The Tertullian Project
July 15, 2008 9:58 PM   Subscribe

If the Tiber rises so high it floods the walls, or the Nile so low it doesn't flood the fields, if the earth opens, or the heavens don't, if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl goes up, "The Christians to the lion!" What, all of them? To a single lion? So wrote Tertullian. In the huge intellectual project that was the foundation of the Christian Church he was the great wit, most powerful rhetor and finest writer. Starting out as a pagan delighting in adultery and gladiator combat he became a great champion of martyrdom, defender of Christianity against its malefactors and heretics. His most famous contribution to our culture is undoubtedly the doctrine of the trinity. Towards the end of his life he threw his lot with a small group of hardcore ascetics called Montanists and was denounced as a heretic. Ending his life among the defeated of ecclesiastical history he was forgotten for a millennium until rediscovered during the Renaissance. The Tertullian Project collects all his extant writing and information about his lost texts as well as biographical information, selected quotations and much more.
posted by Kattullus (14 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
To me Tertullian is the most fascinating character in early Christianity. His turns of phrase resonate still. He seems to have more in common with Juvenal than Saints Jerome or Augustine.
posted by Kattullus at 10:07 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by absalom at 10:28 PM on July 15, 2008

Outstanding post Kattullus.

He was born a member of the educated classes, and clearly gained a good education. Life in his times wasn't very different in some ways to the modern day - he indulged his passions as he saw fit, including sex, and like everyone else attended the games where gladiators killed each other and criminals were eaten alive, for the enjoyment of the spectators.

But among the sights he saw, was that of Christians being executed this way. He was struck with the courage with which stupid and contemptible slave men and little slave girls faced a hideous death, against all nature; and after investigating, became a Christian himself...

And then there was that vendor at the stadium selling Big Gulp Kool Aid.
posted by three blind mice at 10:51 PM on July 15, 2008

Credo quae absurdo.

Also, if you really want to have your mind blown, look into the ideas of another of the early theologians who didn't fare so well immediately after his time, but has been recognized by posterity, Origen. His ideas were heavily Neoplatonic, and, denying literal resurrection, taught a transmigration of the soul as the method of achieving union with the divine. Trippy!
posted by eclectist at 12:15 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Did he actually exist, or is he another one of these fantasy early Christian writers who were made up by the apologists in the middle ages? I can't even be sure anymore.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 2:01 AM on July 16, 2008

3BM: It's actually a pretty valid point. I enjoy pointing out to my class how much the violent oppression of Christians actually *helped* spread the Christian faith in its earliest days, rather than disuade people from joining up.

For starters, Ancient Rome was no stranger to oddball sects and mystery cults, nor were they stupid - when Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire in Rome, most people still thought Nero was responsible and just scapegoating. Finally, what was the two virtues most respected by Romans? Stoicism and bravery. Those who were thrown to the wolves tended to approach their fate with the dignity of someone who truly believes there's something on the other side. No running, no cowering, just standing there accepting. To many spectators, no action could be more Roman.
posted by absalom at 2:15 AM on July 16, 2008

The thing we must not do to an emperor, we must not do to any one else.

Here is the prescription for all courtesy.
posted by Faze at 3:26 AM on July 16, 2008

oddball sects and mystery cults

I've flipped through cable channels before and stumbled on Pat Robertson gushing about what a great guy Tertullian was. Plus ├ža change, and all that.

Books like this reminded me that the shift from traditional religion to Christianity was a slow process--Jesus was roughly as far removed from Constantine in time as Johann Sebastian Bach is from us today. There's also a suggestion in there that persecutions weren't that important in the shift.

There's also the suggestion here (Amazon link again, compare arguments in the many reviews) that Christianity didn't really "take off" in the Empire until there were social and financial incentives to belonging to an official church.

The meme of Christians and lions and martyrdom helping the church--although starting from actual incidents--may have ended up having more to do with propaganda and pamphleteering than with conversions in the stadium seating. Worth remembering too, that when people like Decius in the mid-200s set to persecuting Christians, it was as a political ploy in volatile times, not because he had some foresight of "ohmigod they're going to take over", we only get that hindsight from our perspective.

The story I remember was that the Montanists shut themselves up in churches and burned themselves alive to escape prosecution. That story may or may not be valid, it seems to come from Procopius originally. I'd really hate to draw too much of a parallel with the Branch Davidians, because that could feel like "taking a side"--but if it feels uncomfortable, maybe that's an example of how the pictures we put into history resonate. (There are also suggestions that Montanists kept going as a small sect well after they supposedly burned themselves up.)

Did he actually exist From the main post you can get a list of references to him by other ancient authors.
posted by gimonca at 5:38 AM on July 16, 2008

All I know about Tertullian I learned in Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Endymion books.

Similarly, I can regale you on my amazing knowledge of Isaac Newton, courtesy of a Mr. Neal Stephenson.
posted by thanotopsis at 6:34 AM on July 16, 2008

gimonca: you're absolutely right, but you seem to be saying that the plebian respect given to Romans due to their stoic behavior under persecution and the mainstreaming of Christianity after it became official are somehow at odds, rather than being two aspects of the same, four century long story. I mean, I could be gross inference on my part.
posted by absalom at 6:38 AM on July 16, 2008

Henry C. Mabuse Nope, there a large amount of evidence that Tertullian actually existed. Most of the likely-to-be-not-real writers were from earlier eras, the most famous being Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Biblical scholars are roughly evenly divided about Luke, and all but certain that none of the rest wrote their eponymous gospels even if we assume they really existed. Peter is one of the few Biblical "authors" historians are certain really did exist, and really did write what is attributed to him. While there's some minor evidence to suggest that Luke was a conglomerate or amalgamation its much more likely that he did exist even if its also quite debatable whether or not he wrote the Gospel of Luke.

Tertullian was one of the formative thinkers in early Christianity, for all that he isn't canonized and was later partially repudiated. We spent quite a while reading his works, and reading what others had done with his works, in my history of Christianity class. I found his writing to have survived translation and aging quite well, he's readable and interesting.
posted by sotonohito at 8:13 AM on July 16, 2008

Nice site. There should be more of these.
posted by ersatz at 8:38 AM on July 16, 2008

Excellent site, Latin texts and everything. And inspirational: I'm going to feed you all to the lions.
posted by languagehat at 6:16 PM on July 16, 2008

Two aspects of the same story, fair enough.
posted by gimonca at 7:13 PM on July 16, 2008

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