Carthage, Africa Proconsularis, ca. 211/12 c.e.
Qenuine revelation in the new era of the Paraclete
The house-church where Tertullian is both a member and a patron is filled to capacity. The house, a Roman-style villa, is big enough to accommodate the fifty to sixty people, including children, who gather together on Sundays and sometimes during the week. In fact the congregation meets in Tertullian’s own house. The villa has an atrium at the front of the house and a second courtyard with a summer triclinium, or dining room, at the back of the house. The design of the house provides two large meeting spaces, which makes it perfect for a house-church, since it provides enough space for the catechumens and the faithful to meet separately for the latter part of the liturgy when the Eucharist is celebrated. Only the faithful are allowed to be present when the bread and wine are consecrated. The catechumens, those who are still being instructed in the faith, must wait until they are baptized before they can partake of the sacred bread and wine. At the end of the first part of the worship service, the catechumens and other non-baptized persons, including most of the children, go to the summer triclinium for instruction while those who have already been baptized stay in the atrium to participate in the “Liturgy of the Faithful.”
Today, during the Eucharist, Tertullian notices that one of the women, a prophetess, seems particularly lost in thought. He hopes that she is actually having one of her visions, as is frequently the case. The woman is amazing; she has the gift of conversing with angels and, so she claims, even with the Lord. Her visions appear to be triggered by various parts of the liturgy: a reading, a prayer, or the sacraments themselves. Tertullian is sure that it is the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who gives the prophetess revelations while she is in an ecstatic state. The Carthaginian prophetess is a contemporary version of Maximilla and Priscilla—and even of Ammia and Philip’s daughters.
The prophetess Tertullian is watching closely right now is not the only new-generation prophetess of the New Prophecy movement in Carthage. Out of the corner of his eye, Tertullian can see one of the others. That particular prophetess recently had an incredible dream, which she related to Tertullian and other church leaders. She told them that during the night while she was in bed sleeping, she felt the gentle touch of an angel’s wing on her neck. She thought she had awakened because the presence of the angel was so real that she was sure that if she reached out with her right hand she could touch the angel, just as the angel had touched her neck. The angel’s touch felt just like a kiss.
In recounting her dream, the prophetess hesitated, seemingly embarrassed to continue. It had taken quite a bit of coaxing to convince her to repeat what the angel had told her: “An elegant neck,” the angel had said, “and fittingly bare! It is good that you are uncovered from your head to your privates, lest you not benefit from the neck’s freedom.”1 What a strange thing for an angel to say! The prophetess wanted to keep the dream to herself, but because she is accustomed to submitting her revelations to Tertullian and the other elders, so they can test their validity and authority, she had told them the dream. She had blushed profusely under her veil, as she had repeated verbatim the angel’s exact words.
In the Carthaginian Christian community there are two kinds of elders: presbyters and seniores. The presbyters are ordained clergy who rank immediately below the bishop and perform important liturgical functions authorized by the bishop. The presbyters are the priests of the church, assisting the bishop in performing baptisms, celebrating the Eucharist, and being the spiritual and pastoral leaders of the various house-churches scattered around the city. The seniores are lay persons who perform only minor liturgical functions such a leading a prayer during a worship service or reading from the sacred writings. They are, as their full title—seniores laid—indicates, “lay elders.” Like village elders in every country hamlet in Africa Proconsularis and elsewhere in North Africa, the seniores laici in the Carthaginian church are older men who, because of their wisdom, experience, influence, and status, are entrusted with the overall well-being of the Christian community. Because Carthage has multiple house-church communities, the various seniores laici associated with those house-churches comprise a Carthage-wide council of elders. Over the years this council has become a powerful entity. It selects and appoints the bishop of Carthage whenever there is a vacancy, it advises the bishop during his episcopacy, and it deals with issues of discipline. Part of the council’s disciplinary function is to ensure that prophecy, which in Carthage is deemed a legitimate charism, is kept under control. Not all that is alleged to be revelation is indeed revelation. The collective spiritual discernment of the council of elders is needed to test all reported dreams, visions, and oracles, in order to determine whether these contain genuine revelation.2
Tertullian enjoys being at the sessions of the council that test the validity and authenticity of prophecy. Ever since he became influenced by the New Prophecy movement, which has won many adherents in Carthage, he has been fascinated with prophecy. He has in his possession a book that is mainly a collection of the oracles of Montanus and Priscilla, and he has also begun his own compilation of the more recent revelations of the Paraclete, such as those mediated by the prophetesses who are now present in the worship service in his own house-church.
Being one of the few highly literate people among the seniores laici in Carthage, Tertullian, after volunteering, was appointed the secretary of the council for the sessions that test the validity of contemporary prophecy. This allows Tertullian to write down the content of a new prophecy as soon as it is related, ensuring its accuracy. It always amazes him how people’s minds play tricks on them. Only a few days after the initial recounting of a particular vision or dream, the way it is told can change considerably. He is glad he has a written record.
When the revelation contained in a particular vision or dream, or better still in the ipsissima verba, the very words, of a prophetic oracle, is deemed authentic, he can then quote this revelation in his own writings as proof that the Paraclete continues to operate in the current era. In fact, Tertullian believes that the current era, inaugurated by the Paraclete’s revelations through Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla, is the best and final era for people of faith. It supersedes, in his view, the era of God the Father, when God was operative in creation and with humankind primarily through the various covenants with the jews. The new era, the era of the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, also supersedes the age of Christ and the apostles, because the earliest Christians were too immature spiritually to receive or understand the full implications of what it means to live the Christian life with all of its ascetic demands. It is not that the new revelations of the Paraclete provide new doctrinal content concerning what Christians are to believe—Christ and the apostles did that. The Paraclete merely provides new, although stringent, ethical guidelines for how mature Christians are to conduct themselvesl
Sometimes the Paraclete’s directives are extremely specific. This was the case with the prophetess’ dream about the angel and the neck. It took a while, but it was Tertullian who figured out what the Paraclete was trying to communicate. It was a prescription concerning the exact length of a modest woman’s veil! The Paraclete was mandating that a woman’s veil should be at least as long as the equivalent of her unbound hair. Just as a woman’s neck is completely covered naturally by her long hair, a veil should be as long as her hair if not longer. That way no part of her neck will be uncovered in public or even in church. The angel’s comment about the prophetess’ total nakedness in bed was an ironic way of pointing out that nakedness—even if only the neck—is inappropriate in public or in church.
At Carthage there is an ongoing debate over whether or not virgins should be veiled in church. Some are of the opinion that, regardless of whether virgins are veiled in public, they need not be veiled in church. After all, pubescent teenage virgins do not wear a veil in church, so why should older unmarried women do so? The veil is a symbol of being married, either to a husband or to Christ. In every house-church in Carthage there is special seating for “dedicated virgins,” that is, women who have taken a vow of chastity and dedicated themselves to the service of God. They belong to the Order of Virgins, which is akin but not identical to, the Order of Widows that also exists in Carthage. The widows have special reserved seating as a sign of respect for them as “altars of God.”3Both groups wear veils in church. The opponents of veiling all women in church argue that veiling virgins prematurely confuses the distinction between dedicated virgins and those who have not yet decided whether to marry or to join the Order of Virgins.
Not that the decision to join an order is really an unmarried woman’s to make. A young woman’s father normally arranges a marriage for her rather than allowing her to be a dedicated virgin, even if she wants to be one. Finding an economically prudent or socially advantageous match for one’s daughter has priority over life-long virginity, and this is true for even the most devout Christian fathers. Dedication to Christ has its practical limits. Only the most determined and persistent young women can persuade their fathers to permit them to “take the veil” and to continue to live at home as dedicated virgins, rather than be married off to some man.
Partly because of the small percentage of young women who actually become dedicated virgins, but mainly because of an insistence on total modesty, Tertullian and those in agreement with him argue that all virgins, even teenaged young women, should be veiled in church. Responding to his opponents’ claim that St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthian community only stipulated that women, not virgins, be veiled in church, Tertullian invariably counters that this is a meaningless distinction—splitting hairs unnecessarily. The category “women” obviously encompasses virgins!
Given that the relevant passage in First Corinthians speaks about the veiling of women in the context of prophesying,4 Tertullian argues that for all women, including virgins, being veiled in church means not only being dressed modestly but also being dressed appropriately for potential prophesying. The Spirit is like a wind and one never knows when or upon whom the Spirit will descend, so all women, especially virgins, should always be prepared to be the vehicle for the Paraclete’s revelations. How tragic it would be if when the Spirit comes, the women on whom the Spirit descends cannot, for lack of a veil, utter publicly in church the words communicated to them. Not that prophecy always works that way; often a revelation is simply communicated to the council of seniores first. But it is better to be prepared for a spontaneous public revelation of the Spirit’s message than to prevent it for lack of a veil.
Tertullian, when he realized the meaning of the prophetess’ dream about the angel touching her neck, knew that the Paraclete was clarifying Christ’s will on the matter. He decided to write a treatise on the veiling of virgins, the crucial component being the Paraclete’s most recent revelation on the matter through the prophetess’ dream. At the beginning of the treatise Tertullian wrote: “They who have heard the Paraclete prophesying even to the present time bid virgins be wholly covered.”5
Now, sitting among the members of his own house-church and seeing all the women veiled, even though in other house-churches meeting concurrently in Carthage this is not yet the case, Tertullian can hardly wait for the worship service to be over. He eagerly looks forward to the moment when, after most of the members of the congregation have gone to their respective homes, the council of seniores will meet in his tablinum to hear the latest revelations of the Paraclete via the prophetess who converses with angels.6
Tertullian, An. 9.4; Anonyma, Log., ap. Tertullian, Virg. 1.7, 17.3; Apol. 39.1-5; Pud.
14.16; Polycarp, Phil. 4.3; 1 Cor 11:1-16.
- 1.Anonyma, , ap.Tertullian, Virg. 17.3. On the Montanist prophetesses in Carthage, see Tabbernee 2001a; 2006a, 523-25; 2007, 135-38.
- On the seniores laici, see Frend 1961, Shaw 1982, and Tabbernee 2005, 435-38.
- 3.See Polycarp, 4.3. On the Order of Widows, see Thurston 1989; Tabbernee 1997b, 521-22; Eisen 2000, 143-57.
- 1 Cor 11:1-16.
- Tertullian, Virg.1.7. For additional information about the conflict in Carthage over the veiling of virgins, see Dunn 2004, 135-42; Tabbernee 2007, 114-15,153-54.
- For another example of a Montanist prophetess who “converses with angels,” see Chapter 27.