Origen, Against Celsus VIII.70

The benefits if the Roman empire were to embrace Christianity

Name of the author: 
Origen of Alexandria
248 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Against Celsus

For a general introduction to Origen, please see the commentary on Against Celsus I.3.

The present commentary deals with Origen’s famous rebuttal of Celsus, the earliest known Greek intellectual to produce a written challenge to Christianity (in the form of his The True Doctrine, which has not survived in its original form; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.36, where Origen is cited as having refuted this work). His original context for his knowledge of the new religion was Alexandria, although he seems later to have visited Rome, as he is aware of Marcion’s teachings (see Against Celsus VI.51-53; 74), who founded a church in Rome. Celsus criticises the Christians for their misinterpretation of Plato’s ideas, and for being a movement of the uneducated and illiterate, rather than the intellectual elite. He also accused the Christians of reprehensible and illegal social and political practices, such as gathering in secret to perform magic, and removing themselves from civic life. In his Contra Celsum, or Against Celsus, Origen addresses these accusations. At the start of his multi-volume apologetic treatise (see I.41) Origen promises to respond to every point raised by Celsus in his The True Doctrine (indeed, Origen is essentially our source for Celsus’s text), but he does not actually do this. Nonetheless, he frequently quotes from it, and appears to reproduce the majority of the text and follow its structure (see Maren Niehoff, “A Jewish Critique of Christianity,” p. 154).

 Shortly prior to the present passage, in VIII.68, Origen has refuted Celsus’s apparent claim that one ought not to disregard the statement of Homer (see the Iliad II.205) that the one true king is he who has been chosen by Zeus. Celsus has argued, according to Origen, that abandonment of this doctrine by the Christians will bring about punishment by the Roman emperor, out of worry that he himself would be abandoned. Moreover, if everyone in the empire followed the example of the Christians, power would subsequently fall into the hands of the ruthless barbarians. Origen answers this criticism by quoting Daniel 2:21 (“He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings…” NRSV), arguing that while it is true there should be one ruler, this should be God. The Homeric doctrine, then, can be kept, but the idea of the divine right of the king should be transferred to the Jewish-Christian God. Origen proceeds to argue that this would not result in the abandonment of the emperor, however, or barbarians being given power, because if everyone followed the example of the Christians, then the barbarians too would be converted, and become “law-abiding and mild.” This discussion continues into VIII.69, where Origen discusses the question (supposedly raised by Celsus) of what would happen if all the Romans became convinced of Christian doctrine and ceased worshipping their traditional gods. Origen states that this would result in the Romans being able to defeat more enemies than even the ancient Jews did with the prayers of Moses. Effectively, Origen suggests that Rome could essentially replace Israel.

In the present extract from VIII.70, Origen claims that if it were the case, as Celsus hypothesises, that the Roman empire completely converted to Christianity, then they would be superior to their foes, and would not even need to fight wars any more. Rather, the Romans would in this situation enjoy divine favour and protection. Origen draws here on Genesis 18:24-26 as support, where God vows to Abraham to protect the city of Sodom if just fifty righteous men could be found within in. Those who belong to God, Origen states, are “the salt of the world,” who maintain the status quo on earth for as long as the salt does not go bad (i.e. for as long as these God-fearing individuals remain righteous) (see Matthew 5:13 where this metaphor is found). The implication, then, is that in theory, the Romans could be perfectly capable of falling into this category of the “salt of the earth,” who work to ensure the stability of the world (such ideology was of course already present in imperial concepts of the benefits of Roman rule and the Pax Romana).

As Joseph Trigg states, Origen did not expect in reality that the Roman empire would become entirely Christian (see VIII.72, where he concedes that universal peace was unlikely to be achieved on this earth) (Origen, p. 236). However, the sentiment expressed here, that even the Romans, who Origen elsewhere acknowledges as great persecutors of Christianity (see Against Celsus II.13), could be recipients of God’s favour if they were to convert is in line with his wider understanding of the empire as in some ways beneficial. For instance, in II.30 he recognises that God’s sanctioning of the empire was made apparent when the Logos became incarnate during the reign of the emperor Augustus, who proceeded to bring various kingdoms together under one rule. This latter achievement could certainly be interpreted as exemplifying the stabilising behaviour of the righteous, alluded to in the present passage. In theory, then, the Romans could win God’s favour, and if they were to do so, their already impressive dominion would be made even greater.
Bibliographical references: 


Crouzel, HenribookOrigenEdinburghT&T Clark1989
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