Address to the Jews (Celsus, ca. 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.


I now address myself to those Jewish believers who have turned aside from the faith of their fathers, deluded and ludicrously misled by this Jesus, and become strangers to their heritage. Says our Jew to them: “Why have you, 0 citizens of Israel, left the law of our fathers and become slaves to the power of this man whom we were just before addressing? You have been deceived. You have deserted Israel for another name. When we punished this Jesus who deceived you, you abandoned the law-or would you rather say that you take your start from the law of the fathers? But why take your start in the religion of the Jews? How can you despise the origins in which you yourselves claim to be rooted? Or can you name some other origin for your doctrine than our law? Is it not true that our own prophets speak of God among men. John, whom you revere as a prophet, was himself a Jew. And as for the doctrine central to your belief-the belief that the dead are raised and that God will dispense judgment to the righteous and to the unrighteous, your religion teaches nothing new.

“Let us look at your Messiah. Jesus, according to your writings, kept all the Jewish festivals and customs. He even took part in our sacrifices. Is this the hallmark of the Son of God? This god of yours is arrogant. He told great lies. He was a blasphemer and a profaner of the Sabbath. Worst of all, he managed to convince you to follow him in his profanity and lying, or those of you who appeared ready to be deceived. He is a liar, because while respecting on occasion the outward forms of our observances, yet he did not hesitate to abandon them for the sake of convenience: circumcision, the feasts of new moons, the distinction between what is clean and what unclean. All of this was done for the deceitful purpose of winning over the Jews, only thereafter to lead them astray. The one who will punish the unrighteous will come from God, and on that day, how you will despise this Jesus!

“Look at your god: How can you regard him as a god when as a matter of fact he was. not eager to make public anything he professed to do? After he had been tried and condemned and it had been decided that he should be punished, where did we find him? Hiding—trying to escape.  And was he not even betrayed by those whom he was silly enough to call disciples? If he was a god, is it likely that he would have run away? Would he have permitted himself to be arrested? Most of all: Would a god—a savior, as you say, and son of the Most High God—be betrayed by the very men who had been taught by him and shared everything with him? What an absurdity you have chosen to make a doctrine: no general worth his salt could have broached betrayal by the thousands he led; not even a robber chieftain captaining a crew of brigands would have been handed over by those whom he had tried to lead. But Jesus! He was betrayed by those closest to him, those under his authority, and he ruled neither like a good general, nor (when he had fooled his disciples) did he command the respect of his followers even to such a degree as robbers feel for their chief.

“I could continue along these lines, suggesting a good deal about the affairs of Jesus’ life that does not appear in your own records. Indeed, what I know to be the case and what his disciples tell are two very different stories. But let me pass over these details. Let us disregard the treachery of his disciples and the nonsensical idea that Jesus foresaw everything that was to happen to him (an obvious attempt to conceal the humiliating facts). But let us not omit this: the writings of the disciples contain only those facts about Jesus that put a flattering face on the events of his life. It is as if someone were saying out of one side of his mouth that a man is righteous, while admitting at the same time that the man is an evildoer; or, put differently, showing a man to be a murderer while saying he is holy; or while saying he is risen, proving him to be dead; and then-above it all-claiming that he predicted it! You admit that Jesus suffered and died (rather than saying, as you might, that he appeared to endure suffering). Yet what evidence do you point to to suggest that he anticipated this suffering? And if he was at some point a dead man, how can he have been immortal? It seems to me that any god or demon-or for that matter, any sensible man-who foreknew what was going to happen to him would try very hard to avoid such a fate. I mean, if he foreknew both the man who was to betray him and the man who was going to deny him, it would seem they would have feared him as God, and knowing what he knew, that the one would not betray him or the other deny him. Of course, as you tell the story, they both betrayed him and denied him without any thought for this at all. If people conspire against a man who anticipates their conspiracy and tells them of it to their face, such traitors commonly turn away from their treachery and are thereafter on their guard. But I conclude that these things did not happen to Jesus because they were foretold. That is quite impossible. No, the very fact that they happened suggests the opposite: namely, that they were wholly unexpected. He had not predicted them. It is impossible to think that those who had already heard of their behavior from Jesus would have carried out their intentions.

“But perhaps,” you will argue, “he foretold all these things by virtue of being a god and knowing the hearts and minds of his followers. And what he foreknew must come to pass. If it is thus the case that these things happened according to his divine intention and with his foreknowledge, we must also conclude that Jesus the god led his own disciples and prophets-those with whom he ate and drank-so far astray that they became evil and treacherous. But if he was a god, ought he not rather to have done good to men? Especially to those who followed him? In my book, a man who shared meals with another man would not intend him to betray him, especially if the first was a god! Are we then to say, as your doctrine teaches, that God himself was the conspirator-that God ate with men, only to turn his disciples into traitors and evildoers? “The things that happened to Jesus were intensely painful. It must have been impossible for him to have prevented them from being so. But if it is true that he foreknew what was to happen-indeed intended it from the start, why is he represented as lamenting and wailing, and supplicating God to make him strong in the face of death. Why does he cry: “Father, if only this cup could pass by me!” A fine God indeed who fears what he is supposed to conquer.

“It is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie, and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have even heard that some of your interpreters, as if they had just come out of a tavern, are onto the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the original writings three, four, and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”

Let our Jew continue his sally against the Christians, now with a view to the prophets who, so say the Christians, foretold the story of Jesus beforehand: “These same prophecies could easily be applied to a thousand others besides Jesus, for our prophets say that the one who is to come (the Messiah) will be a great prince; he will be the lord of this world, and the leader of nations and armies.

From this it is obvious that the prophets do not anticipate a low-grade character like this Jesus-a man who is able to make himself the son of a god by trickery, deceit and the most incredible stories. A true son of God, like the sun that illuminated the world by first illuminating itself, ought first to have been revealed as a true god. The Christians put forth this Jesus not only as the son of God but as the very Logos-not the pure and holy Logos known to the philosophers, mind you, but a new kind of Logos: a man who managed to get himself arrested and executed in the most humiliating of circumstances.

Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre.
Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre.

“This boaster and sorcerer whom you designate the Logos is unique in having a human genealogy. The men who fabricated this genealogy were insistent on the point that Jesus was descended from the first man and from the king of the Jews. The poor carpenter’s-wife seems not to have known she had such a distinguished bunch of ancestors; they were all kept in the closet until such time as they could be of some use. A fine god indeed, this boaster and sorcerer who performed not ode godly action, who could not counter even the opposition of men, or avoid the disaster that ended his life in disgrace. According to your tales, the man who sentenced him did not suffer the fate of a Pentheus by going mad or being torn to pieces; rather, Jesus permitted himself to be mocked and bedecked with a purple robe and crowned with thorns. Why did this son of a god not show one glimmer of his divinity under these conditions? Why did he refuse to deliver himself from shame-at least play the man and stand up for his own or for his father’s honor? But what does he say when his body is stretched out on the cross? ‘Is this blood not ichor such as flows in the veins of the blessed?’ When thirsty, he drinks greedily from a sponge full of vinegar and gall, not bearing his thirst with godly patience. Yet you who call yourselves true believers dare to criticize us Jews because we refuse to acknowledge this man as a god or admit that he underwent these sufferings for the good of mankind so that we all may avoid punishment? Have you forgotten that while he lived this Jesus convinced nobody-not even his own disciples-of his divinity, and was punished shamefully for his blasphemies? Were he a god he should not have died, if only in order to convince others for good and all that he was no liar; but die he did-not only that, but died a death that can hardly be accounted an example to men. Nor was he free from blame, as you imagine. Not only was he poor, he was also a coward and a liar as well. Perhaps you Christians will say that having failed to convince men on earth of his divinity, he descended into hell to convince them there. In all of these beliefs you have been deceived; yet you persist doggedly to seek justification for the absurdities you have made doctrines. If the central doctrine of Christianity bears testing, why should we not wonder whether every condemned man is an angel even greater than your divine Jesus? I mean, why not be completely shameless and confess that every robber, every convicted murderer, is neither robber nor murderer but a god? And why? Because he had told his robber band beforehand that he would come to no good end and wind up a dead man. Your case is made the harder because not even his disciples believed in him at the time of his humiliation: those who had heard him preach and were taught by him, when they saw he was heading for trouble, did not stick with him. They were neither willing to die for his sake nor to become martyrs for his cause they even denied they had known him! Yet on the example of those original traitors, you stake your faith and profess your willingness to die.

Orpheus in the Underworld
Orpheus in the Underworld

“When I ask what arguments you would cite to show that this man was a son of God, you offer that his death was meant to destroy the father of evil. But then, others have been punished by means just as disgraceful. Why did their deaths not bring about an end of evil? Or will you say that he was a son of God because he healed the lame and the blind and (as you declare) raised the dead?”

But-leaving our Jew to ponder for a moment-is this sort of thing not the very essence of sorcery and deception? As the Christians themselves have said, Jesus himself spoke of rivals entering the contest with his followers, wicked men and magicians, who would perform just the same sort of wonders, only under the supervision of Satan. Even Jesus admitted there was nothing exclusively “divine” about working these signs-that they could just as easily be done by wicked men. Nonetheless, in acknowledging this capacity in others, he unwittingly proves his own performances to be a lie. Good Lord! Is it not a silly sort of argument to reckon by the same works that one man is a god whilst his rivals are mere “sorcerers”? Why should we conclude from your argument that the sorcerers are worse than your god-that is if we take the testimony of Jesus about their powers seriously? He himself has said that such works were not produced by my divine nature but were instead the works of cheats  and imposters. But to return to our quizzical Jew: Let him ask a question of his countrymen newly converted to the religion of this Jesus:

A tomb painting at the Aleksandrovo Kurgan (Bulgaria), depicting Zalmoxis
A tomb painting at the Aleksandrovo Kurgan (Bulgaria), depicting Zalmoxis

“Is your belief based on the ‘fact’ that this Jesus told in advance that he would rise again after his death? That your story includes his predictions of triumphing-over the grave? Well, let it be so. Let’s assume for the present that he foretold his resurrection. Are you ignorant of the multitudes who have invented similar tales to lead simple-minded hearers astray? It is said that Zamolxis, Pythagoras’ servant, convinced the Scythians that he had risen from the dead, having hidden himself away in a cave for several years; and what about Pythagoras himself in Italy!—or Rhampsinitus in Egypt. The last of these by the way, is said to have played dice with Demeter in Hades and to have received a golden napkin as a present from her. Now then, who else: What about Orpheus among the Odrysians, Protesilaus in Thessaly and above all Herakles and Theseus. But quite apart from all these risings from the dead-we must look carefully at the question of the resurrection of the body as a possibility given to mortals. Doubtless you will freely admit that these other stories are legends, even as they appear to me; but you will go on to say that your resurrection story, this climax to your tragedy, is believable and noble. (This, of course, notwithstanding his cry from the cross). I suppose you will say that the earthquake and the darkness that covered the earth at the time of his death prove him a god, and that even though he did not accept the challenge to remove himself from the cross or to escape his persecutors when he was alive, yet he overcame them all by rising from the dead and showing the marks of his punishment, pierced hands and all, to others. But who really saw this? A hysterical woman, as you admit and perhaps one other person-both deluded by his sorcery, or else so wrenched with grief at his failure that they hallucinated him risen from the dead by a sort of wishful thinking. This mistaking a fantasy for reality is not at all uncommon; indeed, it has happened to thousands. Just as possible, these deluded women wanted to impress the others- who had already the good sense to have abandoned him-by spreading their hallucinations about as “visions.” After getting some few to believe them, it was a small matter for the fire of superstition to spread. If this Jesus were trying to convince anyone of his powers, then surely he ought to have appeared first to the Jews who treated him so badly-and to his accusers-indeed to everyone, everywhere. Or better, he might have saved himself the trouble of getting buried and simply have disappeared from the cross. Has there ever been such an incompetent planner: When he was in the body, he was disbelieved but preached to everyone; after his resurrection, apparently wanting to establish a strong faith, he chooses to show himself to one woman and a few comrades only. When he was punished, everyone saw; yet risen from the tomb, almost no one. The Christians are fond of saying that Jesus wanted to be unnoticed, and point to places in their sacred books where Jesus enjoins silence on the demons and those he has healed. But again, they contradict themselves, condemning the Jews for failing to recognize the Christ. If he wanted to be unnoticed, why was the voice from heaven heard, declaring him the Son of God? If he did not want to be unnoticed, then why was he punished and executed? At the very least it would seem that he would want his followers to know why he had come to earth. But your Jesus does not let his followers in on his secret, and thus occasions their disbelief. This is not my own guessing: I base what I say on your own writings, which are self-refuting. What god has ever lived among men who offers disbelief as the proof of his divinity? What god appears in turn only to those who already look for his reappearance, and is not even recognized by them? The sort of god, you should answer, who piles empty abuses on his hearers by threatening them with woes for misunderstanding things which were never made plain to them. What is plain is that this Jesus was a mere man, and rather more a reason to disbelieve in resurrection than to hold fast to the doctrine of our fathers which says that it is within God’s power to raise men from the dead.” So our Jew would say to his deceived countrymen.

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)
Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

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