Carthage Questions, Carthage Answers! Presentation at Global South

Oct 5, 2016 by

Carthage Questions: Carthage Answers!

Rt Rev Dr Bill Musk Cairo, October, 2016

Thank you for this opportunity to address you. I had hoped to welcome you all to Tunisia a year ago, and especially to take you to see some of the amazing sites of early church life and martyrdom in and around Tunis, the modern Carthage. The original Carthage was largest of the towns founded by the Phoenicians[1] on the North African coast. The Carthaginians fought the Greeks for a century to try and control Sicily and then fought the Romans in three Punic wars (the days of Hannibal and Scipio)[2] for influence in the Western Mediterranean. The Romans eventually won the upper hand and destroyed Carthage in 146BC. One hundred years later, however, Julius Caesar re-founded the city (in 44BC) and by the middle of the 1st century AD Carthage had become the second largest city (after Rome) in the western half of the empire and the hub of the prosperous Roman province of Africa. The records of the rapid spread of the Christian faith through the Roman province of Africa start from the late 2nd century AD and from their beginning highlight the reality and powerful witness in that spread of persecution.

Persecution was the nudge (according to Luke in Acts 8) that got the first believers out of Jerusalem and on their way to Judea and Samaria. The results of their fleeing and their evangelising of people where they settled in exile brought big repercussions on their “mother church” in Jerusalem. The home-city church leaders discovered that there were now bacon-eating, uncircumcised Gentiles claiming to be their brothers and sisters in Christ. They learned from Peter that the Holy Spirit had seemingly been happy to fill and empower such Gentile believers without requiring them to become subject to historic Jewish religious and cultural norms (Acts 11 and 15).

Persecution was the nudge (according to the likes of Tertullian[3]) that saw the gospel spread powerfully in the Roman province of Africa from the late 2nd century onwards. Today we can read a transcript of the trial of the Scillitan Martyrs that took place in AD180 in the forum on Byrsa Hill (where the Acropolium now stands).[4] We can consult the diary entries of Perpetua as she, with her servant-girl Felicitas, waited in prison for martyrdom in the 36,000-seater amphitheatre situated less than a mile from Bursa Hill (AD203).[5] We think we know the place where Bishop Cyprian of Carthage was beheaded for his faith in AD258 and we can certainly visit the site of the basilica dedicated to him.[6] In Tertullian’s famous and still-true words, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed [of the church].”[7]

Persecution in North Africa, however, as well as being life-giving seed, left a difficult legacy for the local church to manage. How should believers, especially church leaders, who compromised their faith when under pressure be dealt with? After the Edict of Toleration in AD311 and the legalising of the Christian faith, this question dominated church affairs in the region. Different answers were theologically argued but one suspects that the different conclusions reached more likely reflected alternative ethnic or cultural outlooks. The Latin-speaking, largely expatriate church tended to be more compassionate towards those who either sacrificed to the “divine” Roman Emperor or who bought a certificate saying that they had so sacrificed. The Berber-speaking,[8] indigenous church tended to be far more uncompromising, wanting to uphold a standard of purity that excluded or demoted the ministry of bishops or priests who had succumbed to the temptation to save their skins. The “Donatist controversy” over this matter came to haunt the development of “church” in the province of Africa, leading to a parallel-church presence for many decades.[9] Eventually, a meeting in a public baths[10] was organised by command of Emperor Honorius in AD411. The ruins of the baths still stand in Carthage. The ruins of the decision made against the Donatists, pushed through at that deliberation, rumbled around the province, greatly weakening the indigenous Christian presence there. Augustine, sadly, was the primary church leader who advocated the use of state power to enforce his (Roman) party’s ecclesiological vision – the Donatists were violently suppressed and their properties seized[11].

Carthage lesson 1

Suffering is a normative element in Christian witness and life, whether it is literal martyrdom by enemies of Christ, or discrimination by a powerful state apparatus, or punishment through marginalisation in a society that runs after other gods. Are we building Anglican communities of faith that take seriously the cost of discipleship, that pray for, honour and support those who do suffer for their faith? How do we provoke one another to live faithfully, uncomfortably, for Christ in a world dislocated from God? How do we relate to those whom we would see as “giving in” to the faithless norms in the societies of which they are a part?

Diversity or Division?

Perhaps there are hints in the Book of Acts that Luke is trying to affirm the ministries of both primary apostles, Peter and Paul, in the light of some friction between them, or between groups that retained rival loyalty to them in the decades after their departure from the earthly scene. Certainly we learn of a face-to-face clash between the two missionary giants in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21). And it was not just Peter and Paul who argued. Luke recounts Paul and Barnabas’ parting of ways over young Mark (Acts 15:36-41), a break in trust that happily got sorted out, evidently, in later years (2 Timothy 4:11). Happily sorted out, thank God, but the bust-up had occurred even though one might argue that the sadness led, redemptively, to twice the missionary program as Barnabas and Mark went in one direction and Paul and Silas in another. Mission was messy then, as today!

Unhappily the vibrant, theologically-mature contribution to Christian suffering, theologising and practice that was mediated via Carthage to both East and West was repeatedly compromised by conflict between Christians of different persuasions and backgrounds. We have mentioned the Donatist controversy and the “winning” of that argument by the Latin, Roman Church. It wasn’t long before other Christians piled into North Africa – 80,000 of them to be precise!

The Vandals – land-hungry tribes-people of east-Germanic origin – crossed from Spain to Africa in AD429 under their king Genseric.[12] Were they invited to North Africa or did they just come anyway? The great Augustine died while the Vandals were besieging Hippo. After Carthage had in turn been captured, Genseric gradually dominated the western Mediterranean, eventually invading Italy itself in AD455, reaching and securing Rome where he took hostage the empress and her two daughters. The Vandal kingdom, a thorn in the side of Rome, lasted almost a century. The Vandals had earlier embraced an Arian expression of Christianity during the reign of Emperor Valens in the AD360s.[13] Differences between the Arian Vandals and their Trinitarian subjects (including both Catholics and surviving Donatists) were a constant source of tension in the province of Africa. Catholic bishops were exiled or killed by Genseric whilst laymen were excluded from office and frequently suffered confiscation of their property. Hilderic (AD523–530) was the one exception to the Vandal rule, proving tolerant towards the Catholic Church and granting it religious freedom. During his rule, Catholic synods came once again to be held in North Africa. You can visit today the ruins of Vandal basilicas in Tunisia.

After a century of Vandal rule, the expansionist energy of Justinian in Constantinople – and of his great general Belisarius in the field – brought back the whole of the North African coast under Byzantine imperial rule for one final century. In AD533 Belisarius defeated the Vandals in battle, captured their king and entered Carthage unopposed. As a result, Carthage regained its status as an important imperial city. The Carthagena Basilica was built after AD533, that is, after the recapture of Carthage from the Vandals by Byzantine troops. The site of this former basilica was uncovered in the 1970s and can be visited today. The Byzantine basilica was built on the site of a 4th century (probably Christian) monument. The probable Christian monument was most likely the Catholic cathedral of Carthage, known as Restituta, so-named because it was reclaimed by the Catholics from the Donatists. Not much remains today in terms of the basilica itself.[14] In the south-west corner of the site, a few steps lead to the ghost of a baptistery. It is hard to imagine that this was once a major basilica sitting in the centre of Carthage. Its history as a Byzantine church built over a Catholic church reclaimed from the Donatists sums up something of the continual clash between Christians of different theological and ecclesiological convictions that eviscerated faithful witness in the region. The Byzantine Empire finally lost all control of Africa as the region fell to the Umayyad conquest of North Africa by the close of the 7th century. Surviving Catholic, Donatist, Vandal and Orthodox Christian communities quickly became eclipsed by the spread of Islam.

Carthage lesson 2

Theologising, or “doing theology” most often arises out of changing “facts on the ground” that require Christians to think biblically about what their response might be.

Tertullian, lay theologian living in a time when Christians tended not to be so publicly visible, basing their evening fellowship around a meal in a private home, felt strongly that each individual Christian was responsible for maintaining a quality of life that spoke of holiness and obedience to God.

Cyprian, ordained a presbyter and bishop and living in a time when celebrations by growing numbers tended to be organised around bishops and clergy who were responsible for leading holy communions in the morning hours, felt that in such a mishmash of motivations as was now manifested in “church”, the bishops had to be the group of people who especially maintained a quality of life that spoke of the holiness of church on behalf of all.

The Donatist movement threw into the limelight different views about what might be considered appropriate standards of faithfulness, especially for those threatened with persecution. The Donatists went for very high standards, especially for bishops – so-much-so that a parallel church structure was deemed necessary to retain the purity of the church’s leadership in the region.

Augustine, “winner” of the Caecillian/Donatist controversy, developed his theology of the efficacy of the sacraments, of the Holy Spirit’s role in ordination to office, of the sharing of grace in God’s children, such that, in his view, God could even use evil bishops to speak the truth of the gospel. Humans, Christian leaders and followers, compromise and fail but God remains faithful and able to oversee and overrule such failures.

What are the changing “facts on the ground” in different cultures today that cause us Anglicans to have to rethink or restate our theology? How do we do that rethinking or restating? Do we need to “win”? Can we live with some tension? With how much tension?

Discerning the Moment

Reference has already been made, in passing, to the first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where church leaders sought to discern from Scripture, from mutual listening as faith-leaders and from recounting the interruptions and whispers of the Holy Spirit, how to handle the relationship between Christians of Jewish and Gentile background.

Hardly noticed by thousands of Tunisian commuters who daily rush past it from a leafy, seaside suburb to the city centre, sit the unadvertised ruins of a basilica that was once the largest church in Africa! The Damous el-Karita[15] Basilica comprised church, monastery and underground rotunda. Part of it dates from the late fourth century. In AD419, North African bishops met with Bishop Aurelius of Carthage in this huge basilica to confirm the canons made in sixteen previous councils held in Carthage plus one in Milevis[16] and one in Hippo[17] (between AD345 and AD418). The confirmed canons included a list of canonical books in Old and New Testaments. The work of the Council was enacted and recorded in Latin, but later translated into Greek and accepted by the Eastern Orthodox at the Council of Trullo.[18] As well as reiterating a canon of Scripture, the Council of Carthage reaffirmed the statutes of the Council of Nicaea (AD325) and set out additional statutes of its own. Those new statutes included agreement on how to handle a priest who refused to subject himself to the advice of adjudicating bishops when in dispute with his own bishop; and a requirement that a bishop under serious accusation needed to be adjudicated by a bench of at least twelve fellow bishops. There is a sub-text here. The bishops in Africa wanted to prevent appeals to the bishop of Rome by local clergy or bishops in dispute. They did not want to admit the claim being made by Bishop Celestine of Rome to appellate jurisdiction in the church in Africa. The Council also cleared up a delicate hangover from the previous Donatist controversy: children baptised by Donatist clergy were to be allowed ordination in the Catholic Church.

Carthage lesson 3

North African Christians especially modelled a seeking of the mind of Christ through the meeting together of bishops in synod. Bishops got to know one another and, often, supported one another. Augustine of Hippo Regius collaborated closely with Bishop Aurelius of Carthage in formulating legislation to give the church both form and discipline. Their suggestions were enacted and enforced by episcopal councils. Councils of African bishops were confident of their authority under God for ordering the church in the Roman province of Africa. They differed from the bishops of Rome and Milan in how they would deal with former Donatist clergy. They challenged the bishops of Palestine and Rome on the orthodoxy of Pelagius and his disciples. They insisted on their right to discipline their clergy and colleagues (like presbyter Apiarius from Sicca Veneria and bishop Antony of Fussala) without the interference of bishops from outside of Africa.

Can the leaders of the Anglican Global South, meeting together in council, be mutually supportive despite differences of view, be spokespeople for what they believe to be godly responses to difficult issues in today’s world, be confident that God has called them together to humility and authority within the Anglican communion today?


I hope that one day it might be possible for you to be truly welcomed to near-Carthage. Tunisia is a beautiful country and its citizens are lovely, lively people. We thank God for your prophetic life and role in the Anglican Communion at this time and also as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. We are praying for you as you meet to pray, listen, love across barriers, handle the sub-texts and produce something worthy, again, from Cairo if not this time from Carthage.

Introductory bibliography

  1. Patout Burns Jr & Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2014).

Fethi Chelbi, Utique la Splendide (Ministry of Culture: Tunis, 1996).

Robin Daniel, This Holy Seed (Tamarisk: Harpenden, 1992).

Francois Decret, Early Christianity in North Africa (James Clark: Cambridge, 2009).

Lilian Ennabli, Christian Carthage (l’APPC: Tunis, 2001).

Malcolm Lyon, The Bronze Ladder (Matador: Leicester, 2006).

Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP: Leicester, 2007).

[1] Traditionally Dido in the ninth century BC.

[2] The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 to 146BC. At the time, they were probably the largest wars that had ever taken place. Their main cause was the conflict of interests between the existing Carthaginian Empire and the expanding Roman Republic.

[3] Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian (c. AD160 – c. 225), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.

[4] The martyrs take their name from Scilla (Scillium, a town in Tunisia). Commodus was Roman Emperor at this time (AD180-192). Their names were Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturis, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetentius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda: male and female, Latin and Berber-speaking.

[5] Executed alongside Perpetua and Felicitas were Revocatus, Saturus, Saturninus and Secundus. These Christians fell foul of a decree against “proselytising” issued by Emperor Septimus Severus. The details of their martyrdom can be found in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs: texts and translation by Herbert Musurillo

(Oxford University Press), 1972.

[6] On the Sayda plateau, overlooking the sea, at the north-east end of Carthage, site most likely of Cyprian’s tomb. The church was built at the end of the 4th century. Cyprian was martyred during Emperor Valerian’s rule (AD257-259).

[7] Tertullian converted about AD195, remaining a layman and becoming a prolific writer on behalf of the Christian faith. His famous words about martyrdom appear in Apology 50, 12ff.

[8] Berber: Imazighen/Imaziɣen in plural, and Amazigh in singular, comprise the ethnicity indigenous to North Africa west of the Nile Valley.

[9] A cleric named Caecilian was elected Bishop of Carthage in AD312; he was of the “pro-Latin” camp. This incensed many, and they refused to accept his appointment, on the legalistic grounds that he hadn’t been properly ordained in the first place, some years prior. These “purists” elected, instead, their own bishop, Majorinus, one who denounced the “Roman collaborators” and refused to restore lapsed clergy. When he died in AD315, the purists elected Donatus. Due to his long tenure as the purist Bishop of Carthage (from AD315 to 355 despite an exile in AD347), Donatus ended up being the primary spokesman for the movement, and it bears his name.

[10] The Baths of Gargilius, situated on the north side of Byrsa hill.

[11] Augustine based his argument on Psalm 18:37 “I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed.” In his treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatists, Augustine wrote: “… there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious… she persecutes …that she may correct … that she may recall from error … Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth” (Letter 185.2.11).

[12] It is possible that the Arabic term for Spain ­– Iberia al-Andalus ­– may be derived from the Berber pronunciation of Vandal as “Wandal”.

[13] Arius (hence Arianism) denied that Jesus was of the same substance as God, holding instead that he was only the highest of created beings.

[14] A visit to the site of the Paleo-Christian Museum (close to the Antonine Baths) is rewarding. The small museum is established on the excavation site itself where in the 1970s and early 1980s the vestiges of the Carthagena Basilica were found.

[15] From Latin domus caritatis, “house of charity.”

[16] Milah, Algeria.

[17] Annaba, Algeria.

[18] The Council in Trullo (strictly the Quinisext Ecumenical Council) was held in AD692 and brought to completion work of the Fifth Ecumenical Council of AD553 and the Sixth Ecumenical Council of AD681. Its concerns were mainly legislative, ratifying 102 canons and decisions of the two earlier Ecumenical Councils. The canons of the Councils of Carthage comprised part of the comprehensive list of canons named at Trullo as having universal authority. Incidentally, the Council at Trullo recorded some disagreement with the Roman Church. That disagreement, however, was not over the authority of the Pope or the filioque clause; the Greeks objected, rather, to Latin customs such as priestly celibacy and fasting on Saturday!

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