The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
An Analysis of Some Pertinent Issues
Gregory Johnson • Fall 1998
(Bibliography & Notes follow)
The account of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, though neglected throughout most of the modern period, has in the past two decades attracted a renewed scholarly interest, particularly with the rise of feminist studies. Indeed, of the four English-language editions published since 1980, three are bound in anthologies of women writers. This renewed interest in Perpetua raises a number of issues worthy of discussion.
The Authorship and Dating of Perpetua and Felicitas
The account of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, set in Carthage, is generally considered by most scholars to be historical. While suggesting that most ancient Christian accounts of martyrdoms were completely of mostly fabricated, Rosemary Rader argues that Perpetua's account is grounded in real history. She writes:
Historical research verifies that most accounts of Christian martyrs are fictional either wholly or in part. Those partly fictional originated in a variety of ways, such as official statements of an actual trial, letters, written or verbal eye-witness reports of the event. These basic particulars were then embellished any number of times in the form of apologetic and exhortation to be used for the instruction of those seeking admission to the church. The Martyrdom of Perpetua, however, is an exception to this rule in that it is written by two of the martyrs, Perpetua and Saturus, while a redactor supplies the introduction and conclusion.
Taking note of the differences in style and content between Perpetua's and Saturus's descriptions, as well as that of the narrator, most other scholars would seem to agree with Rader's assessment.
The Martyrdom's twenty-one sections are structured into four divisions which reflect the multiple authorship of the work. The first two sections comprise an introduction, written by a redactor, which refers to Perpetua and the other martyrs in the third person. The last eight sections reflect similarly the work of a redactor, who narrates the actual martyrdom. Between this introduction and conclusion are two divisions. The former of these two central divisions (sections 3-10) purports to be a first person account by Perpetua. The latter (sections 11-13) of the two central divisions purports to be a first person account of a vision by Saturus.
The editor emphasizes that sections 3 through 10 are in Perpetua's own words. He writes, "Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down." Thus, if credible, these sections are Perpetua's own diary, which she wrote recounting her own feelings, worries, convictions and desires while in prison. Similarly, the redactor insists that sections 11 through 13 are written by Saturus himself. We read, "But the blessed Saturus has also made known his own vision and he has written it out with his own hand." And again, "Such were the remarkable visions of these martyrs, Saturus and Perpetua, written by themselves."
Rader and Musurillo suggest Tertullian as a possible identity for the narrator, a suggestion echoed by others. Looking at the redactor's vocabulary and style, as well as the context in North Africa and Tertullian's later Montanism, Tertullian seems a real possibility. But there is no clear indication in the text itself as to the editor's identity. Still, C.J.M.J. Van Beek argues that Tertullian was indeed the author. E. Rupprecht argues that this assertion is unprovable at best and unlikely in any case. David Scholer suggests that a woman may have edited the text. He writes, "Some unknown editor, very possibly a woman, edited and published this text." Scholer gives no indication why a woman is the likely redactor. The question of the redactor's identity would seem to remain open to speculation.
The martyrdom itself, and hence the first-person accounts of Perpetua and Saturus, took place under the persecution of Septimius Severus in 202-3. The redacted work does not appear to be greatly removed from that period. Evidence leads one to believe that the popularity of the account spread rapidly, and Tertullian makes use of it. By the fourth century, a basilica at Carthage was dedicated to the memory of Perpetua. And as early as the reign of Constantine, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is found in official Roman church calendars.
Later Christian Accounts of Martyrdom
The account of the martyrdom of Marian and James, as well as that of Montanus and Lucius, appear at times to directly mimic Perpetua's account. Numerous themes present early on in The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity reappear within later Christian accounts of martyrdom. An ascent into heaven by way of a narrow ladder with sharp and dangerous weapons attached to its side, Satan in the form of both human beings and beasts, the victory branch, angelic assistance, heaven as a garden, the martyr's scorn of persecutors, and the celebration of the agape meal—all of these themes appear not only in Perpetua, but in later martyrdoms as well. And The Martyrdom of Perpetua itself may betray influence from earlier literature, possibly the Shepherd of Hermas or the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Christian view of martyrdom itself may have developed from an existing Jewish theology of martyrdom.
Relation to the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas
One perplexing question is the relationship between the Martyrdom (or Passio) of Perpetua and Felicitas and the shorter Acts (or Acta) of Perpetua and Felicitas. The two accounts differ substantially in both content and language, though they speak generally of the same events. The Passio is written on a higher literary level, the Acta being of an inferior literary quality. While the Passio focuses particularly on Perpetua, the Acta focus on all of the martyrs, further emphasizing Perpetua's high social status and her rejection of her past life. The Acta, for example, omit the vision of Dinocrates and the vision of Saturus. Most scholars interpret the Acta to be a later reworking of the Passio, and thus being of dubious historical value. Halporn argues against this conclusion, arguing that it is grounded on an unwarranted assumption that lower literary quality implies a lack of historicity.
Is this a Montanist Text?
The Martyrdom of Perpetua is loaded with key Montanist themes and theology. Central to Montanist teaching was the affirmation that revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly that of prophecy, continue to the present day. Indeed, Perpetua can be read on one level as a Montanist apologetic. The redactor begins Peretua's account thus:
The deeds recounted about the faith in ancient times were a proof of God's favour and achieved the spiritual strengthening of men as well; and they were set forth in writing precisely that honour might be rendered to God and comfort to men by the recollection of the past through the written word. Should not then more recent examples be set down that contribute equally to both ends? For indeed these too will one day become ancient and needful for the ages to come, even though in our own day they may enjoy less prestige because of the prior claim of antiquity.
Thus the opening lines of the account comprise a carefully crafted justification for the acceptance of the account that follows. If the deeds of the past strengthen the church and glorify God, the logic begins, should not more recent accounts do the same? Indeed (apparently without any clear distinction between canonical and non-canonical accounts—except for age), the logic progresses, these contemporary accounts will themselves one day be old.
The author takes his reasoning one step further, however, arguing not merely for the acceptance of new accounts, but for their preference because of their newness. He writes:
Let those then who would restrict the power of the one Spirit to times and seasons look to this: the more recent events should be considered the greater, being later than those of old, and this is a consequence of the extraordinary graces promised for the last stage of time.
And up to this point the author has argued for the acceptance of new deeds; now he argues specifically for new prophecies and visions, continuing revelation from the Paraclete. Bolstering his argument with exegetical support from an Old Latin version of the second chapter of Acts, itself a paraphrase of the prophecy of Joel 2, the author continues his apologetic:
For in the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and their sons and daughters shall prophesy and on my manservants and my maidservants I will pour my Spirit, and the young men shall see visions and the old men shall dream dreams. So too we hold in honour and acknowledge not only new prophecies but new visions as well, according to the promise.
And developing pathos in his argument, the narrator reminds his reader that new visions and prophecies benefit the Church, strengthening faith, glorifying God and serving as a testimony to unbelievers. He writes:
And we consider all the other functions of the Holy Spirit as intended for the good of the Church; for the same Spirit has been sent to distribute all his gifts to all, as the Lord apportions to everyone. For this reason we deem it imperative to set them forth and to make them known through the word for the glory of God. Thus no one weak or despairing faith may think that supernatural grace was present only among men of ancient times, either in the grace of martyrdom or of visions, for God always achieves what he promises, as a witness to the non-believer and a blessing to the faithful.
And so, my brethren and little children, that which we have heard and have touched with our hands we proclaim also to you, so that... you... may have fellowship with the holy martyrs and, through them, with the Lord Christ Jesus, to whom belong splendour and honour for all ages. Amen.
This emphasis on continuing direct revelation from the Holy Spirit can only be understood as Montanist in inspiration. And what is most intriguing about Perpetua is that the editor assumes that recent examples of the Spirit's work are not only as valuable, but even more valuable than ancient ones. This conviction stands in marked contrast to the Catholic value placed on antiquity, on apostolicity and even canonicity. The narrator is aware that the normal practice among Christians is to learn from past examples, yet commends the reading of contemporary martyrdoms precisely because they are new. The account has a Montanist polemical purpose, Perpetua's tale being "no less significant than the tales of old." The narrative concludes by citing itself as evidence that the Spirit's work continues:
For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all ages. Amen.
For The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, the canon for all practical purposes is not closed. the Paraclete continues to speak, just as he continues to give the grace of martyrdom.
And Perpetua's personal spirituality betrays a strong sense of direct leading by the Holy Spirit. She writes that she was "inspired by the Spirit" not to seek anything more than the grace of perseverance. Later, at her brother's suggestion, Perpetua asks for a vision from the Holy Spirit so that she may know whether she will be condemned or freed. Indeed, Perpetua could confidently say to her brother, "I shall tell you tomorrow," so certain was she that she would receive the vision that very night. Visions appear in Perpetua's perspective as a normal part of the Christian experience.
And Perpetua's visions themselves embody Montanist themes. The meal of cheese followed by the corporate "Amen" reflects the Montanist practice of using bread and cheese for their "mysteries." And Perpetua's transformation into a male as well as her leadership among those imprisoned both embody a Montanist emphasis on the validity of female authority in the church.
Despite these very Montanist elements in the account of Perpetua's martyrdom, there is still debate over the degree to which the work reflects a Montanist affiliation. Particularly nagging is the fact that most later orthodox authors did reject the martyrdom on account of its Montanist qualities. Herbert Musurillo expresses this concern well when he writes:
The phantasmagoric, and sometimes erotic, imagery, may well represent the kind of mediumistic phenomena current in the Montanist Church of Africa. However, the Montanist aspect of the work seems to have escaped the notice of Augustine and many of the early Fathers who admired its primitive charm and Christian fervour.
Kenneth Steinhauser rejects this characterization of Augustine as one ignorant of Perpetua's Montanist character. Augustine was neither oblivious nor evasive, but was acutely aware of the text's Montanist origin. The fact that the Catholic church in North Africa had adopted Montanist martyrologies and feast days left Augustine without the option of outright refuting Perpetua, since a martyr had greater authority among the Christians than did the living—"the martyrs and their stories were sacrosanct." Rather, Augustine chose to reinterpret Perpetua insofar as he was able.
As an alternative to a Montanist reading, Rader suggests the possibility that Perpetua had previous involvement in the cult of Ceres, which was widespread in North Africa, or at least that her beliefs may have somehow been influenced by the cult. Members of this cult held to a belief in direct individual communication with the divinity, ongoing prophecy with a woman's special role as prophetess, prayers for the dead, an emphasis on the majesty of divinity, and a generally prominent position for women. While the possibility of a non-Montanist influence on Perpetua could be entertained, it seems even less likely that Augustine and the Fathers would have overlooked cultic pagan elements in Perpetua than Montanist ones! The acceptance of the account by the Fathers noted, when one considers the sacrosanct nature of Christian martyrs at the time, it seems indisputable that these prophetic elements in Perpetua are of Montanist origin.
Other Theological Issues Raised by the Text
Beyond the Montanist themes of prophecy and continuing direct revelation by the Paraclete, a number of theological convictions are embodied in the account of Perpetua's martyrdom. Among them:
1. Suffering after death and prayer for the dead—The suffering of the dead is seen in Perpetua's vision of her dead brother Dinocrates, suffering and "coming out of a dark hole, where there were many others with him, very hot and thirsty, pale and dirty." Perpetua, despite the boy's sufferings, writes, "But I was confident that I could help him in his trouble; and I prayed for him every day.... And I prayed for my brother day and night with tears and sighs that this favour might be granted me." In her next vision, Perpetua saw that the boy's afflictions had been relieved and "he had been delivered from his suffering." Her prayer for the dead child improved his present situation.
It seems likely that the boy had died without baptism, since his family was evidently not Christian, he died at age seven, and is referred to by Perpetua only as a "brother according to the flesh," though Augustine rejects this possibility. Vincentius Victor had argued that Dinocrates was not baptized, yet entered heaven nonetheless, an argument which Augustine sought to refute, insisting instead that Dinocrates was indeed baptized, making Perpetua's intercession possible. Both arguments, however, assume the legitimacy of prayer for the dead as a means of grace to those not presently in paradise, though Augustine's argument would limit the efficacy of such prayers to the baptized.
2. The sovereign power of God—God is ultimately in control of human events. This is certainly the conviction that leads Perpetua to say to her father, "It will all happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power." Indeed, even when Perpetua's son is taken from her, she testifies to God's sovereign provision, saying, "But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts." Even death is not an accident, but a call of God. Similarly, when it was feared that Felicitas might not be martyred with the others due to her pregnancy, the Christians in prison prayed—"And immediately after the prayer the birth pains came upon her." Indeed, it is not merely that God permits events to happen as they do; rather, in his permission God wills them to be so. The redactor writes, "since the Holy Spirit has permitted the story of this contest to be written down... [he] by so permitting has willed it."
3. A personal devil who is the martyr's adversary—Satan seeks to destroy the martyr, and is able to take on the body either of a beast or a man. Still, in her first vision, the dragon is afraid of Perpetua, and Perpetua uses the dragon's head as her first step. In her final vision, Perpetua steps on the gladiator's head, implying his identity as a tool of Satan. Indeed, Perpetua writes, "I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory." The narrator, mentioning that Perpetua was singing a psalm as she entered the arena to die, states that "she was already treading on the Egyptian." And the gladiator who finally cuts the martyrs' throats is himself identified as "the unclean spirit."
4. The personal presence of Jesus Christ inside the martyr—This presence of Christ within the martyr is seen when Felicitas answers the jailer who mocks her as she is in the pains of labor, who said, "You suffer so much now—what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice." To this taunt Felicitas responds, "What I am suffering now... I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him." Jesus will be present within Felicitas in the arena. Indeed, even earlier the jailer Pudens had realized "that we possessed some great power within us."
5. Martyrdom as a "second baptism"—At one key point, the narrator identifies the martyrdom of Felicitas as a second baptism. Of their procession to the amphitheater, he writes:
With [Perpetua and Saturus] also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.
Similarly, the death of Saturus is described as a second baptism, the mob roaring, "Well washed! Well washed!" The narrator notes, "For well washed indeed was one who was bathed in this manner." This belief in martyrdom as a second baptism is also found in Tertullian, though it was likely not commonplace until after the Decian persecution, around 250.
6. Individual responsibility for following the path of salvation. Salvation in Perpetua is pictured in decidedly non-corporate images. In her first vision, Perpetua sees a narrow ladder reaching to heaven, a latter so narrow that only one person can climb it at a time. Indeed, weapons on either side and a dragon beneath serve as a warning to the individual to not pursue salvation "carelessly or without paying attention." Each individual is responsible for attaining eternal life.
7. Eternal life as the destiny of the martyr—Even in her first vision, Perpetua sees that both she and Saturus would reach the top of the latter. At the top of the latter was the garden of paradise. Beyond death lies a branch of victory and the Gate of Life. The vision of Saturus illustrates the martyr's heavenly destiny well. He sees himself and Perpetua being carried toward the east by four angels, "and when we were free of the world, we first saw an intense light." This was the blessing the Lord had promised. They see a garden and expectant angels who greet them. This was the home of the martyrs who had gone before Saturus and Perpetua. Saturus continues:
Then the four angels that were carrying us grew fearful and set us down. Then we walked across to an open area by way of a broad road, and there we met Jucundus, Saturninus, and Artaxius, who were burnt alive in the same persecution, together with Quintus who had actually died as a martyr in prison. We asked them where they had been. And the other angels said to us: "First come and enter and greet the Lord."
The vision continues with Perpetua and Saturus visiting the throne room of God and counseling their bishop and presbyter at the gates.
Still, heaven was populated by more than merely martyrs. Saturus concludes his account, writing, "And there we began to recognize many of our brethren, martyrs among them. All of us were sustained by a most delicious odour that seemed to satisfy us. And then I woke happy." Indeed, the certainty of eternal life was the fountain from which the martyrs' joy sprang forth. We read:
The day of their victory [death] dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze.
Thus the day of martyrdom is pictured as a time of joy in the certainty of life rather than of sorrow in the certainty of death. Even while in the process of dying, Perpetua requests a pin for her hair, lest her unkempt hair make her appear to be mourning "in her hour of triumph."
Indeed, even in this life, the martyr cannot be defeated. The martyrs, so great was their faith, could not be slain without their own permission—Saturus by a leopard, and all of them walking to the executioner's sword "of their own accord," Perpetua even taking the hand of the young gladiator and guiding it to her throat. "It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing."
8. The certainty of God's vengeance—The coming judgment of God was integral to the martyr's Christianity. On the day of their last meal, the martyrs spoke to the mob "with the same steadfastness" and "warned them of God's judgment." As they entered the arena on the day of execution, we read:
Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the onlooking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: "You have condemned us, but God will condemn you" was what they were saying.
At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this because they had obtained a share in the Lord's sufferings.
The martyr's religion may have been non-violent, but it was not tolerant in the modern sense of the term. They held back from vengeance, but because they were confident that vengeance was the Lord's and that he would certainly repay.
9. The renunciation of a way of life—All the reader is told of Perpetua before her encounter with Roman authorities is that she was a young married woman, part of a good family, and of good upbringing. Yet as Joyce Salisbury remarks in her recent monograph Perpetua's Passion, a traditional Roman woman's life centered upon these things, along with the gods. "As a traditional Roman girl, she learned early on that the center of her world was family, home, and the spirits who guarded them."
With this understanding, Perpetua's martyrdom was not merely a choice to die for Christ, but furthermore a rejection of her entire world. Perpetua rejects the protection of the gods, identifying herself as a Christian before the magistrate Hilarianus and refusing to offer sacrifice for the emperors. She says to her pagan father, inciting his anger, "I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian." Perpetua rejects the call of her family and home, giving up her child and disobeying her father. She expresses deep sorrow over the grief she is causing her father, but still must renounce obedience to him for the sake of following Christ. Family, home, and the spirits that protected them—the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is an account of the rejection of an entire world. Identification with Christ must be the believer's primary identity, whatever the cost. To follow Jesus requires the renunciation of the former way of life.
The Question of Gender
Rosemary Rader notes that The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is the earliest surviving work written by a Christian woman. She writes:
Equally rare is the fact that the central, most informative sections of the document are, in all probability, written by a woman. This distinguishes it as the earliest extant Christian literature written from a feminine viewpoint, a varitable rara avis among the male depictions of women in past history.
The story clearly embodies a woman's perspective, filled as it is with concerns such as child-bearing, nursing, emotions and a woman's family relationships.
And the account of Perpetua has drawn much attention from feminist scholarship, not only on account of Perpetua's authority as a woman leader among the Christians, but particularly because of her fourth vision of becoming a man in the midst of gladiatorial combat. Some feminist authors view Perpetua's becoming a man as a capitulation to misogyny and sexism, therefore rejecting Perpetua as a model for twentieth century feminists. Most, however, see Perpetua's transformation as a positive thing. Indeed, the story of Perpetua becomes one of a woman overcoming the gender-based limiting factors within her culture.
When Perpetua's son is taken from her, she miraculously overcomes the limitations of motherhood, as the baby no longer wants to feed from her and as her breasts are free from discomfort. Without the concerns of motherhood as defined by the culture of antiquity, Perpetua is free to become an empowered leader. Perpetua's statement in her vision "And I was a man" is thus not a put-down on women, but a woman's transcending the limitations of her culture's engendered discourse. As Scholer writes, "She has now transcended her traditional female sexual role and is now able to play the role of an empowered martyred leader in the church."
Still, Rader is one scholar who at times secularizes the story of Perpetua as a narrative, not so much of obedience to God through the Holy Spirit, but a narrative of "protest and liberation." Of Perpetua's account, Rader writes:
It vividly portrays Perpetua's conscientious objections to certain restrictive elements within third-century Carthaginian society, and symbolically suggests that her liberation from these restrictions was accomplished through a transcending of the expectations placed upon her female sexuality. It is these two recurring themes, protest and liberation, which explain the idealism prompting Perpetua to make the choices she did....
Were the themes of social protest and a gender-transcending liberation really Perpetua's motive behind her choice to die? Rader's construction of a narrative of protest and liberation at this point may seem to embody more of Rader's feminist faith than Perpetua's Christian one. While I am not at this point arguing that the two are incompatible, it seems as though Perpetua gives less legitimate grist for the feminist mill than Rader would suggest, her primary motive being a theological and Christian desire to identify with Christ in his sufferings. Still, one cannot but be thankful for the renewed scholarly attention feminist scholarship has brought to The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas at the close of the modern era.
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