Pontic peoples: Tertullian on the Pontic “barbarian” Marcion (late second century CE)

Authors: Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.1 (link to Latin text and another full translation).

Comments: Tertullian was an elite author living in Carthage in North Africa (second century CE) who was also a follower of Jesus. His work Against Marcion was aimed at refuting another form of Jesus adherence which Tertullian (and some others) considered a “heresy,” a “(bad) choice.” Ethnographic traditions concerning the barbarism of peoples living around the Black Sea (also known as the Euxinos Pontos, “Hospitable Sea”) serve as Tertullian’s first weapons against Marcion, who was actually from the very old Greek city of Sinope on the southern coast of this sea. Tertullian chooses to cast Marcion primarily as a Pontic barbarian nonetheless. Because it serves his purpose best, Tertullian reflects only the negative stereotypes concerning peoples from the Black Sea area rather than certain traditions that sketched out Scythians and others as wise barbarians or noble savages (on which see many other items on “Scythian wisdom” in category 3).

Source of the translation: P. Holmes, The Five Books of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus Against Marcion (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1868), public domain (link), adapted by Harland.


Book 1

[Introduction to the entire work]

(1) Whatever I have written in opposition to Marcion in the past is no longer my concern. It is a new work which we are undertaking in place of the old one. My original writing, which was composed quickly, I had subsequently replaced with my fuller treatment. The latter work I lost before it was completely published as a result of a theft by a person who was then a Christian but later became an apostate. What happened was he had transcribed a portion of it, full of mistakes, and then published it. So the necessity arose for an amended work, and the occasion of the new edition led me to make considerable additions to the writing. So this present text of my work – which is the third superseding the second, but from now on will be considered the first instead of the third – makes a preface necessary to this version of the writing itself, so that no reader may be confused if he happened to encounter the various versions of it which are scattered around.

[Nature of the peoples around the Pontos Euxinos / Black Sea]

The Sea (Pontos) which is called Euxinos [literally “Hospitable,” now the Black Sea]] is self-contradictory in its nature and deceptive in its name. You would not consider it hospitable from its situation, since it cut off from our more civilized waters by a stigma which attaches to its barbarous character. The fiercest descent groups (gentes) inhabit it, if indeed it can be called “habitation” when life is passed in wagons. They have no fixed home. Their life has no hint of civilization. They indulge their sexual desires without restraint, and for the most part live naked. Moreover, when they gratify secret lust, they hang up their quivers on a yoke of a wagon to warn off the curious and rash observer. So they disrespect their weapons without blushing. They cut up the dead bodies of their parentswith their sheep and devour them at their feasts. Anyone who has not died so as to become food for others is thought to have died an accursed death. Their women have lost the softness and modesty of their sex. They bare their breasts, from which they suspend their battle-axes, and they prefer warfare to marriage.

Their climate is also rude. The day-time is never clear, the sun never cheerful. The sky is uniformly cloudy, the whole year is wintery, and the only wind that blows is the angry north wind. Water only melts using fire. Their rivers do not flow because of the ice. Their mountains are covered with piles of snow. Everything is lethargic and completely stiff from the cold. Nothing there has the glow of life, but that ferocity which has added to plays their stories of the sacrifices of the Taurians [in the area of modern Crimea], the loves of the Kolchians [overlapping with modern Georgia], and the crosses of the Caucasians [inhabitants of the Caucasus mountains].

However, nothing in Pontos is as barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there. More repulsive than any Scythian, less stable than a wagon-dweller, more inhuman than the Massagetians, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Ister [Danube], more precipitous than the Caucasus mountains. Even more, the true Prometheus, Almighty God, is mangled by Marcion’s blasphemies. Marcion is even more savage than the beasts of that barbarous region. For what beaver was more self-castrating [beaver’s were believed to castrate themselves with their teeth] than he who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse ever had such gnawing powers as he who has gnawed the gospels to pieces?

Oh Euxinos, you have produced a monster more credible to philosophers than to Christians. For the Cynic Diogenes [also of Sinope] used to go around, lantern in hand, in the middle of the day to find a man. Whereas Marcion has put out the light of his faith, and so lost the god whom he had found. His disciples will not deny that, at first, his faith agreed with ours, for his own letter proves this. From now on a “heretic” (haeresis) may from his case be designated as one who, leaving behind what was prior, later “chose” [the Greek word hairesis, here transliterated into Latin, pertains to “choice”] out for himself things that did not exist in the past. For in so far as what was delivered in the past and from the beginning will be held as truth, in the same way things will be considered heresy which are brought in later.

But another brief writing of mine will maintain this position against heretics: even without a consideration of their doctrines, they can be considered heretical on the ground of their novelty. Now, since a contest cannot be refused, I will for now . . . begin by outlining our adversary’s doctrine, so that no one will miss what our main contention is.

(2) The heretic of Pontos introduces two gods, like the two Clashing Rocks on which he shipwrecks: one, the creator, whom it was impossible for him to deny, and the other, whom he will never be able to prove, his own god. . . [Very very detailed attempt to refute Marcion follows in five books].

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published.