An Ancient Antidote for Fundamentalist Christianity

Jul 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A long time ago, a Pagan critic wrote an antidote to fundamentalist Christianity. The book was called On The True Doctrine (’alethès logos). The author’s name was Celsus. Celsus was a Pagan Roman intellectual and Platonist, and he wrote his book in the second century of the Common Era. His book must have been effective, because as they tend to do when they find something disagreeable to their version of the truth, the Christians burned it.

Little is known of the man. The proto-Orthodox Christian scholar Origen, when crafting his rebuttal of Celsus’ charges against Christianity, was able to learn little about him. Origen produced his counter-polemic Contra Celsum in 248, or some 50-70 years after Celsus wrote.

Because his book was enthusiastically burned out of existence, what we know of Celsus’ original work we know solely through excerpts preserved in Origen’s book. Celsus is commonly thought to have lived in the Antonine Age, that period Gibbon was so enamored of, and published his book during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher whose period of sole rule lasted from 175-180 CE, though Jeffrey Hargis, against the commonly accepted date of 178, argues for the Severan, rather than Antonine Era, 200 ± 10 years.[1]

Celsus broke his book into two parts, one which framed his objections to Christianity through a Jewish interlocutor, and one in which Celsus speaks for himself. Among his accomplishments, Celsus was the first writer to point to a historical Jesus as opposed to a biblical Jesus. As his translator, R. Joseph Hoffmann comments, “Celsus is strangely modern in making this distinction between the historical Jesus and the beliefs of the disciples.”[2]

This differentiation between fact and belief was a problem for Celsus in the second century just as it is a problem for those of us facing a new wave of Christian fundamentalism in the twenty-first. Another ancient issue that is also familiar to us is re-writing the Gospels to be more amenable to the particular doctrine being pushed. The historical Jesus is awash in ideology and lost to view. As one scholar writes, “It is Gospels we can know, not Jesus.”[3]

This is an understandable objection, given the textual layers one must sift through. First we have the original texts themselves, which were the product of place and time and subject to the needs of the community for which the gospel was written. These texts, which we no longer have, were then edited, possibly by their authors, more likely by others, and as Celsus charges and Origen does not deny, “some believers…go so far as to oppose themselves and alter the original text of the gospel three or four or several times over, and they change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in the face of criticism.”[4]

Origen would hold that these redactors are heretics but as Bart Ehrman has shown, this strategy “was available to all sides of the conflict, and there is good evidence to suggest that all sides did in fact make use of it.”[5]

Despite all these problems, we are assured that there are no problems, just as was once Celsus by his Christian contemporaries. Four conflicting accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, and resurrection are no longer problematic. We might argue that the “difference is in the details” but Christian apologists will counter with “the details are nothing. Have faith.” This is precisely what they told the Pagan Celsus: “Do not ask questions; Just believe.”[6]

But that this sort of reasoning creates all sorts of problems should be obvious. There is no common ground here for apologist and scholar. “Faith will save you” they told Celsus. But faith cannot altar the historical record or the evidence of our eyes.

Celsus is also aware of the complete lack of originality of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, an old re-tread of Pagan religiosity probably as old as religion itself. As part of a comparison of Greek heroes and gods to Jesus, Celsus points out in his True Doctrine that “Aesclepius’ appearances after his death were clear, longer-lasting and witnessed by more people than those of the phantasmal Jesus.”[7] Ironically, Just Martyr defended the resurrection by appealing to the example of Aesclepius![8]

In this at least, a Pagan and a Christian found themselves in some sort of agreement, though as Hargis notes, there were differences. “For Justin and other apologists, the comparison was meant to win respectability for the fledgling faith. In the case of Celsus, it had the aim of undermining the uniqueness and thus the exclusiveness, of the religion he founded.”[9]

Christian fundamentalists are still huge on the old persecution narrative, but Celsus also exposes this lie, writing of Christians openly “displaying their trickery in the marketplace.”[10] It took awhile for modern scholars to realize this, largely because the Church controlled the narrative until the Enlightenment. J.E.A. Crake’s opinion is that “At present it seems to be widely accepted that there was never in the first two centuries any special legislation making Christianity a criminal offense.”[11] French historian Maurice Sartre is more specific: “until the general persecution under Decius in the third century, there is no evidence that Christians were subject to harassment or oppression.”[12]

But if the persecutions are a myth, fundamentalist Christian hostility towards everything outside itself is not, and that too is with us still, seventeen centuries later. Although arguments have been made that Christianity, or monotheism in general, is not inherently intolerant, the evidence would make them difficult to prove. As the Pagan Roman authors noted very early on, Christianity was strongly exclusivistic. Celsus raised this point in the waning years of the second century, and it was one of Porphyry’s main complaints as well in the third.  The hostility of Christianity towards Paganism is made evident from the outset.

As Ramsay MacMullen has duly noted, “The urge to destroy paganism physically was not a post-Constantinian development.”[13] We know this with a certainty because Origen admits that Celsus remarked on how the Pagan scholar expressed the amazement of polytheists at the “murderous intolerance” of Christianity,[14] a murderous intolerance that threatens us still.


[1] Jeffrey W. Hargis, Against the Christians: The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic (NY: Peter Lang, 1999), 20-24. Frend, among others, accepts the date of 178. See Martyrdom and Persecution, 166.

[2] Celsus, On the True Doctrine, tr. R. Joseph Hoffmann (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987), 61: “Let us look at your Messiah. Jesus, according to your writings, kept all the Jewish festivals and customs. He even took part in our sacrifices.”

[3] Samuel Sandmel, “Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,” Journal of Bible and Religion 31 (1963), 300.

[4] C. Cel. 2.27, Translation from H. Chadwick, Origen, Contra Celsum translated with an Introduction and Notes (3d ed; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 90.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 215. cf. idem, The New Testament, 210-224.

[6] Origen, C. Cels. I, 9ff. See Celsus: On The True Doctrine, R.J. Hoffmann ed. (Oxford University Press, 1987), 53-54.

[7] Hargis, 45. Origen, Contra Celsam 3.22-43)

[8] Justin Martyr, First Apology 21.

[9] Hargis, Against the Christians, 45.

[10] Celsus, On the True Doctrine, trans. by Hoffman, 73.

[11] J.E.A. Crake, “Early Christians and Roman Law” Phoenix 19 (1965), 61.

[12] Maurice Sartre,The Middle East Under Rome (2005), 298.

[13] [1] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 159 n. 6.

[14] Origen, C. Cel. 3.10 and 12. See also Ammianus 22.5.4.

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