Sunday, August 05, 2007

Early Christian Discernment

In another thread, in which Jon Curry has been making dozens of false and misleading claims, he recently posted two passages from Origen without giving specific citations. The quotes were accompanied by the following comments:

"With regards to these early Christians that are likely to be 'suspicious' about early Christian forgeries (which were widespready) here's an interesting quote from Origen....Hey [Origen says], so what if we teach them to believe without reasons. You [non-Christians like Celsus] do it too, and besides, who has the time to critically examine things. People taught in this way are supposed to be trusted by us thousands of years later? Mostly illiterate unthinking people who believed without reasons way back when, and this is supposed to be relevant to our decision to accept these things. This is why I say this external evidence matters very little."

Keep in mind that Jon posted these comments in the context of a discussion of whether Christians would be suspicious of a document claiming to be written by Paul that arose more than sixty years after Paul's death and allegedly was written under circumstances like those described in 1 Corinthians 16 (with many people aware of the writing of the letter, for example). Jon is addressing whether Christians would have been suspicious of a document like 1 Corinthians if nobody had heard of it until about the year 130. Thus, Jon is suggesting that his quotes from Origen support his doubt that Christians would have enough discernment to be suspicious of such a forgery. The following is what I wrote in response, which may interest some people who aren't following the other thread.

I doubt that you've read much of Origen's treatise against Celsus. I've read it in its entirety. So I know that you're leaving out some relevant information.

Before I discuss this issue further, though, I want to say that your frequent failure to give us documentation for such quotes is irresponsible. You need to make more of an effort to document your claims.

Regarding the passages from Origen, it should first be noted that the sort of material Richard Bauckham and Glenn Miller discuss in the sources I've cited covers far more sources, including the more relevant earlier sources, and goes into far more depth. But even your representation of Celsus and Origen is problematic. As Robert Wilken notes:

"It is also likely that Celsus was acquainted with the first Christian apologetic writings, specifically the work of Justin Martyr, whose apologies had appeared approximately two decades before Celsus wrote his True Doctrine. Some scholars believe that Celsus wrote his book in response to Justin's work and that the specific form of his argument can be attributed to his familiarity with Justin....Though Celsus might make rhetorical points against Christian reliance on faith instead of reason, his more serious arguments assume that Christian thinkers wished to be judged by the same standards as others....Christians and pagans met each other on the same turf. No one can read Celsus's True Doctrine and Origen's Contra Celsum and come away with the impression that Celsus, a pagan philosopher, appealed to reason and argument, whereas Origen based his case on faith and authority....Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 101, 200-201, 203)

The passages you've cited from Origen are Against Celsus 1:9 and 1:10. Here's what Origen goes on to write just after your first quote:

"To which we have to answer, that if it were possible for all to leave the business of life, and devote themselves to philosophy, no other method ought to be adopted by any one, but this alone. For in the Christian system also it will be found that there is, not to speak at all arrogantly, at least as much of investigation into articles of belief, and of explanation of dark sayings, occurring in the prophetical writings, and of the parables in the Gospels, and of countless other things, which either were narrated or enacted with a symbolic signification, as is the case with other systems." (1:9)

Just after what you quoted, Origen comments that it would be a good thing for a person to devote his entire life to the intellect. He goes on to comment that most people can't or won't do so, however, and that the same sort of situation exists among non-Christians. He goes on to comment that Christianity has the advantage of giving the less intellectual person a better belief system (morally, for example) than what somebody like Celsus offers. Origen isn't commending the non-intellectual life or claiming that no Christians are interested in evidence. His response to Celsus arose out of a concern for an intellectual defense of Christianity, and he repeatedly commends the intellectual life and refers to Christians who so live. But the large majority of humans don't live the sort of philosopher's life that he describes above.

Origen goes on to explain (1:13) that Celsus is misrepresenting what Christians mean by passages like 1 Corinthians 3:18-19. He goes on to comment:

"And although, among the multitude of converts to Christianity, the simple and ignorant necessarily outnumbered the more intelligent, as the former class always does the latter, yet Celsus, unwilling to take note of this, thinks that this philanthropic doctrine [Christianity], which reaches to every soul under the sun, is vulgar, and on account of its vulgarity and its want of reasoning power, obtained a hold only over the ignorant. And yet he himself admits that it was not the simple alone who were led by the doctrine of Jesus to adopt His religion; for he acknowledges that there were amongst them some persons of moderate intelligence, and gentle disposition, and possessed of understanding, and capable of comprehending allegories." (1:27)

In other words, as Robert Wilken explains above, Celsus acknowledges that some Christians are more knowledgeable, despite his assertions in some places that all Christians were ignorant. Anybody who has read Against Celsus, as you apparently haven't, should know that Celsus was inconsistent at times. He would act as if all Christians are ignorant at one point, yet acknowledge at another point that some Christians are intelligent.

Origen goes on to comment that the earliest Christians wouldn't have left their traditional religion (Judaism) and have risked their lives for Christianity unless they had evidence for the faith in the form of miracles (1:46). He goes on, a little later, to cite multiple lines of evidence for Jesus' birth in Bethlehem as fulfilled prophecy (1:51), after which he comments that "reasons of no light weight are assigned by those who have learned to state them, for their faith in Jesus" (1:52). Later, he comments that Christianity is different from pagan belief systems in that it has "the support of much evidence" (1:67). He appeals to the significance of hostile corroboration (2:14), eyewitness testimony (3:23), etc. Origen comments that Celsus misrepresents Christian interest in the intellect, and he gives examples of Biblical commandments to pursue wisdom and the requirement that church leaders be knowledgeable (3:44-58). In summary:

"Accordingly, we do not say to each of our hearers, 'Believe, first of all, that He whom I introduce to you is the Son of God;' but we put the Gospel before each one, as his character and disposition may fit him to receive it, inasmuch as we have learned to know 'how we ought to answer every man.' And there are some who are capable of receiving nothing more than an exhortation to believe, and to these we address that alone; while we approach others, again, as far as possible, in the way of demonstration, by means of question and answer. Nor do we at all say, as Celsus scoffingly alleges, 'Believe that he whom I introduce to you is the Son of God, although he was shamefully bound, and disgracefully punished, and very recently was most contumeliously treated before the eyes of all men;' neither do we add, 'Believe it even the more on that account.' For it is our endeavour to state, on each individual point, arguments more numerous even than we have brought forward in the preceding pages." (6:10)

Though most humans don't pursue much of an intellectual life, Origen comments that "many also of the most enlightened of men" become Christians (7:54).

Origen doesn't attempt a detailed treatment of every line of evidence for Christianity. And some of his arguments are better than others. But you don't have to agree with everything Origen wrote, or think that his treatment of every issue is sufficient for every context, in order to recognize that he and the Christians of his day were far more concerned about reason and evidence than your quotes suggest.


  1. I think if I had argued that this comment proves that every Christian was ignorant and unwilling to consider evidence, or that Origen doesn't look at evidence, or that Christians never appeal to evidence, I guess your comments would be relevant. Since none of these statements form any part of the point I'm making, I consider this to be another one of those long, non-responses that are so common from you, and I will expect you to point to this thread and say with indignation "Why won't you respond to my (so called) arguments" if this quote ever comes up again.

    You could go back and try and figure out what my actual point is and try again if you like.

  2. Jon Curry said:

    "You could go back and try and figure out what my actual point is and try again if you like."

    You only quoted some of the most negative comments of Celsus, and you quoted what Origen said about people who are ignorant when they first hear about Christianity. You didn't quote Celsus' acknowledgment that some Christians are more intelligent, you ended your first quote of Origen just before he said that everybody should pursue the intellectual life, and you didn't cite any of Origen's many comments about his own concern for evidence, Biblical commandments to be discerning, the requirement that church leaders be knowledgeable, the fact that people who are ignorant when they become Christians are encouraged to become more knowledgeable, the fact that many of the most intelligent of men become Christians, etc. If you only cite some of the most negative comments of Celsus and Origen, then paraphrase Origen as saying "who has the time to critically examine things", that's highly misleading. And, as I explained above, the sources I've cited (Richard Bauckham, Glenn Miller, etc.) address far more of the relevant evidence and address the Christians who lived prior to Celsus and Origen. You haven't shown a connection between the two passages you cited from Origen and your conclusion that Christians wouldn't have been suspicious of Pauline forgeries that arose more than sixty years after Paul died.