Podcast episode

Episode 99: Total War: Polemical Esotericism in the Contra Celsum

In this episode we explore some (but by no means all) of the amazing esoteric polemics and counter-polemics recorded in the Contra Celsum. The work stands alone as a snapshot of an esotericist Platonist philosopher who attacked Christianity being refuted and counter-attacked by an esotericist Platonist Christian. Both authors use many arguments familiar to historians of the intellectual battles of late antiquity, but we concentrate here on the specific dynamics of what we call ‘weaponised esotericism’. Celsus claims that the Christians are not merely bad; they are bad esotericists. Origen’s response is that it is Celsus who is the bad esotericist; the Christians, on the contrary, are the most esoteric group around, following on Moses and Jesus, who were exemplars of the finest esotericism.

Things are heating up.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Contra Celsum:

  • The Christians aren’t real monotheists: VIII.12. It doesn’t matter by what name you call the highest god: I.23.
    Catastrophism and eternity versus creationism: I.19; cf. IV.79.
  • The Christians are a lower-class, new movement, lacking an historical pedigree: the Jews as ‘goatherds and shepherds’: I.24. Jews as ‘sorcerers and beggars’: VI.42. Christ the bastard son of a Jewish working-class adulteress: I.29. Christianity is ‘successful only among the uneducated because of its vulgarity and utter illiteracy’: I.27.
  • Christianity as a new, apostate offshoot of Judaism: I.4, I.26, II.1, II.4, III.5, VI.10, VIII.12, etc. Origen’s reply that Celsus himself admits some Christians are good at allegoresis: I.27.
  • They are sorcerers: Moses taught the Jews magical arts: I.26 (cf. Pliny N.H. 30.11; Apuleius Apol. 90). Jesus learned magical arts from the Egyptians: I.28. Celsus has seen magical books with daimonic names and incantation-formulæ: VI.40 (cf. e.g. Paul Col. 2:18, where the apostle warns the Colossians not to give themselves over to angel-worship – there would be no need to warn them if this wasn’t a danger in Jewish-Christian groups). Origen responds that old-school sorcerers’ powers stopped working when Jesus appeared: I.60. Christians work their wonders using the power of Jesus’ name: I.6. Cf, on scriptural names having the most innate power: Origen Hom. in Jeu. Nave 20.1 (Philocalia 12)
  • They reject ‘rationalism’: ‘follow reason and a rational guide in accepting doctrines … anyone who believes people without doing so is certain to be deceived’: I.9. Origen’s response: I.10. Cf. e.g. II.55.
  • The Christians are bad esotericists: Plato’s strong authority and exemplary esotericism: VI.3; 6. Origen denies that the Christians are a secret cult: I.7. Moses as the best of all esoteric writers: I.18. The Christians have misread the divine αἰνίγματα hidden in the myths of divine warfare: VI.42-43, citing Heraclitus fr. 80 Diels, Pherecydes fr. 4 Diels. Cf e.g. IV.38, 52. Origen argues that the Christians have proper esoteric hermeneutics, and it is Celsus who is blind to the inner meanings: I.12.


  • P. Hadot. Théologie, exégèse, révelation, écriture, dans la philosophie grecque. In Michel Tardieu, editor, Les regles de l’interpretation, pages 13–34. Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1987, p. 24.

Recommended Reading:


  • John Behr. Origen: On First Principles. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019.
  • Henry Chadwick. Origen: Contra Celsum. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
  • M. Frede. Celsus’ Attack on the Christians. In J. Barnes and M. Griffin, editors, Philosophia Togata II, pages 218–240. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
  • Martin Irvine. Interpretation and the Semiotics of Allegory in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine. Semiotica, 63:33–72, 1987.
  • Ilaria L.E. Ramelli. Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism: Re-Thinking the Christianisation of Hellenism. Vigiliæ Christianæ, 63(3):217–63, 2009.
  • 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.
  • Annewies van den Hoek. Etymologizing in a Christian Context: The Techniques of Clement and Origen. Studia Philonica, 16:122–168, 2004.

On ‘Jesus the magician’ and the question of early Christian magic:

  • N. Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Routledge, London, 2001.
  • Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 1994.
  • Miroslav Šedina. Magical Power of Names in Origen’s Polemic Against Celsus. Folia Philologica, 136(1/2):7–25, 2013.
  • Morton Smith. Jesus the Magician. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1978.

On ‘pagan monotheism’:

  • N. Janowitz. Theories of Divine Names in Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius. History of Religions, 30:359–72, 1991.
  • Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, editors. Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999.
  • Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen, editors. One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.


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