Third century the proto-Orthodox Christian scholar Origen went to a lot of effort to argue away second century Pagan critic Celsus’ portrayal of Christians and Christianity as one of anti-social seditionists bent on the destruction society, as a caricature of his movement.
Celsus’ book was called The True Doctrine (‘alethès logos). Celsus himself was a Pagan Roman intellectual and Platonist, and he was very concerned about the threat posed to his world, to his culture and society and to its families, by Christianity.
Little is known of Celsus otherwise, and Origen, who produced his counter-polemic Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) in CE 248, or some 50-70 years after Celsus wrote, was able to learn little about him.
We know only that Celsus’ book was important enough and influential enough to pose a real threat in turn to the Christian movement. Celsus painted a bleak picture of his era’s Christians, saying that they suffer from the “disease of sedition.”
They refuse to serve in the military, he says, and also to hold political office, and when Celsus talks of sedition and revolution, he is not talking about a violent coup but a political coup, something far more sinister, something much more along the lines we have seen since the Religious Right began to infiltrate and take control of the Republican Party following Goldwater’s defeat.
Two other symptoms of Christianity as Celsus identifies them are still readily apparent today in the Religious Right: xenophobia and separatism. Celsus was also troubled by another element very familiar to us today: the idea that the earth was made for Christians alone. “He has made us entirely like God,” they proclaim, “and all things have been put under us, earth, water, air, and stars; and all things exist for our benefit, and have been appointed to serve us…”
With thinking like this, it was perhaps no surprise that the Christians felt that the Church was above the state, yet another cry we are familiar with today as we see the Bible put above the Constitution time and again.
A low intellectual bar was something else noted by Celsus. “Let the stupid draw near!” was their appeal, he says. Their favorite expression are, he says, “Do not ask questions, just believe!” and “Your faith will save you!” More, he relates, the Christians teach nothing new: “There is nothing new or impressive about their ethical teaching; indeed, when one compares it to other philosophies, their simplemindedness becomes apparent.” They are simpleminded, he says, because they will believe anything (again, one is reminded of the Religious Right and the many bizarre claims they make on a daily basis).
Today’s Teabangelicals (I am thinking of Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and others) sound very much like Celsus’ Christians:
“Now I would not want to say,” Celsus writes,
that a man who got into trouble because of some eccentric belief should have to renounce his belief, or pretend that he has renounced it. But the point is this, and the Christians would do well to heed it: One ought first to follow reason as a guide before accepting any belief, since anyone who believes without testing a doctrine is sure to be deceived.
“If only they would undertake to answer my question,” Celsus laments,
which I do not ask as one trying to understand their beliefs (there being little to understand!). But they refuse to answer, and indeed, discourage asking questions of any sort.” Instead, they prey on the ignorant and shy away from debate with the educated: “Make sure none of you obtains knowledge, for too much learning is a dangerous thing: knowledge is a disease of the soul, and the soul that acquires knowledge will perish.
Nor were early Christians seen as embracing anything like family values; rather, they were family wreckers, said Celsus, infiltrating families and destroying them by turning children against fathers and luring away daughters. Christianity is thus, believes Celsus, a rebellion against the state but against the very fabric of society and culture, and thus “harmful to the life of mankind.” They also attack the day’s education system, just as they attack today’s, calling it “corrupt” just as they call it corrupt today, because it does not teach those things Christians want it to teach.
Celsus explains that “religious innovation stems from social causes,” which, as one modern scholar says, is “a perhaps surprisingly ‘modern’ and rationalist view'” and “quite common in classical religious, philosophical, and political thought.” We have certainly seen this with the Religious Right and their manufactured culture war.
Celsus, writes this scholar, “depicts the Christians as genuine enemies of humanity, a conscious conspiracy (at least on the part of its leaders) of the intellectually doltish, the socially inferior, and the morally bankrupt. The success of such a movement would spell the end of his civilization.”
Far from saving it, what Celsus believed is true today as well. The Religious Right will not save our civilization but will destroy it, and for the same reasons. One wonders what Origen would say were he alive today to see what had become of his movement. The Religious Right seems determined to make a mockery of Origen’s defense and make true Celsus’ accusations.
Origen said all Christians should not be judged by the examples of a few, and this is certainly as true of Christians as of any other group, a lesson the Religious Right has forgotten in its xenophobic reactions to the religious Other, Muslims especially, but also Pagans and historically, Jews. It is, perhaps, no surprise that Origen himself became the Other after his death, when he was declared by the later orthodox church to be heretical.
The Christians Celsus most feared were those who personal charismatic authority and prophecy and these Christians today are those we also should most fear, the dominionists who drive the Religious Right and the Sarah Palins and Ted Cruzes of the world. Celsus did not overstate the threat they represented to his world, for they did, in fact, destroy it, and we should not underestimate the threat they pose to ours.
Celsus. Celsus on the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, tr. by R. Joseph Hoffmann. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
James A. Francis. Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1995.