It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.
Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.
We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.
In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)
To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.
The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.
Being forced through a birth canal? “A god would not have had such a body as yours. … The body of a god would not have been begotten the way you, Jesus, were begotten. … Since he already knew how to create people he could have created a body for this spirit and not cast his spirit into such defilement.” (p. 29)
Fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents? “It is not reasonable for a god to have feared death.” (p. 33)
Working as a carpenter and eventually becoming a poverty-stricken preacher? “Why then when you were grown did you not reign? But you, child of God, ignobly beg in this manner, poking about in fear and wandering up and down in ruin.” (p.35). Elsewhere, Celsus calls Jesus “small and ugly and ignoble.”
Calling disciples from the ranks of the overlooked and despised? “Jesus, choosing ten or eleven infamous people for himself, the most evil tax collectors and sailors, ran away here and there shamefully and with difficulty collecting food.” (p. 35)
Heck, simply being a human being with an actual body that needs food and drink (and, it can be imagined, to use the bathroom)? “The body of a god would not be of such a kind as yours. … The body of a god does not eat such things. … The body of a god does not use such a voice or such a form of persuasion.” (p. 40)
Beyond these aspects of the incarnation, Celsus simply could not accept the idea of a God who would die willingly: “What god, or demon, or prudent person who knew beforehand that such things would happen to him, would not (if he could) have avoided them, but instead encountered what he foreknew?” (p. 46)
To be abandoned by his friends and arrested by his enemies? “It was not possible if he were a god … to be led away bound, and even least of all if he was considered to be a savior, son, and messenger of the greatest God to be abandoned and betrayed by his companions.” (p. 49)
To ask that he not endure the suffering he foreknew? “Why does he implore loudly and pray to escape the fear of death?” (p. 49)
It’s clear that Celsus is applying the traditional Greco-Roman ideas about the gods to the Jesus story. Gods might fraternize with humans to some extent, but to actually become one? To die? To show emotion? To face pain and death with anything but, ahem, Stoicism? Outrageous.
As Cook writes, “Celsus views Jesus as a Greek god who does not experience pain. … The bottom line for Celsus … is that Jesus ‘ought not to have died.’” (p. 50)
What should Jesus have done instead? According to Celsus, he should have “despise[d] people” who attacked him. “Or did he laugh and jest about what was happening to him?” Since he did not, he couldn’t be God. (p. 52)
To sum it up in one quote, Celsus mockingly summarizes the Christian claim: “Believe that the one whom I am describing to you is the son of God even though he was most dishonorably bound, most shamefully punished, and even though yesterday and the day before he roamed about disgracefully before all eyes.” (p. 53)
But here’s the kicker: Not only did Jesus earn Celsus’ derision, so did his followers. Because of it was unacceptable for a god to become human, so it was for a religious sect to cavort with the likes of the poor and the female.
Celsus practically snorts as he describes (in Origen’s paraphrase) how Christians “urgently avoid people of taste because they are not ready to be deceived and … entrap countrified individuals.” (p. 39)
Mocking the universality and egalitarianism of the Christian message, Celsus sneers: “Whoever is a sinner, whoever is witless, whoever is a little child, and to say it simply, whoever is ill-starred, the kingdom of God will receive that person.” (pp. 43-44)
One thousand, eight hundred Christmases later, the notion of the incarnation no longer seems so outrageous. Its implications no longer seem so society-altering.
But when first proposed, the idea the creator of the universe would become a human – would choose to be born, live, breathe, eat, drink, cry, laugh, poop, crave, be betrayed, and die – was radical.
And what that meant for the value of every other human – including slaves; women; children; the poor; the disabled; the weak; the oppressed; and ethnic, religious and political minorities – was equally radical. It meant that everyone bore the image of God, and that God now identified intimately with the condition of these humans. For the first time, God had experienced personally the suffering humans experienced.
That’s why the incarnation matters. For all of the (important) focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection as vital parts of the restoration of the good but broken universe, none of it is possible without the confounding, outrageous, radical notion that a god would enter into the brokenness and suffering of human existence.
Celsus found it a ridiculous idea; he wasn’t wrong. He understood, better than we do today, how taking seriously the incarnation upends the religious and social orders. What it means for humanity if God did actually do that.
This Christmas, may we rediscover that sense of the logical impossibility of our own confession and allow it to upend our own carefully constructed sense of how the world should be.