Gnomon 40 (1968) pp. 619-621

T. P. O’MALLEY: Tertullian and the Bible. Language ----Imagery ----Exegesis. Nijmegen/Utrecht: Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V. 1967. XXI, 186 S. (Latinitas Christianorum primaeva. 21.) 19,50 hfl.

This important work on Tertullian’s use of the Scriptures and the principles he follows in the interpretation of them, falls into three chapters. The first of these discusses the question, on which previous experts have developed varying views, whether Tertullian was acquainted with already existing Latin versions, and particularly whether in his controversy with Marcion he was using a translation of the Marcionite gospel and epistles produced by, and current among, the Marcionites themselves. The second chapter discusses the imagery, for the most part biblical in origin, used by Tertullian in explanation or illustration of Christian doctrine. The third chapter, on exegesis and its vocabulary, is an enquiry into Tertullian’s use of such terms as enigma, allegory, figure, and the processes indicated by them, which were in origin scriptural, but were capable of, and received, more extensive application.

Evidently it is the first chapter which will merit and receive most attention. The first question raised is, at how early a date we can be sure of the existence of a Latin Bible. Admittedly Cyprian and Novatian have already well-established translations. But how long had these been in existence? After some preliminary observations Fr O’Malley briefly reviews scholars’ opinions or judgements on this matter from Paul Sabatier (1751) down to Bernard Botte (1957), with the conclusion that the most common judgement is that by 150-200 Latin versions were in existence, though not of the whole Bible. There follows a careful and exhaustive examination of a number of places in which it appears that Tertullian is not, as his usual custom is, translating the Greek for himself, but has in mind, even if it is not before him in writing, a translation already current.

First we consider a series of texts not affected by the Marcionite controversy, and so not affording occasion for glossing comment. At de bapt. i8, 1, for example, Nec amartiis alienis communicaveritis, if the Trecensis text is correct, there appears to be an unparalleled retention of a Greek term which was perhaps in disciplinary use. On ad uxor. i,8,4 Bonos corrumpunt mores congressus mali, Fr O’Malley observes that Tertullian has made an elegant metrical echo of the only iambic senarius in the Bible: certainly, one may reply, he may indeed have thought it elegant, even if it does involve two false quantities: and as the same text recurs at ad uxor. ii,3,3 with confabulationes malae, one may surmise that one of these, probably the latter, is drawn from a version already current, either of St Paul or perhaps even of Menander himself. Tertullian criticises a false translation of πνοὴ ζωῆς by which some say spiritus vitae instead of the more correct adftatus vitae: he points out also that si autem dormierit vir eius for ἐὰν χοιμηθῆ at I Cor. 7,39 is misleading, as being in the wrong tense. On all these texts we may agree with Fr O’Malley’s remark on the last mentioned, that the impression is strong that Tertullian is expressing disagreement with an already current rendering which he finds unacceptable.

There follows a discussion of a number of texts in which Tertullian glosses or otherwise explains Latin terms already in use. At scorp. 7, 1, Sophia iugulavit filios suos calls for remark, being a strange mistranslation, by Tertullian or someone else, of ἡ σοφία ἔσφαξεν τὰ ἑαυτῆς θύματα: it does not seem to have occurred to any of the authorities quoted by Fr O’Malley that the origin of this misinterpretation was that Tertullian or someone before him had misread θύματα as θρέμματα. An important instance is that at adv. Prax. 5, where the already current sermo for λόγος at John 1, 1 is criticised as unsatisfactory, with ratio suggested as preferable: verbum also, it appears from apol. 21, 17, was not unknown. In these and other places Tertullian is in contact with scriptural or Christian language not of his own making. There follows (pages 26-37) an exhaustive and closely reasoned list of terms which Tertullian found in the scriptures, which were not apparently so well known as to need no explanation: on which one may remark that any expositor of any experience knows of many words which, precisely because they are in common use, need to be referred back to their origin, as well as brought forward to their fuller implications.

We now come to the real purpose of this chapter, the much debated question of the language, Greek or Latin, in which Tertullian read the Marcionite New Testament. Theodor Zahn (1888) was of opinion that Tertullian knew no Latin New Testament: Adolf von Harnack, judging from the fact that Tertullian’s citations here differ from those he adduces elsewhere, and that there are points of discussion which only arise because a Latin text calls for explanation, decided that at least the apostolicon was in Latin. With this authoritative judgement some more recent scholars agree, some disagree. So the lists are set for discussion, which is conducted on the basis of ten citations from the anti-Marcionite treatise, in which it seems possible that Tertullian is in contact with two forms of terminology which he is called upon to explain in terms of one another, or else is accepting Marcionite terminology which he feels must be justified to non-Marcionite readers, or on occasion is brought face to face with a strange or unusual Latin word which he proceeds to gloss with a close translation of the Greek. Each one of these ten passages is of importance not only for the study of Tertullian’s method, but for the understanding of his theological position: the evidence and the arguments are in each case carefully stated, and a judgement suggested. This section of the book (pages 41-63) will, even more than the others, repay careful study. Fr O’Malley’s suggested conclusions (page 62) are so general in character that they can hardly fail to carry agreement: Tertullian has had to deal with a certain duality of language, he has had comments to make upon language not of his own choosing, he has a respect for established usage and conforms himself to it, he is conscious that scriptural language and style have developed forms peculiar to themselves, and all of this makes for continuity of thought and expression between Tertullian and his successors.

The second chapter of this excellent work is no longer concerned with controversy. It deals extensively and in detail with the imagery, for the most part of scriptural origin, employed by Tertullian. We have here extensive illustration of Tertullian’s use, for example, of the image of vegetation and growth, of water as signifying the Spirit, of beasts both wild and tame, of clothing, of disease and medicine and healing, of warfare and athletics, and much else, with a background in many cases not only in scripture but in those classical authors with whom Fr O’Malley shews himself to be closely and pleasantly acquainted. An exposition of this kind, valuable as it is, and indicative of much more, is bound to suggest the question whether any great stylist, such as certainly Tertullian was in his own non-Ciceronian way, is ever as self-conscious of his method as this analysis would lead one to think. A competent and experienced writer sets down what comes into his mind, without any sort of analysis of how it came to be there: and even so, a competent expositor of scripture explains its thought and language in terms of other scripture, or even of classical usage, without anxious thought about his own method of working.

The same observations would apply to the third chapter on exegesis and its vocabulary, in which, after introductory sections on the Bible in the Church, the basis of revelation, the unity of the two testaments, and much more, there follows a more than competent study of the terms aenigma, ahlegoria, figura, of the distinction between them, and of the use Tertullian makes of these and other methods for his task of interpreting the whole of the scriptures in Christian terms. Further notes on portendere and simplicitas, with their cognates, complete the work.

It remains to add that this work is prefaced by an impressive bibliography of some 200 entries, and is completed by an index of biblical texts, and a valuable index of Latin words. As coming from a fellow-countryman of Swift, Goldsmith, Berkeley, and Burke, who are after two centuries still the accepted models of English style, Fr O’Malley’s English is strangely unidiomatic. For the most part this is of no great importance; but the expression ‘departs from’ tends to be misleading: in current English it means something like deserit or recusat: Fr O’Malley many times over uses it to mean orditur ab, the English for which is ‘sets out from’ or ‘begins with’.

Scalby, Scarborough


Greek text in unicode.

This page has been accessed by ****** people since 23rd June 2001.

Return to the Tertullian Project About these pages