The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great

By Henry Chadwick | Go to book overview

17 Tertullian, Minucius Felix

On 17 July ad 180 twelve Christians from the north African town of Scillium were sentenced to execution by the proconsul. The record of their cross-examination survives in Latin and Greek. The proconsul expected them to practise secret vices and asked what books they had in their box. 'Books and letters of a just (innocent) man Paul', they replied. After refusing thirty days in which to change their mind, they declined to swear by the emperor's genius and were condemned to be beheaded, to which they answered 'Thanks be to God.' The sentence suggests that they possessed Roman citizenship and therefore were not Punic peasants, though one had a Punic name Nartzalus. If as is probable the Pauline letters in their box were in Latin, that is the earliest evidence for the Old Latin Bible of the second century.

During the last decade of the second century Christianity successfully penetrated the educated classes of Carthage, chief town of Roman Africa and a place of high culture. Among the converts was a brilliant advocate Tertullian, master of eloquent Latin and fluent in Greek as well. Not only familiar with Latin authors, including Juvenal and Tacitus, he had also read Herodotus and Plato in Greek. A fair proportion of the population at the trading port of Carthage spoke Greek, and he published a few of his tracts in that language. Tertullian came into a Church already under sharp persecution, and the polarity in society provoked him to write tracts of superb militancy, especially his Apologeticus of ad 197, in which his defence of Christianity is a trenchant attack on the superstitions of polytheism. His practice as an advocate in the courts familiarized him with points of law.

His skills in attacking pagans could be turned against fellow Christians from whom he dissented. He defended a 'natural theology' in the sense that the soul, created by God though now fallen, still has a subconscious memory of God innate within and from this can advance to truths only revealed through scripture. He shared the opinion that the Greek philosophers had derived their correct insights from the Old Testament, which made possible a positive estimate of their value. But within the Church disputed questions rested largely on whether a text in scripture could be seen to settle the point. Some Christians were arguing that since scripture had no express prohibition of attending public shows such as beast fights in the amphitheatre, they were

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