The Romans as instruments of divine justice
For a general introduction to Tertullian please see the commentary on Apology V.
Tertullian’s Scorpiace (Antidote to the Scorpion’s Sting, which is itself a reference to the ‘cure’ Tertullian outlines for heresy) is a forensic treatise which essentially argues that martyrdom is crucial and willed by God. Tertullian also addresses within this work the problem of Christians who had yielded to the arguments of opponents (for their identity, see below) that martyrdom was unnecessary (for the structure of the treatise, see Timothy Barnes, “Tertullian’s Scorpiace,” p. 108-110, and Geffrey Dunn, Tertullian, p. 105-106). Tertullian draws heavily on proof texts from the Hebrew Bible, largely related to the sins of and punishment for idolatry; as Dunn argues, given that the text is concerned with martyrdom, this side-focus on idolatry is strange – it seems, however, that in light of the theme of martyrdom, Tertullian simply wished to draw on Scripture which emphasised commitment to God. Embracing idolatry would essentially amount to the Christian giving in to their pagan surroundings, and shying away from martyrdom (Tertullian, p. 106). It is possible that Tertullian wrote in response to so-called “Gnostic” Valentinian Christians (the teacher Valentinus is mentioned in X.1 and XV.6, and Tertullian also devote his treatise Against the Valentinians to refuting his arguments), who believed that offering oneself up for martyrdom was foolish. In the present passage, which comes near the end of the tractate, Tertullian utilises the teachings of the Apostle Paul, who appears as part of a selection of New Testament figures who themselves underwent martyrdom and/or spoke in favour of it (Jesus, IX.1-XI.8; Peter, XII.2-3; John, XII.4-11).
Tertullian draws on Paul’s arguments in Romans 13:1-7 where the apostle argues that Christians should submit to Roman authorities because they have been sanctioned by God to punish wrongdoers and protect those who abide by good. The Roman government is seen as an instrument of God’s will; in Tertullian’s words, “handmaids of the divine court.” Moreover, these rulers do not “carry the sword without reason,” they are not mindlessly brutal tyrants, but “servant[s] of God.” For this reason, Paul teaches that appropriate tribute should be paid to Caesar (see also Matthew 22:15-22 and its parallels in Mark and Luke) as long as he is relativized to God. Similarly, Tertullian picks up on Peter’s (meaning the author of 1 Peter) teaching that the king (the term used in 1 Peter 2:17 is βασιλεύς, basileus, but the reference is clearly to the Roman emperor) must be honoured, but only as a man, not a God. While the overarching message of the New Testament, then, is that the Roman authorities must be respected as God’s agents, crucial for Tertullian here is that this not be over-interpreted as an excuse to avoid martyrdom by renouncing Christ and pledging allegiance to Roman religion. The passage concludes, after having made clear that the emperor and other authorities are only to be honoured as humans, but stating that “one will not be permitted to love even life more than God.” The message is clear – God must always be central for the Christian, both when being dutiful subjects to the Roman government, and when faced with the prospect of death at its hands.
In his apologetic works, Tertullian was eager to portray the Christians as friends of Rome, and as useful for the empire’s prosperity due to their effective prayers to the one supreme God (see, for instance, Apology XXX; Apology XXXII; Apology XXV.12-17). However, in this treatise, in response to conflict within the church in face of martyrdom, he is forced to make clear to his own group that their duty to Rome only goes so far. The issue of the divine origin of power was one that was much debated among the early Christians. Tertullian himself is in some ways ambiguous on this this topic at times, with On Idolatry XIX even suggesting that the emperor is associated with the devil (the military standards of the Roman army are referred to as “the standards of the devil”). While the peacekeeping message of Paul in Romans 13 was accepted by many, not all Christians were so inclined to see the Roman authorities in such a positive light. The so-called “Gnostic” Christian authors of texts such as the Apocryphon of John and the Trimorphic Protennoia, for instance, viewed Roman rule and its oppression of Christians as the direct result of the empire being under the influence of the demiurgical creator god, who was distinct and inferior from the wisdom of the true God. This deficient and ill-intentioned deity, with the help of other supernatural powers which he created for himself, was understood by such authors as responsible for the creation of the material world, and earthly rulers viewed effectively as his puppets in a mission to enslave and abuse those seeking to find their way back to the true supreme Deity. Within early Christianity, then, while the supernatural origin and/or support of Rome’s power was widely held, there was no uniformity in terms of whether this was viewed as ultimately driven by good, or by evil.
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