Tertullian X: Women

25 Jan

Tertullian has often been called a misogynist, even by professional historians. I dislike labels of this sort. First, they’re prejudicial. This is an extremely value-laden term generally used when a strong emotional reaction is the desired outcome. This detracts from analysis. Labels are often used in place of argument. My disagreement with the use of labels is along the same lines as my discomfort with an overuse of models: it indicates a mindset of looking at something which has already been categorized. And sometimes – this is what really pisses me off – a writer will bring something up, label it, and never offer a reason why it fits under the label. That’s either lazy or sloppy, sometimes both, and the author’s treating me like a child. I don’t like it. Now I understand that part of the written word, really all language, is the necessity of identification and categorization. But I expect better from historians who should be sure to offer analysis. 1

For my money, being as my dictionary (Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2005) defines mysogyny as, “hatred of women, esp. by a man.”, I don’t think Tertullian meets that standard. He definitely has a view towards them which comes across that way sometimes however he is very positive towards widows and virgins and writes affectionately to his wife. An, er, radical view of women and their role (at least compared to previous authors)? Absolutely. Misogynistic statements? I’d say he has at least one of these which I’ll discuss below. Outright hatred? He doesn’t go that far, not in a systematic way.

Now that I have that out of the way, it’s hard(impossible?) to deny that Tertullian had a negative opinion of women, or at least many roles which appear to have sometimes been taken by them. He wrote multiple treatises which were directed primarily toward women. In most of these he’d throw a qualifier in that everything he was saying also applied to men but over 90% of the text would be talking about women. For example, in On the Apparel of Women (De cultu feminarum) he spends a lot of time talking about women doing their hair, using makeup, wearing jewelry, etc.and how all of this is the opposite of humility which God commands. In II.VIII he includes men in a fairly short chapter, saying they should not dye their hair, be overly concerned with their beard, shave their body hair and so on. But this is one chapter out of 22 in two books. Based on what I’ve read, while Tertullian believes that all Christians are in need of guidance and correction, women are more in need of these than men.

There are quite a few places where he places restrictions on what women can do, such as teaching or even speaking in Church, performing baptism, and of course their dress. An interesting aside to his prohibitions on women teaching and performing baptisms is that this seems to indicate that, in at least some churches, they were performing these roles; otherwise, why would he feel the need to prohibit them?

On the Apparel of Women is the treatise which paints Tertullian as really being negative toward women. In his opening, after a passage discussing how Eve is guilty of the First Sin of Mankind and therefore all Human perdition he adds:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.” On the Apparel of Women, I.I

He’s not done. Men are not responsible for their own lust. If a woman is the cause, then she shares in the guilt:

“For that other, as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed (the deed) which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes; and you have been made the sword which destroys him: so that, albeit you be free from the (actual) crime, you are not free from the odium (attaching to it)” On the Apparel of Women, II.II

Even if women are beautiful, though he tries to say that this isn’t their fault, he believes it is better for them not to be, even within their own home:

“As if I were speaking to Gentiles, addressing you with a Gentile precept, and (one which is) common to all, (I would say,) “You are bound to please your husbands only.” But you will please them in proportion as you take no care to please others. Be ye without carefulness, blessed (sisters): no wife is ‘ugly’ to her own husband. She ‘pleased’ him enough when she was selected (by him as his wife); whether commended by form or by character. Let none of you think that, if she abstain from the care of her person, she will incur the hatred and aversion of husbands. Every husband is the exactor of chastity; but beauty, a believing (husband) does not require, because we are not captivated by the same graces which the Gentiles think (to be) graces …” On the Apparel of Women, II.IV

These are the points where he goes above and beyond what most authors seem to believe. As I said above, he is quite restrictive on women’s roles in the Church and strongly believes women should be veiled and their heads covered whenever they are in public but he is not alone in making these types of comments. However his “guilt of Eve” statement goes beyond what others have written and I can’t argue with anyone who says that this is misogynistic. Theophilus of Antioch and Clement talk about Eve’s sin, however they do not make statements about how all women are contaminated by Eve. 2 Justin and Clement are specific in stating that women are as capable of virtue as men while Irenaeus introduces the concept that Mary redeemed Eve’s sin. 3

What was the impact of this? A common theme during the Medieval period was one where women were sexually insatiable and acted as Eve had, as seductresses. As Eve seduced Adam into sin with an apple, women seduce men into sin sexually. Tertullian’s the earliest author to write on this at length. As with other areas, I can’t say that Tertullian was the source of this attitude but it seems likely that he had some lasting effect. At the very least, the author of the Didascalia Apostolorum appears to echo many of his sentiments, though as that was probably written in Syria a couple of decades later it’s hard to say whether this was based on direct transmission or reflects a broader change in attitudes. 4

NOTE: This will be my last Tertullian post (I think) where I talk about a single subject. I have one more “cleanup” post where I’ll discuss some other issues he wrote on (hopefully none of those topics will become something I feel compelled to offer as a separate post) and then a final summary. I think 12 Tertullian posts is enough. I can’t help wondering what I’ll do with Augustine when I get there but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Also, in my first post I mentioned putting up one final, huge post which would contain everything, mainly for my own use. I’ve decided not to. It’s over 20,000 words and everything in it will have already been covered. I’ll just save it to a Word document for my reference.

1 For an example of this sort of labeling, see, Davis, Stephen J., The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2008), p. 52. Benjamin H. Dunning in Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2011), tackles this issue head on, “Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the question of whether the North African theologian Tertullian of Carthage was a misogynist.” p. 124 with discussion of this topic on pp. 124-150, or all of Chapter 5.

2 Theophilus, To Autolycus, XXVIII; Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, I

3 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, XXXIII; Clement spends a fair amount of time on this, Stromata, IV.VIII and XIX. For Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.XII.4, “… so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevetherless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.”

4 As a caution to those less familiar with the medieval period, while the anti-women rhetoric could sometimes be severe, it likely had less impact than its volume would imply. Women bore children, ran households; peasant women worked the fields, cared for livestock and did the housework. Just living was too hard for most people to worry about these sort of things. Even Tertullian was married and wrote affectionately to his wife.

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.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.


Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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2 responses to “Tertullian X: Women

  1. Alice James

    May 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    It is interesting that all these so called holy men had problems with women’s roles in spreading the gospel when Jesus didn’t.

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 12, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      They could find reasons in the Gospels though IMO they had to work at it and do a fair amount of cherry picking. Among other frequently quoted reasons were that Jesus spoke to only men on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13.3) and when he gave his “Go forth and preach” instructions it was to the male disciples only, no women. (Matthew 28.19, Mark 16.15).

      I think it’s more a factor of these folks being Romans, a patriarchal society, and reading the Gospels to fit their existing value system. It’s important to remember that for the first couple of centuries, most of the Christians who wrote and did a lot to determine what would come to be Orthodox thought and practice were converted philosophers. There was a tradition of male=strong and rational and female=weak and emotional in philosophy. They carried this with them into Christianity when it was often viewed as one of the philosophical schools/branches.


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