Last week I gave the cultural and Christian context for martyrdom, particularly of women, and mothers at that. I also gave the context of choice, highlighting the difference between Perpetua’s and Felicity’s grisly end in the arena, and Paula’s “living” martyrdom of poverty and self-denial for the sake of Christ.

Perpetua’s own account is here, and Paula’s story is here.

This week I look at the context of their children.

Provision for Children

As Jesus had commended his own mother to his beloved disciple,[1] so Perpetua commended her son to her mother and brother,[2] and thanked God for the miracle of weaning her son and herself at the very moment when her father refused to bring him to her ever again.[3] Perpetua was now freed by God to share in the passion of Christ. Felicity also “received this grace of the Lord,”[4] for at eight-month’s gestation her baby was born the night before Felicity’s martyrdom and reared as her sister’s own daughter.[5] That both women were palpably relieved their children had been provided for points to their still primarily being viewed as mothers in the Christian community.[6]

Conversely, rather than commend her children to the care of another, Paula burdened them with the cares of the world, for in the words of her biographer Jerome, “she robbed her children.”[7] In her zeal, Paula intended to die a beggar and leave her oldest daughter not only penniless but in debt, a goal she achieved, for her daughter “still owes and indeed cannot hope to pay off.”[8] On the day of her voyage, Paula’s “eyes were dry . . . She knew herself no more as a mother.”[9]  During these years of self-denial, she refused to go to her children even when the youngest was gravely ill.[10]

V0032786 Saint Paula. Colour lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Saint Paula. Colour lithograph. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Scriptural Precedent

Though they did not offer reasons from scripture, Perpetua’s and Felicity’s relinquishment of their children was miraculously provided for by God, accompanied by Perpetua’s visions from God which affirmed the Lord’s call to martyrdom for them both.

Paula provided several scriptural precedents for her actions. Rather than go to her sick child, she expressed her grief to God by quoting Psalm 77:4 and reminded herself of her cross by quoting Matthew 10:37. The expanded passage Paula quoted from states, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[11] Finally, viewing herself as being already martyred, Paula paraphrased Psalm 79:11 in requesting God preserve her children.

In defense of indebting her children, Paula’s discourse was more developed, quoting from Apostle Paul[12] in explaining though her foolishness was a spectacle it was the wisdom of God. She aligned herself with Jesus, whose family “thought to bind Him as one of weak mind”[13] She ended her defense by quoting Apostle Paul in saying her behavior was godly and done by the grace of God.[14]

Christian Community’s Consideration

Their Christian community not only found no “weakness or failing of faith” in Perpetua’s and Felicity’s stories, they were revered as holy, claiming that through them others would have communion with the Lord Jesus Christ.[15]

Whereas, though there is evidence ascetics were seen as “displaying a new type of fruitfulness, bearing spiritual offspring,”[16] and this may have partly encouraged Paula’s Christian community to admire her “victory” in overcoming “her love for her children by her love for God,”[17] they nonetheless tried to dissuade her. However commendable Paula’s living martyrdom was considered to be, many disapproved of her abandonment of her children and the mounting debt she was leaving her daughter to accrue. “[H]er relatives remonstrated with her for doing so,”[18] and some “thought her mad and declared that something should be done for her head.”[19]

V0032785 Saint Paula. Engraving by F. Ludy after A. Müller. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Saint Paula. Engraving by F. Ludy after A. Müller. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


     There are some surface similarities between the stories of Perpetua and Felicity, and Paula. All three were mothers who relinquished their children for the sake of Christ, who entered martyrdom, and received commendation from their Christian communities. Yet a closer look reveals Paula had a genuine choice to stay with her children, one that would have been commendable. Though Paula had scriptural arguments for her decision, there is no record of God’s affirmation or provision.

     Nevertheless, twenty-first-century sentiments aside, the Christian teaching of her day elevated asceticism, and though parental obligations were still expected to be fulfilled, particularly in the provision of an inheritance, Paula’s defense that she was leaving her children “a better inheritance in Christ”[20] was acceptable, even commendable. Jerome called Paula “holy and blessed,” and her works a “splendid inheritance” in which her daughter’s portion would be Christ.[21]

V0032784 Saint Paula. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Saint Paula. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

[1] John 19:26.

[2] St. Perpetua, 2.

[3]  St. Perpetua, 3.

[4] St. Perpetua, 6.

[5] St. Perpetua, 6.

[6] Nathan, 51.

[7] Oden, 68.

[8] Oden, 68.

[9] Oden, 69.

[10] Oden, 71.

[11] Jesus as quoted in Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV).

[12] 1 Corinthians 4:9-10 and 1:25.

[13] Attributing Psalms 69:5, 71:7, 73:22-23 to Jesus’ experience and referencing the story of Jesus’ family attempting  

   to kidnap him in Matthew 12:46-50.

[14] 1 Corinthians 1:12, the full meaning of the partial quote provided in the text.

[15] St. Perpetua, 1.

[16] Vuolante, Ville. “Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: Continuity, Family Dynamics, and the Rise of

    Christianity.” In Journal of Early Christian Studies, 330-332 (Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate  

    Publishing, 2015), 331.

[17] Oden, 69.

[18] Oden, 68-69.

[19] Oden, 71.

[20] Oden, 68.

[21] Oden, 73.

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