Critique of Christian Teaching (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.

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I turn now to consider the argument-made by Christians and some Jews-that some god or son of God has come down to the earth as judge of mankind. The Jews say he is still to come (a shameful idea and one really not worth refuting). Now what I should like to know is this: What is God’s purpose in undertaking such a descent from the heights? Does he want to know what is going on among men? If he doesn’t know, then he does not know everything. If he does know, why does he not simply correct men by his divine power? A fine god indeed who must pay a visit to the regions below, over which he is said to have control. Yet the Christians maintain that he is unable to correct men by divine power without sending someone who is especially adept at saving people from their sins. Furthermore, if God was unknown among men and thus thought himself to be underrated, would he want to make himself known and put those who believed in him to the test along with those who did not, like some wealthy man who has just come into some money and decides to flaunt it among his friends? It is petulance and the ambition for power that seems to determine the actions of the Christian God. Were they consistent, the Christians would argue that a god does not need to be known for his own sake, but rather wishes to give knowledge of himself for salvation-that is to say, in order to make people good and to distinguish the good from those who are bad and deserve punishment. But the Christian God is not so: he keeps his purposes to himself for ages, and watches with indifference as wickedness triumphs over good. Is it only after such a long time that God has remembered to judge the life of men? Did he not care before? They babble about God day and night in their impious and sullied way; they arouse the awe of the illiterate with their false descriptions of the punishments awaiting those who have sinned. Thus they behave like the guardians of the Bacchic mysteries, who never tire of talking about the phantoms and terrors that await those who reveal the secrets to outsiders.

Scenes of a Dionysiac Mystery Cult. Mural Frieze. 50 B.C. Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii
Scenes of a Dionysiac Mystery Cult. Mural Frieze. 50 B.C. Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

They postulate, for example, that their messiah will return as a conqueror on the clouds, and that he will rain fire upon the earth in his battle with the princes of the air, and that the whole world, with the exception of believing Christians, will be consumed in fire. An interesting idea-and hardly an original one. The idea came from the Greeks and others-namely, that after cycles of years and because of the fortuitous conjunctions of certain stars there are conflagrations and floods, and that after the last flood, in the time of Deucalion, the cycle demands a conflagration in accordance with the alternating succession of the universe. This is responsible for the silly opinion of some Christians that God will come down and rain fire upon the earth.

Zeus, angered by the sinfulness of mankind, causes it to rain and rain, until all drown except Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha whose ark lands up on Mount Parnassus.
Zeus, angered by the sinfulness of mankind, causes it to rain and rain, until all drown except Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha whose ark lands up on Mount Parnassus.

But what kind of God is it who “comes down” to earth and brings fire along with him? As Plato has taught, God is that which is beautiful and happy and exists within himself in the most perfect of all conceivable states. This means that God is changeless. A god who comes down to men undergoes change-a change from good to bad; from beautiful to shameful; from happiness to misfortune; from what is perfect to what is wicked. Now what sort of a god would choose a change like that? Is it not rather the essence of a mortal to undergo change and remolding, and the nature of an immortal being to remain the same without alteration? Accordingly, it cannot be the case that God came down to earth, since in so doing he would have undergone an alteration of his nature.

The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.
The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.

To be blunt: Either God really does change as they suggest into a human being (and this, as noted, is an impossibility), or else he does not change, but rather makes them who see him think that he is only mortal, and so deceives them, and tells lies-which it is not the nature of a god to do. Deceit and lying are in all other cases wrong, except only when one uses them as a sort of medicine for friends who are sick and mad, in order to heal them-or in the case of enemies when one is trying to escape danger. But then, no sick or mad man is God’s friend, nor is God afraid of anyone to the extent that he should have to resort to trickery to avoid them.

http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Phaethon.html
http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Phaethon.html

The Jews say that as life is filled with all manner of evil, it is necessary for God to send someone down so that the wicked may be punished and everything purified, as it was when the first flood occurred. The Christians add other ideas to these, but the central point is the same: namely, that God is vindictive and repentant. Who can doubt that the God who destroyed the tower of Babel desired to purify the earth of disobedience, just as did the God who sent the flood? And like Phaeton of old, so does he undertake to destroy Sodom and Gommorah by fire on account of their sins. Such a god seems to delight in repenting of what he has created and-having lost control over it-in reducing it to rubble. The Christians have added to the ancient myths of destruction the idea that the Son of God has already come down to earth-because of the sins of the Jews-and that because the Jews punished Jesus and gave him gall and vinegar to drink, they brought down on their heads the full fury of God’s wrath.

Building the Tower of Babel. Duomo di Monreale.
Building the Tower of Babel. Duomo di Monreale.

As to the squabbles of the Jews and the Christians, I can only say that these sects remind me of a cluster of bats or ants escaping from a nest, a bunch of frogs holding council in a swamp, or a clutch of worms assembling in the muck: all of them disagreeing over who is the worst sinner. Thus do they say “God shows himself to us first-and he ignores the affairs of the world in order to give us, his chosen, his full attention; he sends his messengers to us alone, and never stops sending them and seeking that we may dwell with him forever.” And the wormlike Christians say, “Well, you are wrong, because in the rankings God is first and we fall next since we are made exactly in God’s image and all things have been put under us—earth, water, air, stars, and the rest-everything exists for our benefit and to serve only us. Since some remain outside the fold, God will send his son to consume the unrighteous so that we-the saved-can have eternal life with him.” So much for the message of the Jews and Christians. Would not such assertions be more forgivable corning from worms and frogs than from these sects in their petty squabbles?

This page of the Iconodule Chludov Psalter, illustrates the line "They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink"
This page of the Iconodule Chludov Psalter, illustrates the line “They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink”

And who are the Jews? They are runaway slaves who escaped from Egypt. They never did anything of importance-they have never been of any significance or prominence whatever, for nothing of their history is to be found in the Greek histories. They have tried in their holy books-shamefully I may add-to trace their genealogy back to the first offspring of sorcerers and deceivers, invoking the witness of vague and ambiguous utterances concealed in dark obscurity. And this they have put across to the uneducated and to the gullible in spite of the fact that throughout the span of history no such idea has been expressed. In days gone by other peoples have made such claims: the Athenians, the Egyptians, the Arcadians, and the Phrygians-who maintain that some of their ancestors were born of the earth, and try to prove such assertions.

Hebrews Making Mud Bricks

Of course, being cornered in the insignificant land of Palestine, we cannot expect the Jews to have heard the stories and fables sung in poetry by Hesiod and other inspired men. And so they contrived for themselves a crude and fantastic story about man being formed by God and breathed on by God, and that a woman was then formed out of the man’s right side, and that God gave them commands, and that a serpent came and proved himself superior to the wishes of God. This legend they tell the old women-as if to publicize the fact that their God is a weakling from the start-indeed, wholly unable to control even the first-made of his creatures.

The serpent tempting Eve
The serpent tempting Eve

Now it is true that the more reasonable among the Jews and Christians are ashamed of this nonsense and try their best to allegorize it, as with the stories related by Hesiod. How else are we to understand the story about creating woman from the man’s rib-which indeed in its literal form is only fit for the ears of old women. So too their fantastic story-which they take from the Jews-concerning the flood and the building of an enormous ark, and the business about the message brought back to the survivors of the flood by a dove (or was it an old crow?). This is nothing more than a debased and nonsensical version of the myth of Deucalion, a fact I am sure they would not want to come to light. As it stands, the story is really one for the hearing of small children.

Adam's Rib

To move to other fables: There is also current among the Christians a variety of stories dealing with the begetting of children long after the parents are of child-bearing age.  Their books are chock full of stories about the treacheries of mothers, God appearing on earth in various disguises, brother murdering brother, purportedly righteous men having intercourse with various women other than their wives; indeed, stories that rival in their immorality the tales of the Thyestians: brothers selling brothers, women being turned into salt-and so on. It is no wonder that the reasonable among the Christians, embarrassed as they ought to be by such stories, take refuge in allegory!-as they are, all in all, very stupid fables. On the other hand, some of the allegories I have seen are even more ridiculous than the myths themselves, since they attempt to explain the fables by means of ideas that really do not fit into the context of the stories. I myself know a story of this sort entitled “The Controversy between Papiscus and Jason”, an allegory so absurd that it does not merit my ridicule but rather my pity and contempt. I think it is unnecessary to refute this sort of stuff, as its silliness will be apparent to anyone who has the patience to read through it. Instead of ridiculing Christian tracts, I would much prefer to say something positive about the natural world and its order-to teach, for example, that there is no god worthy of the name who created mortals: whatever god there is, he must have made immortal beings, and mortal beings are their handiwork, as the Philosopher teaches.

Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea wall painting
Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea wall painting

As the soul is the work of a god, so the body is by nature different-not to be distinguished from the body of a bat, a worm, or a frog. We are all-all of us-made of the same matter; and we are all-all of us-destined for corruption, despite what the Christians teach us to the contrary. Again, it must be said that with respect to the body all animals have a single common nature; this nature passes through changes and subsists in many different forms, returning in the end to what it originally was; yet no product of matter is immortal.

I turn now to consider the existence of evi1, which is analogous to matter itself in that there can be no decrease or increase of evils in the world-neither in the past nor in the future. From the beginning of time, the beginning of the universe, there has been just so much evil, and in quantity it has remained the same. It is in the nature of the universe that this be the case, and depends on our understanding the origins of the universe itself. Certainly someone who has no learning in philosophy will be unaware of the origin of evil; but it is enough that the masses be told that evils are not caused by God; rather, that they are a part of the nature of matter and of mankind; that the period of mortal life is the same from beginning to end, and that because things happen in cycles, what is happening now-evils that is-happened before and will happen again. Yet while evil persists, the whole picture is rather different from what we see of the visible world: each thing comes into being and dies for the good of the whole—according to the processes of change of which I previously wrote. What this means theologically is that neither good nor evil can possibly increase on earth: God has no need of [what the Christians call] a new creation; God does not inflict correction on the world as if he were an unskilled laborer who is incapable of building something properly first time around; God has no need to purify what he has built by means of a flood or a conflagration (as they teach).

There is a sort of arrogance in the assumption of the Christians that evil is on the rise. Even if something seems evil to you it is far from clear whether it is really evil; one person with his limited perspective on the whole state of creation is unequipped to know whether what is good for you is good for someone else in the universe, and vice versa. When a man was angry with the Jews and killed them all, both young and old, and burned down their city, they were completely annihilated; yet (they say) when the supreme God was angry and wrathful he sent his son with threats-and suffered all kinds of indignities.  I shall have to show that their stupidity really hinges on their doctrine of creation, since they hold that God made all things for the sake of men, whereas our philosophy maintains that the world was made as much for the benefit of the irrational animals as for men—I mean, why should things have been created more for man’s nourishment than for the benefit of the plants and trees, the grass and the thorns? I suppose they ignore the fact that things do not grow without human endeavor-we struggle to make things fertile, whatever God may have to do with the case-whereas they attribute everything to God as though everything grew without sowing and tillage. As Euripides says, “Sun and light serve mortals” but they serve the ants and flies as well. For in their case, too, the night is for sleeping and the day for doing.

Euripides

The Christians, like the Jews, boast that we are the rulers and Lords of creation-because we hunt and feast on animals. I might reply by asking why rather they are not our masters, and why it cannot be said that we were made for their sake, since they also hunt and feed on us. And while they go to hunt alone, we tend to need dogs, weapons, and other men to help us against the prey! And so to those who say that man is superior to the irrational animals, I reply that God indeed gave us the ability to catch the wild beasts and to make use of them; yet it is also true that before there were cities, arts, culture, weapons, and nets-men were captured and eaten by the wild beasts, and it was rarely the other way round. And if it is said that human beings are better than the irrational animals because we live in cities and occupy prominent offices and the like-I say this proves nothing: ants and bees do as much; or at any rate, the bees elect leaders and a stratified social system of leaders, attendants, servants; they have their weapons and wage their wars, slay the vanquished, build cities and even suburbs. They share in the work of their society and punish the idlers-that is to say, in driving out the drones to fend for themselves. And the ants are no less clever, for they pick out the unripened fruit for themselves to keep it through the year-and set a place apart as a graveyard for those of their number who have died. Indeed, the very ants meet in council to plan strategy; this is why they do not lose their way. They have a fully developed intelligence-and it seems they have as well a clear-cut notion of certain universal laws, and even a voice to make the experience of their learning known to others of their kind.

Constantine burning Arian books
Constantine burning Arian books

In view of all this, I ask the Christians: If someone were to look out from heaven down upon the earth, what difference would he see between what we do and what the ants and bees do? Perhaps it will be said that human beings have learned magical arts and sorcery, and that this the animals can never have. I reply that in this regard the snakes and bees have done us one better, for it is clear that they know the antidotes to diseases and preventions for many more-including the use of stone to keep their young from harm. Let a man get hold of such secrets and he will think he has something marvelous-yet the animals know the secrets already.

Next let it be said by some unthinking Christian that it is our ability to conceive of a deity-to think about God—that sets us apart from the “lower” creatures. But I ask whether it is so-the power of divination is a case in point, and this man must learn from the birds and other animals. It would seem that there are animals of special use to prophets-call them “prophetic animals” if you will-but in any case the power of foreknowledge has been given them by God, and they in turn impart this knowledge to men. This being so, it is clear that these animals are much nearer to God-perhaps they are wiser than we and dearer to God than we. Some say that the birds have associations similar to our own secret societies and that they can read what the birds say and that having gotten information about such and such an event from the birds, things turned out just as the birds had predicted. It is said further that no animal is able to keep an oath better than an elephant, and for that reason the elephant is more faithful to God than many men are. So too, the stork is more pious than many a man, and more affectionate, as the young storks bring food to their parents. An Arabian bird, the phoenix, spends many a day seeking out the body of its father in Egypt, and will bury its father in a ball of myrrh in the shrine of the sun.

A reborn phoenix
A reborn phoenix

From all this it can be seen that all things have not been made for man-any more than for the lion, the eagle, or the dolphin-but rather all has been made by God so that the world itself may be complete and perfect in all its parts. Things have indeed been proportioned, but not for the sake of man-rather for the good of the universe as a whole. God takes care of the universe; that is to say, providence never abandons it, and it does not become more evil. The Christians are silly to say, therefore, that God turns the world back to himself after a period of neglect, nor does he become angry because man “sins” –any more than he is angry with monkeys and mice for doing what they do naturally. For each has his allotted place in the scheme of things.

 

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