Origen's Contra Celsum and Josephus' Contra Apionem

In: Vigiliae Christianae
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In summary, both Celsus and Origen were confronted with dilemmas. On the one hand, Celsus had to demonstrate that the Christians erred in leaving Judaism and that the Jews provide a credible anti-Christian witness; but, at the same time, he had to denigrate Judaism. In effect, Celsus asked the Christians why they had severed themselves religiously from the Jews if, indeed, they claimed continuity with Judaism, and why they had severed themselves socially from the pagans, inasmuch as they were predominantly of pagan origin. On the other hand, Origen's dilemma was that the only way that he could establish Christianity's legitimacy was to give it a historical basis by demonstrating continuity with Judaism; and yet, the raison d'être of Christianity was, paradoxically, its break with Judaism. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of ambivalence toward Judaism which characterizes so much of early Christian thought. It is not that Celsus is such a lover of the Jews that he apparently abstains from repeating the vilest canards against the Jews, though by his day, in the second century, there were a number of writers, such as Numenius, who genuinely admired the Jews' wisdom. Rather, it would seem, he felt that he would lose in credibility if he exaggerated the case against the Jews. However, when it came to the connection between the Jews and the Christians, whereas Celsus had sought to undermine the national legitimacy of the Christians by insisting that Christianity was a new religion which had severed its links with Judaism, Origen might have gone the way of the Marcionites in severing all links with Judaism and with the Hebrew Scriptures, but he realized that the result of such an approach would have been to fall prey to the charges of Celsus that Christianity was an upstart religion. Consequently, Origen felt that it was particularly important to establish the legitimacy of the Jewish people, with whom the Christians claimed to have a direct link. Christological theology was not of paramount concern to Celsus in his polemic; rather the attack focused upon Jesus the innovator, whose religion lacks respectability because it has no continuity in tradition. Manetho and his successors, as summarized in Josephus' treatise Against Apion, had charged Moses with being a rebel, a perverter of traditional Egyptian religion and customs; similarly, Celsus alleged, Jesus was a rebel, a perverter of traditional Jewish religion and customs. The Christians were, moreover, particularly suspect because they met in secret associations and hence would seem to constitute a danger to the state. By maximizing the common heritage and beliefs of Judaism and Christianity and by minimizing the issues that separated them Origen sought to blunt these attacks. Toward this end Origen found Josephus' treatise Against Apion, the original title of which, apparently, was Concerning the Antiquity of the Jews, useful, particularly in establishing the antiquity and wisdom of the Jews and of Moses (a particularly effective argument inasmuch as the Romans felt so self-conscious about their own recent appearance on the scene of history), in defending the Jews against the charges of unoriginality, of undue credulity, of appealing to uneducated and stupid people, of hatred of mankind, and of atheism, as well as in explaining the apparently degraded state of the Jews. When he departs from Josephus, as he does in dating Moses in the very beginning of civilization, he does so for purposes of argumentation, since Apion, with whose work Celsus was acquainted, imputed such an early date to the Exodus. Again, just as Origen was confronted with a dilemma as to which attitude to adopt toward the Jews, so was he confronted with a similar dilemma in connection with the Egyptians. On the one hand, the Egyptians had a reputation for antiquity and wisdom that was unrivalled in antiquity; on the other hand, the Jews had revolted against the Egyptians; and as the historic heirs of the Jews the Christians were thus associated with rebels. Origen adopts Josephus' argument that the Jews cannot have been a seditious multitude of Egyptians since, if so, they would not have regarded the Egyptian ways so lightly. In a novel argument, Origen then adds that the Jews have an antiquity of their own, as seen by the fact that even non-Jews seek to attain miracles by invoking the names of Abraham and his descendants. Furthermore, since both Celsus and Origen had such a profound respect for Plato, it is important to note that Origen repeats Josephus' view that Plato had been deeply influenced by the Bible; indeed, he adds to Josephus by noting that he was influenced not only by the Torah but also by the Hebrew prophets and not only in the Republic but also in the Symposium, the Phaedrus, the Timaeus, and the Phaedo. Origen goes further than Josephus in answering certain charges made by Celsus that had not been made by the anti-Jewish writers cited by Josephus. In particular, he felt especially sensitive to Celsus' charge that Moses was a charlatan and an impostor, sorcerer, and magician, especially since a similar charge had apparently been made against Jesus. Of course, we must not discount the possibility that rhetoric led both Celsus, in his defense of Egyptian wisdom, and Origen, in his defense of Jewish laws, to champion views that they might not otherwise have held. In both cases they seem to be forced to embrace these views only because of the necessity of assuming that "the more ancient something is, the better." It is surprising to find how sophisticated Origen is. Ultimately, his Hellenic education in general and Platonic training in particular made him a formidable foe of Celsus and a more subtle apologist than Josephus, even if he does depend on much of the latter's work. This is particularly clear when one compares Origen's use of Josephus and more generally his defense of the antiquity and wisdom of ancient Judaism with that of Eusebius in the following century in his apologies directed toward pagans.38

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