Category Archives: Religion

Slavery and Early Christianity

When I started reading about Medieval History, coming up on 20 years ago, I had buckets of misconceptions. If you’ve been reading this blog for long you’ll know that I’ve never been particularly shy about mentioning them. One of these had to do with the evolution of the institution of slavery as it pertains to the ancient and medieval west.

My thinking back then was that Christianity had a major impact on the reduction in the number of slaves in the medieval period when compared with the Roman Empire. My reasoning went something like this:

Most Pagan religious sects did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Even if they did, those religions were followed by elites who gave little thought to the spiritual well-being of the rest of the people, who made up about 95% of the population. There was no value placed on these individuals so it was easy for them to be seen as objects rather than people and to be enslaved. Christianity was different. No matter someone’s station, he or she possessed a soul that was capable of salvation. The soul of a slave was just as valuable to God as the soul of an Emperor. Christians did not view slaves as mere possessions or things but as people. As they viewed slaves as people, not owned things, Christians were less favorable to slavery and once they became the majority religious group in the Empire the institution began to decline.

Makes sense, right? Or maybe it doesn’t but it did to me. And as with so many aspects of history, I have come to believe that this opinion of mine was wrong. At the very least, it is not supported by the evidence. There appears to be no significant difference between how Christians and non-Christians viewed slavery as an institution, at least to the early fourth century. In fact, while there are some writings to the contrary, there doesn’t appear to be all that much of a difference between the opinions of Christians and non-Christians about slaves as individuals/objects/people.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a starting point I’ll offer a quick summary of how Romans appeared to view slaves and slavery. Slaves were objects. They were property. They were possessions. They had no rights. Whatever use a Roman chose to put a slave to, it was legal, though at times socially frowned upon. A male slave-owner could use a slave sexually as he pleased. A woman did not have quite this level of freedom but while it was vehemently frowned upon when discovered, it appears to have been legal, so long as the woman was not married. Slaves could be bought and sold without regard to family relations. Slaves could only marry with their owner’s permission and the children of such marriages (or from sex with their owner) were able to be sold at will. While there are some protections afforded slaves in Roman law, these are relatively minimal and seem to only occasionally have been enforced. 1

As an institution, slavery was viewed as a normal aspect of Human society. Of everything I’ve read, this may be what I found most striking. As opposed to, for example, the United States in the 19th century, there was no debate about the moral evil of slavery or whether people should be able to be treated as property. I’m saying there wasn’t a whisper. It was a conversation that did not exist. There was plenty of discussion on how slaves should be treated, some of which I’ll talk about, but there was a complete absence of any thought that slavery was inappropriate or something people and society should not engage in.

It’s true that Christian doctrine viewed slaves as individuals and believed they had souls capable of salvation. It’s true that many Christian authors wrote on the need to treat slaves well. However these same authors wrote that slaves should accept their station in life. There is, quite simply, little evidence that Christians, at least in any number, disapproved of the institution of slavery. From what I’ve read, if you remove the labels “Pagan” and “Christian” attached to various authors, there is little difference in what the majority of them wrote regarding slaves and slavery. Writings of the two often contain cautions against beating a slave because of one’s own anger and that owners would be better served by controlling their own passions rather than responding rashly however each group seems to recognize the inherent validity of slavery as an institution. As with Romans, Early Christians provide no evidence that they believed that slavery was wrong – or that they even considered this question.

I’m going to offer a couple of examples and my first is from a very early source. In Matthew 26:51-52 One of Jesus’ disciples pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a slave of Caiaphus, the High Priest. Jesus tells the disciple, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

There is a key point here beyond the obvious lesson. Note that Jesus’ concern is not for someone whose ear has just been cut off. A miracle worker, he does not touch the slave’s ear and heal him, or express any consideration for him whatsoever. His concern is for the person with the sword, that his act of anger and violence will, in the end, injure him. The author of this gospel does not consider the slave’s pain and suffering. The sword-wielding disciple is not punished by Caiaphus, so far as we know – cutting off a slave’s ear seems to not matter much at all. The slave only exists as an object by which the lesson may be demonstrated.

The Didache says, “Do not, when embittered, give orders to your slave, male or female, for they hope in the same God; otherwise, they might lose the fear of God, who is the Master of both of you. He surely is not coming to call with an eye to rank and station in life, no. But you, slaves, be submissive to your masters as to God’s image in reverence and fear.” Here we have recognition that slaves may receive salvation however slavery as an institution is accepted as part of society. The primary concern is that the slavemaster not act out of passion, or displace God as an object of fear, not the suffering the slave might endure. 2

Ignatius writes to Polycarp cautioning against manumission as the hope of freedom may both cause false conversion and detract from slaves seeking after God. “. . . let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not wish to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.” Slavery is a part of society, something Ignatius appears to have no interest in changing. 3

And while the previous quotes at least show that slaves are considered individuals who might receive salvation from God, there are plenty of examples of Christians considering slaves to be worthless objects, of no concern. In 310, the recently defeated Maximian hatched a plot to assassinate Constantine by killing him in his bed. Lactantius recounts that instead of the Emperor, they placed, “a worthless eunuch who was to die in the Emperor’s stead.” I can think of other ways to catch Maximian red-handed but in this case Lactantius sees nothing wrong in sacrificing a slave for this purpose. 4

And then there’s the apocryphal, The Acts of Andrew. I covered this in detail in a post a couple of years ago. In this story Maximilla, the wife of Aegeates, on being influenced by Andrew decides to live an ascetic life and withdraws from her marriage bed. She bribes her slave, Eucleia, to lie with her husband instead(somehow Aegeates fails to notice that she’s not his wife). When Eucleia starts bragging to the other slaves and word slips out, Aegeates tortures her and, once she’s told him everything, cuts off her hands, feet, tongue, and tosses the head and torso into the street where she dies a few days later. The author considers this to be a just reward for Eucleia’s betraying her mistress. He evidently didn’t have much concern for Eucleia as a person, or consider someone sleeping with a slave to be improper (if it was, Maximilla would have been directly responsible for it and, by association, Andrew). As this story remained popular into the early Medieval period, it doesn’t appear that folks in the fifth century worried much about it either. 5

So my original belief was wrong, at least through the early 4th century. At the very least it isn’t supported by the evidence, and I was looking for it. Despite how frequently I’m wrong and how open I am about it, believe me – I’d prefer to be correct. I suppose my theory isn’t dead as Christianity could have had an impact in later centuries but I can’t say that I recall evidence in support of it then either.

If I were to post about what really caused the decline of slavery during this period I would point to the loss of wealth. The giant rural villas and agricultural estates required a large, inexpensive labor force just as much as the farming of the Nile Delta in ancient Egypt and the large plantations of the pre-Civil War United States south did. With the loss of these large estates, there was no longer a need for slavery on this scale. Slavery didn’t decline because it was considered wrong but because it was no longer needed. 6

In essence this is an aspect of a larger issue. Christians didn’t come to dominate the Empire because they were different from traditional Romans but because they were similar to them. Christianity’s success and its conversion to a political institution didn’t occur because of some societal change requiring new leadership but because Christians were good Romans. Christianity’s impact on the later Empire is not one of change but of consistency. Christians didn’t want to destroy, or even change Rome any more than the Germanics did. But unlike the Germanics, these Christians were Roman and possessed the tools to ensure the continuity and continued prosperity of the Empire.

1 For example, Antoninus Pius decreed that slaveholders who killed a slave without cause could be liable for homicide however I am unaware of an instance where this was enforced.

2 The Didache, 4.10-11.

3 Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp, 4.3.

4 Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 30.3-5. My actual quote is from Jones (1978), p. 62. I prefer it to the one in Roberts and Donaldson (2004), p. 313.

5 There are a bunch of issues here I’m not going to explore. One is whether Paul the Apostle considered sex with a slave to be adultery (or if other early Christians did). Glancy (2006) covers this in some detail and says, “First, Paul instructed the (male) Thessalonian Christians to abstain from porneia or sexual immorality. Whether Paul understood porneia to encompass precisely the field of activities connoted by the modern concept of “fornication” is unclear and even unlikely.” And, “Paul’s advice could be Construed as instructions to the male Thessalonian Christians to find morally neutral outlets for their sexual urges. And in the first century, domestic slaves were considered to be morally neutral outlets for sexual urges – vessels, we might say.” p. 60.

6 There’s also the possibility that the Germanics who came to control what had been the Western Empire had a different view of slaves and slavery. I’m putting that thought on hold for now but will look for it when I get back to reading about them.

Glancy, Jennifer A., Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8006-3789-7.

Jones, A.H.M., Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Toronto: Medieval Academy of America (1978). ISBN: 978-0-8020-6369-1.

Joshel, Sandra R., Slavery in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-82774-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 7: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-664-22722-7.


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Early Christianity: The Nature of Persecutions

This post will be something I’d classify less as history than sociology with a bit of anthropology thrown in. 1 There’s a reason for this which I hope will also serve as an explanation for why this blog has been silent for so long. To put it bluntly, the way I post is to first write a narrative with the general ideas and concepts I want to cover and then throw a pile of books on my desk and start plugging in references to, hopefully, support what I’m saying (occasionally I’ve discovered that sources were saying something different from what I initially thought but fortunately this is very rare). The writing of the initial narrative is easy. I just chuck words at the page. If that was all I did with a post I’d have a thousand words done in under an hour. The hard work is re-reading and citing the sources and multiple edits to make sure I have the words right. Real historians are trained to get the words right. I am trained this way a little but since most of what I write about in my real job is very different, some of the language rules are too, or at least not as critically important.

Over the past 10 months or so I’ve written several narratives of posts I want to get to but have run out of time to do the hard part. Since about Christmas I have had the time but whenever I sit down to get to it, the thought of the amount of work I’m about to face – typically 4-6 hours, depending on the post – has discouraged me. Regular posting is like many other things; a habit. So here I’m tackling a topic for which there isn’t a lot of textual evidence but relies more on human behavior and the nature of people. It won’t have a couple of dozen sources for me to chase down but is something I think is important for people to think about when reading accounts of the persecution of early Christians. And it’s the first step for me to get back in the habit of posting regularly.

For me, there are two sorts of persecutions that went on prior to 313. One is the larger scale, systematic (though likely less systematic than portrayed) government-initiated forms of suppression. The other is smaller-scale, localized, and sporadic. At some point I hope to tackle the former though each of these persecutions should be studied on its own terms as I don’t think there’s much of a pattern or model. However this post will discuss these smaller events.

If you sat down and read a bunch of Early Christian sources, particularly Apologies, you could be forgiven for thinking that persecution of Christians by the authorities was pretty much a constant state of affairs from the early second century until the Edict of Milan in 313. The unfair treatment of Christians is a prominent, in many cases dominant, theme. This appears not to be the case though of course it’s tough to prove a negative. However Romans were pretty famous for their record-keeping and there is little in the way of textual evidence indicating that persecution against Christians took place very often or that Christianity was something the authorities worried about very much. And while Christians often wrote that their numbers actually increased during persecutions, does anyone really think the religion would have become what it did if the Romans intensely, comprehensively, and systematically tried to shut it down?

One of the best examples of how early persecution, or what Christians called persecution, may have taken place comes from an exchange of letters around 110-112 AD between Pliny the Younger, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, and the Emperor Trajan. In this exchange, Pliny describes how accusations have been leveled against some as being Christians. He has those accused brought before him and asks if they are Christian. If not, and so long as they sacrifice, they are set free. If they are and they do not repent and offer sacrifice after a couple of opportunities, he has them executed. He seems to consider them to be basically harmless and followers of a debased superstition. Trajan’s reply is to congratulate Pliny and to state that Christians are not to be sought out but if brought before him, they must be punished. 2

So what does the preceding example indicate? First, the Roman government had no particular interest in going after Christians. Yes, being a Christian is illegal but Trajan seems to think his governor has more important things to worry about. While not evident from this exchange, the most important issue to many emperors was peace. As Christians were not engaging in activities threatening that peace, they should be left alone if possible.

Second, this appears to be something of a popular persecution. Christians are brought to the Governor’s attention by an informer. Pliny is then forced to investigate the matter. Why would someone make this sort of accusation? This is where we get into the sociology part of this post and start talking about things there isn’t firm textual evidence for. 3

These sort of popular persecutions seem to me to be based on human nature, particularly the whole concept of “us vs them.” To a traditional Roman, there were several behaviors which would have appeared strange and would have caused Christians to be considered a “them.” 4

The most obvious area of strangeness would have been religious activity. The rank and file Roman appears not to have spent much time in the process of worship. However he/she likely did a few things. Depending on the individual, he/she would have offered prayers to/for the dead, particularly their ancestors. He/she may have offered some form of obeisance or modest gift to images and statues of Roman Gods. He/she would also have been expected to offer prayers and sacrifices for/to the current Roman Emperor. 5 During public religious festivals he/she would have taken part in whatever form the festival took locally including but not limited to; parades and processions, public sacrifice, the feast which included sacrificial meat and; the games.

How was a Christian expected to behave and how would this have appeared to other Romans? Christian worship took place secretly, until the 3rd century in someone’s home, out of sight of the rest of the community. They had secret, mysterious, and possibly evil rites (there are plenty of non-Christian sources claiming that Christians engaged in cannibalism, human sacrifice, mass orgies, etc.). They did not attend what in most communities was the biggest local social event of the year, the festival honoring the local God. 6 They stayed away from the games. They did not sacrifice or offer gifts to the Gods (or buy these items from local shops like everyone else did). They refused free food (sacrificial meat) which everyone else was eager to get. They seemed to ignore paying homage to the Emperor. 7 They hung out with and even worshiped (or so the Romans seem to have thought) the bodies of the dead, something most Romans likely found repulsive. In some places it is likely that they spoke a foreign language. 8

This abnormal behavior would have extended into other aspects of life and culture. Christians did not attend the theatre. Serving in the military was discouraged due to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” They would have stayed out of many shops which sold items for traditional religious worship. As many civic roles had a religious component, they would have tried to avoid these. This must have impacted day-to-day life in areas such as employment, relationships, and possibly even casual conversation. 9

In other words, Christians were weird.

Much of the time this weirdness seems not to have mattered all that much. After all, they weren’t bothering anyone and if they decided they didn’t want free food, that meant there was more for everyone else. But every now and then something happened to get the local community excited. There is an absence of evidence regarding specific instances but it doesn’t take too much imagination to come up with reasonable ideas of what may have happened. Say, for example, there was a local harvest failure. Who was responsible for ensuring that there was a bountiful harvest? Of course people were expected to do their part by working and rewarding the Gods with the sweat of their collective brows but ultimately this depended on the favor of the Gods. How did a community ensure the Gods would look favorably upon it? By proper worship; sacrifices, rites, prayers, other gifts and offerings, etc. Who in the community did not work to gain the favor of the God(s)? Not only that, but if their numbers were large enough who, by their mere presence, despising the Gods, might cause divine anger and retribution?

You can come up with other negative circumstances/events such as disease, fire, floods, raids by barbarians and so on but in essence, if things went bad for a community, Christians became a convenient causal agent. Besides, they were weird which, depending on who you were and your tolerance level probably meant that you thought they were anything from a bit odd to dangerous and heretical agents of evil.

A local magistrate might have tried to hold out for a while but if the local population became enough of a threat to order he might act against the Christian community. This may have taken place in several ways. He might have tried to force them into exile. He may have chosen a few prominent leaders and decided to exile, imprison, or execute them or, as may have happened in Lyons in 177, decided to destroy the entire community. 10 Once the immediate crisis passed, the local authorities would probably ease up on things.

If something big came up and someone in authority was looking for someone to blame, Christians became a nice target. Nero’s blaming and punishment of Christians in the aftermath of the six-day fire of Rome in 64 AD is probably the most famous example. 11 These were not people the rest of the community was very eager to defend.

This characterization of these persecutions as scattered, sporadic, and infrequent is at odds with how they were portrayed by ancient Christian authors. Christians tended to emphasize these (particularly when promoting martyrs and martyrdom) however the lack of textual evidence from Roman sources indicates that, when looking at the entire Roman Empire over a 300-year period, it just didn’t happen all that often. This was a big deal in the Christian psyche, however on an empire-wide scale, or as a habitual state of affairs, the reality of persecution is significantly different from how it was portrayed in the sources.

OK, I still ended up with 11 footnotes and seven sources cited. Look at it this way – I could have cited 20. What can I say; as Marcus Aurelius wrote, it’s my nature.

1 Just so you don’t think I’m completely unqualified to discuss this, while at Cornell I took a bunch of sociology classes along with a couple in anthropology. In fact, if it wouldn’t have looked so weird I probably could have gone with a major in Animal Science and a minor in Sociology if I’d taken a few more core classes. And one of our anthro profs had been a grad student under Margaret Mead so that was cool. This is something I’ve always been interested in – the nature of people and group behavior. But it isn’t history.

2 See Pliny the Younger’s Letters, X.96-97. I was going to quote from them but you can find these two letters here.

3 Interestingly, Pliny references an edict where he outlawed secret brotherhoods. This may have raised awareness of Christians among the local population and led to their subsequent exposure.

4 For more of my thoughts on basic human nature including the concept of “us vs them” see my post, Were Medievals “Just Like Us?” from September, 2013.

5 For the most part emperors were not considered Gods but divinely empowered individuals entrusted by the Gods to ensure the safety and prosperity of the empire. Rives (2007), pp. 148-56 has a nice introductory discussion of how emperors were seen as both human and divine.

6 Here I use the term “local” to mean whatever deity the community believes offered it special protection, not that this was a God which only existed for the community’s benefit. Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Demeter/Ceres, Minerva, Hermes, and others were commonly believed to be divine patrons of communities.

7 Christian authors often stated that they offered prayers on behalf of the emperor but this would have taken place out of sight of others and of course they ignored images and statues as idols.

8 For example, it is believed that the Christian community in Lyons, Gaul, which was devastated by persecution in 177, may have been a small Greek-speaking group in a Latin community. From Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus” in Foster and Parvis (2012), “It [the Lyon Christian community] was a Greek-speaking community in a Latin-speaking city nestled in the midst of a Celtic-speaking countryside. They would in no small part have been outsiders, strangers in a strange land, alienated culturally as well as religiously from the life of the city around them. And they were, for that reason among others, mistrusted and despised.” p. 15.

9 To be fair, there are plenty of sources indicating that Christians got along fairly well with non-Christians most of the time. When we travel higher up the intellectual hierarchy, Christian and Pagan philosophers often trained at the same school or under the same teacher and remained friends as adults. Then again, this is sort of my whole point with this post – most of the time these differences didn’t much matter.

10 Moss (2012 ), pp. 100-21 provides a detailed description of the persecution as described by Eusebius in the “Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons,” Ecclesiastical History, V.1-4. including why it may not provide an entirely truthful account of events.

11 See Tacitus, Annals, 15.44. Suetonius also discusses Nero punishing Christians but does not link this with the fire.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Moss, Candida R., Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. New Haven: Yale University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-300-15465-8.

Paul Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and his Work” in Foster, Paul and Parvis, Sara, ed., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-8006-9796-9.

Pliny the Younger, P.G. Walsh, trans., Complete Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-953894-2.

Rives, James B., Religion in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0656-6.

Suetonius, Gavorse, ed., Lives of the Twelve Caesars. New York: The Book League of America, Inc. (1937).

Tacitus, Michael Grant, trans., The Annals of Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes and Noble Books (1993). ISBN: 0-88029-024-2.


Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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Death and Disease as a Christian Recruiting Tool

It’s nice when mainstream media utilizes people who actually know what they’re talking about. This morning CNN had an article from early Christian historian Candida Moss, “How an Apocalyptic Plague Helped Spread Christianity” in which she talks about a significant disease (she mentions smallpox, I’ve also seen measles proposed) affecting the Roman Empire during the middle of the third century.

In the article she discusses some themes I’ve talked about over the past few months. Chief among them is that Christians saw the terrible death from this disease as a sign that the apocalypse was imminent. As non-Christian Roman Emperors died from the disease, and with Christians believing that death from this was a gateway to heaven, this may have inspired many conversions. And it’s not hard to believe that a period where death by disease was so common made it easier for Christians to endure martyrdom during the Decian persecution. 1

I’ve been waiting for something to come up which I could quickly comment on so I could apologize for my long absence. The house thing is continuing but winding down as I expect to close at the end of this week. But that will still leave me with a bunch of buying furniture, landscaping, putting in a lawn, etc., to work on. I estimate that it will be a month or so until, when I have a few spare hours, I’ll feel that I can put a post together rather than do something house-related (I am currently boxing up books – there’s a surprise). However I haven’t retired from blogging, am currently reading up on Neoplatonism, and have a bunch of half-started posts to finish up, some of which should be pretty cool.

1 The persecutions of Christians was real and did happen but was almost certainly far less widespread than Christian sources portray. Once I get past Diocletian I figure this will make a nice post. The Decian persecution, beginning in 250, appears to be the first formal, systematic persecution in the Empire.


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Did Origen Castrate Himself?

The story that Origen, in a fit of piety, castrated himself, was well known during the Middle Ages. Carl Pyrdum on his (now defunct?) blog, Got Medieval, has a brief discussion of this which includes an image of Origen and his severed genitalia(I decided not to include an image here).

This account comes to us from Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History, VI.8 he relates how Origen decided to, er, separate himself from his sexual bits because he either misread scripture or because he was teaching female catechumens and wanted to either be free from temptation or let everyone know that it was impossible for any hanky-panky to be going on, or maybe a combination of the two. 1

So as sort of a warmup to discussing Origen’s theology I thought it would be interesting to explore this question; Did Origen castrate himself?

A fair amount of this will involve a discussion of Origen’s life so I guess I might as well include relevant parts of his biography. Origen was the son of a prominent Christian who was martyred around the start of the third century. His career began in Alexandria where he quickly became a favorite of the Bishop, Demetrius. As an educated layperson, Origen was qualified to give instruction to catechumens which he did, as well as write. At some point Origen’s teaching turned into actual preaching (I’m a bit fuzzy on the distinction myself) which Demetrius opposed.

As a result, around 230 Origen was driven out of Alexandria and moved to Caesarea. There he was ordained as a priest, which Demetrius opposed and wrote against, and stayed there for the rest of his life, preaching and writing.

In looking at Origen’s self-distesticulation, which was certainly a no-no for Christians, especially for priests who were expected to be free of blemishes, the discussion has to center upon the possibility that this was an invention of his critics, particularly Demetrius. Eusebius specifically attributes the story getting out to the Alexandrian Bishop who, as he was nearing death, seems to have developed a hatred of Origen.

So was this story invented? It’s a plausible theory. Religious conflict could be messy and Alexandria would later develop a reputation as a place where things could get particularly dirty. Someone could have spread this story around, once Origen was in Caesarea and not on hand to be examined, or engage in public flashing, to dispute it. The story would have had an added benefit of keeping Origen away because even if the story wasn’t true, it would be a pretty good indication of what he’d face if he returned.

To me the above is a wash. Demetrius could have made this up but we have no evidence of this other than the fact that Origen had enemies(this could have been invented by someone else and then used by Demetrius). So how do we resolve this?

Well, first of all, we don’t. There’s no “the answer” unless someone finds where Origen was buried, can definitively prove it was him, and finds testicles(and I suppose to really remove doubt DNA would have to show that the testicles belonged to the rest of the body). However I want to explain why I consider Origen’s self-castration to be unlikely. I’m going to do this by examining two areas; his role within the Church and his writings.

OK, Origen was a teacher in the Church, educating catechumens at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which he revived while a young man. This school was operated as a philosophical branch. One of the traditions of philosophy was that teachers should inspire students to want to emulate them. Would castrating oneself be something students would find desirable? Would this help attract students?

At that time a catechumen was a person who was interested in Christianity and was engaged in learning enough about it to make an informed decision before being baptized which would (at least in theory) result in a radical change in the catechumen’s lifestyle. Again, would the fact that one of the teachers and the head of the school had castrated himself out of religious piety encourage people to convert? I know I recently cautioned everyone not to make assumptions about folks from historical periods thinking like us but I’m going to take a leap here and say that having a teacher who cut his own junk off for religious reasons would not be a strong selling point when trying to attract new Christians.

So this is the first reason I consider this unlikely. A prominent teacher at a school designed to educate people about Christianity and convince them to convert would likely not have been someone who had engaged in self-mutilation. I don’t care if he was educating girls, boys, or snow leopards. I think it unlikely, though we have to give at least some credibility to the idea that he had done so, regretted it, and managed to conceal it.

However the real reason why I have serious questions about this is because of Origen’s writings. Eusebius relates that in addition to avoiding suspicion while teaching girls, Origen castrated himself because he misunderstood Matthew 19:12 where Jesus advocates people becoming Eunuchs for the Church.

The problem is, Origen constantly cautions people not to read scriptures literally. He states, many times, that the Bible (he’s also the first person I recall to say the Bible should be considered a single book, not a collection) includes figurative and spiritual, as well as literal, meanings. Now Eusebius says Origen did this while very young, however he also says one reason was to help him teach girls. Clearly we’re not talking about Origen the teenager. We’re likely discussing him while in his 20’s. Unless his thinking was very different from when he wrote On First Principles beginning from when he was about 30, he would have known not to take scripture literally. 2

Of course a counter to this is that cutting one’s own testicles off, then finding out this isn’t what the Bible meant, might cause someone to radically alter his opinion of how scripture should be read. I’d say that would rank pretty high on any list of OSM’s. 3

So I want to offer a specific quote which I consider the key piece of evidence, for my opinion anyway. In On Prayer, XX.1, Origen writes:

Let us suppose there is a difference between church and synagogue. In its proper sense the church has no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but is holy and blameless. Into it enters no bastard or eunuch or one castrated …

On prayer was written after Origen had moved to Caesarea. Unlike much of his material, the entire work survives in Greek, meaning it was not changed by Rufinus. Would Origen, by this time certainly aware of Demetrius’ accusation, have written about this and drawn attention to it if he himself had violated this prohibition on castrated people entering the Church?

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure if Origen castrated himself. However the above passage is the deal breaker for me. I think it unlikely.

In the end, is this important? Not terribly but a little. When folks talk about historical religious fanaticism, Origen’s self-mutilation comes up and makes a rather impressive factoid. The Church had its fanatics (or folks we’d consider fanatics today, back then those people were often considered to be doing their job). People left behind everything they had to live their life on top of a pole or in a cave. They engaged in self-flagellation and deliberately inflicted pain upon themselves in the name of religion. However after thinking this over, considering what he wrote, specifically the passage from On Prayer, I think Origen’s castration should not be included in this list of fanatical acts.

1 When you read Eusebius’ account, it comes across as contradictory. Eusebius says he did it partly to be free from slander and then says he couldn’t hide it, however hard he tried. If the reason for becoming a Eunuch was to avoid slander, wouldn’t you have to let folks know about it?

2 On First Principles(de principiis) IV.9. I’ll be talking about this in more detail when I discuss Origen’s theology. As evidence that this was Origen’s thought, not something added by Rufinus, this passage is one of those which Jerome did his own translation of. The idea is also included in the Philocalia, provided by Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, in Greek. This, along with considering how many times he returns to this theme, is very strong evidence that the concept is Origen’s own.

3 OSM stands for “Oh Shit Moment.” I try to avoid profanity here but occasionally its use does legitimately advance an argument.

Eusebius of Caesarea, C.F. Cruze, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Origen, George Lewis, trans., The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works Made by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark (1911).

Origen, Rowan A. Greer, trans., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press (1979). ISBN: 978-0-809102198-4.

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.


Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Religion


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What do I do With Origen?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Heck, the Church asked it for a couple of centuries before Justinian had him condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople. My perspective’s a bit different.

If you’ve been following my reading/blogging on Early Christianity posts you know that at the moment I’m reading forward from first century Christian origins (though many will say the date of the true origin is the same as for Judaism). I’m planning to do this fairly intensely until I get to Nicaea. My post-Nicaean level of knowledge is quite a bit higher so from that point I’ll be in more of a gap filling mode rather than this wholesale gobbling up of everything.

So here we have Origen. He’s prominent. He wrote from the early to the mid-3rd Century. He started his career in Alexandria and ended it in Caesarea. I should be able to go through his stuff and use him as another example of what Christians were thinking during that period, right?

Not so fast. Most of Origen’s writings come to us through early 5th century Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia. Rufinus has been roundly criticized by various folks, as early as his contemporary, Jerome, for mistranslation to the point of making wholesale changes to Origen’s text and completely altering his meaning.

To provide a little background, Rufinus’ Orthodoxy came into question in the late 4th century. One of the criticisms leveled against him was that he had not been a strong enough critic of Origen. There was this whole conflict between Jerome and Rufinus which I’ll need to read more on to fully discuss. I have read Claudian and he hates Rufinus passionately, though this has much more to do with Claudian being Stilicho’s panegyrist and the conflict between East and West/Arcadian and Honorius than religious reasons. 1 In any case, with his Orthodoxy still an open question, Rufinus was accused of amending Origen’s text. Jerome had access to the Greek and provided some translations of his own demonstrating these changes(these amounted to a small fraction of Rufinus’ translations).

There’s a LOT more to this but the essence is I don’t know what to do with Origen. I don’t think I can use him as an example of 3rd century Christian thought, not reliably, as what we have from him isn’t (probably) completely his own words and ideas. At the same time, Rufinus didn’t totally rewrite him so we can’t use him as an example of early 5th-century thought either.

What can be done, since Rufinus’ translation is what was handed down to posterity, is talk about Origen’s influence on Early Christianity or, more correctly, the influence of Origen-Rufinus. I can touch on this a little but as I haven’t completely gone through Jerome and Augustine (and other writings of Rufinus) I can’t assess this all that well either. In the end, I’ll probably limit myself to a single topical post on Origen’s writings, then hope to link back to them once I begin reading up on the late 4th/early 5th centuries. I’ll mention prominent concepts and areas were he got himself into trouble but the caution has to be made that it may not be that he got himself into trouble but that Rufinus got him in trouble (150 years after he died).

One area this highlights is the importance of critically analyzing sources. I think, though I have questions about my qualifications to do so, that I’ll probably put together a post on the use of sources. And for Origen, I’m going to focus less on specific ideas, as I did with Tertullian, and spend more time talking about broader concepts. I’m not terribly happy about this but I’m less happy about picking something specific which Origen talks about and say, “This is what 3rd century Christians thought.”

1 See Claudian, Against Rufinus(In Rufinum). He sprinkles criticism in elsewhere too.

Claudian, Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (2 Volumes). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1922).

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion


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Tertullian XII: Summary

I’ve re-written this section several different times and am still not sure it captures what I want to express but I’ll have a go anyway. There are some things about Tertullian which are very intriguing. One of these is trying to assess how influential he was during the Medieval period. As I’ve tried to relate, he is the first to offer some concepts which later became prominent themes in Christianity. His thoughts on Original Sin and the way he defines the Trinity are significant advances over anyone who wrote earlier, at least that I’ve come across. It’s difficult to say whether these were innovations of his, or if his writings reflect what was already believed in the Church, at least at Carthage. I expect I’ll learn more on this as I continue and I also expect to find that it was a mix of the two.

As I’m now in the middle of Origen I’ve found it interesting that he, not Tertullian, seems to have drawn more attention from modern historians. Is this because Tertullian’s writing style is so harsh and unappealing? Is Origen considered a better example of the merging of philosophy and Christianity? Is it because much of Origen has been lost and historians are trying to recreate what he may have contributed based on fragments and subsequent developments? Or is Tertullian just simpler to understand where modern historians look at him and what’s already been written and don’t think there’s much more to be said? Origen’s influence is more subtle. At this moment in time I’d say that of the two, Tertullian was more influential though I have a lot yet to read and may change my mind.

I’ve written enough on him that I think you can figure out what I thought was important. I have been struck by his inconsistent consistency and my summaries of his thoughts on marriage and military service capture this, I hope. The change in tenor and content in these areas is a nice micro-example of how people often respond when threatened, by retreating even more strongly into their core beliefs. I think Tertullian’s fate points to an important difference between the pre- and post-Nicene Church. Tertullian’s group, the Montanists, appears to have been labeled as heretical. Yet they were not cast out of the Church, at least not all of them. Even at his most strident, Tertullian writes as a member of the Church, to misguided colleagues, not to enemies. Two centuries later and I think it likely that he would have been cast out of the Church and anathematized.

My focus on specific concepts may have detracted from, or at least lacked enough emphasis on, an area where I think Tertullian profoundly influenced those who would follow. Perhaps even more than his thoughts on specific aspects of dogma and doctrine, where Tertullian had a great detail of impact was by introducing a new type of dialogue; one less interested in debate and discussion and a search for truth but focusing instead on the certainty of belief and providing defined, stricter guidelines regarding what it meant to be a Christian. To this point Christian authors had been engaged in discussion and debate. They had points upon which they were beginning to reach agreement. Christ certainly was the Son of God, he was crucified, died and was resurrected. Men could be saved, body and soul. Those who lived sinful lives would be punished. However there remained points of debate. Did God intend that men would reside in Hell permanently or might they also be saved after a period of punishment? How did Adam’s sin impact Humans, particularly after the resurrection; was this sin redeemed by Christ’s death so that men and women were born with a “clean slate” or did this open a path for redemption despite people being weighed down by Adam’s transgression? Should Christians live as part of Roman society or separate themselves from it? These and other issues were points for discussion and debate, so Christians might draw closer to understanding God and the truth.

Tertullian didn’t bother with that. There was fact and falsehood, truth and lies. He believed what he believed and this was what all Christians should believe. Once a Christian believed and understood, the need for further investigation was ended. I have profound doubts as to whether this was good for the development of Western Civilization but good, bad, or indifferent, it certainly was there. Tertullian comes across as far more Medieval in his outlook than Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, or even Irenaeus. In fact he comes across as less interested in debate and discussion than many Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. This is an essential element of his legacy.

I feel as if my use of large chunks of quoted text rather than picking things apart in more detail was a bit of a shortcut and maybe more exposition on my part would have been helpful. But that takes more time and once I was several thousand words into this I began to realize that the only way I’d ever finish would be to let Tertullian speak for himself. Fortunately, while he often took a long time to come to his concluding statements, once he got there he didn’t mince words. This type of tactic works much better for him than for those who were more nuanced. I don’t think I’ll be able to use this method when I talk about Origen.

That’s it for Tertullian. I wish I could say that’s all I have but it isn’t. I could probably add another 10,000 words. And as I finish this up I’m wondering what will happen when I get to Augustine. Tertullian’s source information was a full volume and another hundred pages or so in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series. Augustine gets 8 books all to himself and his influence is so much greater. Yeesh.

I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct statement to wrap all of this up. Instead I’ll defer to Eric Osborn who quotes J. Danielou:

Tertullian’s achievement was not merely cultural and linguistic, but above all intellectual. For ‘despite his obvious originality, he displays those characteristics which are to be found throughout Latin Chistianity: a realism which knows nothing of the Platonist devaluation of matter; a subjectivity, which gives special prominence to inner experience; and a pessimism which lays more stress on the experience of sin than on transfiguration’. 1

NOTE: Below I’m including all of the sources I used throughout these twelve posts even though I used very few of them for this one.

1 Osborn (1997), p. 7, quoting J. Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity (London, 1977) I finished Osborn while I was in the middle of writing this series of posts and as much as possible stayed away from using him. His book is a detailed discussion of what Tertullian meant in his various writings. Well, I had my own ideas about what he wrote and wanted to share them, even if they’re wrong. This is a good book though a bit pricy. I don’t think he said I was wrong too often.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

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.

Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.

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.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

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Posted by on February 3, 2014 in Religion


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Tertullian XI: Just a Few More Topics

I have several topics I’m going to briefly cover here even though there’s enough material for some of these to create individual posts. But I think a dozen Tertullian posts is enough. The reason why I’ve had so much to say about him is that Tertullian is writing for a different reason than prior authors. The Apologists such as Justin Martyr wrote to defend their faith against Pagan and Jewish criticism. Irenaeus was concerned with countering heresy. Clement wanted to help Christians negotiate conflicts between living within the Church and as Roman citizens. Tertullian writes from within the Church, to the Church, to explain what it means to be a good Christian. He covers more topics and in greater depth than anyone who came previously. It’s a new direction for Christian writing and I think noting this and what he says is important to illustrate a direction the Church would eventually go in. Unfortunately, by briefly covering a bunch of subjects this post is going to be a bit clunky. Anyone who’s read this blog for very long knows I like to cover things in some depth.

First I want to mention a few things I’m not going to talk about. Tertullian wrote an Apology which I didn’t find terribly different from those of the second century. Roman Gods were demons or famous men, Moses predates Greeks who borrowed their ideas from him, the only accusation against Christians which sticks is their name, etc. He also wrote against the Jews with, again, fairly standard themes. His Prescription Against Heretics and other heresiologies, while providing some interesting concepts on philosophy and the Trinity, don’t provide any information on heresy which Irenaeus failed to cover. In his various writings he shares previously offered thoughts on the Resurrection of the Body.

However he does bring up other issues I’ve not seen before. I’ll briefly (and insufficiently) touch on some of these.


Tertullian’s with everyone else on Martyrs being especially blessed and believing they may ascend to Heaven more quickly than the normal believer. In contrast to Clement, he opposes fleeing from persecution but advocates standing your ground and accepting Martyrdom. His treatise (written as a letter), Of Flight in Persecution (de fuga in persecutione) addresses this specific theme:

“For if persecution proceeds from God, in no way will it be our duty to flee from what has God as its author; a twofold reason opposing; for what proceeds from God ought not on the one hand to be avoided, and it cannot be evaded on the other. It ought not to be avoided, because it is good; for everything must be good on which God has cast His eye.” Of Flight in Persecution, IV

As usual, when there’s something in scripture Tertullian disagrees with, he finds a way around it. Despite Christ advising the Apostles to flee in the Gospels, such as in Matthew, X.23, this does not apply to Christians of his day. That was advice given to the very first Christians, Christ’s companions, so they might live to preach and spread the Word of the Gospel. The Word has been spread so this advice no longer applies (this isn’t his only reason for contradicting Jesus’ advice but I won’t cover all of them or I will need a separate post). (Of Flight in Persecution, VI-X)

As he finishes up, Tertullian equates fleeing persecution with denying Christ, “You have confessed Him; so also, on the account of your unwillingness to confess Him before many you have denied Him. … The refusal of martyrdom is denial.” (Of Flight in Persecution, XII) “He who fears to suffer, cannot belong to Him who suffered.” (Of Flight in Persecution, XIV)


It will surprise nobody that Tertullian condemns idolatry, as does every other Christian author. There are many reasons given for this ranging from the Ten Commandments to a general, “this is what the Roman do – worship stone and wooden images.” However Tertullian goes further than previous authors in his treatise On Idolatry (de idololatria).

Writing during an early stage of his career, Tertullian contradicts his later opinions of philosophy and advocates that it’s permissable for a Christian to learn from, but not teach, pagan literature, “Learning literature is allowable for believers, rather than teaching; for the principle of learning and of teaching is different. If a believer teach literature, while he is teaching doubtless he commends, while he delivers he affirms, while he recalls he bears testimony to, the praises of idols interspersed therein.” (On Idolatry, X

Where this really gets interesting is when Tertullian tells Christians that they can engage in no profession which might somehow contribute to Idolatry. Is a Christian involved in the production or trade of incense? Then he is guilty of idolatry for these are used in ceremonies. Do you raise livestock which may be used in the ceremonies? Train gladiators who may participate in the games? “No art, then, no profession, no trade, which administers either to equipping or forming idols, can be free from the title of idolatry …”

One of Tertullian’s most famous works, The Shows (de spactaculis) is really an extension of this theme. Shows, the theater, the circus, and games are all dedicated to the Roman Gods. These are, then, idolatrous, and Christians are forbidden from participating in or attending them. Demons and evil spirits feast on these events and the blood spilled there.


This is a theme which I was really tempted to devote a post to. However Tertullian’s thoughts are simple enough that I don’t really need to, it just would have been one of the more entertaining topics to talk about. In essence, any passions are to be guarded against. Pleasure is no exception and must be avoided, particularly strong feelings, which may lead to desire, which may lead to covetousness, and so on. The Shows, XV-XVII

Related to this – or maybe not but it’s notable enough that I have to mention it someplace – is where he mentions that when assessing what is acceptable behavior, Christians should not search scripture to avoid what is forbidden. Instead, they should read scripture with an eye on what is specifically permitted and only engage in these behaviors:

“For if it shall be said that it is lawful to be crowned on this ground, that Scripture does not forbid it, it will as validly be retorted that just on this ground is the crown unlawful, because the Scripture does not enjoin it. What shall discipline do? Shall it accept both things, as if neither were forbidden? Or shall it refuse both, as if neither were enjoined? But ‘the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.’ I should rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden.The Chaplet (de corona), II.

To be fair, the above must be a rhetorical device. After all, I don’t believe scripture ever specifically gives a person permission to, for example, trim a hangnail or try on a pair of sandals to see if they fit but I can’t imagine he thinks these sorts of activities should be forbidden. It does, however, show the lengths he was willing to go to argue against what he felt was an overly permissive Church and loose living by Christians.

The Vengeful God

Tertullian’s God is not the gentle God of love but a fierce, vengeful God. Tertullian intersperses his thoughts on this in a variety of areas. Some earlier authors proposed that all souls will eventually be saved, if appropriately purified. Tertullian’s God is not so forgiving. From fear comes love and obedience. “Foolish man[Marcion], do you say that he whom you call Lord ought not to be feared, whilst the very title you give him indicates a power which must itself be feared? But how are you going to love, without some fear that you do not love?” Against Marcion, I.XXVII

God has a responsibility to punish, “Moreover, it would be a more unworthy course for God to spare the evil-doer than to punish him, especially in the most good and holy God, who is not otherwise fully good than as the enemy of evil, and that to such a degree as to display His love of good by the hatred of evil, and to fulfil His defence of the former by the extirpation of the latter.” Against Marcion, I.XXVI

This concept is not precisely new, it’s just that Tertullian goes beyond any previous author in discussing it, to the extent of contradicting “turn the other cheek” in favor of “an eye for an eye.” “Eye for eye does our God require; but your god does even a greater injury, (in your ideas,) when he prevents an act of retaliation. For what man will not return a blow, without waiting to be struck a second time.” Against Marcion, II.XXVIII

Several times he comes very close to saying that God actually created evil, rather than this being a result of free will, as most other authors say. God creates a penal evil; evil which is actually divine retribution, “Of the latter class of evils which are compatible with justice, God is therefore avowedly the creator. They are, no doubt, evil to those by whom they are endured, but still on their own account good, as being just and defensive of good and hostile to sin. In this respect they are, moreover, worthy of God.” Against Marcion, II.XIV

The Last Days (of Rome)

Tertullian also provided a twist on The Last Days. He stands with the majority (to be honest I can’t think of an exception) of prior authors in believing that the Last Days are near. However several times he asserts that man will know that the Apocalypse has arrived when the Roman Empire comes to an end. “For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth — in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes — is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire.” Apology, XXXII


“A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honour; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire over which he reigns so long as the world shall stand — for so long as that shall Rome continue.” To Scapula, II

This is a new and interesting take on the Last Days. It was a common theme in post-Nicaean Christianity. Once Christianity became, not just legitimate but the official religion of the Empire, a reason for the Empire’s existence became so the Word of God could be more easily spread to all (Roman) people. Once the Word had been sufficiently spread, the Empire’s purpose would be fulfilled and it could end. Hydatius seems to share this viewpoint. Tertullian is the only pre-Nicene author I’ve read who believes this. He seems to be well ahead of his time with this concept.


By this time the idea that God created matter, rather than working with preexisting matter, seems to have been well on the way to becoming established. Justin Martyr, writing 60 years earlier, believed that God used unformed matter (First Apology, X) but every later author that I recall felt otherwise. Still, it appears that some Christians continued to believe as Justin had. Tertullian’s treatise, Against Hermogenes was written against a Christian whose sole crime was believing that God used pre-existing matter to create the universe.

In some ways I felt this was a weak treatise overall. One of Tertullian’s foremost thoughts is that if God had not created matter, Hermogenes was stating that matter had more power. Earlier Christians had often denounced Roman Gods as mere objects of stone or wood and discussed how sculptors would have demonstrated power over them by being able to mold their matter as they saw fit. The same should hold true for God molding the world. Still, by devoting an entire treatise to the subject of matter, Tertullian advances this discussion considerably. One important development is when he counters Hermogenes’ assertion that if God created matter he must also have created evil. First and simplest is his statement that Hermogenes’ argument that matter was both good and evil and the world is stuck with evil because God did the best with what he had to work with is a denial of God’s omnipotence and changes the very nature of God. (Against Hermogenes, I) Additionally, it provides an excuse for men to do evil; if they are created from evil matter, how are they to blame for their actions? (Against Hermogenes, XII)

The Soul

My Original Sin and Purgatory posts already discuss some aspects of the soul. Beyond these two ideas (and the necessity of baptism) I think it’s important to mention that in his Treatise on the Soul (de anima), as with other topics, by the sheer amount of time and depth of argument which Tertullian is willing to invest, he moved the conversation related to the soul’s nature significantly forward.

Among the issues he discusses is a firm denial that the soul is divisible, as philosophers and some earlier Christians believed. 1 The soul is created at conception. He is the first author I recall who states that the soul is delivered into a woman by semen and men can feel this happen, ” … I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid [semen] is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us?” Treatise on the Soul, XXVII

One of his main points throughout this treatise is that the soul is corporeal. It has weight and substance, though this is different from man’s physical body. It must be as it rules men and moves them and how could something without substance cause motion? Within this treatise Tertullian states that all men are created equal intellectually but their environment results in different results. He mentions health, bodily condition, what nation and beliefs one is born into, and exposure to education, “How much more will those accidental circumstances have to be noticed, which, in addition to the state of one’s body or health, tend to sharpen or to dull the intellect!” Treatise on the Soul, XX

Proof of Christ’s Divinity

Tertullian uses a new strategy in trying to prove that Christ was the promised Messiah, the Savior. When looking for quotes on the nature of Christ I came across this passage which I think is illuminating:

“I am safe, if I am not ashamed of my Lord. ‘Whosoever,’ says He, ‘shall be ashamed of me, of him will I also be ashamed.’ Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame. The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.On the Flesh of Christ, V

There are two points from this passage. One is that man should not be ashamed of his flesh (though of course he should not adorn it either). The other is a rhetorical device of Tertullian’s which fits with the modern saying, “That story’s too crazy not to be true/for someone to have made up.” Tertullian uses this regularly as proof of the reality of Christ. What good would it have been for the prophets to declare (as some heretics state they did, for example in Isaiah) that Christ was to be born of a young woman? Young women have kids all the time. But for someone to be born of a virgin? This shows the miraculous intervention of God. He uses a similar argument regarding Christ’s resurrection. That he died is one thing for all men die. But to be resurrected?

There’s actually a third point but I already covered it in my post on the nature of Christ. Christ was willing to subject himself to every humiliation which man might undergo, to the point of being hung from a tree, pronounced as a curse in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 21.23

Prior to Tertullian, every author I’ve read tried to make sense of the virgin birth and resurrection by explaining the Old Testament prophecies in such a way as to predict Christ. Tertullian does this plenty but here he tries something new. I thought the “too crazy not to be due to God’s intervention” strategy was impressive. The guy was harsh, absolute and aggressive but he could also be brilliant.


There are various points which I found interesting but aren’t that significant. For example, it appears that during the early third century, while Mary was definitely a virgin when she bore Christ, there was no requirement that she remained a virgin afterward (Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity), as Tertullian relates that it is certain that Christ had brothers. On the Flesh of Christ, VII

Also, as what was and was not scripture continued to be defined, Tertullian is critical of the Shepherd of Hermas but places a great deal of value on The Epistle of Barnabas. (On Modesty, XX

One item is, I think, notable for its lack of mention. It’s obvious, I hope, from what I’ve written that Tertullian was very ascetic, particularly regarding sexual activity. However I do not believe he ever mentions or hints at any sort of monasticism, either eremetic or cenobitic. I can’t say whether this means that no type of ascetic activity was taking place or just that he believes that a Christian should be a member of the larger community but I found this interesting.

I think it’s important to note that of the authors I’ve read, Tertullian shows more familiarity with the New Testament than anyone who preceded him. In particular he relies on the Pauline letters but he also quotes from the Gospels and Acts quite often. Earlier Christians relied more heavily on the Old Testament, particularly to provide evidence from prophets foretelling the coming of Christ.

That’s it for topical posts about Tertullian. I’ll have one more short post as a summary (this one ended up much longer than I hoped it would be, over 3,000 words) and then I can move on to someone or something else.

1 Platonists, for example, believed in a soul containing three natures where only the intellectual or logical nature would survive death while the emotional and desirous/appetitive parts would cease to exist. Early Christians often had trouble describing what the soul is or how it functioned. Many pretty much ignored the subject beyond stating that man had free will and the soul would be resurrected and either saved or punished.

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.

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Posted by on January 29, 2014 in Religion


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