On Jews and Christians (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.

Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portrays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars
Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portrays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars

I now turn to exhort the Jews and Christians, but most especially the Christians: No god or son of God has come down to earth; nor would anyone deserving of the name God have come down to earth. Or do you mean not a god but some angel or demon? Or do you mean (as I assume you do) some other sort of being?

One thing about the Jews is worth noting: although they worship the heavens and the angels in it, yet they reject paying homage to its most sacred parts, namely the sun, moon, and the other stars-both fixed and mobile. They behave as though the whole could be God and yet in its Individual parts not be divine. Or else they seem to think that one ought to worship beings that descend among people who are blinded by darkness, perhaps as a result of magical arts of some kind, or people who have nightmares. But as for those beings who foretell the future so clearly-I mean the beings that tell the coming of the showers, the heat, the clouds (which they worship), the lightnings, and all the productivity of nature-the very beings in short by whom God is revealed to them, and the clearest proof of the divinity above us-these they pay no heed to at all and hold for worthless.

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld even lower than Hades
In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld even lower than Hades

It is equally silly of these Christians to suppose that when their God applies the fire (like a common cook!) all the rest of mankind will be thoroughly roasted, and that they alone will escape unscorched-not just those alive at the time, mind you, but (they say) those long since dead will rise up from the earth possessing the same bodies as they did before.  I ask you: Is this not the hope of worms? For what sort of human soul is it that has any use for a rotted corpse of a body? The very fact that some Jews and even some Christians reject this teaching about rising corpses shows just how utterly repulsive it is: it is nothing less than nauseating and impossible. I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away? And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying “Nothing is impossible with God.” A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is shameful; and God does not do what is contrary to nature. If, in your evildoing, you were to ask God to do something terrible, God could not do it-and hence you ought not believe, as so many of them do, that every base desire is to be fulfilled for the asking. For God is not the answer to every whimsical request; he does not deal in confusion. He is the creator of what is by nature just and true and right. He may, as Heracleitus says, be able to provide everlasting life for a soul; but the same philosopher notes that “corpses should be disposed of like dung, for dung they are.” As for the body-so full of corruption and other sorts of nastiness-God could not (and would not) make it everlasting, as this is contrary to reason. For he himself is the Logos-the reason-behind everything that exists, and he is not able to do anything that violates or contradicts his own character.

Heracleitus

Now, as to the Jews: they became an individual nation and made laws according to the custom of their people. They still maintain these laws among themselves to the present day and observe certain rites and practices which, though peculiar, have a grounding in ancient tradition. They are, in this regard anyway, no different from the rest of mankind: each nation follows its customs and laws, whatever they happen to be. This situation seems to have come to pass not only because certain people decided to think in a certain way and then went about devising ways to protect their social conventions, but also because from the beginning of the world different parts of the earth were allotted to different guardians, and, its having been apportioned in this manner, things are done in such a way as pleases the guardians. For this reason it is impious to abandon the customs which have existed in each locality from the beginning.

Jewish canon law is contained in the Talmud.
Jewish canon law is contained in the Talmud.

But the Christians are not like the Jews in this regard: I ask them where they came from, or who is the author of their traditional laws. “Nobody,” they say, though it is the case that they originated from the Jews. Nor can they name any other source for their teacher and chorus-leader. Yet are they Jews? No-they rebelled against the Jews.

The Rudder (Pedalion). The "Talmud" of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Rudder (Pedalion). The “Talmud” of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Herodotus writes as follows: “The people of the cities of Marea and Apis who live in the part of Egypt bordering on Libya, and thinking of themselves as Libyans instead of Egyptians, objected to the worship of the temples, not wishing to abstain from eating cows. So they sent to Ammon, saying that they had nothing in common with the Egyptians, as they lived outside the delta and did not agree with them. They wanted Ammon to allow them to taste all meats, but the god did not allow them to do this, saying that the land which the Nile passed over was Egypt, and that those who lived below the city of Elephantine and drank from this river were Egyptians.” Thus says Herodotus. Now I submit that Herodotus is no less equipped to give an account of the things of God than the angels of the Jews; thus there is nothing wrong if each nation observes its own laws of worship, and actually we find that the difference between the nations is quite considerable, though (naturally) each thinks its way of doing things is by far the best. To wit: the Egyptians who live at Meroe worship only Zeus and Dionysus. The Arabians worship only Ourania and Dionysus. The Egyptians all worship Osiris and Isis; the people of Sais, Athena; the Naucratites-of recent vintage-worship Serapis, and so with the rest of us according to our respective laws. Some abstain from sheep, reverencing them as sacred; others stay away from goats, others from crocodiles, still others from cows or from pigs, for they abhor being contaminated by them. Among the Scythian peoples cannibalism prospers, and some Indians consider it an act of piety to eat their fathers. To continue with what Herodotus says (quoting verbatim from him in the interest of accuracy), he tells the following story: “If someone were to call a council of all men and tell them to choose what laws are best, doubtless each after some thought—not much—would choose his own. Therefore it is not likely that anyone but a lunatic would make a mockery of these things: all men always have believed their way.” There are yet other witnesses to how much men have believed their laws were the only laws: while he ruled, Darius called the Greeks who were with him and asked how much money it would take for them to eat their dead fathers; they answered that they would not do such a thing at any price. He then called those called Calatians (Indians) who do feed on their fathers, and asked them (in the presence of the Greeks and through an interpreter) how much he would have to pay them to cremate their dead fathers rather than eat them. But they shouted aloud in a fury at the very suggestion, until he commanded them to keep silence. Such is the power of custom and law; as Pindar says, “Custom is the king of all.” Accordingly there is nothing wrong with a very ancient people like the Jews maintaining their laws; the fault is rather with those who have abandoned their own traditions in order to profess those of the Jews-those who act as though they have had some deeper revelation that entitles them to turn away from their friends and countrymen on the pretext that they have reached a higher level of piety and have heard that their doctrine of heaven is not original with them but (just for an example) was held long ago by the Persians. Their habit, writes Herodotus, is to go up to the highest peaks of the mountains to offer sacrifice to Zeus and indeed to call the whole circle of heaven Zeus. I think, therefore, that it is of little importance whether we call Zeus “The Most High” or Zen or Adonai or Sabaoth or Amoun (like the Egyptians) or Papaeus, like the Scythians. Moreover, they would certainly not be holier than other people just because they are circumcised, since others, such as the Egyptians and the Colchians, did this before them. They are not holier just because they abstain from pigs-the Egyptians did this before them as well, as also from goats, sheep, oxen, and fish. And the Pythagoreans abstain from beans and all living things. Nor is it really likely that the Jews are God’s chosen people and are loved more than other folk, or that the angels are sent only to them-as though they had been given some land set aside just for themselves. We can see what sort of land it is that God thought worthy of them! And we see what sort of people inhabit it! Well, enough about the Jews; I shall leave off, remarking only that they do not know the great God, but they have been deceived by Moses’ sorcery and have learned that without availing themselves anything at all.

Roman bust of Herodotus and fragment of the text from the 2nd Cent. CE 'Oxyrhynchus Papyrus'
Roman bust of Herodotus and fragment of the text from the 2nd Cent. CE ‘Oxyrhynchus Papyrus’

Let us turn instead to the renegades from Judaism, the Christians, those led on by the sorcery of Moses and seduced by their god, Jesus. I do not wish to discuss the silly and contradictory things they have to say about their teacher. I am willing even to assume that he really was an angel. But in that case, can we say he is the first of his kind ever to have come? Were there not others before him? If they say he is unique, then they are telling lies and contradicting themselves. For they admit that others have come, fifty or sixty at once, and were punished by being cast under the earth in chains, which they say are full of hot springs made hot by the tears of the tormented. They say as well that an angel came to the tomb of this man-some say one, some two-who replied to the women that he was risen. It seems that the Son of God was not able to move the stone, but needed an angel to do it for him. Not only that, but an angel came to the carpenter to defend Mary when she was pregnant, and another angel appeared to tell them that they must run for their lives to save the infant from danger .no It seems useless for me to provide a complete list of all those said to have appeared to Moses and others. The point is, of course, that this Jesus is hardly the only angelic being reckoned to have visited mankind; even before his time there are those who were sent by the creator, though some among the Christians- Marcion and his disciple Apelles for example-think that the creator is an inferior god. On this point there is considerable disagreement, for while some of the Christians proclaim they have the same god as do the Jews, others insist that there is another god higher than the creator-god and opposed to him. And some Christians teach that the Son came from this higher god. Still others admit of a third god-those, that is to say, who call themselves Gnostics-and still others, though calling themselves Christians, want to live according to the laws of the Jews. I could also mention those who call themselves Simonians after Simon, and those naming themselves Helenians after Helen, his consort. There are Christian sects named after Marcellina, Harpocratian Christians who trace themselves to Salome, some who follow Mariamne and others who follow Martha, and still others who call themselves Marcionites after their leader, Marcion. Pretty clearly, some put their faith in one god, others in another; but all in all they walk around in a fog, so evil and murky that it rivals the feasts of Antinous in Egypt. Thus is the extent of their evil and their ignorance. Christians, it is needless to say, utterly detest each other; they slander each other constantly with the vilest forms of abuse, and cannot come to any sort of agreement in their teaching. Each sect brands its own, fills the head of its own with deceitful nonsense, and makes perfect little pigs of those it wins over to its side. Like so many sirens they chatter away endlessly and beat their breasts: The world (they say to their shame) is crucified to me, and I to the world.

Apostle John (left) and Marcion of Sinope (right), from Morgan Library MS 748, 11th century
Apostle John (left) and Marcion of Sinope (right), from Morgan Library MS 748, 11th century

There are some few who claim to know more than the Jews. Let it be so: let us assume that even though they have no authority for their doctrine their teaching bears examining-and let us examine it. Let’s speak about their systematic corruption of the truth, their misunderstanding of some fairly simple philosophical principles-which of course they completely botch.

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