How the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem to punish the Jews for killing Christ
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For a general introduction to Origen and Against Celsus, please see the commentary on Against Celsus I.3.
At the opening of the extract quoted above we read of “Celsus’s Jew,” who is mentioned in various other places throughout Against Celsus. In II.28 Origen accuses Celsus of inventing this anonymous Jewish speaker in order to act as a mouthpiece for his own views, particularly because the viewpoints expounded by this Jew apparently did not fit with what Origen himself knew of Jews. Several modern scholars also hold this opinion that Celsus invented the figure (see, for example, Horacio Lona, Kelsos, p. 172-173). However, Maren Niehoff has recently proposed that the sections of Celsus’s The True Doctrine which Origen attributes to this anonymous Jew did in fact come from a written source composed in Alexandria in the mid-second century CE. Niehoff maintains that an educated Alexandrian Jew unhappy with the effect that the increasing spread of Christianity had had on the Jewish community responded by composing a refutation of the Christian Gospels (“A Jewish Critique of Christianity”). The debate remains open, and cannot be discussed further here.
Origen tells us in the opening of the present passage that “the Jew” (or Celsus) has doubted Jesus’s claim to have had prior knowledge of everything that was going to happen to him. This position, Origen argues, cannot be logically defended when one considers that Jesus accurately predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Romans (Luke 21:20; compare Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14). Moreover, Origen claims, it cannot be maintained that those who were witnesses to Jesus’s teachings at the time (which were subsequently preserved in the Gospels) did not write them down, leaving the authors of the Gospels with no sources from which to work with. Origen’s simplistic explanation of the transmission of Jesus’s teachings aside, his understanding of Jesus as a legitimate prophet is unmistakable, and the fulfilment of his words regarding the besieging of the Jerusalem Temple here provide his proof of this.
Origen goes on to explain that at the time when Jesus spoke these words, the Temple was of course not currently surrounded by Roman armies. Rather, the siege of Jerusalem occurred later, beginning during the emperor Nero’s reign (54-68 CE) and continuing until that of Vespasian (69-79 CE). It was Vespasian’s son, the future emperor Titus (reigned between 79 and 81 CE), who ultimately destroyed the Temple with his armies in 70 CE (this is famously commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome; the dynastic aspect of this conquest is also stressed in Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica I.5-17; Silius Italicus, Punica III.594-629; Martial, Epigrams II.2). What is interesting for our purposes is the way in which Origen’s portrayal of this momentous event fits into the broader early-Christian perception of it as a punishment for the Jews for their behaviour. The destruction of the Temple, and the role of the Romans as divine agents of God in punishing sinful Jewish behaviour was a popular theme among ancient Christian authors, including the author of the Gospel of Luke. For example, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas argues that the building of the Temple exemplified that the Jews were descending into idolatrous practices, consecrating God in a manmade structure. As such, the Romans were carrying out God’s will by destroying it (see the commentary on 16.1-5). Origen’s argument, however, focuses on a different aspect: an apparent claim made by Josephus (see the discussion below) that the destruction of the Temple was understood as punishment for the Jews’ treatment of James the Just, the brother of Jesus Christ, and Origen’s own view that the Jews were really being punished for their treatment of Christ himself.
Wataru Mizugaki has argued that Origen did in fact have a substantial knowledge of Josephus’s works, knowing the correct Greek term for Jewish Antiquities (’Ιουδαικὴ ’Αρχαιολογία, Ioudaikē Archaiologia) and that it consisted of twenty books (see “Origen and Josephus,” p. 327-328; on the present passages, see p. 329). For Mizugaki, Origen draws on Josephus prominently in his Against Celsus because he views Josephus as a source of authority among Greeks that could aid his refutation of the Greek Celsus. However, it should be noted that in the present passage, Origen draws a contrast between what Josephus writes, and what the truth actually reveals (i.e. that is was Jesus’s death for which the Jews were punished, not James’s) (“Origen and Josephus,” p. 335-336). This is not the only place where Origen refers to the notion that the Jews understood the Temple’s decimation as punishment for executing James, brother of Jesus, and attributes it to Josephus (see also his Commentary On Matthew X.17 and Against Celsus I.47). Indeed, he mentions it three times in his works (including the present treatise) composed between 244 and 249 CE. The topic of the destruction of the Temple more generally is one which Origen visits elsewhere, also drawing on Josephus’s account and interpreting it according to his own theology (see the fragments of Origen’s Commentary on Lamentations 109.5; Mizugaki, “Origen and Josephus,” p. 333). Here, however, he claims that Josephus believed that the events of 70 CE were the Jews’ punishment for having killed “James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.” In Jewish Antiquities XX.200, Josephus uses a similar expression to refer to James to that used by Origen’s Celsus: “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”; however, this is in the context of a description of his execution by stoning at the instruction of the high priest Ananus, and has nothing to do with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
In his Commentary on Matthew X.17, Origen speaks of the “righteousness” of James “as a basis for what befell Jerusalem” (John Painter, Just James, p. 206). It is in both the present passage and Against Celsus I.47 that he uses the phrase “James the Just,” a Christian appellation, rather than a verbatim quote of Josephus. Indeed, none of Origen’s references to Josephus on the relationship of James’s death to the destruction of the Temple have precise references. This raises questions. In his Ecclesiastical History (written after Origen’s time), Eusebius develops this tradition about James and the siege of Jerusalem. Eusebius also attributes the destruction of the Temple as punishment for James’s death to Josephus, and like Origen (but uncharacteristically for Eusebius) does not give an exact reference (Ecclesiastical History II.23.20). Perhaps Eusebius uses Origen’s claims here because he cannot himself find the appropriate quotation in Josephus (see Painter, Just James, p. 206). Eusebius also provides a narrative from Hegesippus (an author of the second century CE), claiming that immediately following James’s martyrdom at the hands of the Jews, Vespasian besieged Jerusalem (Ecclesiastical History II.23.18). It would seem unlikely that the usually careful Origen would mistake Hegesippus’s words for those of Josephus; however, it remains uncertain precisely where Origen’s direct attribution to Josephus of a connection between the destruction of the Temple and James’s martyrdom comes from. Regardless, the implication is that there was perceived to be a direct connection between the two events, even though in reality, James’s death occurred eight years prior to the events of 70 CE. As Painter points out, however, James’s martyrdom is still closer to the destruction of the Temple than the martyrdom of Christ, and so it is perhaps not surprising that Christianity developed this connection (Just James, p. 207). At the end of the present extract, however, Origen directly shifts the focus from James back to Jesus, and it is clear that for him, the fulfilment of Jesus’s prophecy about Jerusalem is evidence that it was in fact divine retribution for Christ’s own death at Jewish hands.
To conclude, in the present text we see the recurring theme of the Romans being utilised by God to carry out his vengeance upon the wayward Jewish people. While not going so far as to paint the militaristic actions of the Romans in a positive light, this conception places them at God’s disposal, under control as representatives of his will, and continues the tradition of placing responsibility for Jesus’s death in Jewish, rather than Roman hands, which we see as early as the Gospel of Luke. The view that the Romans’ subduing of the Jewish people was in part God’s plan to punish them for their sins was not specific to Christians, however, and is seen in Jewish sources also, notably Josephus.