Christian Doctrine Compared to that of the Greeks (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.


 We leave our Jew satisfied to have won his case against the Christians. Returning to consider the truth of their beliefs, I wonder that Christians and Jews argue so foolishly with one another-their contest over whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah reminding me rather of the proverb about the shadow of an ass.  In fact, there is really nothing of significance in their dispute: both maintain the quite nonsensical notion that a divine savior was prophesied long ago and would come to dwell among men. All they disagree on is whether he has come or not. The Christians say yes, and cite the miracles of Jesus as proof of his identity.

The Jews say that any sorcerer could put forward such proofs, and that the circumstances of Jesus’ death prove him an imposter. I am slightly inclined to the latter view myself, since miracles and wonders have indeed occurred everywhere and in all times: Asclepias did mighty works and foretold the futures of cities that kept his cult—Trikka, Epidaurus, Cos, and Pergamum; then there is Ansteas the Proconnesian, or the case of a certain Clazomennian-or of Cleomedes the Astypalean. Yet I am also bound to say that the Jews have a knack of generating such nonsense. By race, they are Egyptian-like folk, and after revolting against their Egyptian cousins and being in turn disinherited by the leaders of Egypt, they struck out on their own, only to experience the same sort of rejection from the Christian cult that arose in their midst. In both instances apostasy bred apostasy, rejection led to rejection.

Asclepius healing a patient
Asclepius healing a patient

Now the Christians are just as proud as the Jews. They profess to seek converts, but thrive on martyrdom. I rather suspect that if all men desired to become Christians, the cult would immediately shut the door to converts. At the start of their movement, they were very few in number, and unified in purpose. Since that time, they have spread all around and now number in the thousands. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are divisions among them-factions of all sorts, each wanting to have its own territory. Nor is it surprising that as these divisions have become so numerous, the various parties have taken to condemning each other, so that today they have only one thing-if that-in common: the name “Christian.” But despite their clinging proudly to their name, in most other respects they are at odds. I suppose, however, that it is more amazing that there are any points of agreement at all, given the fact their belief rests on no solid foundation. They are agreed, for instance, that outsiders are not to be trusted and that they themselves must remain perpetual apostates from the approved religions.

Kleomedes of Astypalaia
Kleomedes of Astypalaia

Now, it will be wondered how men so disparate in their beliefs can persuade others to join their ranks. The Christians use sundry methods of persuasion, and invent a number of terrifying incentives. Above all, they have concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishment and rewards, exceeding anything the philosophers (who have never denied the punishment of the unrighteous or the reward of the blessed) could have imagined. I have heard that before their ceremonies, where they expand on their misunderstanding of the ancient traditions, they excite their hearers to the point of frenzy with flute music like that heard among the priests of Cybele. In the old religions of Egypt, I recall, a man could be seduced by the magnificence of the shrines-the sacred gardens, the great entrance, the temple surrounded by splendid tents, not to mention the hypnotic effect of the rites themselves, made to be swallowed by the gullible. But once inside, what did the worshiper find? A cat—or a monkey; a dog, crocodile, or goat.  The design of the old religion was to impress upon the initiate that he had learned a secret knowledge-that the significance of these animals was given to him and him only. But at least the religion of Egypt transcended the worship of the irrational beasts: the animals were symbols of invisible ideas and not objects of worship in themselves. The religion of the Christians is not directed at an idea but at the crucified Jesus, and this is surely no better than dog or goat worship at its worst.

An Archigallus making sacrifices to Cybele & Attis.
An Archigallus making sacrifices to Cybele & Attis.

The Christians ignore the good offices of the Dioscuri, of Herakles, Asclepias, and of Dionysus, and say that these men are not gods because they were humans in the first place. Yet they profess belief in a phantom god who appeared only to members of his little club, and then, so it seems, merely as a kind of ghost. Now in the case of Asclepias, many men, Greeks as well as barbarians, confess that they see him-not a mere phantom, but Asclepios himself, doing his customary good works and foretelling the future. Or take Aristeas, who vanished from men’s sight miraculously, then appeared again, and later on visited many parts of the world and recounted his wanderings. Such was his power that even Apollo is said to have commanded the Metapontines to regard Aristeas a god. I hasten to say: nobody any longer believes in Aristeas as a god. So too with Abaris the Hyperborean—who according to Herodotus carried an arrow over the whole world without stopping to eat. Yet even such power did not cause people to make him a god. And the Clazomennian whose soul is said to have left his body from time to time and wandered around on its own. A stupendous wonder indeed-yet no one thinks him a god. And Cleomedes the Astypalean: he got into a chest, shut the lid, and was not to be seen inside when it was broken to bits by those seeking to arrest him. 63 Perhaps he vanished by some act of providence: but it is certain his vanishing did not cause the people to declare him a god.

Relief (2nd century BC) depicting the Dioskouri galloping above a winged Victory, with a banquet (theoxenia) laid out for them below.
Relief (2nd century BC) depicting the Dioskouri galloping above a winged Victory, with a banquet (theoxenia) laid out for them below.

I emphasize that the Christians worship a man who was arrested and died, after the manner of the Getae who reverence Zamolxis, or those Sicilians who worship Mopsus, the Aracarnanians who worship Amphilochus, or the Thebans who worship Amphiarus and the Lebadians who worship Trophonius. The honor they pay to Jesus is no different from the sort paid to Hadrian’s favorite boy, Antinous. Yet they brook no comparison between Jesus and the established gods, such is the effect of the faith that has blurred their judgment. For only a blind faith explains the hold that Jesus has of their imagination. For they stress that he was born a mortal-indeed, that his flesh was as corruptible as gold, silver, and stone. By birth, he shared those carnal weaknesses that the Christians themselves regard as abominable. They will have it, however, that he put aside this flesh in favor of another, and so became a god. But if apotheosis is the hallmark of divinity, why not rather Asclepias, Dionysus, or Herakles, whose stories are far more ancient? I have heard a Christian ridicule those in Crete who show tourists the tomb of Zeus, saying that these Cretans have no reason for doing what they do. It may be so; yet the Christians base their faith on one who rose from a tomb.

Cave of Zeus, Mount Ida, Crete
Cave of Zeus, Mount Ida, Crete

Even the more intelligent Christians preach these absurdities. Their injunctions are like this: “Let no one educated, no one wise, noone sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone childish, let him come boldly.” By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their god, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.


Further, we see that these Christians display their trickery in the marketplace and go around begging. They would not dare to enter into conversation with intelligent men, or to voice their sophisticated beliefs in the presence of the wise. On the other hand, wherever one finds a crowd of adolescent boys, or a bunch of slaves, or a company of fools, there will the Christian teachers be also—showing off their fine new philosophy. In private houses one can see wool workers, cobblers, laundry workers, and the most illiterate country bumpkins, who would not venture to voice their opinions in front of their intellectual betters. But let them get hold of children in private houses-let them find some gullible wives-and you will hear some preposterous statements: You will hear them say, for instance, that they should not pay any attention to their fathers or teachers, but must obey them. They say that their elders and teachers are fools, and are in reality very bad men who like to voice their silly opinions. These Christians claim that they alone know the right way to live, and that if only the children will believe them, they will be happy and their homes will be happy as well. Now if, as they are speaking thus to the children, they happen to see a schoolteacher corning along, some intelligent person, or even the father of one of the children, these Christians flee in all directions, or at least the more cautious of them. The more reckless encourage the children to rebel. They tell the children that they remain silent in the presence of the parents and the schoolteachers only because they do not want to have anything to do with men as corrupt as these pagans, who, did they know what the children had been hearing, would likely punish them for hearing it. These Christians also tell the children that they should leave their fathers and teachers and follow the women and their little chums to the wool-dresser’s shop, or to the cobbler’s or to the washerwoman’s shop, so that they might learn how to be perfect. And by this logic they have persuaded many to join them.

A man with a donkey's head crucified upon a cross with the caption "Alexmenos worships his god" (1st-3rd century AD), Palatine hill, Rome.
A man with a donkey’s head crucified upon a cross with the caption “Alexmenos worships his god” (1st-3rd century AD), Palatine hill, Rome.

Please do not think I criticize the Christians any more bitterly than they deserve. I think anyone may see that the summons to join the other mysteries is rather different, however. It runs: Come forward, whoever has a pure heart and wise tongue, or else, whoever is free of sin and whose soul is pure-you who are righteous and good come forward. In the mystery religions, such talk is typical, as is the promise that membership brings about a sort of purification from sins. But the call to membership in the cult of Christ is this: Whoever is a sinner, whoever is unwise, whoever is childish-yea, whoever is a wretch-his is the kingdom of God. And so they invite into membership those who by their own account are sinners: the dishonest, thieves, burglars, poisoners, blasphemers of all descriptions, grave robbers. I mean-what other cult actually invites robbers to become members! Their excuse for all of it is that their god was sent to call sinners: well, fair enough. But what about the righteous? How do they account for the fact that their appeal is to the lowest sort of person? Why was their Christ not sent to those who had not sinned-Is it any disgrace not to have sinned? Are they saying that a god who will receive an unrighteous man who repents of his unrighteousness, provided he humbles himself, will not receive a righteous man, even if he has remained steadfast in his righteousness and honored God from the beginning of his days?

The Orpheos Bakkikos crucifixion, hematite seal reflecting ancient Greek themes
The Orpheos Bakkikos crucifixion, hematite seal reflecting ancient Greek themes

But of course, the Christians postulate that everyone is a sinner, so that they are able to extend their appeal to the public at large. Now, it is perhaps the case that everyone is inclined to sin-though not everyone does sin. But if it is the case that everyone sins, why did their god not merely call mankind in general to salvation rather than the wicked? I mean, why on earth this preference for sinners?

I suspect I know why the Christians pitch their message as they do: because they are unable to convert anyone truly virtuous and good. This can be the only .explanation for their clear preference of the wicked and sinful.

The Christian God is apparently moved by feelings of pity and compassion for the sort of men that hang about the Christian churches, or so at least they believe. Such compassion is a great relief, no doubt, for the evildoer, since he can rely on the fact that even the god who judges his actions is not above being influenced by the odd tear or display of emotion. Do they suggest that a good man would be rejected by such a god? Do they mean to say that the wise are hindered and led astray by their wisdom? Such, at least, I assume to be the case when I consider their vulgar doctrines. I doubt very much that any really intelligent man believes these doctrines of the Christians, for to believe them would require one to ignore the sort of unintelligent and uneducated people who are persuaded by it. And how can one overlook the fact that Christian teachers are only happy with stupid pupils-indeed scout about for the slow-witted.


A teacher of the Christian faith is a charlatan who promises to restore sick bodies to health, but discourages his patients from seeing a first-class physician with a real remedy for fear superior skill and training will show him up. This, the Christian teachers warn, “Keep away from physicians.” And to the scum that constitutes their assemblies, they say “Make sure none of you ever obtains knowledge, for too much learning is a dangerous thing: knowledge is a disease for the soul, and the soul that acquires knowledge will perish.”

Your teacher acts like a drunkard who enters a saloon and accuses the customers of being drunk-a blind man who preaches to nearsighted men that they have defective eyesight. I bring these accusations against the Christians, and could bring many more (which I refrain from doing); I affirm that they insult God; they lead wicked men astray, offering them all sorts of false hopes and teaching them to hate what is truly good-saying that they should avoid the company of good men.


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