A Genius From the Outskirts

Author: Marco Rizzi

A Genius From the Outskirts

Marco Rizzi

The Italian daily, "Corriere della Sera", has brought out a new edition of "The Apology of Tertullian for the Christians" in its series "I classici del pensiero libero. Greci e latini", published in 1996 by the Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli. The following is a translation from Italian of the Preface written especially for this editorial project.

Tertullian is famous for a sentence that he never wrote: "I believe because it is absurd" or "against reason". Thus he is often credited with being an aggressive and intransigent exponent of an anti-rational and anti-philosophical Christianity. In his writings there are certainly plenty of passages that seem to confirm this impression; yet they are most often the product of a taste for rhetorical paradox and the stunning affirmations, real sayings with which his texts are strewn: semen est sanguis christianorum (the blood [of martyrs] is the seed of Christians), hersterni sumus et omnia vestra implevimus (we are but of yesterday, and yet we have Filled all the places that belong to you), to quote two of his most incisive axioms.

With Tertullian, Christian literature in Latin, preceded by unreliable biblical translations, was born already an adult, fully aware of its content and its means of expression; and it was born in an out of the way context, in Africa at the end of the second century and in the first decades of the third. Africa was one of the few territories of the Roman Empire where at the time Greek was not spoken and where, at least at the outset, Christianity was unable to address all those from the East who knew and used what had become a sort of lingua franca.

Tertullian's great merit is to have forged the theological vocabulary of Western Christianity virtually from nothing; from time to time he borrowed models from Greek, when the equivalent Latin term failed to do justice to the specific meaning acquired in the Christian context, such as in the case of martyr and testis (witness, testifier). He also made daring juxtapositions and coined new words to render the Greek mysterion (mystery), a word that Paul had already borrowed from the Greek religious lexicon, to indicate the content of the Christian proclamation. Tertullian did not hesitate to have recourse to the legal vocabulary of Rome and chose the word sacramentum, which meant "pact", "oath", and "reciprocal obligation", in some way linking the faithful and God in the context of law, and thereby pointing Christianity in a very precise direction.

Other than the careful rhetorical and juridical training that is evident in his writings, we do not know much about Tertullian's life. According to Jerome he was born in Carthage, the son of a Roman centurion. He knew Greek and philosophy, and married after a somewhat wild youth, even though Tertullian himself probably exaggerated this aspect in order to highlight his conversion in adulthood.

His first writings date back to the last years of the second century, including the Apologeticum, which can be dated to the year 197. From this time on, until about 220, many works in an apologetic and polemic
style succeeded each other, against pagans, Jews or other Christians whom Tertullian considered heretics. They are doctrinal and disciplinary writings which aim to illustrate aspects of the content of the Christian faith and its ethical and behavioural implications, marked by a rigorism (and a notable misogyny!) which seems to have increased as time passed, so as to give the impression that in the first decade of the third century Tertullian had adhered to Montanism, a radical eschatological doctrine which preached Christ's imminent return and the consequent need for harsh penance.

Jerome took up this opinion. Indeed he said that disappointed by Montanism too, Tertullian founded his own sect; however, Cyprian, a bishop and martyr of undeniable orthodoxy, did not hesitate in about the middle of the third century to describe Tertullian by the nickname of "teacher" and to draw from his writings inspiration and topics, especially of an apologetic character.

Moreover, although the so-called Decretum Gelasianum of 494 condemned Tertullian's writings as heterodox, they nevertheless continued to be transcribed and studied until the editio princeps of 1521 by the humanist Beato Renano and the clamorous judgement of Erasmus of Rotterdam who said in those same years "What Origen was for the Greeks, Tertullian was for the Africans. He was a man well versed in every kind of discipline, of perspicacious ingenuity and of sound judgement". Most modern historiographers would have no difficulty in subscribing to this opinion.

The Apologeticum may be considered Tertullian's masterpiece. From the opening witticisms he denounces to the Roman magistrates themselves the juridical contradictions of the persecutory approach to Christians, determined by blind ignorance; in fact, even merely the nomen Christianum was persecuted, without examining whether or not some kind of criminal activity was involved. This way of proceeding proved to be contradictory to the actual principles of law. After this initial premiss, starting from his seventh chapter Tertullian set out to refute first of all the popular accusations which, moreover, had never been examined in court. They attributed to Christians crimes such as infanticide, blood cults and bacchanalian banquets. These were believed to be crimes committed in secret, which in practice revealed that only those who actually perpetrated them could attribute them to others; in this way, Tertullian sarcastically twisted the accusation to target the accusers in accordance with the rhetorical scheme of retaliation and of great polemic effectiveness.

Then at last, the true issue at stake was extensively confronted and debated: the Christians' refusal to take part in ceremonies that celebrated the community and State gods (hence the accusation of atheism, which should not be understood in a strictly religious or philosophical sense but rather as a form of alienation from a rite for social cohesion). This type of conduct posed the problem of the Christians' attitude to the Emperor (the crime of lese majeste), and more generally to Roman society (the reputation of hatred of the human race).

It is important to note in this regard that Tertullian surmounted the position, until then traditional and which was limited' to guaranteeing prayers and submission to the authority in the footsteps of St Paul, to specify instead that Christians too identify their horizon in this world with the status romanus, since they also were involved, though without blame, in all its vicissitudes (and there is a clear reference to the civil strife that followed the death of Commodus and the establishment of Septimus Severus). It was a step that first set Christianity on the way to its embrace of Rome, consummated by Constantine a century later.

A brief presentation of Christian doctrines, polemically opposed to the philosophical teaching, and a reference to the Christian martyrs conclude the 5o chapters of this work which ends with the umpteenth, effective saying: cum damnamur a vobis, a Deo absolvimur (he who is condemned before your tribunal is absolved before God).

Over and above the strict historical and juridical content, a further reason to read the Apologeticum is above all Tertullian's extraordinary ability continuously to vary the stylistic and expressive register of his writing; even just a quick glance at the Latin text enables one to grasp the broad and extensive Latin sentences with a Ciceronian hallmark, immediately followed by a passage that go inquite the opposite direction, incisive and broken, consisting of dry antitheses, an accumulation of pressing proposals that accumulate one on top of another, strongly elyptical expressions that challenge the translator, who is obliged to make use of many more words to render what the original succeeds in expressing with a dryness reminiscent of Tacitus. From this stems a very precious and at times complacent text, at times inclined to the Baroque, but can also surprise and intrigue the reader, even one who is less interested in the religious dimension of the text.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2012, page 10

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