Celsus, Origen and Hoffmann
(plus some reviews)

This is a scratch-pad for notes.  I'll add more as and when seems necessary.  Looking for faults in a man's book is a  morose process, and not one I want to spend a lot of time on.

A lot of atheists are quoting portions of R.J.Hoffmann's Celsus: On The True Doctrine, (Oxford University Press, 1987) as if it were an accurate representation of what Celsus wrote.  In fact the work is lost, and can only be reconstructed speculatively from Origen Contra Celsum.  Even so, Hoffmann's versions seem to owe more to  imagination than to the text given by Origen. 

Hoffmann has also not placed the references to Contra Celsum next to his text, leaving the reader to guess how to relate the two.  The trick I use is to locate the quote in Hoffmann.  Then look for a proper name somewhere nearby in the text.  Then look for this in Origen.  The passages are in the same order as in CC, so it is usually possible to find the passage easily enough.  I've used Henry Chadwick's standard modern translation of Contra Celsum (Cambridge University Press, 1953 + reprints), as I use the index in this to locate passages, and it seems unfair to Hoffmann to compare his modern translation against the elderly Ante-Nicene Fathers texts.

Here are some instances where the popular quote is less than impressive, starting with the version from the atheist hate-posts and tracing it back.

1.  'Myths' and 'Lies'

* Then, (~178) Celsus wrote in On The True Doctrine: "Clearly the christians have used...myths... in fabricating the story of Jesus' birth...It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction".  (Quote from post).

This is a condensation of several bits of Hoffmann, over many pages.  Nowhere does this all appear at once even in Hoffmann's text.  Let's locate each bit.

> "Clearly the christians have used...myths... in fabricating the story of 
> Jesus' birth... 

This is from p.57 of Hoffmann: 

"What an absurdity! Clearly the christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, or of the Auge and the Antiope in fabricating the story of Jesus' virgin birth." 

...and corresponds to CC book 1, chap 37. 

So what was this based on? Here's Origen (Chadwick pp.36-37): 

"But these stories are really myths, which have led |p37 people to invent such a tale about a man because they regarded him as having superior wisdom and power to the multitude, and as having received the original composition of his body from better and more divine seed, thinking that this was appropriate for men with superhuman powers. But when Celsus has introduced the Jew as disputing with Jesus and pouring ridicule on the pretence, as he thinks, of his birth from a virgin, and as quoting the Greek myths about Danae and Melanippe and Auge and Antiope, I have to reply that these words would be appropriate to a vulgar buffoon and not to a man who takes his professed task seriously.

38. [...]"

Out of interest, here is the ANF version:

"And yet these are veritable fables, which have led to the invention of such stories concerning a man whom they regarded as possessing greater wisdom and power than the multitude, and as having received the beginning of his corporeal substance from better and diviner elements than others, because they thought that this was appropriate to persons who were too great to be human beings. And since Celsus has introduced the Jew disputing with Jesus, and tearing in pieces, as he imagines, the fiction of His birth from a virgin, comparing the Greek fables about Danae, and Melanippe, and Auge, and Antiope, our answer is, that such language becomes a buffoon, land not one who is writing in a serious tone." (http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-04/anf04-55.htm#P7817_1858276

From which we see that the 'words of Celsus' are not in Origen at all.  They have been made up.  Hoffmann found a statement in Origen that Celsus had said something along these lines, and imagined what it might have been.  It's fiction, in other words. 

Now what about the rest of the quote?

> "...It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie and that your fables are not 
> well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction."

If pressed the posters quote p.37 (usually no references at all are gievn) for this, which is Hoffmann's introduction, not his text.  The passage is actually on p.64:

"It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie, and that your fables are not 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 originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism." (p.37).

So, what does Origen say?  This is from Book II, ch. 26 and 27.  (pp. 90-91 of Henry Chadwick's translation, Cambridge University Press, 1953).  Celsus has been sneering at how Jesus responded to the threat of death, and 'may this cup pass from me', and Origen has been pointing out the errors and omissions.  Then the text continues,

26. Moreover, Celsus' Jew charges the disciples of Jesus with having invented these stories, saying: Although you lied you were not able to conceal plausibly your fictitious tales. My reply to this would be that the way to conceal tales of this sort was easy—not to have recorded them at all. For if the gospels had not included them who could have reproached us because Jesus said such things during his incarnation? Celsus did not understand that it was impossible for the same men both to be deceived into thinking that Jesus was God and the prophesied Christ, and to have invented tales about him, when they obviously would have known that the tales were untrue. Either therefore they did not invent them, but really did hold these beliefs and recorded the narratives without any deception, or they lied in their writings and did not in fact hold these beliefs, and were not deceived into regarding him as God.

27. After this he says that 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 or several times over, and they change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in face of criticism.2 I do not know of people who have altered the gospel apart from the Marcionites and Valentinians, and I think |p91 also the followers of Lucan.1 But this statement is not a criticism of Christianity, but only of those who have dared lightly to falsify the gospels. And just as it is no criticism of philosophy that there are the sophists or the Epicureans or the Peripatetics, or any others who hold false doctrines, so those who alter the gospels and introduce heresies foreign to the meaning of Jesus' teaching do not give ground for any criticism of genuine Christianity.2

28. [....]


p.90 n.2 Celsus' meaning is uncertain. He may mean the different gospels, three or four being a reference to the canonical four (it is just conceivable that the phrase shows knowledge of those who rejected St John), and several to the apocryphal gospels. It is not likely that Celsus has in mind the different manuscript readings. Origen, however, may well be right, in view of Celsus' knowledge of Marcion, in taking him to refer to Marcion's alteration of the text.

p.91 n.1 Lucan was an independent teacher within the Marcionite church; cf. Hippolytus, Ref. vii, 11; vii, 37, 2; Tertullian, de Carn. Res. 2; Ps.-Tert. adv. omn. Haer. 6. See Harnack, Marcion (2nd ed. 1924), pp. 401* ff.

p.91 n.2 For the argument, cf.iii, 12; v, 61.

So, we find that Hoffmann's sentence is actually composed from two different chapters of Origen. 

The first part is from chapter 26:

"It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction:" [Actually reads:] "Moreover, Celsus' Jew charges the disciples of Jesus with having invented these stories, saying: Although you lied you were not able to conceal plausibly your fictitious tales." 

This is quite a paraphrase, isn't it?  But Celsus is not discussing the veracity of the bible: he presumes it records the words of the disciples accurately, and accuses the latter of lying as they report Jesus words and actions.  Not quite what the atheist is led to believe!  Origen sensibly points out that Celsus has refuted himself, and indeed demonstrated that the disciples were in fact being honest.

The second part of the sentence is from chapter 27:

"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."

Notice how Hoffmann has altered 'believers' into 'interpreters' - so that it works better with the preceeding quote.

Origen's response is to simply deny that Christians do this; there is no copyright in names.  Any rogue may call himself a believer.  In order to keep up the pretence, the rogue quotes scripture.  In order to avoid it condemning him, he finds ways to discard bits.  But Christians are hardly to blame for rogues trying to abuse them!  They call them heretics precisely because they find them doing such things.  Abusus non tollit usum.

2. 'Perfect little pigs'

"Christians, it is needless to say, utterly detest each other.  They slander each other constantly with the vilest forms of abuse and cannot come to any sort of agreement in their teachings.  Each sect brands its own, fills the head of its own with deceitful nonsense, and makes perfect little pigs of those it wins over to its  side." -- Celsus (2nd century C.E.) 

This too is actually a bogus quote. The words above were actually written by R.J.Hoffmann in the 1980's in his reconstruction of Celsus, p.91. But if you check you find Celsus wrote something rather different. I went and located the 'quote' in Hoffmann, and then cross-referenced it back to the real quote in Origen Contra Celsum, book V, chapter 64. Here's Hoffmann:-

Each sect brands its own, fills the head of its own with deceitful nonsense, and makes perfect little pigs of those it wins over to its side. Like so many sirens they chatter away endlessly and beat their breasts. The world (they say to their shame) is crucified to me and I to the world. (Hoffmann, p.91) 

Here it is (minus Origen) in Chadwick's standard edition: 

... some are called 'branding-irons of hearing' ... some are called 'enigmas'... some called Sirens who are cheats of disgraceful conduct, who seal up the ears of those whom they win over, and make their heads like those of pigs ... And you will hear all those, he says, who disagree so violently and by their strife refute themselves to their utter disgrace, saying 'The world is crucified unto me and I to the world'. 

Hoffmann has made three sentences of this material, where in the original are two fragments, and two sentences; and he has split the second sentence into two and combined it with material from the first. In sentence 1 Hoffmann omits the reference to the Sirens and 'sealing ears' (all a reference to the Odyssey) and likewise to transforming them from men into pigs (Circe, again in the Odyssey), and reuses the words. (I think Celsus would be pretty put out to see his classical allusion so cavalierly destroyed!) Where do the words 'perfect', 'little' come from? Why is 'Sirens' put into the next sentence? From where is the 'chattering endlessly' and 'beat their breasts'? - and do Sirens do this, in classical mythology? 

The point that Celsus is making depends on the classical allusion. The Christians become less than men (pigs) when they listen to those who charm to deceive (Sirens, Circe), just as Odysseus' men did. Being less than men, of course they take no part in human society - and we find in Tertullian's apology that pagans often accused Christians of being bad citizens because they did not take part in pagan society. This is all good, second-century stuff. 

By contrast in modern English to make someone a pig, or a pig of yourself, has a very definite meaning, of excess and selfishness. Is this idea present in Celsus? *His* pig is the victim of deception, not the servant of gluttony. 

Unless I am much mistaken, Hoffmann's text does not say what the quotes from Celsus give us. Many of the words are the same - but not in the same places or same contexts. If this is representative - and I didn't choose the passage - in what sense is his book a representation of Celsus, rather than of Hoffmann? 

I'm sorry if this seems like a small point. But we can only check whether a translator is doing his job right by examining in fine detail. If Hoffmann wants to write anti-Christian polemic, perhaps he might do so in his own person.

3.  '...discourage asking questions of any sort.'

"But the point is this, and the Christians would do well to heed it: One ought first to follow reason as a guide before accepting any since anyone who believes without testing a doctrine is certain to be deceived.... Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of the simpleton's lack of education to lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teachers: they do not want to give or receive reasons for what they believe. Their favorite expressions are "Do not ask questions, just believe!" and: "Your faith will save you!" "The wisdom of the world," they say, "is evil; to be simple is to be good." If only they would undertake to answer my question -- which I do not ask as one who is trying to understand their beliefs (there being little to understand!). But they refuse to answer, and indeed discourage asking questions of any sort."  (Hoffmann, pp. 53-54).

This, it turns out, is from Contra Celsum I, 9ff, and generally accurate, except that some singulars/plurals have been changed.  (Chadwick, p.12 ff).  Origen's reply is well worth the trouble of looking up!

Appendix: Academic Reviews

Hoffmann's book is mentioned in l'Année Philologique, the master bibliography of classical antiquity, which says that it was only reviewed twice, by minor academic journals.  I have also located by chance a third review, in the more important Classical Review. Here are the reviews.

[From:  Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie, vol. 122 (1990), p.136]

CELSUS, On The True Doctrine. Translated with a General Introduction by R. Joseph HOFFMANN, Oxford — New-York, Oxford University Press, 1987, 146 p.

Le brillant traité de Celse contre les chrétiens et le christianisme, connu (partiellement) grâce à la réfutation qu'en proposera Origène, gagne à être lu pour lui-même, c'est-à-dire indépendamment de l'ouvrage d'Origène. R. J. Hoffmann fait donc Å"uvre utile en en proposant une traduction anglaise de bonne qualité. Pour le reste, son travail ne fait guère avancer la recherche. La reconstitution soulève des difficultés que l'auteur ne détaille même pas et il ne s'explique pas sur le découpage qu'il est amené à faire. L'introduction générale — une présentation de la polémique antichrétienne avant et chez Celse — et l'annotation accompagnant la traduction sont sans surprise. Le traducteur américain cite dans sa bibliographie quelques importants travaux allemands et français, notamment le Logos und Nomos de C. Andresen et l'édition-traduction du Contre Celse par M. Borret dans «Sources chrétiennes». Mais on ne voit pas qu'il ait tiré profit de telles lectures. La méconnaissance de ce qui est publié dans d'autres langues et en d'autres lieux est un affligeant signe des temps.


[The brilliant treatise of Celsus against the Christians and Christianity, known (partially) thanks to the refutation of it published by Origen, deserves to be read for itself, i.e. independently of the work of Origen. R. J Hoffmann thus does a useful task by publishing an English translation of it of good quality. On the other hand, his work hardly advances research. The reconstitution raises difficulties which the author does not even detail and he does not explain the excisions which he is led to make. The general introduction — a presentation of anti-Christian polemic before and at the time of Celsus — and the annotation accompanying the translation are without surprises. The American translator quotes in his bibliography some significant German and French work, in particular the Logos und Nomos of C Andresen and the edition-translation of Contre Celse by Mr. Borret in "Sources chrétiennes". But it is not visible that he benefitted from such readings. The ignorance of what is published in other languages and in other places is an unfortunate sign of the times.] [Tr. RP]

[From: Church History vol. 57 (1988), pp. 353-4.]

Celsus: On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians. Translated by R. JOSEPH HOFFMANN. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. xiii + 146 pp. $18.95 cloth; $7.95 paper.

Hoffmann claims to have translated the fragments of Celsus's Alethes Logos in Origen's Contra Celsum as a continuous narrative. Comparison with the Greek original—tedious given the absence of references to Origen's text—belies this claim. Within a few pages Hoffmann renders the Greek word dogma, used in similar contexts, as "truth," "eccentric belief," and "doctrine." He also reads into Celsus anachronistic concepts like "pagan" and "mystery religions" and a reference to the God of the Jews as "Yahweh." More seriously, he adds, omits, and alters words with no warning or warrant. Sometimes Hoffmann's alterations are merely puzzling, as when he omits crucial statements from Celsus's arguments in CC 3.65 and CC 4.5. Other additions and omissions seem to be intended to make Celsus more convincing.

Although in his introduction he expresses confidence in Origen's transmission of Celsus's text, Hoffmann surreptitiously incorporates Origen's criticisms. Hoffmann's Celsus no longer refers to Jesus's followers as "sailors" (CC 1.63) and Celsus's hypothetical Jew no longer misquotes the Bible (CC 1.49), quotes Euripides (CC 2.34), nor argues against miracles (CC 2.48-53). In the last instance Hoffmann inserts, contrary to Origen, the words "leaving our Jew to ponder for a moment" at the beginning of the argument against Christian appeals to miracles and "But to return to our quizzical Jew" at the end (pp. 66-67). Hoffmann also credits Celsus with words that are clearly Origen's. Origen denies that Christians use magical incantations; rather, Christians obtain power when they use the name of Jesus and recite stories about him (CC 1.6). Hoffmann has Celsus say: "The Christians claim to get some sort of power by pronouncing the names of demons or saying certain incantations, always incorporating the name of Jesus and a short story about him into the formula" (p. 53).

Hoffmann does not allow Celsus to appear credulous. In CC 3.31, where Celsus refers to Abaris the Hyperborean, "who had such power as to be carried along by an arrow" (hos dunamin eikhe tosende, hoste oistoi sumpheresihai), Hoffmann has Celsus say: "So too with Abaris the Hyperborean, who according to Herodotus carried an arrow over the whole world without stopping to eat." There is no reference to Herodotus or to his version of the story in the fragments. In another case, where Celsus quoted Herodotus's account of an oracle of the god Ammon, Hoffmann has Celsus say: "Now I submit that Herodotus is no less equipped to give an account of the things of God than the angels of the Jews" (p. 88). The Greek has "Ammon" where Hoffmann has "Herodotus" (CC 5.34). He also downplays Celsus's appeal to evidence of reason and piety among birds, insects, and elephants. One statement about birds which Celsus introduces with the words Phasi de ton anthropon hoi sunetoi ("the intelligent among men say" [CC 4.88]) comes out "some say" in Hoffmann's translation (p. 84).

Improving Celsus involves adding explicit references to Plato even when Plato's ideas, like the doctrine that God does not participate in being (CC 6.64), had become commonplaces. On page 117 Hoffmann adds an explicit reference to Plato to CC 8.21 for the doctrine that God does need sacrifices, but the actual passages he cites in the footnote refer to God's lack of jealousy, which Celsus mentioned in the next phrase. Did Hoffmann mistake Henry Chadwick's footnote 3, on page 467 of his splendid translation of the Contra Ceisum, for footnote 2?

Hoffmann spares his readers fascinating incongruities such as Celsus's beliefs that Jews found Logos theology acceptable (CC 2.32) or that Christians considered it legitimate to refer to Jesus as an angel (CC 2.9). Likewise, he ascribes Celsus's statement of the belief "of some Christians and of Jews" (Khristianoi tines kai Ioudaioi) that some God or Son of God will come to earth (CC 4.2) to "Christians and some Jews" (p. 76).

This is not a bona fide translation. It would almost appear that Hoffmann deliberately wishes unsuspecting readers to see Celsus as a detached and skeptical professor of religious studies rather than as a pious Hellenist.

St. Patrick's Episcopal Church 
Falls Church, Virginia

[From The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 1 (1998), pp. 187]

R. J. HOFFMANN (ed.): Celsus, On the True Doctrine: a Discourse against the Christians. Pp. xiii + 146. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Paper.

According to the blurb this is 'the first modern English translation of this classic work of antiquity'. Yes and no: since all that we have of Celsus' attack on the Christian faith is contained in Origen's Contra Celsum, the remnants of it have already been translated, most notably and accessibly by Chadwick, of whose work H. might well have taken more notice than he did. What H. has done is in fact to take the disiecta membra from Origen and link them together with transitions and other rhetorical devices of his own, without telling the reader. He also says (p. 44) that 'no attempt has been made to restore the original order of Celsus' work', but the reader would not realise this from the summary of the argument in the preceding pages, where we find after successive bullet points the words, 'Celsus begins his attack . . . Celsus interrupts his dialogue . . . Celsus follows with an attack. . .'. The section on 'The Text', where H. might have enlightened his reader on such matters, is compressed indeed. 

The remainder of the introduction contains a section on 'Anti-Christian Polemic before Celsus', in which H. draws on his knowledge of Biblical Christianity, and a much shorter one, centred on Lucian, on 'Pagan Opposition: from Moral to Intellectual Critique'. H. finds in the Christians of this period--we now seem to be in the period of Clement and Tertullian, but the chronological focus is not always clear, in spite of its importance to H.'s thesis that the moral critiques of Christianity antedate the philosophical assaults of writers like Celsus-- 'a provocative contempt for the moral philosophy of the Empire and a certain elegiac attitude towards imperial Roman religion'. Obliquity likewise spoils his brief discussion of the identity of Celsus (pp. 30-3). Because the lifetime of the Celsus known to Lucian and the likeliest date of Contra Celsum are close to the year 180, 'there is no reason on strictly chronological grounds to argue their separate identities'.  As for the Epicureanism of Galen's Celsus and perhaps Lucian's, which Chadwick saw as a grave obstacle to their identification ('with Epicureanism he betrays no affinities at all'), H. admits that 'epicurean opinions are not in bold relief in the passages cited in the Contra Celsum' but is prepared to argue that there may have been affinities in the lost parts of this or other writings of Celsus. 

The notes vary considerably in their usefulness. Sometimes a myth is given in some detail (Dionysus, Phaethon), sometimes there is only a reference to Apollodorus,  or something even less useful.  And I cannot imagine what a student will make of the words (p. 57) 'the myth of the Danae, and the Melanippe,  or of the Auge and the Antiope', on which there is nothing at all. (The mistranslation, I should add, seems untypical.)  It is certainly not true, as claimed, that the notes make the text 'completely accessible to students as well as to scholars of religious history and philosophy'.  Little thought has been given to the question of what kind of things the targeted readership might wish to have explained.  The notion of presenting Celsus' work like this was a good one--the secrecy apart--but the execution is very disappointing.

Glasgow                                                                                                                                                                     ROGER GREEN

Interestingly Hoffmann's next work of this kind, his 'Porphyry' failed to be mentioned in AnPh. at all.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 26th March 2002.
Updated with Classical Review article, 26th January 2011.

This page has been online since 26th March 2002.

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