Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Perpetua & Felicity –
Martyrdom was not an entirely uncommon ending to a Christian’s life in the early church as evidenced in the last post on Justin “Martyr” and in the one preceding it on Polycarp. Likewise, the post on Ignatius of Antioch indicated that Ignatius was on his way to martyrdom as well when writing his 7 letters. Let’s keep going forward in time to about the year A.D. 203 in North Africa…
Her father came rushing in to see her as she was being apprehended by the authorities, pleading with her to give up her professed faith in Jesus Christ. All she had to do was recant; after all, she was a young mother, who would take care of her child? This man’s daughter pointed to a water pitcher, asking her father, “Can it be called by any other name than what it is?” He answered, “No.” “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian,” she replied.
This young woman’s name was Vivia Perpetua. She was a catechumate, meaning she was a recent convert to Christianity and was awaiting her baptism while being instructed in the Christian faith. But she was also from a respectable family in the empire. Nevertheless, her earthly treasures could not match the Treasure she sought in heaven.
Although the study of ancient church history is sometimes called “Patristics” [the Fathers], Perpetua and another woman, Felcitas (also called “Felicity,” as her name is spelled in this article), are two rather heroic figures who stood firm in their faith until the end of their lives in martyrdom. Many details of their last days are recorded in “The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas.” One somewhat difficult aspect in this writing is the presence of visions, most being from Perpetua. Do we know for certain if all of the details of the visions are truthful? No, but that is the nature of non-inspired writings. Whereas the Scriptures are inerrant and infallible, writings from the church fathers (and in this case, church mothers) are simply historical documents which are nevertheless edifying and inspirational. However, I will try to best determine the meanings of the visions as well as give a guided tour into the historical events of the document, “The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas.”
While I’ve already described the situation between Perpetua and her father above, as the text moves on we are introduced to the first of several visions. Her brother comes to her and says that she could request that God give her a vision, specifying whether she would end up in a passion (martyrdom) or escaping. Her request was granted, as she saw a vision of a golden ladder reaching up to heaven. Beside the ladder were many weapons, so that if one ascended the ladder carelessly he/she would be killed. Also, there was a dragon below the ladder, as if the fears of heights and sharp weapons were not enough. A fellow Christian, Saturus, climbed the ladder first; he was successful. Saturus called down to Perpetua to “be careful that the dragon do[es] not bite you,” (1.3) he cried! Here’s the response from Perpetua: “And I said, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, he slowly lifted up his head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head.” Perpetua made it all the way up the ladder and beheld a beautiful scene of a garden, with a man in shepherd’s clothing standing in the midst of it. The shepherd said these warm and comforting words to her: “Thou are welcome, daughter.” The shepherd who was tending his sheep had prepared some cheese for Perpetua, of which she ate. Soon she awoke and had realized that an escape was not to be, but a passion.
While the historicity of this vision can be perpetually debated, what we can at least draw from this and the other visions is that there are allegorical principles that certainly match the historical context. When Perpetua tells of Saturus and herself going up the ladder through the surrounding dangers of weaponry and the dragon below, I think it probably relates to their inevitable persecution. Yes, they wrestle against the sword, but it is Satan (depicted as a dragon in Scripture) who is the most dangerous rival. When they arrive at the garden, there is a shepherd tending sheep. This is probably a reference to Jesus, the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Like all martyrs for the Christian faith, Perpetua is welcomed into heaven. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares…” (John Newtown, “Amazing Grace”).
The text continues with Perpetua once again confronted by her father, pleading with her to change her mind about her confession. But Perpetua tells of what occurred: “And I grieved over the grey hairs of my father, that he alone of all my family would not rejoice over my passion. And I comforted him, saying, ‘On that scaffold whatever God wills shall happen. For know that we are not placed in our own power, but in that of God.’ And he departed from me in sorrow.” Even the day after, Perpetua was taken to a town-hall and was presented before the newly established procurator, Hilarianus. Again, Perpetua’s father pleaded with her to recant, but she would not. Her father was even beaten with rods by Hilarianus’s men to publicly bring move her to a decision, but again, she would not and could not.
A few days following the Hilarianus incident, while Perpetua and her fellow believing prisoners were praying, the name “Dinocrates” was pierced into her mind and she was immersed into another vision. Dinocrates, the person, then appeared to her, but he was in a terrible condition and even had a wound on his face from when he died. As the story continues, Perpetua reveals that Dinocrates was actually her brother, and died from a cancer-like disease. She saw a large pool of water but Dinocrates could not drink of it to find refreshment. Over a period of an unspecified period of time, that vision re-continued and Perpetua saw Dinocrates again in that same place – only this time, the gloomy place was now bright, and the health of Dinocrates was restored. Now, this is where a translation issue is extremely important. The Roberts-Donaldson translation states at the end of this section, “Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.” Was this an early teaching of purgatory? Well, consider the Shewring translation: “Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.” These are saying two very different things: it would seem that either Perpetua is teaching that Dinocrates was escaping from purgatory or that this vision was an illustration of how Dinocrates death translated him to a much better place; though he suffered on earth (which is also a “place”), his pains were now removed. While the Protestant nature in me wants to say that Shewring’s translation is preferable, the early texts point toward the Roberts-Donaldson one. Both the Latin and Greek manuscripts have words that indicate more of an idea of punishment than just a passive pain (Latin = poena; Greek = timorion). But this translation still doesn’t answer the question of “why” Dinocrates would be in some type of purgatorial state. Could the actual punishment have been Dinocrates’s “punishment” of his cancer-like malformation, and that Perpetua’s vision was of him during his life on earth? Furthermore, when he was seen again in his healthy state, he was still in the same “place” (“that place which I had formerly observed”), only the place itself was bright now instead of gloomy. Isn’t purgatory a different place altogether, according to Roman Catholic dogma? Perhaps we are looking for too many precise details from this 3rd century vision.
Back to the narrative, once again Perpetua’s father comes to her again, pleading for her to change her mind, even ripping his beard out in anguish. But of course, she again is steadfast in her Christian conversion. Perpetua then tells of another vision. Pomponius, a deacon, leads her to the amphitheater. Pomponius leaves, and then an Egyptian man comes to strike her. However, she fights the man and takes the branch he was holding. The Egyptian kisses her and says, “Daughter, peace be with you.” Awaking from the vision, Perpetua realizes that it is not flesh and blood that she will battle in the arena, but Satan (similar to the principle of the dragon and golden ladder vision). She was assured of victory, even though that coincided with her physical death.
Perpetua proceeds to include a vision from another Christian, Saturus. Through Saturus’s vision, we learn of how both Saturus and Perpetua enter heaven – similar to the scene in Revelation 5. It is prophetic of how despite Perpetua enjoyed life on earth, heaven was even better. Also, they make way for reconciliation with Optatus and Aspasius – the first a bishop, the other a presbyter. It sounds more like they had some type of division between them. Furthermore, the people within their care were causing problems – “Rebuke thy people, because they assemble to you as if returning from the circus, and contending about factious matters.” Perhaps, this part of the vision was an exhortation to the current state of the church to forsake trivial disputes and to seek reconciliation wherever needed.
Whoever edited the final manuscript then makes a transition from focusing on Perpetua and Saturus to giving details of Felicity. Some surmise that Felicity was a servant to the well off Perpetua (see 1.1), but it may just be that she was a “servant” of the Lord. Whatever the case, we are told that Felicity gives birth to a daughter while imprisoned at just 8 months along in her pregnancy. At the time of her delivery a servant girl said,”You who are in such suffering now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you despised when you refused to sacrifice?” And she replied, “Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.” Indeed, Felicity had much to mourn, but her attitude was of trusting God.
At last, the day of martyrdom comes in chapter 6. Just as a forewarning, the depictions of this scene are gruesome. Saturus is placed in the arena first; however, he is unharmed. Rather, the huntsman who released the wild boar to harm Saturus was killed rather than the Christian. Of course, the Romans found other ways to bring death to Christians, such as the sword. Next, Perpetua and Felicity came in. The crowd shuddered at the sight of Perpetua who was of a “delicate frame,” along with Felicity who had just recently nursed her child. What is described next is rather moving: “She [Perpetua] was tossed, and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she approached and gave her her hand, and lifted her up. And both of them stood together; and the brutality of the populace being appeased, they were recalled to the Sanavivarian gate.”
Meanwhile, after failed attempts from sending beasts to kill Saturus, a leopard fatally mauls him. But he is not without final words. He cried out to Pudens (a soldier who was probably converted during his time of overseeing these Christians in prison), “Farewell, and be mindful of my faith; and let not these things disturb, but confirm you.” Last of all, Perpetua and Felicity are put to the sword. Though a “fierce cow” was attacking them prior, a young gladiator strikes them. The editor of this writing states, “But Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit” (6.4).
One textual clue to note here is that Perpetua’s martyrdom refers back to her vision of the dragon and the golden ladder. “…Saturus, who also had first ascended the ladder, and first gave up his spirit, for he also was waiting for Perpetua.” This indicates that at least this vision, although appearing in the text prior to their actual fulfillments, has some type of immediate principle that coordinates with the context. In other words, although I have waverings concerning the reliability of these visions being direct communication from God, we can at least find some truth within them. All Christians must take heed to the warnings of the Apostle John: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3). Fortunately, we have the entire Old and New Testament canon to test the teachings of others. In summary, while “The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas” offers some mysterious teaching, I think the greatest lesson we can learn from this incredible story is that their martyrdoms were not just deaths, they were “passions.”
Church History Tip: Well, this week’s tip is not very relevant for most people, but it is for me. And perhaps when your birthday comes on an historic date in church history, that will help guide you too. But when it comes to the date of martyrdom for Perpetua and Felicity, the fairly reliable date of March 7, 203 happens to be my birthday (of course, hundreds of years before mine). So, let this week be a lesson and even a challenge. Do you know of a specific event in church history that coincides with your birthday?