BMCR 2022.09.30

Celsus in his world: philosophy, polemic, and religion in the second century

, , Celsus in his world: philosophy, polemic, and religion in the second century. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 350. ISBN 9781108832441. $99.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

On the face of it, the reviewed work is yet another collection of essays (and responses) derived from the papers presented by their respective authors at the 2018 conference Celsus in his World, organized by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. Upon closer inspection, however, the volume successfully avoids the usual pitfalls of such undertakings and its individual contributors together with the editors, James Carleton Paget and Simon Gathercole, are to be congratulated for producing one of the best comprehensive volumes on Celsus in recent memory. The collected essays are preceded by a helpful Introduction, in which the editors set the stage by providing an overview of principal issues related to Celsus’ work (title, purpose, text, date, provenance, sources) as well as outlining his intellectual background, esp. his relation to and knowledge of Greek philosophical tradition, Christianity and Judaism.

In the first essay of the volume, Lewis Ayres discusses the general purpose and method of Origen’s Contra Celsum, arguing that, according to its author, the pagan critic failed to uphold scholarly standards commonly accepted in his time for textual exegesis; these shortcomings are most apparent in Celsus’ inability to engage with Christian Scriptures ‘in appropriate order’ (κατὰ τάξιν) and his arbitrary judgments (e.g., in the case of miracle reports, Cels. 5.57). Ayres further develops the notion of Christian texts having a double nature—on the one hand, they benefit from proper scholarly attention that allows one to appreciate and unfold their deepest meaning; on the other, they are often self-evident and thus accessible also to the uneducated. Indeed, in Ayres’s interpretation of Origen’s central thesis, ‘Christian Scriptures speak to both the learned and the unlearned, and they do so because Christ himself reveals in a way that draws the unlearned even as it allows the learned to grow in knowledge and love of God’ (p. 50). Purely pagan methods of textual analysis are ultimately transcended by ‘knowledge’ (γνῶσις) which, being a gift of divine grace, is attainable by the learned and the unlearned alike, and Origen’s inclusive account of Christian community stands in sharp contrast to Celsus’ intellectual elitism. Rowan Williams in his short response further highlights some differences between the Christian world of the apologists of the second century (and, ultimately, that of Celsus) and the Christian world of Origen, driving home what Ayres called one of the ‘great ironies’ of Contra Celsum, namely the fact that in his book-length rejoinder, Origen contributes to the development of a form of Christianity that his titular opponent never knew.

The second intervention by Johannes Arnold considers the literary structure of Celsus’ True Account (Ἀληθὴς Λόγος). After acknowledging the difficulties of reconstructing the original text of the Greek philosopher because of Origen’s ‘far-reaching interventions’, Arnold argues that the True Account had likely been composed according to a sophisticated method in which rhetorical parts of speech (prooemium, transitus, partitio, argumentatio etc.), philosophical divisions (logic, physics, ethics, theology etc.) and the sequence of ascension of the mystery cults (ἔλεγχος, διδαχή, ἐποπτεία) are all expertly layered one onto the other. Using the Second Speech of the Jew as a pars pro toto, Arnold then proceeds to divide it into two parallel halves, each with its own partitio and argumentatio, concluding that it was ‘constructed according to a well thought-out plan’ (p. 93). In his rejoinder to this essay, Simon Gathercole offers some alternative proposals and a healthy dose of scepticism on the prospects of recovering Celsus’ original text and its underlying structure.

The philosophical underpinnings of Celsus’ critique of Christianity are investigated in the texts by David Sedley and George Boys-Stones. In Celsus αs Platonist Philosopher, the former first establishes important links with Heraclitus (considered here as ‘an acknowledged precursor of Plato’) and continues with an insightful analysis of ‘anti-anthropocentrism’ of the True Account, for which he claims strong Platonic precedents. As Sedley puts it, in Celsus’ view ‘humans enjoy metaphysical parity with frogs’ (p. 111) and other animals often surpass our own species in various aspects. This favourable view of the zoosphere and the rejection of anthropocentric exceptionalism is in line with arguments propounded by Plutarch and, in Sedley’s interpretation, Celsus employs them in the best fashion of the Carneadean New Academic style of adversarial argument against Christians (instead of their usual target, the Stoics). In Celsus’ Theology, George Boys-Stones presents Celsus’ creator god as an impersonal deity and tackles alternative proposals that also presuppose the existence of a ‘second god’ (Frede) or a ‘world soul’ (Boys-Stones being his own advocatus diaboli) that are ultimately responsible for an interventionist creation of the cosmos. The second part provides an explanation for Celsus’ slightly puzzling description of god as the λόγος of all beings (Cels. 5.14). After discussing relevant passages from Apuleius and esp. Plutarch, Boys-Stones concludes that the proposition is best understood as ‘god is what is expressed […] when the matter is organized’ (p. 140). Without necessarily diminishing the role of ‘created gods’ and providence, Celsus’ theology is that of an impersonal, single, pre-cosmic god, in line with the majority opinion of pre-Plotinian Platonists.

Teresa Morgan, in her insightful overview of Celsus’ religious and cultic preferences (Origen’s Celsus and Imperial Greek Religiosity), unmasks the Greek philosopher as a regular cult worshipper, at least as far as the well-educated philosophical intelligentsia of the time is concerned. Celsus emphasizes the power of human reason as the guiding elective principle that should inform the selection of deities and cults that are worthy of worship. As such, non-Greek cults enjoy rather mixed reception, and the practice of ‘magic’ is rejected altogether. His focus on reason is further closely connected with his discussion of trustworthiness (πίστις) and authority, which goes beyond Celsus’ Platonic background and includes antiquity, expert-opinion, and communis opinio of different peoples as a basis for justified belief. In her response, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe invites further investigations into the practice of ritual power in the early Empire that should be, in addition to literary sources, grounded in the epigraphic material and informed by an investigation of the ‘magical’ or ‘occult’ practices. The essay Celsus, or Philosophy and the Second Sophistic, authored by Gretchen Reydams-Schils, triangulates the position of the True Account on a radar chart comprising ‘philosophy’, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘sophistic’, with special attention paid to Celsus’ discussion of divine providence and determinism. She concludes that, on multiple occasions, ‘the rhetorical purpose of the work would have outweighed any attempt to present a fully coherent system of views’ and ‘even philosophy and [Celsus’] views of god and the world ultimately serve this rhetorical and polemical purpose’ (p. 205). Simon Goldhill supplements the paper by Reydams-Schils with a brief overview of the self-understanding of nature and role of philosophy in the second century, with an apt comparison with today’s psychoanalysis, adding that the Origen-Celsus debate have been instrumental in establishing ‘Christian philosophy’ as a serious cultural institution.

Richard Hunter’s discerning analysis of both Celsus’ and Origen’s use of the Homeric text marks the second half of the volume. Hunter emphasizes—and demonstrates by a substantial number of examples—that both the pagan philosopher and the Christian apologist were thoroughly familiar not only with the greatest Greek epics, but also with their contemporary rhetorical use, grammatical exegesis and scholarly criticism. Considerable attention is also dedicated to the issue of ‘allegorizing’ Homer. Responding to Hunter’s paper, George van Kooten underlines Origen’s ambiguous use of the Iliad and the Odyssey, their author being cited to provide both parallels with the biblical texts as well as the material for direct criticism. Van Kooten also points out that the rapprochement of Christianity with Greece’s altissimo poeta may be identified as early as the Gospel of John, and the discussion between Celsus and Origen should be seen as a continuation of this long tradition. In The Gospel according to Celsus, Loveday Alexander explores two interconnected sets of problems: she first tries to reconstruct the social setting that informed Celsus’ outsider perspective of Christianity, which to his mind laid at the intersection of a subversive voluntary association, defective philosophical society and a superstitious religious cult. The second part Alexander’s essay then focuses on the specific nature of Celsus’ Christianity that is based on apologetic literature and presented as an overarching ‘theological meta-narrative’ spanning from the Creation to the Last Judgement. Josef Lössl in his rejoinder largely agrees with Alexander’s conclusions, deemphasizing slightly the ‘Jewishness’ and secretive nature of Christianity in the second century or the claim that Celsus has been ‘theologically unbiased’.

Sébastien Moret’s excellent overview of the reception of the True Account first considers anti-Christian treatises and argues that Porphyry, Hierocles and Julian all knew Celsus’ work, but the last two mentioned not necessarily first-hand. Lucian, Marcus Aurelius and Galen might also have been familiar with the contents of the True Account, but it is often impossible to decide whether the parallels speak for direct influence or merely the use of culturally shared anti-Christian topoi. In the second part of his essay, Moret discusses the influence of the True Account in the Christian apologetic literature of the second century (a thesis defended by J. Schwartz and, in its more extreme form, by J.-M. Vermander), which he generally considers plausible. Further engagement with Celsus’ arguments may then be identified in Arnobius and especially in Eusebius, with Moret claiming that the ‘main source in the PE/DE for anti-Christian arguments is not Porphyry, but Celsus’ (p. 317), albeit Celsus digested by Origen. William Horbury’s response highlights several points raised in Moret’s paper, such as the early dating of the True Account that in turn allows to identify echoes of Celsus’ arguments in Athenagoras.

Philip Alexander and Judith M. Lieu both explore the issue of Celsus’ use of and attitude towards Judaism. The former, in Celsus’ Judaism, argues that the Jewish material in the True Account is for the most part attributable to a real Jew or a Jewish anti-Christian literary tradition that is to be chronologically and geographically placed in the Alexandria of the second century, despite the communis opinio of a nigh-total destruction of Jewish communities in the port city post 117. Martin Goodman in his reaction to Alexander’s essay suggests that Celsus’ informant might also have been a Christian (as opposed to a Jew) and raises even the possibility that Celsus himself was a Christian apostate. Judith M. Lieu in her essay The Multiple Personalities of Celsus’ Jew adopts a markedly different method and explores several distinct rhetorical and textual layers of employing the prosopopoeia of ‘the Jew’ by both Origen and Celsus instead of trying to resolve the usual scholarly questions connected with Celsus’ use of the literary persona: is Celsus’ Jew his invention? Or is he constructed on the basis of some written or oral source? One or multiple sources? Jewish anti-Christian source or Christian anti-Jewish source? James Carleton Paget in his reply commends the novelty of Lieu’s approach but emphasizes that her shift of focus should not replace but complement the older, ‘positivistic’ scholarship.

Individual essays are followed by an Afterword penned by Mark Edwards, in which he weaves his remarks on the preceding contributions with his assessment of the intellectual milieu of the second century, discussing, inter alia, the Second Sophistic and the appropriateness of calling Celsus a sophist, as well as focusing more on Origen, in particular on his relation to the Greek philosophical tradition or his method of exegesis. In conclusion, the individual essays bookended by an excellent Introduction and Afterword form an organic whole that may be heartily recommended to those seeking an up-to-date general introduction to Celsus as well as to seasoned experts in the field.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction (James Carleton Paget and Simon Gathercole)
2. Of Scholarship, Piety and Community: Origen’s Purpose(s) in Contra Celsum (Lewis Ayres)
3. Apologetic and Internal Christian Argument in the Contra Celsum: A Response (Rowan Williams)
4. Annotations on the Literary Structure of Celsus’ Alēthēs Logos with special reference to the Second Speech of the Jew (Johannes Arnold)
5. The Problem of the Structure of Celsus’ Alēthēs Logos: A Response (Simon Gathercole)
6. Celsus As Platonist Philosopher (David Sedley)
7. Celsus’ Theology: Ineffable Logos and Impersonal Providence (George Boys-Stones)
8. Origen’s Celsus and Imperial Greek Religiosity (Teresa Morgan)
9. Celsus on Texts and Practices of Ritual Power: A Response (Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe)
10. Celsus, or Philosophy and the Second Sophistic (Gretchen Reydams-Schils)
11. Shaping the Religious Debate from within Second Sophistic Culture: A Response (Simon Goldhill)
12. Homer in Origen, Against Celsus (Richard Hunter)
13. Homer in the Polemics between Celsus and Origen: A Response (George van Kooten)
14. The Gospel according to Celsus: Celsus’ Representation of Christianity (Loveday Alexander)
15. Celsus on Christianity – A Detractor with a Constructive Agenda: A Response (Josef Lössl)
16. The Reception of the Alēthēs Logos (Sébastien Morlet)
17. Literary Influence and Polemical Tradition: A Response (William Horbury)
18. Celsus’ Judaism (Philip Alexander)
19. Celsus’ Jew as Celsus’ Christian Construct? A Response (Martin Goodman)
20. The Multiple Personalities of Celsus’ Jew (Judith M. Lieu)
21. The Distinctiveness of Celsus’ Jew: A Response (James Carleton Paget)
22. Afterword (Mark Edwards)