Episode 98: The True Account: Celsus, Origen, and Ideological Esotericism in Late Antiquity

Celsus, an obscure Middle Platonist philosopher of the second century, is known mainly as the author of the first-known anti-Christian polemic from antiquity, ὁ ἀληθὴς λόγος or The True Account. This work is entirely lost to us, except for the fact that Origen published a long refutation of it, the Contra Celsum, in c. 248 CE, which preserves much of Celsus’ argumentation and even his original words.

In this episode, the first of a two-part series looking at the debates withing the Contra Celsum, we concentrate on the perennialist Platonism of Celsus – the ways in which he constructs an esoteric cultural tradition transmitting the true account, which is a kind of antique sophia perennias. It turns out that Celsus is the earliest-known full-bore esoteric Platonist perennialist after Numenius of Apamea, and his thought has a number of other characteristics of interest to the podcast. Most interesting, though, is the ways in which Celsus mobilises the esoteric as a weapon of ideological discourse, and the ways in which Origen counters with precisely the same weapon.

The culture-wars of late antiquity are hotting up!

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

Origen, Contra Celsum:

  • Celsus is probably, maybe, an Epicurean: I.8. But cf. IV.83 and VI.47, where Origen pretty much admits he’s a Platonist.
  • Long quote from Celsus on metaphysics and epistemology: VII.45: Οὐσία καὶ γένεσις νοητόν, ὁρατόν· μετὰ οὐσίας μὲν ἀλήθεια, μετὰ δὲ γενέσεως πλάνη. Περὶ ἀλήθειαν μὲν οὖν ἐπιστήμη, περὶ δὲ θάτερον δόξα· καὶ νοητοῦ μέν ἐστι νόησις, ὁρατοῦ δὲ ὄψις. Γινώσκει δὲ νοητὸν μὲν νοῦς, ὁρατὸν δὲ ὀφθαλμός. Ὅπερ οὖν ἐν τοῖς ὁρατοῖς ἥλιος, οὔτ’ ὀφθαλμὸς ὢν οὔτ’ ὄψις ἀλλ’ ὀφθαλμῷ τε τοῦ ὁρᾶν αἴτιος καὶ ὄψει τοῦ δι’ αὐτὸν συνίστασθαι καὶ ὁρατοῖς τοῦ ὁρᾶσθαι, πᾶσιν αἰσθητοῖς τοῦ γίνεσθαι, καὶ μὴν αὐτὸς αὑτῷ τοῦ βλέπεσθαι, τοῦτο ἐν τοῖς νοητοῖς ἐκεῖνος, ὅσπερ οὔτε νοῦς οὔτε νόησις οὔτ’ ἐπιστήμη, ἀλλὰ νῷ τε τοῦ νοεῖν αἴτιος καὶ νοήσει τοῦ δι’ αὐτὸν εἶναι καὶ ἐπιστήμῃ τοῦ δι’ αὐτὸν γινώσκειν καὶ νοητοῖς ἅπασι καὶ αὐτῇ ἀληθείᾳ καὶ αὐτῇ οὐσίᾳ τοῦ εἶναι, πάντων ἐπέκεινα ὤν, ἀρρήτῳ τινὶ δυνάμει νοητός. More of Celsus on God’s ineffability and transcendence: cf. VI.6; 65; VII.42; VI.62-64.
  • Origen’s response that the Christians can attain to even the hypernoetic God: VII.46: ‘But after exercising their minds sufficiently among them [viz. the noetic beings] and understanding them, they ascend to the eternal power of God, and, in a word, to His Divinity.’
  • Celsus on the Jews’ anti-social tendencies and bad worship: e.g. V.25.
  • On the novelty, and therefore crapness, of Christianity: e.g. III.5; I.4; V.33; 65.
  • The παλαιὸς λόγος: III.16 ἀρχαῖος λόγος: I.14. Celsus cites Pl. Leg. 715e-716a at VI.15, where Plato refers to the παλαιὸς λόγος.
  • Celsus’ wise barbarians: Egyptians and Babylonians passim. Persians, Indians, Odrysians, Samothracians, Eleusinians (I.14; 16; VI.22; 80; VIII.58). Druids, Getæ: I.16.
  • The mysteries express the True Account esoterically: e.g. VI.42, also citing Pherecydes.
  • Ancient sages generally: I.14; cf. VII.28; 58. Poets, wise men, and philosophers: VII.41. Linus, Musæus, Orpheus, and Pherecydes of Siros (I.16;18 and VI.42), Zoroaster and Pythagoras (VIII.28), Homer (VI.42), Hesiod and thousands of inspired men (IV.36), Heraclitus (V.24; VI.42).
  • The Hellenes the best at philosophical dialectic: I.2. Cf. VI.7, quoting Pl. Ep. VII 344b. Hellenic chauvinism: e.g. Book VIII passim. The Christians’ theft of major themes from the Hellenes: III,16; 1.4; VI.15-16; 18-20; VII.58 (Plato); VI.21 ff (mysteries of Mithras); VI.42-3; VI.47; VII.28; VI.71.
  • Plato’s strong authority and exemplary esotericism: VI.3; 6. Christians who reject his dialectical method are rejecting the true account: e.g. II.55. Cites Plato’s Laws, the Greeks are the best able to take the barbarian wisdom of the ancients and improve it: I.7.

Herodotus on Zalmoxis: Histories IV, 93–96.

Plato on how the Greeks are always children, according to the Egyptian priests: Tim. 22b4-5.

Secondary:

  • Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden. Julian and Hellenism. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981, p. 3.
  • Chadwick 1953: summary of the Contra Celsum: p. ix.
  • Frede 1994, p. 5195.

Recommended Reading:

The best primary text with translation of the Contra Celsum is Origen. Contre Celse. Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1967-9. M. Borret, editor. 4 vols; see now, however Markowitz, ed. Origenes. Contra Celsum Libri VIII. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA/Köln, 2001, which incorporates and privileges the Tura papyrus and prefers readings from the Philokalia. We are reading Chadwick’s translation (1953), which remains the best English rendition of the text.

On the dating of The True Account, see Eusebius H.E. 6.36.2 and e.g. Borret 1967: I, 15–21; Chadwick 1953: xxiv–xxviii; Frede 1994, pp. 5188-90. Hargis 1999, pp. 20–24 argues for a late date, circa 200. On identifying where the historical Celsus was from, see now Goranson 2007, who summarises previous conjectures and argues for Pergamum, or at the very least Asia Minor. The ‘Epicurean problem’ is summarised at Chadwick 1953, pp. xxiv-xxvi.

  • Carl Andresen. Logos und Nomos: Die Polemik des Kelsos wider das Christentum. De Gruyter, Berlin, 1955.
  • Henry Chadwick. Origen: Contra Celsum. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
    J. Dillon. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220. Duckworth, London, 1977.
  • A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2014. [vol. IV pp. 116-23 is a good breakdown of modes of knowing the transcendent in Celsus in the broader Middle Platonist context].
  • M. Frede. Celsus’ Attack on the Christians. In J. Barnes and M. Griffin, editors, Philosophia Togata II, pages 218–240. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
  • Idem. Celsus philosophus platonicus. ANRW, II, 36(7):5183–5213, 1994.
  • Stephen Goranson. Celsus of Pergamum: Locating a Critic of Early Christianity. In Douglas R. Edwards, C. Thomas McCollough, and E.M. Meyers, editors, The Archaeology of Difference. Gender, Ethnicity, Class and the “other” in Antiquity. Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers, pages 363–69. American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, MA, 2007.
  • J.W. Hargis. Against the Christians: The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic. Lang, New York, NY, 1999.
  • Ilaria L.E. Ramelli. Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism: Re-Thinking the Christianisation of Hellenism. Vigiliæ Christianæ, 63(3):217–63, 2009.
  • Idem. Origen and the Platonic Tradition. Religions, 8(21), 2017.
  • David Rankin. From Clement to Origen: The Social and Historical Context of the Church Fathers. In David Ivan Rankin, editor, Alexandria and the Fathers, pages 113–142. Ashgate, Aldershot, UK, 2006.

Themes

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