Christian Iconoclasm (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.

The Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian and an Iconoclast bishop whitewash an image of Christ, from a 9th century Psalter.
The Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian and an Iconoclast bishop whitewash an image of Christ, from a 9th century Psalter.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over the form of God and the importance of images, the Christians are the losers, since they worship neither a god nor even a demon, but a dead man! Moreover, why should we not worship gods? I mean, if it is accepted that all of nature-everything in the world-operates according to the will of God and that nothing works contrary to his purposes, then it must also be accepted that the angels, the demons, heroes-everything in the universe-are subject to the will of the great God who rules over all. Over each sphere there is a being charged with the task of governance and worthy to have power, at least the power allotted it for carrying out its task. This being the case, it would be appropriate for each man who worships God also to honor the being who exercises his allotted responsibilities at God’s pleasure, since that being must have been licensed to do what he does by God. Your Jesus says “It is impossible for the same man to serve many masters” (and thus makes it appear that beings exist who exercise control quite apart from the will of God; but such a being would not be the great God at all, but some lower power). The notion that one cannot serve many masters is the sort of thing one would expect of the race of Christians-an eccentric position, but one perhaps predictable of a people who have cut themselves off from the rest of civilization. In so saying, they are really attributing their own feelings to God; for in the ordinary course of affairs, a man who is serving one master cannot really serve a second, since the first might be harmed by the man’s loyalty to the second.

Anchor, fish, and Chi-Rho symbols from the Catacombs of St. Sebastian.
Anchor, fish, and Chi-Rho symbols from the Catacombs of St. Sebastian.

A man committed to one master could not pledge himself to a second, since in doing so he would be doing the one harm. It is perhaps equally reasonable, they would say, not to serve different heroes or demons at the same time. But God is not a man that he should be talked about as a “master.” Harm, necessity, and sorrow are irrelevant where God is concerned: he is unaffected by injury, grief, and need. Thus it cannot be irrational to worship several gods; and the man who does so will naturally be worshiping some gods who derive from that greatest God, and will be loved for it. A man who honors what belongs to God does not offend God, since all belongs to him.

Jesus in the Catacombs of Rome. 3rd-century fresco from the Catacomb of Callixtus of Christ as the Good Shepherd with the cock on his right.
Jesus in the Catacombs of Rome. 3rd-century fresco from the Catacomb of Callixtus of Christ as the Good Shepherd with the cock on his right.

Now, if the Christians worshiped only one God they might have reason on their side. But as a matter of fact they worship a man who appeared only recently.t97 They do not consider what they are doing a breach of monotheism; rather, they think it perfectly consistent to worship the great God and to worship his servant as God. And their worship of this Jesus is the more outrageous because they refuse to listen to any talk about God, the father of all, unless it includes some reference to Jesus: Tell them that Jesus, the author of the Christian insurrection, was not his son, and they will not listen to you. And when they call him Son of God, they are not really paying homage to God, rather, they are attempting to exalt Jesus to the heights.

The Healing of the Paralytic – the oldest known image of Jesus,[8] from the Syrian city of Dura Europos, dating from about 235
The Healing of the Paralytic – the oldest known image of Jesus,[8] from the Syrian city of Dura Europos, dating from about 235
To prove my point I quote from their own book: In one of the divine dialogues, they say the following: “‘If the Son of God is mightier and the Son of Man is his Lord (and who will overcome the mighty God?) then how can it be that so many have seen the well but have not drunk from it? Why, having come to the end of your journey are you afraid?’- ‘You are wrong, for I have courage and a sword'” Thus it is not their object to worship the almighty God, but the one whom they claim to be the father of Jesus, the cult fixture of their little society. They worship only this Son of Man, on the pretext that he is really a great god. And they say further that he is mightier than the lord of the almighty God. It was from this that they took their notion of not serving two masters, trying to ensure that [Jesus] would be preserved as the god and lord of the cult, unrivaled by any other.

Bearded Jesus between Peter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome. Second half of the 4th century. Such works "first present us with the fully formed image of Christ in Majesty that will so dominate Byzantine art"
Bearded Jesus between Peter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome. Second half of the 4th century. Such works “first present us with the fully formed image of Christ in Majesty that will so dominate Byzantine art”

The Christians abstain therefore from setting up altars and images, thinking that in doing so they are safeguarding the secrecy and obscurity of their little club. They think that in abstaining from things sacrificed to the gods they are preserving their sanctity. But to think in such a way is to cheapen the very idea of God, who belongs not to the Christians but to all men, and who-as he is perfectly good-needs no sacrifices anyway, as Plato somewhere says. Such a god is not jealous for the devotion of particular people; necessity is foreign to his nature, and the homage people pay him has to do with their zeal, not his requirements. Understood in this way, there is nothing to prevent these Christians from participating in the public festivals in the spirit of social intercourse and as a sign of their fealty to the state. If, as they maintain, the idols are nothing, then there is nothing to prevent them from public- minded duties such as the festival. On the other hand, if the idols are existent beings-demons of some sort, then they must belong to God himself, as he created all that exists; and if they occupy this position, it is a Christian’s duty to pay them homage, to believe in them, sacrifice to them, and pray to them for the general good of the people.

Incised sarcophagus slab with the Adoration of the Magi from the Catacombs of Rome, 3rd century. Plaster cast with added colour.
Incised sarcophagus slab with the Adoration of the Magi from the Catacombs of Rome, 3rd century. Plaster cast with added colour.

But let us take their general point a further step: If they get their ideas from the spiritual fathers, the Jews, in not offering homage to the gods and in abstaining from certain animals, why do they not abstain from the flesh of all animals? Pythagoras, to name but one, refused to eat animal meat on the premise that he thereby honored the soul and its functions. The Christians, however, take the view that they are abstaining from feasting with demons, and on this point I congratulate them: they acknowledge in so saying that they are always in the presence of the gods. I mean, of course, that although they avoid sacrifices they nonetheless breathe, eat, drink water and wine, and thus do not avoid the gods charged with the administration of each of these activities. So they are caught in the inconsistency of their own logic: either one ought not live at all-or else, having been born to live on this earth, we ought to give thanks to the gods who control earthly things, to render them the first-fruits and prayers, so that they will befriend us while we live. The wisest of the Greeks have said that even the human soul is allotted to gods from its birth; thus even we are to some extent under their control, and it is just as well if we do not slight them but rather do what we can to solicit their favor: The satraps or subordinate officers, not to mention the procurators who represent the Persian or Roman emperor-indeed even those who hold lesser offices-could make things very uncomfortable for anyone if they were slighted [as the Christians slight the gods]; and one should not expect the satraps and lieutenants of the earth and air to look kindly on the insults [of the new sect]. But of course they think otherwise: they assume that by pronouncing the name of their teacher they are armored against the powers of the earth and air and that their God will send armies to protect them. And they teach that no demon, lest it be an evil one, could want to do them harm anyway. And they are quite insistent on the efficacy of the name as a means of protection: pronounce it improperly, they say, and it is ineffective. Greek and Latin will not do; it must be said in a barbarian tongue to work.

Chi-Rho symbol from the first two letters of Greek Christos
Chi-Rho symbol from the first two letters of Greek Christos

Silly as they are, one finds them standing next to a statue of Zeus or Apollo or some other god, and shouting, “See here: I blaspheme it and strike it, but it is powerless against me for I am a Christian!” Does this good Christian fellow not see that I might do the same without fear of reprisal to an image of his god? And further: those who do stand next to your little god are hardly secure! You are banished from land and sea, bound and punished for your devotion to [your Christian demon] and taken away to be crucified. Where then is your God’s vengeance on his persecutors? Protection indeed!

Detail of the central shepherd from the intricately carved marble Sarcophagus of the Good Shepherd , Catacomb of Praetextatus, Rome, 390s AD
Detail of the central shepherd from the intricately carved marble Sarcophagus of the Good Shepherd , Catacomb of Praetextatus, Rome, 390s AD

You ridicule the images of the gods; I doubt you would be so brave were you to come face to face with Herakles or Dionysus himself; but that is hardly my point. I would call your attention to the well-known fact that the men who tortured your god in person suffered nothing in return; not then, nor as long as they lived. And what new developments have taken place since your story proved false-something that would encourage someone to think that this man was not a sorcerer but the son of God? What are we to think of a god so negligent that he not only permitted his son to suffer as cruel a death as this Jesus did, but who allowed the message he was sent to deliver to perish with him? A long time has passed since then, and nothing has changed. Is there any human father so ruthless as your god? You answer, “It is God’s will that things should happen as they happened.” And this is, as I have said, your answer to everything: he subjected himself to humiliation because it was his will to be humiliated. I would be negligent indeed if I did not suggest that the gods you blaspheme might say it was their will, and better sense would come of the episode if I did. Or one could say that anytime a god is blasphemed he endures it, and that endurance alone does not prove someone a god: one endures unalterable situations as much out of necessity as by choice. Who is to say necessity is not to be reckoned in the case of Jesus? When one considers these things objectively, it is evident that the old gods are rather more effective in punishing blasphemers than is the god of the Christians, and those who blaspheme the former are usually caught and punished: just how effective is the Christian god in that respect?

This fresco of Christ Among the Apostles is in an arcosolium of the Crypt of Ampliatus in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome. The Catacombs of Domitilla date from the 2nd through 4th centuries.
This fresco of Christ Among the Apostles is in an arcosolium of the Crypt of Ampliatus in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome. The Catacombs of Domitilla date from the 2nd through 4th centuries.

Certainly the Christians are not alone in claiming inspiration for the utterances they ascribe to their god through their prophets. I need hardly mention every case of prophecy that is said to have occurred among our own people-prophets and prophetesses as well, both men and women, claiming the power of oracular and inspired utterance. What of those who have claimed the power to discern truth, using victims and sacrifices of one kind and another, and those who say that they are privy to certain signs or gifts given to them by the powers that be? Life is full of such claims: Cities have been built because a prophet says, “Build it!”; Diseases and famines have been dealt within their oracles, and those who neglected their advisories have often done so at their peril. The prophets have foretold disaster with some accuracy; colonists have heeded their warnings before going to foreign parts, and have fared the better for it; not common people alone, but rulers have paid attention to what they have to say; the childless have gotten their hearts’ desire and have escaped the curse of loneliness because prophets have helped them; ailments have been healed. On the other hand, how many have insulted the temples and been caught? Some have been overcome with madness as soon as they blasphemed; others have confessed their wrongdoing; others have been moved to suicide; others have been punished with incurable diseases; some have been destroyed by a voice coming from within the shrine itself! Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians-and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs?

4th Century Roman Mosaic of Christ
4th Century Roman Mosaic of Christ

In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God. They believe in eternal punishment; well, so do the priests and initiates of the various religions. The Christians threaten others with this punishment, just as they are themselves threatened. To decide which of the two threats is nearer the truth is fairly simple; but when confronted with the evidence, the Christians point to the evidence of miracles and prophecies that they think bolsters their case.

4th c. painting of Christ as Alpha & Omega (Commodilla Catacomb)
4th c. painting of Christ as Alpha & Omega (Commodilla Catacomb)

There is no disguising the absurdity of the Christian view when it comes to reward and punishment, however. For on the one hand they yearn for the restoration of their earthly body (as if there were nothing better than that to salvage!) in just the same form as it appeared during a man’s life. On the other hand, they prescribe casting the bodies of all those who discredit them into hell, as if the body were of no value at all. But there is no use in dwelling on this point, especially with a group of people so thoroughly bound to flesh-and-blood concerns. Such people are commonly boorish by nature, and not a little unsmart by most applicable standards; not only so, they are usually rebellious creatures at heart. I should be glad to make my point clear to those among them, if there are such, who would profit from hearing about how a soul or mind comes to reside eternally with God (whatever they want to call this-the psyche, or an intellectual spirit, a living soul, or a super-rational and irreducible product of a divine and incorporeal nature). Perhaps it is sufficient to say that whoever leads a good life will be happy hereafter, and on this point even the Christians would have to agree. Those who are wicked will be afflicted with unhappiness eternally. This doctrine, however, is not theirs by origin: it is theirs by derivation, and it is one that neither they nor any person would wish to abandon.

Fresco of the Good Shepherd, ceiling of the Vault of Lucina in the Catacomb of Callixtus in Rome (ca. 3rd century)
Fresco of the Good Shepherd, ceiling of the Vault of Lucina in the Catacomb of Callixtus in Rome (ca. 3rd century)

Men are born in bodily form; they are bound to it; they are weighted down by the passions and needs of the world and are paying the penalty for their sins, until such time as the soul has been purified through its successive stages. As Empedocles teaches, “It [the soul] must wander about, away from the blessed, for thirty thousand years, becoming in its time every possible shape of mortal being.” The soul is guarded in the here and now by the wardens of our earthly prison. This is in the nature of our mortal existence: we are given to gatekeepers for purposes ordained by God; the gatekeepers do their duty at God’s pleasure. It makes little sense, therefore, for the Christians to heap abuse on the officers, the demons, in charge of our prison. They offer their bodies to be tortured and killed to no purpose when they think that in so doing they are defying the demons and going to their eternal reward. They have carried to an extreme a principle that we revered first: namely, that it does no one any good, in the end, to love life inordinately. But to hate life is just as wicked. The Christians do not suffer for a principle but because they break the law; they are not martyrs but robbers.

Christ as Emperor, wearing military dress, and crushing the serpent representing Satan. "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6) reads the inscription. Ravenna, after 500
Christ as Emperor, wearing military dress, and crushing the serpent representing Satan. “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) reads the inscription. Ravenna, after 500

Reason requires one of two things: If they persist in refusing to worship the various gods who preside over the day-to-day activities of life, then they should not be permitted to live until marriageable age; they should not be permitted to marry, to have children, nor to do anything else over which a god presides. If they are going to marry, have children and have a good time of it, taking the bad with the good as all men must, then they ought to pray to the beings who have made life possible for them. They should offer the appropriate sacrifices and say the proper prayers until such time as they are free of their earthly entanglements, and ingratiate themselves to the beings who control all spheres of human activity. It is at best ungrateful to use someone’s flat and pay them no rent (as Christians do the earth).

Magi bring gifts to the baby Jesus in one of the earliest known depictions. (3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Italy)
Magi bring gifts to the baby Jesus in one of the earliest known depictions. (3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Italy)

That life is under the control of gods one can see from the writings of the Egyptians. They say that a man’s body is under the power of thirty-six demons (or gods of some sort) who divide it among themselves, one for each part of the body. The demons are known under various names: Chnoumen, Chnachoumen, Knat, Sikat, Biou, Erou, Erebiou, Rhamanoor, Rheianoor, and all the other names that they use in their language. By invoking these names, they heal the appropriate part of the body. In any case, what is to prevent someone from paying homage to these and to the other gods, if he so chooses-so that at least one can be healthy and not ill, have good luck rather than bad, and be delivered from misfortunes of all sorts. Instead the Christians make ridiculous claims for themselves: “At the name of Jesus every knee in heaven and earth, and those under the earth, and every tongue confesses Jesus is Lord.” I am not making the case for invoking demons, however; I am merely trying to show that the Christians do the same things that the Egyptians do in memorizing the names of thirty-six different demons, only they choose to invoke but one. One must be careful about believing such things lest one become so engrossed in healing, and lapse into the superstitions associated with the magical arts, that one is turned aside from the higher things, the appropriate objects of reflection. Some skeptics say-and perhaps we should believe them-that the demon is part and parcel of the things created by God, and is riveted to blood and burnt offerings and magical enchantments, and the like. Healing and predicting the future are their sphere, but their knowledge and activity concern only mortal activities. This being so, it is well to acknowledge the demons formally only when reason dictates, and reason may not dictate our doing so in every case. It is perhaps better to think that the demons require nothing, long for nothing, demand nothing. They may be pleased with our little tokens of recognition, but what ought really to occupy our minds, day and night, is the Good: publicly and privately, in every word and deed and in the silence of reflection, we should direct ourselves toward the contemplation of the Good. So long as God is the subject of our thoughts, the little devotions we perform on behalf of the powers of this world-not the demons only but the rulers and princes who hold power at the gods’ design-are surely nothing horrible. Indeed, it is only insanity for the Christians to refuse their religious duties, rushing headlong to offend the emperor and the governors and to invite their wrath. To love the emperor and to serve God are complementary duties: if one worships God, he will not be influenced by those who command him to utter blasphemies or to whisper seditious things about the authorities. One would rather die than say or think anything profane about God: one remains firm. But on this logic, is not the Christian rejection of the gods blasphemy even against the God they profess to worship? For if we are commanded to worship the great god Helios or to speak well of Athena, we are in so doing worshiping God as well; so in singing a hymn to Mithra or to Athena, the Christians would at least not seem to be atheists, but would be seen as believers in the great God. The worship of God is only magnified in the worship of the gods.

Mosaic of Jesus as Christo Sole (Christ the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Mosaic of Jesus as Christo Sole (Christ the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica in Rome

So too: If someone says to a Christian, “Here, I command you swear by the emperor,” that is nothing to be feared. You are swearing by the man to whom all earthly power has been given: what you receive in life, you receive from him. (And that is what it means to be a god.) It is not wise to disbelieve the ancient sage who said “Let there be one king: one to whom the crafty Kronos gave the power. “Overturn this axiom and you will know how swiftly punishment can be dealt! If everyone were to adopt the Christian’s attitude, moreover, there would be no rule of law: the legitimate authority would be abandoned; earthly things would return to chaos and come into the hands of the lawless and savage barbarians; and nothing further would be heard of Christian worship or of wisdom, anywhere in the world. (Indeed, even for your superstition to persist, the power of the emperor is necessary.) Or would you suggest that if the Romans could be persuaded by you and we were to give up our laws and customs and call on the name of your Most High God (whatever name you choose for him) to come and fight on our side we would no longer have need for a military defense? Would your God preserve the empire? You are fond of saying that in the old days this same Most High God made these and greater promises to those who gave heed to his commandments and worshiped him. But at the risk of appearing unkind, I ask how much good those promises have done either the Jews before you or you in your present circumstances. And would you have us put our faith in such a god? Instead of being masters of the whole world, the Jews have today no home of any kind. In your case, if anyone professes your odd beliefs, he must do so in secret, or else be hounded and finally delivered for trial and condemned to death.

Painting of Jesus and his disciples
Painting of Jesus and his disciples

You are really quite tedious in your claims: If those who now reign were persuaded by your doctrines, you argue, and these same were taken prisoner, you could persuade those who reign after them and those after and so on and so on, more and more reigning and being taken captive and the like, until there came finally a ruler who, being sensible and reading these events as representing the will and plan of God, would try wiping you out before you succeeded in bringing down the empire and him with it. Ah, that it were possible for there to be one law for the whole world-to bring Asia, Europe, Libya, Greeks and barbarians and all alike, under one roof, so to speak. But to wish for this is to wish for nothing. We are citizens of a particular empire with a particular set of laws, and it behooves the Christians at least to recognize their duties within the present context: namely, to help the emperor in his mission to provide for the common good; to cooperate with him in what is right and to fight for him if it becomes necessary, as though we were all soldiers or fellow generals. This is what a good man does: he accepts public office for the preservation of the law and of religion, if it becomes necessary for him to do so; he does not run from public duty. He does not defile the appointed laws, on the [premise that if everyone did so, it would not be possible for the law to function at all].

So much for the doctrines of the Christians. It remains for me now to compose another treatise, for the profit of those willing and able to believe what I have said here, and to teach them how to lead a good life.

Abraham

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