(Rough Draft. Help me out if you find any typos or bad English.)
Celsus On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians
I just finished reading a translation of Celsus On the True Doctrine this month. Celsus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the second century; a time when the Christian Church was still small, but becoming more visible in the Roman world. Celsus was just one of several writers of anti-Christian polemics in this era. However, most of these works were burned by early Christian emperors in the third century. Celsus’s writings were preserved in the Christian apologetic work Contra Celsum. I read Celsus not to rehash the counter arguments already laid out over a millennium ago in Contra Celsum, but to compare early anti-Christian writings with contemporary anti-Mormon works. Although I expected to find some similarities, I was surprised to find the arguments against the Christians over 1800 years ago are almost identical to those used by both religious and secular critics of Mormonism today.
The translation I read by Joseph Hoffmann begins with a chapter on anti-Christian polemics before Celsus. It contains some of the extraordinary claims and rumors against the Christians from the first and second century. “Rumors of Christian excesses were widespread throughout Asia Minor and were doubtless linked to the popular mind with the nocturnal forest rites of the Bacchae....These rites were thought to include drunkenness, the defilement of women, promiscuous intercourse, and assorted other debaucheries...they occasionally sacrificed and ate their young and indulged in ritual incest at their love banquets.” One Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166?) even described some of these rites in detail: “A young baby is covered over with flour, the object being to deceive the unwary. It is then served before the person to be admitted to the rites. The recruit is urged to inflict blows unto it [which] appear to be harmless because of the covering of flour. Thus the baby is killed with wounds that remain unseen and concealed. It is the blood of this infant—I shudder to mention it–it is this blood that they lick with thirsty lips; the limbs they distribute eagerly; this is the victim by which they seal the covenant.” He goes on: “On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers—all sexes and ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions.....in the shameless dark and with the unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all being equally guilty of incest, some by deed but everyone by complicity.” Doesn’t that sound like every Christian mass you have ever attended? Reading this reminded me of the exaggerated stories of lust involving polygamy in the early church. (The actual lives of my tame, prudish, homely, Victorian, polygamist ancestors is almost to bland to relate.) I’m also reminded of the warning I received from a non-Mormon friend when I was in high school, of the sex and Satan worshipping that I would encounter when I went through the temple the first time. (I’m sorry to disappoint you Deuce Everhart, but what happens in the temple is actually pretty boring.)
We can conjecture from these examples the willingness of the pagans in the first and second centuries to believe anything shocking about the hated Christians, no matter how outrageous. I once had a work acquaintance try to convince me that if a Mormon got behind on his tithing the church would repossess his car. No evidence I presented to the contrary could change his mind.
We also see here the tendency to characterise the activities of any remotely related splinter group or deviant members as the norm for all Christians. Let’s not forget how Under the Banner of Heaven warns us that your Mormon neighbors might try to kill you or how the confused press coverage of the FLDS church would have you believe Mormons all want to have sex with your 13 year old daughter.
Celsus begins his treatise with this statement: “the cult of Christ is a secret society whose members huddle together in corners for fear of being brought to trial and punishment.” I don’t want to spend too much time on Celsus calling the Christian church a “cult”. The Greek word probably did not have the same negative connotations that it does in modern English. However, anyone who wishes to dismiss the LDS church as a “cult” would do well to remember that the early Christians would have met anyone’s definition of a cult. After all, they were a small religious group with a charismatic leader who taught radical doctrines. I am impatient with anyone who calls Mormonism a cult who fails to see that any belief system can be categorized as a cult by those who don’t agree with it. As far as I am concerned, calling Mormons cultists is nothing more than childish name calling.
The accusation of secrecy among the early Christians is one Mormons are familiar with also. Granted, not all of Mormonism’s most sacred rituals are open to the general public. I’m afraid no amount of reassurance will convince those who are determined to believe the worst about us that there is nothing sinister in this secrecy. Also, Celsus tells us why the Christians were secretive - “for fear of being brought to trial and punishment.” Through the last two centuries Mormonism has been accused of being a clannish and closed society. Although I do not excuse this behavior among Mormons where it truly exists (although, again, I think it is exaggerated), one must understand that it originates, at least partially, from the open persecution and social ostracization of the LDS Church.
Celsus goes on to tell us why he is writing his book. “For this reason I have undertaken to compose a treatise for their [the Christian’s] edification, so that they can see for themselves the true character of the doctrines they have chosen to embrace and the true sources of their opinions.” In other words, he is writing it for the Christians' own good. There may never have been an anti-Mormon book written that does not begin with an introduction almost identical to that of Celsus. In fact, Hugh Nibley’s Rule # 5 in How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book (A Handbook for Beginners) is “Proclaim your love for the Mormon people.” Nibley then gives the example from Ann Eliza Young’s book Wife No. 19 which begins, “I feel that I must pay this tribute to the Mormon people. Naturally, they were a law-abiding, peace-loving, intensely religious people.” But then she goes on to say, “Mormonism is entitled to no mercy; it invites fire and the sword. The American people must therefore continue their holy crusade against this antichristian system.” Apparently it does not bother Ms. Young that the victims of this “fire and sword” would be the very Mormon people for whom she has just proclaimed her love. This is typical of every anti-Mormon book, tract or video I have ever read or seen. Their disclaimer is always something like, “before I sarcastically mock the Mormon’s most sacredly held beliefs, I want them to know that I am doing it out of love. And by the way, I understand what you believe better than you do.”
Celsus spends a good portion of his book pointing out how unoriginal the stories behind Christianity are. “This doctrine [the Christian doctrine] has been held not only by the sages among the Jews, but by the wise men of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Indians, Persians, Odrysians, Samothracians, and Eleusinians. The Galactophagi of Homer, the Druids of Gaul and even the Getae (for example) believe doctrines very close to those believed by the Jews – indeed, before the Jews. Linus, Musaeus, Orpheus, Pherecydes, Zoroaster the Persian, and Pythagoras understood these doctrines, and their opinions were recorded in books which are still to be consulted.” The argument here is that since the teachings of Christians (and the Jews) have parallels in paganism, the Christian myths must be plagiarisms and untrue. This argument has been repeated by critics of the Book of Mormon. Fawn Brodie’s theory that Joseph Smith got the idea for the Book of Mormon from View of the Hebrews follows this argument. Other critics point out parallelisms between the Book of Mormon and the Bible (the conversion of Alma the Younger to the conversion of Saul is one example). But parallelism does not necessarily mean plagiarism. Hugh Nibley notes, “of recent years, literary studies have shown parallels not to be the exception but the rule in the world of creative writing, and it is well known that great inventions and scientific discoveries have a way of appearing at about the same time in separate places......The fact that two theories or books present parallelisms, no matter how striking, may imply a common source, but it certainly does not in itself prove that the one is derived from the other.” In fact, just because I can see striking parallels between Celsus and every anti-Mormon work I have every encountered does not prove that they used Celsus as a source.
Celsus uses rumors of Jesus’s bad character and background to undermine his religion. To a hypothetically present Jesus he asks: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumors about the true and unsavory circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in royal David’s city of Bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town, and of a woman who earned her living by spinning? Is it not the case that when her deceit was discovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a Roman Soldier named Panthera she was driven away by her husband– the carpenter– and convicted of adultery? Indeed, is it not so that in her disgrace, wandering far from home, she gave birth to a male child in silence and humiliation? What more? Is it not so that you hired yourself out as a workman in Egypt, learned magical crafts, and gained something of a name for yourself which now you flaunt among your kinsmen?” The rumors that Jesus was actually the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier and that he learned magic and healing tricks while in Egypt, by which he later fooled his countrymen, apparently came from people in his own home town of Nazareth. How similar are these unfounded rumors to the affidavits of the Smith family’s unfriendly neighbors in Palmyra, NY, collected by the ex-Mormon H.P. Hurlbut and propagated by the anti-Mormon Eber D. Howe in Mormonism Unvailed. These quotes, all of questionable reliability, are included in almost every anti-Mormon "history" of Joseph Smith even today.
An obvious similarity in Celsus’s attack on Christianity and contemporary evangelical attacks on Mormonism is his representation of the doctrine of the virgin birth. He says, “a beautiful woman must his mother have been, that this Most High God should want to have intercourse with her!” I am reminded of the cartoon in the anti-Mormon mockumentary The God Makers showing God the Father coming to earth in a spaceship, knocking on Mary’s door, giving her a flirtatious look and being invited inside. Ed Decker is guilty of the exact same misrepresentation as Celsus. To take a sacred belief that neither Mormons nor traditional Christians claim to fully understand and present it in such a crude manner is not only unfair, it is unseemly.
On the evidence for Christ's resurrection, Celsus questions the reliability of the witnesses. Of Mary Magdalene and the others who claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ he says, “A hysterical woman, as you admit - and perhaps one other person - both deluded by his sorcery or else so wrenched with grief as his failure that they hallucinated him risen from the dead by a sort of wishful thinking.....Just as possible, these deluded women wanted to impress the others—who had already the good sense to have abandoned him—by spreading their hallucinations about as ‘visions.’” How similar is this attack to those on the reliability of the three witnesses of the Golden Plates (none of whom ever denied having seen the plates with their own eyes and having handled them, although all of them at one time or other left the fellowship of the Church).
Celsus also notes the inconsistencies in the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels. Critics also attack the different accounts of the First Vision as proof that it never happened. This, although only one account was actually given by Joseph Smith himself. Closer scrutiny shows that there are no true inconsistencies in the accounts of the resurrection or the first vision. (But that’s another whole paper.)
Throughout On the True Doctrine, Celsus likes to characterize the Christians as ignorant and poor. “Their [the Christians'] injunctions are like this: ‘Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone childish, let him come boldly.’ By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their god, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.” We cannot deny that many of the converts to Mormonism have been the humble, poor and uneducated. While on his mission to England Brigham Young wrote to Joseph Smith: “Almost without exception it is the poor that receive the gospel.” However, when people actually get to know LDS individuals they are often surprised by their sophistication. As General John B. Clark (cursed be his name) prepared to expel the Mormons from Missouri he told them: “I am sorry, gentlemen to see a great number of apparently intelligent men found in the situation that you are; and oh! That I could invoke that Great Spirit, the unknown God, to rest upon you, and make you sufficiently intelligent to break the chain of superstition, and liberate you from those fetters of fanaticism....that you no longer worship a man.” During the most recent Republican presidential primary campaign some were perplexed by Mitt Romney, an obviously intelligent man (graduating first in his class at Harvard business and law school) who apparently believed the mumbo-jumbo of Mormonism. Some pundits went so far as to speculate that Romney must not truly believe it; he was just pretending to believe to appear respectable and consistent. I don’t know what is more insulting, to be told that you are stupid for holding your cherished beliefs or to be accused of not really believing them at all.
Another common attack by anti-Mormons is that Mormons worship a “different god” from traditional Christians and that they are not truly monotheistic. Celsus used this argument against the Christians also. “Further, for all their exclusiveness about the highest god, do not the Jews [and Christians] also worship angels......Christians proclaim they have the same god as do the Jews, others insist that there is another god higher than the creator-god and opposed to him. And some Christians teach that the Son came from this higher god. Still others admit of a third god.....Now, if the Christians worshiped only one God they might have reason on their side. But as a matter of fact they worship a man who appeared only recently. They do not consider what they are doing a breach of monotheism; rather, they think it perfectly consistent to worship the great God and to worship his servant as God.” In other words, the Christian God is a different God from that of the Jews and Christians, in believing in angels and the Trinity, are essentially polytheistic. (For more on the apparent belief in the plurality of gods among the early Jews and Christians see The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God by Margaret Barker.)
And speaking of the nature of God, one of the most interesting passages in On the True Doctrine involves the corporality of God. “The Christians say that God has hands, a mouth, and a voice; they are always proclaiming that ‘God said this’ or ‘God spoke.’ ‘The heavens declare the work of his hands,’ they say. I can only comment that such a God is no god at all, for God has neither hands, mouth, nor voice, nor any characteristics of which we know. And they say that God made man in his own image, failing to realize that God is not at all like a man, nor vice versa; God resembles no form know to us. They say that God has form, namely the form of the Logos, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. But we know that God is without shape, without color. They say that God moved above the waters he created–but we know that it is contrary to the nature of god to move. Their absurd doctrines even contain reference to God walking about in the garden he created for man; and the speak of him being angry, jealous, moved to repentance, sorry, sleepy – in short, as being in every respect more a man than a God. They have not read Plato, who teaches us in the Republic that God (the Good) does not even participate in being...this God of the philosophers is himself the underivable, the unnameable; he cannot be reached by reason.” Apparently at the time of Celsus it was common knowledge that Christians [and Jews] believed in a God with body, parts and passions - an Exalted Man. Ironically, traditional Christians have adopted a god that is identical to the “god of the philosophers” described by Celsus above, and now claim that Mormons are not true Christians because they don’t believe in this unfathomable creature.
Finally, Celsus questions Christians’ place in society: “If they [Christians] persist in refusing to worship the various gods who preside over the day-to-day activities of life [the pagan gods of Rome], then they should not be permitted to live until marriageable age; they should not be permitted to marry, to have children, nor to do anything else over which a god presides.” What rights Mormons should have in American society has always been hotly debated. Should the people of Missouri and Illinois have been forced to live near the odd and dangerous Mormons? Should Reed Smoot have been seated in the Senate? Is any Mormon fit to hold the office of the Presidency of the United States? Should Mormons be allowed to be politically active on moral issues like Proposition 8?
This book report ended up being much longer than I anticipated. I will conclude by saying that anyone who chooses to attack Mormonism, either religiously or secularly, should watch themselves closely for hypocrisy. Also, any Mormon should feel in good company when they are persecuted for their beliefs, for thus they did persecute the Christians of old. Things seemed to turn out O.K. for them, and I predict they will for us also. (Oh, except the Christians that were thrown to the lions - things didn’t turn out great for them. And those Mormons at Haun’s Mill and Far West - they weren’t too lucky either.)