Tertullian, Apology XXX

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The nature of Christian prayer for the emperor

Name of the author: 
Tertullian
Date: 
197 CE
Place: 
Carthage
Language: 
Latin
Category: 
Christian
Literary genre: 
Apologetic
Title of work: 
Apology
Reference: 
XXX
Commentary: 

For a general introduction to Tertullian and his Apology, please see the commentary on Apology V.

Previously in chapter XXIX, Tertullian has argued for the illogical nature of Roman idol worship, claiming that the gods are so dependent on the material resources and favour of Caesar, that they cannot possibly be considered effective in protecting him. In this chapter, he strongly asserts Christian support for the imperial regime, and assures that Christians engage in constant prayer both for the emperor, and for the empire’s prosperity, while maintaining throughout that Rome is ultimately inferior to the one true God, and owes all its success to Him. Tertullian begins by stating that the Christians pray to the true, eternal God (not useless idols) for the “safety of our princes/emperors (imperatores),” and claims that the imperial rulers should in fact desire God’s favour themselves. He suggests that really the emperors know (or at least the implication is that they should know) who it is that has afforded them their power and dominion, and given them life in the first place (i.e. God). Tertullian acknowledges the superiority of the emperors over “all living men,” and then revisits his critique of idol worship by stating that the living are generally superior to the dead (that the Roman gods are dead is asserted in XXIX.1). The emperors, Tertullian argues, can see the great extents of their power, and understand that even their great might does not compare to God’s (verse 2). The argument then employs a series of rhetorical provocations to the emperor, inviting him to try waging war on heaven, leading it as a captured nation in the triumphal procession, and imposing taxes upon it. The notion of such ever being possible is succinctly quashed: “He (the emperor) cannot” – despite all the authority and might which Rome has exerted over the people of earth, it simply cannot compete with the authority and might of God.

Tertullian’s praise of the emperor is therefore relativized to God, as we would expect. Verse 3 makes clear that even though the emperor is less powerful that heaven, he is “still great,” as God has bestowed upon him the authority he enjoys right from his birth, and this should not be forgotten. There may be here an allusion to Horace Odes III.6.5: “You rule because you are lower than the gods you worship.” God has chosen to instil Rome with power. In verse 4, Tertullian describes the Christians as praying from the heart, not through the medium of an idol or image, and assures of their constant intercessions for the emperor. In addition, their way of praying is presented as being an anti-model of the Roman one: the head is not covered, for instance, as it was for the Romans. Their prayers, he argues, include those for the longevity of the emperor and the imperial house, the security of the empire, protected by “brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people.” Tertullian singles out here some of the most key aspects pertinent to Roman identity and expression of its power and ideology. By acknowledging the importance of the army, the senate, and the Roman people, Christianity, it is implied, understands precisely what is important to Rome, and will continue to ask God to upkeep it. Contrary to the worthless incense, wine, and sacrificial blood offered to the Roman gods (verse 6), Tertullian as a Christian has something more valuable to offer to his deity – his pure and unblemished spirit. He uses this opportunity to attack the very integrity and moral character of those who sacrifice to idols, stating that instead of inspecting the sacrifices, priests should instead examine those performing them instead! The chapter concludes with Tertullian graphically illustrating the hypocrisy, as he perceives it, of Christians being tortured and executed for treason, with the “name of crime (crimen)” being given to their heartfelt prayers for the emperor and for the empire’s stability.

This chapter essentially offers an excellent illustration of Tertullian’s desire to show Christianity’s support for the empire, and its superior effectiveness in seeking divine protection for Rome, maintaining that it is built on false and empty religious practice. The imperial rulers should therefore be embracing Christianity as a force for good in the continuation of the reign, not persecuting it.

Bibliographical references: 
Rankin, David Ivan, “Was Tertullian a Jurist?” , in Studia Patristica 31: Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995 (ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone; Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 335-342
Braun, René, “Tertullien et les poètes latins”, in Approches de Tertullien: vingt-six études sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955-1990) (ed. René Braun; Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 1992)
Dunn, Geoffrey D., Tertullian (London: Routledge, 2004)
Ferguson, Everett, “Tertullian” , in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (ed. Paul Foster; London: SPCK, 2011), 85-99
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Tertullian, Apology XXX
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Thu, 12/08/2016 - 02:50
URL: http://www.judaism-and-rome.org/tertullian-apology-xxx
Visited: Wed, 07/17/2019 - 04:27

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