Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.01.02

Matthias Wellstein, Nova Verba in Tertullians Schriften gegen die Häretiker aus montanistischer Zeit.   Stuttgart und Leipzig:  B.G. Teubner, 1999.  Pp. 351.  ISBN 3-519-07676-4.  



Reviewed by Claudio Moreschini, Facoltà di Lettere, università di Pisa (moreschini@flcl.unipi.it )
Word count: 1501 words

Matthias Wellstein aims to reconsider one problem in Tertullian's language, after a certain number of well-known, but nowadays aged, studies devoted to the problem. H. Hoppe a century ago started in a scientific way classifying Tertullian's language, mainly with the aid of lexicography. Thereafter, in the teens and twenties of our century, the great Swedish scholars, G. Thörnell and E. Löfstedt, primarily considered Tertullian's syntax, and V. Bulhart dedicated a brief study to the Carthaginian's lexicon and syntax. In recent times literary and stylistic problems received greater attention (e.g. G. Säflund and J. Fontaine), while linguistic questions have been more or less abandoned. Now W. in his inquiry comes back to lexicography, with little interest in syntax or style or textual criticism. W. has considered the so-called nova verba, which had been simply noted by Hoppe: this scholar had ascertained the existence of about one thousand new nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs, but had not tried to interpret them as a whole. W. therefore aims to discuss the problem of nova verba in a broader framework but at the same time taking into account only a group of them, namely those ascribed to the Montanistic period. Such a limitation (which nevertheless has produced a study more than 300 pages long) finds its justification for W. probably because such works are the most important of Tertullian's literary, theological and philosophical production; though we have to observe that such a distinction shouldn't have been drawn so strictly and other works should have been considered, in primis such a significant treatise as Adversus Hermogenem. Besides, Tertullian's Montanistic period per se had no great importance for the production of nova verba, such innnovations being a question of style not of thought or of faith, and many scholars think that the New Prophecy didn't change Tertullian's thought but exaggerated it.

Some short considerations about the history of the problem and the chronology of Tertullian's works begin W.'s book (pp. 13-22). They are followed by a chapter in which the author examines how Roman writers before Tertullian had considered nova verba which they were obliged to introduce into their works. In those pages (pp. 23-41) W. considers, quite briefly indeed, the different opinions of philosophers such as Lucretius, Cicero and Seneca, about the necessity of creating new words; and of rhetors or orators, such as Cicero, Caesar, Quintilian, Fronto and lastly of Apuleius, whose opinion, however, should have been placed before, since it is in a philosophical work (De Platone 1,9). All these writers, W. concludes (p. 41), complain of the lack in their language of abstract nouns and of the patrii sermonis egestas. Such considerations, nevertheless, are well known. Then W. faces Tertullian's specific questions: first the nova verba which have not been created by the Carthaginian himself, but those which he found in the translations from the Bible (chapter 3). Important is the conclusion (pp. 47-48) that Marcion's Bible, which was available to Tertullian, was written in Greek; therefore a Latin translation of it never existed, contrary to what some scholars maintain. This is preliminary to the question of the nova verba contained by the antiMarcionite works (Adversus Marcionem, De carne Christi, De carnis resurrectione), and we have to conclude that nova verba really are the consequence of Tertullian's attempt to discuss the tenets of the Marcionite Bible.

W.'s lexicographic research is, as a whole, accurate and rich, though his numerous classifications and the various items are sometimes difficult to follow, and the book looks like a catalogue of words more than proper research. The results are, as a whole, convincing and the demonstration is well managed; but it is impossible to examine all the conclusions, since, as was just said, the book appears to be mainly a catalogue. However W. has employed the toils of his research in a correct and sensible way. I will make only some short remarks. It is interesting to see how Tertullian considered the translations from the Bible that existed in his time (pp. 48-56). Indeed, he criticises and, on occasion, corrects them, when he sees that they are not satisfying as far as style or exactness are concerned. In this context, the nova verba in question are those of the pericope of Rm 11,33 (O profundum divitiarum et sophiae etc.): the occurrences of such a quotation suggest we should accept the reading of the manuscripts inventibilia (Herm. 45,5) or investigabilia (Marc. 2, 2,4) or investigabiles (Marc. 5, 14,9), and not emend, as most editors do, adding the preverb in- to translate Greek anexichniastos.

Also in the section about the translation of words, sentences etc. deriving from philosophy (pp. 96-109), I wished to find more about the history of the ideas and the philosophical doctrines themselves, since studies of Tertullian as an 'inventor' of a philosophical vocabulary are almost completely missing (but I should mention, of course, Rene/ Braun's excellent Deus Christianorum), and the problem is of first importance for Latin as a medium for Greek and Mediaeval philosophy. W.'s interpretations are, as a whole, correct, but fail to grasp the difficulties as one could have wished, particularly the problem of Tertullian's relations with contemporary philosophy (particularly Middle Platonism and Stoicism). W.'s research, indeed, concerns lexicographic, more than philosophic, problems. He admits, when considering nova verba of dogmatic significance in Tertullian's works (p. 172), that Braun's and Siniscalco's studies are interested mainly in the theological issues and that he is, on the contrary, concerned with the stylistic features. Therefore W.'s observations about what is predicated concerning God and Christ--as judge, creator, revealer of the truth, and benefactor (pp. 172-192)--are somehow unsatisfying because they are not a real contribution to the understanding of Tertullian's doctrine, and the conclusions about the dogmatic relevance of the words (pp. 192-193) are of limited importance and do not say anything new about Tertullian's theological language. Besides, W.'s inquiry does not provide clues for understanding Tertullian's theology (neither substantia nor persona, for instance, are nova verba). That is, the 'invention' or creation of new words doesn't necessarily imply significance for Christian doctrine. If inconvertibilis and innatus do have a philosophical and theological significance, the same cannot be said for such nova verba as incorruptibilitas, corruptorius, incorruptorius, extraneus, auctrix, pusillitas (pp. 193-202), which are, on the philosophical and theological level, of relatively little interest. By contrast, of some interest is the study of the word putativus, which W. derives from the docetism of the contemporary heresies (pp. 206-207). In the discussion of the most important word in Christian theology, namely trinitas (pp. 218-220), W. rightly, in my opinion, doesn't agree with Wölfl, Schrijnen and Braun, of whom the first supposed that trinitas was a coinage of Tertullian, Schreijnen a 'direct Christianism' of the Carthaginian community, and Braun a word common to Carthaginian gnostics and Christians, who wanted to avoid the more common word ternio. According to W. trinitas had been known to Christian communities already before Tertullian to indicate divine Trinity, but had been of a narrow use, since Tertullian himself had to explain its meaning in Prax. 2,4: therefore it may be supposed that if he hasn't 'invented' trinitas, perhaps he used it first. About the short examination (pp. 243-245) of the Greek diabolos, whose literal translation is the well known interpolator (of course Fontaine's article is cited by W.), we would have wished to find the explanation of the various meanings of Latin deferre and delatura, after Greek diabolê in order to show why indeed the devil is called diabolus. Tertullian himself explains the origin of diabolus in Marc. 2, 10,1: *S quod autem factus a Deo non est, id est diabolus, id est delator, superest ut ipse sese fecerit, deferendo de Deo, et quidem falsum *S (and see the short annotation by Braun, ad locum).

We can agree with W.'s conclusions, as we can appreciate the whole book, but they seem not to be substantially new (pp. 330-333). W. wants to stress the significance that the formation of nova verba had for Tertullian. Usually, they have been created by transforming common words, to which prefixes or productive suffixes have been added, particularly -tor, -trix, -tio to nouns, -orius and -bilis to adjectives (but this is was well known); very rarely nova verba are diminutives. Have we to think that a rule of some kind may be elicited from Tertullian's lexicon, which in times past was considered as the product of 'eine wilde Willküre'? The most important field from which Tertullian drew is the language of Roman law, which is present in almost all his works, while for scriptural exegesis the Carthaginian used terminology deriving from grammar and rhetoric, particularly abstract nouns (and this conclusion is new, in my opinion); words belonging to Fachsprachen, as medicine and agriculture, are rarer.

We observe some imperfections in the bibliography (misprints aside), which might be corrected: Chrétiennes' edition of De carne Christi is not by Mattei (who is, on the contrary, the editor of De monogamia), but by J.P. Mahé; Fredouille's first name is J.Cl., not R.

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