Tertullian, Ad Nationes, I (2007)
This translation was created in conjunction with the Patristics Project at
Translated by Q. Howe
© Q. Howe, 2007
The Latin title of this tract is Ad Nationes, whose literal meaning is To the Nations. The nations are those whose immediate and identifying allegiance is to the Roman state. This is a category that precludes Christians, which is the term for someone whose immediate and identifying of allegiance is to the teachings of Christ. Tertullian lived at a time when Christians were being killed by pagans for their failure to accord their ultimate loyalty to the state. Under such conditions there is clearly going to be a radical division between pagans and Christians. To be a Christian is to take one's life in one's hands and run the risk of execution.
Some of the charges made against the Christians were indeed alarming: incest, infanticide, adultery, and cannibalism. Are these rumors true? The circumspect answer of Christian scholarship is probably not. There were a number of factors that contributed to this malicious gossip about the Christians. First, the Romans were surrounded by religious cults across the Empire that were notorious for savage practices – Druids, devotees of Bacchus, the Egyptians, the rites of Thyestes and Oedipus. Second, the Christians conducted their worship in secrecy. This practice was associated with cults that had something to hide. Third, there were various Christian splinter groups that were remotely Christian, partially Christian, or just nominally Christian. And finally, the sacrament of the Eucharist – consuming the blood and flesh of your founder – may well have confounded the literalism of the pagan mind and suggested possible cannibalism. In the same vein the pagans may have been mislead by the Christian emphasis on brotherly love and mistaken this as a facile label for incest.
A further item of lurid rumor about the Christians was that they would stage banquets illuminated by upright candle holders. As a signal to let the festivities begin, dogs bound to each other by a cord would be released and someone would toss a morsel of meat across the room. The dogs would then dash about, knocking over the lights. One may also legitimately ask what is the likelihood that believers who are willing to die for their faith would conduct their lives in such flagrant defiance of their scriptures?
Throughout his writings Tertullian belabors the ignorant, prejudiced, and misinformed view of the pagans. He dwells on the inconsistency of their charges against the Christians and the harshness of their judgment. His writing is fraught with sarcasm, irony, and rapid reversals of thought. This is in character with the style of the Second Sophistic, which as the reigning literary movement when Ad Nationes was written, probably around 197 C.E. This can make for difficult reading and a challenge for the translator. The opening chapter prepares the pagan reader for the possibility that he may rethink his prejudice against Christianity and take steps to mitigate the drastic measures being taken against this new dispensation.
The evidence for your ignorance is plain to see. As you defend your position, you refute it. Now touched by new insight, all of you who once were ignorant of Christianity and declared your hatred have put that hatred aside and are no longer ignorant. In fact you have become what you once hated and now hate what you once were.
Every day you groan over the proliferating number of Christians. You fret that the state is overrun by Christians – in the fields, on the barricades, on the islands. You mourn the fact that every sex, every age, and every social class is crossing over from you to us. Nor does it occur to you that something good might lie hidden here. You avoid straight thinking and you shun an open mind. Human curiosity lies fallow. You delight to ignore what others are thrilled to have discovered. As long as you hate, you prefer to remain ignorant, concerned that once you know, you will cease to hate. But if there is no merit to be found in your hatred, it is surely best to set aside your earlier injustice. On the other hand, if there has been just cause, let there be no decline in your hatred because it is now all the more fortified by an awareness of justice. Unless, of course, you are ashamed to mend your ways or you are reluctant to clear your reputation.
I am well aware of how you choose to respond to the evidence of our growing numbers. You say that it is not necessarily a good thing that Christianity is winning over so many new converts. I am also aware of how the mind can take a turn toward evil. How many forsake the path of virtuous living? How many seek refuge in twisted ways? Very many is the answer – many indeed – considering the approaching end of time. But this trend of thought is defective. As far as evil is concerned, everyone agrees that, although there are those who seek evil and forsake goodness, not even such egregious culprits and malefactors would presume to defend evil in preference to the good.
They fear what is low-minded; they are ashamed of impiety; they yearn to hide; they shudder to be seen; they tremble when they are caught; they deny when accused. Not even under torture do they readily confess. At least they grieve when condemned; they loathe what they have become; and they blame fate for their journey from innocence to malice. They seek to divest themselves of the evil they cannot deny.
How do the Christians deal with being condemned for their faith? None feel shame. None feel oppressed, unless by the weight of earlier sins. When a Christian is pointed out, he rejoices. When apprehended, he submits. When accused, he makes no defense. When questioned, he confesses. When condemned, he rejoices. Can this be called evil when the very nature of evil is thwarted?
Tertullian is always alert for paradox and a recurrent theme in the Ad Nationes is the paradox of applying torture to the Christians so that they will confess their faith. Ordinarily a confession occurs when a suspect is forced to say something he does not wish to disclose. From the pagan perspective, to be a Christian is a crime. For the Christian, however, to confess his faith ensures the promise of eternal blessedness. Now we have the pagans torturing the Christians to admit to the one thing that is the emblem of their blessedness. Hence the judicial process of forcing a confession is absurd. One confesses to robbery or murder, but not to one’s greatest treasure.
In your treatment of us, you actually reverse the norms of judging criminals. When conventional offenders stand trial, you will apply torture if they deny the charge. But when Christians make a spontaneous confession of his faith, you will apply torture that they may retract their words. What perversity you indulge! You take up arms against the confession and reverse the role of torture. He who willingly confesses you force to evade his faith, while he who is already unwilling to confess is actually forced to deny the charge. You, the coercive guardians of the truth, constrain only the Christian to lie, forcing us to deny the very thing that defines us. In point of fact, I believe you do not wish to convict us as evil men; you actually wish to exempt us from that charge. Conversely, you torment and butcher non-Christians that they deny the charges against him. But when they do deny the charge, you do not believe them. In our case, however, you will believe us immediately if we will deny the charge of being Christian.
If you are not actually convinced that we Christians are the most menacing defendants, then why are we dealt with so differently from other defendants? When dealing with other defendants, you allow ample time for accusation and denial. You are in fact not in the habit of readily condemning defendants without due process. In the instance of the murderer, for example, the case is not settled and the inquiry finished as soon as a defendant confesses. Even in the face of the confession, you entertain doubts and questions. You examine the aftermath, how often he has committed the same crime, what weapons were used. Why did it take place? What was the gain? Who were the accomplices? Who the beneficiaries? Every step is taken to ensure that nothing about the accused escapes notice, that nothing is lacking for determining the truth.
When dealing with us Christians, however, who have been found guilty of more vicious and more numerous crimes than homicide, you invoke shorter and more trivial charges. I suspect you do not wish to heap on the charges since you already intend to destroy us entirely. Or else you feel there is no need to research what you already know about us. It is even more perverse that you force us to deny what you have already ascertained about us, namely that we are Christians. It would be more in keeping with your hatred for us to put aside due process and stop straining to make us deny our faith. If we do deny our faith, then you would have to acquit us -- whom you hate.
How much more rewarding for your hatred of us to force confession one crime at a time and heap on the punishments one at a time. How many lewd banquets did each defendant attend? How many incestuous get-togethers under cover of darkness? Since your need to eradicate our kind is overflowing its banks, why not extend your investigations to our friends and fellow conspirators? Let's bring on the infanticides and the butchers and the conjugal canines who stand guard over our incestuous weddings. What a quick and convenient fix! Think how eagerly people would flock to the spectacles! Imagine how avidly they would converge to watch a combatant who had devoured a hundred infants!
If such chilling and monstrous charges are reported against us, they need to be brought to light. Otherwise they will seem incredible and the public hatred toward us could grow cold. Many people are reluctant to believe such things, assuming that nature prevents human kind from feeding and mating like wild animals.
This chapter continues to belabor the legal paradox of the Christian position. The only actual charge against the Christians is that they assent to the charge that they are Christians. There is no investigation into criminal activities. There is no attempt to adduce a direct connection between the specific defendant and the illegal rites of infanticide and incest that had become associated with Christianity in the pagan mind. It is not sound legal practice to prosecute a person merely for the Christian name.
You have been zealous and tenacious in prosecuting crimes far more trivial than ours, and yet for us you abandon your habitual diligence despite the savagery and towering outrage of our charges. You neither record a confession nor do you carry out an investigation -- both essential aspects of a criminal proceeding. It is apparent that the sole charge against us consists not in some criminal act but in our name.
If this were a matter of the valid charge, the name of the charge would match the designation of the defendant. An accusation should be issued against "this murderer" or "that incest offender" or whatever charge fits. Then that defendant will be led off to be executed or crucified or fed to wild animals. Your verdicts, however, have condemned nothing but a Christian confession. There is no name of a charge against us, just the charge of a name.
Herein lies the entire reasoning and substance of the hatred against us. The name alone is a crime. A certain insidious force assails you and is empowered by your ignorance, so that you do not wish to know with certain knowledge that very thing of which you have certain ignorance. Thus you do not wish to know things that are not proven and, lest they be readily proven, you do not wish to make further inquiry, ensuring that the hateful name continues to be punished under the mere presumption of a crime.
Now, in order that we dissociate ourselves from that hateful name, we are forced to deny all charges. Upon denial we are set free from the past with full impunity. We are no longer committing murder nor incest because we have divested ourselves entirely of the Christian name.
But since this line of reasoning is to be explored later on in its own right, please account for this vicious assault on our name. What crime, what guilt, what charge do you attach to this name? You are constrained by your own legal code from presenting charges where there is no supporting ordinance, where no proof is adduced, where no sentence is declared. I acknowledge a legitimate plaintiff when the case comes before a judge, when there is a hearing, when there is a denial or confession, and when there is an adjudication.
But when it comes to the merit of a name -- if a name faces charges or a word comes under accusation -- I reject that a name or a word can give offense, unless of course the word sounds vulgar or implies bad luck or is degrading both for the speaker and the listener. Such words are to be condemned as crude, incorrect, or disgusting. The literal meaning of the word Christian, however, is an anointing. Even if you mispronounce the word as "chrestian" -- you are not entirely clear about our name -- your pronunciation suggests sweetness and goodness.1
You withhold from innocent men their innocent name, a name that is neither challenging to the tongue no harsh to the ear, nor offensive to any man, nor provocative to our peers. Like many Greek words, it is appealing in both sound and significance. Names were never meant to be punished by the sword, by the cross, or by ravenous beasts.
1. The Greek word χρηστος (chrestos), erroneously associated by the pagans with Christian, means good or pleasant.
When a man admits to being a Christian, does he then give evidence of some punishable offense? The answer is clearly "no." The name Christian merely implies the name of the founder just as the Platonists are followers of Plato. And far from finding moral defects in those called Christians, we find that they generally exhibit qualities of moral excellence. So great is the pagan prejudice against Christianity that they will refuse to acknowledge or give credit for the change of character that generally accompanies Christian conversion. This is borne out by the bizarre and paradoxical account of a man who rejects his wife after she becomes a paragon of Christian goodness.
But you say this sect is being punished in the name of its founder. First of all, it is certainly legitimate and customary to name the sect after its founder. This is true of philosophers who are Pythagoreans and Platonists. Physicians are named after Erasistratus and grammarians are named after Aristarchus. If this Christian sect is found to be evil because of an evil founder, then it is being punished on the persistent strength of an evil name. But this would be an act of rash presumption. In order to understand a sect, first acquaint yourself with the founder rather than repress this whole line of inquiry.
When it comes to the Christians, however, you are of necessity ignorant of the sect because you are ignorant of the founder. Or you give no thought to the founder because you give no thought to the sect. In either case you fix on the name alone as if this gave you power over the sect and the founder. And you remain entirely ignorant of both.
And yet your philosophers are at liberty to cross over from one founder and name to another. No one provokes hatred against them, even when they spew forth both open and veiled loathing for your customs, your rights, your ceremonies, and your entire style of life. With contempt for the law and respect for no one, they vaunt their wanton abuse even against the emperors.
But there is a truth, hateful to this world, which the philosopher’s grab at and which the Christians possess. Those who possess this truth incur the greater wrath because those who grab merely dabble in it while those who possess it rise to its defense. Take the instance of Socrates – as he drew ever closer to the truth, he was condemned to death for denying the pagan gods. Even though at that time the Christian name was unknown to the world, the actual truth was always condemned.
You cannot deny that Socrates was wise when the Pythian Apollo said, "Socrates is the wisest of all men." The truth so overpowered Apollo himself, that he would declare even against himself, confessing that he was not a God and affirming that one who denied the gods was the wisest of men. By your account, Socrates is less wise because he denied the gods when in fact he proved his wisdom by denying them.
Just as you are accustomed to say of us, "Lucius Titus is a good man except for the fact that he is a Christian," someone else will say, "I am surprised that Gaius Seius, such a high-minded man, has become a Christian." Guided by their blind stupidity, men will praise what they know and condemn what they do not know. They will take what they know to tear down what they do not know.
It never occurs to anyone that a person is good and decent because he is a Christian or that he has become a Christian because he is good and decent. It is more in keeping with human nature to judge hidden attributes of what is evident than to condemn what is evident by hidden attributes. Some people wonder that those whom they had known to be lost, low-minded, and immoral before taking up the Christian name are suddenly transformed. But they know only how to marvel at this change, not how to achieve it. Then there are others who struggle with such stubbornness against their own welfare, which they could advance by making common cause with the Christian name.
I know of one or another husband who was so anxious about his wife’s morals prior to her conversion he would groan with apprehension if a mouse crept into the bedroom. Upon the conversion of the wife to Christianity, however, he bestows total conjugal liberty on her, realizing that her religion was the source of her new rigor and rectitude. He now denies any jealousy and insists he would rather be married to a she-wolf than to a Christian woman. He has taken the liberty of corrupting his own nature, but he forbids his wife to change for the better.
A father disinherited his son in whom he could find no fault. A master threw an invaluable slave into prison. As soon as you know someone is a Christian, you wish to prove his depravity. Our moral code exposes who we are and we are betrayed by our own goodness. In like manner, evil men shed light on their own depravity. We alone, contrary to the conventions of nature, are singled out as depraved because of our goodness.
What do we raise on high as our distinguishing mark if not primal wisdom? We do not worship the works of the human hand. We exercise restraint in dealing with others. We do not compromise our sense of shame with a wanton glance. We offer compassion to the hard-pressed. We cultivate the truth, though it gives offense. We have embraced liberty, though it be the liberty to die. If you wish to know who the Christians are, these are the signs by which you may know us.
Here Tertullian raises an interesting question to which there is no single, unequivocal answer. To what extent is the quality of the Christian faith to be judged by the behavior of those avowed believers who fall short? One can of course affirm that perfection is an unrealistic expectation. The most perfect blue sky will be tainted by the wisp of a cloud. A perfect complexion will show a freckle. Or one can recognize the fact that among avowed Christians there will always be those who do not meet the full measure of expectations. In like manner, they're are self-declared philosophers who do not live up to all the name implies. When this occurs within the Christian community, those who fail to conform in full measure are in fact implicitly rejected. This is a stern verdict and it closes the chapter.
You charge that we are depraved and utterly corrupted by greed, luxury and immorality. We do not deny that this is true of some of us. It is, however, sufficient evidence of our good name if it is not true of all of us, not even true of most of us. It is true that even the purest and most pristine body is subject to the occasional intrusion of a mole, a wart, or a freckle. Not even the lustrous clarity of the sky remains untouched by the wisp of a passing cloud. A minute blemish on the brow, a conspicuous location, serves to proclaim the purity of the visage. A tiny spot of evil bears witness to the greater good of the whole.
When you demonstrate that some of our followers are evil, you do not thus prove that they are Christians. Search out any sect accused of evil. When in conversation about us, you say, "Why is this one a cheat if the Christians have such self-control? Why is that one so unfeeling, if the Christians are so compassionate?" When you charge, "How can Christians behave in these vile ways?" you are in fact giving witness that this is not typical Christian behavior.
There is a great divide between a name and a crime, between an opinion and the truth. Names were created to draw a sharp line between actual existence and mere name calling. How many people are called philosophers who have failed to live out the law of philosophy? All wear the name of what they profess, but if they bear that name without fulfilling the excellence of what they profess, they are defaming the truth with the artifice of speech. They do not suddenly become what they claim to be. And since they are not what they claim to be, the name is used in vain and they are deceiving those who attach substance to the name. The authority of the name is confirmed by compliance with the reality.
But people of this type neither congregate with us nor do they engage in worship with us. By their dereliction they fall back into your midst. Indeed we do not even mix with those who have been forced to recant by your violence and savagery. We would of course more gladly welcome into our midst those who have abandoned their faith under coercion over those who have done so willingly. Moreover, it is not legitimate for you to designate as Christians those whom the Christians themselves have denied. Such fallen ones do not even grasp their own denial.
There is a further fallacy in the legal procedures by which the Christians are persecuted. They are charged with one or another of the vices associated with Christianity -- adultery or infanticide to name two. But the courts never conduct an investigation to determine whether such a crime has been committed. They will simply pronounce a verdict against a defendant, satisfied that the charge of being a Christian guarantees culpability of the habitual Christian vices. Not sound procedure!
Your conscience, silent witness of your ignorance, is chastened and coerced by our rejoinders, which are spontaneously suggested by the truth itself. Then you seek desperate refuge in the authority of the laws -- which would not punish this sect unless there were a consensus among the founders of your laws as to the merits of this sect. What is there to prevent those who enforce the laws in similar cases from conducting a full investigation before passing sentence? In the instance of homicide or adultery, for example, the sequence of events is subject to full discussion, even though the exact nature of the crime is already known to all.
The goal is simply punish the Christians without due process. Whatever crime the Christian has committed must be brought to light. There is no law to prevent an investigation. In fact an investigation functions in the interest of the law. How will you enforce the law, if you pass over the very offense that the law forbids, failing to take account of the available evidence? No law can rely on its own account of its righteousness, but it does owe such an account to those from whom it demands obedience. Moreover, a law becomes suspect, if it shows no tendency to prove itself.
Thus the laws against the Christians are rightly held to be worthy of respect and compliance, but only as long as no one knows what they punish. But once the truth is known, however, namely that these laws enforced their code with swords, crosses, and lions, they are vehemently rejected as supremely unjust. For an unjust law there is no respect. I believe, however, that you entertain doubts about the justice of some of your laws, since every day you issue new statutes and decrees to mitigate their brutal and wanton intention.
Tertullian now seeks the source of the reports of Christian misconduct. His answer to this is fama, the Latin word for rumor, a concept that was held in great ill repute by the Romans. Tertullian quotes a famous line from Virgil where rumor is reviled as being swift and malevolent. Moreover, it is invariably the bearer of false information.
Persecution of the Christians goes back to the time of Nero who was notorious for his character defects. And to this day, 200 years after its origin, Christianity is still subject to persecution. Let us consider the reliability of these two Christian enemies -- Nero and rumor. Tongue in cheek, Tertullian raises the question of whether Nero was just and pure. The response of Nero’s contemporaries and historians ever after has been a resounding "no." As to the reliability of rumor, the question speaks for itself in the very definition of rumor.
Tertullian closes the chapter at the peak of his facetious talent, presenting the hapless candidate for Christian acceptance who has neither an infant and available for sacrifice nor a mother or sister available for a sacred tumble in the dark. Is it remotely conceivable, he asks, that these could be the rite of passage into the Christian faith? Or has rumor perhaps misled us?
You will say, how is it possible that such a hideous reputation has grown up around you Christians as to convince our lawmakers of its testimony? And I shall ask who was the advocate for your lawmakers in their own time and for you in the present time to vouch for this reputation? Could it perhaps have been:
Rumor, an evil of matchless speed (Aeneid IV. 176)
But why evil, if it is always true? Is it in fact not largely false? Even when it reports the truth, it does not set aside its lust for lying. Rumor weaves falsehood in with the truth by a process of addition, subtraction and scrambling. She can maintain her existence only by lying. She lives on only as long as she fails to prove anything. As soon as a rumor is proven to be true, it expires. Having conveyed its message, it departs. When the report is real and is declared a fact no one will say, "They say that this happened in Rome." Or, "Rumor has it that he has been assigned a province." Rather, it will be said, "This happened in Rome." Or "He has been assigned a province."
No one uses the term "rumor" unless he distrusts its truth. A rumor comes to nothing -- only conviction can become certitude. Only a fool believes a rumor because a wise man puts no trust in uncertainty.
Whatever the extent of its circulation, a rumor must derive its origin from a single mouth. Then from the conveyance of tongues and ears it creeps abroad, obscuring its original flaw as a rumor. As a consequence no one will recognize that a lying mouth first set it in motion, driven by a spiteful spirit or by a hint of suspicion or even by the sheer pleasure of lying.
But the good news is that time discloses all things, just as your opinions and proverbs testify -- supported by nature herself. It is in the natural order that all things come to light, even those which Rumor never initiated. Consider what an extravagant Rumor you have enlisted against us. What it once proclaimed and has commended to the general attention now remains to this very day unproven.
Our Christian name first emerged when Augustus was emperor. During the reign of Tiberius, our beliefs shed their light abroad. Under Nero condemnation flourished. You might give some thought to the actual character of our first persecutor. If he was just and chaste, then the Christians are immoral and wanton. If he was not an enemy of the people, then we are the enemy of the people. Our persecutor demonstrated our true character by punishing those who were at odds with him.
Of the movements from the time of Nero, only ours endures to this day – righteous in respect to our character and at variance with our persecutor. We have not yet been around for 200 years. Over this period there have been so many perverse Christians, so many transfiguring crosses, so many infants slaughtered, so many loaves of bread soaked in blood, so many lamps extinguished, so many incestuous liaisons. And to date it is only Rumor that discriminates against the Christians.
Rumor gains its strength from the frailty of human nature and spins out its lies to the wanton and to the wicked. The more you incline toward evil, the more susceptible you are to keep faith with evil. Then belief is more readily accorded to an evil lie than to a noble truth. If your injustice has left you with any capacity for discernment, then your sense of justice would demand that you assess the validity of Rumor. You would consider by whom such rumor and was advanced upon the people in general and to the world at large. I hardly think this was the work of Christians, since it is the nature and law of all religious mysteries that they be guarded by a vow of silence. And how much more would this be true of mysteries whose disclosure would incur swift condemnation thanks to general disapproval.
If we are not our own betrayers, then it follows that they are outsiders. But how would outsiders gain knowledge of our mysteries since even decent and lawful rites are guarded from public view? Unless of course they are even less contemptuous of illegal rites. But in fact outsiders are more inclined to be malicious rather than inventive when it comes to spreading rumors.
On the other hand, perhaps even our domestics were peeping through nooks and crannies to spy on us. What does it signify when even our domestics betray us to you? It would be better by far if no one were to betray us, but how much more fitting is it if our behavior is so vicious that the righteous rage of our domestics rips apart the good faith of the Christian household! They could not contain the affront to the mind and the shock to the eye. But it is even more extraordinary that the betrayer who leaps at the chance to report us is not concerned to offer proof, and while those who have heard these reports have no concern to see the evidence. This is assuming of course that the reward for the one who reports and proves his statement is equal to the reward for the one who hears it and convinces himself of the truth of what he hears.
By your account, first the deed is reported and then it is proven. First it is overheard, then it is examined. And then it is launched as a rumor. This surpasses all credibility. Here we have a charge that is detected just once but is confessed over and over again. The only plausible outcome is that we would have desisted from such practices entirely! And yet we are still called Christians and we still face the same charges and our numbers swell day by day. As we become more numerous, our detractors become more numerous. The hatred grows as the numbers grow. As the number of defendants grow, why doesn't the number of informers grow apace?
As far as I know, our practices have become better known. You now know the days of our meetings. We are now beset and beleaguered, forcibly detained in our own sacred meetings. But who has ever stumbled over a half devoured corpse at a meeting? Who has ever found tooth marks on a blood drenched crust of bread? Who caught sight of lewd behavior – let me not say incest – as a sudden shaft of light shot through the shadows? If we can offer a reward to prevent such offenses from coming under public scrutiny, then we can in fact prevent such disclosures entirely. Who will buy or sell the betrayal of a crime if it never existed in the first place?
But why should I lash out at these scouts and spies? You have charged us with offenses that you clearly have not heard delivered by us with great fanfare. These charges have either been heard previously if they have already been brought to light or they are later made known if they have been temporarily kept secret.
No doubt it is the habit of those seeking initiation to approach the master of ceremonies or an elder who will say, "You must bring an infant, tender and wailing, to be offered as a sacrifice and you must bring a piece of bread to be broken and dipped in blood. Moreover, bring candle holders to be dragged around the room by dogs bound to one another. And then bring scraps of meat to incite these dogs. And of course be sure to bring along your mother or your sister."
But what if none of these necessities are available to you? I am afraid you are not going to make it as a legitimate Christian. Now I ask you – can such charges be launched by entire outsiders? It is obvious that they do not know what they are talking about. The first step in this process is launched by willful deceit. These banquets and incestuous nuptials are created by totally ignorant informers. They have never even heard anything about the Christian mysteries. In time these informers will possess some actual knowledge to be passed on to others whom they bring along.. But how absurd is it that these outsiders should know what the priest himself does not even know. Therefore they remain silent and carry about their information as accepted truth. They mention nothing by way of comparison from the tragedies of Thyestes and Oedipus.1 They do not even draw attention to the ministers and masters of ceremony. And those who are well versed in the doctrine take even more ravenous morsels during the ceremonies – without a sound. If none of this can be proven true, we have something of incalculable grandeur that confers upon us the strength to endure in the face of such atrocities.
O wretched and piteous heathens! Behold, we offer you the promise of our new dispensation. For those who follow it and persevere, it holds out the promise of eternal life. On the other hand, it threatens the profane and the contentious with the everlasting punishment of eternal fire. For both the damned and the blessed there is resurrection of the dead.
But we shall deal with these beliefs later when they come under discussion. For the present, however, I urge you to believe in like manner with us. What I really want to know is whether you are prepared to advance in faith in the face of such crimes as you attribute to us. Come , whoever you may be, and bury your blade into an infant. Or that is someone else's job? Just gaze upon this expiring soul before it has ever lived. Gather in the raw blood, soak your bread, and dine with gusto. Then recline and check out the spot where your mother or your sister are bedded down. Take careful note so that when the shadows fall, relying on the precision of all parties, you do not inadvertently lay siege to some stranger. If you fail in your incest, you will have to make an act of contrition.
Once you have performed this rite, you shall live forever. Now let me ask you: is eternity really worth it? First of all, you do not believe this, and even if you did, you would be unwilling to pay this price. And even if you were willing, you would not have the will to do it. Why is it then that others can do this if you can not? Why are you not able if others are able? What price would you attach to impunity and eternity? Can these be procured by us in any manner we choose? Does this mean that Christians have a different set of teeth or a different expense of the jaw? When it comes to incest, do they have a different perception of pleasure? I hardly think so. It is sufficient for us to part company from you on the strength of our truth alone.
1. Thyestes had seduced the wife of his brother, Atreus, who staged a banquet of forgiveness. He demonstrated his good will by serving a soup made from the flesh of Thyestes’ sons. Oedipus killed his father and then married his mother.
There had been a recurring tendency in the early anti-Christian literature to refer to the Christians as a third division in humankind, the other two being pagans and Jews. Here Tertullian takes on an absurd myth propagated by an early Egyptian king named Psammeticus, who claimed to have determined the origin of human life in world. The story is primitive and silly, as Tertullian makes clear in his florid retelling of it.
The Dogface breed, mentioned in the second line of this chapter, occurs only once in Latin – right here. Dogface refers to the last paragraph of the preceding chapter and would describe someone versed in drinking fresh blood and dining on human flesh. The Shadowfoot class would have huge feet so they could recline under the shadow of their feet while reclining beneath the sun in the southern hemisphere.
The thrust of the chapter, as Tertullian states at the end and elsewhere throughout his writings , is that any attempt to divide humanity into groups or races is meaningless. There is no nation that is not Christian.
It is said that we clearly belong to a third race of human beings. There are of course the Dogface breed, the Shadowfoot class and the Antipodal freaks from the underside of the earth. If any of this makes any sense to you, I am begging you to tell us which is group one and which is group two so that we can agree on group three. Psammetichus thought that by the sheer force of his genius he had discovered a plausible theory of human origins. He is said to have isolated new born infants from human contact and to have placed them in the care of a nurse whose tongue had been cut out. This had been done so that these infants would develop speech without any exposure to the sound of the human voice. Thus in speaking exclusively on their own initiative, they would indicate what nation had first been prompted to speak. "Beccos," which is the Phrygian word for bread, is reported to have been their first utterance. Hence the Phrygians are the first race of humans.
But it would be a relevant for me to point out this one fallacy of how you support your theories. I must observe that your position is supported, not by verities but by vanities. Is it even remotely conceivable that this nurse could survive such an ordeal? Her tongue, that vital instrument of the soul, had been slashed out at the root. Her throat, a body part that can’t even tolerate a superficial wound had been ripped open. And then, with gore running down her chest, she was deprived of food for extended time. Come now, she might have survived through the treatments of Philomela, whom wiser heads see as silenced by the blush of modesty rather than the removal of the tongue. But even if she did survive in this way, she would still be able to babble something – a dull and inarticulate sound or gurgling gasp – just by opening her mouth without even moving her lips, forced from her throat with her tongue struck dumb. This primal grunt, the only grunt available, the children perhaps practiced, but more skillfully since they still had their tongue. And then they gave it meaning.
So let's say that the Phrygians were the first race. The Christians still are not the third. How many successions of races came after the Phrygians? Just watch out that the race to whom you assign third place does not in fact claim the first place. There is indeed no race now that is not Christian. Whatever the first race was, it is nevertheless now Christian. It is senseless insanity that you speak of us as the most recent race, but then designate us as the third race.
But it is in connection with our beliefs, not our nationality, that we are assigned to the third position, as there are the Romans, the Jews, and then the Christians. And where are the Greeks in this? Of course if the Greeks are counted among the Romans, since Rome has been tampering with Greek gods, then where are the Egyptians? They stand apart, I believe, with an intricate religion. If we who occupy the third position are considered so abominable, what about those come before us in positions one and two?
Inherent in pagan religion was a quick and causal association between the gods and bad luck. If there was an earthquake, a famine, a flood, it was because the gods had become irritated with human behavior and felt the need for punitive action. The pagans believed that their gods were especially irritated by the audacity of the Christians for not worshiping them and they would hence blame the Christians for natural disasters.
This is an argument that abounds with absurdities and Tertullian points them out. First, numerous catastrophes occurred before the origin of the Christian dispensation. Second, the primary victims of these disasters have been pagans, the faithful devotees of the pagan gods. Third, many of these disasters took place before the pagan gods came into being and would have destroyed the altars, the statues, and the worshippers of the gods. Unlike the Christian God, who is without beginning or end, the pagan gods are fleeting players on the stage of history.
But why should I wonder at your mindless charges? Malice and folly, connected by a common bond, come into being under the single grandmaster of error. Since I am not in the least surprised at your charges, I feel constrained to enumerate them so that you may recognize your egregious stupidity when you blame us Christians for all public death and destruction. If the Tiber overflows, if the Nile recedes, if the heavens stand still, if the earth heaves, if some pestilence rages, if famine lays waste, you all cry out with a single voice: "It is the work of the Christians." As if those who do not fear God could have other petty fears.
I suspect that we provoke these missiles from your gods because we hold them in contempt. As I mentioned previously, we have not even been around for 200 years. Prior to this think of how many disasters have fallen upon this world. Whole cities and provinces have perished. How many civil wars, how many wars of conquest? How many plagues, famines, conflagrations, heaving and cracking of the earth have the ages laid upon us?
Where were the Christians when Rome bore witness to such great travail? Where were the Christians when the islands of Hiera, Anaphe, Delos, Rhodes, and Cea sank to the bottom of the sea with many thousands of losses. And what of that great landmass, larger than Africa and Asia, that Plato claims to have sunk into the Atlantic Ocean?1 And where were the Christians when fire from the sky struck down the Volusinii and flowed over the Pompeians from their own mountain?2 Where were they when the Sea of Corinth burst open from an earthquake? Where were they when a flood devastated the whole Earth?
Where were your gods at this time? Forget about the Christians, the scorners of your gods! Your gods prove by the places and towns where they were born, where they tarried, where there were buried, and which they even founded that they came much later than these destructions. They would in fact no longer exist until today unless they came after this original period devastation.
If you don't even care to consider and contemplate the evidence of those times, recorded very differently by you, you will have to condemn your gods as unprincipled. They injure you their followers because of us their detractors. And then you prove yourselves to be mistaken if you keep faith with those gods who failed to distinguish you from the offenses of us profane Christians.
But if one or another fool has suggested that your gods are angry with you for not rushing ahead to destroy us, you have just proven their weakness and insignificance. They would not rage against you for being slow to chasten us if they could do it themselves. And yet you admit to this charge in other ways when you seek to avenge them by punishing us. If one party is to be avenged by another, the greater party delivers the vengeance. It is a disgrace when the gods must be defended by humankind!
1. Atlantis from Plato, Timaeus 24.
2. Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
One of the most serious charge against the Christians has been their contempt of the pagan gods. Tertullian suggests that if this is to be a pivot on which the persecution of Christianity turns, let us consider the quality of the piety offered by the pagans. He meets this challenge with glee. The pagans have betrayed the past and their own traditions. Because of the great number of gods, their followers are always favoring one while rejecting another. The worship is then regulated by the Senate, making it clear that the gods are subject to humanity rather than the opposite. The gods, their images,and their shrines are constantly serving commercial interests. Beyond this, when the gods are depicted in public spectacles, they possess the full range of human vices, to the great amusement of their worshipers. In short, the gods and their worship are managed by the whims and fancies of their pagan followers, while the Christians stand clear of them entirely.
Go ahead now and pour out your poison upon us. Let loose your arrows on this Christian name. I shall not desist from blocking them. Later on they will be blunted by the full disclosure of our beliefs. Now, however, I shall pluck these arrows from our own bodies and fling them back at you. I shall demonstrate that the same words of accusation are carved into your own bodies so that you may now fall upon your own swords and spears.
First consider whether in fact you do not share with us the very charge you direct against us, namely that of abandoning the customs of the ancestors. When I consider the authority of your traditions and values, I find everything in wreckage and ruins. As for your laws, I have already pointed out that day by day you subvert them with new rules and regulations. When it comes to your general way of life, it is plainly apparent how much you have diverged from the ways of your ancestors. When it comes to conventions, personal style, attire, diet, even manner of speech, you are rejecting the past as though it were contaminated. The past has been entirely rejected in all of your practices and occupations. Present approval has entirely overruled the approval of your ancestors. It is all the more disgraceful that you praise the past and then persist in rejecting it. What perversity to have rejected the very customs that you now praise. These are the practices that should have prevailed among you.
The worship of the gods is the very tradition that you appear to guard and protect with the deepest good faith And this is a tradition in which you find us to be the most offensive culprits, the tradition from which the entire hatred of the Christian named derives its inspiration. But I shall now prove that it is you who are destroying and despising the worship of the gods.
There is no basis for charging us as despisers of the gods because no one can despise something that he knows did not exist. What exists can be the object of hate; what does not exist cannot be the object of anything. The gods can undergo suffering only at the hands of those who believe in them. You disgrace yourselves by believing and by sneering, by cultivating and offending, by honoring and by scoffing.
Here is a point to consider: some of you worship some gods and some of you worship others. And those whom you do not worship you hold in contempt. It is not possible to worship one without disregarding an another. To accept one is to reject another. He who has embraced one from the many will despise one he did not embrace. Such a multitude of gods cannot be worshipped by everyone at once. Even at the very beginning you showed your contempt, unafraid to limit how many gods can be worshipped.
The most brilliant and discerning of your ancestors, whose traditions you are powerless to dismiss, betray themselves as impious. I am well aware of the fact that from time to time the pagans have decreed that a general must await approval from the Senate before he can dedicate a temple he promised to build in the event of victory. And yet Marcus Aemilius promised a temple to the god Alburnus without Senate approval. Is it not the height of impiety and insult that the honor of divinity is bestowed at the consent and concession of human opinion? There can be no god except at the pleasure of the Senate. Many times the censors have torn down a temple without consulting the people. They banished Father Baccus and his rites not only from the city but throughout Italy. Furthermore Varro gives us an account of the ban from the Capital against Serapis, Isis, Harpocrates, and Anubis. Their altars, torn down by decree of the Senate, were restored by popular resistance. But on the following first of January the Consul Gabinius grudgingly approved sacrifices to Serapis and Isis in response to popular agitation. Even though he had made no prior decision to support the decree of the Senate or to favor Serapis and Isis, he upheld the ban of the Senate, opposed the rush of the crowd, and forbade altars to be built.
Here among your ancestors you find, if not the name, then at least practice of the Christians to neglect the gods. Even if you honor your gods, you are guilty of violating your religious norms. And I still find that you have advanced both in superstition and impiety. How you are declining in your religious observance! You retain your household gods, the Lares and Penates, by personal oath, and yet you trample them under foot, selling and pawning them to meet each passing whim. Such religious outrage would be more acceptable if it were not practiced with such measured moderation. There is, however, slight solace for the plight of your household gods only because you treat your public divinities even more wantonly and outrageously.
First of all, you offer your gods up for public auction. Every five years you put them up for sale among your other revenues. Thus you conduct business at the temple of Serapis and the temple of Jupiter. Then your gods themselves are brought in for barter at the bidding of the auctioneer, at the direction of the magistrate.
The fields have now become cheaper as they are encumbered by taxes. The very lives of men are devalued by capitation tax, for such are the well-known penalties of servitude. But when it comes to the gods, the more tribute they generate, the more sacred they are and conversely, the more sacred they are the more tribute they generate. The majesty of the sacred is prostituted for profit. Religion itself is put up for sale. The sacred offers itself up for the highest bidder. You collect revenues from the temple grounds, from the entrance way, from the offertory, from the sacrifices. The divine itself is up for sale. Religion cannot be practiced free of charge. In the end the tax collectors are more bountifully recompensed than the priests themselves!
When it comes to your contempt, it was not a sufficient affront that you make the gods the objects of taxation. You were also pleased not just to withhold honor. Such honor as you do confer is debased by some form of outrage. Do you offer anything in their honor that you do not already confer upon your deceased in equal measure? You erect temples to your gods. You erect temples to your dead in equal measure. You build altars to your gods. The same for your dead. You confer the same titles on the gods as on dead. You raise statutes to them in the likeness of their talent, their occupation, or their age. Saturn appears as an old man; Apollo is clean-shaven; Diana is a virgin; Mars is a soldier and Vulcan is an iron smith. It is no wonder that you offer the same sacrifices to the divine and the dead and burn the same incense.
Who could excuse the outrage that you reckon any old dead person as equal to the gods? Indeed your kings are accorded the same sacred rites as the gods -- grand vehicles to transport their statutes, chariots, their likeness reclining on couches and chairs, wild beasts, and gladiatorial games. Of course since the heavens lie open to the kings, this is not without affront to the gods. First, it is indecent to reckon the kings as equal to the gods, as if it were granted to the kings to become gods upon their death. Second, any bystander who has seen a king received into the heavens would not explicitly and openly perjure himself before the people unless he had contempt both for his own oath and for those who permit him to lie.
Those who tell these lies have acknowledged that they are avowing nothing. Beyond that, they will pay off anyone who has openly scorned the penalties of perjury. In addition how many of you are free of perjury? Any danger from swearing by the gods has now vanished. There is now far greater religious fear in swearing by Cesar, which only serves to further diminish your gods. Punishment is more readily exacted for a false oath to Cesar than to Jove.
Between contempt and mockery, contempt is more honorable because it is embodies a certain edge of pride. It arises from confidence, a clear conscience, and a natural elevation of the spirit. Mockery is more insolent and adds the bite of outrage. Notice how much mockery you offer to your gods. I won't even mention your sacrifices. You slaughter whatever is weary and wasted. From your robust and healthy animals you offer up what is nutritionally worthless – the head, the hoofs, the feathers, and the yanked out bristles. Whatever you would toss into the garbage at home.
I shall say nothing of the disgusting gluttonous appetite that fed the religious practices of your ancestors. The fact is that the most learned and solemn of your ancestors -- assuming that solemnity and wisdom are the product of education -- were also the most irreverent toward the gods. Their literature never stopped proposing insulting, degrading, or false notions about the gods.
Let me start with your beloved poet. The more you honor him, the more you degrade your gods -- simply by exalting him who has made a mockery of your gods. I am referring of course to Homer, who has subordinated the majesty of the gods to the human condition. He inflicts upon them the faults and foibles of mankind. He depicts them in the various vicissitudes of gladiatorial combat. He wounds Venus with a human arrow. He detains Mars for thirteen months, perhaps to the very verge of death. He presents Jupiter almost expelled from heaven by a rowdy throng. Either he has Jupiter shedding tears over Sarpedon or presents him wantonly languishing for Juno. Homer further endorses Jupiter’s passion by enumerating his sexual conquests. Since that time, who of the poets has not followed of Homer’s lead in insulting the gods , either by falsifying the truth or by making up lies? The tragedians and the comic writers have been no less offensive, proclaiming the hardships and punishments inflicted upon a god.
Let me be silent about the philosophers. Proud of their solemnity and austere in their doctrine, they are opposed to the gods. They are free of all fear and are guided by intimations of truth. Just to show his contempt for the gods, Socrates would swear by an oak tree or a dog or a goat. Even though he had been condemned to death, the Athenians repented of their sentence and meted out the same punishment to his accusers. The testimony of Socrates was vindicated and I can now retort that the contempt for the gods that was endorsed by him is now forbidden to us. There is Diogenes, who hurled some insult at Hercules and there is Varro, a Roman version of Diogenes, who introduced 300 Jupiters, all of them headless.
There are many lewd talents who tickle your fancy by degrading the gods. Consider the charming sacrilege of Lentulus and Hostius. Is it the performers or the gods themselves that you laugh at in their verses and jokes? You attend stage performances with the greatest glee where every filth of the gods is on display. The grandeur of the gods is represented by a lascivious body. The likeness of some god adorns the midget head of a notorious actor. To your delight the Sun mourns the death of his own son Apollo, struck by lightning. Cybele pants for a squeamish shepherd and you don't even blush. And you put up with Jupiter’s jovial ditties.
When it comes to the gladiatorial shows, you are even more devout. Condemned criminals are dressed up as gods and then your gods dance about through the blood and gore as convicts act out the plots and fables. We have often seen a criminal dressed as your god Attis from Pessinum undergo public castration. And we have seen someone burned alive while dressed as Hercules. We have laughed over the midday games of your gods when Father Pluto, brother of Jove, hauls off the remains of the gladiators brandishing his hammer or when Mercury wearing his winged cap and carrying his staff with tip smoldering, prods the dead bodies to see whether they are just playing dead. Who could even keep track of all these instances when they are degrading the honor of the gods and desecrating their majesty? This is contempt for the gods both on the part of those who producee these shows and those who actually participate.
For this reason I don't know if your gods should complain more about you than about us. On the one hand you cringe before them and on the other hand you pay them off when you fall short. In the end, you are at entire liberty to act toward them as you please. We, however, avoid them entirely.
There had been a tradition of Christian reverence for the head of a donkey, and Tertullian treats it with levity in this chapter. Two earlier historians, Josephus and Tacitus, had reported that the Jewish people, when lost in the wilderness, were delivered from thirst by a pack of wild asses who led them to drinking water. As a consequence the Jews had attributed divinity to the head of an ass. This chapter makes frivolous play of the charge that the Christians, due to their kinship with the Jews, had also taken up the worship of the head of an ass.
As is often his practice, rather than refute the charge, Tertullian accuses the pagans of being even more egregious offenders. How can the pagans fault the Christians for worshiping the head of an ass, when the pagans worship all kinds of animals from head to tail?
In the next accusation we are found guilty not just of abandoning our communal faith, but of adding on a monstrosity of superstition. Some of you have entertained the dream that our god is actually the head of an ass. Cornelius Tacitus first launched this fantasy in the fourth book of his Histories where he recounts the Jewish war. Starting with the origins of the Jewish people, he traces the source of their religion and its name. He relates how the Jewish people, hard-pressed for water and wondering abroad in desolate places, were delivered by following the lead of a herd of wild asses thought to be in search of water after feeding. For this reason the likeness of this animal is worshiped by the Jew. This is why I believe that we Christians, being linked to the Jewish religion, are associated with the same image. But the same Cornelius Tacitus, a runaway liar, forgetful of his earlier statement, relates how Pompey the Great, after defeating the Jews and conquering the city of Jerusalem, entered the temple. After close inspection he found no image whatsoever. Where was this god of the theirs? There was no more likely place than this remarkable temple, closed to all except the priests and secure against any outsider.
But what defense do you want from me? I'm admitting now to an occasional transgression that applies equally well to you. Let us suppose that that there is something asinine about our God. You certainly will not deny that you conduct the same worship we do. You in fact worship the ass in its entirety, not just the head. And then you throw in Epona, the patron saint of donkeys and all the beasts of burden, cattle, and wild animals. You even worship their stables. Perhaps this is your charge against us that in the midst of all these indiscriminate animal lovers, we save our devotion for asses alone!
Here Tertullian addresses and the charge against the Christians that they worship the cross. By the time of Tertullian, the cross was a symbol of redemption, so he feels no need to refute the charge. The reader will discover in this chapter, as is often the case, that the pagans have more in common with the Christians than they realize.
Taking the cross as a prototype of all sacred pagan statuary of the pagans, Tertullian argues that whether they know it or not the pagans also worship a cross. Whatever the intended subject and whatever the intended final material, the artisan starts with a wooden cross. He then forms clay around the initial structure and finally consummates his work in bronze or marble. But whatever the outcome, the primal form was a wooden cross. As in Chapter VIII, where Tertullian takes on the charge that the Christians comprise a third species of humankind, he finds that the Christians are a temperate and pious instance of what is practiced by one and all.
He who calls us devotees of the cross shall be our fellow devotee. In its essence the cross is a wooden symbol. You also worship an image of wood, but for you that wood represents the human form, while for us the wood speaks for itself. Forget about the actual shape as long as the essence is wood; same for the form as long as the wood represents the form of a god. But if a distinction is to be made, what is the difference between a wooden cross on the one hand and a shapeless wooden strip representing Pallas Athena or Pharian Ceres on the other hand? Any piece of wood planted upright in the ground is part of a cross and indeed the larger part of a cross. But we Christians are credited with an entire cross complete with a transverse beam and a projecting seat.1 You are all the more to be condemned because you present a deformed and roughhewn chunk of wood while others consecrate a full and finished offering.
The fact of the matter is that in the end the fullness of your religion derives from the fullness of a cross, as I shall now show. You are not even aware of the fact that the very origins of your gods derive from the cross, this instrument of torment. Every image, whether it has been shaped from wood or stone, forged from brass or finished from some opulent substance -- its shape was imparted by manual craftsmanship. Those formative hands first shaped the wood in the figure of a cross. This is because the very structure of our body suggests the essential and primal outline of a cross. The head ascends to the peak, the spine stands upright, the shoulders traverse the spine. If you position a man with his arms outstretched, you shall have created the image of a cross.
With this cross as a starting point, the craftsman gradually fills out the limbs by laying on clay. By adding further layers of clay, he fills out the cross within to assume the body and posture of his original intention. Then through the further refinement of precise drawing instruments and body parts cast from lead, the artisan transforms the cross into the likeness of a god fashioned of marble or clay or bronze or silver or whatever material suits his purpose. From the cross to the clay; from the clay to the god. In a manner of speaking, the cross becomes a god through the medium of the clay. You therefore consecrate the cross from which your consecrated god derives its origin. Indeed from the pit of an olive, from the stone of a peach, from the grain of a pepper plant – once placed beneath the soil there emerges a full tree with branches and foliage true in every particular to its species. Now if you transplant it or start a new tree from a cutting, what would be the true origin of this transfer if not the selfsame pit, stone, or grain? The third stage derives from the second and the second derives from the first and so the third stage takes its origin from the first through the intermediary of the second.
There is no further need to deliberate on this matter since the law of nature ordains that every species derives its type from its source. To the extent that the type derives from its origin, to that extent the origin is in accord with the type. If then you worship the cross as the origin of your gods, this will be the primal seed and source from which your wooden images are engendered.
Now for some examples. You revere your victories as gods, and the more grand the occasion, the more joyous the festivities. To heighten the sanctity of the occasion, crosses are the very guts and innards on which to display the trophies you have won in combat. In this way the religion of warfare worships the cross in the ritual of victory. It adores these symbols, it swears vows by these symbols, it holds these symbols in higher regard than Jupiter himself. But this heap of images and this fetish for gold are no more than trinkets on your crosses. The same is true of the banners and flags that your soldiers guard with no less veneration. These are simply petticoats for the crosses. I suppose you are ashamed to worship a plain and unadorned cross.
1.The Romans would place a wooden ledge at waist level (sedile), not as a gesture of kindness, but to prolong life. It is generally agreed that death by crucifixion was due to suffocation. The victim suspended at the hands would soon lack the strength to lift the rib cage and inhale. Thus a small bench at waist level prolongs life.
Tertullian now turns to the pagan charge that the Christians worship the sun and conduct their main worship service on Sunday. Once again there are similar trends in pagan practice. The pagans who disapprove of deviating from one's own ways should acknowledge that in fact they have borrowed this inclination in favor of the Sabbath from the Jews. Pagans and Christians again stand under the same condemnation.
Others of kinder disposition imagine that the sun is the Christian god. They have observed that when we pray, we face to the east and we rejoice on the day of the sun. Do you do anything less than this? Do you not sometimes cause your lips to quiver toward the rising sun as an act of adoration? It is most definitely your preference to single out Sunday, the seventh day from the sequence, to refrain from bathing, at least until evening? This is also your designated day for leisure and festivity. By doing this you depart from your traditional practices in favor of alien religions. The Jewish festivals are the Sabbath and the feast of purification. And the Jews also have the rite of the lamps and of fasting with unleavened bread and prayers at the seashore -- all of which are alien to your gods. Now to return to our subject, you who deride us for sun worship and Sunday worship, see how close you are to us. We are not far removed from your Saturn and your Sabbath.
Although this chapter, like Chapter XI, deals with Jewish cult influence on early Christianity, Tertullian makes no connection. In that chapter he had defended the Christians against the charge that they worship the head of an ass. In this chapter he defends the Christians against the charge of venerating Onocoetes, a figure wearing donkey ears, clad in a toga, carrying a book, and wearing a hoof in place of the shoe on one foot. As with the earlier accusation, Tertullian does not deny the charge. He simply finds that the pagans commit the same offense and, as usual, to a greater degree.
There is now a new rumor about our God going the rounds. Recently a most depraved individual from Rome, your city, had defected from his own faith and allowed his skin to be shredded by wild beasts. Every day he would hire himself out for viewing while his skin was stripped. He would carry around a picture directed against us with the heading "Onocoetes," meaning Donkey Priest. It was a picture of a man wearing a toga and the ears of the donkey with a book in hand and one leg ending in a hoof. And the crowd believed this Jewish man. Who else plants the seed of our infamous reputation?1 As a result the whole city is talking about the Donkey Priest. Since this rumor has been around since yesterday, it lacks any authority of time and is compromised by the character of its author. I shall now gladly use it to refute your charges.
Let us have a look if you are caught up with us in the same folly. If the image we cherish is a freak, it doesn't really matter what kind of freak. You have gods with the head of a dog, the head a lion, the horns of a cow, a ram, or a horny-headed goat. You have goat-form gods, snake-form gods, gods with winged feet, not to mention wings growing out of the brow and out of the back. Many a donkey priest is lurking in your midst.
1. The early Christians saw the Jews as being resentful of the extent to which Christianity was appropriating the tenets and vocabulary of their faith.
This chapter again raises the charge of infanticide and, like Chapter VII on Rumor, this chapter does not take the charge seriously. Tertullian merely observes that the pagans have a grotesque and cruel record when it comes to infanticide. They kill their own children and do so by exposing them to the elements, to wild animals, and to drowning. This is done not as a ritual sacrifice but as a means of population control. The possibility of Christian culpability remains unexplored.
If we are running on a parallel track with you pagans in respect to our gods, it follows that there is no real difference in respect to sacrifices and rites. Let us now look at a comparison of a different kind. We conduct our services and initiations with infanticide. In case your recollection of human sacrifice and infanticide is fading, it will be refreshed when the time comes. Let us postpone the main part of this topic for the present lest we seem to be treating the same subject all over the place.
Meanwhile, as I have said, there is another area of correspondence between us. We may be infanticides in one sense of the term, but you are infanticides in a very different sense. You are indeed forbidden by law from slaughtering newborn infants, but there is no law that is defied with such impunity and with such abandon, so public publicly and with the legal sanction of all. But there is no real difference between us even if you do not kill infants as a sacred rite or with an iron blade. Your method is much more cruel because you expose the infants and kill them by frost, hunger, or wild beasts. Or you drown them by slow immersion in water. And if there is to be a further distinction between us, you can add the fact that you are exterminating your own beloved offspring. This aggravates and compounds whatever cruelty may be lacking on other grounds.
Moreover. we are said to dine on the victims of our sacrilege. While there is evidence of this in your practice, we can examine this charge at a more opportune time. We do have one thing in common with your savage appetite. If your vice is wantonness, then ours is cruelty, and we are joined by the law of nature which always ordains a common bond between wantonness and cruelty.
Is there any outrage that you commit less than us? In fact, what do not commit more than we do? Are human innards too small portion for you, you who devour full-grown living adults? Is it too small a portion for you to lap up human blood, you who draw out the blood of those yet to be born? Is dining on an infant too small, you who consume an entire infant as yet unborn?
We return now to the charge of incest and the egregious sinners are to be found among the pagans. Tertullian recounts the brazen delight that Macedonian men take in sexual congress with their mothers and tells of the somewhat rowdy reception that Oedipus receives when performed before a Macedonian audience. He then gives artful and loving attention to the recent scandal of a Roman boy of noble birth who strays from his home, is kidnapped, and returns to Rome and the slave market as a ripe adolescent. His father buys him and, not knowing his identity, uses him for sexual pleasure. The truth emerges and the story comes to a grim conclusion. These pagans are indeed incorrigible!
We have now come to the hour of the lamps, lamp-dowsing dogs, and the diversions of the dark. Here I am afraid I may have to concede the greater restraint to you. What equivalent mischief can I charge against you? Do give us credit for our "chaste incest plan". We have contrived a counterfeit night lest we contaminate the light of day or the true gloom of night. We have seen fit to spare the light of day and so beguile our conscience. Whatever we do, we are able to blame ourselves if we feel the need.
Your incestuous acts, on the other hand, are committed with entire immunity in the light of day, in the fullness of the night, with the vault of the sky as your witness. And the outcome is all the more enjoyable because your incest is committed out in the open with the whole heavens looking on. You alone you are unaware of what you were doing. We, however, do not deceive ourselves and hence can recognize our misdeeds, even in the dark shadows.
The Persians, as we know from the account of Ctesias, fool around with their mothers with the full awareness and no regrets. The Macedonians do the same thing openly and with unreserved approval. When Oedipus first entered the stage after putting out his eyes, they received him with jeers and sneers. The actor, drawing aside his mask in alarm said, "My lords, have I displeased you?"
"You have played your part beautifully," answered the Macedonians. "But either the author was a fool or Oedipus was demented to inflict such punishment on himself for mere incest." Then everyone said to the person next to him, "He lay with this mother!!"
Does one or another individual contaminate the whole world? But you are claiming that we have contaminated the sun itself and have polluted the whole ocean. Show me one nation that is free from those images that entice the entire human race toward incest. If there is a single nation that is not subject to the sexual realities of age and gender, not to mention lust and luxury, that nation will also be free of incest. If there is a state of nature that stands aloof from the human condition, driven neither by ignorance, nor error, nor hardship, that alone will be able to respond unshaken before the Christians.
Consider the wanton ways that are riding the crest between folly and the winds. Is there are people whom this broad and harsh current does not dash against the rocks of incest? In the first place, when you offer up your children to the mercy of others or for adoption in hope of obtaining better parents, you forget what an opportunity for incest opens up, what a window for disaster. Clearly there are those among you who are reserved and restrain your lust from adventures of this sort. Whether at home or out of town, there’s no reckless discharge of seed or lusty leap of exuberance to engender sons on unwitting recipients. Such progeny may then experience chance encounters in later life with their own parents or siblings. And then the restraint of maturity is powerless against the onslaught of lust. As often as there are adulteries or acts of debauchery or prostitution, whether at home or on the street, so many are the mixed strains of blood, so many are the joinings of family strains, and so many are the shortcuts to incest. It is from this stream that the plots of farces and low comedies flow forth. It was also from such a mess that the tragedy recently adjudicated by the prefect Fuscianus burst upon the city.
A young boy of noble birth had wandered away from his front door while his attendants were not watching. Enticed by some passersby, he slipped away from his home. He had a Greek tutor who had reared him from the outset and instructed him in the ways of pederasty. When the young boy came of age, he is brought back to Rome to enter the slave market. His father, unaware of who he is, buys him and uses him for sex. Then, after the boy had relations with the mistress of the family, the master sent him to the fields bound in chains. Both the tutor and the nurse had already been in the fields for some time undergoing punishment. The entire earlier course of events comes back to them and they recount the story of their departure. The tutor and nurse tell how their charge had died as a child, and young man tells how his boyhood had been cut short. From this point, the stories converge. The young man had been born in Rome of a noble home. Perhaps he dropped some further hints.
And so it happened by the will of God that such a dreadful curse has fallen upon this age. All three of them are shaken in spirit on this day. The passage of time that matches his age. There is something familiar about his glance and his profile. Some characteristic marks on his body catch their attention. His owners, now clearly his parents, launch a long overdue inquiry. The slave dealer is interrogated -- unfortunately they were able to find him. Once the crime is fully disclosed, the parents seek relief by hanging themselves. The prefect assigns their worldly goods to their son, a wretched survivor, not as an inheritance but as restitution for sexual defilement and incest.
This one incident was a sufficient example to expose the kind of outrage that lurks in your midst. Nothing occurs just once among the affairs of man, but for an incident like this, it is enough to bring it to light just once. I believe you are looking around for such scandals in the sacraments of our religion and yet there are equal outrages in your lives, quite apart from your religious practices.
The failure of the Christians to swear by the divinity of the Emperor was a serious charge which could be construed as treason. And the Christians, in their belief in Christ as Lord, would often choose death rather than swear an oath to the divinity of Caesar. It emerges, of course, that the pagans are even more rebellious toward the emperors than the Christians, who have no history of revolt against Roman rule. He concludes this chapter with a witty turn of thought. To call Cesar God is to call him what he is not. Anyway he would no doubt prefer to be alive to being a god.
Even in your complaints about our contemptuous resistance, there are points of similarity between us. Our first act of contempt is toward the majesty of the Caesars, who are second only to the gods. We are deemed blasphemous toward the Caesars because we neither worship their images nor do we swear by their divine spirit. We are defamed as enemies of the people. Well, so be it. First realize that the Caesars name themselves after the enemies they have defeated in battle. There is Parthenicus, Medicus, and Germanicus. By using this nomenclature the Romans name their emperor after the unconquered and far-flung nations of the world.
You also say against us, "The pagans and the Christians are of the same stock and yet you conspire against us." We acknowledge the Roman fealty to the Caesars. Indeed never has a conspiracy from us broken out against the Caesars. No staining of the Caesars blood has ever defiled us, not in the Senate, not in the palace. Never have we usurped Roman sovereignty in the provinces.
The air in Syria is still heavy with the stench of cadavers. The Gauls still refuse to bathe in the Rhône. I shall say nothing of your charge that we are insane since that does not contaminate the name of Rome. I shall, however, mention your charge of our boastful irreverence and I shall take note of the irreverence of your native-born proletariat and the outrageous handbills stuck to the statues, the insolent outcry at public assemblies, the curses that resound throughout the circuses. Even if you are not rebels in arms, you are always revolting in your speech.
But to refuse to swear by the divinity of Caesar is something else again. Even in the matter of perjury, you are open to suspicion since you do not even swear by your own gods with the conviction of faith. We do not say that the emperor is God. When it comes to this, we just make a monkey face as they say on the street. The fact is that those of you who call the emperor "god" are mocking him by calling him what he is not. And you are invoking bad luck because he has no wish to be what you are calling him. He would rather be counted among the living than become a god.
The Christians were famous and much admired for their unswerving fortitude in the face of death. Although the pagans had many instances of heroic resistance in their history, they would accuse the Christians of stubbornness. Tertullian proceeds to cite outstanding instances of pagan heroism in the face of death. The problem here is really one of contradictory terminology. What the pagans hold to be glorious in their own practices they condemn as vanity and stubbornness in the case of a Christian.
Your remaining charge of contempt states that thanks to our austerity and our defiance of death, we gladly embrace the sword, the cross, wild beasts, fire, and torture. The fact is, however, that your forbearers and ancestors not only accepted such torments, but thanks to their courage, they learned to appreciate them with great praise. How many swords were there and how many willing victims? And what a pain to keep count! Your Regulus gladly introduced crucifixion as the novel instrument of numerous unreported deaths. And then there was the queen of Egypt who did herself in with her personal snake. Inspired by the example of Dido, the Carthaginian wife of Hasdrubal, stronger than her husband in the death throes of their country, chose death by marching into a fire. Consider that Athenian woman who defied the tyrant and stood up to his torture. Lest her body and her gender fail her, she bit off her tongue and spat it out – the instrument of confession now uprooted. You credit such acts to your glory but discredit them to our stubbornness. Abolish the glory of your ancestors so that you may abolish our glory with the same reasoning. Be content to diminish the praise of your ancestors lest you confer praise on us for the same achievements.
Perhaps the demands of a more rigorous age required more rigorous character. But now, thanks to the tranquility of a peaceful age, character is more gentle and the minds of men are more compassionate, even toward strangers.
"Fine," you will say, "compare yourselves to the days of old. We still have to pursue you with hatred because of qualities we neither esteem nor possess." Respond then to these specific points. Do I not find the same behaviors in you? If the sword has given rise to stories about contempt for death, is it not out of love for life that you commit yourselves to gladiatorial trainers, sword in hand. Nor do you enlist in the military out of fear of death. Even if some woman once experienced an illustrious death from a wild beast, you do not run off to offer your selves to wild animals, day after day and in this season of peace. Even if no next new Regulus has offered himself to a cross as the instrument of affixing his body, it was contempt for fire that recently compelled someone to hire himself out to proceed to a predetermined place clad in a flaming tunic. If a woman once danced to lashes from a whip, the same feat was recently performed by someone who recently paced out a fixed course through circus hunters under blows from a whip. No need to mention here the Spartan whipping spectacle.
Here Tertullian takes up what is probably the most treasured article of his Christian faith: the resurrection of the dead. Now he has no hesitancy with being both assertive and obstinate. Ultimately the vicissitudes of this world cannot touch the Christian because he will enjoy eternal blessedness when he departs this world. Once again the possible folly of Christian belief retreats before the manifest absurdity of pagan beliefs about the afterlife. While the pagans believe in the resurrection of the dead, it takes the form of metempsychosis. Upon their death, the souls of humans return to bodies, not as eternally blessed humans but as dogs, mules, or peacocks. This is laughable, and if true, it is appalling. Like the Christians. the pagans do have a heaven and hell, namely Hades and Elysium. In the end the pagan is left with the confusing and unattractive possibility that the soul of the deceased evildoer might spend eternity in Hades as a peacock.
I believe we are now at the end of your chilling account of Christian contempt. If we have this contempt in common with you pagans, now it remains only that we compare the ridiculous aspects of our respective convictions. All of our contempt is well fortified by our convictions, for we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Our hope of resurrection is in fact our disdain for death. Laugh as much as you wish at our "misguided" minds that die only that they may live. While you are at it, laugh on without restraint and mock with abandon and then take a sponge or even your tongue to blot out the letters where you assert, somewhat as we do, that souls return to bodies. But how much more attractive is our belief, which affirms that the soul returns to the same body! And how much more empty-headed is your tradition to affirm that the human soul takes up residence in the body of a dog or a mule or a peacock.
In the same vein we declare that after death, a judgment is ordained for each man according to his merits. You assign the same judgment to Minos or Rhadamanthos, while rejecting Aristides, a far more just man. This judgment will condemn the wicked to pass eternity in everlasting fire, while the pious and the innocent will proceed to a joyous place. According to you the conditions in Hades and in the Elysium are comparable to hell and to heaven. Not only do myths and poetry give this account; the philosophers also confirm the round-trip journey of the soul and the judgment of reward or punishment.
This concluding chapter is a classic peroration in the sense that it touches on the main themes of the work and seeks to draw them together into a unified whole. Christians and pagans should extend to each other the hand of friendship, both because they are deeply and inherently similar and because the pagans will correct their errors once they understand that they are in fact even more guilty of the so-called Christian vices than the Christians themselves. Tertullian concludes on a note of enlightened hope. If the pagans could just recognize the actual distribution of truth and error between pagans and Christians, they would change their ways and become Christians.
O unjust pagans, how long will you refuse to acknowledge your own merits? In fact how long will you continue to disparage them? There is no real difference between us. We are one and the same. Since you in fact cannot hate what you are, then extend your right hand to us, join kisses with kisses, hold us in your embrace, the bloody with the bloody, the incestuous with the incestuous, the conspirators with the conspirators, the contemptuous and the vacant together with their own kind. We have been partners in insulting the gods; we have been partners in provoking their anger.
You too have in your midst a third gender -- not so much a third religious persuasion -- but a third sex.1 They are well suited for both male pleasure and for female pleasure, endowed with male and female aptitudes. Do we offend you with this particular shared affinity? Equality lends force to envy. Thus the potter envies the potter and the craftsman envies the craftsman.
But let us put an end now to this make-believe confession. The power of conscience restores the truth and the fixity of the truth. The fact is that all of these charges are true of you alone, and they are refuted by us alone. They are launched against us, but when we present an opposing view, your thinking is enlightened, your deliberations are informed, and your judgment is guided. It is your conviction that we should never judge an issue without hearing both sides -- the principle that you overlook in the instance of us Christians.
You succumb to a defect in your nature, namely that you condemn in others the very vices that you fail to correct in your selves. You have faults of which you know you are guilty, and yet you charge them against others. Your stance in life is chaste on the outside and unchaste on the inside. In public you are outspoken about virtue but in private you succumb to vice.
The outrage is that knowing the truth, we are judged by those who do not know the truth and, free of offense, we are judged by those who are guilty. Remove the beam from your own eye so that you may remove the mote from your neighbor's eye. First correct yourselves so that you may punish the Christians. In fact if you do correct yourselves, you will cease to punish the Christians. Indeed you will be Christians and if you become Christians, you will have transformed yourselves. Learn what you faulted in us and you will cease to find fault. Discover what it is you fail to fault in yourselves and you will find fault.
With these few observations I have offered as far as I can an analysis of your error and a window on the truth. Reject the truth if you can do so after examining it. And then persist in your errors – even if you think you have understood them. But if your chosen path is to love error and to hate the truth, then why not fully acquaint yourself with what you love and with what you hate?
1. This refers to eunuchs.
Greek text in unicode.
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