Pagans against Genesis


Confused, inferior and philosophically unsound: the Greco-Roman critique of the Old Testament could have been written today

In the early 3rd century BCE, the biblical book of Genesis was translated from Hebrew into Greek in order to be read by the Jewish communities of the diaspora who no longer understood Hebrew. Though the book could now be read by non-Jewish Greeks, it did not incite much commentary or hostility because Judaism was not a missionary religion. Most Greeks felt no need to quarrel with the Jews. But with the rise of Christianity – a decidedly missionary religion – the situation changed. Christians adopted the Greek Bible from the Jews, and in their proselytising efforts they confronted non-Jews with this book, which they took to prove that the coming of Christ had been predicted by Moses and the prophets. Between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE, pagans struck back against the new Christian challenge, arguing that the Greek Bible (the Old Testament) was an inferior work, confused and philosophically unsound. There are three Platonist philosophers who stood foremost in the philosophical fight against the Christians and their book of Genesis: Celsus, Porphyry and Julian the Apostate.

Celsus, the first pagan writer known to have drawn extensively on Genesis, wrote his massive anti-Christian work The True Doctrine between 175 and 180 CE. It does not survive. But some 70 years later, his book at last received its equally massive counterattack in the Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria’s work Against Celsus (c248 CE). Origen’s book contains extensive quotations and paraphrases of Celsus, allowing us to examine the role that Genesis played in his polemics against Christians and Jews. As with other later Platonists, Celsus firmly believed that the ‘true doctrine’, which is of divine origin, is to be found in the age-old traditions passed on since time immemorial by wise ‘barbarian’ (that is, non-Greek) nations, such as the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Indians, etc. There is, he says, an ancient doctrine that has existed from the beginning of time, and has always been maintained by the wisest nations and most perspicacious humans. But much to Origen’s indignation, Celsus excludes the Jews from this list. Celsus argues that the Jews, instructed by Moses, perverted this tradition by insisting that there is only one God, and by abandoning the customs and practices that are part and parcel of this old tradition. In fact it is precisely this novelty that disqualifies the Jews from taking their position among the wise ‘barbarians’.

In Celsus, we find for the first time all the major issues in the debate about the Bible between Christians (and, by implication, Jews) and the Greco-Roman intellectuals that remained standard topics from then on. The arguments sometimes sound surprisingly modern. These include the utter lack of literary quality of the Bible, the glaring contradictions between the various biblical books, and the chronological inconsistencies. The Bible is also charged to be a product of plagiarism containing highly implausible prophecies and, most importantly, promoting a philosophically untenable concept of God – a God that is anthropomorphic.

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