Celsus, Porphyry and the Changing of Pagan Intellectual Criticisms of Christianity

Celsus and Porphyry are often viewed as two of the early Christians Church’s most vehement

intellectual opponents and are upheld as such, not just by modern scholarship, but by their

contemporaries, proceeding disciples and critics. It is thus difficult, when dealing with men whose

accounts survive by nature of their atypical and unique stature (regardless of later opponents

attempts to expunge their works) to reconstruct the changes in pagan intellectual thought on a

more general scale. In lieu of evidence suggesting otherwise, this author is assuming that the

influence of these men was of such a weight, and the pagan intellectual climate was as such, that

their thoughts and arguments were of a nature as to become the status quo (particular in the case of

Celsus) for this period. Such an assumption is not unfounded as the influence of popular philosophy

and indeed a large portion of knowledge-pervading and critiquing disciplines, does by nature filter

down to the common man (let alone the intellectual man) in time.1 This paper will be attempting to

look into a few major themes within the two apologists’ writings with the minor goal of a

comparison and contrast. However, the major desire of this work will be to assess whether or not

there has been a change in the apologetic of these ancient advocates of the pagan status quo and a

variety of secondary sources will also be employed to this end.

Much of the pagan intellectual attacks on Christianity in the period of Celsus and Porphyry are from

the neo-platonic school, which was going through resurgence in the period to the point where they

were considered, according to Eusebius, to be the adversarial leaders against the Christians

(Praeparatio Evangelica 11.6, 13).2 The two writers both share neo-platonic ideas, although one

could argue that Porphyry by no means shackles himself to it with any exclusivity. Celsus, being the

earlier of the two writers (late 2nd Century) was the proverbial trail blazer regarding early pagan

1
Francis Schaeffer’s “The God Who Is There”, although by no means dealing with 2nd to 4th Century pagan
apologists, illustrates the influence and filter effect of philosophy through to popular culture, principally (but
not exclusively) through the arts and sciences.
2
W.H.C Frend, “Prelude to the Great Persecution: The Propaganda War”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History,
Vol.38, (Jan 1987) p.5,7

1

Macmullen. 1974) p. Pauline letters.3 What easily separates the two men and reflects a change in the nature of the pagan intellectual apologetics both between and from them is the sheer increase in knowledge and sophistication in fighting the Christians on their terms. no one of Celsus’ calibre arose. Den Boar. What is meant by this is that there is a raw difference in exegetical critique of not only Christian dogma but also scriptural texts between Celsus and Porphyry. as did knowledge of Christianity. the apocryphal book of Enoch and also some of the earlier Christian struggles against Gnosticism/Marcionism. Classical Philology”. 3 R. their scriptures.apologetics. Although arguably. Following this Platonic resurgence beyond Celsus there is a path of increasing sophistication of information and argumentation. 1984) p. (New Haven. “Christianizing the Roman Empire”. Celsus demonstrates a reasonable acquaintance with the Torah.20 4 W.203 2 . Demonstrating knowledge of the gospels. his arguments were very much growing in the mindset of the common man having filtered down over the decades to those who had previously known very little about Christians other than the fact that they existed and died bravely. the gospel of Matthew. Vol. critiques of entire books of the Bible as well as comparisons between the synoptic accounts of similar events. namely in what Christian’s saw as their principal authority. 69 (July. writing what demonstrably seem to have been extensive expository work. the Torah and many of the major as well as minor prophets. until Porphyry. with Porphyry often upheld as some kind of zenith that heralded the Great Persecution under Diocletian in the early 4th Century. Porphyry matches and exceeds this by a margin never before reportedly seen in historic pagan discourse. “A Pagan Historian and His Enemies. The argumentation over the two centuries separating the men developed significantly. Such is the method by which Porphyry analyses text that it been described by Den Boar as “the precursor to nineteenth-century higher criticism”.4 Proceeding paragraphs will attempt to highlight some comparative teachings of the two authors that stand out in particular for both their similarity and differences.

chapters 2-3). Celsus is the first pagan to systematically (in a relative sense) attempt a critique of this theme. his main argument attempting to deconstruct the miracles surrounding the man in order to discredit him. Heracles. the pillar of the Christian faith. what needs be recognised is that they both share conclusions. what the Apostle Paul would assert is where Christianity stands or falls (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). Celsus does not deny them as many critics today often assert. Regarding the topic of the miracles Jesus performed. to an argument from Porphyry’s “Philosophy from Oracles” 3 .38.g. but claims them to be not of God but of “magic” that Jesus trained hard in Egypt to acquire (Con. secondly that he has heard of many men of ability who have raised or been raised from the dead (i. Celsus incorporates his resurrection critique with his other arguments. 1. however. he puts down to hearsay that cannot be confirmed as there were no eye-witnesses.6). This indirectly is designed to attack the Christian claim of the deity of Christ by claiming his miracles to be common in nature to anyone versed in the magical arts. Porphyry goes a similar route in not denying that miracles did. Achilles etc) and also with those of more recent note such as Pythagoras and Apollonius (Lactantius.e. the magician argument above). occur by miraculous power but instead of explaining them by ‘magic’ he associates Jesus with the demigods of old (e. Another major argument the two authors share is regarding the resurrection of Jesus. working its way up the ignorant lower classes to destabilise Greco-Roman society. Book V. Those who are claimed to have been there were “hysterical women” 5 This author agrees with Digeser (see bibliography) that Lactantius is most likely referring. Divine Institutes. Chiefly that Christianity is insidious.5 Porphyry develops this line of argument further as will be discussed later. in point of fact. namely that miraculous claims are nothing out of the ordinary. Cels.One thing both authors are devoted to addressing is the person of Jesus Christ. but are something demonstrable of being of some ability via either the magical arts (Celsus) or blessed by the gods (Porphyry). What he cannot explain. 1. and writing in response.

Porphyry reasons.5). unlike Celsus he has more of them to work with (e.6 Porphyry also questions as to why it was not the case that Jesus did not appear. i hear many!’ all the while reiterating that the whole Christian movement is nothing but women and children who have been subverted and deluded by insidious Christian evangelists (Con. include Porphyry’s detailed assessment of the prophets in this category. his arguments seem to be on similar veins for both. would have been far more plausible than appearing to a bunch of women whose testimony would never be valid (Apocriticus 2. 4 . that Porphyry’s above argument is more reasoned and sophisticated than Celsus’ (if Origen’s account is a faithful one) but regarding the resurrection their conclusion is the same. One could also. but Porphyry talks of them a lot. post resurrection. Cels. Note here. These are seemingly those who wrote the gospels and the Apostles such as Peter and Paul. ‘this is most unlikely given what we know of the event’ and on the other.g. He accepts that Jesus’ mission may have been to die. Like Celsus. One thing that Celsus does not mention. to men like Pilate. but almost any Socratic discourse is an excellent example of this expectation of ‘wise men’.who at best were “deluded by some sorcery” or dreamed the whole vision of seeing Jesus resurrect. 2. using knowledge of them and their writings as ammunition against the elements of Christianity he doesn’t like. ‘there’s nothing new about this tale. Herod or the High Priest. Celsus seems to be attempting to cover as many bases as possible regarding the resurrection narrative. all the synoptics and 6 Porphyry uses the example of Apollonius being summoned before Domitian. and is an indicator of the increased knowledge of Christianity and complexity of pagan intellectual Criticism is Porphyry’s targeting of those he calls “the evangelists”. for the sake of brevity. men whose testimony of seeing Jesus would have been more reliable.14). Porphyry has similar ridicule for the crucifixion and resurrection. Celsus makes little mentions of these particular men.1). This. a wise man always had to say something profound before his accusers (Marcus Magnus. On one hand he asserts something like. he is critical of biblical texts. Apocriticus 3. but his silence before the Pilate was hardly the action of a wise man. In the Greco-Roman tradition.

John rather than just Matthew).9 What this says about the pagan intellectual climate is that there is present an element of the debate being emotionally charged and this does not 7 Frend. 9 Augustine. p. Cels.9 8 Almost all that survives of Celsus is in Origen’s “Contra Celsum”.55). but the Christian view of him (discussed later in this paper). scoffing at how it took 10 hours to cross a ‘pond in Galilee’ let alone witness a raging storm upon it (Apocriticus 3. 19. the church is weaker for it. So equipped. Porphyry makes detailed case studies of ‘the evangelists’ accounts of such events as the crucifixion and many other miraculous and mundane events (Apocriticus 2. Of passing note is that Porphyry is recorded to have studied under Origen in the early part of his career before apostatising himself and moving towards Neoplatonism. There is potential for a lot of damage in Porphyry’s line of attack and his opponents clearly knew it given the edicts against him and the thorough burning of his works under Constantine. For Celsus these are not so much phrased as arguments. but rhetorical assertions of supposed fact that he perhaps assumes his readers will nod their heads in agreement to (e.6). 1. something he shares with Porphyry. 5 . He also demonstrates a geographical familiarity with the Galilean region.9. Con. especially when Porphyry is not denying Christ. the scriptures.23).7 Secondly it discredits the Christian source of authority. A strong reoccurring thought throughout the fragments of Celsus8. 3. City of God. which is the tradition of the church that is used to interpret scripture. If ‘the evangelists’ are discredited. but they lie so frequently throughout the fragments that one must assume that they are a common ‘straw man’ that is being applied. and also what the reformers of the 16th Century would later coin as the ‘Regula Fidei’. One could counter that these assertions are backed up elsewhere in his argumentation with specific evidential examples. is the constant assertion of the irrational or illogical nature of Christianity.g. The purpose of this kind of ‘discredit the evangelists’ argument is at least two-fold. Firstly it drives a wedge between Christ and Christ’s followers.12) accusing John of being a ‘simpleton’ for failing to notice Jesus’ being stabbed in the side when the writer claims to have been present (Apocriticus 2.13). writing in response. calls Porphyry out on this (Augustine.

rather this ‘god’ may be a Platonic expression of the perfect “God of the forms” or is at the very least.19. The difference between the two fundamentally lies in their solutions to the perceived problem.11 The inference here is that Christians and their beliefs could never in their wildest dreams stand up to the rigour of open debate with their pagan opponents and so have to seek ignoble means of proselytising. Eusebius. but a picture of how doggedly the pagan intellectuals were fighting for the old ways and traditions that they viewed as being under threat by the spreading Christian superstitio. It’s the foreign superstitio of Christianity that is a major thorn in the side of Porphyry but. opposed to the old ideas of the pagan world. Celsus asserts that Christians insidiously seek to infiltrate society and undermine it. Commentary on Joel 2:28ff) but his foci lends a more developed argument towards one of Celsus’ less touched upon arguments (Contra Celsum 8.68) where Christians are proposed to be setting up a rival ‘god’. whereas Celsus advocates elimination. Porphyry laments that only “in its present form” need it be destroyed. is unlikely to just be the oratorical rhetoric of the time reflected in prose.W Trigg.f.30 11 J. “Origen”.12 In his Philosophy from Oracles Porphyry considered Jesus to be a wise and pious man. 6. 1998) p. 6 . Porphyry argued that all people should turn their minds to the supreme ‘god’ and worship him everywhere.54 12 Porphyry’s God isn’t like the Christian concept of God. Porphyry echoes such sentiments (Jerome. Historia Ecclesiastica. without specific evidential argumentation being employed. seems to be a major theme of both writers. Marcus Magnes.1-7. but highly criticised Christians for foolishly believing him to be God. Routledge (London. Porphyry and Celsus both agree on this point and constantly reassert it. The above view.10 The commonality of so many ‘ad hominem’ assertions. This both outlines the influence of neo- Platonism on pagan thought at the time and the interactions of monotheism (namely Christianity) on it also. first through the weaker members of society.noticeably change between Celsus and Porphyry.55). Porphyry praised Jesus as at most a 10 for examples from Porphyry c. that Christianity was indeed a very real threat to the pagan status quo and needed to be dealt with. namely women and children (Contra Celsum 3. and perhaps more likely. a more traditional pagan/henotheistic view of a sovereign ‘King of the gods’ with little gods arrayed beneath him. Apocriticus 3.

less exclusive) and bring more palatable forms of pagan worship into it.14 This of course would necessitate denying Jesus as the supreme godhead as aforementioned earlier. His assertions that Jesus. 7 . O’Meara. Contrary to Celsus. Porphyry was convinced that Jesus teaching would have been in harmony with the pagan gods. who tends to lump Jews and Christians in together. Since he has been venerated (wrongly) the gods refused to act in the Greco-Roman world (Eusebius. 5. Porphyry applauds Jews for worshipping this one true God he speaks of. and incidentally in neo-Platonism also. Porphyry in his elevated level of argumentation pits pagan prophecy against Christianity understanding that authority is an important element in debate. could not be the supreme God by virtue of his humanity are inextricably linked to his adamant grasp that in traditional pagan worldview.9). “Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine”.1. In Celsus’ arguments. Wilken.58 14 R. other than the putting forwards of a ‘this is nothing special’ type attitude to the miraculous or a ‘this is absurd’ with the irrational (all sentiments echoed by Porphyry) there is rarely an appeal to a counter-authority (other than perhaps his own faculties). The fault lay not so much with Jesus’ teachings but with the Christians themselves for misunderstanding Jesus. 1959) p. that such things were an impossibility. is a fervent dislike of the elements of Christianity that go against the long traditional legacy of Greco-Roman religion and the insidious nature of it is caught up in the offense of its disregard of said traditions. Beauchesne. Praeparatio Evangelica. Porphyry argued that Oracles were divine pronouncements and cited many Oracles in favour of a Jesus that was more conducive to paganism. but not a full god himself.e.demi-god (like Heracles etc). forming a kind of synthesis of religion. 13 J. a mere man. (Paris.13 Porphyry may have seen himself as more of a reformer than an attacker (or perhaps both are possible). leading this author to lean less towards a view of Porphyry who is an apostate (from Origen and Christianity) and more towards a Porphyry who is a ‘heretic’ trying to reform the church to a more Arrian (but not quite) view of Jesus.15 At the core of Porphyry’s argument though. Etudes Augustiniennes. “Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition”. Wilken goes further. stating that Porphyry’s plan was to make Christianity more inclusive (i. (1979) pp126-7 15 In a number of secondary sources it is noted how similar Porphyry’s view is to those of the Arrian heresy.

H. Celsus mentions nothing of such things but Porphyry’s supposed reforms of Christianity. This idea links back again to Porphyry’s desire for reform. Porphyry’s citing of Oracles as a basis for much of his argumentation should not be overlooked. but also venturing further afield into new areas. Gifford from “Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica” (Oxford. rely on his belief in the philosophical path to truth of which he believes there to be many ways (Eusebius. “Divine Institutes” 1. Vol.D Digeser. One could put this down to a steady apologetic development over time. Lactantius. even striving in part to reform what he saw as grievous error from the Christians. heralded as brilliant for their time and paving the way for others by their new arguments.17 This is an interesting use of metaphor as it is something Christians also utilise since the times of Jesus himself (Luke 13:22ff). a characteristic that separates Porphyry’s apologetic from Celsus is his vision of salvation. much of which is building upon foundations laid by Celsus before him. but Christians are the ones who have forsaken them and are “cutting their own way to a path that is not a path”18 In conclusion. To do such would be careless given the evidence provided in responses from later Christian Apologists. utilising the metaphor of path’s to salvation or truth. but man. 1903) 18 E. according the Porphyry.6. E. 88. methods and information. although any evidence of this is unavailable. there is a definite change shown in the relatively short time (historically) between Celsus and Porphyry. Praeparatio Evangelica 9. (1998) p. but is also again accompanied by the repeated assertions that Christians are mistaken. There is certainly an increase in levels of sophistication and complexity in regards to argument coming from Porphyry.10ff). “Praeparatio Evangelica” Books 4 and 5. There may be many paths. “Lactantius. Alternatively one could again acknowledge the atypical nature of the two men. the reason for his heavy critique of it. The Journal of Roman Studies. 4. This is shown clearly in how Porphyry attempts to go more in depth into the areas where Celsus has already touched upon.16 Apart from the increased sophistication of argumentation that distinguishes Porphyry from Celsus.140 8 . In addition there is an 16 For example: Eusebius.18 17 Trans. drawing out what he sees as greater inconsistencies and falsehoods beneath.a Jesus who was not God. Porphyry and the Debate over Religious Toleration”.

many arguments used by popular anti-Christian authors and speakers can be directly and indirectly traced back to Porphyry and Celsus. or his time spent with Origen. be they directed at personages (like with Porphyry against Origen) or against Christians generally. Even today. Porphyry has access to much more information on the Christian canon of scripture than Celsus perhaps could have imagined and as such is better able to understand his opponents and present more thorough and complex responses and assertions. a consistent sameness between Celsus and Porphyry in the form of their rhetoric and ad hominem attacks on their opponents. Whether by dogged pursuit. Regardless they have evidentially set apologetic trends and even their most basic arguments have gone on to be developed upon and reused by others.increase in just plain knowledge. chance. There is also. 9 . as mentioned.

Prelude to the Great Persecution: The Propaganda War.. Porphyry and the Debate over Religious Toleration.D Lactantius. Jan 1987  Gifford. The Journal of Roman Studies. E. A Pagan Historian and His Enemies. R. 1998  Frend. 1903  Macmullen. Beauchesne. 88. Christianizing the Roman Empire. W. E.Bibliography of Secondary Works  Den Boar. R. Origen. July. New Haven. Vol. 69. J. London. W. Classical Philology. Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition. 1959  Trigg. 1979 10 . Etudes Augustiniennes. Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica.C.W. Vol. Oxford. Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine.38. 1974  Digeser. Paris.H. Vol. 1998  Wilken. Routledge. J. 1984  O’Meara.H. Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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