Tag Archives: Ancient Women

Tertullian X: Women

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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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.


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


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