Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Celsus Over Emphasized the Marcionite Hatred of Judaism

I have already demonstrated that Celsus was in fact the first person to make reference to the Marcionite sect.  That a pagan should have anticipated the insipid works of Irenaeus and those who copied him (or whose original works were reshaped by him i.e. Justin Martyr) should strike us as very odd. Why is it that all the Church Fathers borrow from Celsus - a sworn enemy of Christianity as it were - to develop arguments against fellow Christians?  The answer clearly must be that Celsus was well connected, well read and thus widely influential.

The question then is not to just simply believe what the Church Fathers tell us about 'Marcion' and 'those of Marcion' (Clement of Alexandria) but (a) why did Celsus advance such the arguments he did and (b) why did the Patristic writers follow him?  The second part is quite easy to figure out - Celsus's 'study' was ultimately accepted as authoritative by Roman society at large.  Much of the terminology, the Latinized Greek names of the various sects, must have been established or confirmed in that text.  The Church Fathers thought it better to embrace the findings and go out of their way to demonstrate they did not share the beliefs of the sectarian groups mentioned in the work than attack the study as flawed.

Of course all of this changed with Origen's publication of Against Celsus but by then the damage had been done.  The idea that 'Christians' infected with a viral 'irrational logos' became so mentally deranged that they attacked their native Jewish traditions and would soon encourage rebellion against the Roman state had been established.  There is obviously something to the claim that Christians and Jews were disputing in the streets of the Roman Empire.  Yet Celsus necessarily exaggerated the extent to which the 'Marcionites' (or whatever term he used to describe the sect) turned its back on the Jewish god, religion and culture.  He did this to make the sect seem like a natural threat to the peace and stability of the Roman Empire.

The Church Fathers who followed him naturally picked up on this and went to great lengths to show the Catholic tradition as 'faithful' to the Creator of the universe.  They did this to somehow make themselves seem to be 'conservative.'  Yet how it is that they explained why they abandoned Jewish practice remains unanswered.  Perhaps the Imperial authorities just decided to pick the best of a bad lot when they spared the Roman Church of any serious persecution in the coming age (most of the violence in the third century seems especially concentrated in Egypt and North Africa).

The bottom line is that Celsus began the ball rolling with the claim that the Marcionites hated the god of the Jews and he did it to make their beliefs seem both rebellious and irrational.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.