Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Tertullian, Ad Martyres, chapter 1: support from the sideline for those facing death.

Quite some years ago I read with a friend of mine writings by Tertullian. She was working on het PhD on church history and needed help with Latin. I duly translated and annotated some texts and one of these is Ad Martyres, of which I give chapter 1. Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus 160-225) was a Christian writer living at Carthage.  He was the first who wrote about theological issues in Latin in any quantity and much ecclesiastical Latin is coined by him.
His treatises give a fascinating insight into North African Christianity and the 31 surviving texts are not only important for historians of theology but also for historians of the later Roman Empire as they give glimpses of daily life and customs of an area not well attested in literature  around 200. Tertullian was a polemic writer, warning strongly against Christian maidens walking unveiled (De virginis velandis), using makeup (De cultu feminarum) and against public shows and performances (De spectaculis). He must have had a difficult and irascible character – not uncommon amongst theologians (and not only ancient) - and turned away from mainstream Christianity to the sect of the Montanists, Pentecostals avant la lettre, who did not recognize the authority of priests and bishops and allowed women to preach. One reason could be that Tertullian was probably a layman himself and maybe he found is superior intellect colliding with people in power, but less gifted. However, this is speculation on my part.
His Ad Martyres is a consolation for Christians taken into custody during the persecution under Severus around 202. He uses the word martyr for those who had to testify their faith and not justfor those already martyred. It is a short treatise consisting of 4 chapters and apart from spiritual consolation it is also a warning against dissent amongst those facing martyrdom: in the face of a certain death some were willing to give up their faith.
The first chapter is not that loaded with theological language and quotes from Scripture. What makes this chapter interesting is the mentality it reflects: vivid imaginary of the Devil and reverence for martyrs. This is especially clear in the last sentence, in which the martyrs are assigned the power to forgive those Christians who have elapsed from their faith and now repent that. In mainstream Christianity only priests and bishops could do that, but in more sectarian circles and doubtlessly too in the vision of many common Christians, martyrs to be stood nearer to God than the clergy and had therefor special powers. The tombs of martyrs, especially in North Africa, became holy sites and had special powers. The nearer one was buried to those graves, the closer to God and the more chance for a place in heaven. More magical thinking than firm belief!

Tertulliani ad martyres. c.1

I. [1] Inter carnis alimenta, benedicti martyres designati, quae vobis et domina mater ecclesia de uberibus suis et singuli fratres de opibus suis propriis in carcerem subministrant, capite aliquid et a nobis quod faciat ad spiritum quoque educandum. Carnem enim saginari et spiritum esurire non prodest. Immo, si quod infirmum est curatur, aeque quod infirmius est neglegi non debet

designati: martyrs were seen as chosen by God.
domina mater ecclesia: the first time the church is described as `mother’.
caro: Tertullian contrasts  caro and spiritus. The flesh, being part of this world is negatively valued.
singuli fratres: Prisoners had to be sustained by their family and friends and Christians who were rich enough supported those in prison.
sagino: to fatten
esurio: to be hungry
infirmius: the spirit is weaker than the flesh and Tertullian knew very well that at least some would  in the face of death give up their faith.

[2] Nec tantus ego sum, ut vos alloquar; verumtamen et gladiatores perfectissimos non tantum magistri et praepositi sui, sed etiam idiotae et supervacui quique adhortantur de longinquo, ut saepe de ipso populo dictata suggesta profuerint.

praepositus: leader
idiotae et supervacui: common and worthless people
de longinquo: from a distance (The whole passage gives a good picture of what was happening  at a gladiator contest: people shouting to their favourite gladiator.)

[3] Inprimis ergo, benedicti, «nolite contristare Spiritum sanctum», qui vobiscum introiit carcerem. Si enim non vobiscum nunc introisset, nec vos illic hodie fuissetis. Et ideo date operam ut illic vobiscum perseveret et ita vos inde perducat ad Dominum.

nolite contristare Spiritum sanctum: Eph. 4,10
contristo: to sadden

[4] Domus quidem diaboli est et carcer, in qua familiam suam continet. Sed vos ideo in carcerem pervenistis, ut illum etiam in domo sua conculcetis. Iam enim foris congressi conculcaveratis.

Domus quidem diaboli est et carcer: the prison is also the house of the devil as especially here there was the last temptation for Christians to give up their faith.
familiam suam: those Christians who gave up their faith
conculco (conculcare): to trample down
foris: outside prison

[5] Non ergo dicat: «In meo sunt, temptabo illos vilibus odiis, defectionibus, aut inter se dissensionibus.» Fugiat conspectum vestrum, et in ima sua delitescat contractus et torpens, tamquam coluber excantatus aut effumigatus. Nec illi tam bene sit in suo regno, ut vos committat, sed inveniat munitos et concordia armatos: quia pax vestra bellum est illi.

ima sua: i.e. the depth of hell
delitesco: to hide away
torpeo: to be stiff
coluber colubri (m.): snake
excantatus aut effumigatus: snakes were driven away by using charms or smoke.
committo:  to bring together for a fight

[6] Quam pacem quidam in ecclesia non habentes a martyribus in carcere exorare consueverunt. Et ideo eam etiam propterea in vobis habere et fovere et custodire debetis, ut, si forte, et aliis praestare possitis.

quam pacem: i.e. admission to the liturgy and the rituals of the church
eam (pacem)

Translation T. Herbert BINDLEY, The Epistle of the Gallican Churches : Lugdunum and Vienna - with an appendix containing Tertullian's Address to Martyrs and The Passion of St. Perpetua.  Translated with introduction and notes.  SPCK, London (1900) pp. 51-61

I. Amongst the provisions for the body which not only our lady mother, the Church, from her own bosom, but also individual brethren from their own private resources supply to you in your prison, blessed martyrs1 designate, accept something from me too, |p52 which may serve to nourish your spirit also. For it is not well for the body to be filled and for the spirit to hunger. Surely if that which is weak receives attention, that which is weaker ought still less to be neglected. Not that I have any claims to address you; yet to the most skilled gladiators, not only experts and their own trainers give advice, but even non-professionals and any chance onlookers from outside the ring, so that hints suggested from the very crowd have often proved profitable.

First of all, then, blessed ones, grieve not the Holy Spirit (Eph. iv. 30) Who hath entered with you into the prison. For if He had not entered in with you, you yourselves would not be there to-day. Therefore give heed that He may remain there with you, and so may He lead you thence to the Lord.
The prison is also the devil’s house wherein he keepeth his own family. But ye have come into the prison to trample on him in his own house. For already have ye trampled on him, having engaged with him outside. Let him not then say, “They are in my house; I will tempt them with petty quarrels, failings, and mutual strifes.” Let him fly from your sight and skulk away into his own abyss, coiled up and torpid like a charmed or out-smoked snake. Nor let him so prosper in his own kingdom as to set you at variance, but let him find you fortified and armed with concord; because your peace is war to him. And this “peace” some in the Church having lost, have been wont to entreat from martyrs in prison.2Wherefore also on this account you ought to have it in yourselves, and to cherish it and guard it, so that you may be able to give it, it may be, to others also.

A site with all extent works in Latin and translation:

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