Alexander's Typology in Tertullian's De Spectaculis
In an attempt to classify the apologies of early Christian writers, scholar Loveday Alexander observed and defined five functions or "types" of apology, though multiple functions and types could be found in single texts. These five functions are labeled inner-church polemic, self-defense in relation to Judaism, propaganda or evangelism, political self-defense, and finally legitimization or self-definition. While not as detailed or necessarily as comprehensive as it could be, this "rough working typology" of Alexander's provides a useful way for examining earl Christian writings; though not every function can be observed in every text, most of these apologies contain several and even the absence of a function can be somewhat telling as to the intent and environment of the author. The following pages will present a brief analysis of Tertullian's De Spectaculis through an application of Alexander's framework, revealing much about the apology and about this theoretical tool.
The inner-church quality and strong argument for loyalty to Christian beliefs as part of a small and special society is quite evident throughout De Spectaculis, from the opening exhortation to "You Servants of God" (ch. 1) to the final satirical remarks regarding the enjoyment that can be taken watching the non-Christians violently damned after the second coming of Christ. This is explicitly a speech or text meant for early Christian followers. This is not to say it could not have an effect on outsiders, but that is not its outward intention.
Instead, Tertullian is clearly trying to convince those who are already believers to remain consistent in their beliefs and to shun the spectacles of non-belief. The entire subject matter of the text is explicitly directed towards turning early Christians away from the direct and indirect attempts to have them engage in un-Christian pursuits and interests. The spectacle of the tract's title is the attraction of the outside world, personified in the circus and Temples of the Roman heathens surrounding the early Christian audience to whom Tertullian was speaking. Inner-church polemic is thus the explicit and even the primary function of this particular apology, and though it does not come at the preclusion of other functions it does certainly seem to eclipse these other functions in importance, at least on an initial reading.
Self-Defense Against Judaism
The earliest Christians, according to tradition and historical records, received as much persecution at the hands of the Jews of the age as they did from the dominant (i.e. Roman) forces in society. It therefore makes complete sense that defending themselves and their beliefs against these Jewish forces should be a function of many apologies of the early Christians, but this is certainly not evident in all apologies. From the tone and direction of De Spectaculis, it would appear that at this particular point in history the Jewish issue was no longer the problem it once had been, likely due to ongoing degradation of Jews alongside early Christians in this period of Roman history. Taking this reasoning further, it almost appears that the mention of Jews in this text is a conflation of two or more of Alexander's functions.
The mention of Jews is brief and very limited, occurring only in Chapter 3 this apology, in the context of the slaying of Christ: "If he called those few Jews an assembly of the wicked, how much more will he so designate so vast a gathering of heathens! Are the heathens less impious, less sinners, less enemies of Christ, than the Jews were then?" Tertullian is aligning the current oppressive forces and forces of temptation -- the Roman heathens -- with the Jews of a century and more before, at the time of Christ himself, but this is not exactly a defense of the Christian faith against Judaism. Instead, it invokes the old need of self-defense against Judaism as a means of both insulating the followers against the outside world -- more inner-church polemic, then -- and of political self-defense in the current era. Alexander's framework helps to explicate this passage, then, but perhaps not in the expected manner.
Propaganda and Evangelism
Though not as weak a strain as a self-defense against Jewish detractors, the function of propaganda and evangelism is not overly strong in this apology, either. Part of this is due to the nature of the piece as a primarily inner-church tract, not meant to gain converts but rather to retain believers and increase loyalty, but even in this pursuit a more evident propagandistic tone might be expected. Quite the opposite, however, Tertullian seems to avoid moments of high-flying evangelism even when they seem appropriate and easily possible. He comes quite close to propaganda in some of his seemingly sweeping accusations and condemnations, but every time he then breaks into a list of rather dry details.
A prime example of this can be seen when Tertullian comes to the specific listing of the elements of the "circus" and their idolatrous origins: "What an aggregation of idolatries you see, accordingly, in the decoration of the place! Every ornament of the circus is a temple by itself. The eggs are regarded as sacred to the Castors…." (ch. 8). Tertullian goes on to list many other specific evidences of idol worship that are a part of the circus, turning from what initially sounds like propaganda and evangelism -- "an aggregation of idolatries" and "every ornament…a temple" especially -- to a very literal interpretation of these same lines by a listing of precisely what he meant. In other words, Tertullian moves from what appears to be extreme rhetoric to a dry rendering of the details that support this seeming rhetoric, rendering it completely factual. This level of argument is not accounted for in Alexander's framework.
The political self-defense that Tertullian employs is definitely present, though even this is not as strong as the inner-church polemic observable throughout the text of De Spectaculis. Again, the need for such self-defense is not presented in as pressing a light as, for instance, the Jewish concern; though Tertullian rails against the idolatrous and evil ways of the heathens, he does not really attempt to justify Christain beliefs in and of themselves, but rather is using Christian beliefs as givens in order to exhort believers not to fall into certain temptations. The spectacles of Roman or heathen society are not Godly simply for very direct and logical reasons that require no further defense, according to Tertullian.
It is not that this text is not politicized -- it most certainly is, and unquestionably defends the character of the Christian faith -- but rather the manner in which this politicization is expressed that reduces the amount of self-defense that can be claimed to be seen in the apology. Towards the end of Tertullian's direct logical attack on Christians attending the violent shows offered by the Roman government and culture, he says that these shows should not be seen simply because, "God has enjoined us to deal calmly, gently, quietly, and peacefully with the Holy Spirit, because these things are alone in keeping with the goodness of His nature, with His tenderness and sensitiveness" (ch. 15). In other words, the scripture says to abhor violence simply because that is God's way, and that should be enough; there is no need to defend the notion f God being peaceful or desirous of peace, which would be a much clearer sign of direct political self-defense. If anything, the ultimately insular message delivered in this text seems more aggressive than defensive.
Legitimization and Self-Definition
If there is a function of De Spectaculis that approaches the inner-church polemic of the piece in terms of importance, it is its attempts to serve as a vehicle of self-definition. This definition comes largely in the form of determining what a Christian is not…