Celsus (Africanus) to Vigilius, “Letter on Jewish Disbelief”

Translation by Andrew S. Jacobs

The otherwise unknown Celsus wrote this cover letter to his translation from Greek of the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus. The Dialogue was written sometime in the second century (it is mentioned by the other Celsus, the pagan critic against whom Origen wrote, who was active in the 170s); unfortunately neither the original Greek nor this Latin translation survive. This letter, then, is one of our fullest pieces of evidence both for the contents of the Dialogue as well as how it was received and used among Christians. From it we learn that Jason the “Hebrew Christian” (perhaps a convert himself?) persuaded Papiscus through argument and through “the Holy Spirit” and that, at the end, Papiscus requested baptism. As I note below, there may also be some hints of the scriptural passages cited in the Dialogue. The letter places the Dialogue in the larger context of the persistent, even innate (using the ableist language of “blindness”) refusal of Christianity; the conversion of Papiscus, then, is an exception proving an anti-Jewish rule. That Jewish-Christian dialogues primarily circulated in the service of promoting Christian anti-Judaism is likely not unique to Celsus.

We know nothing about the author, who calls himself Celsus in his closing, or the recipient, whom he addresses as Vigilius, except what we find in the letter. The letter is included in several manuscripts containing (mostly spurious) works attributed to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258); at least one manuscript’s incipit and explicit attribute the letter to Cyprian. Because it has been collected with other North African texts it is assumed that Celsus and Vigilius were in North Africa (so this Celsus is sometimes called Africanus in modern scholarship to distinguish him from the more famous pagan Celsus). Early scholarship on the letter placed it in the fifth century; more recent scholarly consensus places it in the late third century.

We can infer a few things from the text itself. The author is almost certainly not a native Latin speaker; the letter is rife with Greek grammatical forms and turns of phrase which make the Latin itself quite convoluted. I have smoothed over some of the infelicities but have also tried to retain some of the foreignness of his style. Vigilius is also bilingual (Celsus asks him to emend his translation of the Dialogue) and seems to have a circle of “disciples” (priests? students?) which Celsus may aspire to join. Celsus, who speaks of his own old age, may not personally know Vigilius. The final paragraphs suggest that Vigilius’s ordination as bishop was unexpected and a tad irregular, perhaps even following the persecutions of the mid or late third century; Celsus favorably compares Vigilius’s clerical service to martyrdom.

I have used the Latin text edited by Wilhelm von Hartel in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum series (CSEL 3.3:119-32, available here in public domain). Paragraph numbers are Hartel’s; headings are added for clarity.

You may link to, share, or reproduce this translation with attribution. You may not make any commercial use of this work. Any suggestions for corrections or additions to the text or annotations are more than welcome: andrew [at] andrewjacobs [dot] org.

To Bishop Vigilius, on Jewish disbelief

The blindness of the Jews

I. On one hand, most holy Vigilius, I understand that most gentiles, who were opposed the order and reason of truth, stray from the blindness of their souls Throughout Celsus deploys a varied vocabulary of the internal self; I translate mens as “soul,” pectus as “mind,” and cor as “heart.” once they learn about the Lord; yet I also know that the frenzy of the Jewish people against the name of the Lord still persists even now due to a stubborn hard-heartedness inherited from the unrighteousness of their fathers. They oppose true salvation and do not seek out the One who gives eternal life; the result is that, by merit equal to the offenses of their ancient lineage, they are beholden to their inborn wickedness nequitiae genitalis; throughout this section Celsus suggests that there is something “innate” and “inborn” about the impiety of the Jews that is nearly impossible to overcome—save those who, at the last moment, believe and, through reverence directed back to God, might be set free from their transgressions through the full atonement of penance.

But I think the innate and impious faithlessness Throughout Celsus describes Jews as both “disbelieving” (increduli) and “faithless” (perfidi) which in Greek would probably have been different forms of the same root (πιστεύω, pisteuō). of their fathers persists and endures until now and will always endure through their subsequent generations. It is a hatred against the name of the Lord, a frenzy strengthened by disbelief; it cannot be redirected to knowledge of the truth nor can it be taught or persuaded to fear of God by his own warnings. Since the Lord teaches and shows it when he says: “I am the light of the age, and whoever follows me will not wander in the darkness but he will have the light of life” (John 8:12), how evil is the reason for giving up the light of divine life and preferring the blindness of the soul, choosing the shadows of death? As a result they show, through the free and permitted ruin of their condemnation, done of their own free will, propriae voluntatis: while insisting that something “inborn” drives Jews to faithlessness, Celsus also insists that they are choosing their own damnation opposed to God, that they don’t want what is beneficial to them. Because of this also the Holy Spirit spoke As below in ch. 7, Celsus conflates Christ and the Holy Spirit in a surprising fashion. through the voice of the Lord, chiding Jerusalem because it didn’t want to be gathered together by God when he wanted to gather it together, and demonstrated that God’s goodness always wants to help sinners: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who murder your prophets and stone those who are sent to you, how often have I wanted to gather together your children, just as a hen gathers together her children under her wings, and you didn’t want it?” (Matt 23:37) Indeed the stubbornness of this faithless people is indicated by God’s clear voice so that it may be proven that their very own salvation has been rejected, always against the gentle mercy of the Lord. Likewise another prophet presented and commended God’s benevolence in the exhortation of his preaching; he proclaimed and urged: “Return to me and I shall return to you, says the Lord” (Mal 3:7). And again similarly: God shows that his mercy remains eternal when he adds: “I do not want him to die; only for him to return and live, says the Lord” (Ezek 18:23).

True conversion

2. So what else is “return” other than being able to be saved, reconciled to God by believing in Christ? For it is through him that one finds the path that comes to the Father. How can they return to God when they didn’t want to believe in the one preaching God’s will, the one through whom there is knowledge and returning to God? Or how could they appease God with atonement when they decided to persecute with a blasphemous attack the one who is appeasement and atonement on our behalf before his Father? If indeed “we have an advocate before God the Father, Christ” (1 John 2:1), we should set out to do with careful reverence what he taught us when he warned us what he would say before his Father. So for those of us who have a soul inclined toward fear of the Lord, follow the warnings of his commandments, and accept belief about his reverence with the faith of a pious and respectful heart: what else should we want to pursue, desire, and maintain than that the entire darkness of our old heart be removed from us and, when the fog of our previous life has been dispersed, mindful of the saving commandments of the Lord and clinging to the promises of eternal life, that we should return and walk in his light, which he showed to us, with our belief affirmed? When once we were ignorant of future salvation, entangled in the mistakes of a previous life, we wandered in the shadows; now illuminated by the brightness of his true light and with the frontier of a better life shown to us and laid out before us, let us hold on to the Lord’s commandments, which are to be followed and carried out.

Proofs of the light from Scripture

3. This is the light of salvation that appeared to us, this is the protection which was born from God for the renewal of humanity according to the plan and compassion of God the Father. Since Jewish-Christian dialogues are much taken up with “proof-texts” it is possible that Celsus draws the passages in this section from the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus itself. First the magi came from the eastern region and, with a star as their guide, they openly announced beforehand that they were seeking the King of the Jews; indeed, they brought him gifts as a testimony which they told anyone who asked. And so that it wouldn’t be hidden from anyone who he was, when they found the boy they approached him on their knees and worshiped him, just as the Gospel attests: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold the magi came from the East into Jerusalem, saying: Where is the one was who born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and we came to worship him” (Matt 2:1). Of course they were attesting to the truth about him, indeed that the star was a sign for them and proof that his birth was made known; and by this proof it should be believed in Jerusalem that he was born, as the magi were proclaiming and affirming.

Then Simeon the Righteous, who was born in blindness,   in caecitate constitutus; the Gospel of Luke doesn’t say that Simeon was blind, only that he would not die before “seeing” the messiah; Celsus—perhaps uniquely?—interprets this promise of “seeing” as prediction of a miracle.had heard by a divine premonition that he would not die before he saw Christ; when the mother with her newborn entered the temple with all of the people present, he felt in the spirit that Christ was born; when he took the child into his hands he saw and he blessed God in the sight and hearing of everyone. He said: “Now send forth into peace the one enslaved to you, Lord, according to your word, since my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29). Simeon the blind man heard what would be accomplished by the truth made manifest and the truth which he saw when he received the light he proclaimed to the people by blessing God openly. He had looked upon this so that he might report it, so that he might show by his own revelation that Christ had been born, and so that he might provide us with the first proofs of the disbelief of this faithless people.

4. This is not the only testimony that truth of the heavenly Scriptures provides about him; but also beforehand the Holy Spirit through the prophets proclaimed openly to the conscientious souls of all that he would come into this world so that there would be no pretext of an excuse for the disbelievers either to be ignorant that Christ was the Son of God or to be unaware of the future arrival of the Savior, just as David makes clear: “Day after day the word belches forth and night after night proves its knowledge; there are no speeches or words, their voices may not be heard. In the whole earth their sound goes forth and their words across the ends of the earth. In the sun he has set his tabernacle” (Ps. 19:2-4). That is, in the light which is clear he has openly shown that he came and he provided to everyone the proclamation through his prophets in a certain fashion by a demonstration of his presence. This is what Isaiah, through whom the Lord himself showed his presence by a clear manifestation of his pronouncement, prophesied and said: “I myself who was speaking have come” (Isa 52:6), that is, “I, who was speaking beforehand through the prophets about my future arrival, I am the same one showing my presence, in my own very clear voice, by my own witness.” What could be more obvious? What could be clearer by this light, what could be said more truly? So that, in a certain visible fashion he might be understood to have come, he himself showed that he would come in the future before he came. But because disbelief impeded the souls of this faithless people no one recognized him when he came. Just as also Isaiah declared when he rebuked the people earlier: “An ox knows its owner and the donkey the stall of its master, but Israel does not know me and the people do not understand me” (Isa 1:3). So just as he openly proclaimed to all, he appeared and the light of life shone clearly to those dwelling in the shadows; but with their minds besieged the unrighteousness of the faithless ones set aside and rejected their own salvation and, because of their blind hearts, chose instead the shadows.

5. Everywhere repeated and clear are the prophecies of those who, with the Holy Spirit foretelling, were chosen to describe the coming of the Lord. This light was given to the world and the day of salvation dawned for those of us who would be brought to life, designated for those who believe in him; the Holy Spirit teaches this in the psalms and shows it: “The stone that the builders rejected has been made into the cornerstone; it was made by the Lord and it is a miracle before our eyes. This is the day that the Lord made, let us go forth and rejoice in it” (Ps 108:22-24). The apostle Paul also admonishes us and teaches us and forewarns us to walk in this day when he says: “Now indeed salvation is nearer to us than when we came to believe. Night has withdrawn and the day has drawn near. Let us cast off the works of shadows and let us be clothed in armor of light, in this way let us walk honorably in that day” (Rom 13:11-12). That is: in Christ and in his commandments; by his light and warnings we are illuminated and in the brightness of his day we are found and in him we perceive, in our souls, the salvation of belief near us.

6. Now to all those who revere him Malachi the prophet testifies and promises that Christ is the sun when he says: “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness will rise and healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2); this shows that salvation cannot be conveyed to us by anything except in the passion of his Cross, on which he stretched his hands and embraced the whole world as he was about to save it; by turning to him with reverence let us believe and let us be animated toward eternal life by hope in his future kingdom.

Who then is so stupid and foolish, who is so estranged from understanding his own salvation, who in the face of so many and such great witnesses to the truth, disbelieving, mind hardened against sound faith, would not soften through an understanding of the truth?

Who would not turn back, with a believing soul, with a whole heart illuminated, to the divine warnings and the saving commandments of the Lord which must be kept once he has been freed from the shadows of this mortal life and has proceeded into the light of heavenly teachings?

As a result he will know the Lord whom the prophets proclaimed, he will comprehend Christ, who openly showed that he came into the world, he will believe in God and the Son of God through those testifying in the divine Scriptures. Just so he makes clear what eternal life is when he says: “This then is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3); he teaches and he shows that knowing God is nothing else but believing and opening up the eyes of the heart, with a mental faith of the devoted soul that is inclined to the Lord and unchanging. Now then this is done so that you may understand by believing, that by understanding what you believe you may gaze upon God intelligibly in sensu; Celsus means the “gaze” will be internal, not physical with an illuminated heart. Just so the Lord himself also through Isaiah warned us before: “If you do not believe you will not understand” (Isa 6:7, 9). So simple and outstanding and capacious as well as abundant is mercy when it comes to the piety of the Lord that if anyone, even once, should turn to him with complete reverence he has already immediately been granted access to the heavenly gift; and only if his soul is open to divine things, and to heaven, and to things above, then when he lifts up the eyes of his heart he will look upon the light of Christ, his salvation already acquired. partae iam salutis, an example of Celsus translating a Greek genitive absolute directly into Latin

Examples of conversion through faith

7. An example and proof of our reverence and faith is shown by the faithful belief of Abraham himself, the patriarch; when God made his promise he immediately believed with his upright soul and therefore he deserved to have it ascribed to him as righteousness, with the reward fully earned (Gen 15:6; Gal 3:6; Rom 4:3). This is what God loves, this is what he desires, this is what he generously rewards and honors in those enslaved to him: the uprightness of a pure heart by which we perceive God; the reverence of affection for the Lord for which we are commended; the faithful belief in the soul by which it is ascribed to us as righteousness. To follow this faith, to preserve the reverence of God, is fitting for us; by keeping the heavenly words and hoping in the divine promises we deserved to be called sons of Abraham (see Gal 3:7). The apostle Paul—who in his struggle was called by God’s voice a vessel of election (Acts 9:15) Celsus’s terse invocation of Paul's conversion scene in Acts is an outlier among his examples of “faithful” conversion to the light, since Paul converts as result of a “struggle” (contestatione) and does not “see the light” but is in fact blinded.—confirmed this: “so Abraham believed in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Know therefore that they are sons of Abraham from faith” (Gal 3:6-7). This Jewish people, to whom long ago the warnings of the law were addressed, due to the hardness of their disbelieving souls and the madness of their faithless hearts, did not want to keep them and so accordingly they cast aside the name of “sons” because of disbelief. Nonetheless not every soul of that faithless nation was hardened by hatred against the name of the Lord, provided they understood the truth. For indeed the Holy Spirit, that is Christ our Lord who proceeded from God the Father, A somewhat surprising conflation of the second and third persons of the Trinity, which would suggest Celsus is writing at a time when Trinitarian theology was still very much in flux.came so that he might save that which was perishing in Israel. He was greater and stronger for subjugating the necks of those stubborn ones into reverence of his name and power; with the same ease that he converted those who were, at that time, hardened against the brightness of his illumination due to the inflexible blindness of their souls back to recognition of his brightness and his glory, just as easily he came in glory to save everyone by the dispensation of his divine mercy.

The Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus

8. Now let me be quiet about the souls of those from an impious people whose hearts were once hardened and who were converted to fear of the Lord when the Lord himself was preaching the gospel; and let me fall silent about the people full of believers refersum credentium populum. My translation assumes refersum is a mistake for refertum, which might be possible for a non-native Latin speaker expecting a -sus ending to the passive participle: see Karl Ernst Georges in his 19th-c. Ausfürliches lateinisch-deutsches Handwörterbuch. Other manuscripts have corrected the word to reversum, another plausible mistake for Celsus; I would then then translate as “the population of believers returned and multiplied” etc. Celsus’s point here is that, while Jesus and his apostles both had some success converting Jews, he is turning now to a more recent example: the Dialogue he has translated. multiplied throughout the whole world when his apostles were preaching. That eminent and memorable and famous instance of a disputation between Jason the Hebrew Christian and Papiscus the Alexandrian Jew presents itself. The stubborn hardness of the Jewish heart was softened by the correction and light rebuke of the Hebrew; by an infusion of the Holy Spirit Jason’s teaching was victorious in Papiscus’s heart; by this teaching Papiscus was admitted to an understanding of the truth and was disposed to reverence of the Lord, as the Lord himself took pity on him. He believed that Jesus Christ was the Son and implored and asked Jason to receive the seal. The text of their debate proves this, as they contended with each other: Papiscus the opponent of the truth and Jason who was asserting and defending the dispensation and fulfillment of Christ; it was written down in a work in the Greek language.

Eagerly I undertook its translation into intelligible Latin (keeping the distinct property of the words), servata verborum proprietate; it’s unclear if Celsus means by proprietas he has striven for a more literal translation or a translation ad sensum. with the Lord’s assistance animating me and the strength of my living faith. Now for those who are foreign to the understanding of Greek teaching I have organized the distinct parts according to the logic of Roman speech, with the meaning of the words maintained and the presentation of the full meaning and truth laid out. I send the proof of this hard work to you, dearest, who have been fully taught in both languages, with an earnest request: although you are modest (due to your respect for the Holy Spirit), through a reading of both works Either Celsus is sending a Greek copy of the Dialogue along with his translation or he knows Vigilius already possesses a copy. would you look over the presumptuous result of my shameless foolhardiness and, by your considered judgment, would you—by the authority of the Holy Spirit which has flowed into your mind with a flood of heavenly grace!—compare and correct those things which have been poorly or improperly arranged by us? May this commission about our reading be commended to you from our lowliness and this initial request wind its way to you in affection for us; may you join together the insignificance of my faith with the learnedness and erudition of your disciples!

Although I am located in another part of this province, the distance of the journey has not scared me away from the desire to see your face, nor have old age and the challenge of a body already tired and worn out prevented it. In this long and complicated sentence, which in Latin comprises this entire paragraph as well as much of the preceding one, Celsus seems to be asking to be admitted into a Vigilius’s circle of disciples or students. Is it possible his reference to his old age and “show of strength” means he is delivering the letter in person? The animating and pressing desire to approach has been hastily prompted by the Lord; every difficulty of poverty and need has been disdained by so great a show of strength as rumor of your sanctity kept spreading here. So allow me to become mingled with the harmonious love of your cherished brotherhood and may you accept me and join me likewise to your affection, which the Lord left to his disciples under the label of an inheritance; and may I anticipate likewise with the brothers the splendor of the grace of Christ’s light when you open your mouth; may I follow, in your footsteps, the light which the Lord showed, that Christ in his coming demonstrated is eternal life!

Vigilius’s ordination as bishop

9. Indeed how glad that day makes me and how much I desire it: when it should happen that my old age is prolonged by God’s merciful grace so that, as the prayers of the saints earnestly and perpetually entreating the Lord, I might see the martyr of Christ and behold the crown of righteousness which has been entrusted to you to wear in the Lord’s presence. Now you shouldn’t suppose that I ascribe the glory of martyrdom to you according to the actual hope of our desire. That is, Celsus doesn’t anticipate Vigilius being literally martyred. For the honor of that good fortune was conferred at that time when the Lord, by his own righteous judgment, chose the designated “martyr.” When you were acquired from among the flock of the righteous and were claimed for him  he established you as the bishop Celsus uses sacerdos and episcopus interchangeably for “bishop.” over an unexpected altar. The choice of this calling is absolutely eminent and glorious; because of the Lord’s honor, the wondrous felicity of a journey across the sea to the office designated for you, while you remained occupied with worldly affairs, is novel and unusual. According to what follows, Viligius was traveling from another province and arrived in the middle of a conflict over a new bishop; to his surprise, he was chosen for the vacant seat. Several times in this account Celsus describes the appointment as destinatum, “designated” or even “predetermined.” You did not know and you were unaware that suddenly the time of your return had already come and had been calibrated for this: that, from the unforeseen speed of your coming, you might understand and discern that the honor of the heavenly episcopacy, the most important among all others, was designated and set aside for you and that you were expected when you came and encountered it at the Lord’s command. So that the Lord might take care of his church, from his fully dutiful compassion, because of the delay caused by the community’s dissension, Christ brought you forth, whom he preferred to choose as bishop for the people who were asking, suddenly and unexpectedly. The obviously heavenly foresight of your arrival at an impromptu meeting showed that it was most agreeable to him. The proof of your sudden and swift arrival showed the arrangement of God’s will; because it could hardly happen with easy swiftness in such a difficult situation, it was accomplished by the command of the Lord, applying pressure. As a result, before you knew what happened, you found yourself standing in God’s church as a bishop and you were astounded.

10. From the onset of his love the Lord has affirmed his affection for you and the friendship with you which he handed over and dedicated to his disciples under the triumph of the Cross when he said: “If you do what I command you I shall not call you enslaved but friends” (John 15:14); from then he indicated martyrdom, from then your selection as bishop. The friendship through which you were granted access to Christ’s presence is an extraordinary sacrifice to undergo. Just as the righteous ones are chosen and just as those chosen for their reverence for Christ are shown to be pious and upright so, before the time of the decision came, before you were picked out at Christ’s determination, you were appointed to the recompense of your faith, you were held worthy in the Lord as the reward of a devoted soul, and the heavenly selection found its sacrifice proven and ready. Even so it is God—who is no liar!—who established you as bishop for his people impromptu; with full affection he will crown you of his own free will.

How much now do we hope and pray that you remember us when the virtue of the Lord’s promotion is proven and the offering is purified and you stand in attendance before Christ’s tribunal! When, by God’s grace, you have received glory and reward as the prize of a devoted soul then may the affectionate love which you have deemed worthy to impart to us cling memorably and remain firmly in your thoughts. Then may our sins find forgiveness through your prayers and the trespasses of our life be cleansed by the merits of your righteousness! Even so I am confident that this is like martyrdom, when a sinner is found worthy of being saved through the request of a righteous martyr, and so although you might be able to accomplish less on your own behalf through your prayers you have been absolved with the merits of a martyr. So righteous Job is shown about to implore and entreat God for the sins of his three friends and proof of his reverence and faith in the Lord is indicated by a testifying voice.

So then on the day of your absolution, dearest one, when you begin to represent yourself in Christ’s presence, when you proceed, by happy chance, to reign with the living Christ forever and ever, keep me, your child Celsus, in your soul before the Lord’s mercy, most holy one.

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