Monthly Archives: December 2013

Tertullian I: Ascetic Theologian

I had this idea that I was going to put everything I had on Tertullian in one post with a caution that it would be long. Well, I’m at over 6600 words right now and still have six major and several minor areas he covers to write about. I don’t know what the final word count will be but I’d guess somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 words. That’s not long, that’s hideous. Instead I’m going to break this into sections because, well, I want people to read them. However, since part of the reason for this blog is for my own benefit as a way to refer back to things, I’m also going to post the monster after I’ve posted the sections. I’ll make sure everyone’s aware that all of the information in that post has already been covered. The title of that post will be, “Tertullian: The Whole Thing.”

I had no idea just how important Tertullian was to the evolution of Christianity. I’ve read books and articles speaking about him in terms such as, “The First Latin Theologian” or, “The Founder of Latin Christianity” and had always figured on these as exaggerations. Now? While labels such as these are overly simplistic and minimize the complexity of how things actually developed, they are indicators of his importance. In looking at his writings I can see direct influences on Christianity to the present day, often transmitted through Augustine. As I was reading through his material I was struck by how his thoughts on the nature of God, the nature of Christ, women, asceticism (maybe) and other aspects of Christianity are seminal and in some cases very close to current Christian Doctrine. He represents the beginning of a break from Platonism and turning away from the knowledge of ancient philosophers, though even he couldn’t escape them completely. I knew Tertullian was important but I had no idea just how much.

To this point most of what I’ve read from pre-Nicene authors has represented a fairly steady progression. Authors such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus show that Christianity was gradually evolving. Ideas, concepts and practices are developing into those that would become common during the Medieval and even Modern periods. With Clement there’s a break, a move away from dogma and back to patterns of Classical Platonic thought where the journey is as important as the destination. This is what makes him so interesting to me. With Tertullian there’s a sharp break in the other direction. There is right and there is wrong. There is truth and there is untruth. There is belief and there is error. He uses a philosophical method of argument; extensive, convoluted logical appeals in support of his position. But this isn’t, apparently, for the purpose of entering into a debate but to reveal and defend the truth. 1

For the most part, I’ll be inserting citations to Tertullian’s material into the text rather than as footnotes. I will have a few notes but as these posts will be heavy on direct quotes I thought this would be cleaner. As I was writing this I realized that short sound bites don’t do Tertullian justice. To get a feel for his arguments, you really need the argument.


Woodcut image of Tertullian. From Wikimedia Commons.

As usual, I’m going to start this off with a brief biography.

Tertullian spent his early life in Carthage, received an extensive classical (philosophical) education, and appears to have converted to Christianity relatively late in life, around 197 or so when he was in his mid-30’s (he is believed to have been born around 160). His early writings indicate a strict, ascetic view of Christianity which becomes more pronounced around 207 and becomes extreme around 215-220. A key aspect of his development is Montanism. Montanism was founded in the middle of the second century and was considered a heresy, primarily because, contrasting with mainstream Christianity, they believed that people continued to receive prophetic visions from God while mainstream opinion was that Christ was the last prophet and this phase of Human development ended with the apostles. Where this sect influenced Tertullian and his writings was in its extreme asceticism. Montanists did not believe in marriage (and certainly not remarriage) and thought the world no longer needed children as the last days were approaching. Tertullian’s writings became particularly strident when a schism developed in the Church and he began writing to defend Montanist beliefs. From the standpoint of posterity, this is also where he got in trouble as much of what he wrote during this period was too extreme for the Church to accept. This is likely the main reason he was never canonized. I was in the middle of reading material from this period when I posted about my dislike for him. Having had a few days to think about it, guess what – I still don’t like him. But I see that he was important and think I can make a decent post. 2

Tertullian seems to have achieved the rank of presbyter, not bishop, but this didn’t reduce the importance of his writings. Jerome says that he lived to extreme old age but as he’s not heard from after about 225 this is questionable. 3

My overall impression of Tertullian is that he looked to describe Christianity in as simple of a way as possible. For him, there are very few grey areas. The world is composed of contrasts, conflict, and opposites. Something is either right or wrong, good or evil. There are a few exceptions to this but in most cases these involve the newly converted. For example, marriage to a non-Christian is strictly forbidden, particularly for women, but if you were already married when you converted, continuing that marriage is OK. He has similar views on military service. Based on my limited knowledge of philosophy, it appears that I may need to read up on Stoicism. He certainly isn’t Platonist, not with his emphasis on a world in conflict, absolutes, and good vs evil. Plus he comes out and tells us he’s relying on Stoics. 4

In comparing him with other Christian authors, much of what he writes reminds me of Augustine. This was more of a sense than my being able to match quotes but, while he is more extreme in some cases, much of it is reminiscent. I’ll wait until I get to Augustine to try to match specifics back. He also comes across as something of an anti-Clement. Clement of Alexandria believed philosophy was useful, that Christians should vigorously study and learn, they should be moderate in dress and sexual relations and they should participate in various aspects of Roman life. I’ll expand more on this as I get into the post but Clement and Tertullian are at odds in many areas.

One other interesting Tertullian characteristic, and one which echoes a similar evolution in Augustine, is how his views changed over time. With Augustine these stricter, more absolute views resulted from conflicts with Pelagians and Donatists. With Tertullian these arose due to conflicts with the mainstream Church. His Montanist sympathies resulted in, once the Montanist-mainstream Church conflict got going, a series of what can only be called apologies but in this case defending Montanist views and explaining why these were consistent with scripture and should not be a reason to cast out the sect. As I read his material, the use of the term Psychic became indicative of something written during the period when this conflict existed. 5

Tertullian was always strict and ascetic, even in his early writings. Clearly the Montanist views on areas of Christian life such as marriage, fornication and adultery, and the folly of pleasure, appealed to him. Honestly, what I was reading of his often reminded me of something which might have been written into a rule or as guidance for a monastic order. Things were extremely strict but his views on the nature of God and Christ were fairly Orthodox for the time. Another significant influence was his belief that the Last Days were near. Why should anyone have children or marry, or do anything pleasurable which might distract them from preparing for God’s judgement?

He wrote on a wide variety of topics. I have a feeling that if I could force myself to read him again I’d find even more to write about but specific areas I’ll be covering are (not necessarily in this order):

  • The Trinity
  • Baptism
  • Original Sin
  • Purgatory
  • The Nature of Christ
  • Philosophy
  • Repentance, Penance and the Remission of Sins
  • Women
  • Military Service
  • Pleasure
  • Sex and Marriage
  • Miscellaneous Things I find Interesting

I’ll combine some of these so don’t expect 12 posts but there will be several. Also, I’m going to leave the same bibliography for all posts at the bottom of the page even though I may not use something in a particular section. And if this reads like it’s been chopped into pieces, this will be because it’s been chopped into pieces.

1 I’ve just started reading Origen’s De Principiis and he’s much more in the Clement style. He proposes questions and things to think about, often without giving definite answers. I have no idea if there was any sort of “Alexandrian” vs “Carthaginian” type of Christianity developing around this time (actually I have an idea or two but I’ll wait until I read further to post about it) but the differences in their styles are pronounced. It will be interesting as I move forward to see if Tertullian’s absolutism begins a progression of the Church in that direction or if this is something which is set aside, to be picked up later by Augustine. The reality is it’s probably a mix of the two as the Arian controversy of the 4th century helped create an Orthodox camp which held fairly strict views on various aspects of Christianity.

2 I’ve mentioned this before but want to remind everyone that when I use terms like “the Church” or “mainstream Christianity”, what I mean by this is the branch of early Christianity which would evolve into the Orthodox Catholic Church. Prior to Nicaea there was no “the Church” in the sense that we understand it today, though things seem to have been moving in that direction.

3 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus), LIII.

4 Tertullian, de Anima (On the Soul) V.

5 Tertullian’s use of Psychic does not resemble the modern, English usage of the word but is used to represent a Christian who is ruled by his or her animal passions.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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Taking Stock on Early Christianity Reading Progress

Ever have one of those moments when you look at where you’ve been and where you have yet to go and wonder what in the world you’ve gotten yourself into? Most of us probably have at one time or another. As I’m about to start reading on Origen, I took a look at my to read bookcase (a few years ago this was a single shelf, now it has 236 books on it) to get an idea of what Early Christianity books I have left.

This was a mistake. Over two years ago when I first started reading on Early Christianity I had 37 books on my Late Antiquity/Christianity shelf (books on Christianity to about the year 700). I’ve been reading on this for 25 months. During that time I’ve read 85 books on this or related topics, not to mention however many sources I’ve gone through from the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series along with a few things I’ve found online.

Here I am two years later and I have 90 books on the shelves, though to be fair five are actually about Neoplatonism (still need to be read). I should not have counted. I really thought I was making progress. With Origen I’m approaching the middle of the 3rd century. I thought I’d read up to Nicaea, fill in a few gaps on the 4th century Cappadocians, get to Jerome and Augustine, read a bit on the development of monasticism and then turn to the Carolingians (27 books on them) followed by the Anglo-Saxons (21 books). I thought I’d be done with my intensive Early Christianity reading by early summer. On counting books, I honestly have no idea how long it’ll take. And I have no illusions on my not buying a few more books to add to the pile.

I’m stubborn so I’ll finish this up. I just had no idea that I had this much material to go through. Crazy. I think I need to have an electrode plugged into my brain so whenever I start thinking about buying books I’m shocked back to my senses.

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Posted by on December 25, 2013 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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Semi-Random Thoughts, a Little on Tertullian and a Bit on Historical Models

I really have fallen off on my posting lately. I just have a lot going on, some of it personal and some professional. I’ll leave the personal alone, for now, but on the professional side I’ve moved from working in this office to working in this office. This is a parallel transfer, not a move up or down, other than now being head of the office (so maybe it is a bit of a step up) but it’s a new location, new co-workers, and new clientele. I can’t swear that my posting frequency will radically increase in the near future, however the main reason, overall, for this post is to get myself back in the habit. I have a few days off around Christmas and maybe I’ll put something together, or at least finish that second post on Irenaeus which I started last August.

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading Tertullian. This has been a slog. There is some interesting material but there’s been an unfortunate side effect. I don’t like him. Personally.

Obviously I don’t know the man, but from what I’ve read (which is all but the about 50 pages I have left from the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series) I’ve developed a personal distaste for him. This is important, and unfortunate. I think it’s very important to try, as well as we can, to understand, at least a little, where historical figures were coming from and develop some empathy for them. I’m having trouble doing this with Tertullian. He is so absolute, so rigorous, so unwilling to entertain the legitimacy of any opinion but his own, even from other Church authorities, that I can’t seem to get my empathy mode going. As yet another point highlighting my own ignorance, before going through his material I’d read how Tertullian is often referred to as, “The first of the Latin Theologians.” Silly me – I thought this meant he was the first to write his stuff in Latin. I now think – and I have a secondary book on him to read to confirm if this is the case – that this means that he is the first to adopt a completely different method of argument from prior Greek authors. Maybe method is a bit wrong as he does use philosophical arguments, but he doesn’t believe the writings of the ancient philosophers contain any hint of wisdom and he doesn’t say, “This is what I think, here’s why and you should consider this,” but rather, “This is what I think, here’s why, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.” Whether he felt this way when he wasn’t writing or not is another thing but all I can go by is what’s in print. I’ll have more analysis of him later but I wanted to get this preamble out of the way to warn you of this basic fact; I don’t like Tertullian. On a visceral level. So far as I can recall, this is a first when it comes to a source author.

To add to this potpourri of a post, a few months ago several posts were written which discussed new findings which were at odds with established historical models. I’ve mentioned several times that as I learn more I’ve come to increasingly distrust models. It’s not so much that patterns didn’t exist – they did. And I don’t see the problem with using them in books or in teaching. You can’t just teach everything so some synthesis is necessary. But so often it seems that researchers have a preexisting bias toward a model and view any new findings through this model-tinted lens. Katy Meyers has a very good post on Bones Don’t Lie about discovering that some Etruscan skeletal remains had been wrongly identified re their sex and how this is indicative of how modern bias and a reliance on models can lead researchers down the wrong path. This post becomes really good about halfway through it, just beyond the second image. Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives also wrote an interesting post about this same discovery.

You know, when I started writing the above paragraph I was sure I could come up with another post or two on the same basic theme but my memory of who wrote what seems to be flawed. Instead I’ll offer two new blogs I’ve come across:

James Palmer has a blog, merovingianworld which I’ve found interesting. I have one of his books, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900 on my to-read shelf and have come across his name plenty of times but haven’t read much of his stuff.

From an American-centric perspective, in her blog, Manuscript Road Trip, Lisa Fagan Davis has been taking a virtual tour where she discusses holdings of medieval manuscripts in the United States on a state-by state basis. Lisa is co-author of an online resource, Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings so she’s well qualified to embark on this trip. Oh, and if you know of anything in North Dakota, please let her know.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll have more to come shortly and if you know of a way for me to start feeling warm and fuzzy towards Tertullian, let me know.


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Blogology, Historiography, Other Blogs, Resources


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The Didascalia Apostolorum and Women in Early Christianity

Unfortunately the “history lull” which I referred to in my last post has come to pass. I’ve been reading plenty. I’ve gone through several books on Middle Platonism and am about a third of the way through Tertullian. Unfortunately, reading for an hour or so each day and spending several hours putting a decent post together on Irenaeus or trying to synthesize Platonism’s influences on Christianity, at least to the start of the third century, are two very different things from a time management perspective. And I have a couple of personal things going on including a bit of a career shift. However I have one theme from the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA) I want to share. And it’s a pretty important one.

The DA was probably written in the first half of the third century, likely in Syria, near or in Antioch. It is claimed to have been written by the Twelve Apostles, obviously falsely. It is another of the handbooks of Christian living and Church organization and practice. It can be viewed as a successor to The Didache.

The facade of the Church of Saint Peter in Antioch. The church itself is a cave believed to have been used from the 3rd century and possibly earlier. The facade dates from the 11th century. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. The facade of the Church of Saint Peter in Antioch. The church itself is a cave believed to have been used from the 3rd century and possibly earlier. The facade dates from the 11th century.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Before I get to my main point I want to note a couple of items in the DA which I think can be looked at as indicators of what contemporary opinion was, at least in Syria. There is a statement that Roman officials have been defiled by wars which may hint at a growing opposition to Christian military involvement. 1

Related to The Resurrection, the DA continues to follow the theory that while most people who die will sleep while awaiting the Day of Judgment, the Martyrs will be resurrected immediately. 2

Echoing Irenaeus, Simon Magus is the root of all heresies. The DA discusses Simon coming to Rome and trying to pervert the people by his flying and false miracles in a fair amount of detail, enough so to indicate that it considers The Acts of Peter to be canonical. 3

But the main issue raised in the DA which I want to address is its attitude towards women. A common theme during the Medieval Period is one where women are characterized as weak, unable to teach (though occasionally one will be possessed of a masculine spirit and conquer this handicap) and, most damning, they are temptresses. As Eve tempted Adam with an apple, women tempt men sexually because, well, it’s their nature. I’ve never really analyzed just how predominant these themes were during the Medieval period but they were certainly present. I’ve been waiting to find the earliest mention of these in a religious work and the DA appears to be it, though to be fair I’ve just started with Tertullian and my understanding is that he, writing a couple of decades earlier, is also fairly anti-women, at least when viewed through modern, western eyes (most of ours anyway).

To me this is different from Paul’s assertion, picked up on by early writers, that as Christ is the head of the Church so men should be the head of their households over women. This was a male-dominated society which even today we haven’t completely broken free from and I can’t see this as being too out of line with contemporary thought related to other aspects of Roman culture. Clement of Alexandria may indicate a move in this direction when he orders that women be completely covered from head-to-toe whenever they go out in public. The DA takes this to a new level. 4

In Chapter II men are warned against adulterous women. An adulterous woman is a seductresses who, “is wanton, bold and dissolute” and will, “lead down to the chambers of Sheol those that cleave unto her.” In chapter XV women are strictly prohibited from teaching. “It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers … For you have not been appointed to this, O woman, and especially widows …” and “For He the Lord God, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us the Twelve to instruct the people with us; and there were with us women disciples, Mary Magdelene and Mary the Daughter of James and the other Mary; but he did not send them to instruct the people with us. For if it were required that women should teach, our Master himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us.”

The DA is particularly concerned with an order of widows and the behavior of its members. Widows should do nothing but pray; “But a widow who wishes to please God sits at home and meditates upon the Lord day and night, and without ceasing at all times offers intercession and prays with purity before the Lord.” A widow’s life is not her own; “And let them not act after their own will, nor desire to do any thing apart from that which is commanded them, or without counsel to speak with any one by way of making answer, or to go to any one to eat or drink, or to fast with any one, or to receive aught of any one, or to lay hand on and pray over any one without the command of the bishop or deacon.”

Women are not to baptize though female deacons are to be appointed to minister to women. Also from Chapter XV, “That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel, for it is a transgression of the commandment, and a great peril to her who baptizes and to him who is baptized.” Chapter XVI has a discussion of female deacons where a dominant concern appears to be that in Roman households (labeled “heathen” in my edition) only women are allowed to meet with a Christian woman though the DA also says, “But let a woman be devoted to the ministry of women, and a male deacon to the ministry of men.”

It appears that at some point in the first quarter of the third century women came to be viewed differently by religious leaders. As this is the first mention I’ve seen of it I can’t begin to assess how widespread this was at this time, where it may have originated from, or how it may have spread. And does this reflect a move from Christian services taking place in house churches to services in locations owned by the community? The Roman woman was charged with running the domestic household and in the early years of Christianity this likely carried over to women having a significant role in services in house churches. 5 In any case, this attitude toward women certainly caught my attention and to me is easily the most significant aspect of the DA. So far I haven’t come across anything this explicit in Tertullian, which would predate the DA (probably), but I’ll be interested to see if it shows up. At the very least, as Tertullian wrote from Carthage, this would indicate that these attitudes were present in a wider geographic area.

Fortunately, some of these attitudes weren’t implemented as strictly in practice as the author of the DA seems to have wished. Women were abbesses, developed rules for their orders and, as Radegund demonstrates, could be very influential. Of course many of these women were then described in terms such as, “despite the weakness of her sex she demonstrated that she possessed a man’s spirit” whenever they achieved something significant. It will be interesting as I read further to see how these attitudes evolved. I’ve always said that I consider women and peasants (I’ve decided to include slaves as peasants) to be the two great unknown classes of medieval society, viewed almost exclusively through the words of others. Anything which sheds some light on them is welcome.

1 DA XVIII. Interestingly Tertullian, who wrote in North Africa earlier than this, in Apology XLII, uses Christian military activity as one of many ways in which Christians and Romans are identical except for their worship.

2 DA XX. Other writers have proposed that the very holiest will be resurrected immediately. The DA spends a fair amount of time granting this explicitly to martyrs.


4 Clement of Alexandira, Instructor XI.

5 Two good books discussing this are Balch and Osiek (2003) and Osiek, MacDonald and Tulloch (2006).

Balch, David L. and Osiek, Carolyn, eds., Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2003). ISBN: 978-0-80283-986-2′

Connolly, R. Hugh, trans., Didascalia Apostolorum: The Syriac Version Translated and Accompanied by the Verona Latin Fragments. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock (2007). ISBN: 978-1-55635-669-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Osiek, Carolyn, MacDonald, Margaret Y. and Tulloch, Janet H., A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8006-3777-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire). Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Three Parts: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-085-8.

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Posted by on December 1, 2013 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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