A Comparative Study of the Principles of Piety in Celsus and Their Practice in the Marcan Christ

A mercifully brief essay on the relation of pagan philosophy to the theological views implicitly expounded within Mark's gospel.
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  A comparative study of the principles of piety in Celsus and their practice in the Marcan Christ. One can’t say there is much love lost between Celsus and Christianity, but it is of some interest to examine where the stream of thought of Celsus and the metaphysical delta of proto-orthodox Christianity diverge in their conception of piety or true religion. In this paper we will try to penetrate into the greater issue by investigating a smaller subcase: that of the relationship between the Celsan and Marcan notions of piety. This is to be carried out by first carefully analysing “the true word” of Celsus to gather a sheaf of properties characteristic of what Celsus would see as being intrinsic to the nature of piety. In the second section we will scrutinize the acts of the Marcan Christ in the light of the insight we have reaped in the first part. Having set ourselves two clear targets we can return to investigating the question of what attributes Celsus would ascribe to the idea of piety. It is striking how intimately the two worlds of true religion and reason coincide within the Celsan worldview. This rationalistic predisposition comes forward particularly strongly when Celsus asks the rhetorical questions “why is it an evil …… to have both the reality and appearance of wisdom? What hindrance does this offer to the knowledge of God? Why should it not rather be an assistance, … by which one might …… ar rive at the truth?” . Celsus even indirectly elucidates his vision of the role of reason in deciding matters of faith when he “proofs” the impossibility of the incarnation of god as a human , unknowingly also proving to us that he does not see it as beyond the human mind to decisively affirm or deny theological statements on the ground of pure reason. Taking a more personal approach to the same theme Celsus exhorts us to “follow reason and a rational guide in accepting doctrines on the ground that anyone wh o believes people without so doing is certain to be deceived” . As Celsus has previously used the word doctrine to refer to Judaism it seems obvious that the plural doctrines refers to the complete spectrum of sects, in light of which the sentence seems to make the harsh claim that true religion is unattainable without reason and by extension unattainable for individuals incapable of reason. These claims implicitly made explicit by a central line of attack in Celsus polemic against Christianity which amounts to calling Christians cretins at a rate of about once every three paragraphs, as may be seen in the following brief summation: “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts.” . To summarise the preceding sentences Celsus seeks to underline the necessity of reason in guarding the gates of the mind against false faith and opening them up for true religion. Having treated the Celsan relation between true religion and pure reason at great length we will now move our minds from theological matters and discuss what Celsan piety can mean for you as a social animal. Celsus does not present piety as exclusively dwelling in the society of the mind but as something which actively dictates a certain role in the public sphere and entails a certain tolerant conservatism in regard to established institutions. Reasoning that whatever prosperity may have risen in a given dominion has come to be through the agency of certain superintending spirits “And whatever is done among each nation in this way would be rightly done, wherever it was agreeable to the wishes (of the superintending powers), while it would be an act of impiety to get rid of the institutions established from the beginning” . This notion of tolerant cultural conservatism fits tightly into Hellenistic ecumenism and also establishes why Celsus can scamper some condescending praise for the barbarian Jews .  Furthermore on a nontrivial level this semimystical justification of tradition provides a satisfying explanation as to why Celsus can quote Homer as an authority on kingship , despite the fact that Homer while a pervasive cultural influence was no indisputable moral authority . It must further be noted that the notions of communitarianism and cultural conservatism seems to be fundamental to the Celsan notion of piety as Celsus considers them to be precondition for reason and transitively to be the ground without which “there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of your religion or of the true wisdom” . This argument is also the cornerstone on which his communitarian admonitions to “labour with [your king] in war” and “take office” implicitly and explicitly rest. Having determin ed that a tolerant traditionalism is an essential ingredient of Celsan recipe for piety and prosperity, we must now briefly note that for all his idealistic spiritual ecumenism Celsus does maintain a chauvinistic undercurrent. Briefly put, while “God is the God of all alike” “the Greeks are better able to judge the value of what the barbarians have discovered, and to establish the doctrines and put them into practice by virtue” . In summary we have established that the Celsan notion of piety is an alloy of   a rationalistic attitude to faith with a devotion to the stable state. Now that we have obtained a satisfactory overview of the main characteristics of Celsan piety we finally have a vantage point from which we may judge the Marcan Christ through the eyes of Celsus. Whereas one may instinctively wish to emphasize the incommensurability of the worldviews of the Marcan Christ it would be stimulating to hit of our examination with a bit of ambiguity. Relatively early in the gospel Jesus gets into the followi ng brief dialogue “Some Pharisees came … asking, “Is it lawful … to divorce …?” “What did Moses command …” … “Moses permitted … a certificate of divorce …” “… because your hearts were hard … Moses wrote you this law,”… ”what God has joined toget her, let no one separate.”” . It is an interesting question if we along with Celsus pretend “to grant that the scriptures may be true” . We are then faced with the intriguing question of whether Jesus is acting in a pious manner according to Celsus. On the one hand if it was not srcinally in the divine will that divorce be legalised and as “God is good” according to Celsus what god truly wills must be good as well and thus proper to carry out. Yet in upsetting the authority of the Pharisees or more importantly putting doubt into the integrity of the Pentateuch, Jesus might be tearing apart the social fabric in his attempt to patch up a small hole. Thereby destabilising the establishment that guarantees peace, prosperity and the possible development of true religion. There is no clear way out of the question of whether Jesus is being pious or impious in his response, which decisively demonstrates that we must leave any preconceptions regarding opposition between the Marcan and Celsan notions of piety at the door when we are doing proper textual analysis. Having made an ambiguous measure of the social Jesus we must now at least briefly evaluate the intellectual Jesus. The teaching of Jesus seems to be almost explicitly irational in its claim that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Something that is antithetical to the rationalist piety of Celsus whom half counts children among “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children”.  Succinctly Jesus runs counter to Celsan piety but has an ambiguous score on the social scale. In conclusion we may say that Celsan piety is a blend of a rationalistic intellectual faith with a devotion to the state that makes this faith possible. Jesus would be judged by Celsan piety to be intellectually  impious in his irrational pronouncements but there is no watertight way of ruling if Jesus behaviour as a general “troublemaker” is pious or impious under Christian assumptions.  
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