On the Flesh of Christ background information.

Early Christian Writings

Title: De carne Christi (On the flesh of Christ)


From: (tertullian.org)

Ante-Nicene Fathers

Τὰ ἀρχαῖα ἔθη κρατείτω. The Nicene Council

Related Link:   

By: Roger Pearse  

Our Ref:
ECST: 167.15.1.T77

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A polemical work against the Gnostic docetism of Marcion, Apelles, Valentinus and Alexander. He proves that the body of Christ was a real human body, taken from the virginal body of Mary, but not by way of human procreation.




The top-level structure of the work is as follows (from Mahé’s edition).

1.0 Exordium (c. 1:1-2).

a. To believe in the resurrection of the flesh is meaningless unless there is belief that Christ had flesh (1).

b. The debate is limited to the bodily nature of Christ, and three questions about it: an est (did it exist); unde est (where did it come from); cuiusmodi est (of what sort was it). (2)

2.0 An est? Response of Tertullian: est (cc. 1:2-5:10).

» 2.1 Argument by praescriptio (ch. 2) — Marcion falsified the scriptures, so plainly his argument is not based on the original facts.

» 2.2 Response to the objections of the other side (3:1-5:5)

» 2.3 Peroration: Proof of the two natures of Christ.

3.0 Unde est? Response of Tertullian: e terra (cc.6-9)

» 3.1 Refutation of scriptural arguments of the heretics (6:3-7:13)

» 3.2 Internal contradictions of the teaching of Apelles

» 3.3 Peroration.

4.0 Cuiusmodi est? Response of Tertullian: humana (cc.10-23)

» 4.1 The human nature of Christ (cc.15-16)

»» 4.1.1 Refutation of heretical teachings (10:1-15:2)

»» 4.1.2 Response to many heretical objections to the Christian teaching (15:3-16:5)

» 4.2 The human nature of the birth of Christ (cc. 17-23)

»» 4.2.1 Necessity of the virgin birth

»» 4.2.2 Response to the objections of those heretics who think the virgin didn’t really give her flesh to Christ.

»» 4.2.3 Conclusion: the sign of the Virgin (c. 23)

» 4.3 Peroration (cc.24-25).

One portion of special interest, because of the frequent mis-citation of De Carne Christi 5: 4, is point 2.2, broken by Mahé as follows:

In 2.2, the objections of the other side are considered:

1. Is the incarnation impossible for God? (3:1-3).
Answer: nothing is impossible for God (1). But God would certainly not pretend to be born when he was not (2-3).

2. Is the incarnation not dangerous for God (3:4-6).
If God was really changed into a man, objects the heretic, he would cease to be God (4-5). Answer: not at all. Unlike those he made, God can become anything while remaining himself (5-6).

The answer to these two objections is illustrated by the example of the angels of the OT, and the cloud that descended at the baptism of Jesus. That which is possible for these higher creatures is certainly possible for their creator (3:6-9)

3. If the incarnation isn’t impossible, or dangerous, is not nevertheless unworthy of the dignity of God? (4:1-5:5)

Tertullian admits that it is unworthy/shameful in the eyes of the world, but he justifies this shame.

a. The incarnation is an act of love which voluntarily ignores worldly wisdom (c.4); the hate of Marcion for the flesh implies hate of himself and humanity; contrariwise, the love of Christ for man implies acceptance of his flesh without which man cannot exist (4:1-4). Christ could have taken the form of a beast to preach the true wisdom and ‘chose the foolish things of the world to shame the things that are wise’ (Phil.2:8) — the choice of ‘foolish’ flesh is part of his conscious rejection of conventional wisdom.

b. Without true incarnation, there can be no true redemption (5:1-5). Logically, the heretic should have suppressed both the passion and resurrection in his gospel (5:1-3). God must have flesh, in order to have a real death and real resurrection (5:3-5).


Tertullian is best known by a famous misquotation from ch. 5, verse 4: ‘credo quia absurdum’ — ‘I believe because it is absurd.’  The usual implication is that Tertullian believed in Christianity because it was absurd.  Tertullian thought nothing of the kind: see the quotes page for a passage on reason from De Paenitentia 1,2.  See also the articles by Moffat and Sider, online below. 

The real quote, followed by a personal opinion on the meaning:

Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est.
Et mortuus est dei filius; credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est.
Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile.

The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed–because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible–because it is silly.
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain–because it is impossible.  (Evans translation).

“The argument is whether or not it is real, or whether Christ was really just a phantasm. This latter view is justified by its author (Marcion) as being less impossible, dangerous or shameful. The context is not about ‘reason’, but ‘wisdom’, meaning worldly wisdom or convention, not logic.

“The set of three phrases — God was crucified, but I’m not ashamed, precisely because it’s shameful; God died, but it’s not silly, precisely because its silly; God rose again, and it is certain because it’s impossible — starts from this idea of shame and the violation conventional expectations, and runs away from there. This means we have to ask whether all three phrases are not just saying the same thing in different words.

“If we say not, we must ask whether Tertullian is really introducing suddenly, for three words, a whole new idea proper to a quite different audience — Moffat’s a ‘sudden intrusion of anti-rationalism’ — rather than summarising what went before? I wonder a bit whether we are misleading ourselves with ‘impossibile’ thinking in terms of physical impossibility rather than moral impossibility, as under discussion beforehand?

“The popular understanding of this phrase means we have three words related neither to the chapter before or after. That cannot be right. Both sides belong to the faith side, in fact. The argument as such is scriptural, as between two people disagreeing on a point of Christian belief, not as between believer and unbeliever. Indeed the non-Christian holds views considerably less ‘rational’ to a modern perspective, than otherwise — that Christ was some form of semi-physical ghost, not a man, although he looked like one. So no argument for whether or not the resurrection happened, per se, is to be expected. Still less is any discussion of the truth of the Christian religion part of this, except as regards the argument with Marcion.” (Roger Pearse)

Other interesting notes:

•  1:3 tells us that Apelles and Valentinus were disciples of Marcion who set up their own systems.

•  2:4 refers to a letter by Marcion showing that at one time he had been a Christian, before inventing his own system.  Tertullian does not consider him one now: “…you are not a Christian; having fallen away, after you had been one, by rejecting what you formerly believed, even as you yourself acknowledge in a certain letter of yours, and as your followers do not deny, whilst our (brethren) can prove it.”

•  2:6 refers to De praescriptione haereticorum, but refers to it as ‘praescriptionibus adversus omnes haereses’ — plural, rather than singular.

•  4:3 contains a joke, that presumably Marcion must have been born in some other way than normal himself.

•  5:1 gives the real meaning of Tertullian’s point in 5:4 — “For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified? be cradled, or be coffined? be laid in a manger, or in a tomb?”

•  5:7 identifies Christ as having two substances, man and God.

Apelles teachings are discussed and refuted in 1:3 and chapter 6. Unlike Marcion, Apelles acknowledges that Christ had real flesh; not born, however, but put on like an Old Testament angel.  His prophetess, the virgin Philumene is also mentioned, and again in 24:2.

•  Chapter 7 explains Matt. xii. 48Luke viii. 20, 21, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”.  Tertullian sees this passage as another way in which Christ is tempted.  Quotes from his own Adversus Marcionem IV appear.

•  Chapter 8 continues against Apelles, and tells us what the lost Adversus Apelleiacos contained — details on whether the creator could be a renegade angel.

•  9:6 states that the human appearance of Christ was unseemly.

•  11:4 shows the Stoic use of corpus, rather odd to our ears — that everything that exists has a body: “Everything which exists is a bodily existence sui generis. Nothing lacks bodily existence but that which is non-existent.”  See also Augustine, De Haeresibus 86 on this idea.

•  12:5 names and gives a summary of the contents of De testimonio animae.  This furnishes a useful standard of comparison with the brief description of the lost Adversus Apelleiacos, above.

•  14:5 gives the opinion of Ebionites, “Ebion, who holds Jesus to be a mere man, and nothing more than a descendant of David, and not also the Son of God; although He is, to be sure, in one respect more glorious than the prophets, inasmuch as he declares that there was an angel in Him, just as there was in Zechariah,” and then refutes it.  Another reference to the same subject is in 18:1.

•  15:3 indicates that Tertullian is reading gnostic literature himself, rather than getting information from other apologists — he refers to reading a Valentinian tract.

•  15:4 shows that pagans also sneered at Christian views in this area, as happens today.

•  Chapter 16 refutes another heretic named Alexander, described as ‘famous,’ who has yet another opinion.  Chapter 17 refers to his ‘syllogisms.’

•  17:1 refers to the Hymns of Valentinus, which he passes of as the production of some respectable person rather than his own.  Referred to again in 20:3 as ‘Psalms’.

•  19:4 outlines ancient medical ideas on conception.

•  20:1 relies on the meaning of a Latin preposition said to be in the text of scripture, which suggests that Tertullian is referring to a existing Latin translation of the New Testament.

•  25:2 indicates that the discussion will be resumed in De carnis resurrectione, which is the subject Tertullian says it discusses.


The work is present in three different collections of the works of Tertullian.

1.  It is contained in the members of the Cluny collection. (q.v.).  The primary witnesses, therefore, are:

•  The 11th century Payerne MS, Codex Paterniacensis 439 (P), now at Selestat. (From the Alpha branch)

•  The 15th century Florence MS, Codex Florentinus BNC Conventi soppressi J.6.9 (N). (From the Alpha branch).  The text is not in the remaining portion of M, the earlier codex from which N was copied.  [I don’t know if there are readings from D or G for this work]

•  The 15th century Luxembourg MS, Codex Luxemburgensis 75 (X).

•  The 15th century(1426) Florence MS, Codex Florentinus BNC Conventi soppressi J.6.10 (F).

•  Rhenanus edition of 1521.  This is because his only source for this work was the now lost Hirsau MS (H), the ancestor of F and X.

Possibly also to be considered are:

•  The Naples MS, Codex Neapolitanus, Mus. Naz. 55, portions of which were once in Vienna as Codex Vindobonensis 4194 (V).

•  The BPL Leiden MS, Codex Leidensis latinus 2 (L) has been considered independent but is merely a copy of V.

which may or may not have some independent witness.  Many consider them simply copies of F, however.

2. It is contained in the 9th century Codex Agobardinus (A) or Parisinus Latinus 1622.   However the manuscript is damaged, and the leaves at the back have been lost.  The text ends in De Carne Christi, chapter 10.

3. It is contained in the 12th century Codex Trecensis 523 (T).

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

. Florentinus Magliebechianus, 
. Conventi soppressi VI, 9 (N)
Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani Incipit lib De carne christi Florentinus Magliebechianus,
. Conventi soppressi VI, 10 (F)
DE CARNE XPI EXPLICIT No title in Montepessulanus H 54(M),
. but as shown at the end.

Note: The MSS have the overscore above the letter, but you need a modern browser (N4/IE4+) to see it. It signifies an abbreviation. Note the way that the Greek letter form of CHRI is represented. Dno = domino, DNI = DOMINI


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].


F. OEHLER, Tertulliani Opera quae supersunt. vol. 2 (1851-3). 423-464. Checked. (Personal copy)

A. KROYMANN, CSEL 70 (1942) 189-250. Checked. (Personal copy).

A. KROYMANN, CCSL 2 (1954), 871-918. Checked. (Personal copy). Reprint.

E. EVANSTertullian’s treatise on the Incarnation (1956). Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani De carne Christi liber. Tertullian’s treatise on the Incarnation. The text edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary, by Ernest Evans.. pp. xliii. 197. S.P.C.K.: London, 1956. 8oChecked. (Personal copy).  Lots now online.

J.-P. MAHÉ, La Chair du Christ. Sources Chrétiennes 216 (Commentary SC 217). Paris (1975). Checked. (Personal copies). pp.309 & 477.



P. HOLMESANCL 15 (1870) pp.163-214; reprinted ANF 3 (1885), pp. 521-542.  Online.  Checked.

E. EVANSTertullian’s treatise on the Incarnation (1956). Q. Septimii Florentis Tertulliani De carne Christi liber. Tertullian’s treatise on the Incarnation. The text edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary, by Ernest Evans.. pp. xliii. 197. S.P.C.K.: London, 1956. 8oChecked. (Personal copy).  Online complete.


L. GIRYDe la Chair de Jésus-Christ, et de la Résurrection de la chair, Publisher : Paris : Pierre Le Petit (1661). Description : pièces limin., 475 p. et la table ; 12°. Notes : De la traduction de Louis Giry.(Details from the Montpellier library catalogue)

M. CHARPENTIEROeuvres de Tertullien: Apologétique. Prescriptions contre les gentils. Du Baptême. De l’Ornement des femmes. [Contre les spectacles. De la Patience. De la Couronne du soldat. Contre Marcion, extrait. De la Chair de Jésus-Christ. De la Résurrection de la chair. Aux nations. – listed in table of contents but not on title page] Paris : Ed. M. Charpentier, 1844. 12o, III-504 p.  Another title page has the address:”A. Delahays, 1845″. “Oeuvres de Tertullien traduites en français” Checked (Details from BNF catalogue and personal copy).  De Carne Christi is pp.281-325.  Online.

A. DE GENOUDEDe la Chair de Jésus-Christ. Oeuvres de Tertullien2, Paris (1852). t. 1. pp.389-433.

J.-P. MAHÉloc. cit., 1975.


H. KELLNER, Von der menschlichen Leibe Christi, Ausgewählte Schriften des Septimius Tertullianus, Bibliothek der Kirchenväter1, 2 vols. (1870/2). vol. 2, p.155-218. Checked.  (Personal copy).  Not in the BKV2. Printed in a horrid gothic typeface.

H. KELLNERÜber den Leib Christi. Tertullians sämtliche Schriften, Köln : DuMont-Schauberg, (1882). Vol. 2. pp.378-416.  Online.


H. U. MEYBOOM, Over het lichaam van Christus (Oudchristel. geschriften, dl. 45). Leiden, 1930.


C. MORESCHINI, Opere scelte di Quinto Settimo Florente Tertulliano. (Classici UTET). Turin, 1974. (Details from CTC 99, 5).

Claudio MORESCHINI / Luigi RUSCA, Apologia del cristianesimo, La carne di Cristo; introduction and notes by Claudio Moreschini; translation Luigi Rusca [Apologia del cristianesimo] ; introduction and notes by Claudio Micaelli [La carne di Cristo], Milano, Biblioteca universale Rizzoli, 1984, 461 p. ; 18 cm. III edition, 2000. (Details by Dr. Andrea Nicolotti)


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.


[None listed in Quasten.  Extensive notes in Oehler, and in Evans; MAHÉ’s edition has very complete details]

James MOFFATTAristotle and TertullianJournal of Theological Studies 17 (1915- 16) 170-71.

• R.D. SIDERCredo quia absurdum?, Classical World, 73 (1980) pp.417-9.


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

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