Minucius Felix and His Answers to Unbelievers
The Octavius has come down to us as one of the greatest works of third-century Christian apology, with a clarity, immediacy, and freshness that surpasses the works of other better-known apologists. It also gives a good idea of the arguments Romans wielded against Christian teachings and the prejudices they harbored against Christians, some of which still find uncanny echoes today.
The leisurely walk on the beach Marcus Minucius Felix took with his friends Octavius and Cecilius sometimes between the second and third century is reminiscent of the walk J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson took on the grounds of Oxford University in 1931. In both cases, an open discussion of topics related to faith in Christ generated a spark leading to a conversion.
Three Men on the Italian Shore
Marcus Minucius Felix was probably born in North Africa, a region where Christianity had rapidly developed since its earliest days. His name, as well as the names of his friends, had been found on inscriptions in that region.
Of Minucius’s works, only the Octavius, describing the conversation between these two friends, has come down to us. But it has been sufficient to place Minucius among the greatest rhetoricians of ancient Rome.
No one knows if this conversation actually happened, and if it did in exactly this format, but it doesn’t matter. From its first pages, the reader is taken to the beach in Ostia, the main port near Rome, and is immediately immersed in the experience.
It was early morning on a mild autumn day, when the fierce heat of summer has passed, and the three men decided to take advantage of a brief holiday from their busy lives as lawyers to walk along the shore, so “that both the breathing air might gently refresh our limbs, and that the yielding sand might sink down under our easy footsteps with excessive pleasure.”
Both Minucius and Octavius were converts to Christianity, and this common experience had strengthened their long-standing friendship. Octavius was in Rome temporarily, partially to visit Minucius, who was grateful for his friend’s sacrifice in leaving his family at a time when children are most charming, “while yet their innocent years are attempting only half-uttered words.”
Cecilius, who lived in Rome as a close associate to Minucius, was a firm believer in the Roman religious traditions. The reader is immediately aware of this reality when the three pass by an image of Serapis, an Egyptian god which had become popular in Rome, and Cecilius raises his hand to his mouth and presses a kiss – a gesture of devotion.
This act makes Octavius uncomfortable. Annoyed by Minucius’s apparent indifference, he tells him that friends don’t let friends worship stones.
The camera moves back to the seashore, where the gentle breeze crisped and curled the waves while shaping the sand into a leveled walkway. The soft, fleeting touch of the water on their feet before “retiring and retracing its course” managed to distract Octavius, who began to tell stories on navigation. And the excitement of a group of kids who gesticulated while skipping smooth shells on the water caught both his and Minucius’s curiosity.
But Cecilius was not easily distracted. Offended by Octavius’s suggestion that he had to be rescued from religious ignorance, he could only think of the many arguments he wanted to retort against him.
Concerned about the friend’s distress, Minucius and Octavius agreed to sit on some rocks and hear Cecilius’s reasons. Since Minucius knew both men well, he was chosen to sit in the middle as moderator in the ensuing debate.
Cecilius’s Arguments Against Christianity
Cecilius started his arguments with rational considerations. If all things in human affairs are uncertain and the universe seems to function without rhyme or reason, how can Christians, who are mostly unlearned, pretend to know the truth about God and life? And how could one single God take care of all human events? Besides, if he really ruled over all, why would he allow unjust men to rise to power and just men to be killed, ot allow vital crops to be destroyed?
In uncertainty, Cecilius said, it is best to stick with traditional religions that have stood the test of time. For example, the Romans, with their religious system, had conquered the world. Who would save Christians? A criminal who was executed by crucifixion? He was obviously not providing much help, given that many Christians were poor and miserable.