CLASSICAL REVIEW 24 (1974) pp. 72-76

TIMOTHY DAVID BARNES: Tertullian, a historical and literary study. Pp. viii+320. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Cloth, 6.


THE increasing interest taken by British classical scholars in problems relating to early Church history has been a welcome development. Through the work of A. N. Sherwin-White (Sarum Lectures of 1963) touching on the historicity of the Gospels and Acts, of G. E. M. de Ste Croix on the persecutions, and of the present author on the chronological accuracy of Eusebius of Caesarea, there has been much healthy blowing away of cobwebs in a study which had threatened to ossify into a specialist's craft. Tertullian is an ideal subject for the attention of a young scholar in the Oxford Greats tradition with an interest in early Church history. Tertullian's Latin has defeated eminent specialists, while to understand his thought demands a knowledge of second-century Stoicism and Middle Platonism, and above all an ability to set his vigorous and uncompromising nature in the context of an advancing Christianity that was beginning to challenge seriously the ideals of the Severan 'Age of Gold'.

Barnes's work succeeds as a literary study, is less satisfying as a survey of emergent North African Christianity, and adds little towards an understanding of what inspired Tertullian as a Christian thinker of power and originality. It is, moreover, marred by the author's impetuosity, his lack of generosity towards other scholars, and his overestimate of the scope of his abilities. The most valuable section of the book deals with Tertullian's literary inheritance and its effect on the style and content of his polemical writing. More than his predecessors in this field, the author shows Tertullian as a man of uncommon erudition with a fine range of knowledge of the Greek and Latin authors. He demonstrates his familiarity with Herodotus (Adv. Marcionem 1. 1), with , a host of philosophers' from Heraclitus to Lucretius (De Anima), and with recondite facts concerning the religion and history of the Roman republic. This erudition he turned to the service of Christianity, enabling him to dissect, refute, and ridicule the arguments of his opponents. He was a Christian sophist (ecclesiarum sophista) who by uniting the arts of philosophy and rhetoric solved the antitheses between Athens and Jerusalem, the Academy and the Church (p. 231).

This may not be the whole truth, but it is an aspect of Tertullian that has often been overlooked. Combined perhaps with an analysis of Tertullian the propagandist, seeking to rewrite Roman history for the benefit of the Christians and thus creating the myths that have caused trouble to some modern critics, the author would have made a valuable contribution towards understanding the conflict between Christianity and paganism in the west in the third century. Unfortunately, he has set himself another task, that of demolition (p. 2), and like Tertullian himself (Adv. Nationes ii) his rejection of the 'institutions of our ancestors', meaning the ideas of earlier scholars, is uncompromising and complete. The few landmarks provided by Jerome (De Viris Illustribus 53) about Tertullian's career are eroded to vanishing point. Tertullian's father was not a centurion; there never was a centurio proconsularis. His conversion to Montanism did not result from a quarrel with priests in Rome. This idea was more likely Jerome projecting back his own experiences in Rome, 382-5. It is doubtful if he ever founded his own sect of Tertullianists. He was born a member of the Carthaginian literary class; he was married, he wrote a great deal between 196 and 212, and must have died not long afterwards, perhaps a little more than forty years of age, and possibly a martyr.

When the dust clears, however, the author's role of executioner seems less justified than he claims. Certainly a review of the chronology of Tertullian's writings was due, and the norms the author sets out for Montanist as against pre-Montanist works will stand in outline, though perhaps not in detail. Scorpiace and De Idololatria may be moved back in time, though 196 seems too early for the latter, which is a well-argued and well-informed piece of work whose concluding antitheses (De Idololatria 18) recall those of De Praescriptione 7. But elsewhere the author's arguments appear confused. He does not seem to have made up his mind whether the variant readings of Apol. 9. 2 patris nostri for patriae nostri, on whose mishandling by Jerome he lays such emphasis, are due to Tertullian's own emendations, the incompetence of copyists, or genuine difference of manuscript tradition. Jerome with his keen, even pedantic, interest in military rankings (see, for instance, Contra Iohannem Hierosolymitarum 19) is unlikely to have been completely mistaken about that of Tertullian's father. Similarly, few would be sorry to see 'the followers of Gaius' (De Bapt. i) removed from the catalogue of heretics, only to find that Gaius the Gnostic did exist (Adv. Valent. 32.6) and, moreover, that he was associated with Tertullian's particular aversion, Prodicus, so that the 'antiquated text' of Reifferscheid and Wissowa referring to Gaiana haeresis may be valid after all. An assessment of Tertullian's career, however, depends less on accepting one variant text against another than on a reading of his work as a whole. Jerome simply confirms what might be guessed from the constant use of military and legal phraseology throughout Tertullian's writings, just as the emphasis on 'the keys of Peter' and 'apostolic claims' rather than any amendment to the text points to the Bishop of Rome as Tertullian's opponent in De Pudicitia.

Interest in the wider perspectives would be necessary if the author's 'historical study' was to succeed. On the allied questions of the origins and spread of Christianity in North Africa he has little new or constructive to say. Attempts by others to do so are dismissed as 'idle speculation' (p. 64). Refusing to accept , either Rome or North African Judaism as providing the starting-point of North African Christianity, he can only indicate 'the east' or 'Greek communities in North Africa' as responsible for the earliest Christianity there (p. 68). But just how the new religion was mediated from the east and what these communities were doing he does not say. The author believes that 'none of the available evidence for Judaism outside Carthage antedates the fourth century' (p. 284). The evidence he cites from P. Monceaux and J. Juster goes no further than 1914 and much has been discovered since then. For instance, as far away as Volubilis the Jewish cemetery containing memorials in Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin seems to have been in use through the Roman period (R. Thouvenot, Revue des Etudes Anciennes, lxxi [ 1969], 354-78). This judgement, however, involves an underestimate of Jewish influence in Roman North Africa in the second and third century. He therefore dismisses as 'totally superficial' Tertullian's knowledge of Jewish customs and ideas. Judaism was ‘not to be taken seriously or deserving proper attention’ (p. 92). Similarities between Christianity and Judaism were 'accidental' (p. 273). Yet, the habit of some Christians of Tertullian's acquaintance of observing the Sabbath and Jewish fasts (De Jejunio 14. 5) was precisely the sort of contact between the two religions that churchmen feared as showing too close a kinship between them (see John Chrysostom, Adv. Iudaeos i. 1 and iv.3.) The Carthaginian Jews called the Christians 'nazarenos' (Adv. Marc. iii. B) and not 'Chrestianos', indicating that they regarded them perhaps as schismatics from their own body. They may have had reason: for, to take one example, at councils of the Church in the third century the assembly of 70 bishops corresponded to the numbers of the Sanhedrin. It is not 'tendentious speculation' to suppose that Jewish aemulatio (Apol. 7. 4) contributed to the persecutions of the Christians in this period. 'Every day', says Tertullian, 'we stand siege from these enemies.' Forty years later Cyprian pointed to the same alliance between Jews and pagans against the Church in Carthage (Ep. 59. 2). That North African Jewry was important in the origin and development of the North African Church in Tertullian's time cannot be dismissed as 'the prejudice of exegetes' or 'partisan bias'.

When he turns to the expansion of Christianity during the third century the au t ho r 's customary scrupulosity is less in evidence. Imprecision becomes a virtue. The Church, we are told, 'was expanding rapidly', but even when these are well known the numbers of bishops are not given accurately, and without evidence we are told in the mid third century ‘these may already have exceeded 150 or even 200’ (p. 71). This may be so, but a scholar who denounces scathingly ‘grandiose theories’ concerning the expansion of Christianity into the countryside might be expected to produce his own distribution map. If he must castigate the 'incaution' of those who place a persecution in Cappadocia recorded by Firmilian as arising 'after the Emperor (Severus) Alexander' (Cyprian, Ep. 75. 10) in A.D. 236 instead of the latter months of 235, he should be wary of his own accuracy in readily ascertainable detail. There is no reason to reduce the numbers of bishops at Cyprian's council of September 256 from 87 to 85. Too concerned to destroy the myth of the '38 years' peace' allegedly enjoyed by the Church between 212 and 250 (Sulpicius Severus, Chron. ii. 32, 2), he fails to take into account the contemporary evidence of Cyprian (De Lapsis) and Origen (e.g. Contra Celsum, iii. 9) that testifies to the growth, the prosperity, and, indeed, the corruption of the Church in this period in the face of continued local pagan opposition (for this, see Acta Pionii, 9, 4).

Tertullian, however, was a man consumed by religious fervour. Half hoping for and half fearing the end of the world, he meditated on the single vast panorama of destruction that would reverse the fortunes of the Christians and their enemies (De Spect. 3o). The author gives space to both Montanism and martyrdom, though once again he is unfair to previous scholars in his field. He is wrong in asserting, for instance, that the Montanism of the Passio Perpetuae 'has tended to be played down or ignored' (p. 77); for this was pointed out eighty years ago by Armitage Robinson (Cambridge Texts and Studies, i [1891], 52-4) as well as by the writer of this review in work used by the author (The Donatist Church, 118) and it was discussed at length by P. de Labriolle in La Crise montaniste (Paris, 1913), 344 ff.. Moreover, the analyses of Scorpiace and De Fuga, careful though these are, do not leave the reader the impression of Tertullian as a man 'in prayer awaiting the trumpet of the angel' (De Orat. 29) or one who gloried in the Christians as a ‘race of men ever ready for death’ (De Spect. 1 and 2). Tertullian was never dull. The last thing, moreover, that he would have wanted was resolution of the antitheses between Athens and Jerusalem and the camp of light and the camp of darkness. The author fails to grasp the importance of the Holy Spirit in Tertullian's religion and the vital force of apocalyptic in moulding his outlook towards society. The irrevocable Jewish-Christian dualism between Christ and Caesar, Church and world, that he preached became part and parcel of western theology down to the Reformation. Tertullian the man was far removed from the Christian Apuleius presented in these pages.

But to return finally to method. The reconstruction of this period of North African Christianity depends on a careful blend of literary and archaeological evidence, and a readiness on the part of the researcher to come to terms with fresh and often inconvenient discoveries. The author evidently dislikes archaeologists and distrusts their results. His own works betray no first-hand knowledge of the sites he claims to adjudicate upon. Like others before him, not least Jerome Carcopino, he feels for instance that in Apol. 9. 2 Tertullian ought to be saying that ‘under Tiberius human sacrifice was forbidden’. Unfortunately Tertullian does not say this. The custom lasted 'usque ad proconsulatum Tiberii', and his father was concerned in its extirpation. In the context the personal reminiscence is apt, for Tertullian goes on to say that 'to this day (sed et nunc) this holy crime persists'. In the tophet at Utica a piece of pottery dating to the mid first century was found in an urn together with the bones of a young child. Very inconvenient. The word 'allegedly' is therefore introduced (p. 16), and then the whole evidence is discounted. The N'gaous steles indicating that a lamb was being sacrificed in substitution for a child in the third century are also reduced to rusticity (they came from a large cantonal capital in southern Numidia), and then their information removed to a distant past on the ground that 'liturgical language has always been strongly conservative'. The same techniques are applied to get rid of all material Christian remains before the fourth century. The pre-Constantinian coins found in the Christian cemetery at Sbikhra (Macomades Minor on the Tunisian coast) are discounted. The many Christian funerary inscriptions marked only with anchor, fish, or ark found at Carthage and the Christian catacombs at Sousse are not mentioned. Christians must not be buried in the Jewish cemetery at Gamart, though in the west in the third century even martyrs found themselves in Jewish burial-places (see Paulinus, Vita sancti Ambrosii, 29). The line between inferences taken from incomplete data and speculation is never easy to draw, but the author uses analogy and conjecture too often. Where, for instance, is the evidence for the effect of the death of his wife on Tertullian's Montanism (p. 59), or that Celerinus' grandmother may well have been martyred under Severus Alexander (p. 158) ? Or that the 'analogy' of Callistus' aggression against a synagogue in Rome circa 185 suggests that the same thing happened in Carthage twenty years later (p. 93)? And did Tertullian die a martyr (1. 59) ?

These faults might still leave the work a valuable study of some aspects of Tertullian. Unfortunately there is a feature of this book which cannot be overlooked. Few monographs with pretensions to scholarship have packed such a complex of aggressions into their pages. Henri Gregoire believed fictions (p. 150) ; Marta Sordi did also (ibid. and p. 34) - reviewers were too kind to her fallacies and implausibilities (p. 150). J. P. Waltzing is 'a grave and elderly scholar' who dared suggest De Anima as the work of Tertullian's maturity (p. 58). R. M.Grant is upbraided for 'fallacious treatment of evidence' (p. 102), Richard Klein, a younger scholar in the author's field, for 'amazing misapprehensions' (p. 30). Roman Catholic scholars seek 'to foist their own views' on Tertullian (p. 1 15). Clerics of all denominations find it hard to reconcile themselves to Tertullian's being a layman (p. 11). Elsewhere the author casts G. Charles Picard in the role of adversary (cf JTS. Xxi. I [1970], 98) and the reviewer always comes in for severe treatment. Few escape. In the end, what is the author's contribution? He has useful remarks on Tertullian's pagan literary inheritance. He traces the careers of some officials mentioned by Tertullian. The dating of Tertullian's works has been rearranged. This is what a thesis by a classical scholar who is an excellent Latinist with a keen sense of chronology should be about. But involvement in his subject has gone too far, and the work needed drastic revision before publication. For its resulting defects, the author's advisers and the Clarendon Press must share blame with the author himself.

W. H. C. FREND
University of Glasgow


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