More on Celsus's True Discourse: Early Critic Contends Christianity an Eclectic Mishmash of Earlier Philosophies and Religions
Okay, I'm finally get back to unraveling this mess!
In his Book of Truth Celsus had asserted that almost all Christian doctrines were warped versions of Platonic idealism, but in addition Christians had certain other dogmas and rites eclectically put together of borrowings from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Jewish tradition, the mysteries of Mithra, the myths of Typhon, Osiris and the Cabiri.
To recap, the above sentence is on p. 11 of Dr. Don Allen's book, Mysteriously Meant
, for which he provides the citation "Origen, Contra Celsum, PG XI, 1287-1503
." As it turns out, Allen's short summary pertains to Books 6 and 7 of Origen's work, specifically the section from 6.1 to 7.59, these latter designations being chapters in the books. This section constitutes a lengthy and tedious discussion by Origen mainly of philosophy, but some of the pertinent quotes are as follows. As one can see, Allen's summary is accurate - and very important, as Celsus was a Pagan critic of Christianity writing about 177, just a few years after the canonical gospels as we have them
suddenly burst onto the scene. Celsus, therefore, is one of the earliest witnesses to their existence and first Pagans to read them. Greeks Borrowing from Jews or Vice Versa?
Throughout his book True Doctrine
, Origen asserts, Celsus argues for the superiority of Greek philosophy over Jewish/Christian scriptures. He also evidently contended for the precedence of what became Greek thought over biblical ideas. Dating the Pentateuch or first five books of the Bible to Moses's time, Origen naturally objects and claims the Jews had these ideas first. Here is a theme we see repeated throughout Christianity's early centuries: Wherever parallels are raised, it is always that the Pagans stole them from the Jews or that the devil anticipated Christianity and planted the ideas in Pagan heads. In any event, Pagans are the bad guys, according to Judeo-Christianity. Like many early Christian fanatics, Origen, supposedly a former Pagan but a serious water-carrier for the Jewish scriptures, seems to revel in abusing Pagans.
In chapter 1 of book 6
, Origen states that Celsus has "quoted a considerable number of passages, chiefly from Plato, and has placed alongside of these such declarations of holy Scripture as are fitted to impress even the intelligent mind; subjoining the assertion that these things are stated much better among the Greeks (than in the Scriptures)..."
In chapter 2 of book 6, Origen complains that Celsus unfavorably compares the "simplicity of the language of the Scripture, which appears to be thrown into the shade by the splendour of polished discourse." In other words, the Jewish writings are cruder than Greek philosophical treatises.Chief Good and Logos
Chapter 3 and 4 refer to the abstract notion of the "chief good," which is τὁ πρῶτον ἀγαθόν to proton agathon
in the Greek and summum bonum
in the Latin.
Many important ancient Latin writers discussed the "chief good" or summum bonum
, including Marcus Tullius ("Tully") Cicero and Seneca, the latter of whose works appear to have influenced the composer(s) of certain "Pauline" epistles.
In attempting to establish priority, in book 4 Origen refers to "Our
wise men, however--Moses, the most ancient of them all, and the prophets who followed him--knowing that the chief good could by no means be described in words, were the first who wrote that, as God manifests Himself to the deserving, and to those who are qualified to behold Him, He appeared to Abraham, or to Isaac, or to Jacob."
Chapter 5 contains a discussion of the Logos or "Word," another word used abundantly in pre-Christian literature. In Chapter 7, Origen again asserts the antiquity of Moses and the prophets, as predecessors of Plato and older "even than Homer and the invention of letters among the Greeks..." Heraclitus and Plato
In chapter 12, Origen complains that Celsus "is not even acquainted with the words (of our sacred books)" but misunderstands them, concerning the wisdom-is-foolish statement by Paul, for example. Origen asserts that Celsus "wished to show that this statement was an invention of ours, and borrowed from the Grecian sages." So, here we see again that Celsus is attributing scripture to the Greeks, reiterated in chapter 13 as referring to Heraclitus and Plato, whom Origen is quick to point out post-date the alleged time of Moses and other prophets.Egyptian Wisdom
Oddly enough, Origen hoists himself on his own petard in chapter 14, in which he admits that Moses and other prophets were not dealing strictly with knowledge bestowed supernaturally upon them by God:
Nor did he [Celsus] observe that from the very beginning our wise men were trained in the external branches of learning: Moses, e.g., in all the wisdom of the Egyptians; Daniel, and Ananias, and Azariah, and Mishael, in all Assyrian learning, so that they were found to surpass in tenfold degree all the wise men of that country.
Of course, in this admission, Origen boasts that these prophets were better educated and superior in intellect than their teachers. Nevertheless, the church father essentially is admitting Pagan influence on biblical prophets and writers.
In chapter 15, regarding a discussion of humility, Origen says that Celsus "imagines it is borrowed from some words of Plato imperfectly understood..." We read in chap. 16 that the scripture concerning the rich man and camel is traced by Celsus also to Plato and that "Jesus perverted the words of the philosopher." Origen specifically states that Celsus has "perused the Gospels," which would mean, again, he is one of the earliest non-Christians to lay eyes on them directly, since he wrote True Doctrine
around 177, when the canonical gospels as we have them had just shortly before burst onto the scene. Celsus's testimony, therefore, is invaluable.
Chapter 17 complains that Celsus has either ignored or is unacquainted with scriptures regarding the "kingdom of God," as he has quoted none of them. So, we find a sketchy commentary on whether or not Celsus had all of the scriptures in front of him. Origen, it should be recalled, wrote decades later than Celsus (fl. 177), around 248.
More discussion of Plato follows, with Origen once again asserting priority to the biblical writers - a claim we know is also sketchy, since some of the texts were written after Plato's time, and Moses most assuredly did not write the Pentateuch. In chapter 19, Origen remarks:
Celsus in the next place alleges, that "certain Christians, having misunderstood the words of Plato, loudly boast of a 'super-celestial' God, thus ascending beyond the heaven of the Jews." By these words, indeed, he does not make it clear whether they also ascend beyond the God of the Jews, or only beyond the heaven by which they swear. It is not our purpose at present, however, to speak of those who acknowledge another god than the one worshipped by the Jews, but to defend ourselves, and to show that it was impossible for the prophets of the Jews, whose writings are reckoned among ours, to have borrowed anything from Plato, because they were older than he.
Origen also states here:
I do not, indeed, deny that Plato learned from certain Hebrews the words quoted from the Phædrus, or even, as some have recorded, that he quoted them from a perusal of our prophetic writings...
This contention is important, as it does not deny that there are germane correspondences between biblical and Greek philosophy. However, there is no solid evidence that the OT scriptures were circulated among Greeks during Plato's era. In reality, it was considered blasphemous to allow nonbelievers access to the Jewish writings. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that philosophers at higher levels of learning co-mingled more freely in various circumstances, such as the University of Alexandria or within various mystery schools and brotherhoods that ringed the Mediterranean and beyond. Mithraic Mysteries
Chapters 21 and 22 discuss the concept of "seven heavens," which Celsus is evidently tracing to Paganism, especially the Mithraic mysteries, so here is where Allen's claim that Celsus traces Christianity back to the mysteries of Mithra may be found.
After this, Celsus, desiring to exhibit his learning in his treatise against us, quotes also certain Persian mysteries, where he says: "These things are obscurely hinted at in the accounts of the Persians, and especially in the mysteries of Mithras, which are celebrated among them. For in the latter there is a representation of the two heavenly revolutions—of the movement, viz., of the fixed stars, and of that which take place among the planets, and of the passage of the soul through these. .. But it seems to me, that to quote the language of Celsus upon these matters would be absurd, and similar to what he himself has done, when, in his accusations against Christians and Jews, he quoted, most inappropriately, not only the words of Plato; but, dissatisfied even with these, he adduced in addition the mysteries of the Persian Mithras, and the explanation of them. Now, whatever be the case with regard to these—whether the Persians and those who conduct the mysteries of Mithras give false or true accounts regarding them—why did he select these for quotation, rather than some of the other mysteries, with the explanation of them? For the mysteries of Mithras do not appear to be more famous among the Greeks than those of Eleusis, or than those in Ægina, where individuals are initiated in the rites of Hecate. But if he must introduce barbarian mysteries with their explanation, why not rather those of the Egyptians, which are highly regarded by many, or those of the Cappadocians regarding the Comanian Diana, or those of the Thracians, or even those of the Romans themselves, who initiate the noblest members of their senate? But if he deemed it inappropriate to institute a comparison with any of these, because they furnished no aid in the way of accusing Jews or Christians, why did it not also appear to him inappropriate to adduce the instance of the mysteries of Mithras?
See also my post above, in which I've included a snapshot of the relevant Greek in Origen concerning Mithra
In chapter 23, Origen reiterates that Celsus had claimed borrowing from the "Persian mysteries," but he tosses in the Cabiri, which is where Allen evidently gets that part of his summary:
Let Celsus know, moreover, as well as those who read his book, that in no part of the genuine and divinely accredited Scriptures are "seven" heavens mentioned; neither do our prophets, nor the apostles of Jesus, nor the Son of God Himself, repeat anything which they borrowed from the Persians or the Cabiri.Gnostics
Next follows a lengthy discussion of the Gnostics, whose works Celsus apparently also had read. Origen delineates that these writings are not "really Christian." Again, Celsus's testimony is of vital importance, because he was smack dab in the middle of when Christianity truly was organized, during the latter half of the second
century. As we know, the "Christian" movement prior to that time was influenced largely by Gnosticism, so Celsus's perception of the Gnostic writings as "Christian" appears to have been mainstream at the time, confirming that organized Gnosticism preceded "Orthodox" Christianity, a fact explainable most satisfactorily if Jesus is a mythical/spiritual figurehead who was later falsely placed into history. Eclecticism
In chapter 34, Origen quotes Celsus as saying that Christianity is the result of a process in which "they continue to heap together one thing after another":
"They continue to heap together one thing after another—discourses of prophets, and circles upon circles, and effluents from an earthly church, and from circumcision; and a power flowing from one Prunicos, a virgin and a living soul; and a heaven slain in order to live, and an earth slaughtered by the sword, and many put to death that they may live, and death ceasing in the world, when the sin of the world is dead; and, again, a narrow way, and gates that open spontaneously. And in all their writings (is mention made) of the tree of life, and a resurrection of the flesh by means of the 'tree,' because, I imagine, their teacher was nailed to a cross, and was a carpenter by craft; so that if he had chanced to have been cast from a precipice, or thrust into a pit, or suffocated by hanging, or had been a leather-cutter, or stone-cutter, or worker in iron, there would have been (invented) a precipice of life beyond the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a cord of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a sacred leather! Now what old woman would not be ashamed to utter such things in a whisper, even when making stories to lull an infant to sleep?"Old Testament Midrash
In chapter 35, apparently in response to observations by Celsus that the New Testament writers had used the Old Testament in their creation, Origen remarks:
It is our practice, indeed, to make use of the words of the prophets, who demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ predicted by them, and who show from the prophetic writings the events in the Gospels regarding Jesus have been fulfilled.
This process as part of what is called "midrash" is what I call the utilization of "messianic blueprints." Here we see whence comes Allen's contention that Celsus asserted Christians had borrowed "the Jewish tradition." So, Celsus had it right: Christianity is a combination of Paganism and Judaism, a fact that should be as obvious to us today as it was to him in the second century. Note that I have a chapter in my book Who Was Jesus?
entitled "Did Jesus Fulfill Prophecy?
", an excerpt of which can be found at the link.Jesus Not a Carpenter?
In refuting Celsus's comments in chapter 34, Origen makes a strange claim in ch. 36:
...the tree of life is mentioned in the Mosaic writings, and...in none of the Gospels current in the Churches is Jesus Himself ever described as being a carpenter.
Note that Origen uses the very word τεκτων tekton
, which most assuredly is in our canonical gospels as we have them. Therefore, as late as the middle of the third century (c. 248), the gospels being used in the churches did not claim Jesus was a tekton
, commonly translated as "carpenter" but also used to describe other craftsmen, including masons. Indeed, the word tekton
in modern Greek means "Freemason." It is quite astonishing to read a fervent Christian fanatic and early Church father argue against Jesus being a tekton
/carpenter and admitting that whatever gospels Celsus was reading, they weren't those used authoritatively in churches of Origen's time.
Could there be any clearer admission that Christianity was not based solidly on some set-in-stone biography of a real person but was compiled and changed according to needs? No doubt Origen would find all the modern "biographies" about the great carpenter Jesus to be distressful and erroneous. (See my article "Was the historical Jesus a carpenter?"
)Typhon, Horus and Osiris
In chapter 42, Origen relates Celsus's argument against the biblical battle between Satan and God/Jesus, and here he raises comparisons with the story of Typhon and Horus:
"The ancients allude obscurely to a certain war among the gods, Heraclitus speaking thus of it: 'If one must say that there is a general war and discord, and that all things are done and administered in strife.' Pherecydes, again, who is much older than Heraclitus, relates a myth of one army drawn up in hostile array against another, and names Kronos as the leader of the one, and Ophioneus of the other, and recounts their challenges and struggles, and mentions that agreements were entered into between them, to the end that whichever party should fall into the ocean should be held as vanquished, while those who had expelled and conquered them should have possession of heaven. The mysteries relating to the Titans and Giants also had some such (symbolic) meaning, as well as the Egyptian mysteries of Typhon, and Horus, and Osiris."
Since Celsus's time, many people have noted the comparison between the battles of Jesus/Satan and Horus/Typhon/Set. This is the last part of the quote from Allen, which, as we can see, is accurate. There is much more in these books and chapters of Origen against Celsus, including a specific reference to the Stoics in chapter 71 of book 6.Marcion
Note that Celsus also discusses Marcion (ch. 74), who compiled the first New Testament in the middle of the second century. Analyzing Celsus's words about Marcion would be a whole other post. Chaldeans, Persians, et al.
Chapter 80 also contains some interesting contentions:
After this, it seemed proper to Celsus to term the Chaldeans a most divinely-inspired nation from the very earliest times, from whom the delusive system of astrology has spread abroad among men. Nay, he ranks the Magi also in the same category, from whom the art of magic derived its name and has been transmitted to other nations, to the corruption and destruction of those who employ it. In the preceding part of this work, (we mentioned) that, in the opinion even of Celsus, the Egyptians also were guilty of error, because they had indeed solemn enclosures around what they considered their temples, while within them there was nothing save apes, or crocodiles, or goats, or asps, or some other animal; but on the present occasion it pleases him to speak of the Egyptian people too as most divinely inspired, and that, too, from the earliest times—perhaps because they made war upon the Jews from an early date. The Persians, moreover, who marry their own mothers, and have intercourse with their own daughters, are, in the opinion of Celsus, an inspired race; nay, even the Indians are so, some of whom, in the preceding, he mentioned as eaters of human flesh. To the Jews, however, especially those of ancient times, who employ none of these practices, he did not merely refuse the name of inspired, but declared that they would immediately perish. And this prediction he uttered respecting them, as being doubtless endued with prophetic power, not observing that the whole history of the Jews, and their ancient and venerable polity, were administered by God; and that it is by their fall that salvation has come to the Gentiles, and that "their fall is the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles," until the fullness of the Gentiles come, that after that the whole of Israel, whom Celsus does not know, may be saved.
That's basically the end of book 6, but Allen's citation proceeds into book 7
, all the way to chapter 59. That book in itself would require another lengthy study. Early Mythicism
Although at times it appears that Celsus believes there was a "historical Jesus" somewhere under all the layers of myth and midrash, his consistent tendency to trace different parts of Christian doctrine to other religions and mysteries is the same as that of the much later mythicist school. In fact, it is obvious that many of these older scholars are following closely in Celsus's considerable footprints in not a few of their contentions. In consideration of this fact, laid out so neatly in Allen's summary, it's a head scratcher that there exist even among mythicists those completely ignorant or in denial of these obvious influences on Christianity, including not only the Greek philosophers but also the mysteries and myths of the Cabiri, Mithraists and Egyptians. As an educated person of his vitally important era, we can see how Celsus would connect the dots in the same way as the better educated mythicists of the past (and present).
Next, I will analyze the second and bolded/enlarged sentence in Allen's quote, as below.
Was Celsus One of the First Mythicists?
In Christ Con, I quoted scholars contending that the pagan philosopher Celsus, immortalized by Origen for his assault on the Christian absurdity, had questioned the very existence of Jesus. If so, this questioning would constitute one of the earliest recorded accounts of such doubt, a point of contention for apologists who claim no one in antiquity doubted Jesus's existence.
In this regard, here's a great quote from a book called Mysteriously Meant
by Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Don Cameron Allen (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1970; p. 11). I've briefly tried to find the original quotes in Origen, by checking the attached Migne edition of Contra Celsum
- unfortunately, the search feature does not seem to be working on this document, and it is difficult and time-consuming to slog through it.
In his Book of Truth Celsus
had asserted that almost all Christian doctrines were warped versions of Platonic idealism, but in addition Christians had certain other dogmas and rites eclectically put together of borrowings from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Jewish tradition, the mysteries of Mithra, the myths of Typhon, Osiris and the Cabiri. The story of Christ is no more than a concatenation of various old myths plus the remembrances of various wandering Greek and barbarian wonder-workers who had plagued antiquity.
This last sentence, of course, sounds much like my "Jesus Mythicist Creed": The "Jesus Christ" of the New Testament is a fictional composite of characters, real and mythical. (Being a Greek, Celsus apparently thought of the Jewish "wonder-workers" or messiahs as "barbarians.") Allen cites the first sentence as "Origen, Contra Celsum
, PG XI, 1287-1503." He then cites the last sentence as "Ibid
., cols. 951-54."
On p. 12 of the same book, Allen remarks:
...Biblical tales, which Celsus assumed were all imitations of Greek myths.
...the biography of Christ, which, in the opinion of Celsus, was conflated out of the myths of Hercules, Bacchus and Orpheus. History knew, Celsus said, a considerable number of females who were pregnant by supernatural penetration; for example, the mother of Plato had born a child to Apollo.
For the first claim regarding Celsus here, Allen cites Contra Celsum
, PG XI, cols. 1098-1106. For the last part of this quote, he cites cols. 1047, 1498.