Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.16

David E. Wilhite, Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian's Context and Identities. Millennium Studies 14.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2007.  Pp. xii, 232.  ISBN 978-3-11-019453-1.  €82.24.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Dunn, Centre for Early Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University (
Word count: 1584 words

This volume is a revision of Wilhite's doctoral dissertation from the University of St. Andrews. It seeks to explore Tertullian's life and identities through the framework of postcolonial studies and the methodology of social anthropology. The aim of Wilhite's book is summed up in the questions he poses on pp.7-8: "Could Tertullian have understood himself to be an African under the Roman yoke?" and "Does Tertullian write with an African self-identity that exists alongside his other identities, such as that of a Christian?" Wilhite argues that Tertullian's anti-Rome attitudes were a factor of his Africanness to some degree. To that end the book, designed for readers with a degree of familiarity with Tertullian's work, proceeds through seven chapters to present a re-reading of Tertullian, beginning with a consideration of biographical material (pp. 1-36), and then addressing issues relating to social identity (pp. 37-75), kinship theory (pp. 76-102), class theory (pp. 103-119), ethnicity theory (pp. 120-145), social anthropology and religious identity (pp. 146-176), and ending with a reconsideration of what this emerging African identity for Tertullian does to traditional disciplinary frameworks (pp. 177-191). Wilhite's book is important because it asks scholars to consider the extent to which Tertullian can continue to be claimed as part of a European heritage.

The use of postcolonial criticism and social anthropology is where Wilhite makes an original contribution to the study of Tertullian. For those unfamiliar with these disciplines, the overview in the first several pages, together with the extensive list of secondary sources in the notes, is most helpful and reveals the author's solid grasp of these two distinct fields. Postcolonialism asks us to focus on the identity of the other, on the colonized rather than the colonizer. In terms of Africa, Laroui's controversial 1970 L'histoire du Maghreb, which rejected questions of Romanization in favour of an examination of cultural resistance, invites scholars to consider their own perspectives and the way they represent the past. Wilhite's book takes up that invitation. The social anthropology method, with its avoidance of ethnocentrism and its call for reflexivity, should not be totally foreign to anyone familiar with the debates within historiography about the impacts of postmodernism upon the positivist quest for objectivity, so early Christian scholars should be sympathetic with the author's aims. In the various chapters of the book the author presents information on the hermeneutical theory to be emphasized in that chapter, how it can be applied to Roman Africa, to Roman African Christians, and then to Tertullian in particular.

Wilhite argues that Tertullian saw himself as non-Roman and that one possible identity he held was that of an African who stood in opposition to the colonizing control the Roman empire exerted over his homeland. In the second chapter the author traces three social identities within Roman North Africa: Roman colonizers, indigenous Africans, and new elites like Fronto and Apuleius (Africans who adopted Roman ways), the existence of the last of whom show the complexity of social identity. Christianity is then added as a new category of social identity and the case is made that North African martyr narratives should be considered not only in terms of Christian versus non-Christian, but indigenous African versus Roman colonizer as well. Tertullian's identity as indigenous African is argued from a reading of Ad nationes and Apologeticum. Wilhite is able to point to African references Tertullian included in these works in order to illustrate his opposition to Rome. Identifying the audience of Ad nationes as new elites rather than as Roman colonizers and contrasting that with the audience of Apologeticum, where the audience is both non-Christian and Roman, is both intriguing and appealing (pp. 64-70) and will shed new light on this issue of audience.

In considering kinship identity we are presented with the argument that early Christians realigned familial patterns of engagement to reflect their faith. The Perpetua narrative is analysed for evidence of this. With regard to Tertullian, Wilhite considers Ad uxorem and the contrast Tertullian offered between a Christian and a non-Christian Roman understanding of marriage and family, but there is nothing particularly African that Wilhite points to in his discussion of Tertullian's perspective.

Class identity is the focus of the fourth chapter, and the discussion of the new elites and the struggle for acceptance is germane here. Tertullian'sDe cultu feminarum is investigated for what it reveals about how Tertullian presented himself within the class system, and the point is made that he saw himself as rejecting an elite, Roman identity.

Ethnic identity is the focus of the next chapter where De uirginibus uelandis and De pallio are the texts of choice. The question of ethnic identity and the applicability of modern concepts to the ancient context is one that will only become more intense as the years follow. Wilhite highlights how dress is a strong indicator of ethnicity and how Tertullian used dress to identify his community. Tertullian's advocacy of the pallium instead of the toga is a strong indication of his African identity.

The last chapter before the conclusion is about religious identity. The text presented is Tertullian's Ad martyras, where it is argued that the religious conflict is not only between Christians and non-Christians but between Christians and non-Christian Romans in particular. The examples of martyrs in 4.4-7 are said to reveal that for Tertullian being African was just as significant as being Christian in being a martyr. I question Wilhite and Bray's reading of Ad martyras 4.4-8. I do not think Tertullian was offering the list of non-Christian examples of suicide and endurance as being "commendable suffering" (p. 164). The benedictae were not Lucretia, Dido, and Cleopatra, but Christian women awaiting martyrdom. The point of the passage was to contrast the two groups: the non-Christian group suffered for the sake of fame and glory (4.3), for earthly glory (4.9), as a mental disorder (and this applies to the women as well as the men, not the men alone as Wilhite suggests), or vanity (5.2), while Tertullian urged his readers to dismiss them and strive for a celestial glory (4.9). This is not a contrast between impetuous suffering by men and laudable suffering by women (p. 167), nor, since Tertullian rejected the example of Dido and Cleopatra, was this encouraging the Christian martyrs as Africans to subvert Rome. In the final chapter Wilhite offers some suggestions about how a concern for a socio-anthropological and postcolonial reading of Tertullian may guide future scholarship. Can we find a chronology for his writings based upon a linear anti-Roman progression he asks. This indeed is worth pursuing as a goal. The reality that identity is complex is a necessary insight for all analysis of his writings.

The issues Wilhite raises are important to consider and he is to be congratulated for drawing them to our attention. Identity theory opens up new ways of assessing evidence for scholars of early Christianity in general and not just Tertullian in particular, so Wilhite's work is timely and his use of these modern interpretative tools is innovative and points the way forward. The author has immersed himself well in the varying directions in which scholarship on Tertullian has been heading, as his excellent summary of the state of play on biographical matters indicates.

The success of the book depends upon the extent to which evidence is produced to support the thesis that Tertullian the African emerges when we read his works from a postcolonial perspective. That Tertullian had a sense of being African and that this influenced his perspective is undoubted. To the many examples throughout the work I could add another. In Aduersus Iudaeos 7.4, which is referred to in a note on p. 57, Tertullian in presenting the list of peoples of Acts 2 added Moors and Gaetulians (African peoples) to what is in the scripture. In Wilhite's hands what may be considered in the early martyr accounts and in Tertullian as opposition between Christian and non-Christian becomes opposition between African Christians and Romans (p. 60). Although the point is made that there is a fluidity of identity within Tertullian that includes both his Christianity and his Africanness, it is the latter element which is given prominence in this book, and that may create something of a misapprehension in the minds of some readers.

I will offer but one example to illustrate my concern and this involves Wilhite's reading of De uirginibus uelandis. My reading of this treatise would indicate that the boundary with regard to dress was not between Roman and African and not even between non-Christian and Christian but was an age issue (between girls and women), a status issue (between virgins and married women) and a gender issue (between men and women) within the Christian community itself.

I have found very few mistakes in the book. On p. 77 I presume "fieldword" should be "fieldwork." Blake Leyerle is described as male on p. 132, whereas she is a woman. In note 90 on p. 137 the reference should be to 3.5 not 3.8. The book is a pleasure to read, as well as stimulating and thought-provoking. Wilhite masterfully marries modern social theories with early Christian literature. I find myself in broad agreement with what is written by way of conclusion in chapter 7. The question of what influenced and formed Tertullian's relationship with the world around him remains an important one to ask. This book is a welcome contribution to that discussion that is sure to engender further comment and insight, something for which the author himself calls on p. 177.

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