unstained by crime, who have a good conscience towards
God, who have done justly and lived uprightly. The Jews say, Come
to us ye who are sinners, ye who are fools or children, ye who
are miserable, and ye shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven:
the rogue, the thief, the burglar, the poisoner, the despoiler
of temples and tombs, these are their proselytes. Jesus, they
say, was sent to save sinners; was he not sent to help those who
have kept themselves free from sin? They pretend that God will
save the unjust man if he repents and humbles himself. The just
man who has held steady from the cradle in the ways of virtue
He will not look upon.
He pours scorn upon the exorcists — who were clearly in
league with the demons themselves — and upon the excesses
of the itinerant and undisciplined prophets who roam through cities
and camps and commit to everlasting fire cities and lands and
their inhabitants. Above all Christians are disloyal, and every
church is an illicit collegium, an insinuation deadly at any time,
but especially so under Marcus Aurelius. Why cannot Christians
attach themselves to the great philosophic and political authorities
of the world? A properly understood worship of gods and demons
is quite compatible with a purified monotheism, and they might
as well give up the mad idea of winning the authorities over to
their faith, or of hoping to attain anything like universal agreement
on divine things.
and Porphyry are the two early literary opponents of Christianity
who have the most claim to consideration, and it is worth noticing
that, while they agree alike in high aims, skillful address and
devoted toil, their sophy of religious standpoints are widely
dissimilar. Porphyry is mainly a pure philosopher, but also a
man of deep religious feeling, whose quest and goal are the knowledge
of God; Celsus, the friend of Lucian, though sometimes called
Epicurean and sometimes Platonist, is not a professed philosopher
at all, but a man of the world. He was really an agnostic at heart,
like Caecilius in Minucius Felix, whose religion is nothing more
or less than the Empire. He is keen, positive, logical; combining
with curious dashes of scepticism many genuine moral convictions
and a good knowledge of the various national religions and mythologies
whose relative value he is able to appreciate.
His manner of thought is under the overpowering influence of the
eclectic Platonism of the time, and not of the doctrine of the
Epicurean school. He is a man of the world, of philosophical culture,
who accepts much of the influential Platonism of the time but
has absorbed little of its positive religious sentiment. In his
antipathy to Christianity, which appears to him barbaric and superstitious,
he gives himself up to the scepticism and satire of a man of the
world through which he comes in contact with Epicurean tendencies.
He quotes approvingly from the Timaeus of Plato: It is a hard
thing to find out the Maker and Father of this universe, and after
having found him it is impossible to make him known to all. Philosophy
can at best impart to the fit some notion of him which the elect
soul must itself develop.
The Christian on the contrary maintained that God is known to
us as far as need be in Christ, and He is accessible to all. Another
sharp antithesis was the problem of evil. Celsus made evil constant
in amount as being the correlative of matter. Hence his scorn
of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body held then in a
very crude form, and his ridicule of any attempt to raise the
vulgar masses from their degradation. The real root of the difficulty
to Platonist as to Gnostic was his sharp antithesis of form as
good and matter as evil.
at one time inclined to the view that The True Word was written
in Rome, but the evidence (wholly internal) points much more decisively
to an Alexandrian origin. Not only do the many intimate references
to Egyptian history and customs support this position, but it
is clear that the Jews of Celsus are not Western or Roman Jews,
but belong to the Orient, and especially to that circle of Judaism
which had received and assimilated the idea of the Logos.
date also is clearly defined. Besides the general indication that
the Empire was passing through a military crisis, which points
to the long struggle waged by Marcus Aurelius against the Marcomanni
and other Germanic tribes, there is a reference (Contra Celsum,
viii.69) to the rescript of that emperor impressing on governors
and magistrates the duty of keeping a strict watch on extravagances
in religion. This edict dates from 176-177, and inaugurated the
persecution which lasted from that time till the death of Marcus
Aurelius in 180. During these years Commodus was associated in
the imperium, and Celsus has a reference to this joint rule (viii.71).
shows himself familiar with the story of Jewish origins. Any pagan
who wished to understand and criticize Christianity intimately
had to begin by learning from the Jews, and this accounts for
the opening chapters of his argument. He has a good knowledge
of Genesis and of the Book of Enoch (v. 52), but does not make
much use of the Prophets or the Psalter. As regards the New Testament
his position is closely in agreement with that reflected in the
contemporary Acts of the Martyrs of Scili. He speaks of a Christian
collection of writings, and knew and used the synoptic gospels,
but was influenced less by the Gospel of John. There is more evidence
of Pauline ideas than of Pauline letters.
gnostic sects and their writings were well known to him (viii.15
and vi.25), and so was the work of Marcion. There are indications,
too, of an acquaintance with Justin Martyr and the Sibylline literature
(vii. 53, cp. v.61). He is perfectly aware of the internal differences
among Christians, and he is familiar with the various stages of
development in the history of their religion. These are cleverly
employed in order to heighten the impression of its instability.
He plays off the sects against the Catholic Church, the primitive
age against the present, Christ against the apostles, the various
revisions of the Bible against the trustworthiness of the text
and so forth, though he admits that everything was not really
so bad at first as it is at present.
True Word had very little influence either on the mutual relations
of Church and State, or on classical literature. Echoes of it
are found in Tertullian and in Minucius Felix, and then it lay
forgotten until Origen gave it new life. A good deal of the neo-Platonic
polemic naturally went back to Celsus, and both the ideas and
phrases of The True Word are found in Porphyry and Julian, though
the closing of the New Testament canon in the meantime somewhat
changed the method of attack for these writers.
more importance than these matters is the light which the book
sheds on the strength of the Christian Church about the year 180.
It is arguable that Celsus had insufficient apprehension of the
spiritual inclinations that Christianity claimed to satisfy, and
he underrated the significance of the Church, regarding it simply
as one of a number of warring sects (mostly Gnostic), and so seeing
only a mark of weakness. Yet there is all through an undercurrent
which runs against his surface verdicts, and here and there comes
to expression. He admits that Christianity has been stated reasonably;
against the moral teaching of Jesus he only brings the charge
of plagiarism; and with the Christian assertion that the Logos
is the Son of God he completely accords.
suggestive, however, is his closing appeal to the Christians.
Come, he says, don't hold aloof from the common regime. Take your
place by the emperor's side. Don't claim for yourselves another
empire, or any special position. It is an overture for peace.
If all were to follow your example and abstain from politics,
the affairs of the world would fall into the hands of wild and
lawless barbarians (viii.68). Conceding that Christians are not
without success in business (infructuosi in negotiis), he wants
them to be good citizens, to retain their own belief but conform
to the state religion. It is an earnest and striking appeal on
behalf of the Empire, which was clearly in great danger, and it
shows the terms offered to the Church, as well as the importance
of the Church at the time. Numerically, Christians may have formed
perhaps a tenth of the population, i.e. in Alexandria there would
be fifty or sixty thousand, but their sway was greater than these