G.W. Clarke, translation and introduction, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, no. 39, Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman Press, 1974), 414pp.
How did Romans view the early Christians? And how did Christians respond? The Roman lawyer Minucius Felix of the early third century gives us one snapshot of this exchange in his philosophical dialogue between two friends. Whether the dialogue is actual history or literary device is not clear. Minucius Felix serves as a neutral arbiter between the pagan Caecilius and the Christian Octavius.
In the first half of the dialogue, Caecilius presents his pagan criticisms. Since the Christian sect was novel and new, and couldn't claim an ancient pedigree, it was automatically suspect. For the most part Christians were "unlettered and unlearned," (Clarke), or in Caecilius's words, "utter boors and yokels, ungraced by any manners or culture." In style and content their Scriptures were crude. They adhered to absurd doctrines like the resurrection of the body and providence. Rumors about their cannibalism, incest, and infanticide were well known. They were antisocial, avoiding the theater and the games, and apolitical, refusing to run for office. The Christians, says Caecilius, "do not understand their civic duty."
Octavius barely mentions the Bible, since it would have been rejected out of hand. Nor does he incorporate any Christian doctrine into his argument. He doesn't deny that most Christians were poor and uneducated, or that they didn't participate in Roman society. Rather, he does what he knows would appeal to his audience, which is to interact with dozens and dozens of pagan philosophers, poets, and sages. In the end, Caecilius converts. Minucius Felix concludes: "I was completely lost in profound amazement at the wealth of proofs, examples, and authoritative quotations he had used to illustrate matter easier to feel than to express; by parrying spiteful critics with their own weapons, the arms of philosophers, he had shown the truth to be so simple as well as so attractive." Well, maybe.
The dialogue itself is barely seventy-five pages, and accessible to non-specialists. Technical experts will enjoy three hundred pages of introductory and end matter by Clarke. Perhaps the most interesting question the treatise provokes is a question of complexity and controversy: to what extent were upper crust Romans turning to the faith by the late second century? The Octavius, says Clarke, "forms a valuable literary addition to that historical picture of gradual sophistication, of a Church starting on that long, and indeed never-ending, task of coming to terms with its secular milieu" (48).