An inquiry into the identity of Celsus, the author of the “True Doctrine”


The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, remarking on the status of the Christian believers: “…not many wise men after the flesh(…)are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” Paul’s main point was that the message of salvation by the cross is unreachable by human intellect and philosophy. But did this sentiment entail that Christianity was intellectually unacceptable for thinking and educated Romans and Greeks? A philosopher named Celsus thought so. Thus, in his treatise titled “True Doctrine” (Hereafter: TD) he wrote with scorn of the Christians: “…some do not even want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as ‘Do not ask questions; just believe’, and ‘Thy faith will save thee’. [They say:] ‘The wisdom in the world is an evil, and foolishness a good thing.’“[1]


Against this Celsus put the True Doctrine, which he describes in the following manner: “There is an ancient doctrine which has existed from the beginning, which always has been maintained by the wisest nations and cities and wise men.” (CC I,14). To Celsus the True Doctrine equals the Ancient Doctrine.[2] This doctrine was present before both Jews and Christians, and may be found by means of reason, by philosophy.[3] Celsus points to “wise men and philosophers”[4] and “Hesiod and thousands of other inspired men”, men of antiquity whose opinions are well reasoned. If one would ask Celsus of the particular contents of these ancient doctrines, he would mostly point to Plato. However, the nature of God – and his relationship to the lesser gods, the socalled Daemons – was a prominent subject. We will return to this below. Carl Andresen sums up Celsus’ view of the true doctrine in this fashion: “Erkenntnis der religiösen Wahrheit ist nur für den möglich, der bereit ist, sich der Wegweisung alter Überlieferung zu beugen und ihr zu folgen.”[5]


It was Celsus’ sincere opinion that the Christian religion often was based upon borrowings from these ancient and true doctrines. But while borrowing, there was also misunderstandings, falsifications and corruptions.[6] In the Roman Empire, religion and society was closely intertwined. Thus Celsus finds that Christians deteriorating ancient doctrines are a threat to the society[7], both by their rejection of the ancient gods and the cult of the emperor, but also by their non-participation in military service.[8] Celsus fears the result if the Christian ideas prevail over against the ancient doctrines: The emperor would be abandoned, and “earthly things would come into the power of the most lawless and savage barbarians.” (CC VIII,68)

Writing about seventy years later[9] than Celsus, Origen[10] presents an eight-volume refutation of Celsus, aptly titled ”Against Celsus” (CC). It was a landmark in the intellectual struggle between Christianity and greco-roman paganism in the early church, perhaps only later surpassed by Augustine’s City of God. One of the main strenghts of Origen’s treatise is its thoroughness – a thoroughness responsible for the encompassing of large portions[11] of Celsus’ treatise.


After this brief introduction, we may turn to the particular subject of this essay: The identity of Celsus, examined from a particular viewpoint, namely the possible point of convergence between the “Celsus” described in the three following sources:   Origen’s Contra Celsum; Lucian of Samosata’s “Alexander the False Prophet”[12] and thirdly the “True doctrine”, given in Contra Celsum. All of these sources attest the existence of a Celsus, a philosopher flourishing in the second century. The question is: Do they attest one and the same person? The scholarly discussion has, as we shall see, especially centered around the philosophical profile of the Celsus of TD, as the two sources mentioned first quite certainly describe the same Celsus, an Epicurean, whereas the Celsus of TD bears the mark of a Platonist.


The essay will be built up as follows: First, we will examine Origen’s thoughts on the identity of the author of TD. Thereafter, an inquiry into Lucian’s Alex. will follow. Lucian dedicates his treatise to a certain Celsus, who presumably is an Epicurean. This last assumption will however be discussed, before we turn to the most relevant source, namely TD. We will then concentrate on the question of which philosophical school the author gives an impression of belonging to, if any. After this enquiry into the relevant sources, attention will be given to the able Celsus-scholar Theodor Keim and his reasonings on the question of the relationship of Lucian’s Celsus and the Celsus’ of TD. Throughout this paragraph judgments of his arguments will be given. Lastly, a discussion will be made, giving a conclusion based upon the findings of the essay. Quotes from Celsus will throughout the essay be given in italics, following Chadwick 1965.


Origen on Celsus

What may Origen tell us about Celsus? In the preface, we are told that Ambrose wanted Origen “to write an answer to Celsus’ false accusations in his book against the Christians and the faith of the churches.”[13] But it seems that Origen himself did not know much about Celsus. Writing in 248 AD[14], he is sure that Celsus “is no longer living the common life among men but has already been dead a long time.”[15] In ch. I,8 Celsus is described as an Epicurean, a fact revealed from his other writings. But Origen must assume that this is a philosophical identity Celsus is trying to hide in his argumentation, as the contents of TD itself do not bear the characteristics of Epicurean philosophy: “But I may prove that Celsus contradicts himself. For from other writings he is found to be an Epicurean. But here because he appears to have more reasonable grounds for criticizing Christianity if he does not confess the opinions of Epicurus, he pretends that there is something in man superior to his earthly part…” This sentiment of Origen that Celsus indeed is an Epicurean – though sometides concealed – is recurring in Contra Celsum.[16]


But Origen may also express doubts as to whether Celsus in fact was Epicurean.[17] For instance, in IV,36, one reads: “However, Celsus the Epicurean, if, at least, he is the one who also composed two other books against the Christians, is a more competent judge than Plato(…)”[18] In IV,52 Celsus paraphrases a part of the Timaeus, ch. 69, where it is said that God made nothing mortal. In reply of this, Origen says: “Let us briefly deal with this, and prove either that he is pretending not to hold his Epicurean opinion, or, as someone might say, that he has undergone a belated conversion for the better, or even, as might be said, that he is only a namesake for the Epicurean.”[19] Again, we see that the philosophy of Celsus expressed in TD raises doubts in Origen as to whether or not Celsus in fact was an Epicurean. In chapter V,3 Origen clearly states that Celsus “throughout all his treatise has not admitted that he is an Epicurean”. After this chapter Origen no more designates Celsus as an Epicurean, perhaps due to his referred doubt. However, Origen clearly recognizes Celsus’ affinities with Plato. We will return to this dilemma of Celsus’ Epicurean/Platonist identity below.


Assuming, anyway tentatively, that Celsus was an Epicurean, Origen says that he knows of two Epicureans by the name of Celsus, “the earlier one a contemporary of Nero, while the other lived in Hadrian’s time and later.”[20]If one of these should be the author of TD, it would have to be the second one. Nero was emperor of Rome 54-68 AD, and TD has several marks revealing that its composition must have been much later than that. It will perhaps suffice to quote CC III,36. There, Origen quotes Celsus as saying: “…the honour which we [i. e. Christians] give to Jesus is no different from that paid to Hadrian’s favourite” And Origen adds: “(that is to say, the boy Antinous)”. Hadrian was emperor of Rome from 117-138 AD, Antinous was drowned in the Nile in 130 AD, and after this Hadrian named a city after him, and he was even deified. So TD must have been written later than 130 AD.


Much more than this Origen really does not know about the identity of Celsus, apart from what he relates in I,68: “You see how by these words he gives his assent, as it were, to the reality of magic. I do not know whether he is the same as the man who wrote several books against magic.” The Roman doctor and philosopher Galen (130-200 AD) also mentions writing a letter to a “Celsus the Epicurean” who, he says, has written several books against magic.[21] And thirdly the Celsus that wrote books against magic is also mentioned in Lucian of Samosata’s “Alexander the lying prophet”.[22] Thus, we have three ancient sources referring to an Epicurean Celsus who wrote books against magic. This is undoubtedly the same man. In the next section we will have a closer look at what Lucian has to say of him. The objective will be to gather information so that we perhaps will be able to decide conclusively whether this Celsus is to be identified with the Celsus of the True Doctrine.


The Celsus mentioned by Lucian[23]

A prophet named Alexander was the founder of the cult of the New Asclepios Glykon.[24] This cult emerged in the city of Abonuteichos by the Black Sea some time between 140-145 AD and reached considerable popularity around the eastern part of the Mediterranean sea.[25] Victor Ulrich points out one of the keys to the success of the cult: “…die Theologie, die sich in diesen Mysterien ausdrückte, ein höchst überzeugendes und beeindruckendes Ganzes war, in dem die Zeitgenossen sowohl Antwort auf ihren Fragen als auch Hilfe bei ihren Sorgen fanden.”[26] But be that as it may, the cult died out some time in the first half of the third century.


The historian Lucian of Samosata (ca. 125 AD- after 180 AD) decided to write a criticism of Alexander and his oracle-cult.[27] Although written in a satirical form, Lucian wishes to fulfill the duty of a responsible ancient historian, namely by seeking the truth.[28] The treatise was written no earlier than 180 AD, as Lucian in ch. 48 says that Marcus Aurelius had died.[29] In the introduction we find that Lucian dedicates the work to a certain Celsus: “No doubt, my dear Celsus, you think it a slight and trivial matter to bid me set down in a book and send you the history of Alexander, the impostor of Abonoteichus, including all his clever schemes, bold emprises, and sleights of hand.” (Alex. 1). It is Celsus that has asked Lucian to write the treatise on Alexander, but his motives for asking are not transparent. Lucian addresses Celsus as “dear Celsus”[30], and the treatise as a whole is directed to him. In the introduction, Lucians says that Celsus may “fill in the gaps in my tale”, and that he may use the treatise to examine and “judge” Alexander and his cult. In the epilogue, ch. 61, Lucian also says that the treatise was written to “pleasure [Celsus] as and associate and friend”:


Lucian’s Celsus relationship to Epicureanism

It would seem that the Celsus to whom Lucian dedicates his work, is an Epicurean, or at least that he has Epicurean sympathies. This becomes clear for example in ch. 47: “One of Alexander’s acts in this connection was most comical. Hitting upon the ‘Established Beliefs’ of Epicurus, which is the finest of his books, as you know, and contains in summary the articles of the man’s philosophic creed(…)” (italics mine) Also, the epilogue, ch. 61, which will be given in full because of its relevance:


“This, my friend, is but a little out of a great deal; I have thought fit to set it down as a specimen, not only to pleasure you as an associate and friend whom above all others I hold in admiration for your wisdom, your love of truth, the gentleness and reasonableness of your ways, the peacefulness of your life, and your courtesy toward all whom you encounter, but mostly—and this will give greater pleasure to you also—to right the wrongs of Epicurus, a man truly saintly and divine in his nature, who alone truly discerned right ideals and handed them down, who proved himself the liberator of all who sought his converse. I think too that to its readers the writing will seem to have some usefulness, refuting as it does certain falsehoods and confirming certain truths in the minds of all men of sense.” (Alex. 61, italics mine).


However, in general the treatise says more of Lucian’s admiration of Epicurus than Celsus’.[31] Throughout the treatise the hostility between Alexander and the Epicureans is underscored. Epicurus and his followers are described as lovers of truth and haters of falsehood, and therefore they are deeply skeptical and even dismissive of Alexander’s cult.[32] Thus, ch. 25 reads: “(…)The followers of Plato and Chrysippus and Pythagoras were his friends, and there was profound peace with them; but ‘the impervious Epicurus’ —for that is what he called him—was rightly his bitter enemy, since he considered all that sort of thing a laughing-matter and a joke.”


After this short presentation of Lucian’s Celsus, the crucial question that needs to be addressed, is: Are Lucian’s Celsus and Origen’s Celsus the same person? To look for an answer, we will have to turn back again to TD and ask the following question: Does the Celsus speaking there show marks of being an Epicurean? At the outset this should certainly be expected if this Celsus is to be identified with the Celsus that Origen, Galen and Lucian know, as they all designate him as an Epicurean.


Is the Celsus of TD an Epicurean or a Platonist?[33]

The question posed in the heading is simple. But the answer to a certain extent has to be complex, as we shall see, not the least because Celsus does not display a clear-cut philosophical identity. This said, we may begin with the title “True Doctrine”.[34] In Chadwick’s words, the title “has a strongly platonic ring”.[35] Robert Bader finds that the “logos” of the title should not be translated “word”, but “doctrine”.[36] The implication is that there is one true doctrine, meaning that other doctrines – like the Christian – are wrong. Cfr. here especially I,14, quoted above in the introduction. Furthermore, the words of the title are almost certainly coined from Plato,[37] since the expression “true doctrine” plays an important role in his thought. As Andresen points out: “Er ist das Prinzip platonischer Dialektik oder wie Platon sagt, die Methode, ‘durch Fragen und Antworten’ die Einsicht aufleuchten zu lassen und von der vernunftmässigen Richtigkeit des Gedankens zu überzeugen.”[38]


 Above, we saw that Origen, at least in the first parts of his CC, was more or less convinced that Celsus was an Epicurean. But he could also express doubts about it, especially because he recognized that Celsus’ argumentation tended to be Platonist. Thus he says in IV,84 that Celsus “in many points likes to follow Plato.” Cfr. also VI,47 where Origen says that Celsus often mentions Plato with respect. The fact that Origen here makes some significant observations, is confirmed by the majority of scholars who have studied Celsus. Basically they all agree that Celsus to a much larger degree deserves to be described as Platonist rather than Epicurean. More specifically: Celsus is deeply influenced by Middle Platonism.[39] The philosophers of Middle Platonism cover a timespan from about 50 BC until about 250 AD.[40] These philosophers held varying points of view on a number of subjects. What they had in common, was nevertheless affinities with different traits of Plato’s doctrines, and more specifically interest in the problems posed by Plato’s socalled “unwritten doctrines”. An example of such a problem is whether cosmos is created in time or atemporally. A spesific trait of Middle Platonism must also be mentioned here: It has a deeply religious character, as shown by Carl Andresen in his study of the philosophy of Celsus.[41]


Now, even if we may be sure that Celsus was influenced by Middle Platonism, we will still have to be cautious not to think that we have completely understood Celsus’ philosophy. Able scholars have focused on both Stoic and Epicurean thoughts of Celsus, and some have even proposed the designation “platonizing Epicurean” or “Epicureanizing Platonist”.[42] This said, let us turn to the True Doctrine itself, and quote some examples of Celsus’ Platonist philosophy. Following Carl Andresen, we will quote three particular places in the TD which in a clear manner betray Celsus’ school of philosophy.[43] We begin with CC VII,42, which is of particular relevance because of its clarity (Celsus’ words in italics):


“Then after this he refers us to Plato as a more effective teacher of the problems of theology, quoting his words from the Timaeus as follows: ‘Now to find the Maker and Father of this universe is difficult, and after finding him it is impossible to declare him to all men.’[44] Then he adds to this: You see how the way of truth is sought by seers and philosophers, and how Plato knew that it is impossible for all men to travel it. Since this is the reason why wise men have discovered it, that we might get some conception of the nameless First Being which manifests him either by synthesis with other things, or by analytical distinction from them, or by analogy, I would like to teach about that which is otherwise indescribable.”


Carl Andresen comments: “Die hier auftretenden drei Begriffe der ‘Synthesis’, der ‘Analysis’ und der ‘Analogia’ beweisen so eindeutig die Verwendung schulplatonischer Fachsprache, dass jeder Zweifel [von welcher Schule Kelsos zuhört] ausgeschlossen ist.”[45] This is all the more so when considering that Celsus here actually says that knowledge of God demands a peculiar philosophical schooling. Several scholars have noted the similarity of this passage with that of Albinus’ Epitome X,5-6.[46] In this passage, the philosopher Albinus elaborates on the three ways of knowing God in accord with Platonic principles and doctrines.


The next relevant passage from TD may be found in CC VI 52a: “But I say nothing now about the beginning and the destruction of the world, whether it was uncreated and indestructible, or created and destructible, or vice versa.” With this saying Celsus touches upon a very much discussed problem of Middle Platonism, namely the interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus concerning the relationship between eternity and the creation/temporality of the world.[47] From this chapter it seems that Celsus has not chosen a particular point of view in this debate. Another place Origen disputes this, however: “…Celsus agrees with those who say that the world is uncreated, although he hides his real intention. For in saying that there have been many conflagrations from all eternity and many floods, and that the deluge which lately happened in the time of Deucalion was the most recent, he clearly suggests to those able to understand him that he thinks the world is uncreated.” (CC I,19, cfr. IV,80). Origen of course builds this upon the words “from all eternity”.


The third instance of Celsus yielding his relations to a particular school of philosophy is also related to the subject of cosmology. In CC IV,52-65 the question of the origin of evil is discussed. We may begin by quoting Celsus from IV,65: “It is not easy for one who has not read philosophy to know what is the origin of evils; however, it is enough for the masses to be told that evils are not caused by God[48], but inhere in matter and dwell among mortals[49]; and the period of mortal life is similar from the beginning to end, and it is inevitable that according to the determined cycles the same things always have happened, are now happening, and will happen[50].” As Chadwick points out, and as noted in the references below, this condensed section yields three references to Plato, and it confirms important Platonic ideas, especially that of duality between spirit and matter.[51] Andresen discusses Celsus’ other instances of sayings about the creation/uncreation of the world and concludes that his philosophy on this particular point combines both Platonic and Stoic elements.[52]     


Although not revealing as clear a link to a particular school of philosophy as the above quotations, we may here also mention CC IV,14, which speaks of the nature of God. Here Celsus describes God as “good and beautiful and happy”, and rejects the notion that he could come down to men, since this act would imply a change in God, “from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked.” The Platonic ideas contained there are easily identifiable, cfr. Plato’s Rep 381b and Phaedrus 246D regarding God’s attributes and Politikos 269D and Phaedon 78C regarding his immutability. But one may also find stoic elements in Celsus’ understanding of God. This is especially evident in CC VI,65 and VII,68. In the first of these chapters we for instance find the famous stoic theological idea “…all things are derived from [God]”.


Celsus is, then, a Platonist and not an Epicurean philosopher. Celsus sees himself as a teacher of thoughts from the Platonic school of philosophy.[53] Thus he may say, in CC VI,7: “through ‘the use of questions and answers’ understanding illuminates those who follow [Plato’s] philosophy.[54] But Carl Andresen has pointed to an important distinction between Celsus and the contemporary Platonist philosophers in their judgment of Plato: “Für die zeitgenössischen Platoniker steht Platon als Höhepunkt und Ziel der philosophiegeschichtlichen Besinnung. Für Kelsos bedeutet der Meister nur einen, wenn auch bedeutsamen, Abschnitt aus der reichen Geschichte der Geistestradition.” This follows from the originality and open-mindedness with which Celsus can treat various philosophical ideas.


But more than this, it follows from his particular view of history. The perhaps foremost reason Celsus assigns for listening to Plato and his ideas is that he represents the wise and ancient doctrines of the Hellenists. Cfr. VI,3: “…ancient and wise men reveal their meaning to those able to understand it, and also that Plato the son of Ariston points out the truth about the highest good(…)[55] Still clearer is the very interesting section in CC VII,58. Celsus discusses the Christian’s opinion that one should not avenge oneself.[56] But this doctrine, he states, is “old stuff, and was better said before them.” He then goes on to quote Plato’s Crito 49b-e as a proof-text, after which he says: “This was the opinion of Plato. But these views were set forth still earlier by divinely inspired men.” Cfr. CC VI,10: “Plato is not arrogant, nor does he tell lies, asserting that he has found something new, or that he has come from heaven to proclaim it; but he confesses the source from which these doctrines come.


After this survey of Celsus’ thoughts and ideas within philosophy, one may ask: How come the learned Origen thinks that the author of TD is an Epicurean? Above we saw that Origen referred to Celsus’ other books, which are not extant to us. Henry Chadwick conjectures that the notion that Origen’s Celsus was an Epicurean has to do with the unfortunate connotations the designation bore at the time: “’Epicurean’ was then a term of abuse, like Fascist or Bolshevik now”.[57] But this may not count as more than a well-informed guess. Be that as it may, let us turn to the burning question: Knowing what we do of the Celsus of the TD, may we identify him with Lucian’s Celsus? To answer this question we will to turn to a man whose research into this question has been – and continues to be – deeply influential: Theodor Keim.[58]


The reasonings of Theodor Keim

Keim’s opinion is, in short, that the Celsus of Alex. is the same as the Celsus of TD: “Man muss fast blind sein, um in der Beschreibung des Charakterbildes des lucianischen Celsus nicht unsern Celsus wieder zu erkennen.”[59] I. e. there is only one Celsus, not two.[60] Before we go the the main points that Keim offers in support of this assertion,[61] it may be mentioned that some preliminary facts do speak in favour of the sentiment. If we are correct, the Celsus of the TD wrote at about 178 AD. Lucian’s Celsus flourished at about the same time.[62] They both knew the geographical areas of Greece, Syria and Egypt.[63] This would seem to speak in favour of Keim’s sentiment. Let us then turn to his main arguments.


First: Keim spends much effort in trying to convince the reader that Lucian and Celsus had differing opinions on Epicurus. He states that Lucian never really designates Celsus as an Epicurean. Moreover, he asserts that the plain fact of Celsus asking of Lucian’s opinion on Alexander is an attestation of the differing philosophical viewpoints. Also, the fact that Lucian says that Celsus approves of Epicurus (Ch. 61) should not really count as an approving, but rather as Lucian’s way of trying to get Celsus over to his way of thinking. His conclusion is that Lucian’s Celsus “selbst immer noch in die Klasse der frommen Platoniker, Stoiker, Pythagoreer gehörte.”[64] In my opinion the reasoning of this whole paragraph is thin indeed. In the quoted passages above, we saw that what Lucian plainly states, is that Celsus is sympathetic of Epicurus. Moreover, the impression given in the treatise is of a warm friendship between Lucian and Celsus, both personally and intellectually. It is hard to escape the impression that Keim here is involved in a circular line of reasoning: He assumes that the Platonic Celsus of the TD (see below) is Lucian’s Celsus and tries to get the evidence to fit accordingly.    


Above, we saw that Alexander had two main enemies: Epicureans and Christians. However, Alexander seemed to get along fine with Platonists. This perhaps implies a critique, by Lucian, of this group. But if there is only one Celsus and not two, this critique seems a bit awkward considering the Platonic ring of Celsus’ theology in TD. But Keim counters this objection by pointing out that followers of Plato very well could be divided in their stance towards prophets like Alexander. Celsus, then, was critical of Alexander, but he still shared basic theological and philosophical viewpoints with the more favourable Platonists from Abonuteichos. However one must recognize that this hypothesis merely assumes what is possible, lacking evidence that the hypothesis in fact is true.


Secondly, Keim finds that the Celsus of TD, though undoubtedly Platonic, still could pick up thoughts and doctrines from other philosophers wherever he found it adequate. He could also – perhaps silently – approve of Epicurus whenever useful. For support of this sentiment, Keim points to CC IV,36. There, Celsus attacks the Jews’ notions of the creation of man by pointing to their dependence on “Hesiod and thousands of other inspired men.” In the same chapter Origen counters by pointing to the absurdities of much that is told by the same men, absurdities that even Plato rejected. Keim concludes by pointing out that both the Celsus of Alex. and TD showed a large degree of freedom to their philosophical school, and therefore the difference between Lucian’s Epicurean and Origen’s Platonic should not be overemphasized. To this, we may comment: The “freedom from philosophical school” to a certain degree seems a warranted conclusion regarding Origen’s Celsus. But the same conclusion  cannot be transferred responsibly to Lucian’s Celsus, because in that instance we simply lack the evidence. Again, Keim runs into the danger of circular argumentation.


Thirdly, Keim points to numerous points of similarity between Origen’s and Lucian’s Celsus. The epilogue of Alex. (see quote above) describes Celsus in very positive terms, acknowledging in particular his love for truth, his wisdom and his nobleness. This fits in well with the title “True doctrine”. Keim also summons examples from the treatise itself to show that nobleness was one of the driving forces in the writing of it.[65] Also, Celsus shows traits of knowledge and healthy virtues. And his mocking and ridicule of Christians may be compared with the style of Lucian.[66] Furthermore, the Celsuses are in accord in their refutation of religious impostors [Goeten], Keim says.This is absolutely a point worthy of consideration. The agreement between Lucian and his Celsus is evident in Alex. 21, where Lucian describes various “tricks” Alexander uses, in particular ways of opening sealed letter without making the letter seem opened. Lucian says in the passing: “Hear then, how you may reveal stuff like this.”[67] Now, from this sentence Keim concludes that Alex. is written with the objective of providing Celsus with tools for the refutation and revealing of such people. But this seems a too wide-reaching conclusion[68] (especially bearing in mind that Keim a few pages earlier claimed that Celsus and Lucian had very different opinions of Alexander.)[69] As discussed above, it is hard to know the exact motivation of Celsus in asking Lucian to write the treatise on Alexander, even if they are in general agreement concerning him.


Both Lucian and his Celsus were interested in the unmasking of religious impostors, that much is certain. And this certainly applies also to the Celsus of the TD[70]. In particular he seems to have had a keen interest in prophecy. The interest of prophets in TD comes to expression in ch. VII,9-12 of CC. Among other things, Celsus there claims to have a first-hand knowledge of prophetic utterances, and he has even cross-examined the alleged prophets and found them to be frauds. This would seem to fit in well with Celsus asking Lucian to write a treatise on the prophet Alexander. Above we mentioned that it seems likely that the Celsus of the TD and Lucian lived approximately at the same time. It would then seem likely, as Keim proposes, that they must have had interest for eachother’s works. This is even more so keeping in mind that Lucian also previously had displayed an interest in criticizing and mocking Christians, cfr. “The death of Peregrinus”, quoted above. Keim defends the hypothesis that the Celsus of the TD actually has been influenced by Lucian’s polemic, particularly with respect to the critique of the Christian notion of the resurrection, the Christians’ despising of death and their perverse faith. Keim is aware that these might be characterized as general elements in Roman-Greek polemics against Christianity. But a clear indication of dependence between the two authors may still be found, says Keim, in their involving of Egyptian worship in their reasoning.


In his tract “On images”, written 162 AD, Lucian praises the beautiful and wise wife of the emperor Lucius Verus[71], Panthea. But he also speaks of witless and dull women: “…the same creatures come to mind, as the Egyptian temples. The building itself is large and beautiful, clothed with the most expensive rocks, and decorated with golden ornaments and the most beautiful paintings on the walls. But if you go inside and search for the picture of the divine, it is a monkey, an ibis, a horse or a cat!”[72]

Similarly, Celsus says in CC III,17: “Confronting the man who approaches their shrines the Egyptians have magnificent precincts, a sacred close, a fine great entrance, wonderful temples, splendid tents all around, and very superstitious and mysterious rites. But when he enters and goes inside he sees a cat being worshipped, or a monkey, or a crocodile, or a goat, or a dog.” Is this proof that Origen’s Celsus is influenced by Lucian? Or could it perhaps be that they both are drawing upon imagery common in Greek-Roman religious polemics? Keim of course favours the first explanation, and he supports this by pointing to the fact that Lucian gives an impression of originality in his use of the image. If he is right, the conclusion that Origen’s Celsus is fact Lucian’s beloved friend, seems closer.


The opinion of Henry Chadwick[73]

Is then the question of the authorship settled? Is Lucian’s Celsus to identify with the author of the True Doctrine? Keim thinks so. Henry Chadwick disagrees, and summons his points of doubt against Keim’s arguments. We will very briefly recount them here. Chadwick’s major objection towards Keim is the fact that “it is perfectly clear from almost every page of the Contra Celsum that Celsus is far from being in any sense an Epicurean. His philosophy is that of Middle Platonism, and with Epicureanism he betrays no affinities at all.” Chadwick goes on to recount Keim’s array of argument presented in the section above. But he presents two considerations against them. First, he notes – as we have also done above – that interpreting Alex. naturally, the Celsus described there seems Epicurean. Secondly Chadwick again stresses that one does not find an Epicurean Celsus in TD. “It is, accordingly, inconceivable that he can be identified with a well-known Epicurean.”[74] He points to the relevant, but perhaps much overlooked, fact put forward by Keim himself: that Celsus was an exceedingly usual name in the Roman empire in the second and third century, even within different classes of the population.[75]



This essay has dealt with Celsus, the second century philosopher writing pro the ancient (Platonist) philosophical tradition and contra Jews and Christians. It has been shown that three sources possibly attest this Celsus: Origen’s opinions in Contra Celsum, Galen’s letter and Lucian’s treatise on Alexander the prophet. Furthermore, it has clearly been shown that whereas these three sources attest a Celsus with affinities to Epicureanism, the Celsus of the True Doctrine is heavily influenced by Middle Platonism. The question of whether we are dealing with the same person in all of these sources, is a difficult and complicated one. Theodor Keim strongly favoured the conclusion that we are dealing with the same person. Henry Chadwick, among others, has contested this sentiment. The question remains unsettled, at least definitely, though in my opinion Chadwick has the strongest case.    



CC – Origen’s Contra Celsum

Alex. – Lucian of Samosata’s Alexander the lying prophet.



– Andresen, Carl Logos 1955 Logos und Nomos. Die Polemik des Kelsos wider das Christentum Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte.

– Bader, Robert 1940 Der Alethes Logos des Kelsos Stuttgart-Berlin: Verlag von W. Kohlhammer.

– Chadwick, Henry 1965 (transl. and introd.) Origen: Contra Celsum Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– Dillon, John, M. 1977 The Middle Platonists Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

– Frend, W. H. C. 1965 Martyrdom and persecution in the early church. A study of a conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford: Blackwell.

– Hoffmann, Joseph R. (transl. and introd.) 1987 Celsus. On the True Doctrine. A discourse against the Christians New York: Oxford University Press.

– Keim, Theodor 1969 (1873) (transl. and introd.) Wahres Wort Darmstadt: Scientia Verlag Aalen.

– Rosenbaum, H. U. 1972 “Zur Datierung von Celsus’ Alethes Logos” in Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 26, p. 102-111.

– Trigg, Joseph W. 1998 Origen London: Routledge.

– Victor, Ulrich (transl. and introd.) Alexandros oder der Lügenprophet/ Lukian von Samosata. Eingeleitet, herausgegeben, übersetzt und erklärt von Ulrich Victor. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world vol. 132. Leiden: Brill. 




[1] CC I,9. The sentiment that Christianity attracts only fools, wretches, sinners, uneducated people etc. is recurring in TD, cfr. CC I,27; III,44. 50. 55. 59. 74. 75; VI,13-14.

[2] A brilliant introduction to Celsus’ understanding of “Logos” is given in Andresen 1955:108-145. A particularly important piece of evidence that Celsus equals the true logos with the ancient logos is found in his use of Plato’s Timaeus 20-23, cfr. CC I,19. 20; IV,79b. In this section of Timaeus we hear of the wise Athenian Solon who visited Egypt. He conversed with some of the Egyptian priests on the subject of antiquity, and told them what he knew of ancient genealogies, stories, events etc. But the priests were not impressed: “O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age.” The Egyptian priests explained this by the catastrophes of fire and water that regularly hit the country of the Athenians, killing most people carrying the ancient knowledge. But the Egyptians were protected from these catastrophes by the Nile, thus preserving the ancient knowledge.

[3] Cfr. CC 1,9.

[4] CC VII,41.

[5] Andresen 1955:137.

[6] Cfr. CC I,4 (ethical teachings); III,16 (judgment and hell); VI,18-20 (God is in Heaven). 21-22 (the seven heavens). 42-43 (Satan). 47 (The title ‘Son of God’). 71 (God as spirit); VII,28 (heaven). 58 (exhortations not to avenge oneself). 62 (refusal to tolerate images) for particular examples of presumed borrowing from various sources. Actually the general theme of what Celsus says in CC V,65b-VII,58 is Christianity’s dependence upon greek thought. Hence, this section is ended by the following: “But what I have said on this point may be a sufficient example for all the other doctrines which they corrupt. And anyone who wishes to find further instances of this will recognize them.” For more on this general subject, see chapter II,2 titled “Die Depravationstheorie” in Andresen 1955:146-166.

[7] Celsus accuses Christians of breaking the Empire’s laws condemning secret societies, and this they do “to escape the death penalty that hangs over them (CC I,1 and 3). On the subject of persecution in the early church, see Frend 1965.

[8] CC VIII,69.

[9] The question of the date of TD is disputed. I follow Chadwick 1965:xxvi-xxix in dating the treatise to some time between 177-180 AD. (For an earlier dating, see Rosenbaum 1972). I also follow Chadwick 1965:xiv-xv in dating CC to 248 AD.

[10] For an introduction to the church father Origen, see Trigg 1987:1-67.

[11] How much of the treatise is repoduced by Origen in his CC? The question is discussed by Bader 1940:10-24. Although one may say with certainty that the complete treatise is not reproduced, one may safely assume that most parts of it are. Perhaps 70% is a plausible estimate. Cfr. also Chadwick 1965:xxii-xxiv.

[12] For introductory issues and translation, see Victor 1997.

[13] CC Praef. 1.

[14] Cfr. Chadwick 1965:xiv-xv. He mentions that Harnack was hesitant of setting the date so exactly, and instead would leave the space between 246 and 248 open.

[15] CC Praef. 4.

[16] CC II,60; III,35. 80; IV,4. 75. 86; V,3. I believe Bader 1940:3 is right to state that “Die Heftigkeit des Origenes ist dadurch zu erklären, dass er sich eben seiner Sache nicht sicher ist und nur eine Vermutung ausspricht, die er bestätigt wissen will.”

[17] CC III,49.

[18] Which two books are Origen referring to? Sadly, we do not know, though in the last chapter of CC, Celsus says that he wanted to compose another treatise concerning “the right way to live.” CC VIII,76.

[19] CC IV,54.

[20] CC I,8.

[21] See reference in Hoffmann 1987:30.

[22] Cfr. Alex 21: “…in the book which you wrote against the sorcerers, a very good and useful treatise, capable of preserving common-sense in its readers, you cited instances [of trickery] enough, and indeed a great many more than I have.”

[23] For what follows, see Victor 1997:1-8. The English translation is from Loeb Classical library, translated by A. M. Harmon.

[24] Cfr. Alex. 43: “I want to include in my tale a dialogue between Glycon and one Sacerdos, a man of Tius, whose intelligence you will be able to appraise from his questions. I read the conversation in an inscription in letters of gold, at Tius, in the house of Sacerdos. “Tell me, Master Glycon,” said he, “who are you?” “I am the latter-day Asclepius,” he replied. “A different person from the one of former times? What do you mean?” “It is not permitted you to hear that.” The cult of Asclepios was originally occupied with healings. This new cult was rather an oracle-cult, giving answers to different people’s questions.

[25] See for example Alex. 2, where Lucian says that Alexander “das gesamte Römische Reich mit seinen Plünderungen heimsuchte.” The fact is also interestingly attested by the archeological findings of coins with the impression of Glykon in the form of a snake. See pictures in Victor 1997:182-184.

[26] Ulrich 1997:6. See further presentation of the theology of the cult in ch. IV, p. 38-52.

[27] Interestingly, the criticism is exclusively directed towards these objects, not towards Asclepius, oracles, the dogma of reincarnation, the Olympian gods etc. Victor 1997:26.

[28] This point is laid out in full in Victor 1997:8-26.

[29] Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161-180 AD.  

[30] Alex. 1; 17 and 21.

[31] Epicurus or Epicureans are also mentioned in Alex. 17; 25; 38; 44-47 and 61. 

[32] According to Lucian this is something they have in common with a certain other group, namely Christians! Cfr. Alex. 25 and 38. In the last of these chapter we read that when Alexander prepared a ceremony, he lead the crowd in shouting “Out with the Christians!”

[33] With this paragraph we are moving into a philosophical territory that I do not know very well. Therefore the reasoning will primarily be based on secondary literature.

[34] Greek: Alethes Logos. The title is witnessed by Origen several times: Praef. 4; I,17. 40; II,1. 47; III,1; IV,47. 62; VI,50. 74; VIII,1. 76. Sometimes he also makes a play with the title: IV,25. 84; VII,68. Cfr. Bader 1940:1 n. 4.

[35] Chadwick 1965:xxi.

[36] He bases this opinion among other things on the fact that Celsus numerous times speaks of the concept of “doctrine” in his treatise, cfr. I,14a. 14c. 21; III,16b. 73b; V,65a. 65b; VI,22.  

[37] The exact words are found in the seventh Epistle of Plato, ch. 342a, a section that is actually also quoted by Celsus in CC VI,9. Andresen, following Albert Wifstrand, disputes that this is the exact source of the words. Andresen 1955:109. Another possible influence is Meno, 81a, cfr. Chadwick 1965:xxi.

[38] Andresen 1955:110, quoting Plato’s Epist. VII 344B, cfr. Phaedrus 274Bff.

[39] Cfr. Andresen 1955:3.

[40] Cfr. the article “Middle Platonism” in “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy”,, quoted 2. Dec. 2008. There it is stated that middle Platonism begins with Antiochus of Ascalon (ca. 130-68 BC), the head of the Academy of Athens from 79-78 BC, and ends with Plotinus (204-270 AD). For what follows, see this article. A more thorough introduction is given in Dillon 1977.

[41] Andresen 1955:239-307.

[42] See references of research in Andresen 1955:1-4.

[43] Andresen 1955:292-307.

[44] Timaeus 28 C.

[45] Andresen 1955:293.

[46] Albinus was a Platonist philosopher of Smyrna, flourishing about 150 AD.Cfr. Andresen 1955: 293 n.2 for references. 

[47] The question of the creation/non-creation of the world was the centre of a controversy in the school of middle Platonism. See Andresen 1955:276-291.

[48] Plato’s The Republic 379c.

[49] Plato’s Theaetetus 176a.

[50] Plato’s Politicus 269c-270a.

[51] Especially discussed in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. The Platonic dualism of being and becoming – cfr. The Republic 534A and Timaeus 29A – is also accepted by Celsus, in CC VII,45.

[52] Andresen 1955:79-89.

[53] Cfr. Andresen 1955:297. This also comes to expression in CC VII,42. There Celsus says that he would be amazed if the Christians were able to follow what he has to say about the ways of aquiring knowledge of God, as they are “completely bound to the flesh and see nothing pure.” This saying reflects a prevailing view among the middle Platonists: The right and pure attitude is needed when reading Plato’s dialogues if one wants to understand them correctly. Cfr. Albinos’ Isag., ch. 5-6 and Diogenes Laërtius III,57.  

[54] Cfr. Plato’s seventh epistle, 344B.

[55] See discussion of Celsus judgment of Plato as ancient in Andresen 1955:126-131.

[56] Matthew 5,38-41.

[57] Chadwick 1965:xxvi, quoting W. R. Inge.

[58] Keim 1969:275-293.

[59] Keim 1969:287.

[60] Keim points to the relevant fact that both Lucian’s and the Celsus of TD only go by the name of “Celsus”, they have no further designating name. This is an argument in favour of the opinion that there in fact was only one Celsus, because if there were two with similar interests, living in approximately the same area, with the same interests, how could they be separated without different names? Keim 1969:291. To this, one may object that Lucian’s Celsus perhaps in fact has a designation, namely “the Epicurean”.

[61] Keim 1969:283-293.

[62] Alex. was written some time after 180. Before this, the Celsus mentioned had written books on magic.

[63] Keim 1969:291.

[64] Keim 1969:285.

[65] Keim mentions CC IV,6 (Celsus criticizes the Christian God for his supposed motives and ambitions in making himself known so late and so suddenly, also criticizes dependence on wealth), CC IV,36 (All Celsus does here, is compare the Christian reverence for Jesus with Hadrian’s reverence for Antinous) CC VIII,68 (Celsus urges the Christians to respect Homer’s doctrine of the one king – if they do not, they put the empire in peril).

[66] In Alex. Lucian is speaking rather respectively of Christians. Other places he does not, the most relevant example worth mentioning being “The death of Peregrinus”: “It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine.   And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He inter preted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.” (Ch. 11). Peregrinus burned himself to death at the last night of the Olympic games in 165 AD, cfr. ch. 35. Lucian’s treatise was perhaps written a short time after this. The Christians philosopher Athenagoras relates, in the 26. chapter of his “Plea for the Christians”, that a statue of Peregrinus later was raised, and that it was believed to utter oracles.

[67] ”Höre also, wie du derartiges aufdecken kann.”

[68] This one sentence may also refer to TD, Keim proposes, making it less surprising that Lucian does not specifically mention TD in Alex. Keim 1969:288, n. 2.

[69] Keim 1969:284. The evidence for this presumed difference of opinion is in my opinion very meagre. In Alex. 2, Lucian says that Celsus deems Alexander worthy of a whole treatise, whereas Lucian himself does not. But the fact that Celsus deems Alexander worthy of a treatise really does not say much about his general opinion of him.

[70] According to Keim 1969:288 the unmasking of religious impostors was ”…recht eigentlich sein Lebenswerk.”

[71] Lucius Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius 161-169 AD.

[72] Ch. 11, quoted in Keim 1969:290.

[73] Chadwick 1965:xxiv-xxix.

[74] Chadwick 1965:xxvi.

[75] See references in Keim 1969:275-276. Keim finds the fact that both the Celsus of TD and Lucian’s Celsus lack an extra name of designation counts in favour the hypothesis that there is only one Celsus, not two. However, perhaps Lucian’s Celsus actually had something coming close to an extra designation, namely “the Epicurean”.


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