I came across the story of Perpetua and Felicitas during my studies at Portland Seminary. She was an early Christian martyr, notable because she was a woman, of noble birth, and she died just as the second century came to a close.

Vibia Perpetua, was executed in the arena in Carthage on 7 March 203.

The account of her martyrdom – technically a Passion -is apparently historical and has special interest as much of it was written [section 3-10], in Latin by Perpetua herself before her death. This makes it one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman.

Paul Halsall April 1996, Fordham University, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/perpetua.asp

Introduction

Perpetua is presented by the narrator as a noblewoman, wife, daughter, sister of brothers, and finally mother of a son, all honorifics in her culture and society, yet roles Perpetua emphatically rejects. It is because her very nature is anchored in Christ, an identity so complete and true that in a Platonic sense, “Can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.” Even her father, patriarch of the family, has no power to coerce Perpetua into denying her nature, so “he departed vanquished.”

Though still a catechumen, Perpetua’s transition from earthly existence to heavenly is made complete, for even her father, to her, is allied with the devil, and his departure comforts her. It is right for her now to be baptized, and confirmation comes in the Spirit’s declaration to pray for nothing else but endurance for her final earthly ordeal, which has already begun.

This review will analyze the representation of gender and its intersections with Christian identity and religious agency in the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas and offer some thoughts on how what I have learned impacts and informs my faith.

Opening page of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 577, p. 165 (9th/10th centuries). | By Benedictine abbey of Saint Gallen – https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/0577/165/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87114412

A Father’s Command

Perpetua’s father’s arguments all come from an earthly, patriarchal position that ordinarily would have obligated Perpetua:

  • I am your father.
  • I brought you forth, I raised you.
  • I gave you preferential treatment.
  • My honor is paramount.
  • Through me you have a mother, extended family, a son who needs you.

Because no husband is mentioned, it is possible Perpetua is a widow, and therefore even more obligated to her father. However, Perpetua’s response is to call upon a far mightier patriarch, “We are not established in our own power, but in God’s.”

Perpetua, throughout her account, notes grief on behalf of her family because they suffer, not because she misses them or herself feels the pull of earth and earthly loves, “I pined because I saw they pined for my sake,” “I was grieved for his [her father’s] unhappy old age.” She says her goodbyes to her mother and brother, arranges for her son’s upbringing, and resolutely stands fast against all her father’s repeated emotionally charged and manipulative attempts to force her recantation. Her infant son, because he is still nursing, is her last connection and responsibility until God, ultimately and miraculously, releases her. “As God willed, no longer did he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever.” Absent is any heartache at never seeing her baby again.

At the final moment of decision, Perpetua calmly and firmly declares who she is—not the mother of an infant son, not the daughter of a noble, faithful, and loving father, but rather “I am a Christian,” a declaration that seals her fate. To those on earth she is condemned and her father will no longer come nor send her infant son. But, for the Christians there is good cheer.

Two female martyrs, Perpetua and Agnes, in a window in the northwest corner of St Hilary’s, Wallasey | Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Visions

Perpetua’s four visions prophetically portray her future, reveal her final earthly task, and prepare her for her final earthly ordeal.

First Vision, Passion or Deliverance?

Her first vision, requisitioned by her brother, would reveal whether they will be martyred, “a passion,” or miraculously released, “a deliverance.” In the parlance of second century Christianity, Perpetua has passed from being a noblewoman on earth to a lady of such spiritual high honor because of her great sacrifices for the Lord, she can count on an answer from the Lord. The answer comes the next day, confirming her spiritual nobility, her connection with the Lord, and their fate: a passion.

In this first vision, Perpetua sees herself as completing the sufferings of a martyr, becoming as an angel, a messenger between God and earth, and receiving nourishment from “the Shepherd’s” hand that represents both the food of heaven and the encouragement of the saints. In her vision, scriptural symbols depict both prophetic answers and affirmation.

  • The ladder connects heaven with earth, as in Jacob’s dream, angels ascending and descending, Genesis 28:10-17, and in Jesus’ allusion of himself as that ladder, John 1:51.
  • The ladder is narrow, permitting only one to climb at a time, alluding to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:14 of the narrow way few would take.
  • The addition of sharp implements speaks of martyrdom and the cross, as Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:27, affirming Perpetua’s decision.
  • The serpent’s head alludes to Genesis 3:15. In Christ, Perpetua, a woman who is also a mother of a son, not only is not harmed, but by stepping on the serpent knows she will vanquish the devil.
  • The heavenly scene is markedly similar to scenes in Revelation, the Good Shepherd with white hair, the multitude all in white, victorious martyrs.
  • The nourishment alludes to the milk and honey of the Promised Land, Exodus 3:8; manna as white and sweet, Exodus 16:31; and the food of Christ which is to share in his cross, “the one who eats this bread lives forever,” John 6:22-58.

Next Wednesday I will finish this review of Perpetua’s account. It is well worth the read, and available for free online, just follow the link in the tile at the beginning of this post.


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