Life begins at conception, according to Tertullian (c. 145—220 A.D.)

9-week human embryo from ectopic pregnancy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Ed Uthman under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence
9-week human embryo from ectopic pregnancy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Ed Uthman under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence

The North African Christian theologian Tertullian’s treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh is rewarding reading. In its sixteenth chapter we have an early testimony to the Judaeo-Christian belief that life begins at conception.

On the Resurrection of the Flesh, written around A.D. 208, was written to counter the position of the various schools of Gnostic heretics of the second century which claimed that the flesh was inherently evil — the heretics would not even attribute its creation to their highest ‘God’ — and that, as a consequence, only the soul would participate in the ‘resurrection.’ The ‘resurrection,’ according to them, was not to be a resurrection of the body.

“The flesh, which being conceived, formed and generated along with the soul from its earliest existence in the womb, is mixed up with the soul in everything it does.”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 16

In chapter 16 of this work, Tertullian is discussing the respective positions of the soul and the flesh within the human make-up; in particular, does the flesh play any active part in committing the deeds done in the body? Or is it — as the heretics maintain — a mere instrument and, therefore, not susceptible to the final judgement or, by implication, to the ‘resurrection’?

Briefly, he describes the position of the heretics thus:

[They say that] the soul alone, therefore, will have to be judged [i.e., at the Last Day] principally in regard to how it has employed the vessel of the flesh; the flesh itself not being susceptible to any judicial reward. For who condemns the cup if a man has mixed poison in it? Or who condemns the sword to wild beasts, if a man has used it to perpetrate the atrocities of a brigand?[1]

Well, pertinent to our subject here, he goes on in the same chapter to add:

[I say all that has just preceded] from a desire to counter even this argument [of theirs]. There is, however, a failure in the comparison owing to the difference in the nature of the [things compared]. For every vessel or every instrument is made useful from outside itself, since it consists of material entirely separate from the substance of its human [owner].

Contrast this with the flesh, which — being conceived, formed and generated along with the soul from its earliest existence in the womb — is mixed up with [the soul] in everything it does.

For although [the flesh] is called “a vessel” by the apostle,[2] which he commands should be treated “with honour,”[3] yet it is designated by the same apostle “the outward man”[4] — that clay, of course, which at the very beginning was inscribed with the title of ‘man,’ and not the title of a ‘cup’ or a ‘sword’ or any other paltry vessel.[5]

Within the Roman Empire, it was routine for unwanted babies to be left to die on the rubbish heap. The Greek philosopher Plato, in his Republic (c. 360 B.C.), seems to refer to the practice among the Greeks of exposing unwanted infants.[6]

“The Christian belief in the sanctity of human life as made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and Christianity’s consequent abhorrence of the practice of infanticide, was a distinctive belief within the Roman Empire.”

The Christian belief in the sanctity of human life as made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and Christianity’s consequent abhorrence of the practice of infanticide, was therefore a distinctive belief within the Roman Empire.

True, it is a belief with its roots firmly in Judaism and shared with Judaism. But it was as Christianity became the majority religion of the Empire in the fourth century that this view of all human life as sacred really took hold in the West.

It is a belief, as Tertullian shows us, with a long and venerable history.

Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter 16:
https://ccel.org/ccel/tertullian/resurrection_flesh/anf03.v.viii.xvi.html

 

 

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[1] Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 556. Note, both here and the quotation which follows I have adapted the translation found there to make it easier for the modern reader.

[2] 2 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; &c.

[3] 1 Thessalonians 4:4

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:16

[5] The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, 556. Emphasis mine.

[6] Plato, Republic, V.461. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D5%3Apage%3D461

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