No one knows whether this Christian debate with a Roman pagan is fiction or non-fiction. Either way, Minucius Felix, and unknown Christian from the 2nd or early 3rd century, admirably describes a defense of Christianity against Roman arguments, superstition, and rumors.
Listen, I know that internet readers usually skim. Don't skim this!
This is one of the best Christian writings in history, and the only debate in early Christian history that gives both sides. I've edited it so that it's easy to read and understand.
This Christian debate will be the best thing you read all day! I promise!
My introduction is long. You can skip it if you want, but read the debate!. The Christian answers are probably not what you expect.
In this Christian debate, Minucius Felix is the moderator. His dear friend Octavius, visiting from afar, holds the debate with Cecilius, a pagan that may be Minucius servant or business partner.
The Ostia Mediterranean seacost.
Public domain image
The debate occurred as the three men were walking along the tiber river toward the western seacoast of Italy. Along the way, Cecilius found a stone carved into the image of the god serapis. He quickly picked it up and kissed it.
Octavius was horrified:
Minucius, my brother, leaving a man in vulgar ignorance, especially one who lives by your side both at home and abroad, is not something a good man ought to do. It is not right that you should allow him to devote himself to a stone in broad daylight like this; it discredits you as much as it does him.
The comment was awkward, of course, and the men continued in silence for a short while before Octavius and Minucius, old and dear friends, returned to conversing about their various travels and experiences. Cecilius, however, was angry, and eventually Minucius felt obligated to ask him about his silence.
Your friend Octavius' comment has been bothering me for a while. He directed that comment at you, accusing you of negligence, but really he wanted to condemn me for ignorance.
His case stated, he had a proposition for resolving it.
So, since the issue is really between myself and Octavius, I would like to propose a debate. If he is willing, I think he will find that it's a lot easier to defend his arguments to his friends than to engage in real debate like the philosophers do.
Octavius readily agreed to this Christian debate, and the three of them found a stone wall at the mouth of the Tiber looking out at the Mediterranean beach. There's hardly a better location for such a debate, and there's hardly a better Christian debate in our two thousand years of history.
For those of you who have as much difficulty as me in remembering names: Octavius and Minucius are the Christians. Cecilius is the pagan.
|Cecilius:|| Octavius, if you are going to sit in judgment against me as ignorant, I say that it is plain that all things in human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled, so that most things are more probable than true.
It is not commendable to simply give in to one opinion, because you're tired of thoroughly investigating what is true. Instead, it is better to continue exploring with persistent diligence.
It should be no surprise that everyone is indignant and vexed when people unskilled in learning, ignorant of literature, and without knowledge of the arts—like you Christians—should dare to claim to know with any certainty the general nature of things or to understand divinity, which so many religious groups in so many ages still wonder about, and which even philosophy itself still debates.
|Octavius:||Since my brother used such expressions as that he was "vexed" and "indignant" that illiterate, poor, and unskilled people should dispute about heavenly things, let him know that all men are born alike, with a capacity and ability of reasoning and feeling, without bias to age, gender, or dignity. Nor do they obtain their wisdom by riches, but it is implanted by nature.
Moreover, the philosophers themselves and others like them, before they made a name for themselves, were considered vulgar and untaught.
The fact is, rich people are more accustomed to gaze upon their gold than upon heaven, while our sort of people, though poor, have both discovered wisdom and taught others. So it appears that intelligence is not given to the wealthy, nor obtained by study, but is begotten with the very formation of the mind.
|Cecilius:||Isn't it obviously better and more respectful to simply receive the teaching of your ancestors, to cultivate the religions handed down to you, and to adore the gods that you were trained by your parents to fear? You should believe your forefathers rather than assert your opinion about the deities.|
|Octavius:|| If the world is directed by the will of one God, then it shouldn't matter how old the opinions of unskilled people are. They should not be enough to make us agree with the gods of our forefathers.
Let's consider those gods.
You will find mournful deaths, misfortunes, funerals, and griefs and wailings of the miserable gods. What are the sacred rites of Jupiter? His nurse is a she-goat, and as an infant he was taken away from his father so he wouldn't be eaten! And why should I have to mention the discovered adultery of Mars and Venus?
All these stories have been told with one aim: to justify the vices of men. By these fictions and others like them the minds of boys are corrupted. They grow up with these fables clinging to them and, poor wretches, they grow old in the same beliefs, even though the truth is plain if they will only seek after it.
Even dumb animals judge concerning your gods. Mice and swallows know that they have no feeling. The gnaw them, trample them, and sit on them. Unless you drive them off, they build their nests in the very mouths of your gods. You wipe, cleanse, scrape, and you protect and fear that which you make, while not one of you thinks that he ought to know God before you worship him.
Baths of Neptune near Ostia
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, used with permission
|Cecilius:|| What about all the accusations? Christians have gathered from the lowest dregs of society the more unskilled men and gullible women to establish an unholy conspiracy held together by nightly meetings, solemn fasts, and inhuman foods.
Surely the obscurity of your religion proves that at least the greater part of the accusations must be true. Why do you never speak openly or congregate freely, unless what you adore and worship is worthy of punishment or something to be ashamed of?
|Octavius:|| We do not hide in corners. We all judge one thing to be good, and we assemble with the same quietness with which we live our lives. The problem is that you either blush or are afraid to listen to us in public.
It is not right to form a judgment based on things unknown and unexamined as you are doing.
We were just like you. We thought Christians worshipped monsters, devoured infants, and engaged in incestuous banquets. We didn't recognize that fables like these are always being set afloat by gossipers, and that none of those things were ever checked into or proven.
We never noticed that in so long a time no one has come forth to betray their activities, trying to obtain pardon for their crime or credit for exposing it. We didn't take into account that Christians, when accused, were not embarrassed or afraid, but they were only repentant that they hadn't become one sooner!
|Cecilius:|| It's a fact that the more wicked things are the more they grow. The abominable shrines of this impious assembly are growing throughout the whole world.
This confederacy ought to be rooted out and destroyed! They know one another by secret marks and signs, and they love one another almost before they know one another.
|Octavius:|| The fact that we are increasing day by day is not a proof of our error, but it's something to be praised. We live an honorable way of life. Our current numbers don't decrease, and it is strangers joining us that increases it.
Nor are we distinguished by some small bodily mark, as you suppose, but we are distinguished easily enough by the marks of innocence and modesty. Thus we love one another with a mutual love, to your regret, because we do not know how to hate.
["Behold, how they love one another," you say, because you Romans are moved by mutual hatred; You say, "See how Christians are ready even to die for one another," for you would rather put to death.
And you are angry with us, too, because we call each other brothers. There's no other reason, I think, than because among yourselves such titles are given in mere pretence of affection.
But on this very account, perhaps, we are regarded as having less claim to be held true brothers, that tragedies do not cause problems in our brotherhood and the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.
All things are common among us but our wives.]*
*See translation notes at end concerning bracketed section.
|Cecilius:||Yes, that's another thing. Christians think of themselves as good, and they promise to themselves a blessed and perpetual life after death, but to others, since they are unrighteous, eternal punishment.|
|Octavius:|| Only a profane man would hesitate to believe that those who do not know God are tormented deservedly, because it is no less wicked to be ignorant of the Parent of all than to offend him.
And if you wish to compare Christians with yourselves, then even if in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you.
You forbid, yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives. You punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin. You are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are afraid even of our own consciences, without which we cannot exist.
Finally, from your numbers the prisons boil over, but there is no Christian there unless he is accused on account of his religion or has deserted it.
Bath of Mithras near Ostia, Italy
Public domain image
|Cecilius:|| Can you at least learn from your current experience, how the fruitless expectations of your vain promise deceive you? Consider, wretched creatures, from your experience while you are alive, what is threatening you after death.
As you yourself admit, most of you are needy, cold, and work in heavy labor even while you are hungry. And God allows it! He is either unable or unwilling to help his people, and thus he is either weak or unjust.
|Octavius:|| Yes, many of us are called poor. This is not our disgrace, but our glory.
The mind is lulled to sleep by luxury, but it is strengthened by frugality.
Besides, who can be poor if he does not want? Is a person poor if he doesn't want the possessions of others? Can he be poor if he is rich towards God? No, the person who is poor is the one who desires more even though he has much.
And consider this. Who can be as poor as the day he is born? Birds live without any income. Every day the cattle are fed.
Just as the person who travels on a road is happier the lighter he walks, so is he happier who carries himself along in poverty in this life and does not breathe heavily under the burden of riches.
Let me be clear, though, that if we thought wealth was useful for us, we would ask God for it. We are confident that God would answer us in some measure, because he possesses everything.
But we would rather despise riches than possess them. What we want is innocence, and what we pray for is patience. We prefer being good to being lavish.
|Cecilius:|| Let's forget what's common to everyone. For you specifically there are threats, punishments, tortures, and crosses. And those crosses aren't objects of adoration, but tortures to be endured.
Where is that God who is able to help you when you come to life again, when he can't even help you in this life?
|Octavius:|| It's a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain. When he faces threats, punishments and tortures by mocking death and treading underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his freedom in Christ as a standard before kings and princes; when he yields to God alone and, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced the sentence upon him.
God finds all these things beautiful.
Even you Romans praise unfortunate men to the heavens. You praise Mucius Scaevola, for example, who sacrificed his right hand to save himself from the enemy.
Yet how many of our people have borne it when not only their right hand, but their whole body is burned. They were burned up without any cries of pain, yet they had it in their power to be spared!
Am I comparing men with your Mucius and others? No, our boys and young women treat the crosses and tortures with contempt and endure wild beasts and every other punishment with the inspired patience of suffering.
Can't all you wretched Romans see that no one would endure these things without good reason? Don't you realize that they couldn't bear tortures without the power of God?
|Cecilius:||Don't the Romans, with no help from your God, govern, reign, enjoy the whole world, and even rule over you?|
|Octavius:|| Perhaps it has escaped you that those who abound in riches, honor and power, but don't know God are miserable.
They're fattened like cattle for slaughter. They are lifted up even to empires and dominions, but their unrestrained exercise of power makes a market of their soul, and they live liked ruined souls.
If you don't know God, what enduring happiness can there be, since no matter how good things seem, death must come?
My friend Cecilius, let Socrates, the Athenian buffoon, confess that he knew nothing at all. Let all the philosophers go on deliberating. Let the great philosopher Simonides go on forever putting off a decision about what he believes.
We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, because we know them to be corrupters, adulterers, and tyrants. They have great eloquence, but they're speaking against vices that they themselves live in.
We, on the other hand, who do not carry our wisdom in our clothes, but in our minds, don't speak great things; we live them. We boast that we have found what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness but have not been able to find.
Why should we be ungrateful? Why should we resent the fact that the truth of divinity has ripened in our time? Let us enjoy our benefits! Let's correct our opinions with the standard of truth.
Let superstition be restrained! Let ungodliness be done away with! Let true religion be preserved!
We can only hope that this story is true because Cecilius was soundly converted by Octavius' arguments:
Well. I congratulate Octavius as well as myself for the great peace in which we live. I will not wait for your decision, Minucius. We have both conquered. Octavius has conquered me, but I am triumphant over error. I both confess that providence exists, and I yield to God … Octavius will get a reward from God, because he argued by God's inspiration and gained the victory by God's aid.
I not only updated the language and grammar of the century-old translation found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. IV, but I also changed the structure of the debate to a more modern format.
In the original Cecilius gave one very, very long speech, and Octavius gave just one very, very long response.
Many issues were covered in the original debate, most of which are of no interest to you or me, having to do with Rome and its paganism, idolatry, and military power.
There is also a bracketed portion above that is not from The Octavius. That wording is pulled from Tertullian's Apology, chapter 39. It covers the same topic Octavius is covering, but it's much better said.