Pagan Testimony

Did the early Christians worship Jesus Christ as God incarnate, or did they hold him in esteem as a prophet and teacher? Pagan observers of Christianity have no vested interest in the matter. These observers report Christians worshipping Jesus Christ as God.

 Pliny the Younger 

Pliny the Younger

Letter by Pliny the Younger to Trajan, early second century:

"They asserted, however, that the amount of their fault or error was this: that they had been accustomed to assemble on a fixed day before daylight and sing by turns a hymn to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, nor for any crime, but to commit neither theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, not to break their word and not to deny a deposit when demanded..." (Pliny the Younger, To Trajan, p. 254, A Treasury of Early Christianity, Anne Fremantle).

Christ in the Temple


The satirist Lucian, writing in mid-second century, explains that Christians "worship that crucified sophist," that is, Jesus:

  • "For these poor wretches persuade themselves that they shall be immortal, and live for everlasting; so that they despise death, and some of them offer themselves to it voluntarily. Again, their first lawgiver taught them that they were all brothers, when once they had committed themselves so far as to renounce the gods of the Greeks, and worship that crucified sophist, and live according to his laws. So they hold all things alike in contempt, and consider all property common, trusting each other in such matters without any valid security."
  • (Lucian, from The Death of Peregrinus, quoted p. 257, A Treasury of Early Christianity, Anne Fremantle).


Celsus wrote a diatribe against the Christian gospel, which Origen preserves in his rebuttal. Celsus chided the Christians for worshipping as God a man who died so ignobly. He reproached them for having "set up as a god one who ended a most infamous life by a most miserable death":

"Seeing you are so eager for some novelty, how much better it would have been if you had chosen as the object of your zealous homage some one of those who died a glorious death, and whose divinity might have received the support of some myth to perpetuate his memory!...Might you not, then, take Epictetus, who, when his master was twisting his leg, said, smiling and unmoved, ‘You will break my leg;’ and when it was broken, he added, ‘Did I not tell you that you would break it?’ What saying equal to these did your God utter under suffering? If you had said even of the Sibyl, whose authority some of you acknowledge, that she was a child of God, you would have said something more reasonable. But you have had the presumption to include in her writings many impious things, and set up as a god one who ended a most infamous life by a most miserable death. How much more suitable than he would have been Jonah in the whale’s belly, or Daniel delivered from the wild beasts, or any of a still more portentous kind!” (Celsus quoted by Origen, 'Against Celsus,' Book 7, Chapter 53)

If this document's testimony to its time of composition is taken seriously, then it was written very early. The author tells us that Jesus taught "a few years ago:" "Jesus is the leader of their generation, in so far as they are Christians, and a few years ago he began to teach this doctrine, being regarded by Christians as the son of God." (Celsus, On True Doctrine.) Origen offers two possible dates: "And we have heard that there were two individuals of the name of Celsus, both of whom were Epicureans; the earlier of the two having lived in the time of Nero, but this one in that of Adrian, and later." (Origen, Against Celsus, Book 1, Chapter 8). The earlier of the two authors of this name discovered by Origen's researches must have been Aulus Cornelius Celsus, the empiricist doctor and encylopediast known to Quintilian. Quintilian himself is given to disparaging Christian beliefs, albeit under a veil:

"This kind of proofs is considered with reference to all times, past, present, and future; for that she who has had a child must have lain with a man regards the past; that there must be waves when a strong wind has fallen on the sea, concerns the present; and that he whose heart is wounded must die, relates to the future. In like manner it is impossible that there can be harvest where there has been no sowing; that a person can be at Rome when he is at Athens; or that he who is without a scar can have been wounded with a sword." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book V, Chapter IX, 5).

However the fact that the author, when he recommends alternatives to Christianity, is under the impression that reciting Egyptian syllables is an effective cure for disease, points away from a practicing physician like the first century Celsus.

The author is writing after the Jewish war, thus subsequent to 70 A.D., when Titus burned Jerusalem. As the reader can discover from the version of 'On True Doctrine' in the Thriceholy Library, the text lists Antinous, beloved of Hadrian, in its catalogue of god-men or pretended gods, indicating the latter of Origen's two candidates for dating. Hadrian ruled in the first half of the second century, during which time Bar Kochba revolted and revved up the estrangement between Christians and Jews to a deadly new level. The Christians, the author informs us, exceeded the honors paid to the deified Antinous in their worship of the risen Christ: "They regard this Jesus, who was but a mortal body, displaying all the infirmities and impurities belonging to the flesh, as a god, and suppose that they act piously in so doing." (Celsus, On True Doctrine, 'Aescupalius Appears Among Men').

Celsus' testimony confirms that Christians did worship Jesus as God; indeed the Jewish Christians who are his principal concern and objects of address, did so. He understands the central event of the gospels to be the incarnation, when God came down and dwelt among men:

"The Christians say that God, having abandoned the heavenly regions, and despising this great earth, takes up his abode amongst themselves alone, and to themselves alone makes His announcements, and ceases not his messages and inquiries as to how they may become his associates for ever." (Celsus, On True Doctrine, 'Ants and Worms').

How those who want to claim Constantine introduced these ideas deal with this text, I don't know; by delaying its composition of course, but you cannot delay it forever, as the text itself testifies to an early period. It is noteworthy that Celsus never resorts to the tactic advanced by modern 'scholars' such as Robert M. Price, of denying that Jesus ever existed. Perhaps because it was impossible to do so?

The text as Origen found it must date from the second century; there is no reason to suppose the reference to Hadrian's deified beloved/victim is an interpolation. However, it does seem to incorporate earlier material. Celsus personates a Jew admonishing Jewish Christians. He is not in fact a Jew, and indeed does not respect Jews. Naturally an antagonist would wish to 'divide and conquer;' but at the time he is writing the split between the church and the synagogue was already final and irrevocable. Can this material come from a pamphlet he happened upon in his researches? The 'Jewish' author, real or imagined, is writing at a time when Christianity's center of gravity still lay in the Jewish community, which points to a date of authorship prior to the final rupture between church and synagogue, in other words, before Hadrian and before Celsus. He says to them,

"You have forsaken the law of your fathers, in consequence of your minds being led captive by Jesus. You have been most ridiculously deceived, and have become deserters to another name and to another mode of life. What induced you, my fellow-citizens, to abandon the law of your fathers, and to allow your minds to be led captive by him with whom we have just conversed, and thus be most ridiculously deluded, so as to become deserters from us to another name, and to the practices of another life?" (Celsus, On True Doctrine).

This calls to mind circumstances of the early years as reported in the book of Acts. Celsus' own understanding of Christianity is that it is a secession from Judaism: "The Jews suffered from the adherents of Jesus, who believed in him as the Christ, the same treatment which they had inflicted upon the Egyptians; and the cause which led to the new state of things in either instance was rebellion against the state." Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt, so the Christians had come out of Israel. But aside from the fact that they didn't come out, they were kicked out, during the times of Hadrian the church's center of gravity had shifted decidedly to the Gentile side; this was where growth was occurring. 'The Jew,' if so he was, doesn't seem to realize that.

Whether the pamphlet was in fact written by a Jew, or by the government, it speaks of the events of Jesus' life, and death, as recent: "Yesterday and the day before, when we visited with punishment the man who deluded you, you became apostates from the law of your fathers." (Celsus, On True Doctrine). By Celsus' own day, Bar Kochba, the false Messiah, had massacred Christians wherever he found them, and the synagogue routinely anathematized them in its corporate prayers. Driving a wedge between these two groups was decidedly beside the point. So the fact that his Jew wants to scold Jewish Christians for deserting the fold is a little bit anachronistic. While it is certainly possible that Celsus invented his Jewish speaker, and composed his words, it is not clear why he would have invented just this speaker making just these allegations, which are a little bit out of date; perhaps the material is actually older. At the time this pamphlet was authored, whenever that was, Christians were fully understood to worship Jesus as God: "Now, of a truth, he who shared a man’s table would not be guilty of conspiring against him; but after banqueting with God, he became a conspirator." (Celsus, On True Doctrine).

It is noteworthy that, as Origen points out, even a vehement critic like Celsus will not venture to deny the authenticity of the gospel record: "For they will not maintain that the acquaintances and pupils of Jesus Himself handed down His teaching contained in the Gospels without committing it to writing, and left His disciples without the memoirs of Jesus contained in their works." (Origen, Against Celsus, 2:13). It was left to the modern era to make this 'discovery,' that the gospels were written by anonymous parties who never knew the Lord, not including the tax-collector Matthew and the beloved John.

When the atheists overstate the textual difficulties that come with the wealth of manuscript evidence for the New Testament, which is more a problem of over-abundance than of scarcity,— as is sometimes pointed out, it is like having 1,010 pieces to a 1,000 piece puzzle,— people sometimes point out that, if there were no surviving early manuscripts at all, the New Testament could very nearly be completely reconstructed from quotes embedded in the early church authors. Not only that, but if the gospel were lost altogether, it could in its outlines be reconstructed from Celsus alone. He understands that the Christians, even Jewish Christians, worship Jesus as God. He also understands that the Christian gospel teaches salvation by faith. Of course he despises this teaching, but he has noticed it. This is interesting, because while Paul very plainly states this teaching in his letters, many of the early church authors seem scarcely to have noticed it. Apparently the preaching you heard on street-corners was not so non-observant.

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"Alexamenos worships his God"

Alexamenos' God

This crude drawing was scratched into the wall in antiquity. The caption reads, "Alexamenos worships his God." What God was portrayed in the form of an ass? Oddly enough, the God of Israel was so described by anti-semites: "...Apion hath the impudence to pretend that 'the Jews placed an ass's head in their holy place;' and he affirms that this was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple, and found that ass's head there made of gold, and worth a great deal of money." (Josephus, Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 7). So in representing Alexamenos worshipping a crucified ass, our graffiti artist represents the God of Israel upon the tree.

Tacitus is another pagan writer who makes this identification, evidently a staple of pagan anti-semitism:

"Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees...In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings." (Tacitus, History, Book V, Chapter 3-4).

The accusation of worshipping this animal was transferred to the Christians:

"I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, — a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners." (Minucius Felix, Octavius, Chapter 9, ECF pp. 348-349).

Tertullian had seen this form of representation: "But lately a new edition of our God has been given to the world in that great city: it originated with a certain vile man who was wont to hire himself out to cheat the wild beasts, and who exhibited a picture with this inscription: The God of the Christians, born of an ass. He had the ears of an ass, was hoofed in one foot, carried a book, and wore a toga. Both the name and the figure gave us amusement." (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 16). These pagans wanted to mock Christianity. They knew, or thought they knew, that the god of the Jews had the form of an ass; so naturally they assigned the same form to Jesus. They knew the Christians worshipped Jesus as God.

Some ancient sources provide confirmation that Jesus existed, and was crucified, but offer little insight into the status afforded him by followers, for example, the Roman historian Suetonius, and,

"What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished." (Mara Bar-Serapion, quoted p. 210, Killing Jesus, Stephen Mansfield).


Gaianus, a Roman official serving in the holy land, thought that Jesus was God, or at any rate desired to be on good terms with those who did,

"In fact, the earliest church building discovered in Israel, dating to the late second century AD and first uncovered in 2005 in Megiddo, contains an inscription describing how a Roman officer named Gaianus donated money to build the floor mosaic in the memory 'of the God Jesus Christ.'" (Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, p. 195).

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