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Why Early Christians Were Despised

The Christian Church, in its earliest centuries after Jesus, endured wave after wave of persecution.

Updated Aug 18, 2023
Why Early Christians Were Despised

The Christian Church, in its earliest centuries after Jesus, endured wave after wave of persecution. All kinds of insults and charges were hurled at them.

A document written in the late 2nd century A.D. called The Octavius of Minicius Felix describes a debate between a Christian and a pagan at the Roman port of Ostia. It provides valuable insight into how Christians were reviled and how they responded.

Minicius Felix was walking about Ostia with two friends, Octavius a Christian, and Caecilius a pagan. When Caecilius pauses to pay respect to a pagan idol, Octavius objects. An extended debate develops. Here is an adaptation of their debate drawn from that document as well as other early church sources for a taste of that time. We suggest you look carefully at the following charges and consider in what ways Christians today are similarly accused, and where the specifics of opposition now may have changed.

Charge: Cannibalism

CAECILIUS THE PAGAN: You Christians are the worst breed ever to affect the world. You deserve every punishment you can get! Nobody likes you. It would be better if you and your Jesus had never been born. We hear that you are all cannibals--you eat the flesh of your children in your sacred meetings.

OCTAVIUS The Christian: That story is probably based on reports that we share together a meal of the body and blood of Christ. That we do. But it is not human flesh we eat. It is bread and wine we consecrate to commemorate our Lord's death.

OstiaIMAGE LEFT: Ruins at Ostia can be visited today at this ancient Roman port. 12 million barrels of corn came through Ostia annually from Egypt. It was the setting for the encounter between the Christian Octavius and the pagan Caecilius as recorded by Minicius Felix in the late second century A.D. and was used as a basis for this Christian History issue. Image by Sonse/Flickr.

It amazes me you give credibility to these rumors of cannibalism. You know what we're like. Keep in mind that if you have a child and it is a girl but you wanted a boy, or if the child is deformed, or if you simply don't want it, what is done? You leave the child outside, exposed to die.

CAECILIUS: You know that it is far more merciful to let the baby die than to bring it up in a home where it is not wanted.

OCTAVIUS: We do not expose our children, and you are well aware how so many of the little ones that have been left out to die have been rescued by Christians and given a home. So it's just the opposite of what you accuse us of, Caecilius. We don't consume human life; we rather protect and defend it.

Charge: Gross Immorality

CAECILIUS: All right. Granted, it was just a rumor, but we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive -- especially the incest.

OCTAVIUS: If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody's home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.

Charge: Poor and Lower Class

CAECILIUS: Take a look at your gatherings. What are they made up of? Mostly women, gullible children, the majority are from the working classes, not well-educated, mostly poor and even slaves. It makes me laugh when I think how poor you are, barely enough to live on. If this God of yours is so great and so loving, why are so many of you so poor? Either He's not that loving and doesn't care that you are poor or He is not that great and is unable do anything about it. Some God! No wonder you¥re all regarded as fools.

OCTAVIUS: If you had bothered to take the time to find out, you would know that there are many from the upper classes among our number, even some of Caesar's staff. And notable scholars, who were once pagans, have written in defense of our faith for the more educated to consider. But let's not quibble. Many of our number -- most of our number are poor. But what is more important is how we regard ourselves. We consider ourselves to be rich. We have that which is most valuable, the most precious gift, which cannot be lost. And for your information, there are those of us who are wealthy. We do not despise wealth; we welcome it when it comes lawfully. But we do not lust after it. And when we get more wealth, we simply give more away. Wealth can be a great burden. It weighs you down with many cares and concerns. Traveling light has its advantages -- some big advantages!

CAECILIUS: Sorry, I haven't noticed any. I'll take the wealth instead any day.

OCTAVIUS: You know, Caecilius, talking to you makes me realize why God doesn't automatically bless us with wealth. Because if he did, people like you would rush to become Christians and miss the whole point. So don't pity us. We have plenty, not only for ourselves but also for those in need, the ones that you walk right by.

Charge: Self-righteousness

CAECILIUS: Oh, aren't you so pure and good. That's another thing that bothers me: you all think you are so righteous and better than the rest of us.

OCTAVIUS: First you accuse us of cannibalism and orgies, now you're offended because we seek to lead a holy life. Let me assure you, we do not consider ourselves to be holy. Every Lord's day we have a service of communion, and it is a service of thanksgiving -- thanksgiving because we are forgiven, not because we are holy, and if we are forgiven, then we shall seek to lead lives that are like Christ.

Charge: Atheism

CAECILIUS: What concerns me is what you really are. This is the reason that you are hated across all the lands of this vast empire. Let's get to the real problem. You are atheists.

OCTAVIUS: Yes, we are atheists -- if you mean that we do not pray to or believe in all of the gods that we are expected to worship. But these are not gods. We worship the one true God, the Lord over all.

Charge: Novelty

CAECILIUS: You act as if you people know more than the rest of us. You think you know more than all of our fathers. What it comes down to is that you people are captive to novelty.

OCTAVIUS: That is simply just not the case. Why is it you do not require the Jews to sacrifice to your gods. They alone are given exemption. Why? Because of the antiquity of their religion. Well, be assured that the God that the Jews worship is the very same God that we worship. Their sacred writings, the Law and the Prophets, we revere and read aloud in our meetings. And because we worship this God of the Jews, the one thing we cannot be accused of is novelty. It is just the opposite. Our faith looks back beyond the beginning of time to the God who created all that is. What you won't listen to and what the Jews refuse to accept is that this God has come into our world to show us what He is like in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we love and serve.

Charge: Foolishness, Lack of Patriotism

CAECILIUS: How you tire me with this reckless babble! I shall not take the time now to answer you, except to say, how absurd to think that even if the "one true God," as you assert, were to come to earth, he would surely do better than to come as an unschooled, working-class carpenter in a place like Galilee in Judea. And if forgiveness were to be found through some man, I assure you that it would never come through the death of some convicted and crucified criminal. But let's put aside such simplicity and naivet¨ for now, for we are a tolerant people, and you are free to believe as you wish. In many ways you do not sound all that different from some of the mystery religions, and they are left alone. But what makes you people so offensive is your stubbornness. Believe what you will, but that is no excuse for the lack of patriotism.

You people are happy to benefit from all that is ours, living in this greatest time of all history, but where is your gratitude? You are antisocial snobs. You will not show proper respect for our anniversary festivals. You will not sacrifice to the genius of the emperor. You will not fight and join the empire. Simply put, you are disloyal, unpatriotic, and not to be trusted. As far as I am concerned, you are a danger to society.

OCTAVIUS: Hold on! One at a time, please. We do not join the army, and we do not fight because we do not believe in killing. We love our enemies and do good to them. Even though we are often hunted down and killed because of accusers like you, we do not even take up arms to defend ourselves. So I fail to see how we are any danger to anyone. But yes, you are right. We do not pray to the emperor or join with our neighbors in the sacrifices to the gods. But while we do not pray to the emperor, we do pray for the emperor. We recognize those in authority as appointed by God to preserve order. We seek, we pray for the peace and tranquility of the empire. God knows, if any group seeks a quiet and undisturbed life, it is us. We never know when we will be blamed for anything that is going wrong, be hunted down and arrested.

Charge: Cause of God's Anger

CAECILIUS: Not without cause, I assure you. Why can you not see what is so clear to everyone? Your lack of patriotism has caused us all grief and suffering. The gods have been good to Rome. They have given us great victories, good food, fertile land. That is why we must propitiate them and rid ourselves of you atheists. You are no more than criminals and must be dealt with as such.

OCTAVIUS: Oh yes, we have heard that before, too many times. As one of our fathers wrote: If the Tiber overflows its walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn't move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once, "The Christian to the lion!"

("Why Early Christians Were Despised" published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

Photo Credit: © GettyImages/TonyBaggett


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