Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Anti-Marcion/On the Flesh of Christ/VII

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, Anti-Marcion, On the Flesh of Christ
by Tertullian, translated by Peter Holmes
155465Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, Anti-Marcion, On the Flesh of Christ — VIIPeter HolmesTertullian

Chapter VII.—Explanation of the Lord’s Question About His Mother and His Brethren. Answer to the Cavils of Apelles and Marcion, Who Support Their Denial of Christ’s Nativity by It.

But whenever a dispute arises about the nativity, all who reject it as creating a presumption in favour of the reality of Christ’s flesh, wilfully deny that God Himself was born, on the ground that He asked, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?”[1] Let, therefore, Apelles hear what was our answer to Marcion in that little work, in which we challenged his own (favourite) gospel to the proof, even that the material circumstances of that remark (of the Lord’s) should be considered.[2] First of all, nobody would have told Him that His mother and brethren were standing outside, if he were not certain both that He had a mother and brethren, and that they were the very persons whom he was then announcing,—who had either been known to him before, or were then and there discovered by him; although heretics[3] have removed this passage from the gospel, because those who were admiring His doctrine said that His supposed father, Joseph the carpenter, and His mother Mary, and His brethren, and His sisters, were very well known to them. But it was with the view of tempting Him, that they had mentioned to Him a mother and brethren which He did not possess. The Scripture says nothing of this, although it is not in other instances silent when anything was done against Him by way of temptation.  “Behold,” it says, “a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Him.”[4] And in another passage: “The Pharisees also came unto Him, tempting Him.” Who[5] was to prevent its being in this place also indicated that this was done with the view of tempting Him? I do not admit what you advance of your own apart from Scripture. Then there ought to be suggested[6] some occasion[7] for the temptation. What could they have thought to be in Him which required temptation?  The question, to be sure, whether He had been born or not? For if this point were denied in His answer, it might come out on the announcement of a temptation. And yet no temptation, when aiming at the discovery of the point which prompts the temptation by its doubtfulness, falls upon one so abruptly, as not to be preceded by the question which compels the temptation whilst raising the doubt.  Now, since the nativity of Christ had never come into question, how can you contend that they meant by their temptation to inquire about a point on which they had never raised a doubt?  Besides,[8] if He had to be tempted about His birth, this of course was not the proper way of doing it,—by announcing those persons who, even on the supposition of His birth, might possibly not have been in existence. We have all been born, and yet all of us have not either brothers or mother. He might with more probability have had even a father than a mother, and uncles more likely than brothers. Thus is the temptation about His birth unsuitable, for it might have been contrived without any mention of either His mother or His brethren. It is clearly more credible that, being certain that He had both a mother and brothers, they tested His divinity rather than His nativity, whether, when within, He knew what was without; being tried by the untrue announcement of the presence of persons who were not present. But the artifice of a temptation might have been thwarted thus:  it might have happened that He knew that those whom they were announcing to be “standing without,” were in fact absent by the stress either of sickness, or of business, or a journey which He was at the time aware of. No one tempts (another) in a way in which he knows that he may have himself to bear the shame of the temptation. There being, then, no suitable occasion for a temptation, the announcement that His mother and His brethren had actually turned up[9] recovers its naturalness. But there is some ground for thinking that Christ’s answer denies His mother and brethren for the present, as even Apelles might learn. “The Lord’s brethren had not yet believed in Him.”[10] So is it contained in the Gospel which was published before Marcion’s time; whilst there is at the same time a want of evidence of His mother’s adherence to Him, although the Marthas and the other Marys were in constant attendance on Him.  In this very passage indeed, their unbelief is evident. Jesus was teaching the way of life, preaching the kingdom of God and actively engaged in healing infirmities of body and soul; but all the while, whilst strangers were intent on Him, His very nearest relatives were absent. By and by they turn up, and keep outside; but they do not go in, because, forsooth, they set small store[11] on that which was doing within; nor do they even wait,[12] as if they had something which they could contribute more necessary than that which He was so earnestly doing; but they prefer to interrupt Him, and wish to call Him away from His great work. Now, I ask you, Apelles, or will you Marcion, please (to tell me), if you happened to be at a stage play, or had laid a wager[13] on a foot race or a chariot race, and were called away by such a message, would you not have exclaimed, “What are mother and brothers to me?”[14] And did not Christ, whilst preaching and manifesting God, fulfilling the law and the prophets, and scattering the darkness of the long preceding age, justly employ this same form of words, in order to strike the unbelief of those who stood outside, or to shake off the importunity of those who would call Him away from His work? If, however, He had meant to deny His own nativity, He would have found place, time, and means for expressing Himself very differently,[15] and not in words which might be uttered by one who had both a mother and brothers. When denying one’s parents in indignation, one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults. Besides, He gave others the preference; and since He shows their title to this favour—even because they listened to the word (of God)—He points out in what sense He denied His mother and His brethren. For in whatever sense He adopted as His own those who adhered to Him, in that did He deny as His[16] those who kept aloof from Him. Christ also is wont to do to the utmost that which He enjoins on others. How strange, then, would it certainly[17] have been, if, while he was teaching others not to esteem mother, or father, or brothers, as highly as the word of God, He were Himself to leave the word of God as soon as His mother and brethren were announced to Him! He denied His parents, then, in the sense in which He has taught us to deny ours—for God’s work. But there is also another view of the case: in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren. In their person Israel remained outside, whilst the new disciples who kept close to Christ within, hearing and believing, represented the Church, which He called mother in a preferable sense and a worthier brotherhood, with the repudiation of the carnal relationship. It was in just the same sense, indeed, that He also replied to that exclamation (of a certain woman), not denying His mother’s “womb and paps,” but designating those as more “blessed who hear the word of God.”[18]


  1. Matt. xii. 48; Luke viii. 20, 21.
  2. See our Anti-Marcion, iv. 19.
  3. Literally, “heresies.”
  4. Luke x. 25.
  5. Literally, “nobody prevented its being, etc.”
  6. Subesse.
  7. Materia.
  8. Eo adicimus etiam.
  9. Supervenissent.
  10. John vii. 5.
  11. Non computantes scilicet.
  12. Nec sustinent saltem.
  13. Contendens: “videlicet sponsionibus” (Oehler)
  14. Literally, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?”—Christ’s own words.
  15. The alius is a genitive, and must be taken with sermonis.
  16. Abnegavit: “repudiated.”
  17. Force of the indicative quale erat.
  18. Luke xi. 27, 28. See also our Anti-Marcion, p. 292, Edin.