De carne Christi
(On the flesh of Christ)

[CPL 18]

Latin: Evans, 1956 --- English: Holmes, 1870; Evans, 1956 --- French: Charpentier, 1844; Genoude, 1852 --- German: Kellner, 1882 
--- Russian: Unknown

Summary Content Other points of interest Manuscripts Title variations Bibliography


A polemical work against the Gnostic docetism of Marcion, Apelles, Valentinus and Alexander. He proves that the body of Christ was a real human body, taken from the virginal body of Mary, but not by way of human procreation. 




The top-level structure of the work is as follows (from Mahé's edition).

1. Exordium (c. 1:1-2).   

2. An est? Response of Tertullian: est (cc. 1:2-5:10). 

3. Unde est? Response of Tertullian: e terra (cc.6-9) 

4. Cuiusmodi est? Response of Tertullian: humana (cc.10-23) 

One portion of special interest, because of the frequent mis-citation of De Carne Christi 5: 4, is point 2.2, broken by Mahé as follows:

In 2.2, the objections of the other side are considered: 

1. Is the incarnation impossible for God? (3:1-3). Answer: nothing is impossible for God (1). But God would certainly not pretend to be born when he was not (2-3).

2. Is the incarnation not dangerous for God (3:4-6). If God was really changed into a man, objects the heretic, he would cease to be God (4-5). Answer: not at all. Unlike those he made, God can become anything while remaining himself (5-6). 

The answer to these two objections is illustrated by the example of the angels of the OT, and the cloud that descended at the baptism of Jesus. That which is possible for these higher creatures is certainly possible for their creator (3:6-9) 

3. If the incarnation isn't impossible, or dangerous, is not nevertheless unworthy of the dignity of God? (4:1-5:5) 

Tertullian admits that it is unworthy/shameful in the eyes of the world, but he justifies this shame. 

a. The incarnation is an act of love which voluntarily ignores worldly wisdom (c.4); the hate of Marcion for the flesh implies hate of himself and humanity; contrariwise, the love of Christ for man implies acceptance of his flesh without which man cannot exist (4:1-4). Christ could have taken the form of a beast to preach the true wisdom and 'chose the foolish things of the world to shame the things that are wise' (Phil.2:8) -- the choice of 'foolish' flesh is part of his conscious rejection of conventional wisdom. 

b. Without true incarnation, there can be no true redemption (5:1-5). Logically, the heretic should have suppressed both the passion and resurrection in his gospel (5:1-3). God must have flesh, in order to have a real death and real resurrection (5:3-5).  


Tertullian is best known by a famous misquotation from ch. 5, verse 4: 'credo quia absurdum' -- 'I believe because it is absurd.'  The usual implication is that Tertullian believed in Christianity because it was absurd.  Tertullian thought nothing of the kind: see the quotes page for a passage on reason from De Paenitentia 1,2.  See also the articles by Moffat and Sider, online below.  The real quote, followed by a personal opinion on the meaning:

Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est.
Et mortuus est dei filius; credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est.
Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile.

The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed--because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible--because it is silly. 
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain--because it is impossible.  (Evans translation).

"The argument is whether or not it is real, or whether Christ was really just a phantasm. This latter view is justified by its author (Marcion) as being less impossible, dangerous or shameful. The context is not about 'reason', but 'wisdom', meaning worldly wisdom or convention, not logic.   

"The set of three phrases -- God was crucified, but I'm not ashamed, precisely because it's shameful; God died, but it's not silly, precisely because its silly; God rose again, and it is certain because it's impossible -- starts from this idea of shame and the violation conventional expectations, and runs away from there. This means we have to ask whether all three phrases are not just saying the same thing in different words.  

"If we say not, we must ask whether Tertullian is really introducing suddenly, for three words, a whole new idea proper to a quite different audience -- Moffat's a 'sudden intrusion of anti-rationalism' -- rather than summarising what went before? I wonder a bit whether we are misleading ourselves with 'impossibile' thinking in terms of physical impossibility rather than moral impossibility, as under discussion beforehand? 

"The popular understanding of this phrase means we have three words related neither to the chapter before or after. That cannot be right. Both sides belong to the faith side, in fact. The argument as such is scriptural, as between two people disagreeing on a point of Christian belief, not as between believer and unbeliever. Indeed the non-Christian holds views considerably less 'rational' to a modern perspective, than otherwise -- that Christ was some form of semi-physical ghost, not a man, although he looked like one. So no argument for whether or not the resurrection happened, per se, is to be expected. Still less is any discussion of the truth of the Christian religion part of this, except as regards the argument with Marcion." (Roger Pearse)  

Other interesting notes:


The work is present in three different collections of the works of Tertullian.

1.  It is contained in the members of the Cluny collection. (q.v.).  The primary witnesses, therefore, are:

Possibly also to be considered are:

which may or may not have some independent witness.  Many consider them simply copies of F, however.

2. It is contained in the 9th century Codex Agobardinus (A) or Parisinus Latinus 1622.   However the manuscript is damaged, and the leaves at the back have been lost.  The text ends in De Carne Christi, chapter 10.

3. It is contained in the 12th century Codex Trecensis 523 (T).


Florentinus Magliebechianus, Conventi soppressi VI, 9 (N)
Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani Incipit lib De carne christi Florentinus Magliebechianus, Conventi soppressi VI, 10 (F)
DE CARNE XPI EXPLICIT No title in Montepessulanus H 54(M), but as shown at the end.

Note: The MSS have the overscore above the letter, but you need a modern browser (N4/IE4+) to see it. It signifies an abbreviation. Note the way that the Greek letter form of CHRI is represented. Dno = domino, DNI = DOMINI


Unless otherwise indicated, details are from Quasten's Patrology, 2 (1955). See also Editions page and Critical Editions page for more information.

[Note: I need to add some biblio, from l'Annee Phil. for the years 1954-1974 and from CTC after that].


F. OEHLER, Tertulliani Opera quae supersunt. vol. 2 (1851-3). 423-464. Checked. (Personal copy)
A. KROYMANN, CSEL 70 (1942) 189-250. Checked. (Personal copy).
A. KROYMANN, CCSL 2 (1954), 871-918. Checked. (Personal copy). Reprint.
E. EVANS, Tertullian's treatise on the Incarnation (1956). Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani De carne Christi liber. Tertullian's treatise on the Incarnation. The text edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary, by Ernest Evans.. pp. xliii. 197. S.P.C.K.: London, 1956. 8o. Checked. (Personal copy).  Lots now online.
J.-P. MAHÉ, La Chair du Christ. Sources Chrétiennes 216 (Commentary SC 217). Paris (1975). Checked. (Personal copies). pp.309 & 477.


English: P. HOLMES, ANCL 15 (1870) pp.163-214; reprinted ANF 3 (1885), pp. 521-542.  Online.  Checked.
-- E. EVANS, Tertullian's treatise on the Incarnation (1956). Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani De carne Christi liber. Tertullian's treatise on the Incarnation. The text edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary, by Ernest Evans.. pp. xliii. 197. S.P.C.K.: London, 1956. 8o. Checked. (Personal copy).  Online complete.
French: L. GIRY, De la Chair de Jésus-Christ, et de la Résurrection de la chair, Publisher : Paris : Pierre Le Petit (1661). Description : pièces limin., 475 p. et la table ; 12°. Notes : De la traduction de Louis Giry.(Details from the Montpellier library catalogue)
-- M. CHARPENTIER, Oeuvres de Tertullien: Apologétique. Prescriptions contre les gentils. Du Baptême. De l'Ornement des femmes. [Contre les spectacles. De la Patience. De la Couronne du soldat. Contre Marcion, extrait. De la Chair de Jésus-Christ. De la Résurrection de la chair. Aux nations. - listed in table of contents but not on title page] Paris : Ed. M. Charpentier, 1844. 12o, III-504 p.  Another title page has the address:"A. Delahays, 1845". "Oeuvres de Tertullien traduites en français" Checked (Details from BNF catalogue and personal copy).  De Carne Christi is pp.281-325.  Online.
-- A. DE GENOUDE, De la Chair de Jésus-Christ. Oeuvres de Tertullien2, Paris (1852). t. 1. pp.389-433.
-- J.-P. MAHÉ, loc. cit., 1975.
German: H. KELLNER, Von der menschlichen Leibe Christi, Ausgewählte Schriften des Septimius Tertullianus, Bibliothek der Kirchenväter1, 2 vols. (1870/2). vol. 2, p.155-218. Checked.  (Personal copy).  Not in the BKV2. Printed in a horrid gothic typeface.
H. KELLNER, Über den Leib Christi. Tertullians sämtliche Schriften, Köln : DuMont-Schauberg, (1882). Vol. 2. pp.378-416.  Online.
Dutch: H. U. MEYBOOM, Over het lichaam van Christus (Oudchristel. geschriften, dl. 45). Leiden, 1930.
Italian: C. MORESCHINI, Opere scelte di Quinto Settimo Florente Tertulliano. (Classici UTET). Turin, 1974. (Details from CTC 99, 5).
Claudio MORESCHINI / Luigi RUSCA, Apologia del cristianesimo, La carne di Cristo; introduction and notes by Claudio Moreschini; translation Luigi Rusca [Apologia del cristianesimo] ; introduction and notes by Claudio Micaelli [La carne di Cristo], Milano, Biblioteca universale Rizzoli, 1984, 461 p. ; 18 cm. III edition, 2000. (Details by Dr. Andrea Nicolotti)
Hungarian: László VANYÓ &c, Tertullianus muvei (The works of Tertullian), Budapest: Szent István Társulat (1986) 1100pp. (Ókeresztény frók 12). (Details CTC 2002.75).  The older translations of István Városi (Pat, Apol, Orat, Ux, Cult) and Marcell Mosolygó (Mart) have been recycled; the rest are new.


[None listed in Quasten.  Extensive notes in Oehler, and in Evans; MAHÉ's edition has very complete details]

James MOFFATT, Aristotle and Tertullian, Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1915- 16) 170-71.
R.D. SIDER, Credo quia absurdum?, Classical World, 73 (1980) pp.417-9.

This page has been online since 11th December 1999. 

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