The Unoriginality of the Christian Faith (Celsus c. 177)

NOTE: According to the Christian father Origen, Celsus (Κέλσος) was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. He is known for his literary work, The True Word (Λόγος Ἀληθής), which survives exclusively in Origen’s quotations from it in Contra Celsum. This work, c. 177 is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity.

The cult of Christ is a secret society whose members huddle together in corners for fear of being brought to trial and punishment. Their persistence is the persistence of a group threatened by a common danger, and danger is a more powerful incentive to fraternal feeling than is any oath. As to their doctrine, it was originally barbarian, and while even barbarians are capable of discovering truth, it happens to be the case that Greeks are best equipped to judge the merit of what passes for truth these days. They also practice their rites in secret in order to avoid the sentence of death that looms over them. There is nothing new or impressive about their ethical teaching; indeed, when one compares it to other philosophies, their simple-mindedness becomes apparent. Take their aversion to what they term idolatry. As Herodotus shows, the Persians long before our time held the view that things made with human hands cannot be regarded as gods. Indeed, it is preposterous that the work of a craftsman (often the worst sort of person!) should be considered a god. The wise Heracleitus says that “those who worship images as gods are as foolish as men who talk to the walls.”

Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, birthplace of Heraclitus
Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, birthplace of Heraclitus

The Christians claim to get some sort of power from pronouncing the names of demons or saying certain incantations, always incorporating the name Jesus and a short story about him in the formula. Even this practice is old stuff: Jesus himself was thought to work wonders by the use of magic and incantations. He knew that others would follow him in these practices, yet he seems to have expelled those who did from his society. Perhaps this is the origin of the hypocrisy for which the Christians are so well known: Was he right to drive them away for copying him? Being guilty of magic himself he had no reason to accuse others, nor could they be accounted bad men for following their leader.

More and more the myths put about by these Christians are better known than the doctrines of the philosophers. Who has not heard the fable of Jesus’ birth from a virgin or the stories of his crucifixion and resurrection? And for these fables the Christians are ready to die-indeed do die. Now I would not want to say that a man who got into trouble because of some eccentric belief should have to renounce his belief or pretend that he has renounced it. But the point is this, and the Christians would do well to heed it: One ought first to follow reason as a guide before accepting any belief, since anyone who believes without testing a doctrine is certain to be deceived. We have plenty of examples in our own time: the snivelling beggars of Cybele, the soothsayers, the worshippers of Mithras and Sabazius; those gullible believers in the apparitions of Hecate, and assorted other gods. Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of a simpleton’s lack of education to lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teachers: they do not want to give or to receive reasons for what they believe. Their favorite expressions are “Do not ask questions, just believe!” and: “Your faith will save you!” “The wisdom of this world,” they say, “is evil; to be simple is to be good.” If only they would undertake to answer my question-which I do not ask as one who is trying to understand their beliefs (there being little to understand!) But they refuse to answer, and indeed discourage asking questions of any sort. For this reason I have undertaken to compose a treatise for their edification, so that they can see for themselves the true character of the doctrines they have chosen to embrace and the true sources of their opinions.

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Many of the nations of the world hold doctrines similar to those espoused by the Christians. This leads some thinkers to conclude that there is an original source for the various opinions that purport to be the “true” [religious] doctrine. The historians of the various nations have given us their accounts-accounts, it goes without saying, that offer us a very one-sided version of their national religion and a biased view of the religions of surrounding peoples.

The prophets of the Jews and their great hero, Moses, wrote the history of their people in a way designed to favor their beliefs. The Egyptian view of the Jews, not surprisingly, is quite different. Yet behind these views, these national prejudices, is an ancient doctrine that has existed from the beginning-a doctrine, so it is said, maintained by the wisest men of all nations and cities. This doctrine has been held not only by the sages among the Jews, but by the wise men of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Indians, Persians, Odrysians, Samothracians, and Eleusinians. The Galactophagi of Homer, the Druids of Gaul, and even the Getae (for example) believe doctrines very close to those believed by the Jews-indeed, before the Jews. Linus, Musaeus, Orpheus, Pherecydes, Zoroaster the Persian, and Pythagoras understood these doctrines, and their opinions were recorded in books which are still to be consulted.7

The Mosaic history is one among many, and those who attempt to universalize it or to disguise its partiality by treating the books of Moses allegorically [wiser though they may be than those who take such accounts at face value] are being led astray and deceived.

Were we to read the literature of but one nation, we would conclude that there had been but one flood, one conflagration, one disruption of the created order. But in reality there have been many floods, many conflagrations-those floods in the time of Deucalion and the fire in the time of Phaeton being more recent than the rest.

Deucalion's Flood
Deucalion’s Flood

The Greeks of course thought these upheavals ancient since they did not possess records of earlier events, such records being destroyed in the course of floods and conflagrations. Moses heard of such beliefs, beliefs current among the wise nations and among distinguished men, and thus received for himself a certain reputation for having divine powers. These doctrines he used in order to educate the Jews. Yet none of what he taught can be considered original: the rite of circumcision, for example which I do not criticize-came to the Jews from Egypt where the rite is used to produce magical effects. Yet without rational cause, the goatherds and shepherds followed Moses, who taught them that there was but one God-deluded, apparently, by his rather naive beliefs and caused them to forsake their natural inclinations to credit the existence of the gods. For our part, we acknowledge the many: Mnemosyne, who gave birth to the Muses by Zeus; Themis, Mother of the Hours; and so on. Yet these goatherds and shepherds came to believe in one god and called him the Most High-Adonai, the Heavenly One-or sometimes Sabaoth, or whatsoever-and came to discredit all other gods. Yet in excluding the other names of the highest god, have not they shown their foolishness! It matters not a bit what one calls the supreme God-or whether one uses Greek names or Indian names or the names used formerly by the Egyptians. Further, for all their exclusiveness about the highest god, do not the Jews also worship angels, and are they not addicted to sorcery, as indeed their scripture shows Moses himself was?

I shall take up the matter of the Jewish doctrines in due course. First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called savior, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God. This savior, I shall attempt to show, deceived many and caused them to accept a form of belief harmful to the wellbeing of mankind. Taking its root in the lower classes, the religion continues to spread among the vulgar: nay, one can even say it spreads because of its vulgarity and the illiteracy of its adherents. And while there are a few moderate, reasonable, and intelligent people who are inclined to interpret its beliefs allegorically, yet it thrives in its purer form among the ignorant.

Let us imagine what a Jew-let alone a philosopher might put to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumours about the true and unsavory circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in royal David’s city of Bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town, and of a woman who earned her living by spinning?’ Is it not the case that when her deceit was discovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panthera she was driven away by her husband the carpenter -and convicted of adultery? Indeed, is it not so that in her disgrace, wandering far from home, she gave birth to a male child in silence and humiliation? What more? Is it not so that you hired yourself out as a workman in Egypt, learned magical crafts, and gained something of a name for yourself which now you flaunt among your kinsmen?”

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What absurdity! Clearly the Christians have used the myths of the Danae and the Melanippe, or of the Auge and the Antiope in fabricating the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. A beautiful woman must his mother have been, that this Most High God should want to have intercourse with her! An interesting point in itself, since if, as their philosophers (copying ours) say, God by nature does not have corruptible bodies, he cannot love a woman. Are we to think that this high God would have fallen in love with a woman of no breeding-one unknown and unregarded even by her neighbors? Odd that the kingdom of God, the core of their teaching, is made to hang on the disgrace of a rejected woman, whose husband turned her aside. Let us pursue further the questions put to this Jesus by the Jew:

“When you were bathing in the Jordan near John, I understand you saw what looked like a bird fly towards you out of the air. Now let me understand what witnesses saw this wondrous event. And I should be most eager to know who heard the voice attesting that you are the Son of God? For I have so far heard only your voice, and have but your word for it. Now perhaps you will want to argue that we have the words of the holy prophets-that they bore witness concerning you. With due respect, I must ask why you are to be taken as the subject of these prophecies rather than the thousands of others who lived after the prophecy was uttered? What can be applied to you surely can be applied to others; you are not the only one who goes about begging and claiming to be the Son of God. And would it not seem reasonable that if you are, as you say, God’s son, God would have helped you out of your calamity, or that you would have been able to help yourself? You say as well that divine grace makes everyone a son of God. This being so, what is the difference between you and anyone else?

“But let us review a story about your birth: You say that Chaldeans came to worship you as God while you were still an infant, and that they told Herod the Tetrarch of this, and that he sent men to kill those born just at that time, hoping to destroy you along with them. This was done, so it is said, in order to ensure that you would not reign as king when you were grown up. Now this is very puzzling: if Herod did this in order to prevent you from becoming king when you were grown instead of him, why then have you not become a king? Why-though a son of God-do you go about begging for food, cowering before the threats of the people, and wandering about home; Jesus?”

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According to the Jews, Jesus collected around him ten or eleven unsavory characters-tax collectors, sailors, and the like, and these scurried about making a living as best they were able, usually through double dealing and in otherwise questionable ways. But (the Jew will want to say): “Is it not wonderful that you survived at all! I mean, what when you were an infant you had to be taken away to Egypt lest you should be murdered. I am disturbed by the news that you, though a god, should have been afraid of death. An angel from heaven persuaded your family of the danger that you were doomed lest they escape with you. This is the second angel, if I hear rightly, who had been sent to provide a warning. One wonders why many more could not have been sent by the great God abovyou being his beloved son! After all, the old myths of the Greeks that attribute a divine birth to Perseus, Amphion, Aeacus and Minos are equally good evidence of their wondrous works on behalf of mankind-and are certainly no less lacking in plausibility than the stories of your followers. What have you done by word or deed that is quite so wonderful as those heroes of old? Challenged in the Temple to produce some sign that you were the son of God you showed us nothing.

“Perhaps you will point to those tricks about which your disciples boast: those cures and resurrections, or feeding the crowds with but a few loaves (and having some left over to boot!). Monstrous tales, to be sure. But let us say for the sake of argument that such things were actually done by you. Are they then so different from the sort of things done by sorcerers-who also claim to do wonderful miracles, having been taught their tricks by the Egyptians. The sorcerers at least, for a few pence, make Their magic available to everyone in the marketplace. They drive away demons, conquer diseases of all kinds, and make the dead heroes of the past appear-indeed sitting at long tables and eating imaginary cakes and dishes. They make things move about, as if they were alive-all illusion to be sure, but quite appealing to the average imagination. Now I ask you: As these men are able to do such wonderful things, ought we not regard them also as sons of God? Or ought we rather to say that they are the contrivances of evil men who are themselves possessed by demons? I think, Jesus, that the High God would not have chosen a body such as yours; nor would the body of a god have been born as you were born. We even hear of your eating habits. What! Does the body of a god need such nourishment? And we hear often of your unsuccessful attempts to win over others to your cause-the tricks evidently not being enough to hold their attention. One wonders why a god should need to resort to your kind of persuasion even eating a fish after your resurrection. I should rather think that your actions are those of one hated by God, the actions of a sorcerer.” So says our Jew to Jesus.

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