May 8, 2009

Octavius and His Opponents on the Historical Jesus

Another interesting account we have of early criticism towards Christianity is that of Q. Caecilius Natalis.[1] This account has been preserved for us by one Marcus Minucius Felix[2] and can be read in the Ante-Nicene Fathers 4.02.01-04.

Caecilius was in a debate with a Christian named Octavius Januarius (ca. 210-230)[3] and accused Christians of all sorts of mischievous behavior: secret signs, clandestine meetings, arrogance, ignorance, exclusivity, gullibility, anti-social tendencies, boorish, uncultured, rude, sexually promiscuous, drunken party animals, infant killers and cannibals, among other things. My personal favorites are when he reports the following: “I hear that they adore the head of an ass” and “some say they worship the genitals of their priests”, although he does admit he is unsure if these rumors are true.[4]

Caecilius even used a primitive form of Hume’s “wicked or weak” argument against the Christian god in light of human pain and suffering (especially amongst the Christians themselves!). He made fun of the idea of resurrection and sounded especially annoyed with the idea of this nosy and bossy (read: omnipresent and omniscient) god.

Many of these critiques were probably nothing new; for similar arguments were most likely found in the now lost works of Marcus Cornelius Fronto (ca. 100-166).[5]


[1] For the section on Caecilius, I am indebted to Benko’s chapter on “Pagan Criticism of

Christian Theology and Ethics”, 140-162.

For great overview of this narrative, cf. Henry Wace and William C. Piercy A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography: A Reference Guide to Over 800 Christian Men and Women, Heretics, and Sects of the First Six Centuries (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 727-730.

For a helpful discussion on a terminus a quo on Octavius, see Michael E. Hardwick, Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius Brown Judais Studies 128 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 20-23.

For a commentary on this literature, cf. G.W. Clarke, The Octavius of Minucius Felix (NY: Newman Press, 1976), esp. 1-14.

[5] Cf. Edward Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 64-66.

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