The question I addressed yesterday: could the obvious benefits of the Christian community – a community of love, fellowship, and mutual support – have drawn converts into it, who very much wanted that kind of thing? The surprising answer, I think, is no, at least in the early centuries when Christianity was trying to establish a foothold in the world. There’s another reason for thinking what I do, and it’s not one you would expect.
There were reports about the early Christian communities among outsiders. But it was not that they were a loving and caring group of unusually upright and morally committed people. On the contrary, the Christians were known to be flagrantly immoral, engaged in heinous, licentious, and murderous behavior. Hard to believe, but that is the charge we repeatedly find. Here is what I say about it in my book The Triumph of Christianity. Brace yourself.
In the early centuries Christians were accused of almost unfathomable outrageous behavior. Both Justin around 150 CE in Rome and Tertullian some fifty years later in north Africa refer to the charges. In rather graphic terms, Tertullian indicates the allegations had even been ratcheted up a notch for the Christians, to include not just murder but cannibalism: “Monsters of wickedness, we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it; in which, after the feast, we practice incest, the dogs – our pimps, forsooth, overturning the lights and getting us the shamelessness of darkness for our impious lusts…. This is what is constantly laid to our charge” (Apology 7).
An even more detailed and shocking exposition of the charges is set forth in the defense of the faith written by Tertullian’s younger contemporary Minucius Felix who, according to tradition, had earlier been a lawyer in Rome. His only surviving work is called Octavius, named after its main character, who engages in a conversation with a pagan named Caecilian over the merits of the Christian faith, with Minucius Felix himself serving as the mediator between the two. The account is allegedly autobiographical, but if not made up wholesale, the back and forth has been heavily edited in Octavius’s favor. His speech promoting Christianity takes up twice the space as Caecilian’s attacking it, and at the end of the speech the pagan is utterly convinced. Without further ado, he converts on the spot.[i]
Despite its fictitious features, there can be no doubt that the dialogue contains historically valid information, including the charges that Caecilian levels against the Christians. These reflect both the suspicions of Pliny from a century earlier and the statements of other writers, such as Tertullian later, even if they are unmatched in their gruesome vividness. Minucius Felix intimates that the charges derive from the writings of Fronto, the famous rhetorician and one-time tutor of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Caecilian’s emphatic castigation of the Christian religion comes in his description of their salacious nocturnal rituals:
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