Six Degrees of Celsus

Christianity attracted criticism from followers of other religions (and no religion) from its early days, and some of those criticisms are still in use today by heretics like me. {g} A man named Celsus was one of the better-known critics, but not because his work was particularly influential. Rather, his work is known to us because the Christian theologian Origen wrote a detailed rebuttal to it.

While Celsus’ original work is no longer known to be in existence, Origen quoted so much of it that we have a pretty good idea what Celsus’ points were. The critic was a Platonist and supporter of the Roman Empire, and most likely lived in the second century AD.

Celsus’ attack on Christianity came from several different directions. He was not as harsh as some other critics of his time, and didn’t accuse Christians of being atheists (although I guess Christians were and still are atheists in regard to any god other than their own; it seems to have been typical in the Roman religion of the time to still acknowledge gods that you don’t personally worship, just in case), perverts, cannibals, or arsonists. Instead, he concentrated on how Jesus was a fraud, the Christians purposefully choose to preach to the ignorant rather than the educated, and there were a lot of different battling sects within the Christian movement, all of which could basically still apply today. Celsus was a loyal follower of Roman religion and a believer in magic, so some of his points come off to me as just trading one superstition for another, as when he argued that the Christians should be worshipping the forces of nature. Then again, we know that nature is there, while believing in any god requires a leap of faith. Still, what are gods other than nature personified? While I am neither a Christian nor a nature-worshipper (I think nature will go on just fine without being thanked), I do have to say that polytheistic nature-religions are more interesting on a purely aesthetic and creative level. When you have only one divine micro-manager dealing with everything, there isn’t as much room for stories of the supernatural. I’m obviously not alone in this, considering that societies that converted to Christianity usually retained a certain degree of belief in spirits, in the forms of elves, trolls, goblins, and the like.

Getting back to Celsus, however, one of his main ideas was that Jesus was actually an illegitimate child who claimed to be the son of God.

The writer identifies Jesus’ real father as a Roman soldier named Pantera, although it’s not clear where he came up with that name. One suggestion I’ve seen is that Celsus chose it because it was not only a common Roman name, but also resembled “parthenos,” the Greek word for “virgin.”

There’s a mention in the Talmud of a renegade rabbi named Yeshu ben Pandera, although the context suggests that he was probably not the same as Jesus. Anyway, Jesus went on to learn magic tricks in Egypt (reflecting the idea in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus grew up in Egypt, as well as the fact that Egypt was known for its magicians), and returned to Judea to begin his ministry.

Although Celsus does not seem to have been all that familiar with Judaism, he knew enough to make the argument that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies associated with the Messiah. As for the resurrection, the idea was started by Mary Magdalene, and later spread to Jesus’ other followers. Isaac Asimov revisited this idea in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, saying that the statement about Jesus having driven seven devils from Mary Magdalene could have indicated that she was mentally ill.

Similarly , I’ve seen it suggested that Peter, mentioned as the first male witness to the resurrection, would probably have been feeling really guilty about denying his teacher, which could have made him more susceptible to the idea that the ghost of Jesus was hanging around to admonish him. Besides, the idea of a killed and resurrected god was already an incredibly common mythological theme. Virgin birth was also ascribed to both legendary figures like Perseus and actual people like Alexander the Great, and as I’ve already mentioned a few times, was not at all associated with the Jewish Messiah (at least as far as I’ve read). So, essentially, Christianity was just an attempt to incorporate pagan themes into Judaism, and even that soon after Jesus’ lifetime, no one could agree on what he’d actually taught. Even in the centuries that have passed since then, I don’t think these criticisms have ever been addressed to my satisfaction, but obviously a majority of the population disagrees.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Greek Mythology, Historical Personages, History, Judaism, Mythology, Religion, Roman Empire and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Six Degrees of Celsus

  1. Marie says:

    I love pointing out to christians they have atheistic roots, and are atheists themselves in a way. Feels like a good time for this — and not simply because I dated him in college:

    “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
    …Stephen F Roberts

    I take it Celsus also did not accuse them of being vampires, or other violators of the dead, and of sacred places, either? You know, it’s an incredibly sad little irony that the religion that prides itself so on being all about love and forgiveness and “turning the other cheek” never seemed to learn those lessons from when they were a tiny fringe cult being systematically tortured and culled. Instead they took everything they were “taught” about getting rid of rival theologies, and ramped it up exponentially as they both conquered and seduced their way to being the top dog of cults. No wonder so many of them think bullying people into changing something is perfectly acceptable.

    Why on earth would Jesus need to learn magic tricks in Egypt? I just love this idea that he needed this outside power of parlor tricks rather than getting it from dear old dad. It kinda reminds me of when rich powerful people teach their privileged kids life lessons by cutting them off to fend for themselves and learn the hard way. The only problem is that pesky underlying tenet of christianity that says it’s Very Bad to rely on any source but the big G for any sort of help. Magic from Egyptian lands would be considered from their gods.

    Anyway, great work, Nathan. I shall go pimp for you at facebook.

    • Nathan says:

      Christianity, like many other movements, was definitely a radical idea that became an institution and started squashing other radical ideas. I’m sure that, in future weeks, I’ll get into how Christianity was modified drastically from its earliest forms in order to please the elitists who wanted to keep the common people down.

      I’m not sure why Celsus decided Jesus needed to have learned magic in Egypt, but I guess it was just more known for magicians than Judea was at the time. Since Celsus didn’t think Jesus WAS the son of a god, obviously he didn’t think his powers came from that relationship. The Old Testament has quite a few Jewish prophets who were essentially magicians, but attributes their power to God, which presumably makes it all right.

  2. vilajunkie says:

    I wonder about this Christians-bullying-others-to-convert thing, too. While I’m not a fan of the merchants and treasure hunters from the previous centuries taking along missionaries to convert the natives of non-Eurasian countries, it just confuses me why Christians will try to convert Christians of other denominations. And not just the “crazy” sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. If you want to marry a Christian that doesn’t come from the same same denomination, one of you is talked into converting or promising to convert to the other’s denomination–or else the priest won’t marry you! Yeah, there are non-denominational churches and justices of the peace, but traditional families don’t really see those kind of churches or civil marriages as “real” as getting married in the family church. And heaven forbid you decide to get married in a church of a different denomination, because whichever family gets the short end of the stick will bitch about how the church looks wrong and the mass isn’t done the right way. Whatever that means. :/ It’s ridiculous to me how much you’re personal and familial denomination matters, when essentially all churches that follow the Christian Bible and that alone are all Christian. (I don’t personally consider Mormonism a form of Christianity, since the Book of Mormon is more important than the the traditional Bible and a lot of the traditions go against the conventional traditions of Christian sects.) It’s kinda sad how it’s Catholics vs. Protestants vs. Orthodox Christians–and even then I think Catholics and Orthodox Christians are pretty OK with each other and the different forms of Protestantism treat each other with as much contempt as they treat Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I’m not saying that as a hard-and-fast rule, but proud and ignorant Christians seem to feel this way.

    Anyway, more on topic: Will you discuss the differences or whatever between Celsus and Paracelsus? I think you’ve covered Paracelsus in terms of his alchemy before, but I don’t think you’ve discussed why Paracelsus thought he was better than Celsus–out of all the theologians and philosophers he could have felt superior to but didn’t.

    • Nathan says:

      A lot of the time, it seems like people make the worst enemies of those who believe ALMOST what they do.

      Paracelsus actually compared himself to a different Celsus, the encyclopedia writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus. Maybe I should address the two of them in a future post.

  3. Pingback: Celsus and Paracelsus | VoVatia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s