Monday, September 21, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Franz Hasenhütl, Die Heidenrede im "Octavius" des Minucius Felix als Brennpunkt antichristlicher Apologetik: Weltanschauliche und gesellschaftliche Widersprüche zwischen paganer Bildungsoberschicht und Christentum. Theologie Bd. 89. Wien/Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2008. Pp. 168. ISBN 9783825817367. €19.90 (pb).
Reviewed by Jochen Walter, Seminar für Klassische Philologie, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

In the "Octavius", the Christian apologist Minucius Felix tells the story of the conversion of Caecilius, who spends a day at the sea in Ostia with two Christian friends, Minucius and Octavius. After Minucius is chided by Octavius for failing to rescue Caecilius from inperitiae vulgaris caecitas, Caecilius is offended. The three friends agree that both Caecilius and Octavius will make a speech (Caecilius attacking Christianity, Octavius defending it) and Minucius will then declare the winner of the argument. After these two speeches, which make up the bulk of the "Octavius", even before Minucius reveals his decision, Caecilius professes himself defeated and converted to Christianity.

The book under review turns out to be a commentary on Caecilius' speech with an extensive introduction. As such it acquaints the reader with relevant results of scholarship as well as with the pertinent sources.

At the beginning, Hasenhütl reviews the religious situation in Rome at the turn of the 3rd century CE and clarifies his notions of "Christians", "pagans" (Hasenhütl employs this term, at the same time claiming that Christians too were deeply rooted in Roman society, culture and even religion) and "apologetics".

The second part of the introduction concerns specifically Minucius and his text. Hasenhütl thinks that whereas Minucius was practicing law in Rome, his works were mainly read in Africa (p. 27). The author rightly emphasizes the propaedeutic and protreptic character of the "Octavius" (p. 50f.). Hasenhütl endorses the historicity of the Caecilius's conversion (p. 67, 73f.), although he acknowledges that the "Octavius" gives a revised version of the occurrence (p. 74). In judging Minucius' attitude to pagan philosophy, the author follows especially (p. 70) Stefan Freund, who stresses that nowhere in the "Octavius" is philosophy devalued. Hasenhütl cautiously endorses Christoph Schubert's1 view that there were not only pagans, but also Christians among Minucius' intended audience (p. 71).

In the next chapter, Hasenhütl first discusses the figure of Caecilius Natalis and the relation between Caecilius' objections to Christianity and Tertullian (various parallels) on the one hand and Fronto (Caecilius' objections are not necessarily drawn from him, in spite of 9.6) on the other. Hasenhütl divides Caecilius' speech into four parts, which are themselves again divided into subdivisions. It is these subdivisions that are dealt with in the commentary. In commenting on the subdivisions, Hasenhütl mostly follows a pattern consisting of three parts: 1) an introductory note, summing up the contents of the subdivision and (often) connecting it to what Caecilius said before, 2) a broad contextualization with a view to religious, theological, philosophical and social (albeit not philological) issues, 3) a short summary of the content of the subdivision possibly with a preview on what Caecilius will say in the next subdivision. The author does the reader a great service by summing up important results of research and pointing to relevant ancient sources. He covers a lot of ground, ranging from ancient scepticism to the alleged atrocities of certain gnostic groups. Hasenhütl quotes the ancient sources, adding a German translation of his own (apart from the bible, where he uses the so-called Einheitsübersetzung). In the citations, there are omissions (and one addition) of whole or even several words (8 instances, mainly in the translation).2 Unfortunately, some translations seem not entirely accurate.3 Also, it is not clear why the New Testament is sometimes quoted in Greek and sometimes in Latin. In spite of these irregularities Hasenhütl presents the reader with a sound choice of ancient sources.

In his commentary (p. 104, 110, 140f.) as well as in his conclusion (p. 144-149), Hasenhütl points out that the main objections against Christianity did not arise from philosophical issues or from the specifics of the Christian creed. Rather, according to Hasenhütl, socio-political issues were at the root of anti-Christian sentiment: the determined effort of Christians to build an alternative society opposed to that of the Roman empire (p. 104: "quasi eine 'Gegenwelt' zur gegenwärtigen Gesellschaft", p. 140: "eine Art 'Gegengesellschaft'").

Some suspicions against Christianity may have originated from actual practices of groups who self-identified as Christians or were regarded by (some) pagans as such. Hasenhütl seems to make here a sharp distinction (p. 124-130): on the one hand, the one true and pure church ("Orthodoxie"), whose innocent practices are sadly misunderstood, on the other hand abominable sects practicing nearly every vice and crime blamed on the Christians as a whole. Whatever one thinks of this distinction, Hasenhütl is without any doubt right to withstand the bias of the ancient texts that often seduce us to think of Christians as well as pagans as monolithic groups.

There are minor points on which one might quibble. For example, Hasenhütl's optimism concerning the historicity of the conversion of Caecilius may not be shared by all. Also, he is rather optimistic about the extent to which the objections Caecilius raises mirror the actual misgivings educated Roman had about Christianity (p. 73, where Caecilius' speech is referred to as "Kanon zeitgenössischer Vorwürfe gegen das frühe Christentum"; p. 146, 148). Here, I would stress much more what Hasenhütl himself asserts on p. 81 and p. 91, namely, that Caecilius' speech was crafted by Minucius in such a way that it could be refuted by Octavius in the easiest and at the same time most impressive manner.

In addition, according to Hasenhütl (p. 44 with reference to Minucius 20.1: aut nunc Christianos philosophos esse aut philosophos fuisse iam tunc Christianos), Octavius claims that the philosophers of the pre-Christian era were already Christians at that point in time. This interpretation doesn't take into account the introduction of those words by ut quivis arbitretur and consequently seems to miss the rhetorical point of this sentence. Minucius stresses the similarity between ancient philosophers and Christians by employing a rhetorical device (ut quivis arbitretur). Nowhere does he postulate an identity between ancient philosophers and Christians.

On p. 147f., Hasenhütl argues that the educated Roman elite was not necessarily above believing gory tales about Christians indulging in Thyestean meals etc. I do share these reservations about the Roman elite's supposed impeccability of judgement. Yet I think that it is not entirely convincing to base these reservations on Minucius. The special attention that Minucius gives to tales of Christian atrocity does not necessarily point to the "success" of such tales with the Roman upper class. Rather, Minucius might be motivated by a desire to undermine the anti-Christian discourse by stressing its less credible elements, thereby marginalizing socio-political differences between Christians and Roman society/state.

The rich and valuable information Hasenhütl offers his readers might possibly have been rendered even more accessible by the addition of an index. In sum, Hasenhütl has provided us with a very useful companion to reading Caecilius' speech in Minucius' "Octavius".

Table of contents:

Zur vorliegenden Untersuchung, 7
A. Vorbemerkungen zur weltanschaulichen Auseinandersetzung zwischen Christen und Heiden in Rom am Ende des 2. bzw. Beginn des 3. Jhd., 9
I. Zur religiösen Situation Roms am Beginn des 3. Jhd., 9
II. Begriffsklärung zu "Christen" und "Heiden", zu "christlicher und paganer Apologetik", 13
a. Christen und Heiden, 14
b. Apologetik, 15
c. Pagane Apologetik, 18v
B. Minucius Felix und seine Schrift "Octavius", 20
I. Zur Person des M. Minucius Felix, 20
II. Das Werk - Der "Octavius" des Minucius Felix, 27
a. Zur Überlieferung des Textes, 27
b. Zur Datierung des Textes, 30
c. Gliederung des "Octavius" und inhaltlicher Überblick, 37
d. Quellen und Vorlagen, 48
e. Die Dialogform, 62
f. Theologischer und philosophischer Gehalt des Werkes, 67
g. Die möglichen Adressaten des "Octavius", 70
III. Fazit, 72
C. Die Rede des Heiden Caecilius als Kanon zeitgenössischer Vorwürfe gegen das frühe Christentum (5,1-13,5), 73
I. Zur Person des Caecilius Natalis, 73
II. Mögliche Vorbilder - Fronto und Tertullian, 74
III. Die Rede des Heiden Caecilius, 84
a. Weltanschaulicher Teil der Heidenrede (5,1 - 7,6), 85
b. Die verruchten Sitten der Christen (8,1 - 10,5), 101
c. Unverständnis des christlichen Gottesbildes, der Eschatologie und der Abkehr vom öffentlichen Leben (10,1 - 1,6), 132
d. Schlussappell - "Quod supra nos, nihil ad nos" (12,7 - 13,5), 143
D. Resümee; oder: "Warum ein gebildeter Römer am Beginn des 3. Jhd. nicht Christ sein kann", 144
E. Literaturverzeichnis, 150
I. Primärliteratur - Kommentare, 150
II. Literaturverzeichnis - Sekundärliteratur, 154
III. Bibliographische Abkürzungen, 167


1.   Christoph Schubert's commentary on the entire text of Minucius Felix' "Octavius" is due to be published in autumn 2009.
2.   P. 22 n. 36, p. 23 n. 36, p. 85, p. 87 n. 319, p. 107 n. 374, p. 126, p. 129 n. 452, p. 136 n. 472. These, however, do not seem to seriously obscure the meaning of the texts. I also found some minor quibbles concerning diacritics (4 instances) or single letters (7 instances).
3.   (p. 21 n. 33 "adsertor" is given as "Bewahrer" (keeper), preferable seems "Verfechter" (champion); p. 96 n. 344 "apud vos quoque" is given as "Aber bei euch" (but with you), preferable seems "Auch bei euch" (with you, too), p. 98 n. 349 ἄνδρες σοφοί is given as "die weisesten Männer" (the wisest men), but in the Greek text there is only the positive, not the superlative form of the adjective; p. 135 n. 471 (Origenes c. Cels. 6.61) οὐ θέμις is given as "Es ist kein Gesetz..." (It is no law), preferable seems "Es ist gegen das (göttliche) Gesetz..." (It is against ((divine)) law); p. 141 n. 491 "ipsis rebus, de quibus transiguntur" is given as "den Dingen selbst, die dabei ausgeführt werden" (the very things which were staged/carried out in this connection), preferable seems "den Dingen selbst, bezüglich derer sie (die Spiele, nicht die Dinge!) ausgeführt werden" (the very things, about which they [the spectacles, not the things!] are staged/carried out).

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