Journal of Roman Studies 66 (1976), pp.273-276.

Review of T.D.Barnes' Tertullian by Arnaldo Momigliano.


T. D. BARNES, TERTULLIAN: A HISTORICAL AND LITERARY STUDY. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Pp. xii + 320. £6.

Professor Barnes's book is a vigorous attempt to describe Tertullian’s religious life within his own time: ‘within this objective framework ... Tertullian must be treated as a living figure. His experiences and his reaction to the society in which he found himself must be recreated and relived’. Henry Chadwick and Peter Brown have evidently made a change in Oxford. Essential points of Tertullian’s conception of Christianity are analysed at length : his notion of Revelation (against Gnostics and Marcion), his attitude to martyrdom and the increasing appreciation of prophecy and asceticism brought about by his adherence to Montanism. Barnes has the historical imagination needed to see the zones of ordinary life which were dangerous for Christians. He is certainly right in maintaining that Tertullian was not familiar with Jewish rabbinic thought. He is also right in maintaining, against Professor W. H. C. Frend, that there is very little evidence of the Jews being the instigators of the persecution of the Christians in Carthage in Tertullian's time. But W. Horbury made it virtually certain in JThSt. 23 (1972), 455- 9 (after the publication of Barnes's book) that two stories to be found in the Toledoth Yeshu were already known to Tertullian: he was therefore acquainted with what some Jews were saying about the Resurrection. It is difficult to see how De Jeiunio 13, 6, even if taken in isolation, could justify Barnes's assertion that for Tertullian Judaism was ‘an unchanging fossilized faith not to be taken seriously or deserving proper attention’. This is one of several illegitimate inferences from ancient texts. For instance, in Scorp. 1, 11 the image of the surrounded hare is not meant to indicate the intention to flee during persecution (p. 176), and Heracleon's doctrine of confession in Clem., Strom, 4, 71, 1 hardly bears the extreme interpretation given on p. 168 (see the commentary by M. Simonetti, Testi gnostici cristiani (1970), 167-8).

Twenty-eight appendices provide a variety of acute and learned observations. Barnes seems to have been the first to notice that the precise form of the reference to 1 Timoth. 6, 16 in the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs is imitated by Quodvultdeus about 250 years later (p. 277). But who can believe that the Historia Augusta gave the name of Aelius Serenianus to a counsellor of Severus Alexander in order to mock Cyprian, in whose correspondence there is a letter (75) from a bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia describing the persecution initiated in that province by the governor Licinius Serenianus after Severus Alexander's death (pp. 269-70)?

The puzzle is that this book, being so good in its own terms, should leave us with an impossibly romantic image of Tertullian and, by implication, of ‘primitive Christianity’ -all persecution and martyrdom, with a minimum of theological thought in the margin. In his romanticism Barnes outdoes Chateaubriand: by way of a cautious learned hypothesis, of course, he is prepared to make Tertullian a martyr ‘whom the Church preferred to forget’. This result is obtained by degrading all the theological (and even the pastoral) treatises to Sophistic exploits. Barnes defines Tertullian as a Christian Sophist. This will not do.

There is no need to delve deeply into G. W. Bowersock's book on the Second Sophistic (with its very valuable appendix, Approaches to the Second Sophistic, published by the American Philological Association in 1974) to be reminded that those whom Philostratus called Sophists did not have to fight Jews, heretics, pagans and weak Christians as Tertullian did. None of them was committed to providing an authoritative definition of orthodoxy and orthopraxis; none was vitally concerned with the resurrection of the dead, with the Paraclete or with the Eucharist. Even demons were another thing if seen from the polytheistic angle. Apuleius' De Magia (we shall not dispute here Apuleius' qualifications to be treated as a Sophist) was just the book Tertullian could not write (cf. De Anima 57, 2). Of course there is the old question, of which A. v. Harnack was very aware, how much of Tertullian's theology itself was shaped by rhetorical or juridical thought patterns. The question has become in a sense more important, and in another sense more intractable, since Th. Viehweg, Ch. Perelman and other contemporary thinkers have invited us to explore the levels of thought at which the languages of rhetoric, law and logic lose their respective specific connotations. But this is not the type of problem in which Barnes seems to be interested. Within its stated limits R. D. Sider's Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (1971) - which Barnes used in MS, JThSt. 23 (1972), 496-9 - seems to be more fruitful because it helps to define some real intellectual processes, such as the method of conjecture, in Tertullian's art of arguing. Language inevitably preoccupied Tertullian, first because, being bilingual, he had to choose between Greek and Latin, and secondly because, as soon as he had decided in favour of Latin for a specific treatise (De Baptismo 15, 2; De Virg. Vel. 1, 1), the problem of terminology presented itself. The interplay of linguistic experiment and theological exploration remains outside Barnes's perspective. It is, again, something which separates Tertullian from the Second Sophistic. Terminological researches such as those by R. Braun on Deus Christianorum ( 1962) or by J. E. L. van der Geest on Le Christ et l'Ancient Testament chez Tertullien (1972) are inconceivable in the case of a Sophist. And did any Sophist ever worry about simplicitas veritatis (Apol. 23, 7) as much as Tertullian, who apparently transmitted his concern to St. Jerome (T. P. O'Malley, Tertullian and the Bible (1967), 166-172)? The effort to understand exactly the message of the sacred texts is another of those primary criteria of differentiation between Pagan Sophists and Christian theologians which must not be forgotten simply because they are too obvious. If there is a comparison to be made it is with the methods of exegesis of Jewish scholarship - or of any other scholarship dealing with sacred texts. Nobody can be expected to assess the precise extent of the original contributions of Tertullian to the Christian vocabulary. Given the nature of our evidence (and the lack of self-conciousness in Tertullian about his own lexicographical achievements), there is no way of being sure that he was the first to attribute a certain meaning to a certain word. Even his originality in using sacramentum, figura, persona, substantia and ordo is not beyond doubt. What I miss in Barnes is that combination of linguistic and rhetorical analysis with clarification of theological issues which is indispensable for Tertullian.

No doubt one is entitled to study an author without taking into consideration what later generations thought of him. But there is always an element of risk in this isolation. The risk is particularly great in the case of Tertullian because he remained in the mainstream of Catholic thought notwithstanding his Montanism and the mysterious group of ‘Tertullianistae’ he inspired. He was the ‘master’ of Cyprian and influenced St. Jerome in many ways. Barnes is concerned only with the biographical details given by St.Jerome about Tertullian (De viris ill. 53). He distrusts St. Jerome and denies that Tertullian’s father was a ‘centurio proconsularis’, that Tertullian himself was a priest until middle age and that he was as old as Jerome said when he died. He may be right. But if he is right one would have to explain why St. Jerome, who had so obviously been interested in Tertullian since his juvenile acquaintance with Paul of Concordia (cf. also Ep. 1, 5, 2) got it all wrong. Barnes himself fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of the proconsulate of Tiberius in Apol. 9, 2, which is the key passage for assessing the validity of St. Jerome's information. As for the priesthood, the curious episode of De anima 9 indicates that when he wrote it (the date is immaterial here) Tertullian considered himself separated from the laity. What precisely he meant I do not presume to know, but he certainly did not mean that after the service he remained behind with the Montanists to listen to the woman’s account of her vision, as Barnes says on p. 89.

In itself, the elimination of such details from Tertullian's biography would make no substantial difference to Tertullian's physiognomy. It would be more serious if we had to mistrust St. Augustine (De haer. 86; PL42, 46) and the independent Auctor Praedestinati (Haer 1, 86; PL 53, 616) when they state that the sect of ‘Tertullianistae’ originated with Tertullian himself. But it does not seem to me that the arguments e silentio provided by Barnes are weighty. I may add that I am not convinced that the date of Scorpiace is necessarily A.D.203 rather than 211-13. The reference to Adversus Marcionem in 5,1 prima facie points to a date later than 207; the ‘Pythicus agon’ mentioned in 6,2 is to my knowledge undated and Scorp.9, 3; 10, 8 do not seem to me incompatible with Montanist sympathies.

Christianity suddenly makes its appearance in Africa with the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (AD 180), with the Passio Perpetuae (about 203) - and with the writings of Tertullian. As Gibbon restated in his Vindication against doubters, the persecution of 180 was the first on African soil. But there is nothing in Tertullian to suggest that he viewed Christianity as a recent import into Africa. If anything is evident in Tertullian, it is that he was conscious of the strength of the group to which he belonged. He was there to fight because he was out to win. The fight may last long. God has allowed plenty of time for the contest (Adv. Marc. 2, 10, 6). Even in the Apologeticum, where Tertullian has to be guarded in his words, he gives the Roman authorities notice that it would be within the power of the Christians to fight the Empire, if they so wished (37, 4). As M. Benabou has explained in his recent book La resistance africaine à la romanisation (1976), Septimius Severus' policy was bringing about clashes in Africa: there was a background to Tertullian's utterances. Origen, later, is far more conciliatory at the end of the Contra Celsum, whatever text we prefer for 8, 75. One of Tertullian's arguments against the Jews (if the Adversus Judaeos is an authentic early work by Tertullian, as seems likely) is that they had been beaten and deprived of their country by the Romans (cf. Apol. 21, 4). One of the arguments against the Marcionites is that they do not take this defeat of the Jews duly into account: ‘Plane deus zelotes, tamen vicit. Erubesce qui victo deo credis’ (Adv.Marc. 3, 23, 7).

This aggressive faith had its own logic. It treated martyrdom, as soldiers treat death on the battlefield, almost as a professional hazard, but it turned questions of discipline and conformity within Christendom into central issues. Such faith made sense only if the Holy Ghost was present-and the Second Advent was in some form imminent. Unlike Clement or Origen, Tertullian could not derive intellectual satisfaction from Christianity as a form of knowledge. The signs of the approaching millennium had been seen for forty days in the sky of Judaea during the Parthian expedition of Severus in 197 (Adv. Marc. 3, 24, 4). It is more difficult to say what is implied by the final chapter of De spectaculis with its apocalyptic undertones. These passages, isolated as they are in Tertullian's writings, are not incompatible with the sincerity of the declaration of Apologeticum 32, 1 that one of the attractions of the Roman Empire for the Christians was its function of delaying the Last Judgement. Among the many streaks in Tertullian's psychology there is also a firm social conservatism which appears where one least expects it (e.g. Adv. Marc. 1, 23). The law and order of the Empire were not unwelcome to him. The mere fact that he chose Latin as his first language placed Tertullian in an unusual relationship to the Roman imperial tradition for a Christian writer. The Latin Seneca was to Tertullian ‘saepe noster’ (De anima 20, 1). Only a man firmly anchored in the Latin language and in Roman institutions could advise change from ‘toga’ to ‘pallium’ as the ‘pallium’ was the sign of a better life. Tertullian was fighting Latin paganism from inside. Remarkably enough, Marcus Aurelius, the good pagan emperor, had just relinquished Latin for Greek.

When the need for immediate evidence about the presence of the Holy Ghost brought Tertullian to accept the authenticity of the Montanist prophecy, his convictions were radically altered only on a few points. The Church of the Spirit had to be opposed to the Church of the Bishops (De Pudic.21): consequently the notion of the bishops as the custodians of the true Christian tradition was discredited. But the elaboration of the dogma of the Trinity culminates in the Adversus Praxean which belongs to the Montanist period. Throughout his intellectual career Tertullian oscillated between eschatology and rationalism - which for him was mainly Stoicism. J. Fontaine has shown in an exemplary way how Tertullian combined biblical and Stoic elements in De Patientia (Aspects et problèmes de la prose d'art latine au III siècle (1968), 122-36). If Tertullian did not say ‘credo quia absurdum’ he said ‘certum est quia impossibile’ (De Carne Christi 5). Barnes himself reminds us of this passage, but, like J.-C. Fredouille, Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique (1972), 331-7, he reduces it to an emotional appeal by Tertullian to his public. Barnes constantly plays down the tensions within Tertullian. He might have derived benefit from closer attention to the book by Emesto Buonaiuti, Il Cristianesimo nell'Africa Romana (1928), as Buonaiuti had several points in common with Tertullian whom he admired both as a believer and as a rebel.

Certain features stand out sufficiently to be perceptible even to the occasional reader of Tertullian. He was more afraid of original sin - with which his notion of a material soul easily harmonized - than reassured by the Eucharistic sacrifice (however literally he took it). He understood punishment more readily than atonement. He lived in a world of adults and was suspicious of children's baptism. He saw more devils than angels. But there is much else in the territory between vision and reason for which we need a reliable guide. Here Barnes fails us. In De Baptismo Tertullian himself is aware that in his praise of water as a holy element he expresses emotions shared by the pagans. Are we justified in reminding ourselves of the ancient African propensity to worship springs (P. Petitmengin, Mél. Ecole Rome 79 (1967), 190 - 205)? On many doctrinal points the reader of Tertullian will get more light from the simple wisdom of that great connoisseur of Tertullian, Ernest Evans. My favourite quotation from Evans's notes on Tertullian is about Adv. Marc. 2, 10, 3 : ‘That the animals of Gen.2: 18-20 were angels is apparently a fancy of Tertullian's own’. This is the sort of thing we need to know in order to understand Tertullian.

ARNALDO MOMIGLIANO
All Souls College, Oxford


Revised slightly for typos, 10th September 2004.

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