Friday, November 3, 2017

Celsus on the Corruption of Scripture

Celsus was a pagan philosopher who flourished in the last half of the second century. He was a brilliant opponent of Christianity who had intimate knowledge of the Christian scriptures. Sometime around 180 CE he penned a refutation of the Christian religion, "On The True Doctrine." No known copies of this work survive in any manuscript, however, Origen (184-254 CE) preserves most of the work in his treatise against Celsus. “On The True Doctrine” is valuable as a window into the 2nd century Roman perspective of Christians.

Near the beginning of the work Celsus accused Christians of altering their scriptures in order to remove contradictions and difficult passages.

"It is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie, and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have even heard that some of your interpreters, as if they had just come out of a tavern, are onto the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the original writings three, four, and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.” (On the True Doctrine, 3; Hoffmann, pg. 64) 
It is difficult to determine exactly what circumstance Celsus is referring to, and he may be making an unfounded accusation in order to discredit their use of the scriptures. However, it may be that Celsus is making reference to Marcion and his alteration of the Pauline epistles and Luke.
At a couple of places in his treatise Celsus makes reference to the many differences and disputations between the various Christian communities. In the midst of a discussion about differing teachings about Jesus, he wrote that “some among the Christians—Marcion and his disciple Apelles for example — think that the creator is an inferior god,” and a little later, while talking about the many different sects in Christianity mentioned that some “call themselves Marcionites after their leader, Marcion” (On the True Doctrine, 6; Hoffmann, pg. 90-91).
For being an outsider, Celsus had incredible insight into the internecine conflict between the various groups within Christianity. It may be that Celsus was drawing a connection between a difference in doctrine and a deliberate alteration of Christian scriptural books. It is striking that Tertullian noted that;
"Corruption of the Scriptures and of their interpretation is to be expected wherever difference in doctrine is discovered. . . . Marcion openly and nakedly used the knife, not the pen, massacring Scripture to suit his own material.” (Prescript. 38)
It may be that Celsus, in accusing some Christians of altering their own scriptures, was referring to the widely known accusations against Marcion.

Saint Mark the Evangelist - Gabriel Mälesskircher, Museo Thyssen

R. Joseph Hoffmann, tans. Celsus, On the true doctrine: a discourse against the Christians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

S. L. Greenslade, ed. Early Latin Theology: Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome. 1956. Reprint, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.


  1. Interesting. Origen apparently had not heard of Celsus while in Alexandria but learned of him and his book after moving to Caesarea and after his patron, Ambrose, who had moved to Bythinia, Asia Minor, learned of Celsus, sent him the text, and urged him to respond. I discuss this in my paper Celsus of Pergamon: Locating a critic of early Christianity [in Asia Minor]. Marcion was from Pontus, also in Asia Minor.

    1. Thank you for your comments Stephen, that is fascinating. If Celsus's claims of textual alteration were true, they would have to be fairly significant because alterations of a word or phrase as suggested by Ehrman in "Orthodox Corruption" would likely not have garnered such comments
      (See my previous post on Galen, [Hipp. vict. acut. 120.5-14]
      I will read your paper with interest.

  2. Hi! I have found two different translations concerning Marcion's text. The first is in Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus (p. 52): "Some believers, as though from a drinking bout, go so far as to oppose themselves and alter the original text of the gospel three or four several times over, and they change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in face of criticism."

    But Timothy Paul Jones in his book "Misquoting Truth" (p. 40) quotes a book that translates the text: "Some believers, like persons who lay violent hands on themselves in drunken rage, have corrupted the Gospel from its original wholeness, into threefold, fourfold, and manifold editions, and have reworked it so that they can answer objections."

    Jones claims that this may refer to the fact that Christians had four (not one!) Gospels and Marcion misunderstood this. Martin Hengel and Charles Hill seems to favour this. ("Who Chose the Gospels?, p. 156).

    What do you think is better translation?

    1. Janne, thank you for alerting me to this difference in translations. Depending on which translation one uses can determine how one interprets this passage!
      I do not know which translation better represents the meaning of the original. There must be some ambiguity.
      I am not so sure about Marcion not knowing that there were four different Gospels.

  3. Μετὰ ταῦτά τινας τῶν πιστευόντων φησὶν ὡς ἐκ μέθης ἥκοντας εἰς τὸ ἐφεστάναι αὑτοῖς μεταχαράττειν ἐκ τῆς πρώτης γραφῆς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τριχῇ καὶ τετραχῇ καὶ πολλαχῇ καὶ μεταπλάττειν, ἵν' ἔχοιεν πρὸς τοὺς ἐλέγχους ἀρνεῖσθαι. — Book II, ch 27,

    As a n00b I translate:
    With this, some believers, he declares, like having become adrunk in establishing their secondary writ as from the prime of scripture, they even refashion the gospel thrice, fourfold yea manifold, where they have to deny refutations.

    Look forward to see your translations! :)
    Or do you think a variation can account for the differences?

    1. Thanks for this Basti. I might give a stab at translating soon.
      I don't know enough of the textual history at this point to understand the differences mentioned above.

  4. Sorry, I meant Celsus misunderstood it, not Marcion.

    1. Thanks Janne, I thought that's what you might of meant, but wasn't sure. I do think that Celsus knew that there were different gospels because he appears to be quoting from several different gospels. If I remember correctly (I want to revisit this) Celsus criticizes the differences in the genealogies (presumably in Matthew and Luke respectively).
      Thanks for reading the blog and for engaging so thoughtfully.

  5. Hi Timothy, I don't see where Celsus' comment requires that great changes were made. Can you help explain why it would? Could it just mean that he knew (or assumed) that some passages had "various readings" (plural) at any given place? Origen published many variant readings at single points in the text, and thus couldn't one could say that the original reading was altered three, four, sometimes (perhaps using exaggeration for effect) many more times in such cases? He made a fuss over Christians trying to cover up the historical error of an eclipse (του ηλιου εκλιποντος ] και εσκοτισθη ο ηλιος) in Luke 23:45, and later Porphyry (or was he relying on earlier criticisms like those of Celsus?) apparently made a fuss over Jesus' apparent lying in John 7:8-10 (going up to the feast right after saying he wasn't going up to the feast --> "I don't YET go up to the feast"), even though that only required the addition of 2 letters, ΟΥ ] ΟΥΠΩ. --Jonathan

    1. Hello Jonathan, thanks for commenting.
      I think that Celsus must mean great changes for a few reasons;
      1) If you look at contemporary scholarship, specifically Galen, minor textual changes or alterations of the text (a word or phrase) were acceptable, as long as the basic meaning of the text is preserved (see my earlier post on Galen)
      2) Origen himself, when quoting this passage from Celsus, assumed that he meant major alerations and then proceeded to explain that Celsus must be confusing "real" Christians with Marcion and others.
      I'll quote the passage in full. It is taken from "Contra Celsum" 2.27.
      "After this he says, that certain of the Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original integrity, to a threefold, and fourfold, and many-fold degree, and have remodelled it, so that they might be able to answer objections. Now I know of no others who have altered the Gospel, save the followers of Marcion, and those of Valentinus, and, I think, also those of Lucian. But such an allegation is no charge against the Christian system, but against those who dared so to trifle with the Gospels. And as it is no ground of accusation against philosophy, that there exist Sophists, or Epicureans, or Peripatetics, or any others, whoever they may be, who hold false opinions; so neither is it against genuine Christianity that there are some who corrupt the Gospel histories, and who introduce heresies opposed to the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus."
      I hope that better explains my reasons. I hope to bump into you at SBLAM this year (if you are attending).

    2. Jonathan, here is a link to the blog post on Galen I referred to above.

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Timothy. I'm out of the country but should be at Nov. meetings next year. Have fun this year. I'm envious.