Contra Celsum

Against Celsus (Greek: Κατὰ Κέλσου; Latin: Contra Celsum), preserved entirely in Greek, is a major apologetics work by the Church Father Origen of Alexandria, written in around 248 AD, countering the writings of Celsus, a pagan philosopher and controversialist who had written a scathing attack on Christianity in his treatise The True Word. Origen wrote the treatise at the request of his patron Ambrose, who insisted that a Christian needed to write a response to Celsus. In the treatise itself, which was aimed at an audience of people who were interested in Christianity but had not yet made the decision to convert, Origen responds to Celsus's arguments point-by-point from the perspective of a Platonic philosopher. Contra Celsum is considered to be one of the most important works of early Christian apologetics and was the first treatise in which a Christian philosopher was able to hold his own against an educated pagan. The church historian Eusebius lauded it as an adequate rebuttal to all criticisms the church would ever face, and it continued to be cited throughout late antiquity.


The pagan philosopher Celsus had written a polemic entitled The True Word, in which he had advanced numerous arguments against Christianity.[4] Celsus refers to the Neopythagorean philosopher Numenius of Apamea, who lived during the late second century AD, on four occasions.[5] This indicates that Celsus must have lived no earlier than the late second century.[5] Many scholars have dated The True Word specifically to the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD),[5] due to Celsus's argument in Book VIII in which he promotes the ideas of duty to the state in both worship and in war, which are similar to ideas described by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations.[5]

Although Origen refers to Celsus as an "Epicurean",[5] his arguments reflect ideas of the Platonizing tradition, rather than Epicureanism.[5] Origen attributes this to Celsus's inconsistency,[5] but modern historians see it instead as evidence that Celsus was not an Epicurean at all.[5] Stephen Thomas states that Celsus may not have necessarily been a Platonist per se,[5] but that he was clearly familiar with Plato.[5] Celsus's actual philosophy appears to be a blend of elements derived from Platonism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism.[5] Theologian Robert M. Grant notes that Origen and Celsus actually agree on many points:[6] "Both are opposed to anthropomorphism, to idolatry, and to any crudely literal theology."[6] Celsus also writes as a loyal citizen of the Roman Empire and a devoted believer in Greco-Roman paganism, distrustful of Christianity as new and foreign.[7]

Thomas remarks that Celsus "is no genius as a philosopher".[5] Nonetheless, Origen's quotations from The True Word reveal that it was well-researched.[3][8][7] Celsus demonstrates extensive knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments[5][7] and of both Jewish and Christian history.[7] Celsus was also closely familiar with the literary features of ancient polemics.[7] One of Celsus's main sources for Books I–II of The True Word was an earlier anti-Christian polemic written by an unknown Jewish author,[7][5] whom Origen refers to as the "Jew of Celsus".[5] This Jewish source also provides well-researched criticism of Christianity[7] and, although Celsus was also hostile to Judaism,[7] he occasionally relies on this Jewish author's arguments.[7] For these reasons, Celsus was seen as Christianity's foremost critic.[9][10][4]

The church's usual tactic for dealing with hostile writings was to ignore them;[4] the reasoning behind this was that, eventually, the writings would be lost and all would be forgotten.[4] This was therefore how the church chose to respond to Celsus.[4] Origen initially followed this traditional response as well,[4][7] arguing that this was the approach taken by Christ, pointing to Jesus's refusal to respond to Caiaphas during his trial before the Sanhedrin.[4] Ambrose continued to insist that Origen needed to write a response.[11] Finally, one of Celsus's major claims, which held that no self-respecting philosopher of the Platonic tradition would ever be so stupid as to become a Christian, provoked Origen to write a rebuttal.[4]

Contra Celsum was probably written in around 248 while Origen was living in Caesarea.[12][3] According to the church historian Eusebius, Origen was over sixty years old when he began writing it.[3] In his introduction, Origen specifically states that Contra Celsum is not intended for converted Christians,[3][13] but rather for outsiders who were interested in the faith that had not yet made the decision to convert.[3][13] John Anthony McGuckin states that Origen probably undertook the task of writing Contra Celsum in the interest of furthering the Christian school he was trying to establish in Caesarea,[3] so that educated pagans who attended to school for their general education but became interested in Christianity as well would be able to consult a serious defense of the religion, answering any objections they might have to it.[3]


In the book, Origen systematically refutes each of Celsus's arguments point-by-point[10][2] and argues for a rational basis of Christian faith.[14][15][6] Origen draws heavily on the teachings of Plato[16] and argues that Christianity and Greek philosophy are not incompatible.[16] Origen maintains that philosophy contains much that is true and admirable,[16] but that the Bible contains far greater wisdom than anything Greek philosophers could ever grasp.[16] Origen responds to Celsus's accusation that Jesus had performed his miracles using magic rather than divine powers by asserting that, unlike magicians, Jesus had not performed his miracles for show, but rather to reform his audiences.[14]

Reception and evaluation

Contra Celsum became the most impactful of all early Christian apologetics works;[10][2] before it was written, Christianity was seen by many as merely a folk religion for the illiterate and uneducated,[14][2] but Origen raised it to a level of academic respectability.[1][2] Eusebius admired Against Celsus so much that, in his Against Hierocles 1, he declared that Against Celsus provided an adequate rebuttal to all criticisms the church would ever face.[3] The compilers of the Philokalia in the fourth century AD relied extensively on Contra Celsum[17] and almost one seventh of the entire text of the Philokalia is directly quoted from it.[17] Henri Crouzel, a scholar of early Christianity, calls Contra Celsum "alongside Augustine's City of God, the most important apologetic writing of antiquity."[18] Johannes Quasten appraises it as "the greatest apology of the primitive Church."[18]

Adam Gregerman and John Anthony McGuckin both praise Origen for his intellectual honesty,[11][7] with Gregerman noting that "Even at his most dismissive, Origen quotes and responds to Celsus' views."[7] Gregerman also comments on the broad variety of evidence Origen employs to support his refutations, including evidence from "history, logic, Greek myths, philosophy, and interpretations of Scripture."[7] He calls Contra Celsum "an early Christian apologetics work of almost unequalled value."[7] McGuckin describes Contra Celsum as "the first draft... of a sustained Christian reflection on the evangelization of Hellenic culture that was to move at greater pace in the Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century and finally become the intellectual charter of Christian Byzantium—'the Christianization of Hellenism,' as Florovsky called it."[3]

Despite these laudatory remarks, Stephen Thomas criticizes Against Celsus as poorly organized.[19] According to Thomas, Origen initially planned to refute each of Celsus's arguments point-by-point,[19] but apparently decided once he had already started this method to instead take a more systematic approach of refuting the general principles of the argument.[19] As a result, Origen conflated the two approaches,[19] meaning his refutations grow longer and longer as the work progresses.[19] Thomas concludes that "The lasting value of the work remains largely its character as a rich thesaurus for Christian apologetics, more than as a reasoned apologetic in itself."[19]

See also



  • Grant, Robert M. (1967), "Origen", in Edwards, Paul, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5, New York City, New York: The MacMillan Company & The Free Press, pp. 551–552 
  • Gregerman, Adam (2016), "Chapter 3: Origen's Contra Celsum", Building on the Ruins of the Temple, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 165, Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, ISBN 978-3-16-154322-7 
  • Heine, Ronald E. (3 May 2004), "The Alexandrians", in Young, Francis; Ayres, Lewis; Louth, Andrew; Casiday, Augustine, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-46083-5 
  • Herzog, Johann Jakob; Schaff, Philip; Hauck, Albert (December 1908), "Celsus", in Jackson, Samual Macauley, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, II, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, p. 466 
  • Litwa, M. David (2014), Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, ISBN 978-1-4514-7985-0 
  • McGuckin, John Anthony (2004), "The Scholarly Works of Origen", in McGuckin, John Anthony, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 0-664-22472-5 
  • Olson, Roger E. (1999), The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, ISBN 978-0-8308-1505-0 
  • Thomas, Stephen (2004), "Celsus", in McGuckin, John Anthony, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 72–73, ISBN 0-664-22472-5 
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