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6. Tertullian |
The feisty lawyer who spoke for Christianity

Tertullian is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Sharp, witty, logically lethal, Tertullian took the fight into the enemy’s camp, but died as a church of one

Tertullian - The feisty lawyer who spoke for Christianity

Tertullian - The feisty lawyer who spoke for Christianity
Tertullian on persecution: With our hands thus stretched out and up to God, rend us with your iron claws, hang us up on crosses, wrap us in flames, take our heads from us with the sword, let loose the wild beasts on us–the very attitude of a Christian praying is one of preparation for all punishment.

Because it has never been easy, and almost never safe, to be an outspoken defender of their faith, many Christians hunker down in quiet anonymity. They live unobtrusively, inconspicuously; they leave no mark. After all, as the “common man” reminds us in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons (about the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More): “I’m breathing. Are you breathing too? It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends . . . Just don’t make trouble–or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.”

In the second century, Roman authorities regarded Christians as immensely troublesome. Not only were their rituals immoral, their repudiation of the gods caused fires, earthquakes, floods, all manner of natural calamities. How should Christians respond? Most considered it reasonable to “suffer in silence.” After all, didn’t their own leaders preach loving one’s enemy, turning the other cheek, accepting those who were placed in authority over them?

On the Mediterranean’s southern coast, near the modern city of Tunis, the ruins of Carthage can still be seen. There, about a.d. 160, a boy named Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born into a pagan family. Scholars differ about the exact date and circumstances of his conversion, but one thing was clear. Even after he became a Christian, turning the other cheek did not appeal to him, and yielding to mindless authority was out of the question.

Tradition has it that Tertullian was a lawyer; whether or not he acquired his combativeness in studying the law (he was also an expert in literature and philosophy), he was an implacable adversary. Against those who attacked Christian beliefs, against those who impugned the Christians’ practices and slandered their names, Tertullian fought back boldly.

Not a military man (in fact a self-declared pacifist), Tertullian had only ideas and words for weapons, but he wielded them fiercely. In treatises, pamphlets, essays, and sermons (it was common then for laymen to be invited to preach in Carthage though not in some other Christian centers)–in polemics of all kinds–Tertullian took on all opponents. We know of more than thirty of his written works, but some scholars speculate that twice that number may have been lost. His writings span a period of two decades, from a.d. 195 until about 215.

Tertullian coined a splendid phrase, militia Christi (“Christian warfare”), and applied it to his own life. It is apt. By sixteen hundred years, he anticipated the counsel of the nineteenth-century Anglican hymnologist John Samuel Bewley Monsell, echoing Paul: “Fight the good fight with all thy might/ Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right.”

The setting in which Tertullian waged his warfare was Carthage. Kart Hadasht, “the new town,” was the name used by the Phoenicians when they founded it about eight hundred years before the birth of Christ. Carthage was a formidable power in the ancient world, with a population estimated at two hundred thousand, remarkable for that time. By the fifth century b.c., however, the Carthaginian Empire found itself challenged by the rising power of Rome. Carthage’s greatest general, the elephant-employing Hannibal, nearly captured Rome in 216 b.c. In his treatise On the Pallium, Tertullian expresses nostalgia for the glory days, “the good old days when Carthage was Carthage.”

Nostalgia was in order because, in the third Punic War (149—146 b.c.), Carthage was conquered and utterly destroyed by Rome. Before the war had even started, Cato the Elder had pronounced a curse–Carthago delenda est, “Carthage must be destroyed”–which he repeated in speech after speech until it became Rome’s mission. When the Romans finally overcame Carthage, they salted its soil to ensure its barrenness. One might have thought that her glory was all in the past. But not so. In about 44 b.c., Julius Caesar decided to rebuild Carthage as a colony of Rome.

By the time of Tertullian’s birth more than two centuries later, Carthage was second only to Rome in grandeur. “Little Rome,” it was sometimes called. It rivaled Alexandria as the empire’s second largest city. Immense in geography, Carthage extended inland for many miles, enjoying wealth and, thanks to a busy port, a highly prosperous trade. Sunken Roman vessels are still occasionally discovered in the waters around Carthage.

Due to Roman engineering, Carthage had dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that allowed fields to be irrigated and agriculture to flourish. Water from as far away as thirty-five miles arrived in the city by an ingenious system of aqueducts at a volume estimated at eighty gallons per second. The Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138—161) had built elaborate public baths, and as the scholar Paul Petit has noted, the Pax Romana throughout the region–peace, order, and good Roman government–was preserved by the Thirteenth Urban Cohort and a small mounted force, while the fleet from Alexandria discharged the task of surveillance.

Carthage was also a center of learning, so much so that the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius, who would satirize the vices of the age in The Golden Ass, abandoned Athens to study in Carthage and then remained there to teach philosophy and rhetoric.

The Romans worshiped many gods and goddesses, as Tertullian mocked: “new gods and old, barbarian, Greek, Roman, foreign, captive, adoptive, private, public, male, female, rustic, urban, military, and naval.” Schoolteachers were required to teach the genealogies of these little deities, but predominant was the cult of Saturn, whose adherents believed that all things, large and small and good and evil, were willed by a god who could be appeased only by sacrifice. Initially, this meant human sacrifice, usually involving children under four years of age. By Tertullian’s day, human sacrifice had been prohibited, the children being replaced by animals.

Carthage was also an important center of rabbinical training, and its schools had graduated several notable rabbis who taught in local synagogues. When Tertullian was a teenager, the city government decreed that there would be an elaborate annual festival. Houses would be garlanded, lavish banquets staged, and sacrifices offered to the emperor. Devout Jews considered this idolatrous and generally declined to participate.

Just how Christians got to Carthage, and from where, scholars continue to debate. Some contend that Carthaginian traders or merchants, whose commerce took them to Jerusalem, heard the first apostles speak in tongues on the day of Pentecost. The book of Acts (2:6—11) says the apostles were heard by many, including pilgrims “from the parts of Libya.” Or perhaps the Christian community began with homegrown converts from among Carthaginian Jews. By the time of Tertullian’s birth, Christian cults (as the authorities considered them) were common throughout North Africa.

Christians were easily identifiable. They kept one day in seven free from business; they worshiped in their own house churches; they had their own burial grounds, some of which archaeologists have unearthed and identified. They believed in one God, who had taken upon himself the lineaments of a man, had been crucified by the Romans and buried, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and was accessible through prayer. A starker contrast with the beliefs of pagan religions is difficult to imagine.

Second-century Christians posed real security problems for the authorities. The Christians seemed to speak in revolutionary terms, pitting Caesar against God. They taught of a coming millennium, based upon old dreams of Jewish prophets and psalmists. They envisaged a future when God would rule, having first broken the kings of the world like a potter’s vessel. In his Annals, the Roman historian Tacitus dismissed such beliefs as “pernicious superstitions,” but they could just as easily be considered treasonous. Archibald Robertson, in The Origins of Christianity, points out that among early Christians there was the expectation of an imminent end time, “of which the communal feast in which church members joined weekly was a sort of foretaste and pledge.”

The emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Rome on March 17, a.d. 180, and his son Commodus took the throne. Times of transition are always times of uncertainty, and perhaps it was uncertainty that motivated the North African proconsul, Vigellus Saturninus, to mount a crackdown on the Christians.

In his Apology, published in about 197, shortly after his conversion, Tertul-lian mocks the authorities for blaming their difficulties on Christians and persecuting them: “If the river Tiber reaches the walls, if the river Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky does not move or the earth does, if there is a famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’” Then, with that acerbic touch so characteristic of him, Tertullian adds: “What, all of them to one lion?”

Whatever his reasons, Saturninus demanded that Christians take a loyalty oath that, until then, had been required only sporadically. The person charged had the usual two options: burning a pinch of incense or swearing an oath to the emperor’s “genius” on the one hand, or death on the other. Then, on a date known precisely (July 17 in the year 180), from a town called Scillia (whose name and exact location–perhaps in the province of Numidia–remain matters of conjecture), Saturninus provoked a showdown between twelve peasant Christians and the might of Rome.

These twelve, five of them women, would come to be known as the “Scillitan martyrs.” Tertullian claimed they were the first Christian martyrs in Africa. (They would hardly be the last. Far more Christians were to be murdered in Africa during the waning years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first than in Tertullian’s long lifetime.)

Very little is known about the Scillitan twelve as individuals, or about what brought them to Saturninus’s attention, but it is certain that the cult of the emperor was anathema to committed Christians. The twelve were put on trial in the Judgment Hall at Carthage. Apparently, none was tortured; instead, the proconsul Saturninus interrogated them.

The ensuing dialogue is restrained, earnest, almost Socratic in tone. Although the historian Henry Chadwick writes that some Christians appeared almost to “court martyrdom” when questioned, by being “contumacious, dissident, and disrespectful to the governor,” the Scillitan twelve were models of courtroom decorum and resolute courtesy. The terse brevity and Latin composition of the transcript of those proceedings have led some to suggest that its author may have been none other than Saturninus himself.1 In any event, the drama and pathos of the encounter remain gripping eighteen hundred years later in this more contemporary rendering of J. A. Robinson’s translation:

Saturninus, the proconsul: You can win the indulgence of our lord the emperor, if you return to a sound mind.

Speratus [acting as spokesman]: We have never done ill, we have not lent ourselves to wrong, we have never spoken ill, but when ill-treated we have given thanks, because we pay heed to our emperor.

Saturninus: We too are religious, and our religion is simple, and we swear by the genius of our lord the emperor, and pray for his welfare, as you ought also to do.

Speratus: If you will peaceably give me your attention, I shall tell you the mystery of simplicity.

Saturninus: I will give you no such attention, if you begin by speaking evil of our sacred rites, but rather I command you now: Swear by the genius of our lord the emperor!

Speratus: The empire of this world I know nothing about, but rather I serve that God, whom no man has seen nor with these eyes could see. I have committed no theft. If I have bought anything I pay the tax, because I do know my Lord, the King of Kings and Emperor of all nations.

Saturninus: Then stop being of this persuasion.

Speratus: It would be bad advice for me to murder someone, or to tell lies.

Saturninus: Get yourself out of this foolishness.

Cittinus [another prisoner]: We have nothing to fear, except our Lord God who is in Heaven.

Donata [a female prisoner]: We honor Caesar as Caesar, but we fear God.

Vestia: I am a Christian.

Secunda: What I am, that I wish to be.

Saturninus [to Speratus]: Do you persist in being a Christian?

Speratus: I am a Christian.

[With him all the rest agreed.]

Saturninus: Do you want time to reconsider?

Speratus: In a matter as straightforward as this, there is nothing to reconsider.

Saturninus: What are those things in your shirt?

Speratus: Books and epistles by Paul, a just man.

Saturninus: Listen, you people! Take another thirty days and think this over.

Speratus: I am a Christian.

[And again, they all agreed with him.]

Saturninus [reading out the decree from a tablet]: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and the rest having confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, after opportunity was offered them to return to the custom of the Romans, have obstinately persisted. It is determined that they be put to the sword.

Speratus: We give thanks to God.

Nartzalus: Today we are martyrs in Heaven, thanks be to God.

The twelve were then beheaded,2 all, according to most accounts, on the same day.

Such courage as the Scillitan martyrs demonstrated has a tendency to humble observers, then and now; it provokes admiration even from those who do not share the martyrs’ convictions. After all, these men and women had no greater strength to face persecution than anyone alive in the twenty-first century. They knew what awaited them; indeed, they sometimes discussed among themselves whether the executioner’s sword would hurt and if death would be instantaneous. Yet their faith overcame their fear. Henri Daniel-Rops describes them: “Encouraging one another, exchanging the kiss of peace, even more united in the moment of sacrifice than in their everyday lives, where it was only human that discords and dissensions should have existed, they went steadfastly to execution, bearing in their hearts that peace which Christ had promised them.”

The effect of such martyrdoms on the Christian community of North Africa was mixed. Some Christians became more circumspect or went underground, but for many others a “martyr’s crown” became the desired culmination of a life of spiritual dedication. “May you gain your crown” became a common North African salutation, and anniversaries of the deaths of the martyrs began to be celebrated, giving rise to the earliest church calendars.

Clearly, the example of Christian martyrs had a profound and lasting impact upon Tertullian. Though he was not yet a Christian when the Scillitan martyrs were beheaded, their example was the cause of his conversion. Later he contended that their deaths had accelerated the vigorous spread of Christianity throughout North Africa. His best known and most quoted maxim is usually mistranslated into English as: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What he actually wrote was: Semen est sanguis Christianorum, “The blood of the Christians is [i.e., serves as] seed.”

Who was this Carthaginian rebel, this lawyer-convert, this pacifist who scorned a military career like his father’s to enlist in the militia Christi? Who was this man of privilege who abandoned the powerful to stand with the oppressed?

We do not know even what Tertullian looked like. He was probably born into a well-to-do family, and his father may have served in the proconsul’s guard. Almost certainly he studied law in Rome, and he wrote two early legal treatises. He frequently employed legal terminology and often argued as though he were in court. For example, he once wrote as if he were himself cross-examining someone who purported to be a Christian astrologer: But if you could truly foretell the future, Tertullian asks, would you not have foreseen your own conversion? And if you had foreseen your conversion, would you not also know that Christians scorn astrology?

Tertullian’s writings show the breadth of his reading; he quotes from Herodotus, Pliny, Juvenal, and Plato, all philosophical and literary luminaries of the ancient world. This was important because the early Christian church had few advocates who were “intellectuals.” To the Corinthians, Paul had written: “Remember, brethren, the circumstances of your own calling; not many of you are wise, in the world’s fashion, not many powerful, not many well born” (1 Cor. 1:26). But if Christians were to prevail in what was becoming, at least in part, a war of ideas, they would have to equip themselves for a vigorous defense of their faith. As Gerald Lewis Bray points out in Holiness and the Will of God: “The Apostolic Age and those who remembered it had passed from the scene, and with them had gone the last living link with the historical revelation.” Was not Christ himself the embodiment of truth? Had he not promised: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”? Tertullian would defend his newly acquired faith with the skill of a lawyer and the subtlety of a philosopher.

As a young man, Tertullian had been attracted to the theater and the games, spectacles of violence and eroticism serving much the same audience as movies and professional sports today. After his conversion, he expressed remorse about how much time he had wasted. His description (De Spectaculis) of a pious Christian meditating on the eternal verities while watching with one eye the bloodletting in the arena suggests that the lure of the games was never entirely lost on him. To his fellow Christians who attended, Tertullian quoted Psalm 1:1: “Blessed is the man who enters not the assembly of the ungodly.” What assembly, he asked rhetorically, could be more ungodly than those in the amphitheater screaming for the blood of Christians? Moreover, he went on, spectators who are ostensibly Christians often acclaim one gladiator as “the greatest,” forgetting that only God is great.

Ridicule and sarcasm were among Tertullian’s favorite techniques. He did not suffer fools gladly; in fact, he seldom suffered them at all. In his Apology, he mentions the widespread concern about the dwindling revenues of the pagan temples, for which the Christians were being blamed. “We cannot cope with men and gods begging together,” he writes. And in any event, Christians compensate for the lost revenue because, unlike just about everybody else, they don’t cheat on their tax returns. Defending the early Christian practice of communal property, he quips: “We Christians have everything in common–except our wives.”

An idea of what it was like to joust verbally with Tertullian may be gleaned from his goring of Praxeas, an influential Christian writer who expressed doubts about both the triune nature of God and the kind of spirit-filled “charismatic” worship favored by the Montanists (see p. 166). In one memorable sentence, Tertullian made Praxeas infamous over the centuries: “He has accomplished two bits of the devil’s business: he put to flight the Paraclete [the Holy Spirit] and crucified the Father.”

Some authors have speculated that Tertullian was eventually ordained a presbyter. On two occasions, he classes himself with the laity, as though calling attention to an anomaly. But his ordination is unlikely. However, he was certainly the first example of a Christian satirist, a sort of second-century forerunner of the twentieth century’s Hilaire Belloc or Malcolm Muggeridge.

Tertullian’s polemics are vigorous defenses of Christian orthodoxy. His subjects were wide-ranging: on prayer, on fasting, on suffering, on repentance, on baptism, on marriage, on women, on the Incarnation, and his most influential work, The Apology. He defends both the historicity and rationality of Christianity against all objections. He contrasts the piety and sobriety of Christians with pagan prejudices,3 pointing out that Christians pray to God at their meetings and are led in worship by wise elders who are chosen for honesty, not wealth. Christians spend their money not on riotous living, he writes, but in support of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, and “the only shame or regret [a Christian] feels is at not having been a Christian earlier.”

In his earlier works (roughly 195 to 205), Tertullian focuses on Christ and the cross. God’s saving love for man, he contends, was demonstrated beyond words, beyond theories, beyond reason itself, by the sacrificial death of Jesus. “It is credible because it is foolish,” he writes. “He was buried and rose again. It is certain because it is impossible.” He meant, that is, that nobody inventing a religion would have invented one so outlandish.

In The Sword and the Cross, Robert M. Grant credits Tertullian with two major contributions to Christian history. First, he pioneered the idea of the “gathered” church: a small community of believers, beset by enemies, facing persecution and death, faithful only to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, a remnant to be eventually vindicated by God. “We are a society,” Tertullian wrote, “with a common religious feeling, a unity of discipline, and a common bond of hope.”

Whatever his delight in philosophy, Christianity had now carried Tertullian beyond it, a point he succinctly summed up in his most-repeated observation: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Church to do with the Academy?” It meant that Jerusalem did not need Athens because in Christ it had surpassed and moved beyond mere human philosophy. Grant says that this remark “succinctly summarizes his attitude toward pagan culture. We have the truth; they do not; we do not need them. He literally created the African ecclesiastical mentality.” At the same time, he drew a sharp distinction between Caesar’s kingdom and God’s. “What is more foreign to us than the state?” he dangerously asked.

Such challenging, not to say subversive, views kept Tertullian embroiled in controversy, not only with civil, but also with ecclesiastical authority. Most bishops considered that the survival of the Christians required keeping a low profile, that something less than hostility to civil authority was the wise course. But Tertullian scorned this clerical prudence. When bishops waffled, he jeered them. A bishop who shies away from controversy, he once wrote, is like a soldier who runs away from battle.

How did it happen, then, that an apologist whose earliest polemics were in defense of orthodoxy should, during his late middle age, fall in with the Montanist sect that the Christians had condemned? And why then did he turn on the Montanists, abandon them, and, in effect, establish his own church? Why die old, tired, solitary, estranged?

Eric Osborn in his biography, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West, suspects that he was not able to cope with the spectacle of sin being committed by baptized Christians within the fold of the faith. “The fulfillment of all things in Christ and the effectiveness of baptism required the absence of deadly sins from Christian lives,” he writes. “He was driven to despair by the abundance of Christian sin. . . . This estrangement was no passing problem; in every age there have been as many repelled by a ‘sordid’ church as by the folly of faith.”

Bray observes: “Tertullian’s writings became controversial at the very moment when his works were more widely circulated and more generally read than ever before. The objection made was not that they taught false doctrine . . . but that they portrayed the Church as an exclusive body of saints which rejected any kind of compromise with the world.”

Others would perhaps find that the best explanation lies in the nature of Christianity itself. Over the ages Christians would find themselves torn in an unending struggle between the pursuit of further Truth and the acceptance of established doctrine, between zeal and survival, between individual charisma and collective authority, and finally between martyrdom and the accommodation of authority. Tertullian witnessed one such struggle most starkly in the year 203, when he became acquainted with the fate of a young woman known to history as St. Perpetua of Carthage. Tertullian’s tract, To the Martyrs, was prompted by her story, which follows this chapter.

Tertullian lived on for several decades after Perpetua’s martyrdom. His declining years were marked by controversy and schism. The asceticism and the explicit appeal to martyrdom of the Montanists irresistibly attracted him, and several of his works are in their defense, written with the same vigor with which he had once defended Christians against pagans. Tertullian’s vision was always of a beleaguered and persecuted community of ascetics and martyrs, engaged in warfare:

Even to Christians the prison is unpleasant–yet, we were called to the service in the army of the living God. No soldier goes out to war encumbered with luxuries, nor does he march to the line of battle from the sleeping chamber, but from light and cramped tents where every kind of austerity, discomfort, and inconvenience is experienced. In like manner, O blessed, consider whatever is hard in your present situation as an exercise of your powers of mind and body. You are about to enter a noble contest in which the living God acts the part of a superintendent, and the Holy Spirit is your trainer; a contest whose crown is eternity, whose prize is angelic nature, citizenship in Heaven and glory forever and ever.

However, true to form, Tertullian eventually quarreled with the Montanists, going off with a handful of his own closest followers, who became known as Tertullianistae. (In the fourth century, they would be reintegrated into the Christian community.) Finally, Tertullian quarreled even with the Tertullianistae, finishing up, in effect, as the sole member of a church of one.

And though condemned, his writings were preserved and have been read by Christians in every generation ever since, a tribute to his originality and genius.

Born to rebel, never to compromise, Tertullian might be dismissed as a fanatic, one who saw Christians and the world as locked in conflict, forever incompatible; a man almost nostalgic for the days when the Scillitan Martyrs and Perpetua had spilled their blood to demonstrate that incompatibility. But ironically, Tertullian himself did not die in the arena but in bed, of old age, in about 240. By then the North African church had ninety bishops, and beneath them a hierarchy of presbyters, deacons, and thousands of lay adherents. It was a growing and powerful institution. But Tertullian died alone, having cast himself out of the community he had labored most of his life to establish and defend.

Meanwhile, fifteen hundred miles to the east along the Mediterranean coast, in the city of Alexandria, another voice had been raised that would carry farther and more clearly than even Tertullian’s, and that story too had begun with a martyrdom.

This is the end of the Tertullian category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Tertullian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at