Tertullian on the Persecutors of the Church

Gregory DiPippo

The Roman Martyrology notes today as the commemoration of a martyr named Mavilus, who was killed at Hadrumetum, a city on the north African coast about 60 miles south of Carthage, by being thrown to wild beasts in the public arena. This took place during a persecution in 212 AD instigated by Scapula, the proconsul of Africa, under the emperor Septimius Severus.

The only source of information about Mavilus is a passing reference in an open letter to Scapula by the Christian writer Tertullian. (ca. 155-220 A.D.) Even though he died outside the peace of the Church as a member of an heretical sect, Tertullian remained very influential in the Latin-speaking church, and is regarded as the first of the Latin Fathers. St Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in the mid-3rd century, used to refer to him simply as “the master”, and would never pass a day without reading something from his writings.

In the letter to Scapula, Tertullian reminds him of the many persecutors of the Church who had come to a bad end, a theme picked up at the very end of the age of persecutions by Lactantius. However, he does so not as a threat or in a spirit of vengeance, but out of concern for the welfare of the persecutors themselves. This passage alone would suffice to show the newness of the spirit which Christianity brought to the Roman empire, the willingness to forgiveness one’s enemies, as the Lord Himself commanded. This was, of course, dismissed by most Romans no more than weakness, but Tertullian understood that it was a weakness that was strong enough to conquer their world. One of his most famous dicta, from his Apology for the Christian faith, states this with a lapidary simplicity: “Hesterni sumus, et omnia vestra implevimus. – We (i.e. the Christians) are of yesterday, and we have already filled everything that was yours.”

(The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1883, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

“…qui videntur sibi impune tulisse, venient in diem divini judicii. Tibi quoque optamus admonitionem solam fuisse, quod cum Adrimeticum Mavilum ad bestias damnasses, et statim haec vexatio subsecuta est, et nunc ex eadem caussa interpellatio sanguinis. …

Non te terremus, qui nec timemus: sed velim, ut omnes salvos facere possimus, monendo μὴ θεομαχεῖν. Potes et officio jurisdictionis tuae fungi, et humanitatis meminisse, vel quia et vos sub gladio estis. …

Magistrum neminem habemus, nisi Deum solum. Hic ante te est, nec abscondi potest, sed cui nihil facere possis. Caeterum quos putas tibi magistros, homines sunt et ipsi morituri quandoque. Nec tamen deficiet haec secta, quam tunc magis aedificari scias, cum caedi videtur. Quisque enim tantam tolerantiam spectans, ut aliquo scrupulo percussus, et inquirere accenditur, quid sit in causa, et ubi cognoverit veritatem, et ipse statim sequitur.

… the persecutors who seem to themselves to have acted with impunity will come to the day of divine judgment. For you we wish that it may prove to have been only a warning, that immediately after you had condemned Mavilus of Adrumetum to the wild beasts, you were overtaken by those troubles, and that even now for the same reason you are called to a blood-reckoning. …

We do not seek to frighten you, and we also do not fear you; but I would that we could save all men by warning them not to fight with God. You can perform the duties of your charge, and yet remember the claims of humanity, if on no other ground than that you are liable to punishment yourself.

We have no master but God. He is before you, and cannot be hidden from you, but to Him you can do nothing. For the rest, those whom you regard as masters (i.e. the emperors) are only men, and one day will themselves die. And yet still this community will not fail, which you should know is then being built up when it seems that it is being destroyed. For whoever witnesses the great patience (of its martyrs), as if struck with misgivings, is inflamed with desire to examine the matter in question; and as soon as he learns the truth, at once begins to follow it.” (ad Scapulam, 3 in fine, 4 in init. 5 in fine)

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