Friday, November 2, 2012

Celsus and the Redefining of Judaism and Christianity [Part One]

Very few people have recognized the importance of Celsus, usually identified with a title something like - 'the pagan critic of Christianity.'  Celsus wrote sometime in the second century.  The range of possible dates for his literary activity go from 138 - 177 CE.  The usual estimation narrows to the joint rules of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161 - 169 CE) or Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (177 - 180 CE).  Jewish readers of Celsus have always noted that the pagan tentatively 'approves' of their religion (or at least is much more accommodating to their tradition than its traditional rival Christianity).  Nevertheless there is a certain naïveté in this analysis which needs to be addressed here.

I favor the earliest possible date for the activity of Celsus. Origen himself identifies Celsus as living in the age "of Hadrian, and later." (Against Celsus 1.8)  Origen clearly thought that this Celsus was the same as the 'Epicurean' referenced in Lucian of Samosata's treatise on Alexander the false prophet written some time after 180 CE.  Origen's argument in Against Celsus is that this pagan "must be convicted of self-contradiction. For from other treatises of his it is ascertained that he was an Epicurean; but here, because he thought that he could assail Christianity with better effect by not professing the opinions of Epicurus, he pretends that there is a something better in man than the earthly part of his nature, which is akin to God."

Lucian in his treatise repeatedly references the idea that he and Celsus were followers of Epicurus, the closing words of Alexander read "These few particulars, my dear friend, drawn from a great store of materials, I have committed to writing, partly from complaisance to you, an old acquaintance and companion, whom I hold in particular esteem, as well for his wisdom and love of truth, as for his amiable disposition, the innocence and evenness of his life, and the pleasantness of his conversation; partly, and what I know will be pleasing to you, for the sake of avenging the cause of Epicurus, that in the strictest sense holy and divinely inspired man, the only one, who (according to my firm conviction) really understood the nature of truth and goodness, and by his communications has been the deliverer and benefactor of his scholars."

With this reference in mind we can see Origen's claims about Celsus being something of a crypto-Epicurean might actually be true.  There are numerous places in his anti-Christian treatise where Celsus reinforces his personal belief that people should have nothing to fear from the gods or warnings about the impending conflagration of the universe.  To this end, since Origen both supposes Celsus was active from the age of Hadrian and that he was one and the same as the Celsus who was still living c. 180 CE - and whom Lucian already addresses as "an old acquaintance and companion" in that year - it is not unthinkable that the treatise was written early in the reign of Antoninus Pius.

Indeed scholars have traditionally ignored the very confusing clue that Origen gives us - namely that Celsus was an Epicurean pretending to be a Platonist.  Why would Celsus 'pretend' to be a Platonist?  Because his audience presumably shared these sensibilities.  In the case of Marcus Aurelius these pretensions make no sense whatsoever as the Emperor while philosophically inclined often pushes to the side Platonic ideals.  By contrast Justin in his Apology addressed to Antoninus makes no less than eleven references to Plato and at least in the context of assuming that the Emperor himself fancied the philosopher.  Moreover many of the references provide context for things said in Celsus's treatise especially the Christian belief in the conflagration of all things at the end times.

Celsus has to make a similar kind of argument to what Justin uttered in his apology - namely that Christian doctrine is dependent on both Platonism and Stoicism:

For while we say that all things have been produced and arranged into a world by God, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of Plato; and while we say that there will be a burning up of all, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of the Stoics: and while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers; and while we maintain that men ought not to worship the works of their hands, we say the very things which have been said by the comic poet Menander, and other similar writers, for they have declared that the workman is greater than the work.

Celsus's anti-Christian treatise only makes sense in an environment where the doctrines of Christianity were emerging for the first time and specifically making the case that their ideas were 'like' those of the Greek philosophers.

The whole point of Celsus's treatise is to make the case that Christianity stole its ideas from older cultures - including that associated with Plato and the Stoics.  He seems to be blunting the very ideas contained in Justin's treatise.  One can argue of course that Celsus merely read Justin's text at a later date.  Nevertheless the True Account only makes sense as a response to a push by Christians in the Antonine period to gain respectability owing to the compatibility of its doctrines with those of traditional Greek philosophy.  Indeed Celsus not only makes references to the cult of Hadrian's beloved Antinous and the Hadrianic ban of Jews from Palestine.  Both are made in such a way that they appear to be recent phenomena.

Moreover the fact that Origen identifies Celsus as an Epicurean but the internal evidence from Celsus's actual treatise suggests an interesting in Platonism is really not that hard to explain.  Let's suppose for a moment that forty years spanned the composition of the True Account and Lucian's Alexander.  Celsus could well have adopted Epicurean taste later in life.  In other words, his 'Platonism' reflects a much earlier period of his life.

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