Friday, 3 April 2015

Carly Daniel-Hughes: Controversies over Infant Baptism and Infant Mortality in Tertullian of Carthage

Despite high infant morality rates in the Roman Empire, Roman parents commonly grieved the death of infants and small children, in commemorative monuments that attended funerary rites. Yet material remains indicate that these deaths were memorialized less frequently than those of older children. Scholars have suggested the fact that infant death was treated differently than other forms of death reflects broader Roman cultural debates about the status of infants and small children. For instance, Seneca the Elder and Plutarch, wondered to what degree these short or “unrealized” lives should be mourned and what kind of funerary practices were suitable for them. Early Christians likewise had varying understandings of infancy, and these shaped their sacramental practices, particularly baptism. As is well known, Tertullian’s predecessor, Cyprian, challenged local bishops and defended the necessity and practice of infant baptism. This paper argues that already in Tertullian’s lifetime, African Christians were both engaging in, and debating this rite (though Tertullian himself rejected the practice). It does so by examining Tertullian’s discussion of the status of infants possessing both soul and body in De anima, with his comments cautioning against infant baptism in other treatises (notably De baptismo), and considers how Tertullian both relies on and reconfigures Roman understandings of the juridical status of infants and children as he challenges those who would baptize infants. Ultimately, Tertullian’s arguments will be considered in light of shifting understandings of childhood and changing practices of commemorating the deaths of infants and small children in late antiquity.

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