Friday, December 02, 2005

Minucius Felix

Last month I finished debating with Earl Doherty about The Octavius of Felix. Before I move on from that topic, I want to present a summary case for the traditional theory that Felix called himself a Christian because he believed in Christ. I will be presenting mainly the arguments I used in the recent debate, where I stuck mainly to negative evidence. But I will be adding a new argument here about positive evidence, which will serve in part as a further response, beyond what I offered in the debate, to the argument that Doherty presented as his strongest (he has posted a summary of his best arguments here). And I will be tackling the arguments about Felix in Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle (I will be quoting from pp. 286-289).

First let me quote the accusation against Christians, from chapter 9 of the dialogue. Following it is the key part, from chapter 29, of the Christian's overall reply.

CAECILIUS: And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes. Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion,-a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the virilia of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.

OCTAVIUS: These, and such as these infamous things, we are not at liberty even to hear; it is even disgraceful with any more words to defend ourselves from such charges. For you pretend that those things are done by chaste and modest persons, which we should not believe to be done at all, unless you proved that they were true concerning yourselves. 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. Miserable indeed is that man whose whole hope is dependent on mortal man, for all his help is put an end to with the extinction of the man. The Egyptians certainly choose out a man for themselves whom they may worship; him alone they propitiate; him they consult about all things; to him they slaughter victims; and he who to others is a god, to himself is certainly a man whether he will or no, for he does not deceive his own consciousness, if he deceives that of others. Moreover, a false flattery disgracefully caresses princes and kings, not as great and chosen men, as is just, but as gods; whereas honour is more truly rendered to an illustrious man, and love is more pleasantly given to a very good man. Thus they invoke their deity, they supplicate their images, they implore their Genius, that is, their demon; and it is safer to swear falsely by the genius of Jupiter than by that of a king. Crosses, moreover, we neither worship nor wish for. You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods. For your very standards, as well as your banners; and flags of your camp, what else are they but crosses gilded and adorned? Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it. We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched. Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it.

Doherty proposes that Felix, through the character of Octavius, is saying that he does not have a crucifixion in his religion, since Octavius openly rejects the idea of deifying either criminals or earthly beings. Everyone is agreed that Felix does reject the latter two things as legitimate objects of worship. And there was no disagreement in our debate that Caecilius' accusation about worshipping a wicked man was stimulated by reports of a practice that had, as its focus, a crucified Jesus Christ. Mythicists argue that this Jesus was believed at first to be crucified in the heavens, though they concede that the belief in a historical crucifixion had arisen in time for Felix to have heard of it when he wrote his dialogue (around 200 C.E., though the date is a matter of dispute). The central disagreement therefore appears when we try to define what Jesus Christ was to Felix. Did Felix regard the crucified Jesus Christ as a criminal, and did he regard him as an earthly being? What did Felix mean by these terms? Was he speaking of wrongly accused and wicked criminals alike? What was an earthly being in Felix's mind?

Actually our debate saw another major disagreement, since Doherty argued that we just could not know what Felix's attitude was toward the original crucified victim.

We don’t know what his attitude was toward the 'crucified man' Caecilius has mentioned. Did he think Caecilius (or the pagan comments represented by the words Felix has put in his mouth) was referring to an actual historical man, or only to a story about a man? Did Felix have an opinion, let alone definite knowledge, as to whether this man had actually lived, or did he not know one way or another?

We can know, Doherty said, only that Felix was dismissing the general idea of worshipping any crucified victim, since Octavius openly rejected the worship of criminals and earthly beings.

Contrast this with Doherty's statement in The Jesus Puzzle that Felix's text is a smoking gun "pointing to a Christian denial of the historical Jesus." That is actually an argument; and some of his supporters in the debate held firmly to it, claiming that Felix regarded the crucified criminal as wicked. I think Doherty's agnosticism in the debate evades the problem, which is strange, considering his implicit concession that Caecilius' accusation arose from reports of real Christian practice. No one will argue that the accusation was invented randomly. However obliquely, a part of Felix's text is therefore referring to a real figure of Christian worship. For that reason alone we need to question Doherty's assertion that another part of the text, the Christian reply, is merely expressing a general distaste for certain things; we need to ask whether Felix's refutation of the accusation references that figure of worship too. The rationale becomes compelling when we realize that we're merely asking what Felix, who called himself a Christian, thought about a figure called Christ.

The method consists of asking what the refutation says (positive evidence) or does not say (negative evidence) about that figure.


Octavius says that criminals do not deserve to be made into God, and that earthly beings cannot come to be regarded as God. He definitely means guilty criminals here, for he speaks of deserving. Leaving Felix aside, no form of Christianity that we know of says that Christ was a deserving criminal. So Felix's comment about deifying criminals says nothing against the central Christian figure -- unless we interpret the text to mean that Felix, uniquely among Christians, regarded Christ as a deserving criminal.

What he means by earthly beings is less clear. He says only that an earthly being cannot come to be regarded as God. He also says, however, that pagans make mortal men into gods; and so for Doherty, Felix is leaving himself open to the charge of hypocrisy. How, the argument goes, can Felix reject the deification of an earthly being and leave himself open to the charge that he worships such a being? But hypocrisy is far from the best or the only available option. In the original Latin, Felix uses the equivalent of our God/god distinction: he says that an earthly being cannot come to be regarded as "deum", but that pagans have been known to regard a mere man as "deus." So what he means is that an earthly being cannot come to be regarded as the one true God of the Christians. This would be a plain falsehood if Felix is speaking for all Christians, as he seems to be doing, and he believes that many Christians are worshipping an earthly being. If he believes that, we would expect him to say that no criminal or earthly being deserves to be regarded as God. Instead he says that an earthly being cannot come to be regarded as God -- and he rebukes Caecilius for thinking that an earthly being can achieve this regard. So unless Felix was ignorant or lying about the Christian practice that his opponent has brought up, his statement that no earthly being could ever be regarded as G0d (deum) serves nearly as proof that Felix did not regard the crucified Christ as an earthly being.

Our conclusion is that Felix has said nothing against the innocent and otherworldly Christ of Christian tradition. But there are supporting arguments in Felix's remaining statements, in which he consistently fails to criticize traditional Christianity. Doherty argues in his book that these statements do condemn Christianity as we know it:

[In chapter 21, Felix] is castigating the Greeks for lamenting and worshiping a god [a son of Isis] who is slain. Later he says [chapter 23]: "Men who have died cannot become gods, because a god cannot die; nor can men who are born (become gods) .... Why, I pray, are gods not born today, if such have ever been born?" He then goes on to ridicule the whole idea of gods procreating themselves, which would include the idea of a god begetting a son. Elsewhere [chapter 20] he scorns those who are credulous enough to believe in miracles performed by gods.

Let's take the three points in this paragraph separately: a dying god; a procreating god; a miracle-performing god.

1) Felix is denigrating paganism's cycles of dying-and-rising gods, wherein the same god was said to die and rise repeatedly. Felix sees this as nonsensical. This is the full quote from chapter 21 of the text:

Isis bewails, laments, and seeks after her lost son, with her Cynocephalus and her bald priests; and the wretched Isiacs beat their breasts, and imitate the grief of the most unhappy mother. By and by, when the little boy is found, Isis rejoices, and the priests exult, Cynocephalus the discoverer boasts, and they do not cease year by year either to lose what they find, or to find what they lose. Is it not ridiculous either to grieve for what you worship, or to worship that over which you grieve?

He does not, at any point, condemn the one-time sacrifice of God's son.

2) Felix ridicules the idea of the polytheistic gods procreating like a population -- that is clear even in the quote that Doherty uses above. Felix does not mention the idea of the one true God having an eternal Son who does not procreate. In short, he ridicules divine procreation, not divine incarnation.

3) Felix ridicules not "miracles," but the very existence of Scylla, Chimaera, Hydra, Centaurs, and men who could take on the form of birds, beasts, trees, and flowers. Doherty does not tell us this.

Doherty concludes that when Felix "makes statements which flatly contradict and even defame ideas which should be at the very heart of his own beliefs and personal devotion", we must accept that Felix did not profess these ideas, since they would "confute and confound essential Christian beliefs in his own mind" (emphasis Doherty's). But Felix did not regard these ideas, as Doherty describes them, to be central to his Christian faith; Doherty does. It's Doherty who says that one godman out of many procreated with a woman and fathered a child; that one godman out of many died on a cross and was wept over; that one godman performed strange acts in Palestine which resemble the strange acts and creatures in Homer. Christians have always believed that their salvation came about in events that were quite different from those in pagan mythology, and they've been able to point to the differences; an atheist like Doherty can try to deny the differences, but he cannot deny that Christians held the differences to be what set them apart. In doing so he is simply reading his own beliefs into the texts -- one of the easiest mistakes to make, and admittedly one of the toughest to avoid.

And what about the argument that Felix's statements would "defame" his own ideas and leave him "open to the charge of hypocrisy"? That is possible; certain pagans of antiquity, like Celsus, did say that Christian beliefs were no different from Greco-Roman beliefs. But Felix is presenting a dialogue in which the pagan is converted. The opposition to his Christian ideas is not comprehensive or even lasting. (This is a dialogue purportedly between friends). The pagan speaks first, and says little more before announcing his conversion. He has spoken calumnies about Christian character, and presented what he believes to be illogic at the heart of such doctrines as the resurrection; the reply from Octavius states that Christians are in fact virtuous, and that resurrection actually makes sense. The second "salvo" of the pagan, wherein he might be expected, if he's no friend to Christianity, to retaliate with charges of hypocrisy, never comes (though at the end of the dialogue he says he has some remaining questions, requiring deeper training, that he will leave for another day). Felix is constructing a dialogue in which a pagan friendly to Christians can be persuaded that the worst rumors are not true. That is the best description of his document, and the best explanation for why his work, unlike Origen's long refutation of Celsus, does not go into an extensive defense of what makes Christianity and of what separates its beliefs from common pagan ideas.

We can see this when we examine Doherty's only real example of negative evidence, concerning the resurrection of the dead. He finds it problematic that Felix doesn't mention the resurrection of Christ when Caecilius asks, "What single individual has returned from the dead, that we might believe it for an example?" (This paraphrase by Doherty is incorrectly presented, in quotes, as a translation, for the full text in chapter 11 reads, "...and what single individual has returned from the dead either by the fate of Protesilaus, with permission to sojourn even for a few hours, or that we might believe it for an example?"). One should note, for perspective, that Felix does not give us any events from his faith: there is nothing about Abraham, Moses, or any events at all, Biblical and otherwise. And when Caecilius wonders philosophically how men can come back from the dead if their bodies corrupt and disintegrate, Octavius gives a philosophical reply showing how the logic in the objections is invalid, and how resurrection of the dead is logical. No more is required. A discussion of further and more specific questions, as noted, is left for another day.

The negative evidence from Felix's text comes to this: Felix rejects the pagan practices, but in every case avoids rejecting their Christian counterparts. In the same way, he denies worshipping criminals and earthly beings, but he never denies the figure that most Christian sects have held to be both innocent and otherworldly -- with the exception being a few groups, to which Felix did not belong, who acknowledged only Christ's humanity.

When we leave Felix's text, there is evidence from other Chritians about what was meant by the phrase, "earthly being." I want to briefly quote one of Felix's contemporaries, Tertullian, an orthodox Christian whose work resembles Felix's at many points. He wrote between the years 197 and 220, and it is widely theorized that one of the men drew from the other's work; the consensus of scholarly opinion has shifted more than once on the question of who was prior. As I understand it, Doherty takes what is now the minority opinion -- that Tertullian drew from Felix. If Felix drew from the orthodox Christian, Doherty's statements in his book and our debate that Felix "had no truck" with such Christians makes little sense. But we should also ask in passing why the orthodox Christian, if he came later, would be inspired, in minute detail, by someone who rejected his faith. In fact, Tertullian discussed many heresies; a Christian without Christ would count as heretical.

The simplest solution is that both men worshipped Christ.

From Tertullian's Ad nationes:

The particular character of a posterity is shown by the original founders of the race--mortal beings (come) from mortals, earthly ones from earthly; step after step comes in due relation--marriage, conception, birth--country, settlements, kingdoms, all give the clearest proofs. They, therefore who cannot deny the birth of men, must also admit their death; they who allow their mortality must not suppose them to be gods.

From Tertullian's Apology:

Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, as light of light is kindled... This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient times, descending into a certain virgin, and made flesh in her womb, is in His birth God and man united. The flesh formed by the Spirit is nourished, grows up to manhood, speaks, teaches, works, and is the Christ.

In the first quote, Tertullian speaks about pagan gods as mortal and earthly. When he comes to Christ, he speaks of Spirit, and does not call him mortal or earthly, despite the fact that Christ attained "manhood".

And this quote from Tertullian's Apologeticum clarifies some of the confusion that is felt even today about how Christians regard Christ as someone who incarnated into flesh but was not an earthly being:

Then, too, the common people have now some knowledge of Christ, and think of Him as but a man, one indeed such as the Jews condemned, so that some may naturally enough have taken up the idea that we are worshippers of a mere human being.

A century and a half later, a bishop known as Hilary of Poitiers was influenced by Felix's work -- something we learned from Andrew Criddle in the debate. Hilary's work also bears many similarities to Felix's thought. Here is a key quote from The Trinity (Book X):

In like manner Jesus Christ being man is indeed human, but even thus cannot be aught else but Christ, born as man by the birth of His body, but not human in defects, as He was not human in origin.


In Octavius' reply quoted at the top, Felix seems to be attaching a positive importance to the sign of the cross. This would be hard to believe if he rejected the crucifixion and all worship associated with it -- an insight I owe to someone else in the debate, whose Secular Web username is GakuseiDon; I'll refer to him simply as Don.

Notice the progression of Felix's thought in the passage. Felix begins by saying that such accusations as Caecilius has laid at his door do not apply to virtuous people, or indeed to anyone, unless perhaps some of the disgraceful practices were found to be done by "yourselves" -- that is, by Caecilius' own people (pagans). He proceeds to give an example: the worship of the crucified criminal. We know right away that whatever he means, he cannot mean that Caicilius' own people are guilty of worshipping a crucified victim; no evidence for such pagan worship has been found. Felix does tell us what the disgrace would be: worshipping deserving criminals and earthly beings. At this point it is his custom to name some pagan practices, in order to show that Caecilius' accusations are actually little more than projections. He gives no example of pagans worshipping deserving criminals, but he does go into the idea of how futile it is to worship "mortal man" (a kind of earthly being); and he gives examples from pagan Egypt, concerning the Pharaohs. He says why this is wrong and dishonest.

He then moves on to the second part of the original accusation, about Christians organizing their ceremonies around the "deadly wood of the cross." He says that Christians do not worship crosses or wish for them. As Don pointed out, this undoubtedly means that Christians do not wish for actual, life-size crosses. (This was a time when crucifixion was feared and had not yet been abolished). Caecilius had implied in chapter 12 that they did: "Lo, for you there are threats, punishments, tortures, and crosses; and that no longer as objects of adoration, but as tortures to be undergone." Felix replies, "you, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as part of your gods." His barb at idolatry of things made from wood is characteristically Christian; but he is trying hard also to pin the actual worship of wooden crosses on the pagans, by comparing the shape of some of their idols -- perhaps gods with arms outstretched -- to crosses. He compares some Roman trophies to the shape of a cross, and makes a point out of the fact that some trophies tend to have the figure of a human champion affixed to them. I know of no trophies in the shape of a cross, however -- a point made also by Doherty in the debate. Perhaps the Romans, who used crucifixion against non-Romans, felt the cross to be a symbol of power.

Still, Felix is getting so carried away with throwing the original accusation back at the pagans that he risks, at least in Doherty's eyes, looking like he is rejecting the Christian worship of a figure who came to be represented as a man on a cross. But he does, incidentally, gives us a piece of negative evidence that pagans did not worship crucified deities: he would mention an example of it if he could, but he is unable to find a good parallel with the Christian crucifixion.

Finally, Octavius proceeds to describe what Christians actually think. He says that "we" naturally see the sign of the cross in ships with masts stretched upward, or with oars protruding outwards to both sides; in the lifting of the military yoke; and in the image of a man adoring God with a pure mind and arms stretched out to the sides. These are all positive images in themselves, and not merely when contrasted with what he presents as the banal worldliness of pagan idolatry and sports. Whatever visual image he has in mind for the lifting of the military yoke, such freedom is extremely positive -- and there is surely a barb here at the yoke of Roman power. He ends with an enigmatic statement, possibly conciliatory, about how the sign of the cross is either "sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it." Whatever it means, we see that for Felix, the sign of the cross can be seen everywhere, and that Christians see it naturally in positive things quite different from Roman trophies and the like.

Doherty said in the debate that Felix's comments about the sign of the cross are somewhat unclear. He suggested that Felix was simply saying that the sign of the cross was so ubiquitous as to preclude being an element of proper worship. In contrast with this guess, I prefer Don's actual argument that Felix could not associate the sign of the cross with exclusively positive images if he really rejected the crucifixion of Christ as a focus of worship.

The reason for the lack of clarity, I suggest, is that Felix is introducing something not already mentioned by Caecilius. Nothing up to this point has been said about the sign of the cross -- unless we read the sign of the cross into chapter 9, where Caecilius charges, "They know one another by secret marks and insignia" -- yet Octavius wants to speak about it. Probably, though it was unclear to most pagans exactly how Christians worshipped, and though Caecilius' complaint about their private way of worshipping as overly secret was a common one, it was nevertheless known that Christians crossed themselves. (Today, too, the sign of the cross is readily known by non-Christians as a Christian signature). So Felix introduces it into his text, even though Caecilius has furnished no need to do so. If the idea is that Felix does so in order to separate himself from Christians who do cross themselves, the text would make no sense, for Felix never mentions these Christians, and associates the sign of the cross only with good things.

Doherty offered his own positive evidence in the debate, something that he called a "pattern principle." He presented it as his strongest argument, and both of his supporters seemed to feel the same way about it. I called it an argument based on a principle that in biblical studies is known as the criterion of coherence. What I meant is that Doherty sees in Felix's refutations a pattern, wherein the rumors are always rejected in their entirety, compelling the conclusion that incoherence sets in if Felix does not reject the crucified criminal entirely. I pointed out that the text only contains a rejection of deserving criminals and earthly beings -- two things that ancient Christians did not call Christ. Doherty argued nevertheless that making an exception for innocent criminals, and saying that Felix saw Christ as something other than earthly, amounts to having the author make an incomplete and even incoherent denial, rather than a consistent one.

I submit that this argument fails on its own terms. Doherty does have Felix making a serious exception. In the traditional reading, Octavius denies all that Caecilius has to say about Christian character, and he refutes the various accusations in similar but not identical ways. In Doherty's model, Octavius rejects all that Caecilius has to say about Christians, except the charge that people named as Christians worship a wicked, mortal man. Here, the dialogue's two main protagonists, a Christian and a pagan, are on common ground about something as important as an accusation. They agree that this accusation is correct with regard to some Christians, albeit not the Christians that Octavius belongs to.

And this strikes me as an unnecessary multiplication of entities. There are two groups, represented by Caecilius and Octavius, in the dialogue; there is no need to introduce a third group, still less a group that our two protagonists agree about. The point of such a dialogue is for the pagan's thinking about Christians to be refuted: there is no need to posit that in this dialogue, Felix was sneaking in a barb at fellow Christians through the pagan's words and having the Christian protagonist heartily agree with it.

If we want to test Doherty's proposed pattern, let's summarize what Felix says. In chapter 9, Caecilius had accused Christians of six shameful things, in this order: incestuous promiscuity; worshipping the head of an ass; worshipping the genitals of their priests; worshipping a wicked man and the wood of the cross; and devouring the blood of infants (he had finished by elaborating on incestuous banquets). Octavius turns to these accusations in chapter 28, and introduces these as "fables":

1) the worship of monsters
2) devouring the blood of infants
3) incestuous banqueting

#1 is his own contribution, and he says no more about it. The others he will return to later, devoting to each a full chapter (30 and 31). First he speaks about how torture of Christians never unearthed evidence to prove these fables. Then he gives individual attention to the rumor that Christians worship the head of an ass. He does not call this a fable, but a falsehood begun by demons. He asks incredulously who -- either pagan or Christian -- is foolish enough to worship such a thing, or to believe that it is an object of worship. He turns the accusation of animal worship back on the pagans, and gives some examples, before moving on to another charge, which he calls a fable: the ritual worship of a priest's genitals. He denies that Christians do this, and adds that it is the kind of thing to be found in pagan temples.

Chapter 29 opens with a statement that such things, and others generally, are not to be expected among virtuous people, or indeed anyone, unless it were discovered in the behavior of pagans. As another example, he turns to the worship of a crucified criminal -- a sixth accusation, and the last one that he comes to. He does not call it a fable or a demon's falsehood, and he does not ask incredulously who is foolish enough to make a crucified victim an object of worship. He does tell us that it's far from the realm of truth to say that a criminal could deserve to be made God, or to say that an earthly being could be believed God at all. This is Felix's most subtle refutation. He then turns the worship of earthly beings (not as deum but as deus), back upon the pagans.

His denial that Christians worship crosses might count as refutation of a seventh accusation. It is notable, not because he tries to indict paganism with the worship of wooden cross-shapes, nor even because for the first time he adds a statement about what "we" Christians actually feel -- conceding, as argued above, that his Christians value the sign of the cross. He will use such statements in subsequent chapters. It's rather his final statement here, that the sign of the cross is sustained by a natural reason and is a basis even for pagan religion, that stands out as unique in all his refutations: it seems to find a point of agreement between Christianity and paganism -- though not with anything that Caecilius himself has said. Felix, after all, is not incapable of saying that Christianity and paganism share some common ground; in chapter 18 he offers, "And they who speak of Jupiter as the chief, are mistaken in the name indeed, but they are in agreement about the unity of the power". In any case, this statement about paganism and the sign of the cross has been found enigmatic, or unclear, by all sides in the debate, which is yet another indication that this particular refutation is somewhat different from the others.

To wit: in chapter 30 Felix returns to one of the things he called "fables" -- infant immolation. He denies it and states for the third time (as with the worship of an ass, and the worship of the criminal), that such a thing could not be believed possible except as pagan acts. He proceeds to name pagan practices that can be compared to infant immolation. As in the previous chapter, he offers what Christians actually feel: he tells us about Christian horror at murder. In chapter 31 he returns to incest. He refutes the charge, speaks about incest in paganism, and for the third time adds something about what Christians feel -- in this case, how they refrain from internal lust as well as external acts like adultery. He ends with one last condemnation of pagan immorality.

I think enough has been said to show that Felix followed a pattern but mixed it up somewhat -- especially in chapter 29, where we see an initial refutation divided into two parts (about what criminals deserve and earthly beings actually achieve), and a unique affirmation of paganism's common ground with Christianity (the example being paganism's unwitting tendency to venerate the sign of the cross). This point of agreement with paganism makes sense if the sign of the cross, and not the worship of actual crosses, is a part of Felix's religion.

I submit that an argument from coherence, such as Doherty's, can support a line of reasoning independently established, but it cannot compel a conclusion. Doherty thinks that the initial refutation concerning the criminal must be seen as incoherent unless the crucifixion, crosses, and the sign of the cross are rejected entirely -- even though this only raises the question of why Felix finds the sign of the cross in uniformly positive things.


Doherty admits that the word "Christian" appears throughout the dialogue. It does; Felix embraces it. This is a ruinous piece of evidence for Doherty's theory. It serves as positive evidence of what Felix's religion was; and it prompts us to ask why he chooses to be called Christian. It also serves as negative evidence, for we should also ask why Felix does not tell his accuser, who has been hearing of Christ-worshipping Christians, that he does not belong to them. In the accusation quoted at the top, Caecilius says, "those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated." Octavius fails to make it clear that he does not belong to these great numbers; he goes on speaking for all Christians. He actually adds, "And that day by day the number of us is increased, is not a ground for a charge of error, but is a testimony which claims praise" (chapter 31).

Bear with me while I ply a parallel from the 7th century. When the Quran speaks of the error of regarding Jesus as a divinity, it says in the clearest terms, and repeatedly, that such worship is wrong and belongs to another religion. The Quran goes on to speak of "Muslims", and says that a Muslim is one who submits to God without making any error of polytheism; the Quran describes "Christians" as deifying Jesus and thus attributing partners to God. Islam speaks instead of the Unity of God. In his book, Doherty describes Felix's work as revolving around "the Unity and Providence of God and the rejection of all pagan deities, the resurrection of the body and its future reward or punishment." These are all central Muslim beliefs. So if Felix was a type of Christian who interpreted monotheism in a similar way, disallowing worship of Jesus Christ, then why does he not do as the Quran does, and say that he does not belong to the Christianity that his accuser has introduced into the discussion? Furthermore, why does he fail to call himself something else? Why does he call himself, and his people, Christian?

Someone in our debate suggested the definition of "Christian" given by Theophilus of Antioch (who wrote around the years 180-185): "Wherefore we are called Christians on this account, because we are anointed with the oil of God." In his book, Doherty highlights this same definition before discussing Felix, since "Christ" means in Greek, "the anointed one."

This argument implies that the word "Christian" came about independently of Jesus Christ (an argument that I doubt Doherty would actually propose); or that it was taken as a name by those who witnessed but did not take up the worship of Christ (also problematic, since it posits that a group will create its identity by stealing the name of another group with very different ideals and practices); or that it remained the name of those who once worshipped Christ and ceased at some point to do so. This last option seems the least problematic, but it leaves us wondering all the more why Felix does not tell his accuser about what must have been an identity-forming break with the former Christians. And why, if his "Christian" name comes from the anointing of oil or something else, does he not mention that?

In my opinion, if Felix did not worship Jesus Christ, he would not have called himself a Christian. The word was used consistently by pagan writers to denote those who followed Jesus Christ. If Felix or anyone else did not wish to be identified as such, they would have chosen other names to call themselves. I said in the debate that two such groups did exist, who did not worship or venerate Christ: Jews and pagans. Felix was not a Jew, because he speaks about Jews in the third person, as a people punished by God (chapter 33); but then again, he also rejects everything that we would call, and that Christians of that day did call, pagan.

Muslims, of course, did choose their own name, and the name of their religion. They were perhaps the exception to the rule that in the ancient world, you probably belonged to a group whose name had been given it by outsiders (Islam rejects the name, Muhammadans, given to Muslims by outsiders). Felix used a name that was probably invented by the pagan world -- but there is no evidence that pagans thought of Christians as including people who did not worship Christ. "Christian" is the pagan term for those who venerated Jesus Christ. What Doherty is implying is that Felix called himself, or others called him, a name that has always referred to Christ-worship, but that Felix did not worship Christ.

I have made these parallels with Islam only for the sake of comparison. All parallels have their problems. But leaving Islam aside, my questions about Felix concerning the name of "Christian" would remain exactly the same.


I submit that Doherty is positing a new entity in early Christianity -- a new subset of the faith -- without evidence. There is no ancient Christian writer who speaks of rejecting Christ and remaining Christian. No ancient Christian writer concerned with heresy tells us about people who called themselves Christian but did not worship Christ. Tertullian seems, like Felix, to have been a jurisconsult at Rome and may have known about him -- a fact already suggested to some degree by the close correspondences in the two men's works. Felix's work certainly suggests that he was not alone in his sect. The probability that these people were in the same city as Tertullian suggests itself strongly. Yet Tertullian says nothing about these beliefs when he discusses heresies.

For that matter, no ancient Christian writer mentions the purported heresy that Christ had never lived. But we don't need to get into that here.


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