Celsus philosophus and the headbangers

The amount of fictitious material spewed onto the web by Christian-hating groups is extraordinary.  Another example came my way today, from one of the “Jesus is really pagan! tee hee!” types, whose ignorance is generally exceeded only by their credulity and quarrelsomeness.   I was told very positively that Celsus said the following:

Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians – and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God.

Of course the pamphlet of Celsus is lost – this must be from Origen’s Contra Celsum, somewhere, and until we see the context we can’t say much about it.  But when I did a google search, all I got was headbanger sites.  I did not get the CCEL site.

A bit of investigation revealed that we owe this gem to Freke and Gandy, a pair of authors who have managed to put more misinformation in more heads than I would have believed possible.  Rather to my surprise I found most of Freke and Gandy online in PDF form. 

And in turn, they say they got this from R. J. Hoffmann’s Celsus, p.120, a translation published by Oxford University Press.  Hoffmann was criticised by one of the only two reviewers for amending the arguments of Celsus in order to “improve” them to meet the objections of Origen.  A small section that I examined myself managed to misrepresent the argument.

Now Hoffmann did not make it easy for readers to check his version.  He gives no cross-references to Contra Celsum.  I have generally managed by looking for proper names.  I admit to being unenthusiastic about hunting for whatever lies behind this “quote” in the 8 books of Origen!  But now I have a page number, it should be possible!

And … it is still very difficult, but by going back a page, where he mentions “Apollo and Zeus”, I can find it.  The above paragraph is derived from Contra Celsum, book 8, chapters 45 onwards.  But … erm… something is wrong.

Here’s Hoffmann, with context:

Certainly the Christians are not alone in claiming inspiration for the utterances they ascribe to their god through their prophets. I need hardly mention every case of prophecy that is said to have occurred among our own people-prophets and prophetesses as well, both men and women, claiming the power of oracular and inspired utterance. What of those who have claimed the power to discern truth, using victims and sacrifices of one kind and another, and those who say that they are privy to certain signs or gifts given to them by the powers that be? Life is full of such claims: Cities have been built because a prophet says, “Build it!”; Diseases and famines have been dealt with in their oracles, and those who neglected their advisories have often done so at their peril. The prophets have foretold disaster with some accuracy; colonists have heeded their warnings before going to foreign parts, and have fared the better for it; not common people alone, but rulers have paid attention to what they have to say; the childless have gotten their hearts’ desire and have escaped the curse of loneliness because prophets have helped them; ailments have been healed. On the other hand, how many have insulted the temples and been caught? Some have been overcome with madness as soon as they blasphemed; others have confessed their wrongdoing; others have been moved to suicide; others have been punished with incurable diseases; some have been destroyed by a voice coming from within the shrine itself! Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians-and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs?

In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God. They believe in eternal punishment; well, so do the priests and initiates of the various religions. The Christians threaten others with this punishment, just as they are themselves threatened. To decide which of the two threats is nearer the truth is fairly simple; but when confronted with the evidence, the Christians point to the evidence of miracles and prophecies that they think bolsters their case.

Now look at the full text, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation (I see no reason to go behind this to the Greek).  In chapter 45 we find the start of this passage, as far as “some have been destroyed by a voice coming from within the shrine itself!”  But there the passage ends, and Origen’s dry response begins:

… Yea, some have been slain by a terrible voice issuing from the inner sanctuary.” I know not how it comes that Celsus brings forward these as undoubted facts, whilst at the same time he treats as mere fables the wonders which are recorded and handed down to us as having happened among the Jews, or as having been performed by Jesus and His disciples. For why may not our accounts be true, and those of Celsus fables and fictions? At least, these latter were not believed by the followers of Democritus, Epicurus, and Aristotle, although perhaps these Grecian sects would have been convinced by the evidence in support of our miracles, if Moses or any of the prophets who wrought these wonders, or Jesus Christ Himself, had come in their way.

Chapters 46 and 47 do not contain anything by Celsus; they continue the reply of Origen.  Then begins chapter 48, dealing with the next portion of Celsus, as Origen tells us.  I indent the words of Celsus, for clarity.

In the next place, Celsus, after referring to the enthusiasm with which men will contend unto death rather than abjure Christianity, adds strangely enough some remarks, in which he wishes to show that our doctrines are similar to those delivered by the priests at the celebration of the heathen mysteries. He says:

“Just as you, good sir, believe in eternal punishments, so also do the priests who interpret and initiate into the sacred mysteries. The same punishments with which you threaten others, they threaten you. Now it is worthy of examination, which of the two is more firmly established as true; for both parties contend with equal assurance that the truth is on their side. But if we require proofs, the priests of the heathen gods produce many that are clear and convincing, partly from wonders performed by demons, and partly from the answers given by oracles, and various other modes of divination.”

He would, then, have us believe that we and the interpreters of the mysteries equally teach the doctrine of eternal punishment, and that it is a matter for inquiry on which side of the two the truth lies. Now I should say that the truth lies with those who are able to induce their hearers to live as men who are convinced of the truth of what they have heard….

Can everyone see what has happened?  Hoffmann himself composed the words in bold above, the words attributed to Celsus.  They are not found in Contra Celsum at all. 

And indeed no wonder, for the reflect the views of a headbanger of the late 20th century, rather than pagan polemic.  Origen’s reply makes clear that neither side considers that Celsus is saying that Christians believe the same as pagans.  Celsus is attacking the well-known Christian morality, based on fear of judgement.  He asserts that pagans can’t be that immoral, since they believe in a judgement too.  Origen responds by dryly asking which side actually believe it, as evidenced in daily life.

I doubt that Dr Hoffmann intended a fraud.  Rather his enthusiasm got the better of him.   But in so doing, he started a falsehood.


4 thoughts on “Celsus philosophus and the headbangers

  1. By chance we devoted quite some time of this semester to the anti-Christian polemics and in particular Celsus and Contra Celsus.

    And I remember (I even got that question on the exam) that Celsus most important accusation against the Christians was that they borrowed many elements from Greek antiquity: morality, myths (the story of the Flood is based on the Greek myth of Deucalion), certain rituals (circumcision was borrowed by the Jews from an Egyptian tradition),etc…

    I do not know if it is of better quality, but we used French translations of Celsus’ work and Origen’s Contra Celsus

    Celse, Contre les Chrétiens, introduction et traduction de L. Rougier, Paris, 1965.


    Origène, Contre Celse, trad. M. Borret, 4 vol. (Sources chrétiennes 132, 136, 147, 150), Paris, 1967-1969 (+ vol. 5; general introduction and index).

  2. I’m sure that the SC text is of excellent quality – they always are.

    Do you have a reference for where Celsus makes this accusation?

  3. On pages 37-43 of the French translation you should be able to find some of these accusations.

    A short citation: “Les périls qu’affrontent les chrétiens pour leurs croyances, Socrate a su les braver pour les siennes avec un courage inébranlable et une sérénité merveilleuse. Les préceptes de leur morale, dans ce qu’ils contiennent de meilleur, les philosophes les ont enseignés avant eux.”

    After this statement he also states that their condemnation of idolatry is nothing new, it was already condemned by Heraclitus who wrote: “Adresser des prières à des images, sans savoir ce que sont les dieux et les héros, autant vaut parler à des pierres!”

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