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Last Updated on September 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

In his Apology (Latin for Apologeticus , thought to have been written in 197 CE), Tertullian (ca. 155–240 CE) first proves that the pagans' hatred of Christians has no grounds and that the Roman judicial system is unjust towards then. Next, he defends Christians from popular and public accusations. Finally,...

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In his Apology (Latin for Apologeticus, thought to have been written in 197 CE), Tertullian (ca. 155–240 CE) first proves that the pagans' hatred of Christians has no grounds and that the Roman judicial system is unjust towards then. Next, he defends Christians from popular and public accusations. Finally, he concludes that Christianity is superior to paganism and that the persecution of Christians needs to be stopped.

The very name of "Christian" is made criminal. The reason for this, Tertullian posits, is ignorance:

This, then, is the first point we bring before you,—the injustice of your hatred of the Christian name. And the very pretext which seems to excuse this injustice, namely ignorance, both aggravates and clenches it. For what can be more unjust than for men to hate that of which they are ignorant, even supposing it to deserve their hatred? For then only does it deserve hatred when it is ascertained whether it deserve it. But if a knowledge of the deserts be wanting, how is the justice of the hatred defended, which ought to be proved not from the mere existence of the hatred but from cognizance of the case? When, however, men hate because they are ignorant of the nature of the object of their hatred, what is there to prevent it really being of a nature such as they ought not to hate?

Not only that, but Christians are denied the right to refute these accusations—the very right that other defendants are granted by the Roman laws. In order to justify their hatred, the pagans point out that the Christian religion is not allowed by the law. To counter this, Tertullian discusses the issue of what the law is and how all religious laws are to be applied to Christians. Contrary to the Roman predilection for ancient laws and their view of the law as something unchangeable, he stresses that the law as a product of human mind needs to be perfected, referring to cases from the history of the Greeks and the Romans themselves:

Were not the laws of Lycurgus himself revised by the Spartans, and did not this revision inflict such grief upon their author that he starved himself to death in retirement? Do not you yourselves, too, day by day, in your attempts to illumine the darkness of past ages, cut down and fell with the new axes of imperial rescripts and edicts the whole of that old and tangled forest of laws? Did not Severus, that steadiest of princes, only the other day repeal those ridiculous Papian laws which bade children be brought up before the Julian law enforced marriage,—laws whose antiquity gave them such high authority?

Another reason for the pagans' hatred of Christians is Christians' supposed immorality. Christians are accused of secretly committing such crimes as infanticide, feasting on blood, and incest. Tertullian points out the ridiculousness of such claims in reference to Christians while emphasizing that the pagans commit them openly in worshiping their deities.

From the accusations concerning the supposed immorality of Christians, Tertullian proceeds to the public charges that cast Christians as godless—professing a strange and illicit religion chosen by people who show contempt to Caesar, lack patriotism, and are a cause of public ills and calamities that befall the world.

The apologist enlarges on the nature of the pagan gods, referring again to Roman history and mythology:

We cease to worship your gods from that moment when we recognize that they do not exist. This, therefore, you ought to demand,—that we prove these gods to have no existence, and on that ground that they ought not to be worshipped, since worship would only be due to them in the event of their being really gods. Then, too, it will of course follow that the Christians must be punished, if it remains an established fact that those gods do exist, whom they refused to worship because they believed them to have no such existence.

As for the "strange" character of Christian religion, Tertullian explains that the worship of an ass's head ascribed to Christians was actually Tacitus's fable—one originally applied to the Jews but later transferred to Christians because of similarities between the two religions. In a like manner, he dispels other, similar charges.

Next, Tertullian deals at length with the character of the Christian worship:

The object of our worship is One God, who, through the Word by which He commanded, through the Reason by which He ordered, through the Power by which He was able, framed out of nothing the whole mass of this universe with all its equipment of elements, bodies, and spirits, for the enhancing of His own majesty . . . He is invisible, although He may be seen: He is incomprehensible to touch, yet may be made present through grace: He is inestimable, yet may be estimated by the human senses: He is therefore the True and the Great God.

In explaining the nature of this God, Tertullian refers to the great age of the Jewish religion and sacred books being comparable to the antiquity of the Greeks and the Romans themselves.

Countering the accusations of Christians' supposed animosity to the society and of their rumored conspiracy against the state, Tertullian tells of the character of Christian prayer meetings and love feasts—during which, among other things, they pray for the emperor and other authorities, which clears them of these absurd accusations.

As for the ills that befall the world, the apologist stresses that even greater calamities happened before Christianity came on stage. Moreover, now the world has intercessors in Christians before the One and Only God. Besides, Christians are normal people just as the rest in the Roman world:

We remember the gratitude that we owe to God our Lord and Creator; we reject no enjoyment of His works; true, we are moderate in our enjoyment of them, lest we should use them intemperately or wrongfully. Consequently we cannot live with you in the world without a market-place, or shambles, nor without baths, shops, workshops, inns, fairs, and other places of resort. We sail and fight with you; we till the ground and engage in trade just as you do; similarly we join crafts, and throw our workmanship open to the public to your profit. How then we can seem to be unprofitable to your trades, when we live with you and by you, I am at a loss to understand. Moreover if I do not frequent your religious rites, yet all the same on that day I am still a man.

The Apology ends where it began. The persecutions of Christians are unjust and counterproductive, Tertullian argues:

Yet no cruelty of yours . . . profits you in the least; but forms rather an attraction to our sect. We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you: the blood of the Christians is a source of new life.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389

First published: Apologeticus, 197 c.e. (English translation, 1642)

Edition used: The Fathers of the Church, vol. 10, Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix—Octaviuis, edited by Roy J. Deferrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950

Genre: Nonfiction

Subgenres: Church history; instructional manual; theology

Core issues: Catholics and Catholicism; daily living; faith; justice; religion; theology


Tertullian, a highly educated Roman citizen and lawyer from Carthage in North Africa, converted to Christianity in 193 c.e. because he was so impressed by the behavior and faith shown by Christian martyrs. He was convinced that the one true religion was Christianity, not one of the various philosophical systems and cults then widely practiced in the Roman Empire. Tertullian thought that if he could explain the content of Christian belief to other educated non-Christian Romans, they would see the truth of Christianity, convert, and cease to persecute Christians. Tertullian, not a man of moderate temperament, offers a fiery defense of Christianity in his Apology. He not only advocates forcefully in favor of Christianity but also seeks to discredit traditional Roman polytheism and emperor worship, calling them nothing more than idolatry and baseless superstitions.

Apology, in the Latin sense of apologia, means to explain, which is what Tertullian does in his Apology. Speaking to Romans very similar to himself in culture and education, he explains why all the accusations of atheism, incest, and cannibalism against Christianity were ludicrous and why Christians should be thanked rather than persecuted for expounding the truth to their fellow citizens. He argues that Christianity was a benefit rather than a liability to the Roman Empire and that only bad emperors would persecute a good religion.

Tertullian was writing at the close of the second century c.e. when Christianity, though a fragile and discontinuous presence in the Roman Empire, had begun to come to the attention of Roman authorities who regarded it as just another unauthorized organization with potentially dangerous overtones. The authorities suppressed it as seditious and prosecuted members of the quasi-secret society for treason. They neither knew nor cared about Christianity as a belief system; it was not a recognized religion and therefore was banned.

Arguing like the lawyer he was, Tertullian examines the accusations made against Christianity and Christians. He demonstrates the moral integrity of Christians who are exercising their liberty of conscience, an idea Romans claim to value. According to traditions of Roman justice, Christians must be found guilty of crimes before they can be punished. Try as they might, the accusers of Christianity have neither the legal nor logical grounds to substantiate their accusations. Christians cannot be atheists because they believe in a deity. Every other ethnic and geographical group within the empire is allowed to worship particular deities, which Tertullian claims are nothing more than human mental and physical creations. He asks why Christians alone are forbidden to worship their deity, which he claims is above all tribal and geographical deities.

Christians do not engage in cannibalism and incest in their agape or fellowship meals together. Tertullian gives a rather complete description of early worship services and meetings that took place in members’ homes: Christians met to read Scripture, sing hymns of praise to God, agree to treat one another with honesty and charity, and share a meal together. When Christians say they love one another, Tertullian explains, they mean as friends and members of a community. Because Christians had to meet in secret for fear of persecution, outsiders accused Christians of engaging in various sexual perversions. When Christians commemorated the Last Supper by sharing the body and blood of Christ with one another, their accusers took this quite literally and thought Christians were practicing cannibalism. Tertullian debunks this false understanding as well.

Tertullian also defends Christians against the charge of treason, based on the idea that the continued existence of Christianity is a threat to the continued existence of the Roman Empire. Accusers tried to claim that Christianity was offensive to the gods and that all the bad events in the empire were signs of the gods’ displeasure. Therefore, Christianity must be eliminated for the good of the empire. In answering this charge, Tertullian reviews a number of negative events in recent history and explains their causes, which are revealed to be something other than the existence of Christianity. He challenges the accusers to actually prove, rather than merely state, a causal connection between Christianity and negative events. Tertullian gives an account of the prayers used in Christian worship services, prayers offered not only for the emperor but also for the members of the government and for peace throughout the empire.

Tertullian further writes that Christians voluntarily assume a code of conduct that requires them not to harm one another or engage in any socially destructive behavior and to provide social services for the poor and vulnerable among them. Tertullian challenges those in authority to investigate charges against Christians in an unbiased manner. He asserts that the governors will find that Christians, far from being a threat to society, are unlikely to be on the wrong side of the law because they hold themselves to high moral standards. Christianity forbids its members from joining secret political and religious organizations, engaging in frivolous lawsuits that waste the governors’ time, and attending the public spectacles and athletic contests that often degenerate into violence and riots. Governors will conclude they would rather have a larger Christian population to govern, Tertullian argues.

Christian Themes

The predominant theme of Tertullian’s Apology is that Christianity is not only a true religion but also the truth, unlike all the different idolatrous religions and manmade philosophies known throughout the Roman Empire. Christianity is not just one more religious option; it replaces all other religions and philosophies. Despite superficial similarities between those religions and aspects of Christianity, those other religions are inherently false because they originate from human minds, not from God. It was the insistence on the divine origination of Christianity that caused Tertullian to hurl his famous question at the accusers of Christianity: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What does all the knowledge of this world matter when one should live life for the sake of eternal salvation?

Tertullian was not a systematic thinker or theologian. His writings were controversial, both within the Christian community and in wider non-Christian circles in the empire. The Apology is addressed to non-Christian Roman governors, so there is no doctrinal development in it. Nonetheless, the Apology was quickly translated into Greek for the benefit of Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. They modeled their defense of Christianity after Tertullian’s Apology.

In later writings, Tertullian returned to ideas mentioned in passing in the Apology. His “Letter to Scapula” discusses in detail the fact that religious belief cannot be coerced and that only bad officials seek to compel assent. His writings against heretics, “Against the Heathens” and “Against the Valentinians,” reinforce his contention that other religions are merely human constructs. The respect due to believers who die as martyrs is detailed in “Scorpiace,” and the reasons Christians are forbidden to attend public festivities forms the basis for “Spectacles.”

There is little evidence that Tertullian’s logically rigorous defense of Christianity made any difference to Roman authorities. Persecution of Christians continued for another hundred years until Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration in 312 c.e. Regardless of the effectiveness of his explanation and defense of Christianity, Tertullian is considered the father of Latin theology because he provided the theological vocabulary for later Latin Christian writers.

Sources for Further Study

  • Barnes, Timothy. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. In addition to a discussion of the important points of Tertullian’s theology, Barnes provides an in-depth presentation of Tertullian’s contribution to the development of a specifically Christian Latin.
  • Osborn, Eric. Tertullian: First Theologian of the West. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Osborn analyses the influence of Tertullian’s vocabulary and theology on later Latin Christian writers, despite the fact that Tertullian spent the last years of his life outside the mainstream Christian community.
  • Sider, Robert, ed. Christian and Pagan in the Roman Empire: The Witness of Tertullian. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2001. This volume contains selections from many of Tertullian’s writings and serves as a good introduction to the range of topics on which Tertullian wrote.
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