Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IV/Tertullian: Part Fourth/On Modesty/Chapter 8

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty
by Tertullian, translated by Sydney Thelwall
Chapter 8
155834Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty — Chapter 8Sydney ThelwallTertullian

Chapter VIII.—Of the Prodigal Son.

But, however, the majority of interpreters of the parables are deceived by the self-same result as is of very frequent occurrence in the case of embroidering garments with purple.  When you think that you have judiciously harmonized the proportions of the hues, and believe yourself to have succeeded in skilfully giving vividness to their mutual combination; presently, when each body (of colour) and (the various) lights are fully developed, the convicted diversity will expose all the error.  In the self-same darkness, accordingly, with regard to the parable of the two sons also, they are led by some figures (occurring in it), which harmonize in hue with the present (state of things), to wander out of the path of the true light of that comparison which the subject-matter of the parable presents.  For they set down, as represented in the two sons, two peoples—the elder the Jewish, the younger the Christian:  for they cannot in the sequel arrange for the Christian sinner, in the person of the younger son, to obtain pardon, unless in the person of the elder they first portray the Jewish.  Now, if I shall succeed in showing that the Jewish fails to suit the comparison of the elder son, the consequence of course will be, that the Christian will not be admissible (as represented) by the joint figure of the younger son.  For although the Jew withal be called “a son,” and an “elder one,” inasmuch as he had priority in adoption;[1] although, too, he envy the Christian the reconciliation of God the Father,—a point which the opposite side most eagerly catches at,—still it will be no speech of a Jew to the Father:  “Behold, in how many years do I serve Thee, and Thy precept have I never transgressed.”  For when has the Jew not been a transgressor of the law; hearing with the ear, and not hearing;[2] holding in hatred him who reproveth in the gates,[3] and in scorn holy speech?[4]  So, too, it will be no speech of the Father to the Jew:  “Thou art always with Me, and all Mine are thine.”  For the Jews are pronounced “apostate sons, begotten indeed and raised on high, but who have not understood the Lord, and who have quite forsaken the Lord, and have provoked unto anger the Holy One of Israel.”[5]  That all things, plainly, were conceded to the Jew, we shall admit; but he has likewise had every more savoury morsel torn from his throat,[6] not to say the very land of paternal promise.  And accordingly the Jew at the present day, no less than the younger son, having squandered God’s substance, is a beggar in alien territory, serving even until now its princes, that is, the princes of this world.[7]  Seek, therefore, the Christians some other as their brother; for the Jew the parable does not admit.  Much more aptly would they have matched the Christian with the elder, and the Jew with the younger son, “according to the analogy of faith,”[8] if the order of each people as intimated from Rebecca’s womb[9] permitted the inversion:  only that (in that case) the concluding paragraph would oppose them; for it will be fitting for the Christian to rejoice, and not to grieve, at the restoration of Israel, if it be true, (as it is), that the whole of our hope is intimately united with the remaining expectation of Israel.[10]  Thus, even if some (features in the parable) are favourable, yet by others of a contrary significance the thorough carrying out of this comparison is destroyed; although (albeit all points be capable of corresponding with mirror-like accuracy) there be one cardinal danger in interpretations—the danger lest the felicity of our comparisons be tempered with a different aim from that which the subject-matter of each particular parable has bidden us (temper it).  For we remember (to have seen) actors withal, while accommodating allegorical gestures to their ditties, giving expression to such as are far different from the immediate plot, and scene, and character, and yet with the utmost congruity.  But away with extraordinary ingenuity, for it has nothing to do with our subject.  Thus heretics, too, apply the self-same parables where they list, and exclude them (in other cases)—not where they ought—with the utmost aptitude.  Why the utmost aptitude?  Because from the very beginning they have moulded together the very subject-matters of their doctrines in accordance with the opportune incidences of the parables.  Loosed as they are from the constraints of the rule of truth, they have had leisure, of course, to search into and put together those things of which the parables seem (to be symbolical).


  1. See Ex. iv. 22; Rom. ix. 4.
  2. Comp. Isa. vi. 9.
  3. Comp. Isa. xxix. 21.
  4. Comp. Jer. xx. 7, 8.
  5. Comp. Isa. i. 2–4.
  6. See Ps. lxxviii. 30, 31 (in LXX. it is lxxvii. 30, 31).
  7. Or “age”—sæculi.  Comp. 1 Cor. ii. 6.
  8. Comp. Rom. xii. 6.
  9. Comp. Rom. ix. 10–13; Gen. xxv. 21–24.
  10. Comp. Rom. xi. 11–36.