Extract from Dutch Reformed Theological Journal, part XXXVI, number 2, June 1995; Dr Benno Zuiddam; University of the Orange Free State



Old critics and modern theology: Celsus


For the early Church Porphyry was the main afflicter of Bible believing theology.  Chrysostomos called him “Deo inimicus, adversus Christianus scripsit”.  He was the only enemy Socrates mentioned in his Historia Ecclesiae.  But early Christianity had known another threat: the philosopher Celsus.  Hieronymus and Epiphanius, just to mention two Christian writers, used to speak about Porphyry and Celsus, in that order.

We possess more undoubted extent material of Celsus than of Porphyrian writings.  Origen preserved the bulk of his criticism in “Against Celsus”.  Celsus was a Middle Platonic with Epicurean tendencies.  Celsus most probably was the friend of Lucian of Samosata, the well-known Epicurean pilosopher of those days.

With Porphyry he shared the central element of distance concerning his concept of God. Man was able to attain some concept of a nameless first Being, but God was far away.  Personal relationships between God and human beings were absurd (Contra Celsum VII).


First Demythologizer

Celsus wrote towards the end of the second century.  If we consider Porphyry to be the father of Bible criticism, Celsus should have a good claim to the epithet of grandfather.  “In this respect Celsus was the first of the New Testament demythologizers, a title he shares in history with Porphyry, Voltaire, Tom Paine, DF Strauss, Arthur Drews and Rudolf Bultmann”.

Celsus did not differ very much from Bultmann in the method he used for dealing with the Bible, though one could hardly accuse Bultmann of the same intentions.  Key elements of historic Christian faith were robbed of their historic character: the virgin birth and incarnation, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Celsus stated that the Bible was a book with lots of fairytales and myths.  He used the method of comparing religions, concluding that key statements of the Christian faith were mere legends of a worse kind. The virgin birth was a concept stolen from the Greek myth of Danae. She was shut up in a tower because her father did not want her to become pregnant, but the god Zeus was able to enter her in the form of a golden rain (C.C.I.37).

The resurrection brought into remembrance the story of Aristeas.  According to Herodotus he disappeared after his death and showed himself at several times and places afterwards. (C.C.III.26).

Celsus also tried to establish Jesus’ dependency on Plato for the saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  Plato taught that it is “impossible for an extraordinary good man to be extraordinary wealthy” (C.C.VI.16).  Jesus allegedly misused this proverb.  Unfortunately this “eis-egesis” of Celsus would not be the last example of circular reasoning in the history of Gospel interpretation. 

But Celsus had some psychological capabilities as well.  This he used in explaining away the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Rather, the disciples fabricated the story of the resurrection, inspired by grief and hallucination (C.C.II.55).  Celsus presumed that Jesus only left a spiritual impression upon His followers, but that he, of course, did not reappear in the flesh (C.C.II.61).  To this Porphyry added that Jesus should have appeared to other people than his former disciples.  “Why didn’t he manifest himself to Pilate, who had punished him,   …or to Herod, the king of the Jews; or to the Jewish community?” (Apokritikos II.14, Fougart 1876:23).


Shame Culture

Both Celsus and Porphyry had major problems with the sufferings of Christ. Such was not befitting to a Divine person at all.  “Das antike Heroenideal verlangt aristokratische Herrkünft, eine verachtungsvolle überlegenheit über das Schicksal, heldenhaftes Tun, Auszeichnung als Machthaber un König.  Demnach nimmt Celsus anstoB an dem Proletariër Jesus.”

Christians should not believe that Jesus was the Son of God because “He was disgracefully arrested and punished in a disreputable way” (C.C.VI.10).  Celsus also stated that Jesus had a shameful way of making a living and that he attracted scum (C.C.I.62).  Deliberately Celsus does not tell his readers how Jesus provided for his food and drink, but leaves this to their imagination.  Rather judiciously he firmly keeps his mouth shut about the Greek philosopher Socrates spending his days gathering free dinners in Athens...

But anyhow, the shame-culture of the Greek world was not prepared to accept a suffering Son of God.  This becomes particularly clear when one compares Jesus with the Greek ideal of “theios aner” as shown by Philostratos in his Life of Appolonius of Tyana.  A suffering Galilean saviour was simply incompatible, and a bleak performance compared to hot shot Appolonius.  After this divine Greek hero had stated his case in front of his judges, he escaped and reappeared to his friends in Dikaiarchia later on.  Porphyry reasoned that Jesus should have done the same thing. “Why didn’t he, like Appollonius, after he had spoken freely to the absolute sovereign Domitian, ...become invisible?” (Apokritikos III.1, Fougart 1876:52).

Porphyry also deliberatedly tried to victimize the disciples by using the principle of shame-culture.  Someone like Peter, for instance, had to be ashamed of himself, fleeing from prison! (Acts 12:5-11)  And to him Jesus had entrusted the keys of the kingdom? Bad news!  Referring to Paul’s Galatians 2:12, Porphyry calls Peter an easily frightened man, who was not able to make up his own mind (Apokritikos III.22, Fougart 1876:102).



The virgin birth was only a product of Jesus’ imagination; at least this is how Celsus explained it.  Jesus invented the virgin-birth story because he was not able to bear the facts about his real birth from fornication. “The mother of Jesus was rejected by the carpenter to whom she was engaged, because she was found guilty of fornication, and had a child of a certain soldier called Panthera” (C.C.I.32).  Striking similarities in method can be observed between prime exponents of enlightenment theology like Von Harnack or Renan, and the second century philosopher. 

Celsus also distinguished between the Gospel accounts and “how things really happened”(C.C.II.13).  Regarding Biblical sayings as “vaticinia ex eventu” or “post factum”, was invented long before modern critical scholarship ever thought about it.  Celsus must receive the credit he deserves.  “It were the disciples who invented the idea that Jesus knew about everything that should happen to him beforehand” (C.C.II.13).  Any theologian with some knowledge about contemporary Old and New Testament scholarship knows how prevalent this method of explanation still is.  Many a modern day scholar silently repeats Celsus’ words: “Because the disciples couldn’t reconcile themselves to the facts, they made up this plan to say that He had known everything before” (C.C.II.15).

It fascinates to see how Celsus aimed to do away with the historicity of the very two prophets Porphyry disliked so much: Jonah and Daniel.  Celsus regarded the stories about the fish and the lion’s den extremely unbelievable (C.C.VI.53), despite or because early Christian scholarship accepted their historicity (C.C.VII.57).  The same can be said about the history of Lot and his daughters, which was looked upon by Celsus as a barbaric folktale (C.C.IV.45).  The reference to the German term “aetiologie” should suffice to draw the comparison with modern scholarship.  Origen, despite of his allegorical tendencies in general, defends the historicity of this Genesis account.

Celsus even used the Marcionic controversy to show his scepticism about Christianity’s association with the Old Testament.  The teachings of Jesus and Moses were contradictory in many respects.  In the Law of Moses God told the Jews to become rich and to exterminate their enemies, children inclusive.  But Jesus taught the very opposite, didn’t he?  Riches obstructed the entrance to the kingdom of the Father and one should not pay more attention to acquiring food and drink than the bird of the field do”, Celsus reasoned.  “Who is wrong? Moses or Jesus?  Did the Father forget about the commands given to Moses when he sent Jesus?  Or did he condemn his own laws and changed his mind?” (C.C.VII.18)



Celsus would become a forerunner of modern Old Testament theology and neo-orthodoxy. He introduced the thought of what is nowadays called: “radical Christological reinterpretation of the Old Testament”.  In other words: what Christians believe to be prophesies about Christ in the Old Testament era, are in fact later explanations not intended that way in the original sense.  “<You Christians> quote prophets as foretelling facts about Jesus’ life before they happened, ...but those prophecies could be much better applied to thousands of other people”(C.C.II.28).

The prophets were made to testify.  Jesus’ interpretations, for instance his explanations in Luke 24:25-27 and 44-46, followed by early Christianity were doubtful at best.  Centuries after these statements of the old philosopher a new generation of scholars would arrive, but now of Christian origins, showing profound hesitancy to expound in all the Scriptures the things concerning <Jesus> Himself”.



Porphyry and Celsus: two old names, more or less forgotten in our modern age of scholarship, Internet and space travelling.   But these two names stand for convictions that have returned after one and a half Millennium. This did not happen by mere chance or divine mistake.  Prime elements of their old philosophy have been embraced as new love by modernity so called.  It was a worldview and concept of life that provided the right circumstances for the resurrection, this time within the Christian Church.