Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 24 (1973), pp.249-251

Tertullian : A Historical and Literary Study. By TIMOTHY DAVID BARNES Pp. xii + 320. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. £6.00.

THIS book must be appreciated from its subtitle: A Historical and Literary Study. This means exactly what it says. Barnes has little patience with thousand-page treatises on Tertullian's Trinitarian theology; it is hard to say whether more, or less, with the Dictionnaire de theologie catholique. He brings to bear on Tertullian a rigorously (although not un-partisan) secular fervour, and the intellectual qualities of a powerful, highy trained, and technically equipped Roman historian. The result is a book of distinctive, concise, and rare quality, impressive for its range of controls, its sharp accuracy, and for its ability to refine an argument, to see what is significant in it, and to summarize it in a decisive and genuinely analytic manner. It is a book for the historian to admire - and for the theologian to regard with a respect which, it must be said, he will not always find reciprocated.

Barnes also knows how to write, and how to construct a book. He will not object to my remarking that the influence of Sir Ronald Syme is pervasive. Any historian who tries, as Barnes has tried (and succeeded) to set an individual of the ancient world in his age, will have as his standard of excellence Syme's marvellous Tacitus (published in 1958). In Barnes's Tertullian, Syme's influence is clear, acknowledged explicitly in the Preface, visible also, on the less important level, in stylistic features (which can become mannerisms, as on p. 80, near bottom) - but in a far more significant sense in a style of argument: sharp, economical, incisive, framed to avoid disrupting the flow of a passage and relying on the reader to use his intelligence. The twenty-eight Appendices of Tertullian are an obvious inheritance from Tacitus : perhaps less consciously on the author's part, the over-all structure of Tertullian is closely analogous to that of Syme's Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (1968). An opening group of chapters (cf Tertullian, Chaps. I-V) is devoted to the discussion of specific passages and items of evidence bearing upon the life and career of Tertullian. In Part Two (Chaps. VI-XIV), the results of this enquiry are stated, to be followed by a series of more discursive chapters on Tertullian's society and intellectual milieu. As in the case of Syme's book (cf. Ammianus and the Historia Augusta, Chaps. XIV-XXX), it is an unwise critic who devotes his attention exclusively to the more directly controversial part of the book: Part Two of Tertullian is beautifully planned and composed; it has a validity independent of that of Part One, and contains the most stimulating and imaginative perceptions. It is these chapters which raise the book as a whole to a level of unusual quality.

The structure of the book follows its argumentative outline. The purpose of Part One is to dismantle the 'external' evidence for Tertullian's life and work: chiefly Jerome's De Viris Illustribus 53. On early Latin writers, it is argued, Jerome's information came from two sources only, from Eusebius and from the works of the writers themselves. Since Eusebius knew little of western writers and practically nothing of Tertullian (pp. 5 f), Jerome's account must derive from Tertullian himself: specifically, Barnes argues (12 f), from a text of the Apologeticum that was already defective when Jerome had it before him. Jerome's statement that Tertullian's father was a 'centurio proconsularis' was his elaboration of a false reading in this text (see below); there is in consequence no reliable evidence that Tertullian's father was in the army.

Further, Jerome's statement that Tertullian lived to an old age is dismissed as his mistaken deduction from the long series of Tertullian's writings (p. 10). On a somewhat different line, the often accepted (or rather assumed) identification of Tertullian with a jurist of the name mentioned in the Digest is discounted (Chap. IV), thus removing another prop from the familiar view of Tertullian's formative background (neither the army, nor Roman Law). Tertullian's own works moreover give no warrant for Jerome's belief that he was a member of the clergy; on the contrary in two late works he classifies himself as a layman (p. 11).

With the ground thus cleared, Barnes can proceed to his own reconstruction, beginning with the chronology of Tertullian's writings (Chap. V). These are shown to have been composed within a relatively short space of years. Those which can be dated by reference to identifiable historical events fall between c. 197 and 212 ; and most of the others can be shown, by internal cross-references, more speculatively by developments of doctrine and style, to fall between or not far from these dates. The hypothesis of a short, intensive, creative career is further developed by the probability that a lost work of clearly Christian character, the Ad amicum philosophum, was written (as Jerome said) by Tertullian as a young man ('adulescens', Adv. Jovin,. i. 13 ; cf. Appendix 8). Further, the Ad uxorem presupposes a marriage to a Christian wife; and it is conjectured, perhaps somewhat insecurely (but why not? cf p. 25) that a reference to little children's dreaming derives from personal observation of a child of Tertullian's own. Hence a new picture of the man: converted in youth, Tertullian proceeded to a short and intensive career as a writer, being cut short (by martyrdom? cf. p. 59) still in the prime of his life.

These arguments of Chap. V, leading to a revised biographical sketch (Chap. VI) which is assumed in Part Two of the book, clearly possess a validity of their own. To offer them for consideration, Barnes need only have pressed his more negative arguments of Chaps. I-IV to the point of casting sufficient doubt on the traditional reconstruction, derived from Jerome, of Tertullian's life. In fact, he goes much further than this, tending to present this view as totally and necessarily false. It is y an over-reaction which may also involve an element of tactical miscalculation; for there are points at which, in pressing his arguments too inflexibly and in too particular a form, Barnes can provoke reservations. For instance, in agreement with Barnes, I think it unlikely that Tertullian is to be identified with the jurist of the name. Homonymity and contemporaneity are not sufficient arguments (and much has been built on the identification). Barnes may be right in placing the jurist quite early, soon after the middle of the second century (p. 213); on the other hand, he concedes (p. 103) that Jerome's belief that Tertullian lived to a very advanced age may be based on an oral tradition. If so, why should it not be a good tradition? Jerome could, after all, speak as a young man with an ancient who, long before, had known a secretary of Cyprian (De Vir. Ill. 53). Conversely, Jerome's statement that Tertullian wrote Ad amicum philosophum as an 'adulescens' may be derived, not as Barnes suggests (p. 253), from a specific statement in the work, but as an inference from its general content. Again, Jerome's statement that Tertullian fell out with the priests of the Roman church is argued by Barnes (p. l03) to be merely a reflection of Jerome's own experience in the 380s. Quite possibly; but this is not a necessary interpretation, nor the only rational one. And finally, Barnes's argument that Jerome's text of Apologeticum 9. 2 already had the reading 'patris' for the original 'patriae' (preserved only by the lost Fuldensis) is well stated and, if right, abolishes all evidence for the occupation of Tertullian's father. But it is not absolutely conclusive. Barnes' s assumption that Jerome does in fact derive all his information from the Apologeticum is asserted rather than proven; and, in any event, no solution of this passage will carry total conviction unless it also offers a resolution of the alleged proconsulship of Africa of (the Emperor) Tiberius. Barnes is alive to this problem; but his proposed solutions are not particularly persuasive (pp. 18 f.3). As for the rank of 'centurio proconsularis', attributed by Jerome to Tertullian's father, it is true that this is anomalous; but what do we really know of the precise designations of officers in the urban cohort stationed in (or near) Carthage?

I am aware of the risks in arguing with Barnes on this level, and would not offer these reservations, had not Barnes himself pressed his arguments so insistently, sometimes by force of assertion rather than discussion, eliminating what do seem to be rational alternatives to his own views. Certainly, he presses them to a point beyond what is needed to justify the case for re-examination on the basis of Part Two of the book.

It is the chapters in this part which really show Barnes's qualities as a historian. Arranged, from Chap. VII on, in a series of balancing pairs, these are impressively lucid, penetrating discussions of the issues which surrounded Tertullian and contributed to his intellectual formation. They are splendidly done, particularly effective for the fluency with which they incorporate discussion of Tertullian's works, and blend these with their context. Throughout these chapters, the man, his writings, and his age converge in a way that can only excite admiration. And there is, in the last chapter, a moment of brilliantly imaginative insight where (p. 229) Tertullian appears, praising Carthage precisely in the style of Apuleius' Florida. It is a moment of enormous impact: and in fact, this whole chapter, linking Tertullian with Apuleius and the Second Sophistic, is a finely subtle and perceptive study with an intuitive power worth any amount of argument.

There is in these chapters of Part Two only one major argument that seems to me to show a weakness of judgement: this is Barnes's argument that the Passio Perpetuae is a Montanist document - or rather (which is what matters) that Perpetua and her fellow martyrs themselves show Montanist tendencies. If true, this would have important consequences, pointed out by Barnes (p. 79); for it would show that, at this moment in the very early third century, the Montanist party was accepted as part of the Catholic church of Carthage. And why not? - a bishop of Rome had for a time been tempted (Barnes, p. 82).

Yet one may ask whether Barnes's criteria are adequate. No one will question the Montanist tone of the Preface of the Passio - which has led to the editor being postulated as Tertullian himself (Barnes, pp. 79 f., reserving judgement). But on any account the Passio is a complex document. Apart from the Preface and the work of the editor, the Greek version of the dream of Satyrus (Passio 11-13) is argued to be prior to the Latin (Barnes, p. 266, cf 68 for the importance of Greek for early Christian communities in the West). What matters for Barnes's argument is that the martyrs themselves should be shown up as Montanists. According to Barnes, they are (pp. 77 f). But the grounds do not seem adequate. Two features are isolated as 'suspect' the eagerness of Perpetua and her companions for martyrdom, and the spiritual ascendancy, implicit in two passages of the Passio, of confessors over the established clergy. Yet elsewhere, zeal for martyrdom is explained as a central feature of African Christianity from its known beginnings (p. 62, discussing the Scillitan martyrs). Montanism in itself, according to Barnes, helped Tertullian resolve an ambiguity in his own attitude to martyrdom (p. 177) - but can it be argued to have acquired the monopoly? As for the ascendancy of martyrs over the clergy, this was an issue of spiritual authority by no means confined to Montanists. According to Barnes (p. 183), Tertullian derided the catholics [in later works] for attributing authority to their martyrs and confessors.

In offering a general assessment of this book, one runs a double risk of presumption. First, its technical and interpretative quality are of an order which the critic cannot he sure of matching: hut secondly, because in assessing it one is also assessing its author's personality. This confronts the reader at all turns, and is one of the reasons why the book is in its own terms so effective. But among those readers who are unable to take it on its own terms (and there will be many) it may be that Tertullian will not make as many converts as it should. For its technical and literary qualities are matched by an intolerance of expression, a 'holy arrogance' that can, at worst, be offensive - and, perhaps as serious, runs the risk of being counter-productive. Some scholars (and one in particular) will justifiably feel that the tone of Barnes's comments on their work is not only unpleasant, but implies a lack of appreciation of its importance. If they refrain from replying in kind it will be because they offer more forbearance than Barnes offers them.

It would be easy to say of this book, that Barnes has adopted the manner of his subject. This may (or may not) be true; the affinities between them are perhaps more significant on another level. Barnes is a scholar who has always derived much of his creative impetus from controversial involvement, and it is not surprising that this should show in Tertullian. But above all, it is in the intensity of his quest for truth, as the evidence presents it, and in his intolerance of error and the assumptions of established opinion, that Barnes is most like Tertullian. Without this, we should not have the book at all; and it is for this reason that even those scholars who are offended by the tone of the book will ignore it at their risk.


This page has been online since 11th December 1999.

Return to the Tertullian Project   About these pages