Tertullian Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman theologian{$I[g]Roman Empire;Tertullian} Tertullian was the most outstanding spokesman for Christianity in the Latin West before Saint Augustine; his polemical treatises set the direction for much of Western theology.

Early Life

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (tur-TUHL-yuhn), left a strong mark on the history of Latin literature and exercised more influence than anyone but Saint Augustine on the development of theology in the Western church. However, he left but few scraps of biographical information. A short paragraph in Saint Jerome’s De viris illustribus (392-393; On Illustrious Men, 1999) yields few assertions, and only deductions can be drawn from the writings of Tertullian, which are remarkable for their lack of self-revelation. Each item has been closely examined by scholars, and while virtually nothing can be said with certainty about the man, the following picture emerges from a cautious balancing of ancient tradition and modern skepticism.

Tertullian was certainly born and raised in Roman North Africa, in or near the proconsular capital of Carthage, to a prosperous pagan family. His father was probably a career military officer attached to the staff of the proconsul, and several relatives were active in the literary life of the city. Any birth date assigned to Tertullian (usually 155-160 c.e.) is reached by subtracting from 197 c.e., the secure date of one of his earliest works, the Apologeticus (Apology, 1642), enough years—roughly forty—to account for its character as a mature masterpiece of style, argumentation, and Christian apologetics.

Tertullian received the standard education of a well-to-do Roman, culminating in extensive rhetorical training, in which he must have excelled, judging from his subsequent literary career. It is difficult to avoid identifying Tertullian of Carthage with Tertullian the jurist, whose writings are quoted in later Roman law codes. The men were contemporaries; the jurist wrote on questions of military law, and the Carthaginian had a penchant for legalistic language and argument and was declared by Eusebius of Caesarea to have been eminent at the Roman bar. If they were indeed the same person, Tertullian of Carthage traveled to Rome, became a pupil of the great jurist Pomponius, and established among legal scholars of the Empire a reputation that was later vindicated by his apologetic works.

It was probably in early middle age, not long before 197, that Tertullian converted to Christianity. He never discusses his conversion, though he expresses repeatedly an admiration for the constancy of Christian martyrs, their steadfastness in persecution, and their stubborn defiance of Roman authority in the face of death. It was he who coined the saying “The blood of Christians is seed.” He may have been ordained a priest, as Jerome claims, for some of Tertullian’s works are clearly sermons. While Tertullian uses two or three turns of phrase that place him among the laity, these may be rhetorical poses—devices that he uses more frequently than any other Latin writer. He was certainly married, but though he addressed several treatises to his wife, they reveal nothing of her personality or of their relationship. This opacity is characteristic of Tertullian’s writings: He turned consistently outward toward problems and enemies but seldom inward to reflect on himself or friends.

Life’s Work

In the first three or four years of his career as a Christian, Tertullian devoted his rhetorical talents to apologetics—for example, in Ad nationes (197 c.e.; To the Nations, 1869) and the Apology—defending Christianity against pagan hostility with the aim of ending official persecution. These writings provide an invaluable window on primitive Christian belief and practice, but they are so self-righteous and vehement that they must have increased the pagans’ animosity rather than diminishing it. Tertullian’s strategy is often to argue that pagan Romans do not live up to their own beliefs, values, laws, and civic traditions as well as Christians do. This pose claims for the writer a privileged ability to interpret the texts and traditions of others. He denies repeatedly the right of Roman magistrates to judge Christians, on the ground that God’s law is higher than humankind’s, and he makes the claim, remarkable for a lawyer, that no law has binding force unless it is accepted by the individual’s conscience. Such claims to unfettered autonomy of belief and action recur throughout Tertullian’s works.

Tertullian’s theological vision centered initially on the Church, seeing it as the community mediating between God and humans and thus the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and channel of God’s grace. He...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)