THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: Celsus Likens Alexandrian Christianity to the Enthronement Mysteries of Ancient Crete

Celsus Likens Alexandrian Christianity to the Enthronement Mysteries of Ancient Crete

Among the first things that I ever attempted in the study of Christianity was trying to piece together the original 'True Account' of Celsus of Rome. It is also one of my first disappointments. It is simply impossible to know what that original text looked like.  Origen often cites two or three versions of the same line; the original material often getting mixed in with his own commentary to the point that it is impossible to figure out which is which.

Yet, even though I never managed to figure out what Celsus' original treatise actually looked like, I walked away from the attempt with a fair amount of knowledge about the original material.

One thing I have never managed to reconcile is why scholars date Celsus to the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Origen explicitly says that he was active "in [the time] of Hadrian, and later." [Against Celsus i.8]  Almost every important writer in the reign of Hadrian (117 - 138) does not live on into the age of Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180).  There are fifty years that separate the middle of the eras of both Emperors. The most likely period for the authorship of 'True Word' is the Antonine period.

Of course there are a lot of troubling things about allowing Celsus to be placed this early - the fact that Celsus never once references the Catholic tradition as being in existence yet being top of the list.

In any event, it is worth noting that we get a very good idea what the mystery religion of Alexandria looked like in this early period. The argument I am about to cite from a long section in Book Three concludes with Celsus claiming that the Christians of Alexandria stole their mysteries from the enthronement rituals of the cult of Zeus in Crete.

I don't want to overwhelm the reader with information but having visited Crete on a number of occasions, I immediately realized when reading this passage again what Celsus is getting at.  The original culture of Crete was of course Minoan and centered around the figure of King Minos.  Later Greeks renamed the cult after Zeus, but the Minoan rituals referenced by Celsus seems to reinforce the suggestion of Evans that 'Minos' wasn't just the name of a particular Minoan king but the name given to all their rulers.

The myth of Minos then involves the first Lord of the Minoans dying and going to the underworld while perpetuating a series of Minoan kings in the world above. These rituals were witnessed by Pythagoras who "made a pilgrimage to Crete, he entered the cave near the top of Mount Ide wearing black wool, stayed there according to custom thrice nine days and, among other ritual acts, inspected the throne which was strewn for Zeus once a year." It also worth noting that the Christian mysteries must have bore such a resemblance to the Cretan cult that not only do the Pastorals invoke Callimachus' Hymn to Zeus but Pergamon's altar to Zeus is described in The Revelation of S. John the divine as the place ' where Satan's throne is.'

In any event here are ALL the citations of Celsus' original work leading up to that point in the narrative. Origen begins by attacking his claim that Christianity developed as a mystery religion to obscure the seditious character of its original beliefs and writing:

we clearly manifest the illustrious nature of our origin, and do not (as Celsus imagines) conceal it, when we impress upon the minds of our first converts a contempt for idols, and images of all kinds, and, besides this, raise their thoughts from the worship of created things instead of God, and elevate them to the universal Creator; dearly showing Him to be the subject of prophecy, both from the predictions regarding Him--of which there are many--and from those traditions which have been carefully investigated by such as are able intelligently to understand the Gospels, and the declarations of the apostles.

"But what the legends are of every kind which we gather together, or the terrors which we invent," as Celsus without proof asserts, he who likes may show. I know not, indeed, what he means by "inventing terrors," unless it be our doctrine of God as Judge, and of the condemnation of men for their deeds, with the various proofs derived partly from Scripture, partly from probable reason. And yet--for truth is precious--Celsus says, at the close, "Forbid that either I, or these, or any other individual should ever reject the doctrine respecting the future punishment of the wicked and the reward of the good!" What terrors, then, if you except the doctrine of punishment, do we invent and impose upon mankind?

And if he should reply that "we weave together erroneous opinions drawn from ancient sources, and trumpet them aloud, and sound them before men, as the priests of Cybele clash their cymbals in the ears of those who are being initiated in their mysteries" we shall ask him in reply, "Erroneous opinions from what ancient sources?" For, whether he refers to Grecian accounts, which taught the existence of courts of justice under the earth, or Jewish, which, among other things, predicted the life that follows the present one; he will be unable to show that we who, striving to believe on grounds of reason, regulate our lives in conformity with such doctrines, have failed correctly to ascertain the truth.

He wishes, indeed, to compare the articles of our faith to those of the Egyptians; "among whom, as you approach their sacred edifices, are to be seen splendid enclosures, and groves, and large and beautiful gateways, and wonderful temples, and magnificent tents around them, and ceremonies of worship full of superstition and mystery; but when you have entered, and passed within, the object of worship is seen to be a cat, or an ape, or a crocodile, or a goat, or a dog!" Now, what is the resemblance between us and the splendours of Egyptian worship which are seen by those who draw near their temples? And where is the resemblance to those irrational animals which are worshipped within, after you pass through the splendid gateways? Are our prophecies, and the God of all things, and the injunctions against images, objects of reverence in the view of Celsus also, and Jesus Christ crucified, the analogue to the worship of the irrational animal? 

But if he should assert this--and I do not think that he will maintain anything else--we shall reply that we have spoken in the preceding pages at greater length in defence of those charges affecting Jesus, showing that what appeared to have happened to Him in the capacity of His human nature, was fraught with benefit to all men, and with salvation to the whole world.

In the next place, referring to the statements of the Egyptians, who talk loftily about irrational animals, and who assert that they are a sort of symbols of God, or anything else which their prophets, so termed, are accustomed to call them, Celsus says that "an impression is produced in the minds of those who have learned these things; that they have not been initiated in vain" while with regard to the truths which are taught in our writings to those who have made progress in the study of Christianity (through that which is called by Paul the gift consisting in the "word of wisdom" through the Spirit, and in the "word of knowledge" according to the Spirit), Celsus does not seem even to have formed an idea, judging not only from what he has already said, but from what he subsequently adds in his attack upon the Christian system, when he asserts that Christians "repel every wise man from the doctrine of their faith, and invite only the ignorant and the vulgar;" on which assertions we shall remark in due time, when we come to the proper place.

He says, indeed, that "we ridicule the Egyptians, although they present many by no means contemptible mysteries for our consideration, when they teach us that such rites are acts of worship offered to eternal ideas, and not, as the multitude think, to ephemeral animals; and that we are silly, because we introduce nothing nobler than the goats and dogs of the Egyptian worship in our narratives about Jesus." Now to this we reply, "Good sir, (suppose that) you are right in eulogizing the fact that the Egyptians present to view many by no means contemptible mysteries, and obscure explanations about the animals (worshipped) among them, you nevertheless do not act consistently in accusing us as if you believed that we had nothing to state which was worthy of consideration, but that all our doctrines were contemptible and of no account, seeing we unfold s the narratives concerning Jesus according to the ' wisdom of the word' to those who are 'perfect' in Christianity. 

... But it is not the appropriate time to describe at present the truly venerable and divine contents of the Gospels, or the mind of Christ--that is, the wisdom and the word--contained in the writings of Paul. But what we have said is sufficient by way of answer to the unphilosophic sneers of Celsus, in comparing the inner mysteries of the Church of God to the cats, and apes, and crocodiles, and goats, and dogs of Egypt.

But this low jester Celsus, omitting no species of mockery and ridicule which can be employed against us, mentions in his treatise the Dioscuri, and Hercules, and AEsculapius, and Dionysus, who are believed by the Greeks to have become gods after being men, and says that "we cannot bear to call such beings gods, because they were at first men, and yet they manifested many noble qualifies, which were displayed for the benefit of mankind, while we assert that Jesus was seen after His death by His own followers;" and he brings against us an additional charge, as if we said that "He was seen indeed, but was only a shadow!" 

...  Let us see what Celsus says next, when he adduces from history marvellous occurrences, which in themselves seem to be incredible, but which are not discredited by him, so far at least as appears from his words. And, in the first place, regarding Aristeas of Proconnesus, of whom he speaks as follows:

Then, with respect to Aristeas of Proconnesus, who disappeared from among men in a manner so indicative of divine intervention, and who showed himself again in so unmistakeable a fashion, and on many subsequent occasions visited many parts of the world, and announced marvellous events, and whom Apollo enjoined the inhabitants of Metapontium to regard as a god, no one considers him to be a god.

... According to Celsus, then, Apollo wished the Metapontines to treat Aristeas as a god. But as the Metapontines considered the evidence in favour of Aristeas being a man--and probably not a virtuous one--to be stronger than the declaration of the oracle to the effect that he was a god or worthy of divine honours, they for that reason would not obey Apollo, and consequently no one regarded Aristeas as a god. But with respect to Jesus we would say that, as it was of advantage to the human race to accept him as the Son of God ... the God who sent Jesus dissipated all the conspiracies of the demons, and made the Gospel of Jesus to prevail throughout the whole world for the conversion and reformation of men, and caused Churches to be everywhere established in opposition to those of superstitious and licentious and wicked men; for such is the character of the multitudes who constitute the citizens in the assemblies of the various cities. 

Whereas the Churches of God which are instructed by Christ, when carefully contrasted with the assemblies of the districts in which they are situated, are as beacons in the world; for who would not admit that even the inferior members of the Church, and those who in comparison with the better are less worthy, are nevertheless more excellent than many of those who belong to the assemblies in the different districts?

... [Indeed] in comparing the council of the Church of God with the council in any city, you would find that certain councillors of the Church are worthy to rule in the city of God, if there be any such city in the whole world; whereas the councillors in all other places exhibit in their characters no quality worthy of the conventional superiority which they appear to enjoy over their fellow-citizens. And so, too, you must compare the ruler of the Church in each city with the ruler of the people of the city, in order to observe that even amongst those councillors and rulers of the Church of God who come very far short of their duty, and who lead more indolent lives than others who are more energetic, it is nevertheless possible to discover a general superiority in what relates to the progress of virtue over the characters of the councillors and rulers in the various cities.

Now if these things be so, why should it not be consistent with reason to hold with regard to Jesus, who was able to effect results so great, that there dwelt in Him no ordinary divinity? while this was not the case either with the Proconnesian Aristeas (although Apollo would have him regarded as a god), or with the other individuals enumerated by Celsus when he says, 

no one regards Abaris the Hyperborean as a god, who was possessed of such power as to be borne along like an arrow from a bow ... Do they not report that his soul frequently quitted his body, and flitted about in an incorporeal form? and yet men did not regard him as a god ...  [or] Cleomedes of Astypalaea who entered into an ark, and although shut up within it, was not found therein, but through some arrangement of the divinity, flew out, when certain persons had cut open the ark in order to apprehend him and one might name many others of the same kind ... [Let it be said that] in worshipping him who was taken prisoner and put to death, we are acting like the Getae who worship Zamolxis, and the Cilicians who worship Mopsus, and the Acarnanians who pay divine honours to Amphilochus, and like the Thebans who do the same to Amphiaraus, and the Lebadians to Trophonius.

Celsus also introduces Antinous, the favorite of Hadrian and ... he imagines that the honour paid to him falls little short of that which we render to Jesus ... [for] "they will not endure his being compared with Apollo or Zeus." 

... We must notice the remarks which Celsus next makes, when he says to us, that "faith, having taken possession of our minds, makes us yield the assent which we give to the doctrine of Jesus ... regarding he, who was but a mortal body, as a God, and with supposing that we act piously in so doing."  It is superfluous to say any more in answer to this, as a great deal has been said in the preceding pages. And yet let those who make this charge understand that He whom we regard and believe to have been from the beginning God, and the Son of God, is the very Logos, and the very Wisdom, and the very Truth; and with respect to His mortal body, and the human soul which it contained, we assert that not by their communion merely with Him, but by their unity and intermixture, they received the highest powers, and after participating in His divinity, were changed into God. And if any one should feel a difficulty at our saying this regarding His body, let him attend to what is said by the Greeks regarding matter, which, properly speaking, being without qualities, receives such as the Creator desires to invest it with, and which frequently divests itself of those which it formerly possessed, and assumes others of a different and higher kind. And if these opinions be correct, what is there wonderful in this, that the mortal quality of the body of Jesus, if the providence of God has so willed it, should have been changed into one that was ethereal and divine?

Celsus, then, does not speak as a good reasoner, when he compares the mortal flesh of Jesus to gold, and silver, and stone, asserting that the former is more liable to corruption than the latter ... But, admitting that there are degrees of corruptibility, we can say in answer, that if it is possible for the matter which underlies all qualities to exchange some of them, how should it be impossible for the flesh of Jesus also to exchange qualities, and to become such as it was proper for a body to be which had its abode in the ether and the regions above it, and possessing no longer the infirmities belonging to the flesh, and those properties which Celsus terms "impurities," and in so terming them, speaks unlike a philosopher? For that which is properly impure, is so because of its wickedness. Now the nature of body is not impure; for in so far as it is bodily nature, it does not possess vice, which is the generative principle of impurity. But, as he had a suspicion of the answer which we would return, he says with respect to the change of the body of Jesus, "Well, after he has laid aside these qualities, he will be a God and if so why not rather Aesculapius, and Dionysus, and Hercules?" 

He next says of us, that "we ridicule those who worship Jupiter, because his tomb is pointed out in the island of Crete; and yet we worship him who rose from the tomb, although ignorant of the grounds on which the Cretans observe such a custom." Observe now that he thus undertakes the defence of the Cretans, and of Jupiter, and of his tomb, alluding obscurely to the allegorical notions, in conformity with which the myth regarding Jupiter is said to have been invented; while he assails us who acknowledge that our Jesus has been buried, indeed, but who maintain that He has also been raised from the tomb,--a statement which the Cretans have not yet made regarding Jupiter. But since he appears to admit that the tomb of Jupiter is in Crete, when he says that we are ignorant of the grounds on which the Cretans observe such a custom, we reply that Callimachus the Cyrenian, who had read innumerable poetic compositions, and nearly the whole of Greek history, was not acquainted with any allegorical meaning which was contained in the stories about Jupiter and his tomb; and accordingly he accuses the Cretans in his hymn addressed to Jupiter, in the words:- "The Cretans are always liars: for thy tomb, O king, The Cretans have reared; and yet thou didst not die, For thou ever livest." [Against Celsus iii.15 - 43]

No comments: