Origen’s Treatise Against Celsus

Origen (184/5—254/5 CE) was a notoriously prolific writer. Even taking into account that the ancients tended to measure literary productivity in terms of books, rather than writings, so that a work such as a commentary on John’s Gospel might count not as one, but as more than thirty-two books, Epiphanius’ claim (Panarion, 64. 63) that Origen wrote 6,000 books sounds fantastic, but reflects the correct belief that Origen wrote a great deal. According to Jerome (Against Rufinus, 2. 22), Eusebius in book 3 of his Life of Pamphilus, listed no fewer than 2,000 books by Origen. Almost all of these writings have been lost; some of them are extant only in fragments; and very few have come down to us in their entirety. One of these is Origen’s Against Celsus, or, to be more precise, ‘Against the So-Titled True Account of Celsus’, in eight books. The work was written, if we follow Eusebius (History, 6. 36. I—3), during the reign of Philip the Arab (244—9 ce), when Origen was already over 60. There is no evidence with which to question Eusebius’ date. There is some evidence internal to Against Celsus which suggests a date before the outbreak of the Decian persecutions (Origen seems to be writing at a time of peace for the Church), but also a time of upheaval and revolt in the empire (cf. Against Celsus, 3. 15), perhaps a reference to the revolts of Jotapianus, Pacatianus, and Uranius Antoninus. This would point to the year 248 ce.

Tradition classifies the writing as ‘apologetic’. Indeed, even those who, on doctrinal grounds, are rather ambivalent in their judgement of Origen tend to think of Against Celsus as a very important—if not the most important—work of Christian apologetic literature, perhaps even the culmination of the tradition of ancient Christian apologetic writing. Given that the very notion of ‘apologetics’ and its usefulness as a category is in question, I want, in what follows, to discuss Against Celsus as an apologetic writing, to try to determine the precise sense in which it is an apology, the purpose it is meant to serve, and the audience it is meant to address. I thereby hope to contribute to a clarification of the notion of ‘apologetics’, which often seems so vague as to be useless.

It is crucial for an understanding of Origen’s work as apologetic writing that, unlike the earlier apologetic writings known to us, the well-known apologies of the second century, it is a response to a specific book by a specific author—namely, Celsus’ True Account—rather than merely a reply to a set of more or less widespread, but essentially anonymous accusations or criticisms.

Hence we should start by at least briefly considering the author and the work to which Origen responded with his apology. Nothing is known about Celsus and his True Account except for what we can infer from Origen’s response, and Origen himself clearly did not know anything about Celsus, except for what he could infer from Celsus’ text. All later notices concerning Celsus seem to depend on Origen.

Celsus, it turns out without a doubt, was a Platonist philosopher who wrote an attack upon Christianity entitled The True Account. The treatise must have been written after 160 ce, presumably some time around 175 ce, but hardly much later. For this attack Celsus could rely on an already substantial tradition of Jewish and pagan criticism of Christianity. This tradition would have been largely oral. We can only identify one written source which Celsus clearly relied on for his criticisms, because he himself refers to it: namely, the Dispute between Jason and Papiscus concerning Christ (4. 52). This dialogue (cf. Eusebius, History, 4. 6. 3) set out the Jewish criticism of Jesus and the Christian response to it. Celsus may have availed himself of this work for the first part of his treatise in which, after a preface, he sets out first the objections raised against Jesus by the Jews, then the objections which the Jews raised against Christians, in particular against their claim that Jesus was the Messiah promised by Jewish Scripture. Only then does Celsus begin to criticize Christianity in propria persona from a pagan point of view, attacking Christianity, for instance, for its Jewish origin. There is no evidence, though, that Celsus relied, or even could have relied, upon an earlier pagan attack on Christianity in writing; thus Celsus seems to have been the first pagan to set out to write a whole treatise against Christianity.

The importance of Celsus’ writing lies in the fact that it constitutes a fairly extensive compendium of arguments against Christianity, and we may assume that Celsus, who shows himself to be reasonably well-informed about Christianity—indeed, surprisingly well-informed for an educated pagan of his time— collected arguments, tried to improve on them, and tried to raise further difficulties. A great many of these arguments were common knowledge, part of the common lore about Christians, the kinds of argument the apologists of the second century replied to—for instance, the argument that Christians are supposed to accept uncritically as true what they are told to believe (I. 9). But most arguments are much more specific and precise. So we have to assume that Celsus collected many of them from an oral tradition, being present at, or even participating in, discussions between Christians and pagans, and discussing the issues with like-minded pagans. Further, he obviously went out of his way to acquire information about Christianity which would provide him with further arguments. Especially if we assume that he did not have any written pagan source to rely on, we have to admit that his collection of objections to Christianity constitutes a considerable achievement. In addition, he managed to organize this material, as we have seen, by dividing it into Jewish versus pagan objections to Christianity, but then subsuming them under one overriding argument.

Celsus’ argument basically was this: there was a true account of the world, which was the common heritage not only of Greeks, but of the whole of civilized mankind (see e.g. I. 14): namely, the true account to which the title of Celsus’ work refers. This account involves, for instance, the assumption of one God, adored by the different ancient nations under different names (i. 24; 3. 4i), a God who governs the world and imposes a divine order on it. Plato had not invented this account, but had been a paradigmatic exponent of it, for those, at least, who had achieved, with his help, the insight to understand his writings. But substantial parts of the true account are accessible to any sensible person, in a form that even the ordinary person can understand and accept: namely, in the form of the religious beliefs, cults, and practices of the ancient nations which have cultivated this heritage. The Christians have abandoned this true account, to adopt, in place of the beliefs and cults of their ancestors, a ‘barbarian’, namely Jewish doctrine, which is a debased and highly confused form of the true account, not the heritage of an ancient nation, but one fabricated by a sorcerer, Moses. But the Christians, in turn, revolted against Judaism, which at least was a recognized religion. In doing so, and in forming secret associations, they have stepped outside the Law and its protection of recognized cults. In adopting, and converting others to, their new doctrine, they not only saddle themselves and others with a bag of false—indeed, often ludicrous—beliefs; but they adopt an outlook on things which is immoral, impious, blasphemous. They deserve to be reproached. Indeed, they deserve to be prosecuted and punished (8. 33). Celsus repeatedly refers to the persecution and the death which justly await an unrepentant Christian (see e.g. 8. 69).

Presumably, as I said, Celsus was the first pagan to write a special treatise against Christianity. But it has to be admitted that neither the fact that Celsus does not refer to an earlier pagan written source, nor the fact that we do not know of any earlier pagan author in this genre, amounts to much. For obvious reasons, tradition has been extremely hostile to anti-Christian writings. Already John Chrysostom (Address to the Greeks, 2) could remark that anti-Christian writings seemed to perish almost the moment they appeared, and that, if they were to be found at all, it was in the hands of Christians. If it were not for Origen’s refutation of him, we would, for instance, not only not have very substantial portions of Celsus’ text, we would not know anything about him at all. But Celsus, whether or not the first, was certainly followed by others. We know of similar treatises against the Christians by Porphyry, by Julian (Against the Galilaeans), and by an anonymous author whose treatise was attacked by Macarius Magnes. It hardly needs to be said that none of these treatises has come down to us. Hence we are not in a position to see clearly whether there was an evolving tradition of writings of this kind, in the course of which individual arguments became increasingly refined. Eusebius suggests (Against Hierocles, I), presumably with good reason, that Hierocles relied on Celsus; and at least for Hierocles’ comparison of Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus, the particular argument which Eusebius focuses on in his reply to Hierocles, we can see how a passage in Celsus might have invited this argument (see below, p. 232). Thus, we are not in a good position to judge the role which Celsus played, and was seen to play, in the development of an anti-Christian position among the pagans. Nor do we have anything but Origen’s treatise and a few remarks by Eusebius in Against Hierocles to get some measure of the importance Christians attached to Celsus.

We also do not have much of a measure as to how effective Celsus’ treatise might have been in persuading Christians to apostatize. We do not know how effective any of the anti-Christian treatises were. Cyril of Alexandria, in his dedicatory preface to his Against Julian (PG 76, 308C) claimed that Julian’s Against the Galilaeans made many desert the faith. This was written under, and dedicated to, Theodosius. Hence the present tense, ‘makes many desert’, presupposes that even after Julian’s death his work continued to be read and was perceived to constitute a threat.

We may now turn to Origen’s response to Celsus. There is no doubt that Origen conceives of it as an apology. He uses the very word apologia, when, at the outset of chapter 3 of the preface (p. 32, 23, Koetschau), he addresses Ambrosius and says that the apology which Ambrosius has asked him to write cannot but be weaker than the defence which lies in the facts themselves, which are more convincing than any words could be. And by this time, hardly a page into the printed text, he has already used the verb apologein five times, including once in the first sentence and once in the second. The idea of an apology, a defence, is thus pressed on us from the very beginning. And the noun or the verb recur frequently throughout the rest of the preface and the whole treatise.

The sense in which Origen himself called Against Celsus an apology is also clear enough. It derives from the sense of ‘apology’ in which a defendant in court answers the charges against him. This is evident from the fact that Origen in the preface from the very beginning speaks of an apology against ‘accusations’ (kategoria) and the rebuttal of ‘false testimony’ (pseudomarturia), clearly evoking the image of a court case (cf. preface, I. 51. I, 4, 6—7, 9—10, II—12, 16; 2. 52. 9, 19, and especially 23—4, for ‘false testimony’). It is also clear from the fact that Origen begins the preface by reminding us that when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, accused by false witnesses, he refused to respond.

Origen’s use of apologia derives from this legal sense, but is not this sense. For, of course, we are not in a real court. Celsus is not going to court against Christians, and Origen does not defend Christians, let alone himself, in court against Celsus.

But, for a simple reason, the analogy of a response in court, and hence this derivative use of apologia, is pressed on Origen. It is Celsus’ treatise which insists that Christians have a legal case to answer. To judge from I. I and 3. I, Celsus must have begun his preface with the point that Christianity was illegal. And towards the very end of his treatise (cf. 8. 68, 69), he reminded Christians rather forcefully that they would deservedly be persecuted, punished, and executed, if they did not desist from their folly of their own accord. The main body of Celsus’ treatise consisted of an attempt to make them see, by rational persuasion, the folly of their ways before it was too late, rather in the way that Roman judges, for the most part, apparently tried to convince Christians of their error. But just as a judge had to condemn a Christian who did not apostatize, so Celsus insisted that those Christians who did not yield to the gentle power of persuasion would have to face the sheer force of coercion, and, if this should be of no avail, severe punishment, perhaps even death.

So the sense in which Origen writes an apology is closely related to the sense in which the apologists of the second century wrote apologies. In both cases we are dealing with responses not given in court to accusations not raised in court. And in both cases the accusations are such that Christians are accused of criminality, so that they could stand accused in court, and in addition have to face all sorts of objections concerning their morality, their education, and their rationality—in short, their civic respectability—objections which might well be endorsed by Roman magistrates or even the emperor. But there also is an important difference in the way in which at least some of the apologists, on the one hand, and Origen, on the other, take up the image of a legal proceeding. Apologists like Justin stay within the confines of the image, by at least pretending that their apology constitutes a submission to the emperor as the ultimate judge and source of law, who, for instance, could declare Christianity legal. But Origen does no such thing. And this may not just be due to the fact that he is responding to the accusations and criticism raised by a private citizen who explicitly refrains, for the time being, from insisting that Christians should be taken to court. For even so, Origen, given that Celsus had raised the matter, could address the legal situation, and plead for a change in the law, then proceed to address the distorted picture of Christianity which Celsus paints. When at the very end of his response, in the penultimate paragraph of the treatise, Origen returns to the image of a legal case, when he, as it were, rests his case, he does not address the authorities of the State, but rather the reader as the judge in this case. It is the reader who will have to judge which of the two submissions in the case, Celsus’ True Account or Origen’s Response, is more imbued by a spirit of piety and devotion and a concern for a good life (3. 76, p. 293, 3 ff.). Origen presents his apology as a personal, private response to the attack of a private individual, rather than as a quasi-legal document addressed to some authority. As a result, the sense of the term ‘apology’ involved here, though still derived from the legal sense of the term, which right from the beginning is very much in the background of the treatise, is much further removed from its legal use than the apologists’ use of it. Correspondingly, the literary form also is quite different. Origen’s text belongs to a different literary genre of apologetic writing. Eusebius (Preparation, I. 4, p. 10, 23— 4) seems to recognize this, when he classifies as a distinct genre of apologetics ‘refutations and counter-accounts of accounts directed against us’. There is a reason to suppose that Origen’s treatise is the first in this genre. His remarks, at the very end of the preface in the penultimate sentence, that those who are not satisfied with his response should turn to others who are better able to refute Celsus in words and by writing treatises, might be taken to indicate that Origen had a predecessor or predecessors. But, seen in conjunction with the last sentence of the preface and in the context of the whole preface, these remarks rather suggest that, though there may be people who are better able to refute Celsus, perhaps even in writing, a true Christian should not stand in need of a written response, but should consider the life of Jesus and those who followed him. Moreover, if Celsus had already found a Christian response in writing, we would expect some remarks to the effect that Ambrosius, who had urged Origen to write Against Celsus, had found this earlier response inadequate and for that reason had pressed Origen to try to improve on it. In any case, we do not have any knowledge of an earlier response to Celsus. Nor do we know of any other anti-Christian writing after Celsus and before Origen, let alone of a Christian response to it. So Origen’s treatise is, at the very least, the first known example of this form of Christian apologetic writing.

Origen was followed, though, by others, and in this way stands at the beginning of a whole genre of apologetic writings. Methodius, Apollinarius, and Eusebius responded to Porphyry’s Against the Christians; Eusebius responded to Hierocles’Friend of the Truth; Cyril of Alexandria wrote Against Julian in response to the emperor’s Against the Galilaeans; and Macarius Magnes answered the anonymous author who is thought to have relied on Porphyry. These Christian responses, too, have been transmitted only very selectively, as if they contained the very poison they were meant to combat. The treatises against Porphyry just mentioned, for instance, are unfortunately all lost, and even Cyril’s answer to Julian is only partially extant. We have to assume that there was more of this kind of Christian literature, which has disappeared without trace, along with the pagan treatises against Christianity which it tried to respond to.

Hence, it is all the more remarkable that Origen’s treatise should have been transmitted intact, given that orthodoxy has regarded Origen with suspicion, if not horror. Sections of it were protected by their reception into the Philokalia, and thus by the authority of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. But obviously, given the case of the First Principles, parts of which are also preserved in the Philokalia, but whose Greek original otherwise, apart from some fragments, is lost, this does not suffice to explain the preservation of the text as a whole. Nor does it seem enough to point out that, given that Celsus does not consider it appropriate to go into the more theoretical, philosophical, and speculative details of the true account, Origen similarly in his response is not called upon to take a stand on issues on which his own view could be regarded as unorthodox, and hence offensive. Against Celsus must have been thought of as particularly useful. We will return later to a guess as to why this may have been so.

To get clearer about this, we have to turn to the question of what purpose the treatise was meant to serve. There is a view which seems to make the answer to this question obvious. It is the view that here, in the last third of the second century, we have nothing less than a learned Platonist philosopher publishing a scathing critique of Christianity which demands an answer, but that this answer is not forthcoming until about seventy years later, when we finally find a Christian, namely Origen, who is in a position to give a response which has long been overdue. Even then, some think, Origen did not fully manage to meet this formidable challenge. If this were correct, the purpose of the treatise would obviously be to free Christians of the embarrassing and intolerable situation of not being able to respond adequately to Celsus’ attack, and thus to suffer in the esteem at least of educated persons outside Christianity whom Christians might want to attract.

But I think things must be a great deal more complicated than that. Perhaps the best way to approach the matter is to take note of the fact that Origen, right from the beginning of the preface through to the end of the treatise, makes it very clear that though Ambrosius has pressed him to write this apology, he has had grave misgivings about the enterprise and the purpose it may serve, and has only undertaken it because he has been asked to do so with such insistence. Ambrosius was his friend and patron (Eusebius, History, 6. 8. I), who provided him with stenographers, scribes, and calligraphers (6. 23. I—2), without which he would never have been able to produce, and to make public, his voluminous writings, such as, for instance, Against Celsus.

There is a trace of this in the text of Against Celsus itself, which reflects Origen’s reliance on tachygraphers and scribes. If we look at the beginning of I. 28, we see that something must have gone wrong with the text. Origen starts the chapter by saying:

But since he also introduces fictional characters, he also, imitating in a way a rhetor who introduces a child into his speech, introduces a Jew who says some childish things to Jesus. . . . Let us then according to our ability also examine these things and refute Celsus also in this regard that in what gets said he has not managed to preserve at all the fictional character which is fitting for a Jew.

But then he goes on to say: ‘After this he introduces the fictional character of a Jew who has a discussion with Jesus himself and tries to refute him on many points.’

There would be no problem, if it emerged from the discussion which follows in Origen that Celsus had introduced two Jews, both fictional characters, of which the first said childish things to Jesus which a Jew would never say, and the second had a discussion with Jesus, and if Origen correspondingly had first answered the first Jew introduced by Celsus revealing his childishness, and had then addressed the remarks of the second Jew. But this is not at all what happens. From i. 28 onwards he seems to be discussing the objections of just one Jew, the one introduced in the second of the two passages quoted above from the beginning of I. 28. At the beginning of I. 32 he returns to these criticisms of the Jew introduced in the second passage, characterizing them as the objections of a fictional Jew. At the end of I. 44 he turns to the point that this Jew must be fictional, as he is made to say things which a real Jew would not say. But this was Origen’s criticism levelled against Celsus’ fiction of the Jew introduced in the first of the two passages quoted above. Thus Origen criticizes the supposed second fictional Jew precisely in the way in which the beginning of the chapter had made us expect he would criticize the first fictional Jew. Similarly, it is the supposed second Jew about whom Origen complains in I. 37 that the remarks attributed to him are ridiculous and not worthy of a serious person. With this he is obviously taking up the remark in the first of the two passages quoted, that the Jew introduced by Celsus is made to say childish things. Hence it is clear that Celsus introduced only one fictional Jew, that Origen in I. 28 ff. is addressing only the supposed remarks of this one fictional Jew, and that, hence, the passages quoted must be referring not to two different Jews, but to one and the same Jew, a clearly fictional character because he is made to say things a real Jew would not say, moreover somebody whose remarks are ridiculous and childish. But this means that the second passage quoted must constitute a doublet of the first.

Scholars have long seen this, and have connected it with a remark in Origen’s preface. There (6, p. 34, 29 ff.) Origen tells us that when he came to the passage in Celsus in which Celsus introduces ‘the’ fictional Jew, he decided first to write the preface. So we may presume that what happened is this. Origen first wrote I. I—I. 28, first sentence, then the preface, and then continued with i. 28, second sentence, which we see is a doublet of the first sentence. Obviously, if Origen had done the writing himself, he would have noticed that he had already said that at this point Celsus introduces a fictional Jew. It is only if we assume that Origen was dictating that we readily understand that, having dictated the preface, he resumed dictation of the main body of the text, but forgot that he had already dictated a sentence about the fictional Jew whom Celsus then introduces. So here we have a glimpse of the situation which physically enabled Origen to be such a prolific writer. And we also see that Origen cannot have proof read, as it were, at the end—at least not with care—as otherwise he would have deleted the second sentence. It looks as if Origen, having dictated the text, left its further production to others.

But why was Origen so hesitant to write Against Celsus? The notion of an apology must have evoked in any philosophically minded, or even just educated, Christian two rather different paradigms: Socrates’ apology and Jesus’ apology, or rather lack of it, to which Origen refers at the very outset. The precise historical details of Socrates’ case are somewhat unclear. But the way in which the case presented itself to posterity was this: Socrates, because of his philosophical activity, was unjustly accused of corrupting the young; he was condemned to death because he refused to compromise and save his life—for instance, by promising in future to desist from his philosophical activity which the Athenians found so disturbing; in fact, to follow Plato’s Apology, in court he went so far out of his way to defend his activity as to invite his condemnation. It is difficult not to see a certain parallel to the case of Christian martyrs and their apologia in court. They are accused because they are Christians. They could save themselves by compromising—for instance, by saying that they have changed their minds and will not continue in their Christian ways. Instead, their defence consists in more or less provocatively reaffirming their commitment to Christianity, thus inviting their martyrdom. It was a parallel which, if we are to trust the Acts of the Christian Martyrs, was on the mind of some of the martyrs themselves, and certainly had come to the mind of those who composed or redacted theActs. Apollonius (Acts of Apollonius, 19) refers to Socrates, and, somewhat later (41) in his defence, even draws a parallel between Socrates’ and Christ’s being unjustly condemned. Pionius (Acts of Pionius, 17. 2—3) compares his situation to that of Socrates, Aristides, and Anaxarchus. And Phileas (Acts of Phileas, 2. 2) refuses to sacrifice, referring to Socrates as somebody who cared more for his soul than his life when he was on trial. Socrates, his trial and condemnation, and his defence are also on the minds of the apologists. Sometimes this is so only very incidentally, as when Tatian (To the Greeks, 3) ridicules Zeno’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, according to which Anytus and Meletus will bring a case against Socrates again and again, or in Athenagoras (Embassy, 8. 3), where Socrates is invoked simply as an example. But sometimes the reference to Socrates is a substantial part of the argument, as in Athenagoras, Embassy, 3i. 2, or in Pseudo-Justin, Exhortation, 36. It is particularly, and, given Justin’s philosophical past, not surprisingly, Justin’s Apologies which are full of explicit and implicit references to Socrates. Justin goes so far as to claim that Socrates, though he lived before Christ, was a Christian, because he lived with the Logos (First Apology, I. 46. 3), and because he partially recognized Christ in recognizing the Logos (Second Apology, 18. 8). In Second Apology, 7. 3, he refers to Socrates as an example of a person who had to suffer because the demons see to it that the good suffer. In First Apology, 3. 3—4, it is the demons who turn the Athenians against Socrates, because Socrates has tried to free Athens from the influence of the demons. First Apology, 18. 5, refers to Socrates’ and other philosophers’ views on the afterlife. More pertinently, Second Apology, 10. 5—8, talks about Socrates’ attempt to free people from their false opinions and of his trial, but also of his inability, in contrast to Christ, to convince anybody else to die for the truth. First Apology starts out with two implicit references to Socrates, immediately following the address to the emperors. It talks of the true philosophers who are willing to speak the truth even under threat of death (2. i), and, briefly afterwards (2. 4), more or less quotes Plato’s Apology (30c—d), which has Socrates say that the Athenians can kill him, but not harm him, a passage explicitly referred to also by Origen in Against Celsus (8. 8).

Against Celsus itself, interestingly enough, is also full of references to Socrates: some implicit, but at least fifteen explicit ones. In fact, it turns out that Socrates could hardly have failed to come to Origen’s mind in writing Against Celsus, since Celsus quoted Plato, Apology, 20d (ibid. 6. 12), and right at the outset compared the risk which Christians were running in trying to publicize their doctrine to the risk taken by Socrates for the sake of philosophy (i. 3). Many of the references in Origen are not germane to our topic (i. 64; 3. 25; 3. 66; 4. 39; 4. 97; 6. 8), but several, in one way or another, do refer to Socrates’ trial and death (4. 59; 4. 67, and 5. 20—I; and of course, I. 3 and 8. 8, which we have already cited). Origen himself refers to Plato’s Apology, 2ia (7. 6), and twice he compares the suffering of Jesus to that of Socrates (2. 41 and 7. 56).

So the parallel between the Christian who stands accused, and is supposed to defend himself, and Socrates—indeed, the parallel between Jesus himself and Socrates—was very much on people’s minds, and was certainly on Origen’s mind, as is clear from the very first sentence of Against Celsus. It should be noted that the parallel could not have been overlooked for the mere reason that attacks against Christianity, from either the Jewish or the pagan side, to a large extent, and crucially, involved attacks on Jesus. Thus Origen, preface, 2 (end), explicitly remarks that Jesus continues to be accused, and will be accused as long as there is evil. But, of course, both pagans and Christians would insist that the parallel between Christ and Socrates was limited, as there were also significant differences. After all, for a Christian, Christ was God. And it is some of these differences which are crucial for our purposes. There is something triumphant about Socrates’ apology—for instance, about his claim that he can be killed, but not harmed. And there is something disturbing about the fact that he so insists on his commitment to the pursuit of truth that he, it seems knowingly, provokes his condemnation. There is something similarly triumphant, though again somewhat disturbing, about the apologies of the martyrs to the extent that they seem meant to provoke condemnation. Now, it would not have occurred to anybody that there was anything ignominious about Socrates’ being condemned to death like a criminal. The ignominy fell entirely upon the Athenians. Not only was Socrates innocent, but in his defence he had stood up to the Athenians, even if this meant his death.

But the story of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus was asked to respond to the accusations, he was silent. It is with this very point that Origen begins his apology, and which he goes on explaining for the first two paragraphs of his preface. There was no apologia—let alone a triumphant, self-assertive one. This the pagans found impossible to understand, unacceptable, and ignominious. Celsus, too, does not omit to criticize the meekness with which Jesus underwent his trial (2. 33 ff., 67—8). This is what Hierocles was out to criticize by contrasting it with Apollonius’ trial, in the course of which Apollonius not only defends himself, but then miraculously disappears (cf. Against Hierocles, 38; Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 5. 3. 9). Indeed, Apollonius is made to improve on Socrates. If Socrates said that they could take his body, but not himself or his soul, Apollonius repeats this, only to correct himself to say that they cannot even take his body (Against Hierocles, 38). Macarius Magnes has to respond to the same kind of criticism, perhaps already going back to Porphyry (Monogenes, I).

How the pagans thought about this is illustrated in more detail by the way in which the case of Apollonius of Tyana is described by Philostratus in his Life (8. 5—6), on which Hierocles draws. We do not know whether Philostratus wrote the Life to present Apollonius as a much more attractive alternative to Jesus. But, whatever his intentions, he goes out of his way to describe Apollonius, when asked to account for himself in front of the notoriously tyrannical Domitian, as facing the emperor down in no uncertain terms (and as miraculously extracting himself from prison and escaping unjust punishment; but this is not the issue at this point). A forceful, fearless apologia which puts the accuser in his place is what the ancients expected of a wise or holy man.

Of the two opposed paradigms, even Christians, as we have seen, saw something attractive in Socrates’ behaviour. But Origen, obviously right from the beginning, is mindful of the example of Jesus. Confronted with Celsus’ false accusations, Origen is inclined to think that they should be borne in silence, rather than countered in a triumphant apologia putting Celsus in his place. So here is a first reason for Origen’s hesitation. But rather than just saying that his hesitation, in part at least, is a matter of being influenced by Jesus’ example, we can be a bit more precise about it. For Origen explains Jesus’ behaviour (preface, I). Jesus thought that his life constituted a better response to the false accusations than any words could. So Origen seems to think that the kind of accusations raised by Celsus are based to such an extent on misunderstanding, on failure, inability, or unwillingness to understand, on distortion, on lack of good faith, that ultimately the only way to respond to them is not by clever or artfully crafted words, but by the example one sets by one’s life in following Jesus. So Origen, at the end of the second chapter of the preface, says that Jesus continues to be accused, but persists in his silence in face of his accusers, relying on the life of a true Christian to be a response to the accusations against him.

So this is the first reason for Origen’s hesitation, a reason he went out of his way to make clear right from the beginning, with the first sentences of the preface. A second reason for Origen’s hesitation, by its very nature, is much more difficult to pull out of the text. I want to argue that Origen quickly came to realize that his apology was bound to be inherently unsatisfactory, because it would not serve the purpose for which it was intended.

Let us leave the intended purpose aside for a moment, and just note in what regard Origen’s work is unsatisfactory, was bound to be unsatisfactory, and was realized by Origen himself to be unsatisfactory.

One thing which is unsatisfactory about Origen’s Against Celsus is its lack of structure. Book I closes with the remark that Origen has now dealt with the objections against Jesus which Celsus has put into the mouth of a Jew, to turn in book 2 to the Jew’s criticism of the Christians in following Jesus as the Messiah.

Book 2 opens correspondingly, repeating the aim of book I and announcing the topic of book 2. Book 3 opens with a remark as to what has been accomplished in books i and 2, and announces that he will now turn to the objections which Celsus raises as a pagan against Christianity. So there is this much clear structure. But it is telling that from book 3 onwards the book divisions do not seem to correspond to a division in the argument. Unlike at the end of books I and 2, we no longer get a remark as to what the subject of the book was. Instead, at the end of books 3, 4, 6, and 7, we get the somewhat bland remark that the book is now long enough to be concluded, as if Origen, or rather his scribe, had come to the end of the book roll. Indeed, the different books, with the conspicuous exception of books 4 and 5, are all of rather similar length, in Koetschau’s pages 74, 76, 69, 82, 67, 72, as opposed to 101 and 99 for book 4 and book 5. Nor do the prefaces of the books after 3, with the slight exception of book 7, even try to give us an idea of the content of the book. Rather, they give the impression that Origen is pressed to go on commenting on Celsus’ argument, point after point, as well as he can.

Now this lack of structure must be largely due to a certain lack of structure in Celsus’ argument. As Origen tells us at the beginning of book 3, Celsus’ treatise had a preface, then turned to Jewish objections to Jesus, then to Jewish objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as predicted by Jewish Scripture, and then to pagan objections to Christianity. Celsus, as we saw, also tried to fit his objections to Christianity into an overarching argument to the effect that Christians had abandoned the true account and should return to it. Obviously and understandably, though, he had great difficulty in organizing his collection of anti-Christian arguments into one well-ordered whole with a transparent structure. It is surely no accident that scholars who have tried to reconstruct Celsus’ argument have had considerable difficulty identifying an underlying train of thought which would have given structure to the whole treatise, and this in spite of Origen’s generous quotations and paraphrases following the order of Celsus’ text. Even in the case of Celsus’ preface, which we have to imagine to have been written with particular care, the first twenty-seven chapters of book i, which Origen spends on its main points, make it difficult to discover any clear line of argument. And from book 3 onwards, when we turn to Celsus’ pagan objections to Christianity, the lines of Celsus’ thought or argument become quite diffuse and unclear, as a simple look at the many attempts to present his argument in outline immediately show (e.g. Koetschau’s in the preface to his edition, pp. li—lvi, which was already Koetschau’s second attempt to produce such an outline). So we are not surprised to find that Origen already complains at the beginning of I. 41 that he just has to take up Celsus’ points one by one, without concern for the logical place and order of the matters discussed, but following their order in Celsus’ treatise. And very soon, from I. 49 onwards, many of Origen’s chapters begin monotonously with ‘After this’, or ‘Next’, or ‘Then’ (I. 49, 50, 58, 62, 67, 68, 69, 71, just to consider the rest of the first book after the change of plan), as if there were no logical order between the topics addressed. At 2. 32 Origen says that he is not going to repeat himself just because Celsus is repeating himself. But at 6. 10 he complains that he has to repeat himself, because Celsus is repeating himself, instead of dealing with a topic once and for all in the place in which it belongs. This complaint against Celsus’ repetitiveness appears again and again (cf. 2. 5; 2. 46; 4. 18; 5. 53; 6. 12).

Now this question of logical order and structure, the lack of which Origen himself complains about, is of obvious practical importance. And here we have to return to the question of the envisaged purpose of the book. At I. 41 Origen complains that he has to take up Celsus’ points one by one, as they come in Celsus’ text, rather than in logical order. After all, he has been asked to respond to Celsus, and he is afraid, as he explains in I. 41, that if he does not take up all of Celsus’ points one by one, people will think that Christians do not have an answer to points that Origen fails to address. Now, if we imagine Celsus to have been a well-known author, and the True Account to have been a well-known book, which for seventy years had awaited, and demanded, an adequate answer on the part of Christians if they wanted to be assured of the defensibility of their own position and were concerned to retain their intellectual respectability, then Origen could not do anything else but what he did—namely, rebut Celsus point for point.

But, as I have already indicated, I doubt very much that Celsus was a well-known author, that the True Account was a well-known challenge to Christianity, that it had a wide circulation, and that what was urgently needed was somebody with the qualifications of an Origen to respond to it. Even Origen had not heard of Celsus. Otherwise he would not have persisted, for more than half of his response, in referring to Celsus as an Epicurean. Eusebius, too, not short on learning, had not heard of Celsus independently of Origen’s reply to him. Otherwise he would not have continued to call Celsus an Epicurean (Ecclesiastical History, 6. 36, 2). There is, as I said earlier, no ancient information even among Christian authors about Celsus which is independent of Origen; this would be surprising if Celsus had been regarded as such an important author. Almost certainly Origen did not have a copy of Celsus’ treatise, as he received the text only from Ambrosius. Almost certainly he had not read the treatise before he received Ambrosius’ request to respond to it, let alone carefully. Admittedly, Origen wrote his response assuming that some readers might have Celsus text available to them. Otherwise he would not have worried (I. 41) that people might think him not to be in a position to answer a point of Celsus if he just passed it over. And if Eusebius is right that Hierocles relied on Celsus, then the text did have some circulation. But it is equally clear that Origen wrote in a way which suggested that he assumed that readers in general would not have access to Celsus’ text. Otherwise there would have been no point in quoting and paraphrasing Celsus at such length, as if readers would not know what Celsus’ objections were, would have had no ready way to find out, and had to be told by Origen.

In any case, it is not true that Origen had no alternative but to write an apology rather lacking in structure by following Celsus’ text point by point. For he himself tells us in the preface (6) that he changed plan when he arrived at the point in Celsus’ text at which Celsus introduced the fictional Jew—that is, presumably, at the end of Celsus’ preface and the beginning of his actual treatise. Origen, indeed, ‘apologizes’ (p. 34, 33—6), and asks our forgiveness (p. 33, 7)—rather strong, loaded words in this context. It is very clear from Origen’s remarks, especially given that we have the text from i. 28 onwards, written according to the new plan, to which plan Origen switched. It is not so clear what the original plan was. Origen tells us that originally he had planned to proceed in two steps, to first note the main points (kephalaion) which Celsus made, and briefly sketch the kind of response he planned to give, and then, in a second step, to give body(somatopoiesai) to his reply (ton logon) (p. 33, 1—3). But, he continues, in order to save time, he just let I. I—27, his originally provisional notes, stand; but from I. 28 onwards proceeded to take up Celsus’ objections one by one, and to immediately write a full reply to them. i. i—27 corresponds to the description in the preface. Chapter i begins, ‘Celsus’ first kephalaion is . . .’, followed some lines later by ‘against this one has to say that . . .’ (p. 36, 9), a phrase which turns into a formula repeated, for instance, in chapters 3 (p. 37, 23), 9 (p. 61, 21), and 12 (p. 64, 16—17), sometimes replaced by ‘one has to say’ or ‘one has to refute this’ or ‘him’.

What is less clear is how Origen originally planned to use the provisional notes. One possibility is that he had planned to give the different points some further thought, or even work on them, before he turned to writing his final text, but that, having come to the end of the preface, he decided that he did not need to give the points further thought, perhaps even that most of them did not deserve any thought, and that hence he would save time if he wrote his final responses immediately, as he was going through the text, as he then, in fact, did from i. 28 onwards.

But there are quite a number of other possibilities, though there is not much hard evidence on the basis of which one could decide between them. Lampe (A Patristic Greek Lexicon, s.v. 3) lists our passage, and gives as the meaning ‘embark on the body or main part of, construct, of a written work’. The verb might mean ‘to produce a body for something’, ‘to realize something materially’, ‘to give something actual existence’, ‘to represent something materially’; but it is also used in Origen and in Eusebius (cf. Lampe, s.v. 4) in the sense of turning something into one body or one whole. Instructive is Eusebius, History, i. 4. Eusebius complains that in his enterprise of writing a history of the Church he does not have any predecessors, that all he can rely on are partial accounts by men who recount what they passed through in their days (i. i. 3). And he promises to take from what they have to say what seems appropriate, and to turn it into a body by means of a historical account. Here, clearly, the point is not that Eusebius is going to give his planned account real, concrete existence by carrying it out in detail on paper, but that by means of a historical account he will turn the scattered, isolated observations of his sources into one whole, complete, coherent account. Eusebius also offers a parallel to the whole phrase somatopoiesai ton logon, which we find in Origen, which is also reminiscent in other ways, even in its language, of our sentence in Origen’s preface. In Against Marcellus, i. i. 6, Eusebius tells us that, given the blasphemous nonsense Marcellus is talking, he will proceed by just briefly recapitulating Marcellus’ absurd claims, and then arranging them so that they hang together, so as thereby to create one whole, coherent account, thus making manifest the sheer absurdity of Marcellus’ claims.

It is simple to see why something like this may also have been Origen’s original intention. Neither Ambrosius nor Origen may have been particularly interested in Celsus’ treatise as such. Ambrosius may have been interested in Celsus only as a fairly complete compendium or repertory of arguments against Christianity. And he may have thought that Origen’s reply, correspondingly, would provide an authoritative manual in which a Christian could count on finding an adequate reply to whatever criticism of Christianity he was likely to encounter. Perhaps it is also in this light that we should see Origen’s repeated assertion that he is addressing all of Celsus’ points, however banal and absurd they may seem (I. 28; I. 41; 2. 20). In fact, this is precisely what Eusebius thinks of Origen’s Against Celsus. In Against Hierocles, I, he tells us that Origen’s work contains a refutation of everything that has ever been said against Christianity, and already counters in advance any objections which anybody could ever possibly raise. This is rather exaggerated praise on the part of an ardent admirer of Origen, but it presumably reflects the fact that Origen’s work generally came to be seen as providing an answer to almost all possible objections directed from the outside against Christianity. And this may also explain why even Origen’s numerous enemies did not stand in the way of its preservation.

But if this was the purpose it was meant to serve, the project faced two serious difficulties which Ambrosius may not have appreciated. Given the lack of organization of Celsus’ treatise, a point-by-point response to it would make the practical use of Origen’s book rather awkward. Especially given the physical nature of ancient books, it would be extremely irksome to try to find the place at which Origen addressed a specific objection one was concerned with. Moreover, the discussion had surely advanced on both sides since Celsus’ writing. Not only were there difficulties which Celsus had overlooked, but new difficulties had been found, often by Christians themselves, and old difficulties had been formulated in a more sophisticated, informed way. Thus in 2. 32 Origen can point out that, though Celsus criticized Jesus’ genealogy, he did not notice that there is a discrepancy between the Gospels on Jesus’ genealogy, a point on which there has been a good deal of discussion among Christians, and one raised against them as an objection. There were a host of other difficulties raised by Scripture, which Origen was aware of, and some of which were exploited by Porphyry.

Thus, I submit, Origen did not originally plan the kind of response he actually produced, even if originally he planned to do it in two steps, first taking notes and then filling out the details. Nor do I think that Origen’s plan had been, as the parallel with Eusebius’ Against Marcellus, I. I. 6, might suggest, just to take brief note of Celsus’ main points, arrange them in such a way as to give his response the form of a continuous argument, and thus make short shrift of Celsus’ treatise without bothering about all the tedious details. What stands in the way of this assumption is that Origen must have thought that it would be less timeconsuming, rather than more time-consuming, but also that, as, for instance, i. 4i indicates, he somehow felt bound to address all of Celsus’ points. So the plan was, I suggest, first to note Celsus’ main points, then to arrange them in such an order that all of Celsus’ objections, but also further objections, would fit into this logical order, and Origen’s response to them could take the form of a continuous, well-organized, clearly structured argument. Thus we would have a comprehensive, systematic response to the objections that can be raised against Christianity, in which it would be relatively easy to find the place at which Origen discussed the kind of objection, if not the very objection, one was concerned with.

If Celsus’ work had come with a more developed logical or argumentative structure, in which difficulties were raised, more or less, in a logical order, this would have been a much simpler undertaking. Celsus himself would already have provided much of the structure. But, as Origen sat down to work on Celsus’ treatise, and arrived at the end of Celsus’ preface and the beginning of the treatise itself (this is where Origen changed plan and wrote his own preface), he must have realized, given the lack of argumentative structure even of Celsus’ preface, that a work according to the original plan would be an enormous undertaking, and would, moreover, no longer, except incidentally, be a response to Celsus. So Origen changed his original plan, and from i. 28 onwards he wrote his responses to Celsus’ points in the exact order in which they came up in Celsus; though very soon, in I. 41, he complained about this procedure, forced on him by Celsus’ text, of discussing difficulties irrespective of their logical order.

But, given Origen’s hesitation about this sort of enterprise in the first place, he was not prepared to engage in the enormous task that a systematic discussion of the difficulties would have involved. On the other hand, if my suggestion is right as to its intended purpose, Origen must have seen that a point-for-point response to Celsus would not serve this purpose well and fully. This, then, is a second reason for Origen’s hesitation to write an apology against Celsus.

Origen, then, thought that words or books were not the appropriate way to respond to accusations against Christianity. He further thought that a book answering these accusations, to be really useful, should deal with them in a logical order, in their most reasonable, most advanced, and clearest form, and should deal with all significant difficulties. A response to Celsus would not constitute such a book. Thirdly, Origen makes it abundantly clear in his preface that he thinks that a proper Christian does not stand in need of the apology he is about to write, as he will not be shaken in his Christianity by Celsus’ treatise or any treatise of this sort (preface, 3).

This brings us to our last question: what audience did Origen envisage for Against Celsus? From the way Origen writes in the preface, it seems clear that Ambrosius’ concern was that Christians would want to know how to answer the objections to Christianity found in Celsus. For it must be a concern like this which Origen addresses when, in preface, 6 (p. 54, 32—5), he says that this book is written for people who have not yet had a taste of what it is to believe in Jesus at all, or those who, as Paul says, are weak in their faith, not for those who already really believe. Now one might think that by ‘those who have not yet tasted belief at all’ Origen is referring to the outside world in general. But I think it is much more likely that he is referring to those who sympathized with Christianity, but were unable to commit themselves to it, rather than those who had already been baptized. For if one looks at the way the preface begins, by referring to Jesus’ refusal to defend himself, this hardly seems a promising way to address complete outsiders, who will think that Jesus, rightly or wrongly, suffered the ignominious death of a criminal, and added to the shame by not defending himself. It is true that Origen in the preface, chapter 2, addressed the point, explaining, for instance, that Jesus did not deem his accusers worthy of a response, so high-mindedly overlooked them (p. 52, 13—14). But even this explanation does not address the questions which complete outsiders would raise—for instance, why Jesus would allow himself to be treated like a criminal. It already seems to presuppose a minimal understanding of Jesus’ willingness to accept his suffering when he did not have to, an understanding that a complete outsider would not have, and which Celsus, for one, does not have. And the whole treatise seems to be written in a way which presupposes a minimally sympathetic, though perhaps not a convinced, reader. Hence, it appears that the book was written for Christians and perhaps for those who, though not Christian, were looking for resolutions of the difficulties raised against Christianity, exactly because they were in sympathy with it. But, however we interpret the reference to those who have not yet tasted the faith, it seems clear that the primary targets of Origen’s apology are Christians.

Origen says that he does not need to write for those whose choice cannot be shaken by words such as those of Celsus or any such person (preface, 3, p. 52, 31—53, I). He then goes on to say (preface, 4, p. 53, 30 ff.) that he is writing for those who are held to believe, but perhaps may be shaken in their belief by Celsus, though he does not quite know what to think of this case (p. 53, 27— 30, but also p. 53, 24—7). Finally (preface, 6, p. 54, 34—5), he says that in writing this apology he is following St Paul’s admonition (Rom. 14: I), ‘Lend a hand to him who is weak in faith’. So there is repeated reference to those who are weak in faith, and just one reference, which we have discussed, to those who have not yet had a taste of faith at all. Hence the writing would seem to be directed primarily at Christians who are weak in faith, those thought to be believers, who are supposed to believe, but may be shaken by words like those of Celsus.

Perhaps it is relevant that Celsus wrote that Christians would face persecution again if they did not give up their faith. If it is true that Against Celsus was written in 248, the Decian persecution was imminent. Koetschau (preface, p. xxiii), Chadwick (introduction, p. xv and n. 3), and others believed that they could see, on the basis of 3. 13 and the roughly contemporary Commentary, on Matthew 13: 23, that Origen sensed that persecution was threatening any time. Origen himself was arrested and tortured, and died, it seems, some years later of broken health.

But one has also to assume that Origen is addressing himself to a group of people who can afford to acquire a book of this size and have the leisure to read, or at least use, it. Moreover, they must be people who might be impressed by the kind of learning Celsus displays. So the intended audience would seem to be the (by Origen’s time already fairly large) group of people who were reasonably well-to-do, reasonably well educated, and who were either already Christian or at least considering conversion.

In conclusion, we should note that even with a relatively unproblematic text such as Origen’s Against Celsus, scholars’ judgements about Origen’s achievement are often guided by a desire to see Christianity put paganism in its place, or a desire to see Christianity as not up to the task of responding to paganism at its enlightened best, or a desire to see Origen as failing in his task. Having spent a considerable amount of time trying to get clear about Celsus’ philosophical views in their own right, quite independently of Celsus’ views about Christianity, I have come to the conclusion that, on the basis of the little evidence which Celsus himself provides through Origen’s quotations and paraphrases of him, there is no reason to suppose that he was a philosopher of any significance. So when Origen in his preface (3, p. 34, 20) says that Celsus cannot even claim for himself that empty, vain, deceitful wisdom which, according to Origen (p. 34, 9 ff.), St Paul is granting Greek philosophers, we see that there is nothing deceptive about Celsus, since he does not have a sufficiently philosophical mind to engage in anything that could be called ‘deception’, but is just a blunderer. We readily recognize the polemical tone, characteristic of this age, and familiar, for instance, from Galen. But we have no evidence, no reason to suppose, that Origen was so wide of the mark. It also seems to me that, in judging Origen’s achievement, we have to take into account that, by Origen’s time, Celsus’ treatise must have seemed in many regards rather uninformed and unsophisticated—so that it would have been difficult for anybody at that time to write a response to Celsus which did not suffer significantly from the fact that Celsus’ text, especially if considered in isolation from its historical context, must have seemed rather inadequate. It was a text which had waited for a response for too long.

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