Latin Christian Apologetics: Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Cyprian

Some thoughts about the definition of ‘apologetics’ are essential at the outset. There is a certain amount of confusion around in the handbooks that we need to scotch. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines one of the meanings of apologetic as ‘the defensive method of argument, often specifically the argumentative defence of Christianity’. Obviously Christian apologetics deal with the relations between Christianity and other faiths or practices; it concerns the creation and maintenance of boundaries. However, I would stress that not all texts relating to boundaries should be counted as apologetic: it depends whether the text is addressed internally to those already members of the faith, or externally to outsiders. As Martin Goodman shows (Ch. 3), Josephus’ Against Apion is a work of apologetic, addressed to a non-Jew, which aimed to persuade Gentiles of the falsity of certain charges against the Jews. On the other hand, the Mishnaic treatise Aboda Zara, stating what pagan practices Jews must avoid, is aimed at Jews, and is for internal consumption.

The same distinction applies to Christian texts. Some treatises by Tertullian, Minucius Felix, and Cyprian are exoteric, addressing outsiders. I stress the formal addressee of the works: apologies are necessarily a response of some sort to criticism. The actual readership of the works is of course unknowable, but perhaps not crucial. Even if existing Christians constituted the main readership, as is assumed in one of Tertullian’s treatises, the exoteric form of the treatises ensured that Christians could easily make use of their arguments. Their own faith might be strengthened, but in addition they had ready-made arguments to use in discussions with non-Christians. As Tertullian says, Christians were very much a part of all aspects of the contemporary world, and they would often need such arguments. Other treatises, sometimes called apologetic, are in fact esoteric, addressing existing Christians. I think here of Tertullian’s On Shows and On Idolatry, Cyprian’s To Donatus, To Fortunatus, and That Idols are not Gods; Novatian’s On Shows; and Commodianus’ Instructions. These important texts seek to define a boundary between Christianity and paganism, but they have a strictly internal audience. They should ideally be compared with sermons, which were a regular feature of Christian services in this period, but scarcely any Latin ones survive before the fourth century. All the treatises just mentioned set out to persuade those who already call themselves Christians to adopt the proper position. For example, Tertullian’s On Idolatry is addressed both to simple believers, who are unaware of the dangers that the pagan world poses to a truly Christian life, and also to sophisticated Christians, who shut their eyes to such dangers (2). Similarly, on one aspect of this issue about the dangers of the pagan world the treatise On Gamblers asserts that Christians were not to engage in gambling, partly because gambling often involved sacrifices. On a more pressing issue, Cyprian’s To Fortunatus, arguing that the idols are not gods, is actually an exhortation to martyrdom. Some of the arguments do overlap between the exoteric and the esoteric treatises: for example, Cyprian’s case in To Fortunatus about idols not being gods is the same as a key argument in Tertullian’s Apologeticus. Overall, however, the esoteric treatises are very different in form and function, and fall outside the scope of this chapter.

To turn to apologetics proper, one might distinguish between polemic and apologetic: polemics attack rivals without necessarily advancing any positive views of their own; apologetics address outsiders, and must deal with the views of their own group and others’ misconceptions of them. However, the alleged distinction does not seem to apply in practice. Admittedly, Josephus claims that he would have preferred not to engage in polemic against the customs and gods of other nations (Against Apion, 2. 237-8), but he goes on to do just that, and Christian authors had no such hesitation. In Minucius Felix’ Octavius the dialogue between the pagan and the Christian is triggered by a Christian criticizing another Christian for allowing his pagan friend to venerate a statue of Serapis (2. 4-4. 4). And Tertullian regularly, and without embarrassment, turns pagan charges back against pagans. For example, in To the Gentiles he counters a pagan charge of Christian infanticide by referring to the practice of exposure of babies, and the charge of incest by referring to a notorious recent case (1. 15-16). The Christian apologists saw no need to apologize for polemic. In heated arguments the ‘tu quoque’ move, even if below the belt, may be very effective.

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