Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Roman authorities are in fact among the addressees of Tertullian’s message, but he also makes references to former emperors in addition to other nobles and statesmen. These include Marcus Aemilius, Tiberius, Nero, Domician, Marcus Aurelius, and others. The author mentions them with reference to ancient decrees that are ignored by the pagans themselves.
Tertullian alludes to Roman history to prove that Roman gods had originally been men who were later deified. Moreover, he argues that both the gods’ stories and the rites that are performed to honor them are bloody and cruel, something which is falsely ascribed to the Christians’ ceremonies:
Previous to Saturn there is with you no god: from him is the beginning of all, even of more powerful and better known divinity . . . Saturn, then, as far as literature teaches, neither Diodorus the Greek, nor Thallus, nor Cassius Severus, nor Cornelius Nepos, nor any other writer on this particular kind of antiquities, has proclaimed to be anything but a man . . . even Jupiter himself was both a man and sprung from a man; and that thereafter the whole swarm of his progeny were both mortal and like their source.
The Christian God
Tertullian sets what he sees as the fictitious characters of the Roman pantheon against the historical character of Christian faith, which has its roots in ancient Judaism in worshipping one true God:
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.
Christians and Pagans
The Christians are presented in the Apology as innocent and misunderstood victims of pagan hatred. They seek to live righteous lives and not to defend themselves in a forceful manner. They are not ashamed to acknowledge that they have lived as the pagans do before embracing Christ. Yet at the moment, they are denied justice, and even the name they bear is made criminal.
However, the main reason behind the pagan hatred of the Christians, according to Tertullian, is the former’s ignorance:
they blame what they are ignorant of; and what they do know they mar by their ignorance, although it would be more equitable to form a judgement upon the hidden from the seen than to condemn the seen from the hidden.
It is interesting that Tertullian encourages the pagans to become familiar with the books of the Hebrew Bible, which were translated under Ptolemy Philadelphus and made available to the Greek-speaking world. These books’ great antiquity, which the pagans venerate so much, is corroborated by the fact that Moses predated Homer (according to some authorities known to Tertullian).
Those pagans who decide to read the Christian Scriptures “will find God; and he who is at pains to understand them will also be compelled to believe.”