Pearse’s “Perfect Little Pigs” or Translating Celsus

Since it first appeared on his blogspace in 2002, the most frequently Googled article about me—depressingly—is a piece called “Celsus, Origen and Hoffmann” by a certain freelance Tadler named Roger Pearse. The irritable Mr. Pearse has become in the intervening years a watchful enemy of my work and a sort of unconsecrated bishop in the church of Anglo-Patristic Orthodoxy. So dutiful is his vigilance in this office (by day Mr. Pearse disguises himself as an unassuming computer programmer) that I have occasionally felt remorse at not giving him enough work to watch. This may seem petulance, I know. But I prefer to think of it as anger; and as Aristotle reminds us, “To be angry with the right man, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way is not easy.”

In his screed, Mr. Pearse’s main issue is that in a 1987 work entitled Celsus: On the True Doctrine (Oxford University Press) I played fast and free with the words of the fierce 2nd century anti-Christian philosopher—about whose identity, I should mention, we are grossly under-informed. Celsus’ “words”—which once added up to a full-blown treatise—are known to us only from the longwinded rejoinder Contra Celsum, written by an equally irritable Church father named Origen (CE 185-254). We cannot know whether the Christian teacher played “fast and free” with the pagan thinker, so in reconstructing Celsus’ diatribe we are dependent on seeing Origen as a man of virtue, temperance, and irrefragable rightness, as Mr. Pearse, with the ingenuousness of a chorister, clearly does. But history does not.

Among his many zealous indiscretions were Origen’s self-castration (all the better to tutor girls in the gospels with, my dear), his masochistic encouragement of (others’) martyrdom, and a wrong-headedness about almost every significant theological issue of his day, which effected to create him heretic after his death in 254. Eusebius comments charitably on Origen’s “inexperienced and youthful heart,” when he might simply have called him a cowboy.

Like all turgid Alexandrian theologians—and, believe me, there are many still at work, though they have since migrated to Grand Rapids, Cambridge, and Chicago—Origen quotes his enemy freely, lengthily, and smugly. “Freely,” in this case, means unsystematically—which accounts for the need, at times, to “conjoin” snippets of Celsus that Origen has separated and to separate bits that Origen has joined. Pearse, convinced that Origen was working with the Authorized Version of Celsus’ work, by chapter and verse, shudders when I do this. And like all priggish Oxford Movementophiles, Mr. Pearse quotes me quoting Origen quoting Celsus with equal zeal, if less impressive purpose, taking special exception to the following:

“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. 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 per Origen, CC, 5.64)

Compare this, Pearse dares, not to the original but to “the standard edition of Origen’s Contra Celsum by Henry Chadwick:

“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’.

Before our Dear Reader Dozes, and with deference to Professor Henry Chadwick whose work I trust and tutelage I admire, my intellectual duty here was to Celsus, not to Origen (or Homer), and Celsus’s valuable point is about Christian heterodoxy and sectarian rivalry—Gnostics, ascetics, “orthodox” and others—and Chadwick’s literal translation largely fails to convey this point. Celsus knew (Pearse finds it dull) that Christian Orthodoxy was a result of episcopal intolerance, not an act of Providence reported by the bishops. That is why the French, with sexist hauteur, have said that translations, like women, are either beautiful or faithful but never both. Here what is wanting in fidelity (not much) accurately displays the fact that Celsus knew that Christianity in the year 180 was not a garden but a barnyard full of squawking hens. And Origen (as Porphyry knew) was one of them.

At times, indeed, Mr. Pearse appears to think that my atheism, which is of the shallow but stubborn type, has fused with the ancient philosopher’s anti-Christianism: Celsus (his thinking seems to run) was a pagan nettle in the emerging garden of sweetly planted Orthodoxy. Origen, the gardener, knew a thing or two about weeds, the proof of which is that it took nearly 2000 years for the nettles to reappear in the form of rationalist critiques of Christian dogma and Celsus-like harangues against the absurdity of Christian belief and believers. “A lot of atheists,” Pearse laments, “are quoting portions of R. J Hoffmann’s Celsus…as if it were an accurate representation of what Celsus wrote.” But “in fact,” says Pearse happily, “[Celsus’ work] is lost and can only be reconstructed from Origen Contra Celsum.” Message: Hoffmann, prototokos tou Satanou, can only have dug the pagan up out of a mischievous contempt for Christian theology or a salacious regard for pagan ridicule. Mind you, Mr. Pearse does not say these last two things. But he should have because they are both true.

Celsus was no atheist. That opprobrium he reserved for the Christians, whose God was not worth a philosophical fart and so did not deserve to be the subject of “Logos” or reasoned discourse. But Mr. Pearse is correct in one particular: The resonance between Celsus and modern secularism and atheism is significant, even startling. And despite Origen’s efforts to minimize the damage Celsus’s treatise had caused to the Church when it appeared—some 70 years or so before Origen penned his response—the main value of the Christian apologist’s defense was an inadvertent one, noticed first by philosophers in the Enlightenment: Origen had preserved a large portion of the very critique of the Christian faith he had sought to eradicate. I think only the discovery of Sapphic lyrics among the papyrus stuffing used to pack antiquities has had a more beneficial result. In fact, this is not as distant a comparison as it might seem, since there is a strong (unprovable) tradition that it was Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (324-379), father (!) of the saint by the same name, who incited to have Sappho’s works burned, along with those of the pagan philosophical “persecutors” of the Church—Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, the ‘Apostate.’

I sometimes muse that “fundamentalism” exists in many forms, but the chief two are love of the Bible and love of the Church. These two forms do not mix well. Those who love the Church, and believe interpretation of the Bible belongs to it, will see the orthodox settlement of 325, and Trinitarian orthodoxy, as the high point of Christian civilization. Those who love the Bible will see Jesus and the gospels that tell his story as significantly removed from (and irrelevant to) the historical process that lead to Orthodoxy and, finally Catholicism. By temperament (apud Luther) they will see Catholic orthodoxy as a corruption of an irretrievable original Christianity inherent in the Gospel. Both historical models are flawed, of course, and conceptually naive and under-analyzed. But there you are.

The Oxford Movement—the Newmans, Kebles, and Puseys—loved the Church more than the Bible. No, that is too simple: Catholic and Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox theology have traditionally loved the Church instead of the Bible. Judging from Mr. Pearse’s unapologetic ascription of his site as, so does he. But this “love,” this uncritical devotion to the ipsissima verba of ancient intolerant men under the camouflage of a higher standard of truth or authenticity, is no excuse for the historical stupidity that his site and criticism purvey. And if only Tertullian had lived to see it, he would smile to know that a word he arguably contributed to the western Christian lexicon—trinitas—became the ultimate stumbling block, the surd so offensive to reason that it could only be “believed.” Oddly, in the Church-based form of fundamentalism, the denial of the absurd becomes the irrational. Celsus saw this, and in a passage which Mr. Pearse acknowledges I got largely right, quotes:

“One ought first to follow reason as a guide before accepting any doctrine, 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.” (Contra Celsum 1.9; Hoffmann, 53-4)

R. Joseph Hoffmann is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Wells College and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Inquiry International.

Comments are closed.