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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Celsus, Polemical Adversary of Christianity
Celsus (1). Of the personal history of this, the first great polemical adversary of Christianity, we know nothing with certainty; and even Origen, from whom the whole of our knowledge of Celsus is derived, had received the work of Celsus, entitled ἀληθὴς λόγος , or the True Discourse, without any hint of the history or date of its author.
But questions far more interesting than personal ones are raised by his attack on Christianity, of which enough has been preserved by Origen in his contra Celsum to convey to us a very tolerable idea of its nature. We must be on our guard at once against disparaging it too much, and against thinking too highly of its ability. Origen, indeed, who to all appearance is a very fair antagonist, speaks of it with contempt. But Celsus was not a mere polemical assailant; he was a philosopher on his own account, and held in certain respects by no means unenlightened opinions. He had strong faith in reason. "What evil is it," he asks, "to be learned and to have cultivated the intellect with the best pursuits, to be and to appear wise? What obstacle are these things to the knowledge of God? Do not they rather lead and assist to the attainment of truth?" Nor had that similarity between the human and the animal frame, which the natural science of our own day insists upon, escaped his notice. Hence he deduces that ants "converse, have reason, notions of general truths, speech," etc. (iv. 84), and even that they have knowledge of God. It would be hard, again, to cavil at his ideas of the Divine Nature; he speaks of men "burning with the love of it" (i. 8); he is intolerant of the association of it with anything that is mortal or perishable. He was not free from superstition; he believed in magic, and declared that serpents and eagles were more skilled in it than men (iv. 86). Baur says that "in acuteness, in dialectical aptitude, in many-sided cultivation, at once philosophic and general, Celsus stands behind no opponent of Christianity." Admitting that this panegyric is not groundless, we must add, that in vital insight Celsus was deficient. As an opponent of Christianity, the chief characteristic of Celsus is a strong, narrow, intolerant common sense. To him Christianity is an "exitiabilis superstitio"; he gives credence to every story against it on which he can lay his hands; he dwells with coarse jocularity on the Jewish tradition of Panthera and the Virgin Mary (i. 28, sqq.); he unearths a certain Diagramma, a figure symbolizing the world, and consisting of a circle called Leviathan enclosing ten other circles, apparently used in the rites of some sect more or less approximating to the Christians (vi. 22). He has no idea of regarding Christianity from the inside, and of inquiring into the reason of its influence; he uses jest for argument, and interprets everything in a bad sense. Treating of the flight of Jesus into Egypt, and afterwards (as he alleges) before the betrayal, he asks, "Had God need to fly from His enemies? Does fear belong to God?"
From such instances it is evident that Celsus wholly misapprehended the force of the doctrine that he was attacking. There are cases, indeed, in which he shews himself more acute. He challenges the evidence of Christianity, and asks, "Who saw the dove lighting on the head of Jesus after His baptism?" As to the Resurrection, he makes the remark which has been copied by Renan and others, that it was Mary Magdalene, "a fanatical woman," who was the first witness of the resurrection, according to all the accounts (ii. 55); and remarks on the disbelief invariably given to such accounts as those of the resurrection of Zamolxis, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Protesilaus, Hercules, and Theseus. But the most remarkable portions of his attack are those directed against the general character of Christianity. He dwells on the numerous sects of Christians, all of whom said, "Crede, si salvus fieri velis," and asks how one is to judge between so many? Origen does not deny the fact, but maintains that it is a proof of the importance of that on which they debated, and further that they all set forth Jesus alone as the means of salvation (vi. 11). Celsus accuses the Christians of lawlessness, and of keeping wholly to themselves, and not caring for those outside. He complains vehemently of them as discouraging learning, wisdom, and thought; as rejecting the authority of reason; as being the patrons of sinners, whereas to the heathen mysteries only "the holy and virtuous" were invited. He makes a great point of the opposition between the morality of the Old and New Testaments, in respect of the earthly success which is the crowning happiness of the former, and so strongly reprobated by the latter. Finally, he maintains that no revelation of the Supreme Being can be made; but that, if it could be made, it must be of universal and compelling efficacy; that, however, all that is possible is revelation by an angel or demon, and even that he denies to Judaism or Christianity.
The form of Celsus's work, the ἀληθὴς λόγος , is well known. He begins with a dialogue between a Jew and a Christian, in which the Jew sets forth his objections to Christianity. But he had not any partiality for Judaism. He treats Moses and the Jewish Scriptures with a contempt which amusingly contrasts with the uncritical reverence which he pays to the Galactophagi of Homer, the Druids, and the Getae, whom he terms "wise and ancient nations" (i. 16); and with which he accepts the stories of Linus and Musaeus, though afterwards he rejects those of Perseus and Amphion (i. 64). In one of the most unpleasing passages of his work, he compares Jews and Christians to a set of worms or frogs squabbling in the mud, and saying, "God is, and we are next to Him, and it is for our sake that the whole world is made; and God will come and take us up to heaven, except those who are bad, whom He will burn with fire."
The work of Origen against him is, as a whole, of much controversial merit and philosophical breadth. Origen, indeed, like Celsus, is not free from the superstitions of his time; thus he defends the star whose appearance is told in the second chapter of St. Matthew by a reference to comets, which, he remarks, portend future events, such as wars and pestilences. But, on the whole, there are few works of the ancient Fathers which can be read with more pleasure and profit. F. C. Baur has written an elaborate critique on Celsus in his work on Christendom and the Christian Church in the First Three Centuries (TÃ¼bingen, 1853). But especially valuable is Prof. Theodor Keim's monograph (Celsus's Wahres Wort. ZÃ¼rich, 1873). Dr. Kelm gathers together, and translates, the fragments of Celsus contained in Origen; and adds disquisitions of much interest, both on Celsus himself and on two of his contemporaries, Lucian of Samosata and Minucius Felix. Both Baur and Kelm rate Celsus too highly; but the general tendency of Christian writers has naturally been to underrate him. The date of Celsus's treatise is fixed by Keim as a.d. 177 or 178. (Cf. Renan, Marc-AurÃ¨le; Pelagaud, Ã‰tude sur Celse (Lyons, 1828); AubÃ©, Histoire des PersÃ©cutions (Paris, 1878); Lightfoot, Apost. Fath. II. i. pp. 513 ff.)
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Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Celsus, Polemical Adversary of Christianity'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/c/celsus-polemical-adversary-of-christianity.html. 1911.
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