Who is Jesus?

Celsus was a 2nd century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. He is known for his literary work, The True Word (Account, Doctrine or Discourse), preserved by Origen. This work is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity.

Celsus explained that Jesus came from a Jewish village in the Holy Land. Jesus’ mother was a poor Jewish girl. This girl’s husband, who was a carpenter by trade, drove her away because of her adultery with a Roman soldier named Panthera . She gave birth to the bastard Jesus. In Egypt, Jesus became learned in sorcery and upon his return made himself out to be a god. Celsus confirmed the Historicity of Jesus but not the Virgin birth. Celsus also confirmed what the Talmud said about Jesus.

The author and his work

Celsus was the author of an anti-Christian work titled The True Word. This work was lost, but much of it is preserved word-for-word in the pages of a reply written by Origen. It was during the reign of Philip the Arab that Origen received this troubling work for rebuttal. Origen’s refutation of The True Word contained its text, interwoven with Origen’s replies. Origen’s work has survived and thereby preserved Celsus’ work with it.

Celsus was very well informed about 2nd century gnostic groups, which were flourishing in Rome and Alexandria. He was interested in Egyptian religion, and he seemed to know of Jewish logos-theology, both of which suggest The True Word was composed in Alexandria.

Celsus wrote at a time when Christianity was being actively persecuted and when there seems to have been more than one emperor. This would point to either Marcus Aurelius with Lucius Verus (161-9) or Marcus Aurelius with Commodus (177-80). Henry Chadwick reviewed the evidence and preferred the latter period.

The rhetorician Lucian mentions a friend of his, an Epicurean philosopher named Celsus, but his Celsus wrote a book against magic. Origen notes that the Celsus who wrote The True Word believed in magic, which makes the identification with Lucian’s Celsus uncertain. In addition, the author of The True Word appears from the text to be follower of Plato and perhaps Philo, rather than Epicurus.


Most scholars believe the passages preserved by Origin to be authentic. There are no signs of interpolation, nor would Origin be likely to falsify such anti Christian material.

Origin wrote in 248, and although the Church was under no widespread persecution, the atmosphere was full of conflict and crisis of the Third Century. Christian pride in his faith was blended with a natural anxiety stemming from Celsus’ attacks on Christianity. It was at this point that Origin brought to light again a book written in the days of Marcus Aurelius but still in circulation. Sometimes quoting, sometimes paraphrasing, sometimes merely referring, Origen reproduces and replies to Celsus’ arguments. Since accuracy was essential to his refutation of The True Word, most scholars agree the we likely have authentic material from Celsus.

Celsus’ criticism on Jesus and his followers

Celsus mounts a wide criticism against Jesus as the founder of the faith. He discounts or disparages Jesus’ ancestry, conception, birth, childhood, ministry, death, resurrection, and continuing influence. According to Celsus, Jesus’ ancestors came from a Jewish village. His mother was a poor country girl who earned her living by spinning cloth . He worked his miracles by sorcery and was a small homely man. This Rabbi Jesus kept all Jewish customs, including sacrifice in the temple. He gathered only a few followers and taught them his worst habits, including begging for money. These disciples, amounting to “ten boatmen and a couple of tax collectors” were not respectable. The reports of his resurrection came from a hysterical female, and belief in the resurrection was the result of Jesus’ sorcery and the crazed thinking of his followers, all for the purpose of impressing others and increasing the chance for others to become beggars.

Celsus stated in no uncertain terms that Jesus was the bastard child of the Roman soldier Pantera. These charges of illegitimacy are the earliest datable statement of the Jewish charge that Jesus was conceived as the result of adultery, and that his true father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. Panthera was a common name among Roman soldiers of that period. It is also its similarity to the Greek term parthenos, which is often translated as “virgin.”

It is also interesting to note that Celsus refers to Jesus’ father by name as Panthera. It is taken by Celsus as given that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier of this name. There is a tomb of a Roman soldier named Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera, which was found in Bad Kreuznach, Germany; some scholars identify the historical Pantera with this Pantera.

Drawings of the tombstone of Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera,
a soldier who has ben claimed to be the “Pantera” named by Celsus

According to Celsus, Jesus has no standing in the Hebrew Bible prophecies and talk of his resurrection was foolishness.

Celsus and the historical Jesus

Many scholars believe the Celsus gives us great insight into the Historical Jesus. Celsus’ importance and credibility as an early source lies in the fact that he sums up the “opposition view” to Jesus.

If his were the only source to survive until today, was authentic and had to be read alone, it would tell us the following:

1) There was a Jew named Jesus, who followed the all the teachings of his faith.

2) His “father” was a carpenter.

3) His mother was accused of conceiving out of wedlock

4) His true father was a Roman soldier names Pantera & Jesus went to Egypt

5) Jesus had a number of disciples, who were boat men and tax collectors

6) Jesus performed miraculous signs, which were perceived by many as sorcery

7) As Jesus became more widely known he was charged with practicing magic and leading Israel astray

8) The reports of his resurrection came from a hysterical female and spread.

9) Jesus and his followers embraced poverty.

Subjects of Celsus’ writings

Celsus shows himself familiar with the story of Jewish origins. Any pagan who wished to intimately understand and criticize Christianity had to begin by learning from the Jews, and this accounts for the opening chapters of his argument. He has a good knowledge of Genesis and of the Book of Enoch , but does not make much use of the Prophets or the Psalter. Regarding the books with which he was familiar his position is similar to that reflected in the contemporary Acts of the Martyrs of Scili. He speaks of a Christian collection of writings, and knew some parts of the synoptic gospels, but was influenced less by the Gospel of John. There is more evidence of Pauline ideas than of Pauline letters.

The gnostic sects and their writings were well known to Celsus , and so was the work of Marcion. There are indications, too, of an acquaintance with Justin Martyr and the Sibylline literature . He is perfectly aware of the internal differences among Christians, and he is familiar with the various stages of development in the history of their religion. These are cleverly employed in order to heighten the impression of its instability. He plays off the various sects, the primitive age against the present, Christ against the apostles, the various revisions of the Bible against the trustworthiness of the text and so forth, though he admits that everything was not really so bad at first as it is at present.

Influence of Celsus

The True Word had very little influence either on the mutual relations of Christianity and the Roman Empire, or on classical literature. Echoes of it are found in Tertullian and in Minucius Felix, and then it lay forgotten until Origen gave it new life. A good deal of the neo‑Platonic polemic naturally went back to Celsus, and both the ideas and phrases of The True Word are found in Porphyry and Julian, though the closing of the Christian Bible canon in the meantime somewhat changed the method of attack for these writers.

Of more importance than these matters is the light which the book sheds on the strength of Christianity about the year 180. He saw the Christianity of his life time to be simply a number of warring sects (mostly Gnostic), and so seeing only a mark of weakness.

Most suggestive, however, is his closing appeal to the Christians: “Come”, he says, “don’t hold aloof from the common regime. Take your place by the emperor’s side. Don’t claim for yourselves another empire, or any special position. It is an overture for peace. If all were to follow your example and abstain from politics, the affairs of the world would fall into the hands of wild and lawless barbarians”.

Conceding that Christians are not without success in business (infructuosi in negotiis), he wants them to be good citizens, to retain their own belief but conform to the state religion. It is an earnest and striking appeal on behalf of the Empire, and shows the terms offered to the Christian sects, as well as the importance of the various sects at the time. Numerically, Christians formed perhaps a tenth of the population, i.e. in Alexandria there would be 50,000-60,000. It is unlikely their influence was greater than what the physical evidence reveals throughout AD 100-400.


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