Friday, September 21, 2007

On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, by Celsus

This polemical work was produced by a conservative second century pagan named Celsus. It is the only work critical of Christianity to survive from that era. It was preserved mostly intact from the church father Origen who pretty much quoted this entire document in his Contra Celsum. It’s a very short but really elucidates what was going on in the century after the composition of the New Testament.

Paul said that the cross is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. After rading this, I can clearly see that he was correct. Celsus complains shrilly that Christianity is an anti-intellectual religion that attracts the most vulgar (by this he means poor) people in society. It is like a virus upon the Roman Empire that can’t be stuffed out. He derides it as a religion of “women, slaves and children.” The fact that Christians were persecuted everywhere to him proves that the Christian God doesn’t care enough to save his own people from danger. To him, religion is about enhancing one’s earthly life. He could not understand why Christians would give up their lives for Christ.

His main criticism of Christianity is a criticism of the character of Jesus himself. The fact that he died on a Roman cross, was poor, born in the boonies, and lived a relatively obscure life proves to Celsus that Jesus couldn’t be who he said he was. He contrasts the story of Jesus to the Greek myths of Hercules and other noble heroic figures who fight for what they want and conquer their enemies. That Jesus would willingly die in such a humiliating way does not comport with Celsus’ idea of divinity.

Being very Platonic in thinking Celsus is fast to compare the saying of Christ with those of Plato, concluding that Plato is much more high-minded and intellectual. Of Christian worship, Celsus said, “The religion of the Christians is not directed at an idea, but at the crucified Jesus, and this is surely no better than dog or goat worship at its worst.” The Platonic belief in a metaphysical realm of Ideas or Forms makes them inclined to think that the physical world is bad compared to the metaphysical realm.

What’s fascinating is that Celsus many times mistakes Gnostic beliefs as Christian. Back then the Gnostic heresy was very pervasive. He knew both Gnostic sources as well as the New Testament documents. He not only takes aim at Jesus but at Paul as well who he claims nullified the Law of Moses by claiming that God changed His mind. Also, he was quite offended at the saying, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” Since Celsus believed strongly in a mix of pagan religious ideas and secular philosophies of the age, he saw this as an attack on the foundation of his own worldview.

I recommend this book to those interested in ancient history and the beginnings of Christianity. This work is another example that Christianity was born out of strife and conflict. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace to the Earth but a sword.


Jim Jordan said...

Celsus is typical of what we see today in the attacks on Christianity. His concept is of a great, big "muscle" God who is so omnipotent he can't even tie his own shoes, much less become a man.

First Corinthians 1 and 2 explains Celsus' type of rejection very well. Funny how an attack can have the opposite result of re-affirming scripture.

Ron said...

Amazing how contemporary critiques aren't as modern as people think.