203: Perpetua, the earliest Christian woman whose writings survive

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

There are many accounts of Christian martyrs in the annals of Christianity, but none quite like that of Perpetua, thrown to the beasts and put to the sword on March 7, 203, in Carthage.

There is no doing justice to the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity in a brief essay such as this; the fifteen minutes or so it takes to read the original document, which includes the earliest writing we have from a Christian woman (Perpetua herself), will be well spent.

In short, the twenty-two-year-old Perpetua, her slave girl Felicity, their friend Saturninus (whose first-person account is included in the Passion), and two of their companions were arrested for converting to Christianity, Septimius Severus having forbidden conversion on pain of death. As you might suspect, the document recounts their being browbeaten and intimidated, until eventually they are killed in public, as a matter of sport.

But this isn’t what’s really interesting about the story.

Women are common as saints and martyrs, and they often must resist or convert a pagan man, typically a husband. While Perpetua’s husband is peculiarly absent from her story, her pagan father appears repeatedly, pleading with her, begging her for his sake to renounce her Christianity and save her own life. Her retellings of these episodes are striking for the very human sympathy she has for her father, despite, or perhaps in part because of, the spare prose in which she relates it. She insists on maintaining her faith, but grieves for her father’s suffering, and not only when he is beaten before her eyes by the Roman governor.

Children also figure prominently in the Passion. Perpetua nurses her newborn son while in prison. At one point during prayer, she has a vision of her seven-year-old brother, who had previously died a horrible death, and is assured in a second vision that her fervent prayers for him had brought him peace. Felicitas worries that she will not be able to die with Perpetua and the others due to rules against executing pregnant women. Thankfully, the group’s prayers are answered and Felicity gives birth a mere three days before they are to be killed.

The most famous aspect of Perpetua’s account is a dream in which she climbs a ladder, arriving at a garden where a man in shepherd’s clothing, milking sheep, gives her some of the curd he has from the milk. The questions it presents are interesting but also perhaps at once too obvious and too thorny to enter into here.

More interesting for us, perhaps, is the description of the martyr’s death, which (like the account of her comforting her dead brother) does have some controversial elements. Suicide is not martyrdom, and while martyrs will submit to death (like Christ), there is a line (sometimes a blurry one) that divides willingness from desire. It is a key trick of any martyr to be able to persuade us that God could have saved her had God chosen to do so (and this persuasion often involves the failure of initial attempts to kill the martyr), but that God chooses to give the persecutor “victory” of a sort even as God grants greater victory to the martyr. Similarly, the martyr must be willing to die, even happy to die, and at the same time convey that this is only for special people at special times, because God created human beings to live their lives.

Consider the following from the account of Perpetua’s death, when the soldier comes to deliver the coup de grace:

But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.

This cannot of course be precisely true, or she should have lived. But we are also supposed to understand that it is only through some concession to the weakness of the persecutor that the persecuted is finally slain. In this respect, the editor of the Passion might be said to do his subject a disservice, as she has rendered herself so much more “great a woman” than he (most likely a he) with his martyrologist’s tropes. He has, however, done her and us a tremendous service in preserving and handing down her story as she herself wrote it.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

On this day..

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