Critique of Christian Doctrine (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.


Many of the ideas of the Christians have been expressed better-and earlier-by the Greeks, who were however modest enough to refrain from saying that their ideas came from a god or a son of God. The ancients in their wisdom revealed certain truths to those able to understand: Plato, son of Ariston, points to the truth about the highest good when he says that it cannot be expressed in Words, but rather comes from familiarity-like a flash from the blue, imprinting itself upon the soul. But even if Plato were wrong-even if the highest good could be expressed in writing or in words, then would it not be equally good-indeed what could be better-to reveal this for the benefit of all men? As for Plato, he held that the good is known to a few; for when the masses get a hold of some sacred truth, or half truth, they behave arrogantly and contemptuously towards one another. But Plato, having said this, doesn’t go on to record some myth to make his point (as do so many others), nor does he silence the inquirer who questions some of the truths he professes; Plato does not ask people to stop questioning, or to accept that God is like such-and-such or has a son named so-and-so, to whom I was just talking this morning! I shall belabor my point a bit, but in doing so I hope to make myself clearer.

Plato QUote

Anyone knows that there is such a thing as true doctrine. This should be obvious to anyone who undertakes to write about such things. Everything that is, all that exists, has three things that make knowledge of it possible. The knowledge of the thing itself is generally regarded as a fourth attribute. The fifth attribute is that which is knowable and true. To put it in Plato’s language: the first is the name; the second, the word; the third, the image; the fourth, knowledge. In so defining the good, Plato does indeed stress that it cannot be described in words; but he gives ample reason for this difficulty in order to avoid putting discussion of the good beyond question and discussion. Even the nature of Nothing could be described in words.

Plato quote 2

Now Plato is not speaking in vain; he does not dissimulate or claim that he is saying something new. Plato does not claim that he descended from heaven to announce his doctrines. Rather, he tells us where his doctrines come from; there is, in short, a history to what he says, and he is happy to point to the sources of his knowledge, instead of asking us to believe that he speaks on his own authority.

Passion Week

What do the Christians say? They say, “First believe that the person who tells us these things is God’s son, even though he was arrested and humiliated, punished in the sight of all, and wandered about preaching in mean circumstances. This is all the more reason to believe!” So say the Christians. Now if these believers confess Jesus and others confess someone else, and if they all together have the slogan “Believe and be saved, or damn you,” what is to happen to those who really do want to be saved? I mean, which path are they to follow, since advice of the same sort is coming from all quarters? Are the ones who crave salvation to throw dice in order to find out where they should turn? How much should they gamble on their salvation? Whom should they follow? The Christians appeal to the worst of these salvation-hungry people by insisting that the wisdom of men is nothing but foolishness with God, and thus do they attempt to bring into their fold the uneducated and stupid. (I might mention that even on this point they are merely plagiarizing the ideas of the Greek philosophers, who long ago taught that human wisdom is one thing, divine wisdom another.) And did not Heracleitus teach that “The character of man has no common sense, but that of God has.” And, further, “A man is no more than a fool before God, as a child is before a man.” And the great Plato, in his Apology, said: “I, men of Athens, have come to have the name I have because of wisdom; and what sort of wisdom is it? It is that wisdom which a man may have, and in this way I am, I should say, wise.” It can be seen that even the Christian distinction between God’s wisdom and man’s goes back to Heracleitus and Plato. But the Christians mean something more by making this distinction. They pitch their message to the uneducated, the slaves, and the ignorant-those wholly without wisdom-and then convince them that the wisdom they possess in their newfound superstition is divine-the wisdom of God himself! This may be seen in the fact that they run away at a gallop from people of learning and culture-people whom they cannot deceive-and trap illiterate people instead.


Not surprisingly, they emphasize the virtue of humility (which in their case is to make a virtue of necessity!) here again prostituting the noble ideas of Plato, who writes in the Laws: “God, who knows the beginning and middle and end of all that is, advances in a straight course according to nature; justice follows the transgressor, and he who is happy follows the divine law closely and humbly.”

Christ washing Peter's feet
Christ washing Peter’s feet

Now it is one thing to follow the divine law with humility, knowing the wisdom with which it has been ordained. Christian humility is something else again: for in Christianity the “humble” man demeans himself in a humiliating fashion, throwing himself headlong upon the ground; crawling on his knees; garbing himself like a beggar in rags; smearing himself with the dirt of the road.

Harlot Washing Jesus' Feet
Harlot Washing Jesus’ Feet

Not only do they misunderstand the words of the philosophers; they even stoop to assigning words of the philosophers to their Jesus. For example, we are told that Jesus judged the rich with the saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Yet we know that Plato expressed this very idea in a purer form when he said, “It is impossible for an exceptionally good man to be exceptionally rich.” Is one utterance more inspired than the other?

Christ's Feet Anointed
Christ’s Feet Anointed

And what of their belief in a trinity of gods; is not even this central doctrine of theirs a gross misinterpretation of certain things Plato says in his letters? “All things,” writes the philosopher, “are centered on the King of the All; and the All is for his sake, and he is the cause of all that is good. The secondary things are centered in the Second, and the third things are centered in the Third. ” The human soul wants to learn about these things and to discover their true nature, by looking at things related to itself-none of which are perfect. But with respect to the king and the principles, there is nothing imperfect. It is because these Christians have completely misunderstood the words of Plato that they boast of God as above the heavens and put him higher than the heavens in which the Jews believe. But no earthly poet, and truly no Christian, has described or sung the regions of heaven as befits them: ultimate being, Plato calls it; “colorless, formless, untouchable, and visible only to the mind that guides the soul in its quest for the true knowledge that inhabits this sphere.”

Christ the King

Now the Christians pray that after their toil and strife here below they shall enter the kingdom of heaven, and they agree with the ancient systems that there are seven heavens and that the way of the soul is through the planets. That their system is based on very old teachings may be seen from similar beliefs in the old Persian mysteries associated with the cult of Mithras. In that system there is an orbit for the fixed stars, another for the planets and a diagram for the passage of the soul through the latter. They picture this as a ladder with seven gates, and at the very top an eighth gate: the first gate is lead, the second tin, the third bronze, the fourth iron, the fifth an alloy, the sixth silver, and the seventh gold. And they associate the metals with the gods as follows: the lead with Kronos, taking lead to symbolize his slowness; the second with Aphrodite, comparing the tin with her brightness and softness; the third with Zeus-the bronze symbolizing the firmness of the god; the fourth with Hermes, for both iron and Hermes are reliable and hard-working; the fifth with Ares-the gate which as a result of mixture is uneven in quality; the sixth with the moon; and the seventh with the sun-the last two being symbolized by the colors of the metals.

Mithras Slaying the Bull
Mithras Slaying the Bull

Of course, were one to lay the cosmology of the Persians alongside that of the Christians, one could see the differences between them, since I have seen a Christian drawing in which there were ten circles, separated from one another and held together by a single circle said to be the soul of the universe, called Leviathan. The diagram was divided by a thick black line which, I was told, was Gehenna or Tartarus.

Tombs in the Valley of Hinnom (Ancient Greek: Gehenna [γέεννα])
Tombs in the Valley of Hinnom (Ancient Greek: Gehenna [γέεννα])
These Christians also speak of a seal, given by the father to a young man called the Son or the Son of Man, who claims to have been anointed with a white ointment from the tree of life. The Christians teach that when a man is dying, seven angels stand alongside the soul, one group being angels of light, the remainder being what are called archontic angels, and the head of these archons is said to be the angel accursed of God. Some Christians [that is, the Gnostics] maintain that it is the god of the Jews who is the accursed angel, and that it is this god who sends thunder, who created the world and was worshipped by Moses, who describes his actions in his own story of the creation of the world. Well, such a god may well deserve to be accursed if he is the god who cursed the serpent for granting man the knowledge of good and evil!

What could be sillier than what the Christians call wisdom! The god of the Jews, their great lawgiver (say the Christians) made a mistake. Be it so: then why do you accept his laws as being worth following-why take these laws and interpret them as allegories? Why do you so grudgingly worship this Creator, you hypocrites, when he promised the Jews everything-that he would make their race prosper, that he would raise them up from the dead in their own flesh and blood-this same God who inspired the prophets? Yet you pour abuse on him! But when you Christians find things made difficult for you by the Jews, you come around and say that you worship the same God as they do! What is to be believed? For when your master, Jesus, lays down laws contrary to those laid down by Moses, in whom the Jews put their faith, you immediately undertake to find another God, one who is different from the Father.

The Prophet Moses receiving the Law of God
The Prophet Moses receiving the Law of God

Some of the Christians, like the followers of other mysteries, carry their theories to the point of absurdity, heaping the sayings of oracles on top of other sayings, all designed to confuse. And so we hear of circles on top of circles and emanations flowing out of emanations, earthly churches and churches of the circumcision; we witness the Jews flowing from a power represented as a virgin-Prunicus (Sophia)-and another living soul who was killed so that heaven could have life. Or they show the earth slain with a sword, or men slain so that others may live, and they show the evil of death being put to an end when the sin of the world is slain. They also depict in their diagrams a narrow passageway through the spheres, and gates that open of their own accord. These same Christians never tire of speaking of the “Tree of Life” and of resurrection of the flesh made possible by the tree-the symbolism being obvious if we accept their story that their master was nailed to a tree and was a carpenter by trade. I suspect that had he been thrown off a cliff or pushed into a pit or strangled-or had he been instead of a carpenter a cobbler, stonemason, or blacksmith, we would find them telling tales of a cliff of life in the heavens, or a pit of the resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or the smelter of love, or the holy hide of leather. I wonder, would not even a drunken old crone who sang such stories to a baby as lullabies be embarrassed by them?

Personification of wisdom (in Greek, "Σοφία" or "Sophia") at the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey.
Personification of wisdom (in Greek, “Σοφία” or “Sophia”) at the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey.

But that is not the most remarkable thing about these Christians: They interpret certain words that appear inscribed between the upper circles, above the heavens, a larger and a smaller-in particular, as the Son and the Father, and they teach their converts to read the signs and learn the interpretation of the diagrams, promising that in so doing they will become proficient in sorcery. They are really very dishonest, borrowing even their incantations from other religions in their magic acts. Their real talent is in hoodwinking people who are ignorant of the fact that the demons have different names among the Greeks, the Scythians, and so on (as Herodotus teaches us when he recounts that the Scythians call Apollo Gongosyrus, Poseidon, Thagimasada; Aphrodite, Agrimpasa; and Hestia, Tabitha. I shall not here go into their crazy displays of pretended power: it is enough to comment on the fact that countless persons have sought comfort for their sins by recourse to such religious chicanery; countless religions have promised to purge men’s souls; countless charlatans have promised to deliver the gullible from evil and disease; and yes, these Christian healers and magic-doers are able to produce noisy crashes and effects; they pretend to do miracles in Jesus’ name; they conjure by means of silks and curtains, numbers, stones, plants and the assorted paraphernalia that one expects of such people- roots and objects of all sorts.

A mystical depiction of Sophia from Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer, Altona, 1785
A mystical depiction of Sophia from Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer, Altona, 1785

Though they profess faith, I have seen these Christian priests use books containing magical formulas and the names of various demons; they surely are up to no good, but only mean to deceive good people by these tricks of theirs. I have this first hand, from an Egyptian musician by the name of Dionysus. He testifies that magical ploys are especially effective among the illiterate and among those with shady moral characters. Those who have had anything to do with philosophy, on the other hand, are above such trickery, since they are interested in examining actions and looking at their consequences.

Their utter stupidity can be illustrated in any number of ways, but especially with reference to their misreading of the divine enigmas and their insistence that there exists a being opposed to God, whom they know by the name of devil (in Hebrew, Satanas, for they refer to one and the same being by various names). But they show how utterly concocted these ideas are when they go on to say that the highest god in heaven, desiring to do such and such-say, confer some great gift on man-cannot fulfill his purpose because he is opposed and thwarted by a god who is his opposite. Does this mean that the Son of God can be beaten by a devil? Do they really mean that the Son of God is punished by the devil as some kind of lesson, as if to teach us that we should be indifferent to the punishments to be inflicted upon us? They teach even that Satan will manifest himself again and will show his works to mankind, rivaling God in his power and glory. To this they say that we should not be led astray by the works of the devil, but rather should stick close to the Christian God and believe in him alone. What blasphemy is this? Is it not patently the sort of thing one would expect to hear from a magician, a sorcerer who is out only for his own gain, and teaching that his rival magicians are working their wonders by the power of evil, while he and he alone represents the power of good? What else could we expect of these beggars?

A medieval depiction of the Devil
A medieval depiction of the Devil

Now, what is the source of their opinions? If we look to Heracleitus, we find the following: “War is a mutual thing, and justice is no more than strife: everything that exists has come to be through strife and necessity.” Pherecydes, even earlier than Heracleitus, tells of two armies set to do battle, Kronos heading one side, Ophioneus leading the opposing side. They agree after much deliberation that whichever army is driven into the ocean (Ogenus) should be the vanquished, while that which succeeds in driving the other into the pit should inherit the heavens. We find a similar myth promulgated in the stories of the Titans and the Giants and in the mysteries related by the Egyptians concerning Typhon, Horus and Osiris. Confronted with such stories, we are first to inquire of their meaning, and it is clear that the ancients were not telling tales about devils and demons. Homer writes as follows of the words spoken by Hephaestus to Hera: “Once when I was ready to defend you, he took me by the foot and threw me down from the heavenly places.” Zeus speaks to Hera as follows, “Do you remember when you were hanging on high, and I attached anvils to his legs and cast unbroken chains of gold about your arms? You were hanging in the ether of clouds. Then the gods struck-far from Olympus-but even though standing next to him, they could not free him. No, but I, seizing him, pitched him from the threshold of heaven, and he fell helplessly to earth.” Now the words of Zeus to Hera are not to be taken at face value. They refer to God’s words to matter; they point vaguely to the fact that at the beginning everything was in chaos and that God divided the world into certain sectors, put it together, and organized the whole. He cast away all the arrogant archons (putting them on earth). Thus does Pherecydes understand Homer when he says, “Beneath that land is the land of Tartarus, guarded by the daughters of Boreas, the Harpies and Thyella; and Zeus casts away any god if he becomes arrogant.” This is the meaning of the procession of the Panathenaea, when Athena’s robe is paraded; it signifies that an unmothered and undefiled goddess rules the arrogant rulers of the earth. So should myths be read.

Fragment of the Panathenaic Procession from the east frieze of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens
Fragment of the Panathenaic Procession from the east frieze of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens

But the Christian notion that the Son of God accepted the punishments inflicted upon him by a devil is merely ludicrous, especially if we are to think that this is to teach us to endure punishments quietly. In my view the Son of God had a right to punish the devil; he certainly had no reason to threaten with punishment the men he came to save, the very ones who had suffered so much from the devil’s abuse. It is even clear where they get their idea of a son of God. For in the old days men used to call this world of ours the child of God and personify it as a demigod, in as much as it originated from God. Jesus and the “child” of God are very much alike. But the ancients were speaking figuratively; the Christians think of Jesus as the very Logos of God. And their world-view is very silly-as silly, in fact, as their record of how man came to be:

The All-seeing Eye of God
The All-seeing Eye of God

They teach that man existed first in a garden planted by God, and that after a time man was thrown out of this garden, due to certain circumstances beyond his control, and was made to live in a world that in most respects was the very opposite of the garden. Now all of this is very silly indeed. Moses can only have written such things because he was stupid, and their general effect is like that of the old comedies, where we hear: “Proteus married Bellerophon, and Pegasus came from Arcadia.” In short, Moses and the prophets who put together this record had absolutely no inkling how the world came to be, and their books are absolute garbage. All that business about “Let there be light”-Are we to think that the creator of the world used light from above like a man who borrows a torch from his neighbor? Or are we to think, as do some Christians, that a demonic god made the world contrary to the will of the good god; and if so, why was the light not snuffed out from the start? I shall not here enter into questions of physics-whether the world is uncreated and indestructible or created and destructible. But we do not teach that the creator is a stranger to the world. Some among the Christians say that things were devised by a creator different from the great God who rules supreme, and that the great God restrained himself from acting, but can no longer do so; and they go on to teach that creation needs to be destroyed. Some teach that when the great God has given the spirit to the Creator he asks for it to be returned. But what sort of god is this? What god asks for something he has given to be returned to him-for to ask for something is the action of one who is in need, and God, by definition, -needs nothing. If the great God lent his spirit, was he unaware that he was lending it to an evil being? And if the good god and the creator are opposing principles, why does the good god endure with an evil god who opposes him? These Christians I would query as follows: Why does (the good god) wish to destroy the creations of the creator? Why does he impose himself as he does, by cunning and deceit? Why does he steal away those people whom the creator has cursed, and deal with mankind like a slave dealer? If they are the creator’s work, why does he teach them to escape from their master? If the creator is their father, why must they flee from home? And what right, lacking consent of the parent, does he have to steal them away from their father?  Well, what have we in the end? An impressive god indeed: one who desires nothing more than to adopt sinners as his children; one who takes to himself the creatures who stand condemned by another, the poor wretches who are (as they say of themselves) naught but dung; a god who is not capable of taking vengeance on this creator, but falls prey to him after sending out his son to do the dirty work.

Let there be light

But if these are truly the Creator’s works, how can it be that God should make what is evil? How can he repent when they become ungrateful and wicked? How can he find fault with his own handiwork, or threaten to destroy his own offspring? Where is he to banish them, out of the world that he himself has made?

Look further at the creation story credited among them, where we have read that God banishes man from the garden made specifically to contain him. Silly as that may be, sillier still is the way the world is supposed to have come about. They allot certain days to creation, before days existed. For when heaven had not been made, or the earth fixed or the sun set in the heavens, how could days exist? Isn’t it absurd to think that the greatest God pieced out his work like a bricklayer, saying “Today I shall do this, tomorrow that,” and so on, so that he did this on the third, that on the fourth, and something else on the fifth and sixth days! We are thus not surprised to find that, like a common workman, this God wears himself down and so needs a holiday after six days. Need I comment that a god who gets tired, works with his hands, and gives orders like a foreman is not acting very much like a god?

First Day of Creation (from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)
First Day of Creation (from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)

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