On Idolatry background information.

Early Christian Writings

Title: On Idolatry


From: (tertullian.org)

Ante-Nicene Fathers

Τὰ ἀρχαῖα ἔθη κρατείτω. The Nicene Council

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By: Roger Pearse  

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ECST: 167.02.1.T77

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Talks about living as a Christian in a world where paganism is embedded in every social occasion. Can a Christian go to (e.g) a pagan wedding? Tertullian is dealing with the general issue of living differently from the unbelievers, who are steeped in idol-worship. He deals with the negative side, of what to avoid, and lists a few ways in which this may be done.




Idolatry is involved in all sorts of ways, not just in making or worshipping idols(1.1) Tertullian outlines the principles to follow:

• People in the building/decorating/engraving trades must avoid making, decorating or depicting idols(5.1). They won’t be out of work – there will always be general building work on private houses, official residences, blocks of flats, baths, etc, and the taste for luxurious living will keep them more than fully employed.(8.1)

• Professionals should ensure they stay clear as well – a Christian trying to make a career as an astrologer is told off(9.1) Schoolteachers collect fees on pagan religious festivals, which therefore means they cannot teach, but there is nothing wrong with learning as such, as learning leads to God, and a believer can avoid the harmful stuff and the pagan festivals.(10.1ff,10.4)

• Businessmen must avoid avarice, and occupations that support the structure of idol-worship are out. For instance, you mustn’t set up as a gladiatorial trainer (as the games were pagan religious festivals), or trade in meat from the temples (which provides economic support to them), nor may such people join the church.(11.1)

But if we take his advice, how are we to live?(12.1) And what about public holidays? Special celebrations?

Tertullian reminds his readers that the poor are blessed, and we should be ready to give up everything for Christ..(12.1) But he was aware that unless he gave more specific guidance on what sort of things were OK, people would despair or become apathetic. So some principles were available.(14.1)

• Don’t live as if you had no faith, take part in sacrifices, or blaspheme. People tended to say ‘If I don’t go, it will look bad for the name of Christ’. But if your neighbour knows you are a Christian, you’d better live as one, or you cause him to think you are ashamed of Christ.

• On the other,don’t be a killjoy; you must mix with your fellow man.(14.5)

Obedience to the government is right, but as the book of Daniel makes clear, not to the point of idolatry. This includes putting up garlands to the emperor, in reference to a recent case where the slaves of a Christian, on hearing of an imperial success, hung a garland on his door. God rebuked the master in a vision that very night.

Christians may however attend such ceremonies as the assumption of the toga, betrothals, marriages and naming ceremonies.(16.1ff) Of course they must not accept invitations to sacrifices. But if they happen for some other reason to be with a friend or relation who is performing a sacrifice, they are mere spectators, not participators in idolatry.(16.5)

Christians may be slaves, or otherwise compelled to attend sacrifices. But so long as they do not actually assist in performing a sacrifice, they can avoid idolatry.(17.1)

What about those in a position of power? In principle, there is no reason why not, so long as there is no

• sacrificing,

• presiding at games,

• taking oaths,

• trying capital cases,

• sentencing of any kind.(17.2)

As society is currently constituted, this means Christians cannot enter public life. But anyway, the offices reek of paganism.(18.1) The same reasoning goes for joining the army.(18.8-19.1)

Swearing oaths by pagan gods is also prohibited, spoken or written into a contract.(20.1)

It’s going to be difficult – it is so easy to end up living as a pagan, by and in idolatry. But you can avoid it, if you genuinely fear to commit it, and trying to do so is one of the things which marks out the Christian as different from the pagan. No-one living a life of idolatry may be in the fellowship, and this needs to be made clear to converts and persisted with by Christians.(24.1)


Tertullian plays down his own erudition in ch 4: ego, modicae memoriae homo (4. 5)B. ( a man of limited memory)

There are some references to the Jews, described as ‘The People’. The Jews had the same problem about making idols. However, in contrast to the position given in ch. 8, the ‘Abodoh Zarah explicitly forbids Jews to take part in building basilicas or judgement-seats (I. 7). And it prohibits all business of any sort with gentiles for three days before each of their main religious festivals (I. 1) (cf ch 11). The ‘Abodah Zarah forbids any Jew even to transact business with a gentile on the day when he celebrates a wedding-feast for his son (I. 3) (cf ch16). (The tractate was edited by W. A. Elmslie, Texts and Studies VIII.2 (1911), and translated by H. Danby, The Mishnah (1934), 437 ff.).(from B, ch 8 p100)

In ch 18, note the mention of senatorial insignia: praetextae et trabeae et laticlavi, fasces quoque.B

The way demons use pagan worship is also described (ch.15):

…of course we know that, though names be empty and reigned, yet, when they are drawn down into superstition, demons and every unclean spirit seize them for themselves, through the bond of consecration. Otherwise demons have no name individually, but they there find a name where they find also a token.


This work is found only in the Codex Agobardinus, starting at folio 105V. However this breaks off before the end.  The other witness is the 1545 edition, which contains the full text.  This indicates that the editor had access to a quite unknown MS.

TITLE VARIATIONS[1]http://www.tertullian.org/manuscripts/title_variations.htm

There are no variants.


Unless otherwise indicated, details are from Quasten’s Patrology, 2 (1955). See also Editions page and Critical Editions page for more information.

[Note: I need to add some biblio, from l’Annee Phil. for the years 1954-1974 and from CTC after that].


G. CURREY, Tertulliani Libri tres, de spectaculis, de idololatria, et de corona militis. Three treatises of Tertullian, with English notes, an introduction and indexes. Edited … by G. Currey.. Cambridge, printed, and London, 1854. 8o.(Details from BL online catalogue)

A. REIFFERSCHEID-G. WISSOWACSEL 20 (1890) 30-58Checked.  Online, with apparatus.

A. REIFFERSCHEID-G. WISSOWA, CCSL 2 (1954) 1099-1125. Reprint. Checked.

J. H. WASZINK & J. C. M. VAN WINDENTertullianus De Idololatria, E.J.Brill, Leiden/New York (1987), (in series Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, Volume I.)



C. DODGSON, Library of Fathers 10. Oxford, 1842, 220-252.

S. THELWALLANCL 11 (1869) pp.141-177; reprinted ANF 3 (1885), pp. 61-76.  Online.  Checked.

S. L. GREENSLADEThe Library of Christian Classics V: Early Latin Theology (1956), p.83ff.  Checked. (Personal copy)

J. H. WASZINK & J. C. M. VAN WINDENloc. cit., 1987.


Lambert DANEAUTraite de Florent Tertullian docteur treſ-ancien, & voiſin du temps des Apoſtres, enuiron CLXX. ans apres l’incarnation de Ieſus Chriſt, touchant l’Idolatrie. 1565. (See review of BACKUS in CTC).  According to CTC, the only copy exists in the Musée historique de la Réformation, at Geneva.  Now online.

• A. DE GENOUDE, De l’Idolâtrie. Oeuvres de Tertullien2, Paris (1852). t. 2 pp.217-249.  Online.


H. KELLNERÜber den GötzendienstBKV2 7 (1912), pp.137-174. (Details from personal copy)

Dutch : 

H. U. MEYBOOM, Over den afgodendienst (Oudchristel. geschriften, dl. 43). Leiden, 1930.


Selvaggia BORGHINIOpere di Tertulliano tradotte in Toscano. Rome (1756). p.173-212.  Personal copy. Checked.

Gino MAZZONIQuinto S. F. Tertulliano, I trattati : de spectaculis, de idolatria, de poenitentia ; tradotti da Gino Mazzoni .Siena : E. Cantagalli, 1934. 215 p. ; 20 cm. ( I classici cristiani ; 50-52. I classici italiani ; 50-52.) (Details from BN Florence OPAC).  Online complete.


László VANYÓ &c, Tertullianus muvei (The works of Tertullian), Budapest: Szent István Társulat (1986) 1100pp. (Ókeresztény frók 12). (Details CTC 2002.75).  The older translations of István Városi (Pat, Apol, Orat, Ux, Cult) and Marcell Mosolygó (Mart) have been recycled; the rest are new.


G. T. LANG, Tertullian and the Pagan Cults: TP (1913) XXXV ff.

J. L. SCHULTE, Het Heidendom bij Tertullianus. Diss. Leiden, 1923.

F. J. DÖLGER, Heidnische Begrüßung und christliche Verhöhnung des Heidentempels. Kultur- und religionsgeschichtl. Bemerkungen zu Tertullian De idololatria 11: Antike und Christentum 3 (1932) 192-203.

J. H. WASZINK, Tertullianea: Mnem 3 (1935/36) 171 ff.

G.L.ELLSPERMANN, The Attitüde of the Early Christian Writers Toward Pagan Literature and Learning (PSt 82). Diss. Washington, 1949, 23-42.

Irena BACKUS, Le Tertullien de Lambert Daneau dans le contexte religieux du seizième siècle tardif.  I Padri sotto il torchio.  Le edizioni dell’antichità cristiana nei secoli XV-XVI.  Atti del Convegno di studi, Certosa del Galluzo, Firenze, 25-26 giugno 1999, Tavarnuzze (Firenze), SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzo (2002), p. 33-52. (Millennio Medievale 35; Atti di convegni 10). (Details CTC2002.73).

Virginia ALFARO BECH and • Victoria Eugenia RODRIGUEZ MARTIN, Precedentes de las doctrinas antiastrologicas y antifatalistas de Tertuliano.  Mhnh. Revista internacional de investigacion sobre magia astrologia antiguas [Malaga] (2002), pp.203-220.  Summary in English.  (Details CTC 2003, 29).  Idol. 9, Apol. 23:1, 35:12, 43:1; Cult I.2:1, An. 57,2).

Virginia ALFARO BECH and • Victoria Eugenia RODRIGUEZ MARTIN, La antiastrologia de Tertuliano.  “Homo mathematicus”: Actas del congreso internacional sobre astrologos griegos y romanos (Benalmadena, 8-10 de octubre de 2001), • Aurelio PEREZ JIMENEZ & • Raul CABALLERO (Edd).  Malaga: Charta Antiqua (2002), pp.325-336. (Details CTC2003, 30).


1 http://www.tertullian.org/manuscripts/title_variations.htm

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