Strange Triangle: Tertullian, Perpetua, Thecla

  • Maud Burnett McInerney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The encounter Tertullian describes at the beginning of his treatise Against the Jews1 gives us a vivid glimpse of public life at Carthage at the beginning of the third century. Built upon the rubble of Rome’s greatest enemy, Carthage was a city founded upon contradiction and controversy, standing in Africa but looking toward Rome, like its legendary queen, Dido. It was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the Empire, home to people from three continents who spoke half a dozen languages and espoused an improbable variety of ideologies. If you were to walk across one of its public spaces of an afternoon, you might find yourself engaged in conversation or argument with a Stoic or Epicurean philosopher, a follower of Isis, a Rabbi, a Christian who believed in the divinity of the son of God and another who did not, or a Gnostic preaching the worship of the snake from the garden of Eden. There is no way of knowing whether Tertullian’s encounter with the “Jewish proselyte” was due to chance, whether it had been set up to allow the speakers to demonstrate their rhetorical skills, or even whether it actually took place, but when Tertullian depicts the long North African afternoon fading into evening as the crowd acclaims his opponent, he brings us as close as we are likely to get to the intellectual ambience of his place and time. Carthage was an energetic and volatile city, and oratory was one of its favorite spectator sports; public disputation could draw a crowd, could make or break a reputation.


Male Virgin Public Speech Late Antiquity Public Disputation Rhetorical Skill 
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  1. 1.
    References to Tertullian are to these editions, abbreviated as follows. Against the Jews: Adversus Judaeos, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1954); On the Soul: De Anima, ed. and Italian trans. Martino Menghi (Venice: Marsilio, 1988); On Baptism: Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism, ed. Ernest Evans (London: S.P.C.K., 1964); Against Heretics: Traité de la prescription contre les hérétiques, ed. R. F. Refoulé, Sources Chrétiennes 46 (Paris: Cerf, 1957); Veiling of Virgins: Le Voile des Vierges: De virginibus velandis, ed. Eva Schultz-Flügel, French trans. Paul Mattei, Sources Chrétiennes 424 (Paris: Cerf, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On Carthage and its rhetorical culture, see René Braun, “Aux origines de la Chrétienneté d’Afrique: un homme de combat, Tertullien” in Approches de Tertullien (Paris: Institut d’Etudes Augustiniennes, 1992), pp. 1–10; Elaine Fantham, Roman Literary Culture from Cicero to Apuleius (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 252–63.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On gender and late antique rhetoric, see Amy Richlin, “Gender and Rhetoric: Producing Manhood in the Schools” in Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature, ed. William J. Dominik (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 90–110, and especially Maud W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). For Tertullian as a product of classic Roman rhetorical training, see Robert Dick Sider, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).Google Scholar
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    Tertullian, Homily on Baptism, ed. Ernest Evans (London: S.P.C.K., 1964), 1. This passage has been the subject of a good deal of debate, much of it concerning whether the “writings ascribed to Paul” should be identified with the Acts of Paul or some other early and apocryphal Pauline texts; see Stevan L. Davies, “Women, Tertullian and the Acts of Paul” and the “Response” by Thomas W. MacKay in Semeia 38: The Apocryphal Acts of Apostles (Decatur, GA: Scholars Press, 1986). Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983) takes it for granted that Tertullian was familiar with some version of the Acts of Paul but insists that the people he was writing against may have been citing oral tradition rather than any written text (pp. 17–18). I am less concerned with the question of which text Tertullian may have known than with his reaction to the figure of Thecla in general.Google Scholar
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    Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., Acts of Paul, trans. R. Wilson (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1991), p. 393n3.Google Scholar
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    Gillian Clark, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), p. 128.Google Scholar
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    The Gospel of Philip, associated with the Valentinian heresy, maintains “if one go down into the water and come up without having received anything and says ‘I am a Christian’ he has borrowed the name at interest” (64, 23–24, Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, 3rd ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988)), thus contrasting the dubious efficacy of such physical rituals with mystical baptism “in the light and the water,” which is also conceived as a hieros gamos between “free men and virgins” (Gospel of Philip 69, 1–3). See also Brown, Body and Society, pp. 110–11. The Marcionites allowed women to baptize, to Tertullian’s horror; see Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, trans. Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, ed. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), p. 42.Google Scholar
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    “In one area alone, Tertullian let his imagination run wild. Sexual depravity (though only once, or perhaps never, homosexual vice) he attributed to all without exception. Carpocrates he hailed as a magician and fornicator, the artistic Hermogenes as an unrestrained libertine who seduced women more often than he painted them…” Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), pp. 216–17. That Tertullian’s accusations of sexual misbehavior among heretics were universally heterosexual merely underlines the fact that for him, women were the problem, both within the Catholic church and on its fringes.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    The first modern editor of the text believed that Tertullian was the redactor: J. A. Robinson, The Passion of St. Perpetua (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891); Barnes concurs; Anne Jensen, God’s Self-Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women, trans. O. C. Dean Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) thinks it improbable; Brent Shaw, in “The Passion of Perpetua,” Past and Present 139 (1993): p. 30 thinks the redactor is as likely as not to have been Tertullian. In any case, it is safe to say that the redactor was someone like Tertullian, probably even someone influenced by Tertullian.Google Scholar
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    References are to Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis 2.3, ed. Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).Google Scholar
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    Shaw suggests that Perpetua may have been familiar with the Greek novels (p. 9). Saturus, in his vision, sees Perpetua speaking Greek with others in heaven and shows no surprise, thus implying that she spoke Greek on earth as well (as many Carthaginians did). Peter Dronke argues that she may have known Vergil; see Women Writers of the Middle Ages from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) p. 7. If it is reasonable to imagine that she may have been familiar with Greek Romances, surely it is at least as reasonable to suggest that she may also have been familiar with the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. For the possibility (unlikely, in my opinion) that the original language of Perpetua’s text was Greek and not Latin, see G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 32–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See René Braun, Approches de Tertullien: vingt-six éudes sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955–1990) (Paris: Institut d’études augustinennes, 1992), p. 246; Cecil M. Roebuck, Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian and Cyprian (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1992), pp. 15–16Google Scholar
  16. 29.
    See John P. Meier, “On the Veiling of Hermeneutics,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978) for the argument that Paul may indeed have meant exactly what Tertullian thought he did. J. D. BeDuhn, “‘Because of the Angels’: Unveiling Paul’s Anthropology in I Corinthians 11,” Journal of Biblical Literature 118:2 (1999): 295–320 argues, “on account of the angels” refers instead to a gnostic Jewish tradition according to which the angels, and not God, are accountable for the creation of Eve and thus of sexual difference.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 30.
    Meier, “On the Veiling of Hermeneutics,” p. 218. On the nonparticipation of Jewish women in cult practice, see also Annie Jaubert, “Le Voile des Femmes,” New Testament Studies 18 (1971–72): p. 424.Google Scholar
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    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon, 1992), p. 169.Google Scholar
  19. 37.
    On this passage, see Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2000). Kelly argues, “the consecrated male virgin represents a new ontological category with which Rome had had little previous experience, and for which Latin had no words. By calling his readers’ attention to the fact, Tertullian reproduces virginity as a naturalized feminine attribute…” (pp. 91–92). This is true enough, although I would argue that Tertullian ends by denying that virgins of either sex constitute a meaningful ontological category at all. On the unnaturalness of eunuchs, both born and created, see Gleason, pp. 46–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 38.
    Susanna Elm, “Montanist Oracles,” Searching the Scriptures v. II: A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1994), p. 131.Google Scholar
  21. 41.
    Stevan L. Davies, The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), p. 60.Google Scholar
  22. 43.
    References to the Acts of Peter are to J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    James A. Francis, Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second Century Pagan World (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), pp. 6–9.Google Scholar
  24. 46.
    Hypatia was a mathematician, wore a philosopher’s cloak, and was supposed to have both pursued and been pursued by her male students. See Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  25. 47.
    Cited in Antti Arjava, Women and Law in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), p. 245. There were female litigants, but they were represented by men. See Jill Harries, Law and Empire in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 180.Google Scholar
  26. 49.
    This Paul is not, of course, the “real” Paul of the Epistles. He may not even be the Paul of the Acta Pauli, if the Acta Theclae is an interpolation with a different author. In fact, he often appears to be the Paul of the deutero-Pauline epistles, manipulated and transformed by the narrator/author to demonstrate just how completely post-Pauline Christianity is failing women. See Davies, The Revolt of the Widows, pp. 50–56 and Ann G. Brock, “Genre of the Acts of Paul: One Tradition Enhancing Another,” Apocrypha 5 (1994): 19–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 51.
    Davies is concerned that these bulls could only be the product of a depraved mind, and works hard to reconcile this pathology with his imagined female author. The truth is that, while it may indeed be depraved to imagine such a torture, the pathology that could do so was cultural, not personal. Audiences in the large cities of the Roman empire were accustomed to witnessing events that combined sex and violence in variations that are nearly unbelievable to us. Perpetua and Felicity were doomed to be gored to death by a heifer as a titillating change from what was apparently the more habitual form of execution. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses describes the fate reserved for a female poisoner, who was to be raped to death by a wild donkey. On sadistic voyeurism in the Roman arena, see Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  28. 52.
    Charlotte Roueché, “Acclamations in the Later Roman Empire: New Evidence from Aphrodisias,” Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984): 182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 56.
    Vie et Miracles de Sainte Thècle: Texte Grec, Traduction et Commentaire, Gilbert Dagron, ed. and trans. (Brussels: Bollandists, 1978), 12.1–2.Google Scholar

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© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

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  • Maud Burnett McInerney

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