- Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200–450 CE by Éric Rebillard
We know we all have multiple identities. Éric Rebillard explores the possibility of looking at early Christians not as bounded, one-dimensional characters with a single defining identity, but as persons with normal fluid (and sometimes conflicting) identities in which their Christianity was only one of a plurality of identities. To explore this thesis, he selects as a sample the testimony of writers from North Africa ranging from the late-second to the early-fifth century—namely, Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, and St. Augustine. [End Page 770]
Some will be repelled by the sociological jargon that this exercise seems (unnecessarily) to entail—“groupness,” “deactivate” or “activate,” or “give salience to Christianness,” and so forth—and the analysis seems to work best in the period of Augustine, where we have fuller material and more ambiguously aligned social and religious figures and obligations. In the case of Tertullian, Rebillard is obliged to “read against the grain” (p. 6) and
… to resist Tertullian’s selective focus on Christianness. When he evokes everyday situations he consistently decontextualizes them in order to force on them his own agenda about what Christianness should entail. However, the numerous objections he feels compelled to refute show that his point of view was not shared, or at least not shared by all Christians. It would be naïve to see “real” objections behind all the objections mentioned by Tertullian, but … Tertullian’s rhetorical strategy could not be effective without somehow relating to his audience’s experience.(p. 31)
This leads Rebillard to be cautiously selective in Tertullian’s testimony on Christians’ behavior in their social context of the late-second and early-third century North Africa.
The difficulty of this re-description of a Christian’s individual behavior in neutral sociological terms is that it is just that: a re-description. It cannot legitimately lead to the deduction of an individual’s subjective motivation. But that slippage is what Rebillard is inclined to make. A case from Cyprian is illustrative.
It is clear that the majority of Christians in Carthage complied with orders of the Emperor Decius to offer sacrifice, or by bribery or other means obtained a certificate which certified that they had so offered sacrifice. They became the lapsi. In Rebillard’s terms they “did not activate their Christian membership in the context of their participation in this civic ceremony” (p. 51). But it does not follow that we can deduce from this re-description what were their personal motivations. We cannot say “the majority of Christians complied, as it was a requirement of their membership in the imperial commonwealth” (p. 60, emphasis added); or “the majority of Christians did not consider the sacrifice relevant to their [Christian] membership and accordingly performed it freely and willingly” (p. 53, emphasis added); or “the majority of Christians complied with the edict under no compulsion whatsoever” (p. 50, emphasis added). This knowingly (p. 50) rejects the testimony that we do have from Cyprian on their motivations—fear of the penalties for noncompliance, which could include the grim horrors of imprisonment prevailing in Roman conditions and deadly tortures (De lapsis 13, cp.epp.10, 11, 21); the rigors of exile (e.g., ep.24); or at least the very real prospect of utter destitution with the legal confiscation of all one’s worldly goods and personal property, expatiated at considerable length by Cyprian in De lapsis 10–12. Rebillard summarily dismisses Cyprian’s testimony (p. 50, p. 103n30) to which the reply is, to quote Rebillard’s own words, that Cyprian’s “rhetorical strategy [in De lapsis] could not be effective without somehow relating to his audience’s experience.”
It is certainly refreshing to have to consider “the intermittency … of Christianness” (p. 93) in the everyday lived experience of individual Christians during the vastly [End Page 771] changing religious and social conditions prevailing in North Africa over...