Saturday, December 31, 2005

Minucius Felix (addendum)

On Wednesday I got together with a friend, a fellow Catholic, for a snack. We usually talk about the Bible and related texts. He brought the Quran; I showed him The Ascension of Isaiah and the Octavius of Felix, and I told him about the debates I've had with Earl Doherty over those two texts.

Later that night, I worked out what I think may be the simplest argument against Doherty's interpretation of Felix:

For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God.

Octavius is here debating with Caecilius about the idea of turning an earthly being into the one true God, or "deum." His word in other passages for the pagan gods is "deus". Octavius plainly thinks that Caecilius is talking about the former kind of worship -- even though Caecilius had only said that Christian ceremonies could be explained in reference to a wicked man and to wood, and that wicked Christians worshipped what they deserved. The idea on the table, when Octavius speaks, is the deification of an earthly being as the one true God (deum). Felix knew about this idea and, as the author of the dialogue, he had Octavius respond to it.

That is not a surprise, because even Doherty says, in reference to the traditional Christian belief in a historical Christ, that by the time Felix was writing, "everyone knew what Christians now believed about their origins" (The Jesus Puzzle, 201). Felix called himself a Christian; he must have known that at least some Christians worshipped Christ, and that non-Christians regarded this as the deification of an earthly being, a mere man (and a guilty criminal). That Felix knew all this is even more likely because he talks about having once been involved in the persecution of Christians. Also, he speaks of himself as living in Rome at some point, and surely no one will argue that he did not encounter opinions there about forms of Christianity based on a historical Christ. His implied occupation in law, and his educated writing style, further support this conclusion.

Therefore, when Octavius tells Caecilius that in fact an earthly being was not believed Deum, he cannot mean that Christ was an earthly being, because Octavius and Caecilius and everyone else knew that Christ was believed Deum. Felix means only what everyone knew: that Christians believed Christ to be fully worthy of deification, and far from a criminal or mere man. Felix does, of course, go on to say how pagans have believed earthly beings (men and animals) to be gods (deus).

For Doherty, Felix is not talking about the deification of Christ per se and is merely stating in general terms that criminals and earthly beings should not be deified. Felix is saying it's incorrect that an earthly being "was able" to be believed Deum -- that is, among Felix's own sect within Christianity. He is saying to Caecilius that whatever the pagans have heard about Christians who worship somebody fastened to a cross -- and even though both the author and his pagan associates surely knew that a crucified victim was "Deum" for at least some Christians -- nevertheless Caecilius wanders far from the truth in thinking that such a being could be God for Felix's "Christians" (the only word that Felix uses to identify his own people to Caecilius).

I leave it to the reader to decide which interpretation makes more sense.


Blogger J.L. Hinman said...

Hey thanks for linking to my blog. I'm interested in your debates with Doherty. I tried to debate him once, but was zapped from the list (Gandi and Frick's emial list) because they were wouldnh't tolerate anyone who disagreed with him. I would be interested in discussing his views with you.

I will link to your blog too.

January 04, 2006 2:20 PM  

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