by Robert Hamilton
Early AD Graeco-Roman Intellectuals versus the Christians
Ancient sources for the attack of second and third century Graeco-Roman intellectuals on Christianity are, in the main, only extant through the works of Christian writers. Analysing the grounds for their polemics and the Christian response must be seen in light of this fact. Second century intellectual Celsus’ work, True Doctrine, as seen through Christian apologist Origen’s Contra Celsus stands out, as it contains the most cogent and systematic case against the Christians. Celsus’ familiarity with the Christian scriptures and their origin allows him to target a variety of salient arguments, both theologically and historically, in his critical assessment of Christianity. Celsus retains a strong political awareness of the dangers of this new religion to the Empire, which is not traditionally aligned with any race or territory. Celsus discredits Christianity’s claim to Jewish roots.
Examination of the language and concepts employed by both Graeco-Roman pagan intellectuals and the Christian apologists sees a shared provenance in the ideas of Plato. This makes sense when consideration of the fact, that many of the Christian writers were educated in the Graeco-Roman schools of philosophy before converting to Christianity, is taken into account. Neo-Platonism is developing at this time through the ideas of intellectuals like Plotinus and Porphyry. The zeitgeist of the age is turning away from the old pagan stories of the Gods and Christianity is presenting fresh new conceptions. Syncretism is occurring between the metaphysical ideas of Neo-Platonism and nascent Christianity; Christianity subsumes these concepts through the writings of Athenagoras, Origen and others of a similar ilk.
Christian apologists ridiculed belief in the Greek Gods and condemned the barbarity of animal sacrifice. They question the pax deorum foundations upon which they are being persecuted by the Roman state. Martyrdom becomes an unquenchable fire, inspiring the populace and leading to conversions by Graeco-Roman intellectuals who admire the passion of their convictions. Christianity develops an intellectually recognisable philosophy in these centuries through their literary debates with the pagan intellectuals of the time. The Christians prevail through the ultimate conversions of Constantine and Theodosius; and ban and burn pagan books. Great thinkers were present on both sides of the religious divide but only Christianity had the momentum of a new age.
An important consideration, when examining the grounds for the anti-Christian polemic unleashed by second and third century Graeco-Roman intellectuals, is that much of the surviving literature is only extant through ancient Christian sources; history is, indeed, written by the victors. The surviving work of the second century intellectual Celsus is framed by the response of the third century Christian writer Origen; which means that we only have Origen’s interpretation of Celsus’s original work, True Doctrine, within his own treatise, Contra Celsus. Timothy Barnes mentions that Carl Andresen showed in 1955, that Origen omitted sections of Celsus’ work. Similarly, the anti-Christian writing’s of third century Graeco-Roman intellectual, Porphyry, survives in fragments included in refutations by Christian apologists such as Eusebius, Methodius, Apollinaris and Jerome. Porphyry’s Against Christianity survives, in some form, in fifty three fragments preserved, or rewritten, by fourth century writer Macarius Magnes. Clarity on this issue of possibly contaminated source material allows this analysis to proceed with due caution.
Chronologically, Celsus was the “first pagan intellectual to set out to write a whole treatise against Christianity”, according to Michael Frede. True Doctrine was written around AD 170 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The fact that Origen in AD 248, some seventy years later, chose to address his apologia directly to Celsus by titling his work, Contra Celsus, is testament to the status of True Doctrine within the intellectual circles of the Empire. Celsus attacked Christianity on a number of fronts, on theological grounds, and also on its historically unverifiable nature. Theologically he challenged the Christian claims that God transformed himself into a human being, Jesus, and lived life as a man. For Celsus God was a pure, non immanent entity in the Platonic tradition and was above the day to day concerns of humanity. He questioned further, why it was only at this point in time that God chose to manifest in human form and posited, did not God care about all the preceding generations of humanity? A second theological criticism provided by Celsus concerned the idea of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, as he found this a shameful conception against the very nature of existence.
Celsus, at this time, was one of the first Graeco-Roman intellectuals to study the Christian scriptures, he was familiar with the gospels and used this familiarity to attack Christian thought. Celsus would identify sayings of Jesus, which were in his view, borrowed from Platonic doctrine. Previous to his treatise Graeco-Roman commentators had mainly criticised the behaviour of Christians. Lucian of Samosata (AD 125-180), a satirical writer, made sport of Christians in his work, The Death of Peregrine, presenting them as “credulous simpletons”. Jesus was nothing more than a clever magician, manipulating his followers, according to Celsus, from his reading of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospels. It was those miraculous stories about Jesus, which were capturing the popular attention of the vulgar masses. Celsus recognised this and portrayed Jesus as a manipulator of demons who had learnt these tricks in Egypt. Christians were gullible and incredulous; the gospels stressed belief over reason. This then led him to question the divine status accorded to Jesus by Christians and to take a monotheistic position on the one true God. Celsus criticised Christians for placing Jesus on par with God and worshipping multiple deities – Origen would answer this by stating that Jesus was subordinate to God.
This issue, of a shared conception of a divine monotheism between (Neo) Platonists and Christians, emerges in an examination of the arguments between their leading intellectuals; and I consider it an example of the zeitgeist of the times. David Rokeah sees a “philosophical syncretism” involving Platonic principles between pagan and Christian intellectuals in the third century. Plato, the father of Greek philosophy, clearly had a belief in a divinity and theology was a developing part of his philosophy. Plotinus and Porphyry, third century Graeco-Roman philosophers, continued this religious rationalism in their explanations of the metaphysical universe. Celsus saw Zeus, or Jupiter, as the king of the Gods and the lesser deities as daemons, he argued, that the Christian position on not worshipping false idols was ridiculous; and should be seen as irrelevant to a belief in a supreme God. The position of Celsus, and those Neo-Platonic intellectuals who came after him, was founded on the concept of the logos – an understanding of the divine order of knowledge. God the father was the source of this divine knowledge, and the Neo-Platonists plotted a mystical return to the father through a process of enlightenment to divine status.
Similarities exist in the language and concepts employed by both the pagan polemicists and Christian apologists, and that is in large part because Christian writers like Origen were educated by Graeco-Roman philosophers; by Ammonius Saccas in Origen’s case; who later taught Plotinus. E.R. Dodds makes the point that the Christian apologists were “writing to the world of educated pagans” and that, “both Christian and pagan philosophy were in a continuous process of change and development throughout the period”. It is important to remember that philosophers were, in general, “a minority of educated upper class elites”, and although influential with some Emperors, like Gallienus, not with the masses. Educated Christians sought intellectual credibility for their religious beliefs through literary debate with the Graeco-Roman intellectuals, and were, in effect, inventing their philosophy at this point in history; the content of the Christian gospels were in flux and there was no fixed religious canon at this time.
Celsus was motivated to write his True Doctrine in support of the political “institutions of the Graeco –Roman world” and charged the Christians with sedition. Celsus accuses the Christian scriptures of saying that, “it is impossible to serve many masters”, and therefore undermining the Empire. This was a popular accusation to level against the Christians by both the state authorities and the intellectuals during the second and third centuries. Christians were not enlisting in the Roman army in the second century, and according to Warren Hovland, “there are no graves of Christian soldiers that can be dated before AD 180”. Celsus urged Christians to enlist in the army and contribute to civil service within the Empire. Second century Christian writer Felix Minucius echoes the common pagan misapprehension that Christians have, “no capacity for understanding civil matters”. Celsus, it has been opined, recognised Christianity as a counter culture movement and a danger to the establishment status quo. The pagan intellectuals were conservatively aligned with the established order of the Empire.
Celsus sought to discredit the Christian religion by thoroughly examining its roots in Judaism and its failure to honour the traditions of Jewish law. Celsus, in the style of the Platonic dialogues, has a fictional Jewish character conversing with Jesus and challenging him on the veracity of his background and his miraculous acts. Celsus devotes several books to the Jewish antecedents of Christianity portraying them as a barbarous people with a vulgar religion. Despite this, he understands the importance of an ancient tradition to the credibility of this new offshoot Christianity; and charges Christianity as an apostasy from Judaism.
Plotinus (AD 204-270) wrote the Enneads, which was compiled by his student Porphyry in the third century; who would also publish his own work, Against the Christians in AD 270. Plotinus would become the most influential Neo-Platonic philosopher of his time, influencing the Emperor Gallienus. These minds carved out new conceptions of the metaphysical cosmos and their ideas lived on through the Christian writers who subsumed their work. Porphyry was concerned with the salvation of the soul – a return to God the father – concepts now essential to the Christian logos. Christianity would prevail over paganism in this agon but it would also steal, without acknowledgement, the heart out of Neo-Platonism. The Emperor Theodosius who ruled from AD 379 to 395, outlawed paganism in 391, and this led to the destruction of pagan books throughout the Empire; the Library of Alexandria may have been destroyed as a result of this edict. Thus the only remaining evidence of anti-Christian polemics would exist within the Christian apologetics themselves.
How then did the Christians respond to the attacks upon their scriptures, religion and behaviour? Justin Martyr’s writings (AD 150-160) preceded Celsus’ True Doctrine by some two decades and he is considered one of the first Christian apologists. Justin was also a Platonist, before being inspired by the Christian martyrs and converting to Christianity. His First Apology, dedicated to Emperor Antoninius, covers persecutions against Christians and a thorough description of their beliefs and practices. Tertullian (AD 160-220), Bishop of Carthage, charged, when dispelling false rumours about barbarous Christian practices, that “children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius” In answer to the Christian failure to sacrifice to the Roman Gods Tertullian denies their divinity and claims that they were only men, unlike the one true God of the Christians. Tertullian exhibits his excellent Graeco-Roman education in his writing by referencing the greats of their cultures, like Demosthenes, Cato and Scipio, turning them to his rhetorical advantage. Eric Osborne states that, “Christian philosophy begins here in the second century”, through the arguments of these Christian apologists.
Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around AD 175 to 185, produced the Against Heresies books, which are an example of the syncretism occurring during the second and third centuries. Irenaeus is exposing the metaphysical ideas of Valentinus (AD 100-160), who is classified as a Gnostic. Karen King tells us in, What is Gnosticism, that “Gnosticism has been constructed largely as the heretical other in relation to diverse and fluctuating understandings of orthodox Christianity” The blending of Pythagorean and NeoPlatonic concepts, under a Christian frame, are in evidence here; and confer the eruption of ideas occurring at this time. Works such as this illustrate the fact that there was no one Christian theology pitted against the polemics of the conservatively aligned Graeco-Roman writers; that would come later.
Tatian (AD 120-180) was an Assyrian Christian theologian, who in his, Address to the Greeks, challenged the intellectual status of Greek philosophers like Diogenes, Plato and Aristotle; accusing them of a range of personal failings. Tatian portrays the Greek Gods as demons and their rites as impious falsehoods. Tatian’s ridiculing of Greek culture and knowledge is a direct attack, or counter attack, upon those, like Celsus, who have ‘thrown the first stone’. Aristides of Athens was a second century philosopher who converted to Christianity and is the author of the Apology of Aristides. Writing at the time of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), Aristides also declares the Gods of the Greeks to be fictions. There is a theme among these Christian writers, which sets out to deconstruct Greek theology and degrade the practice of sacrifice. Athenagoras of Athens’ writings (AD 175-180) refute the allegations that Christians were atheists, levelled at them by Celsus and others. Athenagoras, having been a philosopher before his conversion to Christianity, does not ridicule the greats of Greek philosophy; rather, he invokes Plato and Aristotle to confirm the true monotheistic state of the universe. You can see the minds of these intellectuals at work in their writing, recreating the metaphysical reality in accord with their own knowledge and inspired by this new religious movement – Christianity. It was a break with the myths of the pagan past and an opportunity to refashion the conceptual reality of the universe.
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) in his, Exhortation to the Heathen, is definitely working with the power of stories, reframing archetypal myths, both Greek and barbarian, to get his readers to see them as childish and incredulous. He portrays the Christian stories as, conversely, sophisticated and “the gates of the Word being intellectual”. The call to have faith, to believe, is echoed throughout Clement’s writing. Clement calls Christianity the “New Song” and this clearly sets it against Celsus’ belief in the righteousness of tradition. Christians were criticised for not being culturally, from somewhere or of a particular race of people, they were a non-parochial creed; and this was a new religious phenomenon. Tertullian would proudly write, “Christians are made not born”, in his Apologeticum. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote his Ad Demetrian prior to AD 250, and answered the criticisms of Demetrian, who blamed all the Empire’s calamities on the Christians, explaining that it is rather the natural cycle of life for things to rise and fall; meaning, presumably, the Roman Empire.
In AD 258 Cyprian was martyred and the impact of these public figures dying for their passionate belief in Christianity cannot be overestimated, as they were instrumental in many conversions. Montanus a late second century Christian prophet in Phrygia, and influential figure in Tertullian’s life, was alleged to have said, “Desire not to die in bed, in miscarriages, or soft fevers but in martyrdom, to glorify Him who suffered for you”. Martyrdom became a de facto policy of non-cooperation by Christians in the face of persecution by the state. Clement, Cyprian and Origen did attempt to discourage martyrdom, which was not as a direct result of persecution by the Roman authorities. Origen Adamantius (AD 182 – 254) was perhaps the most brilliant scholar from among the Christian apologists and one of the most prolific; with Epiphanius attributing six thousand works to him. Origen was often the source for Eusebius in his Ecumenical Histories, and their knowledge was influential in the identification of the texts which were accepted into the New Testament.
In summing up this examination, upon the grounds of attack by Graeco-Roman intellectuals on Christianity and the response of the Christians to them, the ancient sources are decidedly Christian in origin and question marks remain over issues like selectivity. Celsus, through Origen, stands out as the most cogent, and politically aligned with the establishment, of the pagan intellectuals. Theologically and historically he raises numerous valid points about the credibility of Christianity and its messiah; ultimately to no avail. Plotinus and Porphyry were developing the metaphysical concepts inherent in Neo-Platonic philosophy, and through the literary debates with the Christian apologists would syncretically contribute to the development of a new Christian philosophy. Christian writers and Church leaders would challenge the beliefs and customs of the traditional Graeco-Roman religion in their protests over persecution, and in the presentation of their beliefs and practices. There were great thinkers on both sides of the religious divide but only Christianity had the momentum of the zeitgeist of the times. Intellectually Christianity swallowed the Platonic precepts it desired, rebadged them, and banished the pagan carcass to oblivion.
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