Celsus the Enemy

Celsus The Enemy & Justin Martyr
I Corinthians 1:18-28

Marcus Aurelius became the new emperor in 161 AD. He was known as the Emperor Philosopher. (He was a Stoic philosopher.)   The emperor was brilliant and so had no use for ignorant people. If you were educated or wise – he would treat a person with consideration, if uneducated – with absolute contempt.

The emperor hated the Christian church.  It was changing his empire.  The church was a subversive movement working not from the top down, through approved channels, which was the proper way to run an empire, but was working from the bottom up changing the masses.  Marcus Aurelius was very intelligent and could read the future clearly:  If the masses followed this dangerous cult leader Jesus of Nazareth, it could be the death of all dictatorships. He increased the persecution of this evil cult. (one story comes to us in detail: 45 persons are named and their tortures and deaths described. These 45 women & men lived and died in Lyon France in 177 all dying by public and multiple tortures.)

Celsus was a fellow philosopher who was highly intelligent.  Celsus had the respect of the intelligencia of Rome.   He had the ear of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  About AD 175 he wrote a book called “The True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians.”  It was the most brilliant attack the church had ever faced.  It was the very first published attack against the church.

The church had been busy on a variety of fronts.

  • It was busy leading people to Christ across the length and breadth of the Roman empire.
  • It was up to ears trying to survive incessant waves of persecution. The persecution waxed and waned depending of who was emperor and whether that emperor needed a scapegoat at the moment, or needed to pacify certain anti-Christian groups within the empire.
  • The church was busy trying to defend against new heresies or divisive movements like Montanism & Gnosticism.

But when the attack came from Celsus it was of a very different sort.   Celsus simply made the case that Christians were stupid, ignorant, superstitious, and unlearned, and to some degree it was true.

The Christian Community

The people that flocked to the church and to Jesus, were people who needed help from God for their guilt, their shame, their despair.  As St. Paul says “not many of you were wise, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.”

  • Many of the Christians were people who had been damaged by immorality of every sort. The people who found their way into the church were people who longed for forgiveness, for purity, and for power to live a better life.  Many of these people were stupid morally and intellectually when they found their way into the church.
  • The slaves of the empire who entered the church found a new dignity. They were not educated for the most part.  They were used as beasts of burden, sex slaves, cannon fodder for incessant wars.  They were considered to be bodies without brains. But the church welcomed them both to pew and pulpit.
  • Women found a new equality in the church. Women had not been educated in that ancient culture unless you came from the homes of nobility.  But there was safety and dignity inside the church.
  • Widows and Orphans that were jettisoned by most of Gentile society were protected and given places of significance in the church.
  • Barbarians and the flood of new foreign immigrants were welcomed by the church as persons of good standing. But they too did not have the benefit of an education, at least not of the Greco-Roman system. They were usually illiterate, and couldn’t speak the language of the sophisticates.
  • Then on top of that the word is out: the people who started this new religious movement were nobodies:  Jesus was a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, Matthew was a publican.
  • The Roman government & the intelligencia could not tell the difference between orthodox Christians and the new cults that sprang up in the name of the Christian church. The Montanists looked like they had found their emotions and lost their brains.  The Gnostics looked like they could believe any fantastic thing and call it “Knowledge”

Now if the real case could have been told, it was true and false at the same time.  Anyone was welcome into the church.  The entrance requirements were really low.  All you had to say was “help me!” and the church would ask, “Will you trust Jesus to help you?”  If the answer was “yes” they were baptized into the new community.  You remember the song “Just as I am?”  Well all these riff-raff came in “just as they were”.

Robert Brow, Canadian Theologian, says baptism is the rite that enrolls a person into the School of Christ.   Disciples by definition are “learners” who enter into this school through the initiation rite of baptism.  The church has always been a school.

The teachings of the OT and of Jesus and Paul, and Peter were shared with the students.  Instruction was given how to live better lives.  All the epistles are teaching documents.  You may enter the church pretty stupid, but before long you are learning, then leading others in their learning.  But the process was long.  No one ever graduated.  We are forever in school until we die.  That is why sermons must always have a place in church.  They are teaching moments. It is why the Scriptures are read in public.  They are teaching moments.  Moses & Isaiah get to teach us.  Matthew and Paul get to teach us. Bill and Susie get to teach us.

But back to Celsus.  He was right.  Not many of the bright and brilliant were attracted to the church.  The church could not list many of the philosophers or well educated in their numbers.  A hundred years after St. Paul said “Not many wise” it was still true.  Not many of the powerful, wealthy, or educated were being reached.

One of the strongest tools that Celsus used was ridicule.  He ridiculed the theology of the church.

  • He made fun of the fact that we believed in One God but worshipped two: we worshipped God the Father and Jesus whom the church also called God.  But insisted that Jesus was not just another name for the father.
  • He ridiculed the fact that the church worshipped as God – a man who had been born and lived and was executed by Rome in recent history. Celsus knew that God existed before all time and was not born the day before yesterday.
  • He ridiculed the incarnation, asking how the unchangeable God can change into a baby. How the immortal God can die on a cross.
  • He ridiculed the resurrection as wishful thinking. Dead people do not rise.

His conclusion:  the Christians are irrational, they are a dangerous cult, no one who is intelligent would ever think of becoming one, and persecution is their deserved fate.

Celsus was a gift to the Church.

Yes, let me say it again.  Celsus was a gift to the Christian Church.

First, he gave a visibility to the Christian church, that they may not have had among the intelligencia.  If such an important philosopher writes on this movement, it must be an important movement.  When the Christians responded to his diatribes, the educated got hooked into the debate.   They had not visited the churches to hear Christian teachings.  They had only lived with the rumours.

They had heard that

  • Christians were cannibals who ate children in a Communion service – They ate the body and drunk the blood of a sacrificed son every week.
  • Christians were morally perverse. They held “love feasts” which were orgies where incest and group-sex took place.
  • They were a secret society meeting in grave yards, in the catacombs, in private houses.
  • They would not bear allegiance to the emperors of Rome, but talked of following another king.
  • They were treasonous because increasingly they refused to serve in the wars of the emperor and yet were willing to “be good soldiers of Jesus Christ”.
  • They were really godless atheists because they had no images of God, refused to worship either the ancestral gods or the God of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who was the great God out-there, but instead worshipped a criminal who had been executed by the Roman authorities and called him God instead.

But, when the famous Celsus wrote his best seller, he did not repeat those popular myths.  He was an honest scholar.  He researched the church and its theology.  His book was still damaging to the church because it made the church look ridiculous, but it was an improvement on the absolute fictions of the rumours.

The Christian church did have brilliant people among them.  People of deep faith, who were well educated in philosophy and the learning of the day, were among its leaders.  They stepped into the debate.  They wrote books in response.  They dedicated them to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius too.  (not that he would choose to read them) The intelligencia began to sense the intelligence of these new writers.  They began to hear reasoned defense that made sense.   The church had been given a microphone to enable them to speak into the culture of the educated and of the nobility.

But Celsus gave the church a second unintended gift.  He made the church do better theology.  His ridicule stung the church’s leaders.  Was Celsus right?  Were we illogical and irrational?  Did we only appeal to down-and-outers but not to anybody with half a brain?  Does the church operate on blind faith, or do we have true knowledge?

The church had to revisit its theology.  What is the truth about the relationship between God and Jesus?  Were we Monotheists believing in only one God, or did we really believe in two or three gods?   How could a man be divine and still be human?    Was Jesus just a good man who was martyred, or was he really a God in disguise, or was he something else?

Great athletes are created in part by great opponents.  A worthy adversary is a gift to a runner.   To be beaten by someone over and over again is a wonderful motivation to work harder and to become faster and stronger and more disciplined.  Celsus was the great adversary who drove the church to think more clearly about its faith.

Great crises call some people to step up to the plate.  Small people can become great people in times of crisis.  A second-rate politician like Winston Churchill in a time of crisis becomes a giant in world affairs.  The Church, in this time of renewed crisis, saw some of its people rise to enormous stature. Justin Martyr was such a one.

Justin Martyr

Justin was a Philosopher of the school of Plato who converted to Christ after a strange encounter with an un-named old man.  But after his conversion he continued to wear his philosopher’s robes. That caused a bit of consternation to the some in the church.  It was like wearing a Hells Angels motorcycle jacket after conversion.  But he began to teach in the church around 150 AD, wearing the gown.  His intent was to show how Christian teaching relates to Greek Philosophy

Christian were suffering terribly under the emperors of Rome.  (By the way he is called Justin Martyr because Marcus Aurelius will have him executed in 162 AD.)  But Justin wrote to two consecutive emperors, open letters that all the literate public could read, showing that just as Christianity fulfilled Judaism, it also fulfilled the Greek philosophers’ hopes and expectations.  He took the Greek love of Wisdom and demonstrated that Jesus is the incarnation of the LOGOS of God, the Wisdom of God.  He called Socrates a Christian before Christ.  He described Christianity as the true philosophy, giving a coherent response to all the great questions of the ages.  He argued that Christians were not lawless citizens, but reasonable people, who did not deserve persecution.  The letters he wrote did not work on the emperor, but they did give a better understanding to others reading them.  Some believe that it was the writings of Justin Martyr that caused Celsus to respond in turn.

But did Justin do the church a favour?  It was the beginning of a movement away from Hebrew thinking about God and Jesus, to Greek thinking that was more philosophical.

  • Justin intended to lessen persecution.
  • But, he wanted to say that intelligent people do not have to cash in their brains when they come to church.
  • He also wanted to affirm that Christian theology is not “fanciful faith” but is true knowledge of a true reality.
  • He wanted to show that Christianity is a faith for all persons, wise or otherwise, and a good starting point can be found in Judaism, or Platonism, or Stoicism, or Paganism, and that Christ is the best of all concluding point.