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Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus
The Apology

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  • CHAPTER XVI. You hold grotesque views respecting our Deity. We neither worship an ass's head, nor the Cross, nor the sun, nor a biformed monstrosity, resembling some of your gods.
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You hold grotesque views respecting our Deity. We neither worship an ass's head, nor the Cross, nor the sun, nor a biformed monstrosity, resembling some of your gods.

FOR you, as certain others have done, have dreamed that our God is an ass's head. Cornelius Tacitus 38 introduced this suspicion. For in the fifth book of his "Histories," having begun his account of the Jewish war with the origin of the nation itself, having also drawn what conclusions he wished respecting both the origin and the name and the religion of the Jewish nation, he relates that, when the Jews had been liberated, or as he thought banished, from Aegypt, and were tortured by thirst in the deserts of Arabia, where water is exceedingly scarce, they availed themselves of wild asses to guide them to a spring, thinking that the animals would most likely be seeking water after feeding, and he states that for this service they consecrated as a deity the head of a similar animal. And thence, I take it, it was presumed that we, too, being nearly allied to the Jewish religion, were devotees of the same effigy. But yet this same Cornelius Tacitus, really a most loquacious man in falsehoods, relates in the same history that Cnaeus Pompeius, after his capture of Jerusalem and consequent entrance into the Temple for the purpose of investigating the secret mysteries of the Jewish [52] religion, found there no image. Yet surely if the object of their worship was ever represented under any effigy, it would be exhibited nowhere more appropriately than in its own shrine; and the more so, as there would be no fear of outsiders as witnesses, however foolish the cult. For it was only lawful for the priests to enter there, and the gaze of all others was cut off by a veil spread between. Yet you will not deny that all kinds of beasts and whole mules, along with their own protecting goddess Epona, are worshipped by you. It is perchance on this ground that we are denounced, because amongst worshippers of cattle and beasts of all kinds, we are worshippers of the ass alone.

Again, he who believes us to be devotees of the Cross will also be our fellow-worshipper. As long as it is some piece of wood that is propitiated, the fashion of it matters nothing, provided that the quality of the substance is the same; the shape matters nothing, provided that it is the very body of the god. And yet how far is the Athenian Pallas to be distinguished from the stock of a cross; or the Pharian Ceres, who stands forth publicly without an effigy as a rude stake and shapeless piece of wood. Every wooden post which is fixed in an upright position is part of a cross; we, if at all, worship the god whole and entire 39. We have mentioned that [53] the earliest form of your gods is moulded by potters on a cross. But you also worship Victories, and crosses form the interiors of the memorial trophies of these. The whole camp - religion of the Romans consists in venerating the standards, swearing by the standards, and setting the standards above all the gods 40. Yet all those crests of images on the standards are necklaces of crosses, and those flags on your ensigns and banners are the robes of crosses. I praise your scrupulousness: you would not deify crosses bare and undraped.

Others, certainly more naturally and with greater likelihood, believe the Sun to be our god. If this be the case, we must be accounted as Persians, although we do not adore it painted on linen, since we everywhere have the Sun itself in its own vault of heaven. This notion is in fact derived from our well-known habit of praying towards the east 41. But very [54] many of yourselves, too, moved sometimes by an affectation of adoring the celestial bodies as well, move your lips towards the sun-rise. Similarly, if we devote the day of the Sun to rejoicing, for a reason very far removed from any religious reverence for the Sun, we are only second, to those who set apart Saturn's day for idleness and feasting, and who themselves deviate from the Jewish custom which they misunderstand 42.

But now a new representation of our God has been published in the very next city 43, since a certain wretch, who hired himself out to trick the wild beasts in the arena, exhibited a picture with an inscription of this sort: "The god of the Christians conceived of an ass 44." It had ass's ears, was hoofed in one foot, carried a book, and wore a toga. We laughed both at its name and shape. But they ought to have forthwith adored such a biformed deity; since they have received as gods creatures compounded of a dog's and a lion's head; others having the horns of a goat and a ram; others formed like goats from the loins [55] and like serpents from the legs; others winged on the heel or the back.

We have treated of these matters at length, lest we should have omitted any unrefuted rumour, as though privy to its truth. And having disposed of all these false notions, I now turn to the clear declaration of what our religion is.

38. k Tacit., Hist. v. 3, 4. See Merivale, Hist. Rom. vii. 216.

39. l The irony of this passage will not be overlooked. A sarcastic tu quoque was quite sufficient to brush aside this notion of the worship of the Cross. The frequent use of the sign of the Cross by Christians in their daily occupations, and the reverence felt for it as the great symbol of man's redemption, finds a fitting mention in a treatise addressed to believers : see de Corona, 3.

40. m 'In every Roman camp there was a small chapel near the head-quarters, in which the statues of the tutelar deities were preserved and adored : and we may remark that the eagles and other military ensigns were in the first rank of these deities; an excellent institution, which confirmed discipline by the sanction of religion.'—Gibbon, i. 269.

41. n This custom was common to nearly all religions. Its natural symbolism, the east being the quarter of light, was adopted by Christians as expressive of the coming of the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World. Tertullian speaks of the East as a 'figure of Christ,' adv. Valent. 3. See Dict, Chr. Ant., i. 586.

42. o Saturn's day, which corresponded with the Jewish Sabbath, was considered by the superstitious Romans an unlucky day on which to commence any work. This idea arose from a misconception of the peculiar habits of the Jews on that day. Comp. Tibullus, i. 3. 18; Ovid, Ars Amator. i. 415; Hor., Sat. i. 9. 69; Pers., Sat. v. 184; Juvenal, Sat. xiv. 96.

43. p Read, in ista proxime civitate.

44. q ONOKOITHΣ. Oehler prefers ONOKOIHTHΣ, asinarius sacerdos. But see Dict. Chr. Ant., i. 149; Lanciani, Ancient Rome, p. 121; Merivale, Hist. Rom., vii. 217.

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