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§ 32. Direct Assaults. Celsus.
The direct assault upon Christianity, by works devoted to the purpose, began about the middle of the second century, and was very ably conducted by a Grecian philosopher, Celsus, otherwise unknown; according to Origen, an Epicurean with many Platonic ideas, and a friend of Lucian. He wrote during the persecuting reign of Marcus Aurelius.7777 Origen (I. 8) indefinitely assigns him to the reign of Hadrian and the Antonines; most historians (Mosheim, Gieseler, Baur, Friedländer) to a.d. 150 or later; others (Tillemont, Neander, Zeller) to about 160 or 170; Keim (1. c. p. 267) to a.d. 178. As the place of composition Keim (p. 274) suggests Rome, others Alexandria. He ably defends his identity with the friend of Lucian (p. 291), but makes him out a Platonist rather than an Epicurean (p. 203 sqq.).6
Celsus, with all his affected or real contempt for the new religion, considered it important enough to be opposed by an extended work entitled "A True Discourse," of which Origen, in his Refutation, has faithfully preserved considerable fragments.7878 See the restoration of Celsus from these fragments by Dr. Keim, quoted above.7 These represent their author as an eclectic philosopher of varied culture, skilled in dialectics, and familiar with the Gospels, Epistles, and even the writings of the Old Testament. He speaks now in the frivolous style of an Epicurean, now in the earnest and dignified tone of a Platonist. At one time he advocates the popular heathen religion, as, for instance, its doctrine of demons; at another time he rises above the polytheistic notions to a pantheistic or sceptical view. He employs all the aids which the culture of his age afforded, all the weapons of learning, common sense, wit, sarcasm, and dramatic animation of style, to disprove Christianity; and he anticipates most of the arguments and sophisms of the deists and infidels of later times. Still his book is, on the whole, a very superficial, loose, and light-minded work, and gives striking proof of the inability of the natural reason to understand the Christian truth. It has no savor of humility, no sense of the corruption of human nature, and man’s need of redemption; it is full of heathen passion and prejudice, utterly blind to any spiritual realities, and could therefore not in the slightest degree appreciate the glory of the Redeemer and of his work. It needs no refutation, it refutes itself.
Celsus first introduces a Jew, who accuses the
mother of Jesus of adultery with a soldier named Panthera;7979 Πάνθηρ, panthera, here,
and in the Talmud, where Jesus is likewise called יֶשׁיּ
is used, like the Latin lupa, as a type of ravenous lust hence as a symbolical name for μοιχείρ. So Nitzsch and Baur. But Keim (p. 12) takes it as a designation of the wild rapacious (πᾶν θηρῶν) Roman soldier. The mother of Jesus was, according to the Jewish informant of Celsus, a poor seamstress, and engaged to a carpenter, who plunged her into disgrace and misery when he found out her infidelity.8 adduces the denial of Peter, the treachery of Judas, and the death of Jesus as contradictions of his pretended divinity; and makes the resurrection an imposture. Then Celsus himself begins the attack, and begins it by combating the whole idea of the supernatural, which forms the common foundation of Judaism and Christianity. The controversy between Jews and Christians appears to him as foolish as the strife about the shadow of an ass. The Jews believed, as well as the Christians, in the prophecies of a Redeemer of the world, and thus differed from them only in that they still expected the Messiah’s coming. But then, to what purpose should God come down to earth at all, or send another down? He knows beforehand what is going on among men. And such a descent involves a change, a transition from the good to the evil, from the lovely to the hateful, from the happy to the miserable; which is undesirable, and indeed impossible, for the divine nature. In another place he says, God troubles himself no more about men than about monkeys and flies. Celsus thus denies the whole idea of revelation, now in pantheistic style, now in the levity of Epicurean deism; and thereby at the same time abandons the ground of the popular heathen religion. In his view Christianity has no rational foundation at all, but is supported by the imaginary terrors of future punishment. Particularly offensive to him are the promises of the gospel to the poor and miserable, and the doctrines of forgiveness of sins and regeneration, and of the resurrection of the body. This last he scoffingly calls a hope of worms, but not of rational souls. The appeal to the omnipotence of God, he thinks, does not help the matter, because God can do nothing improper and unnatural. He reproaches the Christians with ignorance, credulity, obstinacy, innovation, division, and sectarianism, which they inherited mostly from their fathers, the Jews. They are all uncultivated, mean, superstitious people, mechanics, slaves, women, and children. The great mass of them he regarded as unquestionably deceived. But where there are deceived, there must be also deceivers; and this leads us to the last result of this polemical sophistry. Celsus declared the first disciples of Jesus to be deceivers of the worst kind; a band of sorcerers, who fabricated and circulated the miraculous stories of the Gospels, particularly that of the resurrection of Jesus; but betrayed themselves by contradictions. The originator of the imposture, however, is Jesus himself, who learned that magical art in Egypt, and afterwards made a great noise with it in his native country.
But here, this philosophical and critical sophistry virtually, acknowledges its bankruptcy. The hypothesis of deception is the very last one to offer in explanation of a phenomenon so important as Christianity was even in that day. The greater and more permanent the deception, the more mysterious and unaccountable it must appear to reason.
Chrysostom made the truthful remark, that Celsus bears witness to the antiquity of the apostolic writings. This heathen assailant, who lived almost within hailing distance of St. John, incidentally gives us an abridgement of the history of Christ as related by the Gospels, and this furnishes strong weapons against modern infidels, who would represent this history as a later invention. "I know everything" he says; "we have had it all from your own books, and need no other testimony; ye slay yourselves with your own sword." He refers to the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, and makes upon the whole about eighty allusions to, or quotations from, the New Testament. He takes notice of Christ’s birth from a virgin in a small village of Judaea, the adoration of the wise men from the East, the slaughter of the infants by order of Herod, the flight to Egypt, where he supposed Christ learned the charms of magicians, his residence in Nazareth, his baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove and the voice from heaven, the election of disciples, his friendship with publicans and other low people, his supposed cures of the lame and the blind, and raising of the dead, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the principal circumstances in the history of the passion and crucifixion, also the resurrection of Christ.8080 Keim (Geschichte Jesu von Nazara, I. 22) says of Celsus: "Von der Jungfraugeburt bis zum Jammer des Todes bei Essig und Galle, bis zu den Wundern des Todes und der Auferstehung hat er unsere Evangelien verfolgt, und anderen Quellen, welche zum Theil heute noch fliessen, hat er den Glauben an die Hasslichkeit Jesu und an die Sündhaftigkeit seiner Jünger abgewonnen." Comp. Keim’s monograph on Celsus, pp. 219-231. On the bearing of his testimony on the genuineness of the Gospel of John, see vol. 1. p. 708.9
It is true he perverts or abuses most of these facts; but according to his own showing they were then generally and had always been believed by the Christians. He alludes to some of the principal doctrines of the Christians, to their private assemblies for worship, to the office of presbyters. He omits the grosser charges of immorality, which he probably disowned as absurd and incredible.
In view of all these admissions we may here, with Lardner, apply Samson’s riddle: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness."8181 Judges xiv. 14. Comp. Lardner’s Works, vol. VII. pp. 210-270. Dr. Doddridge and Dr. Leland made good use of Celsus against the Deists of the last century. He may with still greater effect be turned against the more radical theories of Strauss and Renan. For Keim’s estimate, see his Celsus, 253-261.0
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