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Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155/160 CE – c. 240 AD):

The Blood of the Martyrs, from Apologeticus pro Christianis (In Defense of Christians), chapters 49-50

This is a famous passage, and there are numerous translations available. But none of the ones I found capture the unmistakable tone of the original Latin. They capture Tertullian’s word-play, but they are stiff and stilted and hard to understand. So I made my own translation, just for you. By making my translation just a tiny bit looser, I hope that I have more accurately rendered the spirit of the text: it is ironic, sarcastic, mocking.

49. These sorts of beliefs are called “presumptions” only when we Christians hold them; when philosophers or poets do so, they are called “brilliant thoughts” and “signs of genius”. They are considered wise, and we are considered foolish; they are honored, we are laughed at, and on top of that we are punished. Now, for the sake of argument, let us assume that our Christian beliefs are false, and really are “presumptions”. Nonetheless, they are necessary, and indeed useful. For those who believe them are made to be better men through fear of eternal punishment and hope of eternal reward. There is no practical benefit to calling these beliefs false or foolish if there is a practical benefit when people believe them. There is no warrant for condemning something that is entirely useful. It is you, therefore, who are the “presumptuous” ones, because you presume to condemn something that is useful.

Therefore, our beliefs, being useful, cannot be foolish—or even if they were false and foolish, there is no harm in them. For there are many other beliefs out there which are empty fables, and yet you show no interest in accusing or punishing them, because they are harmless. If ideas of this kind should be subject to judgment, they should be punished only by holding them up to ridicule, not by sword and fire, by crucifixions and the wild beasts of the arena. The blind and ignorant multitude rejoices at such savagery—and some of you do as well, since the favor of the multitude is garnered by this evil.

And here is something that you do not understand. You only have power over us by our own will. Surely it is by my own choice that I am a Christian. Therefore if you condemn me for it, it is only because I have chosen to be condemned. And since you can do nothing to me unless I will it, therefore what you can do is the result of my will and not of your power. Similarly, the mob’s joy at our sufferings is vain: the joy is not theirs but ours, because being condemned rather than falling away from God is the very thing we want. Those who hate us ought to mourn, not rejoice, because we have gotten what we wanted.

50. “So,” you ask, “why do you complain when we pursue you, if you actually want to suffer, since you ought to delight in the suffering you have chosen?” Obviously, we are willing to suffer. But it is like the way a soldier desires battle, even though no-one would freely choose to suffer that fearsome trial unless he had to. Even if he was afraid of combat, he will fight with all manliness, and when he wins the fight, he will rejoice because of the glory that follows victory. It is a battle to us when we are summoned to the tribunal, where we fight for the truth at the risk of our own heads. It is victory when we obtain the thing for which we fought. The glory of this victory is that of pleasing God; its spoils of war are life eternal. At the very moment when your troops overrun our position—that is when we win. For when we are slain, then we are the victors. When we are overrun, that is precisely when we have escaped.

So go on. Call us “kindling” and “pole-men” all you want, as you tie us to poles and stack the firewood all around us. For to us, the flames are the robes worn by the victorious hero, and the firewood is the chariot in which he rides in triumph in his victory parade.

Granted, those whom we conquer in this way are not impressed. They consider us hopeless and lost. But when it is one of your soldiers who dies in battle, having fought on when he had no hope of survival, seeking the fame and glory of being remembered as a hero, you call it the very battle-standard of manliness. [Here Tertullian gives numerous examples from history.]

All of this is considered legitimate glory, since it is of human origin; he is not called “presumptuous” because he perished, nor is he said to have listened to the voices of despair when he faced down death itself and all manner of suffering—he is permitted to die for his country, for his land, for his empire, or for his friends, but somehow it doesn’t count if he dies for God? For your heroes of war, you cast statues, and you carve images, and you engrave titles, so that they may be remembered for eternity, as if by exhibiting such monuments you give them something like a resurrection of the dead. Meanwhile, if someone hopes for that same thing from God, if he suffers for God, you consider him insane.

Well, then. Go on, o fine governors; you know you’ll make yourself popular with the mob if you burn us Christians. Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us: for the proof of our innocence is evident in your injustice. This is why God allows us to suffer. For recently, when you disgustingly sent a Christian woman not to the lions but to the whorehouse, you acknowledged that among us the staining of virtue is considered more savage than any pains or death. Not that your exceptional cruelty does you any good; to the contrary, it is the greatest enticement to our sect. The more you cut us down, the more of us you make; for the blood of Christians is seed.

Many among your writers have encouraged people to withstand suffering and death, such as Cicero in his “Tusculan Disputations”, and Seneca in his “On Fortune”, and Diogenes, Pyrrho, and Callinicus. Yet they never taught so many disciples by their words as Christians do by their deeds. You disapprove of our “stubbornness”, yet that very stubbornness is our teacher. For who, being shocked by the thought of it, does not ask what the heart of it could be? And who, having asked, does not find it; and who, having found it, has not chosen to suffer, so that he may acquire the whole grace of God, so that in payment for the spilling of his blood he may obtain complete forgiveness of his sins? For by this act all sins are given pardon. This is why we give thanks when you pass sentence against us. For there is a rivalry between divine and human things, such that when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by God.

Source: Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155/160 CE – c. 240 CE): "The Blood of the Martyrs": Apologeticus pro Christianis (In Defense of Christians), chapters 49-50. Source of Latin text:
Translation by William H. Campbell, January 2021. On IHSP 31 Jan 2023.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, January 2023

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