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A Question of Origins: The Application of Ethnoracial Categories to Jews and Christians in Contra Celsum

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Title: A Question of Origins: The Application of Ethnoracial Categories to Jews and Christians in Contra Celsum
Author: Applegate, Jesse
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Religion
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Running Time: 70190 bytes151544 bytes
Issue Date: 2008
Abstract: Origen wrote Contra Celsum in response to The True Doctrine by Celsus, a polemic against the Christians, but Celsus’s attack on the Christians actually begins with the Jews. Calling on a counterhistorical exodus tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, he claims that the Jews were originally Egyptians who rebelled, left Egypt, and created new religious practices. This had serious ramifications, according to Celsus, and his use of the terms genos and ethnos are crucial to understanding what these ramifications were. Genos and ethnos were both terms that identified groups in antiquity, and could be defined by any number of physical or social characteristics. Additionally, they could refer both to groups that were fixed and unchangeable, or groups that were fluid and could change. Their relevance did not lie in their exact meaning, therefore, but rather how they functioned, and for Celsus they functioned as both fixed and fluid, depending on the situation. They are fixed when he wants to criticize the Jews for rebelling, because he finds it unacceptable that they simply turned their back on their ancestors’ (the Egyptians) traditions, yet they are fluid enough to allow the Jews to become a separate ethnos. In both cases, though, the defining characteristic of Celsus’s ethnos and genos is religious practice; this allows them to separate from the Egyptians and form their own group, even if they were not supposed to do so. Thus, Celsus presents the Jews as having abandoned the religious practices of the Egyptians for new ones and becoming inferior to every ethnos that did follow the traditions of their ancestors. Celsus’s aim is not really to criticize the Jews, however, but instead the Christians, and according to him, they are even worse because they did to the Jews what the Jews did to the Egyptians: they broke away and started new practices. This means that they rebelled against the traditions of a group who in turn created their own traditions by rebelling against those of another group. Furthermore, because the Christians have actively spread everywhere and are not really even linked to one another by religious practice, they are worse than the inferior ethnos of the Jews, who at least still have unique customs. To Celsus the Christians are not an ethnos at all, and they do not fit into the established societal order. Origen did not want to answer Celsus’s accusation because he felt that it missed the point; being Christian should be about theology and belief, not fitting in as a genos or ethnos, and defending the Christians against Celsus by directly responding to his points would mean giving the paradigm he insisted upon too much attention. In addition, answering Celsus was a difficult task for Origen because it required him to defend the antiquity of the Jews, the ancestors of the Christians, while still arguing that the Christians were justified in breaking away from them. It was a necessary task though, to prevent possible unrest directed toward the Christians that could lead to persecutions. He accomplishes it by using the same conception of genos and ethnos fixity/fluidity as Celsus did, agreeing that fixity and antiquity were important, and claiming that the Jews were a group that had both, but in the case of the Christians allowing that fluidity could be (and should be) acceptable. Origen is also opportunistic regarding the defining trait of genos and ethnos, and he changes it based on the situation. For the Jews, their language shows that they were never Egyptian and so could never have abandoned Egyptian tradition, and for the Christians it is their belief in Jesus as the Messiah which proves that they are the rightful heirs to Jewish tradition. So the Christians reap the benefits of Jewish legitimacy, but still have their break from the Jews justified. While Origen’s argument is rather ingenious, Contra Celsum is still a good example of both the difficulty for Christians of defending against ethnoracial attacks, and the inevitability and necessity of doing so.
Subject: Origen. Contra Celsum
Subject: Jews -- Identity
Subject: Celsus, Platonic philosopher, fl. 180
Subject: Church history -- Primitive and early church, ca. 30-600
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Applegate, Jesse. "A Question of Origins: The Application of Ethnoracial Categories to Jews and Christians in Contra Celsum". 2008. Available electronically from

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