Last week Tom Holland reflected on the ‘utter strangeness’ of Christianity’s claim that Christ’s death on the cross was a sign of strength. St Paul agreed: ‘We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the gentiles [correcting the SJV ‘Greeks’] foolishness.’ So did pagan philosophers, who argued fiercely about the nature of the gods. One such was Celsus (2nd C ad), who wrote an anti-Christian diatribe, ‘The True Doctrine’. It survives only in the quotations used by Origen in refuting it (248 ad).
Though Celsus had a sense of humour (Christians respected the cross as the tree of life: had Jesus been thrown off a cliff, would there be a cliff of life?), he was deadly earnest about Christianity. Did Christ’s miracles demonstrate that he was the son of God? Of course not, he argued: magicians were ten a penny across the Roman world, doing this sort of thing all the time. Did God come down to live as a man among men? No deity, all-perfect and all-wise, could so change his nature as to become an imperfect, wicked human. Further, why should an omnipotent and omniscient god have to come to earth? Surely he understood the human condition from where he was, and could reform it from there. And why at one moment in history? Did he not care for all his creation?
Then again, the universe was an ordered place, ruled by the laws of nature and reason. But it was wholly irrational to make dead men live and their imperfect flesh perfect: such a random deity was not worthy of devotion. Then again, given some humans had been known to become gods for their great deeds (e.g. Heracles), there was no way that Jesus, a mere jobbing magician, was fit to join their number. Finally, was there one high god or not? Pagans worshipped the one high god by worshipping the various lesser deities. If there were two high gods, as Christians seemed to think, there must be a single one above them.
No wonder ‘St Peter’, alert to the attacks which the strange Christian message would invite, had earlier urged Christians to be ‘ready to provide a defence of the reason for the hope that is in you’ (1.3.15).