Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page



OF Tertullian, as of many another who has rendered pre-eminent service to humanity, almost nothing is known. His full name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, and he was a native of the Roman province of Africa, which corresponded roughly in area to the modern Tunis. He was of pagan parentage, and underwent a complete training as a lawyer. He appears to have visited Italy, but he spent the greatest part of his life in the city of Carthage, which had been refounded by Julius Caesar about a hundred years after the younger Scipio had laid it waste. The city had become once again a great centre, and Christianity must have reached it at an early period, probably direct from Italy. In Africa the new religion found a favourable soil, a fact not altogether undue to the Semitic origin of the old Punic stock, which found something akin to itself in the daughter of Judaism. The number of churches in Africa in Tertullian's time probably greatly exceeded the total of Italy itself. And this Christianity seems to have been more Latin than Greek. The most highly educated of the provincials in Africa were acquainted with Greek, but the proportion of such persons was far less than would have been found in Italy.

We have no evidence as to the date of Tertullian's |x birth, but if we place it about A.D. 160 we shall probably not be far wrong. The date of his conversion is equally unknown, but it may be assigned to the period of mature manhood. He was a man of ardent temperament, unbounded energy and great creative faculty. In such a man conversion was sure to be followed at the earliest possible interval by active work on behalf of the Faith, and for him the pen was the obvious instrument. All his knowledge of law, literature and philosophy was at once enlisted on the side of the persecuted religion. Like a later convert from paganism, St. Ambrose, he must have taken up the study of the Scriptures as eagerly as he had followed his earlier pursuits. We have no satisfactory evidence that he held any office in the Church. It is safest to regard him as an early forerunner of a succession of Christian laymen, men like Pelagius, Marius Mercator, Junilius and Cassiodorus, who have had their share in building up the body of Christian doctrine.

The strongly ascetic vein in Tertullian led him later to adopt the doctrines of the Montanists. This sect took its name from Montanus of Pepuza in Phrygia, and among its tenets was the assertion of prophetic gifts in opposition to the regularly constituted ministry; millenarism, and abstinence from every sort of union between the sexes. The influence of Montanism spread gradually in the West, and reached Africa almost certainly from Italy, but it is improbable that it had become associated with a declared sect in Africa in Tertullian's time. It represented rather a tendency within the bosom of the Church. But that tendency gained more and more power with Tertullian himself, and in his later works he accepts the doctrine of the new |xi prophecy, and inaugurates the arbitrary rule of individual spiritual gifts, thus undermining the authority of the Old and New Testaments as well as that of the Church. He contradicts Scripture in urging the Christian to face persecution, in depreciating marriage, in making regulations for fasting, and other minor matters.

But these and other exaggerations, though they have deprived Tertullian of canonisation, in no way affect his importance as the earliest of the Latin Fathers. His great learning, his obvious sincerity and his burning eloquence are to be set over against such excesses, as well as against the occasional coarseness which will break out in the writings of a Tertullian, a Jerome and an Augustine, who have in their unregenerate days become too familiar with uncleanness. In originality he is inferior to none of these. In doctrine and in language alike he is a pioneer of Western Christianity. To him we owe the first formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity; to him we owe a great part of the Christian Latin vocabulary. He is the earliest Latin writer to quote Scripture with any freedom, and he is the first of that roll of noble names, Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, which no Christian literature in any language can match.

Yet here, also, we have our treasure in earthen vessels. Tertullian is the most difficult of all Latin prose writers, outdoing the fully developed Tacitean style in that brevity which inevitably becomes obscurity. His vocabulary is curiously compounded of technical legal language, Grecisms and colloquialisms, and in the absence of a special lexicon or a concordance to his works it is a task of extreme difficulty at times to ascertain precisely what shade of meaning to assign to a word. The |xii importance of Tertullian is becoming so widely recognised now that the task of compiling such a lexicon may be commended to a patient scholar as one of the most urgent requirements of Latin scholarship. But we shall never know his vocabulary and idiom in the way that it is possible to know that of Jerome, Augustine or Gregory. The comparative neglect of his works in the Middle Ages has resulted in the survival of apathetically scanty list of good manuscripts. Much of his text will, in consequence, never be restored with absolute certainty.

The list of his surviving works, with the dates now generally 1 assigned to them, is as follows :—

Ad Martyras

Feb. or March 197.

Ad Nationes

after Feb. 197.


autumn 197.

De Testimonio Animae

between 197 and 200.

De Spectaculis

about 200

De Praescriptione Haereticorum

about 200.

De Oratione

between 200 and 206.

De Baptismo

between 200 and 206.

De Patientia 

between 200 and 206.

De Paenitentia

between 200 and 206.

De Cultu Feminarum

between 200 and 206.

Ad Uxorem

between 200 and 206.

Adversus Hermogenem.

between 200 and 206.

Adversus Iudaeos

between 200 and 206.

De Virginibus Velandis

  about 206.

Adversus Marcionem, Libri I.-IIII


De Pallio

209       |xiii

Adversus Valentinianos 

between 208 and 211

De Anima

between 208 and 211
De Carne Christi between 208 and 211
De Resurrectione Carnis between 208 and 211

Adversus Marcionem, Liber V

between 208 and 211

De Exhortatione Castitatis

between 208 and 211
De Corona 211
Scorpiace 211 or 212
De Idololatria 211 or 212
Ad Scapulam end of 212.

The following are definitely Montanist:—

De Fuga in Persecutione                    213.            
 Adversus Praxean  after 213. 
De Monogamia  after 213. 
De Ieiunio  after 213. 
De Pudicitia between 217 and 222.

Besides these, several works by him have been lost. It is also to be noted that he issued the Apologeticus (probably) and the De Spectaculis (certainly) in Greek, as well as a Greek work on Baptism.

Of annotated editions of Tertullian's complete works, the best is that by Franciscus Oehler (Lipsiae, 3 Vols., 1853,1854). The best text of the following works is to be found in the Vienna Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Vols. XX. and XLVII. (Vindobonae et Lipsiae, 1890, 1906): De Spectaculis, De Idololatria, Ad Nationes, De Testimonio Animae, Scorpiace, De Oratione, De Baptismo, De Pudicitia, De Ieiunio, De Anima, De Patientia, De Carnis Resurrectione, Adversus Hermogenen, Adversus Valentinianos, Adversus Omnes |xiv Haereses,2 Adversus Praxean, Adversus Marcionem. The best work on the language of Tertullian is H. Hoppe, Syntax und Stil des Tertullian (Leipzig, 1903) ; on his theology, A. d'Alès, La Théologie de Tertullien (Paris, 1905); on his New Testament citations, H. Rönsch, Das Neue Testament Tertullian's, Leipzig, 1871.

I know no separate edition of the De Oratione; the De Baptismo has been edited by J. M. Lupton (Cambridge, 1908).



The De Oratione is of interest not only as the earliest surviving exposition of the Lord's Prayer in any language, but also for its intrinsic qualities, and the text of the prayer which it furnishes. The work does not seem to have been written for a polemical purpose, but merely for edification. Tertullian does not say from what Gospel he takes the Prayer, or indeed whether he takes it from the Gospels at all, but an examination of the text shows clearly that he follows the Matthaean, not the Lukan form. It is natural to compare the text as it appears here, with that furnished by Origen in his work, On Prayer. There is no marked difference, save that the petition "Thy Kingdom come" in Tertullian follows, and does not precede, "Thy will be done in heaven and in earth." |xv 

The De Oratione is preserved as far as the beginning of Chap. XXI. in the Agobardine manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Latin 1622, of the ninth century, so called because it was once in the possession of the well-known Agobard, Bishop of Lyons (ob. 840). Chapters IX. to the end are preserved in a MS., formerly of the Irish foundation of Bobbio (near the Ticino) in northern Italy, now at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, G. 58 Sup., of the end of the tenth or the beginning of the eleventh century. No surviving manuscript presents it complete, but the edition of Martin Mesnart or of Jean Gagney, Lord High Almoner to François I. of France, which appeared in 1545 at Paris, must have been based on a manuscript of French provenance, in which it was unmutilated. Another lost manuscript contained the De Oratione, namely a codex belonging to Malmesbury,4 which the English antiquary, John Leland, lent to Sigismund Gelenius for use in his Basle edition of Tertullian (1550). 5



The De Baptismo is not merely the earliest treatise on its subject, but is the only Ante-Nicene treatise on any of the Sacraments, and though its occasion was controversial, it furnishes such exact information as we do not often have the good fortune to possess on such a subject. It is at the same time a treatise on Confirmation, because in those days Baptism and Confirmation "were regarded as two moments in a single action." 6 |xvi 

A Gnostic prophetess had denied the necessity for Baptism. She belonged to a branch of the Gnostics the name of which is doubtful. The manuscript tradition in Tertullian (Chap. I.) points to the expression "Gaiana heresis," which means a heresy founded by one Gaius; but the Jerome tradition, which undoubtedly refers to the same heresy, points to the title "Caina heresis." 7 The matter is of no great interest to us, except as giving Tertullian an opportunity to compose a treatise for the use of candidates for Baptism. It seems possible from the abruptness of the present beginning that the real beginning has been lost. The first part is a panegyric on water, in which much is worthily said on the simplicity of God's instruments, and there are collected many ingenious references to the importance of the element. The use of water in other religions and the valuable analogy thereby furnished to the cleansing of the soul are mentioned. He also brings unction and the laying on of hands under review. The central part of the treatise is devoted to the baptism of John, the question whether Jesus Himself baptized, and the further question, whether the apostles were baptized. The validity of heretical baptism is denied, and this part closes with a profoundly interesting section dealing with blood baptism or martyrdom. The concluding part discusses the ministry of Baptism, and defines what appears to be the attitude of the Universal Church at the time. The Bishop is the regular minister of Baptism. Presbyters and deacons also possess the right to baptize, as authorised by the Bishop. But the right belongs also to laymen, because what all have received, all may equally |xvii give. Yet for the sake of peace, laymen are not to exercise their right except in cases of necessity and when there is a danger of the person's death. Baptism by women is vehemently rejected. Confirmation is the exclusive prerogative of the bishop.

[Blank page]

[Footnotes have been moved to the end]

1. 1 I follow D'Alès, pp. xiii. ff., slightly different from Harnack, Gesch. altchr. Litt., II. 2. (Leipzig, 1904), pp. 295 f.

2. 1 This book is perhaps the work of Victorinus of Pettau. (+ 303).

3. 2 The following works are of importance in this connexion: F. H. Chase, The Lord's Prayer in the Early Church [Texts and Studies, I. (3)], (Cambridge, 1891); von der Goltz, Das Gebet in der ältesten Christenheit (Leipzig, 1901); Dibelius, Das Vaterunser (Giessen, 1903); G. Walther, Untersuchungen zur geschichte der griechischen Vaterunser-exegese [Texte u. Untersuchungen, Bd. XL. (3)], Leipzig, 1914 ; W. Haller in Zeitschr. f. prakt. Theologie, Bd. XII. (1890), pp. 327-354. The last is exclusively concerned with our treatise.

4. 1 So I should, following Dr. M. R. James, interpret the Masburensi: see J. M. Lupton's edition of the De Baptismo, p. xxxvi.

5. [Note to the online edition: this is an error.  Gelenius' edition marks the works in the table of contents with an asterisk when he has amended it using the Codex Masburensis.  However analysis of Gelenius' changes to the Mesnart text show him only bringing something new to a smaller number of texts, all in the Corpus Corbeiense collection.  It is thought therefore that the Masburensis was a manuscript of this class, in which case it did not contain De Oratione.]

6. 2 Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry : by various writers, edited by H. B. Swete [and C. H. Turner] (London, 1918), p. 377 n. 2.

7. 1 Epist. 69, § I (ed. Hilberg [C. S. E. L. LIV (1910)], p. 679, 1. 6); adv. Vigilant., § 8.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Alexander Souter (tr), Tertullian's Treatises Concerning Prayer and Baptism. S.P.C.K. 1919. 

Translated by Alexander Souter, 1919.  Transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2002.   

This page has been accessed by ****** people since 16th December 2002.

Return to the Tertullian Project Index of Tertullian's Treatises Concerning Prayer and Baptism. About these pages