The True Word
The True Word (Discourse, Account, or Doctrine; Greek: Λόγος Ἀληθής) is a treatise in which Celsus addressed many principal points of Early Christianity and refuted or argued against their validity. In The True Word Celsus attacked Christianity in three ways; by refuting its philosophical claims, by marking it as a phenomenon associated with the uneducated and lower class, and by cautioning his audience that it was a danger to the Roman Empire. The work only survives in the extensive quotations from it in the Contra Celsum ("Against Celsus") written some seventy years later by the Christian Origen. These are believed to be accurate as far as they go, but may not give a fully comprehensive picture of the original work.
Criticism of Christianity before Celsus
Celsus was only one writer in a long tradition of Roman writers and philosophers who wrote and spoke out against Christianity, feeling that their doctrines were either inscrutable or downright foolish. The primary problem that most Roman citizens and the Imperial government had regarding the Christians was their adamant refusal to participate in the required sacrifices that were regularly made to the Emperor and the Roman state, sacrifices that were an integral part of Roman politics, religion, and culture. Most Romans could not understand the Christians' insistence on their own superiority and their insistence upon their apparently exclusive path to salvation. They could also not understand Christianity’s claims that they were a unique religion with a long history reaching back to antiquity, when the Roman philosophers knew that Christianity had broken off from Judaism relatively recently and still used ancient Jewish texts both to formulate their theology and to support their religious claims. These Roman writers, who often professed to be loyal members of the Empire and Roman society, were also “troubled by the seeming incoherence of the Christian position toward society and towards the recognized religion of the state”. All of these factors led to Christians being classified as enemies of society. Roman philosophers also attacked Christian moral and ethical principles because “the Christianity of the first century had yet to develop an assailable system of belief or a fixed canon of writings from which such beliefs could be educed”. Celsus was only one among many, including Lucian, who wrote against Christianity.
Celsus and his work
Celsus was either a Greek or a Roman who wrote during the latter half of the 2nd century AD. Very little is known about his origins or life. The work in its original form has been lost and the True Word survives only as excerpts from a work by the Christian scholar Origen, who quoted Celsus to rebut him. Origen stated that Celsus was from the first half of the 2nd century A.D., although the majority of modern scholars have come to a general consensus that Celsus probably wrote around 170 to 180 A.D. Most modern scholars are in agreement that Celsus did not rely on the “rumors and hearsay evidence”  that many other Christian detractors of the time period used, but rather drew upon his own observations and displayed knowledge of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament of the Christian Bible, as well as other Jewish and Christian writings.
Philosophical and theological arguments
Celsus’ first main point in his True Word was to refute the validity of Christianity. In his opinion Christian theology was based on an amalgamation of false eastern philosophical ideas hastily tied together. He stated that Christians would “weave together erroneous opinions drawn from ancient sources and trumpet them aloud”. Celsus gave a point by point critique of Christian doctrine, and why it should not have been believed by anyone. He denied the virgin birth of Jesus, and accused Mary of being an adulteress turned out by her husband. His theory was not new, as even Jews at that time were saying the same. The remainder of Christian stories – what now makes up the Christian Bible- Celsus found very insipid and unappealing compared to Greek and Roman legends of powerful and colorful gods. Celsus also found Christian philosophy lacking when compared to secular philosophy, and declared that “things are stated much better among the Greeks”. Celsus used Plato as the representative for Greek philosophers and, according to him, when comparing the two philosophical traditions Christianity appeared far worse, as "Plato is not guilty of boasting and falsehood", a crime which Celsus obviously feels is a trademark of Christian theologians. The only connection Celsus made between Greek philosophy and Christianity was when he asserted that “Jesus perverted the words of the philosopher” (i.e. Plato).
When compared with the gods of Roman and Greek mythology, Celsus found the Christian God sadly lacking, and declared that he could not be a god as he was neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Celsus could deduce no explanation for the actions of the Christian God, such as the floods, natural disasters, and the introduction of evil into the world, except that God wanted to draw attention to his greatness because he felt humanity was giving him “less than his due”. Celsus concluded that Christians used the explanation of God "testing" them to disguise the fact that their God was not powerful enough to successfully fight Satan, but was instead “helpless”. Celsus wrote that Satan was either a mortal invention used by Christians to frighten others into believing their philosophies and joining them, or if he did indeed exist then he was proof that God was not all-powerful, but rather a weak lesser god and a bad one, for only a vindictive and insecure being would punish mankind for being tricked by an evil that he has been too weak to stop. The apparent “blind faith” of the Christians was bewildering to Celsus, and he used it to further support his claim that Christianity was a false religion. In his opinion, the main tenet of Christianity was “Do not ask questions, just believe” and “Thy faith will save thee".
Status and the appeal of Christianity
Celsus complained that Christianity was a phenomenon limited primarily to the lower class. He claimed that Christians actively sought out and converted the ignorant, uneducated, and lower class, as they were the only people who would believe in such a ridiculous theology and blindly follow its doctrines. If an individual was from the upper class, and therefore well educated and naturally of good character, they would not be converted because they could not possibly believe in the absurd assumptions one had to in order to be considered “Christian”. Celsus revealed himself to be a member of the upper class when he makes his statements regarding Jesus; who obviously could not be the son of god as he was born a peasant. The True Word stated that Mary would have been unworthy to be noticed by God “because she was neither rich nor of royal rank”. Celsus also claimed that Christianity was against personal betterment, as that could cause their followers to discover the fallacies within their religion. Celsus declared that Christians convert by “lead[ing] on wicked men by empty hopes, and to persuade them to despise better things, saying that if they refrain from them it will be better…”.
Christianity as a danger to Rome
Celsus’ main argument against Christianity, and why he attacked it with such vigor, was that he considered it a divisive and destructive force that would harm both the Roman Empire and society. Adherence to the state supported Roman religion was compulsory and the Roman authorities felt it was necessary for the effective management of the political system. One of the most integral parts of the Roman state religion was reverence and occasional sacrifices for the Emperor, an act that Christians continually refused to participate in, as in their opinion it came too close to idolatry and worship of a God that was not their own. Celsus listed many reasons for how his Roman readers could easily deduce that Christianity was endangering their unity and the stability of the Empire. Christianity originated from Judaism, whose adherents, although living within the Empire, had already revolted against Roman rule several times. The Christian community then became further divided amongst themselves, and Celsus complained that “matters are determined in different ways by the various sects”. This dissension between different factions within Christianity proved to the Romans that Christians who could not even draw together under their own shared beliefs were naturally a divisive people and not only caused friction within their own philosophy but would disrupt the unity of the Empire. Finally Celsus and other Roman writers believed that “Christians are dangerous precisely because they put the advancement of their beliefs above the common good and the welfare of the state”.
The secrecy in which Christians met and practiced was another problem for Celsus. He commented that they “entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law”. Celsus stated that there was nothing wrong with swearing allegiance to a king or emperor, as he provided the stable environment in which all citizens could freely live, and in return it was the duty of each Roman citizen to assist the Emperor and “labor with him in the maintenance of justice”.
Celsus provided only one solution to solve the problems that he believed Christianity would inevitably create within the Empire. He commanded that Christians must both respect the Emperor and perform rituals to the gods of the Roman state. If they could not or would not participate in the Imperial religion they must not “take any share in the affairs of life; but… depart hence with all speed and leave no posterity behind them”.
- Celsus 1987, p. 20
- Celsus 1987, p. 24
- Celsus 1987, p. 30-32
- Benko, Stephen. “Pagan Rome and the Early Christians”. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984. 148.
- Celsus 2001, Bk. III, ch. 16
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. VI, ch. 1
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. VI, ch. 10
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. VI, ch. 16
- Celsus 2001, Judaism and Christianity, Bk. VI, ch. 6
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. VI, ch. 42
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. I, ch. 9
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition Bk. III, ch. 44
- Celsus 2001, Jesus and the Jewish Critics, Bk. I, ch. 39
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition – Bk. III, ch. 78
- Celsus 2001, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Superstition – Bk. III, ch. 10
- Celsus 1987, p. 44
- Celsus 2001, Christians and Society Bk. I, ch.1
- Celsus 2001, Christians and Society Bk. VIII, ch. 73
- Celsus 2001, Christians and Society Bk. VIII, ch. 55
- Celsus (1987), On The True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians., R. Joseph Hoffman, trans., Oxford University Press: New York
- Celsus (2001), Fragments from Celsus’ lost True Discourse, archived from the original on 27 Apr 2006
- Baltes, Matthias (Münster), "Celsus, [I]", in Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, Brill's New Pauly. Antiquity volumes, University of California UC Santa Barbara CDL, retrieved 18 July 2009