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date: 27 June 2022

Tertullian, c. 160–c. 240 cefree

Tertullian, c. 160–c. 240 cefree

  • Eric Rebillard

Subjects

  • Christianity

Updated in this version

Text updated to reflect current scholarship.

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) was born in a pagan family and grew up in Carthage. Nothing is known about his conversion, but it happened in his youth or at least before he got married (ux. 1.1). Because Eusebius says he was well versed in the laws of the Romans (HE 2.2.4), some scholars proposed to identify him with the jurist Tertullianus mentioned in the Digest. There is no evidence, however, that Tertullian ever provided legal advice for a living, and though he displays a good knowledge of Roman law, this is in par with a rhetorical education.1 According to Jerome (vir ill. 53), Tertullian was the son of a “proconsular centurion” and a presbyter. The first information raises many historical difficulties; the second is still debated.2 At the time of Jerome, it is unlikely that a writer would address so many issues of pastoral and disciplinary matters without some clerical status. In the 3rd century, his standing as a “sophisticated literate” likely conferred to him enough authority for it.3 Indeed, Tertullian belongs to the literary circles of Carthage.4 Thus, one of his parents had turned in Virgilian verses a philosophical treatise of Cebes (praescr. 39.4).

Though he also wrote in Greek, Tertullian is very likely the first Christian writer to compose texts in Latin.5 Whether or not Tertullian was of Punic origin, as was Apuleius, his choice of writing in Latin rather than in Greek, which was at the time the literary language of Christian writers, situates him within the local African context and can be understood as a form of loyalty to the Roman empire.6 It would take another half century for Latin to become the written language by default for Christian writers in Latin-speaking areas of the empire.

It has long been held that Tertullian left the church to join Montanism. Such a view is no longer sustainable. Tertullian does show affinities with views associated today with Montanism. However, it is an anachronism to imagine that he was a schismatics or that he created his own sect as Augustine reports (de haer. 86). His sympathy for the prophetic movement and growing dissatisfaction with the Christians he called the psychici do not imply an official separation, especially in an ecclesiastical context where the relations between Christian organizations were rather fluid.7

Thirty-one treatises by Tertullian are preserved entirely; another seven are attested through a few fragments; eight treatises are mentioned and entirely lost.8 Many attempts at dating the treatises sought to divide them between a Catholic and a Montanist period.9 Now that Tertullian’s Montanism is understood as a spiritual affinity with the New Prophecy movement rather than as a formal schism it is better to adopt a thematic classification for his works. The first category comprises apologetic works. The most important is the Apology, addressed formally to Roman governors, but targeting a mixed audience of pagans and Christians.10 It was translated into Greek and known to Eusebius.11 The Against the Jews is also notable, as it staged a discussion between a Christian and a pagan converted to Judaism. The second category includes anti-heretical texts such as Against Marcion in five books. The third category are works that address practical issues related to asceticism as On the Veiling of Virgins or to daily life as On Idolatry or On Spectacles.

Though Tertullian has often been characterized by his intransigence, the many debates in which he engaged with his audience have allowed historians to get a rich picture of the life of Christians in 3rd-century Carthage.

Primary Texts

  • A Latin edition of all the works of Tertullian is available in the Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 1–2. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1954.
  • Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem, Books I–V. Edited and translated by Ernest Evans. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1972.
  • Tertullian. Apology; De Spectaculis. Translated by T. R. Glover. Loeb Classical Library 250. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.
  • Tertullian. De Idololatria. Edited and translated by J. H. Waszink & J. C. M. Van Winden. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 1. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1987.
  • Tertullian. “Against the Jews.” Translated by Geoffrey D. Dunn. In Tertullian: The Early Church Fathers, by Geoffrey D. Dunn, 47–73. London, UK: Routledge, 2004.
  • Tertullian. “On the Veiling of Virgins.” Translated by Geoffrey D. Dunn. In Tertullian: The Early Church Fathers, by Geoffrey D. Dunn, 101–115. London: Routledge, 2004.

Links to Digital Material

The Tertullian Project. a collection of editions and translations maintained by Roger Pearse.

Bibliography

  • Barnes, Timothy D. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
  • Dunn, Geoffrey D. Tertullian: The Early Church Fathers. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Osborn, Eric. Tertullian: First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Rankin, David. Tertullian and the Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Chapot, Frédéric. “Virtus ueritatis”: langage et vérité dans l’œuvre de Tertullien. Collection des études augustiniennes. Série Antiquité 186. Paris, France: Institut d’études augustiniennes, 2009.

Notes

  • 1. See Jill Harries, “Tertullianus & Son?” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne, ed. Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton, and Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 385–400.

  • 2. On the question of whether Tertullian was the son of a “proconsular centurion,” see Timothy D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 13–21, 323–325. On the question of whether he was son of a presbyter, see Barnes, Tertullian, 11, 117; and see René Braun, “Un nouveau Tertullien: problèmes de biographie et de chronologie,” Revue des études latines 50 (1972): 73–74.

  • 3. On the sophisticated literates among Christians, see Keith Hopkins, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6, no. 2 (1998): 206–212.

  • 4. Barnes, Tertullian, 195.

  • 5. Jerome says he comes after Victor and Apollonius, but evidence goes against his view; see Gustave Bardy, La question des langues dans l’église ancienne (Paris, France: Beauchesne, 1948), 91; and Barnes, Tertullian, 6–7.

  • 6. Barnes, Tertullian, 242–243 shows that “Tertullian’s name proves nothing.” For a cautious affirmation that Tertullian is of Punic origin, see René Braun, “Aux origines de la chrétienté d’Afrique: un homme de combat, Tertullien,” Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé 2 (1965): 194; and see David E. Wilhite, Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian’s Context and Identities (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007), 119–145, for a through discussion of issues of ethnicity in Tertullian. Jean-Claude Fredouille, “Tertullien et l’empire,” Recherches augustiniennes et patristiques 19 (1984): 111–131.

  • 7. See Paul Mattei, “Le schisme de Tertullien: Essai de mise au point biographique et ecclésiologique,” in Hommage à René Braun, vol. 2, Autour de Tertullien, ed. Jean Granarolo and Michèle Biraud (Paris,France: Les Belles Lettres, 1990), 129–149; and David Rankin, Tertullian and the Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 27–40.

  • 8. See inventory in Jérôme Lagouanère, “Clavis Tertulliani operum,” in Tertullianus Afer: Tertullien et la littérature chrétienne d’Afrique, ed. Jérôme Lagouanère and Sabine Fialon (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015), 105–138; and for the lost treatises, see Jean-Claude Fredouille, “L’activité littéraire de Tertullien: les traités perdus,” Revue d’études augustiniennes et patristiques 54 (2008): 1–29.

  • 9. See the thorough attempt made by Barnes, Tertullian, 32–54, with the objection of Braun, “Un nouveau Tertullien,” and Barnes’s revisions, Tertullian, 326–328.

  • 10. See Frédéric Chapot, “Ad nationes: destinataire fictif, destinataire réel dans l’apologétique chrétienne antique,” in Discorsi alla prova: atti del quinto colloquio italo-francese Discorsi pronunciati, discorsi ascoltati: contesti di eloquenza tra Grecia, Roma ed Europa, Napoli - S. Maria di Castellabate (Sa) 2123 settembre 2006,ed. Giancarlo Abbanonte (Napoli, Italy: Giannini, 2009), 455–457.

  • 11. See E. A. Fisher, “Greek Translations of Latin Literature in the Fourth Century A.D.,” Yale Classical Studies 27 (1982): 203–207.