Enduring Shame as Costly Signalling

The Case of Public Confession of Sin According to Tertullian


  • Rikard Roitto Stockholm School of Theology




public confession of sin, costly signalling, Tertullian, shame


This article analyses public confession of sins according to Tertullian (160-225 CE) as an emotionally and socially costly signal of commitment to a religious group, early 3rd century Christianity in Carthage. Here "public" means "before the community of believers" rather than "before society in general". What group dynamic functions did the ritual have and why did people accept undergoing the shame of public confession of sins?

Author Biography

Rikard Roitto, Stockholm School of Theology

PhD Docent Rikard Roitto, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Stockholm School of Theology, has a special interest in using behavioral sciences to interpret early Christian and history. Roitto has written several articles on forgiveness in early Christianity, using recent behavioral research on forgiveness and cooperation. Roitto is one of the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual (edited by Risto Uro, Richard Demaris, Juliette Day and Rikard Roitto, Oxford University Press, 2018) and currently part of the research project Moral Repair in Antiquity sponsored by the Swedish Research Council.


Atkinson, Quentin D., and Pierrick Bourrat. 2011. “Beliefs about God, the Afterlife and Morality Support the Role of Supernatural Policing in Human Cooperation”. Evolution and Human Behavior 32: 41–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.07.008

Axelrod, Robert. 1997. The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Barnes, Timothy D. 1985. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Rev. edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bar-Tal, Daniel. 1990. Group Beliefs: A Conception for Analyzing Group Structure, Processes, and Behavior. Berlin: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-3298-8

Barton, Carlin A. 2001. Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bianchi, Ugo, and René Gothoni. 2005. “Confessions of Sins”. In Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones, vol. 3, 1883–1890. Detroit and New York: Macmillan.

Braithwaite, John. 1989. Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511804618

Bulbulia, Joseph. 2004. “The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion”. Biology and Philosophy, 19: 655–86. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-005-5568-6

Burkert, Walter. 1996. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Dallen, James. 1986. The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Decret, François, 2009. Early Christianity in North Africa. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Dunn, Geoffrey D. 2004. Tertullian. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203642870

Doskocil, Walter. 1958. Der Bann in der Urkirche: eine rechtsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. München: Zink.

Favazza, Joseph A. 1988. The Order of the Penitents. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Fischer, Ronald, and Dimitris Xygalatas. 2014. “Extreme Rituals as Social Technologies”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 14: 345–55. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342130

Gilbert, Paul. 2003. “Evolution, Social Roles, and the Differences in Shame and Guilt”. Social Research 70: 1205–230.

Gilmore, David D., ed. 1987. Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Goldhahn-Müller Ingrid. 1989. Die Grenze der Gemeinde: Studien zum Problem der zweiten Buße im Neuen Testament unter Berücksichtigung der Entwicklung in 2. Jh. bis Tertullian. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Greenwald, Deborah. F., and David W. Harder. 1998. “Domains of Shame: Evolutionary, Cultural, and Psychotherapeutic Aspects”. In Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture, ed. Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews, 225–45. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hallonsten, Gösta. 1982. “Some Aspects on the So-called ‘Verdienstbegriff’ of Tertullian”. In Studia patristica: Papers Presented at the Eighth International Conference on Patristic Studies met in Oxford from 3 to 8 September 1979, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 799–802. Elkins Park, PA: Franklin Book.

Hallonsten, Gösta. 1984. “Satisfactio bei Tertullian: Überprüfung einer Forschungstradition”. Dissertation. Malmö: LiberFörlag/Gleerup.

Hendrich, Joseph. 2009. “The Evolution of Costly Displays, Cooperation and Religion: Credibility Enhancing Displays and Their Implications for Cultural Evolution”. Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 244–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005

Iannaccone, Laurence R. 1994. “Why Strict Churches are Strong”. American Journal of Sociology 99: 1180–211. https://doi.org/10.1086/230409

Irons, William. 1996. “Morality, Religion, and Human Nature”. In Religion and Science: History, Method, and Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman, 375–99. New York: Routledge.

Irons, William. 2001. “Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment”. In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, ed. Randolph M. Nesse, 292–309. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Johnson, Dominic, and Jesse Bering. 2009. “Hand of God, Mind of Man: Punishment and Cognition in the Evolution of Cooperation”. In The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, ed. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray, 26–43. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199557028.003.0002

Johnson, Dominic, and Oliver Krüger. 2004. “The Good of Wrath: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation”. Political Theology 5: 159–76. https://doi.org/10.1558/poth.2004.5.2.159

Johnson, Marguerite, and Terry Ryan. 2005. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Le Saint, William P., trans. 1959. Tertullian, Treatises on Penance. Westminster.

Malina, Bruce J. 1981. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press.

Marques, Jose M., Dominic Abrams and R. G. Seredio. 2001. “Being Better by Being Right: Subjective Group Dynamics and Derogation of Ingroup Deviants When Generic Norms Are Undermined”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81: 436–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.81.3.436

McCullough, Michael E. 2008. Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McNeill, John T., and Helena M. Gamer. 1938. Medieval Handbooks of Penance. New York.

Murray, Michael J., and Lyn Moore. 2009. “Costly Signaling and the Origin of Religion”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 9: 225–45. https://doi.org/10.1163/156770909X12489459066264

Neufeld, Dietmar. 2010. “Honor: Core Value in the Biblical World”. In Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, ed. Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, 109–125. London: Routledge.

Ohtsubo, Yohsuke, and Esuka Watanabe. 2009. “Do Sincere Apologies Need to be Costly? Test of a Costly Signaling Model of Apology”. Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 114–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.09.004

Paden, William E. 2016. New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Panksepp, Jaak. 1998. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peristiany, John George, ed. 1966. Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Poschmann, Bernhard. 1940. Paenitentia secunda: Die kirchliche Buße im ältesten Christentum bis Cyprian und Origenes. Bonn: Peter Hanstein.

Rankin, David. 1995. Tertullian and the Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511520204

Scheidel, Walter. 2011. “Monogamy and Polygyny”. In A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, ed. Beryl Rawson, 108–15. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444390766.ch6

Schloss, Jeffrey P., and Michael J. Murray. 2011. “Evolutionary Accounts of Belief in Supernatural Punishment: A Critical Review”. Religion, Brain and Behavior 1: 46–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2011.558707

Slone, D. Jason. 2008. “The Attraction of Religion: A Sexual Selectionist Account”. In The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques, edited by Bulbulia, Joseph et al., 181-188. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.

Slone, D. Jason, and James A. Van Slyke, eds. 2015. The Attraction of Religion: A New Evolutionary Psychology of Religion. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Sosis, Richard. 2003. “Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior”. Human Nature 14: 91–127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1000-6

Sosis, Richard. 2004. “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual: Rituals Promote Group Cohesion by Requiring Members to Engage in Behavior that is Too Costly to Fake”. American Scientists 92: 166–74. https://doi.org/10.1511/2004.46.928

Sosis, Richard. 2006. “Religious Behaviors, Badges, and Bans: Signaling Theory and the Evolution of Religion”. In Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, Volume 1: Evolution, Genes, and the Religious Brain, ed. Patrick McNamara, 61–86. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Sosis, Richard. 2009. “The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program”. Journal of Cognition and Culture 9: 315–32. https://doi.org/10.1163/156770909X12518536414411

Staw, Barry M. 1976. “Knee-deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action”. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 16: 27–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/0030-5073(76)90005-2

Tangney, June P. 2002. “Self-Conscious Emotions: The Self as a Moral Guide”. In Self and Motivation: Emerging Psychological Perspectives, ed. Abraham Tesser, Diederik A. Stapel and Joanne V. Wood, 97–117. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10448-004

Tangney, June P., and Ronda L. Dearing. 2002. Shame and Guilt. New York: Guilford Press.

Waal, Frans B. M. de. 2013. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co.



How to Cite

Roitto, R. (2018). Enduring Shame as Costly Signalling: The Case of Public Confession of Sin According to Tertullian. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 4(1), 60–78. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.17704