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Celsus |
The Great Debate of the third century

Celsus is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 244, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Platonist philosopher Celsus states the case against the Christians; with Origen’s reply sixty years later, some basic issues are set forth

Celsus - The Great Debate of the third century

Celsus - The Great Debate of the third century

Some time in the late second century, a Platonist philosopher named Celsus, apparently well-connected to the imperial government, produced a formal treatise in opposition to Christianity. Entitled The True Discourse, it gained wide circulation and may perhaps have been written (says the historian Marta Sordi) at the suggestion of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to be cited in philosophical circles as the decisive “Case Against the Christians.” Some sixty years later, the Christian spokesman Origen, urged by his sponsor and business partner Ambrose, wrote a formal rebuttal entitled, simply, Contra Celsum, to which the Christians gave similarly wide circulation. Five of Celsus’s principal arguments are given below, along with Origen’s replies, paraphrased from the original text, in order to summarize them. Plainly, they prefigure arguments that would continue to be made against the Christians for the next two thousand years.

Round One: Do Christians think they’re
superior and set themselves apart?

CELSUS: Christians (and likewise Jews) set themselves apart, thinking they’re better than everybody else, and have some special wisdom. They form into secret and hidden groups, and the people who get involved in them are setting themselves against everybody else. Certainly, the world’s religions differ in the names they give the gods and how they make their sacrifices, but they all believe in one supreme God. As the philosophers argue, everyone believes more or less the same things. So Christian threats of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe in their Jesus make it evident they are against everybody else.

ORIGEN: All people, not just Christians, act on the basis of what they discern as the Truth. There’s nothing secret in what Christians believe true. For who is ignorant of the statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was crucified, and that his Resurrection is an article of faith? But unlike Greek philosophy, Christianity is not based on a theory but on an event and on a Person. And anyone versed in Greek philosophy, looking fairly at the gospel history, must see a demonstration of his own philosophy’s fulfillment more divine than any theories established by Grecian arguments. He would see in Jesus Christ the reality behind what for philosophers is mere theory. However, by contrast, the idols that ordinary people worship are neither theory nor the Truth. They are either dumb stone or demons. Yet no one is supposed to point this out, and even Celsus’s cherished philosophers have constantly been persecuted for doing so. Is it surprising, therefore, that Christians should be persecuted even more when they assert that God offered himself up as a sacrifice to free people from these superstitions and demons?

Round Two: Was Mary an adulteress,
Jesus illegitimate, his miracles faked?

CELSUS: Jewish converts to Christianity are particularly foolish for abandoning the laws of their fathers to follow a charlatan punished by the Jews for his crimes. Jesus did not fulfill what the prophets promised in the Messiah. He invented his virgin birth, having been born in a Jewish village of a poor woman turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery–with a Roman soldier. She then disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who later hired himself out as a servant in Egypt because of his poverty and there acquired some miraculous powers–on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves; he returned to his own country and by means of these powers proclaimed himself a god.
His followers were ten or twelve infamous barkeepers and fishermen–hardly the company of God. His miracles were either lies or magic tricks. What great deeds did Jesus perform as a god? Did he put his enemies to shame or humiliate those who were plotting against him? Nor did Jesus recover the lost glory of Solomon’s Jerusalem. He did not even keep the loyalty of his own followers. His prediction of his own death was invented by his followers, and the fable of his Resurrection from death is nothing new–similar tales were told of the philosopher Pythagoras’s ghost. If Jesus really rose from the dead, why did he appear only to his disciples and not to his persecutors?

ORIGEN: Strange is it indeed that a humble carpenter’s son from a nondescript village in a backwater province has been able to shake the whole inhabited world far beyond that which Pythagoras or Plato or any other wise man from anywhere, any prince or any general, has ever succeeded in doing. But it would be even stranger if his disciples hadn’t seen Jesus after his Resurrection and weren’t really persuaded of his divinity, and yet still they endured the same sufferings as their Master, exposed themselves to danger, and left their homeland to teach Jesus’ message–all suffering martyrdom rather than deny his Resurrection. Even Jesus’ detractors, spreading stories about his mother’s adultery, must admit there was something unusual in his birth. But it is highly improbable that an illegitimate child, living a deceptive life, would then willingly sacrifice himself for his people. Yet the entire gospel history is an account of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Celsus reproaches the Savior because of his sufferings. But we must say that his sufferings were the subject of prophecy, and it was for the benefit of mankind that he should die on mankind’s account.

Round Three: Although Jews and Christians
endlessly quarrel aren’t they really the same?

CELSUS: Both Christians and Jews are given to rebellion. Both believe that the Divine Spirit intended to send a Savior to the human race, disagreeing only about whether the person predicted has actually come or not. They’re like frogs and lizards arguing which of them God loves more. But both rest on the same principle: revolution. The Jews revolted against the Egyptians, Christians against the Jews, and now Christians revolt among themselves. They exclude the wise and good and gather only with the ignorant and sinful. In their weakness they call on a Savior, as if God could not by his own power do what Christians say he put Christ on Earth to do. And in their vain self-importance, they believe the world was made for man’s use and benefit, rather than appreciating that God has a plan for the whole universe in which humanity plays a small part and individuals none.

ORIGEN: No, Christians are not rebellious. Had they owed their origin to rebellion, they would not have adopted laws so exceedingly mild that when it is their fate to be slain as sheep, they do not resist their persecutors. The real issue is whether the Supreme God could have exerted a providential care for human beings at a particular time and place in history. The answer is found in the history of the Jewish people. How could the Jewish nation have continued to survive had there existed among them no promise of the knowledge of future events? This people alone was taught to view with contempt all those considered gods by the heathens, not as gods but as demons. The whole nation had been taught to despise the deities of other lands. Yet, despite being cast as an enemy among all the world’s nations, against all odds the Jews both remained faithful to God and survived in their faith. There have been many prodigious events throughout human history, but in the Jews, providence can be seen to have worked for the good of all, in that their Messiah has come for all.

Round Four: Could the God of a huge
universe care about mere humans?

CELSUS: Christians’ supposedly unique revelation is really just warmed-over Greek philosophy. When the Christians tell us that God is a spirit, they’re merely repeating the Stoic saying that the God is a spirit penetrating all and encompassing all. And the Christian idea of a future life is borrowed from Greek poets and philosophers; the resurrection of the body is simply a corruption of the old idea of the transmigration of souls. But the Christians maintain that there has descended upon the earth a god, or Son of a god, who will make the inhabitants of the earth righteous. This is a most shameless assertion, not needing much refutation–shameless in that it assumes humans are something special in the eyes of the god.

ORIGEN: The god of the philosophers may be Reason itself, but the God of the Christians is both Reason and Love. What the philosophers find shameless is the thought that God could love his creation so much that he would enter into it. We answer, then, that God, not being known by wicked men, would desire to make himself known, not because he thinks that he meets with less than his due, but because the knowledge of him will free the possessor from unhappiness.

Round Five: Shouldn’t Christians just
give up and worship the gods of nature?

CELSUS: Different mythologies simply point to the same natural powers, worshiped in different countries, under different names. Christians are ungrateful for the gifts of nature when they refuse to worship the deities who symbolize nature’s powers. And these powers, spirits, or demons mediate between God and man, and are the immediate source of prophecy and wonder-working. So I invite Christians to give up their life apart, abandon their vain hope of establishing their rule over all the earth, and rejoin the majority religion.

ORIGEN: We decline the invitation. This is forbidden to us, for we have been taught not to worship the creature instead of the Creator, but to know that the creation shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into liberty. So it remains for the readers of this discourse to judge which of the two breathes most of the Spirit of the true God, of piety towards him, and of that truth which leads men by sound doctrines to the noblest life.

This is the end of the Celsus category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 244, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Celsus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at