Today I saw a series of tweets which started with Tertullian’s Ad Nationes – a work rich in quotations from Varro – and then read as follows:
@hashtagoras: Tertullian v neglected by classicists, methinks.
@b_hawk: I’ve a feeling Tertullian is often relegated to religious studies, & often used more for contextual info.
@hashtagoras: By virtue of our training and the constitution of our canon, most classicists contrive to avoid christian stuff
He’s right, of course; they do. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Considering the sheer mass of Christian Latin and Greek literature, such a policy by classicists is simply a survival strategy.
If classicists “broadened” their canon, they would cease to be classicists. Each would muddy the stream with some element of patristic or medieval material – interesting, certainly, but not classical in literary or linguistic terms – and we would lose touch with the pure classical world. Nobody would know what was really classical any more. Nobody would study pure classics any more. In the process, the special qualities of classical studies would dissolve in the stream of all ancient literature.
The classics, as a discipline, is the study of the finest products, the highest point, the “classic” version of the literature of each language. To focus on that is to identify it, and to study it. To mix in other things is to cease to be a classicist.
Let us not forget that our society was brought into existence by the rediscovery of the classics.
Boundaries are important things. We ring-fence things that are important to study, and exclude others from that fenced area. We exclude other things, not because they don’t matter, but because the practical effect of admitting them is to dilute, to confuse, to muddle, and to dissolve the separate identity of the item we intend to study.
It occurs to me that current proposals in the USA to mingle Patristics and New Testament studies are equally liable to the same objection. The reason that we study the NT by itself is because otherwise the slender volume of biblical literature will drown in the mass of patristic commentary upon it. Anybody writing on Romans will instead end up referring 90% of the time to Origen; or Augustine.
In fact, when we start thinking of Augustine, and the mass of material of that date, subsuming the pure New Testament, then aren’t we at once face-ot-face with Catholicism?
I wonder (ignorantly) whether New Testament studies exists as a distinct discipline for exactly this reason. Did protestants in the early modern world grow tired of patristic wrangling matches with catholics about texts which the former did not consider authoritative? I can see that it might happen. I can see that they wanted to study the New Testament for itself, without the long shadow of later anachronistic interpretation. Medieval bible study is what you get if you combine the two. It would be ironic if the efforts of atheists like Bart Ehrman, to invade Patristics, resulted instead in New Testament studies disappearing into a Catholic-style discipline.
Let us preserve the distinctions. If we want something studied, keep a firm hand on the edges. I know that patristics and late antique studies have benefited greatly from the work of Roman historians like T.D.Barnes, who made the journey over the boundary. But if we want to keep benefiting, let’s keep classics healthy.
Which means no Tertullian in the classics schools, please.