WHO WAS CELSUS?
No discussion on critics of the ancient church would be complete without the most salient of them all – the pagan intellectual Celsus.
He wrote a polemical tour de force titled True Doctrine (also translated as True Word, True Account or True Discourse), published in the late second century (ca. 170 AD). Celsus’ attack was the first all-out – and informed – salvo we have on Christianity. More than a passing comment or a veiled allusion; it was a collection of objections contra Christianity.
Initially, Celsus seems to have been overlooked by Christians but a century later Origen felt it was prudent to respond to the work in his Against Celsus (ca. 246 AD). The strange thing about Origen going toe to toe with the ghost of Celsus is both were essentially Platonists! They held in common many presuppositions, though Origen saw God as personal and Celsus did not, for Celsus believed Christianity’s “doctrine of a divine intervention in history is incompatible with Platonic axioms”. Celsus, a a philosopher of the Middle Platonist school, did not reject everything in Christianity outright (e.g., the Logos doctrine, certain ethical principles, etc.).
I have a begrudging respect for Celsus and readily admit some of his arguments went unanswered by Christian apologists, even the illuminative Origen. In a twist of history that would probably surprise both men, the way we have Celsus’ True Doctrine preserved today is because Origen quoted Celsus at-length in his response work, Contra Celsum.
WHY DID CELSUS ATTACK CHRISTIANITY?
Celsus attacked the church out of genuine love for the Roman Empire, which he felt was being undermined. Celsus chided Christians as “sectarians “. Celsus was annoyed, perhaps even frightened that Christianity was not linked to any one state or place. Henry Chadwick says “Celsus was the first known person to realize this non-political, quietist, and pacifist community had in its power to transform the social and political order of the empire” and that “it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata” . This is something Celsus did not want.
Celsus – like many Roman gentlemen – was a social conservative in a certain sense of the word. Celsus had misgivings about polytheism but still defended more traditional Roman religious views. Celsus claimed at hero shrines, the gods can be seen in human form and they do not appear only once “in a secretive and stealthy manner like the fellow who deceived the Christians” [Origen, Against Celsus 7.35]. Celsus lists positive benefits some have experienced from oracles: wisdom, revelation, miracle signs, appearances, health, and prophetic utterances which are fulfilled [Against Celsus 8.45].
This general Roman attitude, which Celsus displayed, was one reason the Romans gave Jews a degree of freedom in their religious practice – it was old: “”As the Jews, then, became a peculiar people, and enacted laws in keeping with the customs of their country, and maintain them up to the present time, and observe a mode of worship which, whatever be its nature, is yet derived from their fathers…” [Against Celsus 5.25]. Christianity was novel, though, and Celsus even mocked this new faith for not having buildings!
Celsus discerned Christianity was not like Judaism: it was not limited to a certain ethnic group; people of all backgrounds were converting to Christianity. Celsus explained Christian unity in light of sociology: “Their agreement is quite amazing, the more so as it may be shown to rest on no trustworthy foundation.” The thing that binds them together, Celsus believes, is persecution; this helps their cause.
HOW DID CELSUS KNOW ABOUT CHRISTIANITY?
Generally speaking, Celsus did not uncritically repeat wild rumors floating around about Christianity. Instead, Celsus launched attacks where it would hurt. He was not given to attacking straw men, for Celsus “was a man who relied not on rumors and hearsay evidence but on personal observation and careful study” . Celsus took time and effort to study Christianity to dissect it properly. He studied the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the gospels (he at least knew Matthew, Luke and 1 Corinthians).
He probably had personal contact with Christians. He claimed he knew what appear to be hyper-Charismatics (Montanists, perhaps?) in both Palestine and Phoenicia – he even quotes some of their ecstatic utterances [Against Celsus 7.9].
It is possible Celsus had even been witnessed to by some Christians. The evangelistic zeal of the early church is something that annoyed him: “Christians with little or no education seized every opportunity to witness to people, and when confronted by educated pagans they still would not stop pushing their opinions” .
Not only was Celsus familiar with Christian evangelists but he was also familiar with some of the work of Christian apologists, the heretic Marcion, and some of the gnostic sects. Celsus is acquainted enough with Marcionism that he uses the clever tactic of leveraging the Christian’s own heretics against the orthodox Christians.
Contra Celsum 2.6: “Jesus kept all the Jewish customs”.
Celsus says the praxis of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the praxis of Christians. Of course, Celsus had his fair share of criticism for the Jews and their Scriptures! Celsus probably borrowed some of his verbal ammunition from Jewish sources (an unknown Jewish anti-Christian polemical tract?). In the course of an attack on Christian doctrine, Celsus introduces a Jewish character (Origen called him “the Jew of Celsus”) who repeats common Jewish jabs against Jesus [Against Celsus 1.32]. By this method, Celsus even includes the charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a soldier named Panthera.
Contra Celsum 1.38: “there he learned certain magical powers which the Egyptians are proud to have. He returned full of pride in these powers, and gave himself the title of God”.
Celsus also says Jesus studied magic and practiced sorcery in Egypt.  Celsus uses more elements from the life of Jesus against the Christians here. Celsus refers to both the miracles and some of the (misconstrued) background of Jesus in a very real, albeit negative, way.
Contra Celsum 6.34: “If Christ had been thrown down a cliff or pushed into a pit, or strangled with a rope … then they would speak of a cliff of life, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality”.
Celsus mockingly confirms the death of Jesus as well as the method. Celsus made fun of Christian references to the cross as a glorious thing. Celsus questioned the logic of the crucifixion, wondering why the so-called “Son of God” would let himself be killed that way. Celsus pointed out that Christians would not worship Zeus because his tomb was right there in plain sight in Crete, yet their “god” was supposedly resurrected from his tomb.
Celsus did not believe in the resurrection; in his mind, it was a decidedly disgusting and repugnant belief. Celsus wondered why Christians worshipped a dead man as immortal. Further, Celsus argues that Christian doctrine twisted the Greek concept of immortality of the soul into the resurrection. Celsus felt the doctrine of the resurrection was based on an incorrect interpretation of reincarnation. Celsus chided the Christians for rejecting the traditional gods on one hand and then worshipping a mere man on the other. Worse yet; the man had lived recently: “If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently” (Contra Celsum 8.12).
Not surprisingly, Celsus honed in on the central feature of Christianity: the worship of Christ. He criticized Christians for being inconsistent: how can they claim to worship the one true God, reject polytheism, and yet then offer unto Jesus hyperthreskeuousi: “excessive worship”?[Against Celsus 8.12] Besides, there were other men more worthy of worship than Christ, such as figures from ancient Greece. If that is not bad enough, this man was a convicted criminal who had been disgraced and executed. It is not hard to see why Celsus thought these were better candidates when he viewed Jesus, the lowly carpenter who was, “a pestilent fellow”, a liar and a wicked sorcerer (remember, Celsus claimed Jesus learned magic while studying in Egypt).
Against Celsus 4.3: “What could be the purpose of such a visit to earth by God? To find out what is taking place among human? Does he not know everything?”
Celsus fundamentally rejected the incarnation. He accused Christians of exalting Jesus the man to godhood status in order to ignore any real god – a Christological cop out. For Celsus, it was ludicrous they thought this was consistent with monotheism!
CELSUS AND THE CHRIST-MYTH THEORY
Celsus was willing to use historical elements from the life of Jesus against Christianity; a clever tactic. The Christ-Mythicist should see that if Jesus never existed, Celsus would have been more than willing to say so. Why did he not just say, “Your Messiah never even existed”? Furthermore, Celsus mocked the Hebrew Scriptures for being chock full of stupid myths and silly fables. This is important because Celsus never made a similar charge about the existence of Jesus. Although he had great suspicions about the alleged supernatural aspects to his life, such as the virgin birth and the fulfilled prophecies attributed to him, Celsus never questioned the existence of Jesus.