American Journal of Philology 95 (1974), pp.302-303

Robert D. Sider

TIMOTHY DAVID BARNES. Tertullian. A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford and New York, Clarendon Press, I 1971. Pp. xi + 320. $20.50.

As the title implies, this study has three major centers of interest. First, Barnes has tried to describe the religious, and political context within which Tertullian wrote. We do indeed find here a well-drawn picture of the Christian community in pagan Carthage during the late second and early third centuries. Second, we have in the book one of the most rigorous attempts yet made to extract and test all the evidence that can be used to write a biography of Tertullian. Third, the various writings of Tertullian are passed in review, as far as possible within the historical and biographical framework established.

On the whole, the picture of the Christian community in ancient Carthage is a fairly familiar one. We see African Christianity at the turn of the century rapidly expanding from its non-apostolic and probably Greek origins, and embracing all social classes. But in Carthage, as in Africa, there was not only a Christianity firmly entrenched against paganism, but also an orthodoxy opposing a vigorous Montanism and a growth of gnostic heresies. Carthage itself is vividly portrayed as the intellectual center of the African provinces. To the question of persecutions Barnes devotes an entire chapter. He argues that the Emperor had little to do with them. The frequency and intensity of persecution depended on the provincial governors and the mob. It is a mistake "to attempt to disitinguish, for the Roman Empire as a whole, periods of persecution and periods of peace, corresponding to the reigns of different Emperors", a mistake on which "all attempts at a narrative of the persecutions, beginning with Eusebius" have rested ( 149). This is not new: nearly forty years ago Hans Lietzmann made precisely the same point [A History of the Early Church II, trans B.L.Woolf [Cleveland 1953] 160).

Barnes renounces quite rightly any attempt to write a full biography of Tertullian, but he does try to outline what he can. He demolishes the notions that Tertullian's father was a centurion, that he himself was a jurisconsult, or became a priest. He also shows that there is no good evidence for the traditional view that Tertullian was converted in middle age, or lived to be very old. The now widely held opinion that the bishop alluded to in the De Pudicitia was not Callistus but a Carthaginian ecclesiastic leaves that treatise without a firm date, which in turn allows the possibility that it was written well before A.D. 220. Given this possibility, Barnes is able to replace the traditional view of Tertullian with what he confesses to be a largely conjectural one, that Tertullian was born about 170, converted as a young man, wrote all his extant treatistes over a relatively short period (from 196 to 21 2) moving rapidly from Catholicism into Montanism, and died possibly in middle age, perhaps a martyr whom the Church preferred to forget.

Chapter 5, on the chronology of Tertullian's writings, is perhaps the best part of the book. Barnes provides first a list of treatises in which historical references suggest a date; where treatises contain allusions to other treatises, a sequence of earlier and later writings can be established; only then does Barnes use doctrine and style to complete the picture.

Barnes’ conjectures, it must be said, are sometimes a little too facile. For example, he argues (pp. 53. 54) that since the reference to "Lupanaris" in Idol. 15. 11 is easily comprehensible and appropriate, but without motivation in Apol. 35.4, we must assume that the Apology, is later than the treatise On Idolatry. But one can argue that the brothel-image has a better motivation in the Apologeticum than in the De Idololatria, for in the former Tertullian tries to relate quite explicitly idolatry to sexual immorality, while in the latter, where immorality is not immediately a question, the image seems forced, therefore might be borrowed. Similarly, Barnes places the De Cultu Feminarum II before the Apologeticum because of its rambling argument: it was the fires of persecution that forged the consummate artist of the Apology. In fact, the argument of Cult. Fem. II is as tight as that of the Apology, and progresses through the same kind of precise symmetries.

The book is weak as a literary study. The final chapter describes cursorily the influence of Tertullian's rhetorical education, and of the Second Sophistic, upon his writings. Barnes points to Tertullian's use of the rhetorical parts of a speech, the exemplum, the standard topics of rhetoric, the tricks of sophistical argument, sarcasm and satire. Apart from the final chapter, the "literary study" seems to consist of the ubiquitous and often digressive summaries of the contents of Tertullian's writings. We have long known that the Second Sophistic contributed at least in a superficial way to the form and content of Tertullian's writings. What we must still discover are the patterns in the often puzzling convolutions of Tertullian's thought and the rationale for those patterns. Tertullian's writings are in some measure artistic compositions with a theological orientation and they can hardly be rendered fully intelligible until we have looked deeply into the nature of their art and its relation to the theological ideas Tertullian wished to express. And some recent investigations - for example that of T. P. O'Malley on the pattern of Tertullian's imagery [Tertullian and the Bible [Utrecht 1967] 64-116) - indicate that literary analysis can go further to illuminate the inner movement of Tertullian's thought.

In spite of these criticisms, this study is valuable, and readers will find it a rich source of information. Its crisp and at points dramatic style makes it a pleasure to read.


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