Epiphany: Perpetua

I just read a brief article about Jared Loughner, the troubled 22-year-old who recently murdered 6 innocent bystanders in Tucson Arizona (including a 9-year-old girl). He had struggled with an addiction to hallucinogenic drugs; he had asserted dangerous political views and he believed that the end of the world was near.

I read about Jared minutes before reading about another 22-year-old who had visions, asserted dangerous political views and believed that the end of the world was near. Her name was Perpetua and, in the year 203, she was martyred/murdered along with four other innocent Christians (including a woman who had just given birth).

Both Perpetua and Jared might be diagnosed as mentally ill by today’s psychiatric standards. However, the latter is condemned as a psychotic murderer (and rightfully so) while the former is heralded as a heroic martyr. I have no insight to glean out of this stark and rather uncomfortable juxtaposition between a male murderer and a female victim of murder. Maybe one will come, but for now, I want to plumb some meaning out of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs (sans Jared Loughner).

Imago Dei

Under the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), Perpetua and her maidservant Felicitas (along with three other catechumens) were arrested for converting to Christianity. Although Perpetua’s father strongly urged his daughter to recant her beliefs in order to escape martyrdom, Perpetua refused to give in. She knew that the second baptism of martyrdom was a sure way to access the imago Dei. Like former martyrs Stephen (d. 36), Ignatius of Antioch (d. 106), Justin Martyr (d. 160), and Polycarp (d. 160), Perpetua entered into a “thin space” before receiving the crown of martyrdom, where she had powerful visions, prayed urgent prayers and spoke in heavenly tongues. Her prayers and visions are recounted in her “Passion” which also describes her death. Her visions include a dragon, a bronze ladder lined with sharp weapons, a wrestling match with an Egyptian (in which Perpetua becomes a man!), a heavenly garden, and a shepherd who asks, “got milk?” and much more. And Perpetua’s prayers for her deceased pagan brother appear to have positive influence on his afterlife, according to her visions.

The emphasis on visions and glossolalia and the upholding of a female as a Christian hero lead many to argue that Perpetua and her friends were Montanists (a 2nd century version of charismatic Pentecostalism) and that the account of her death was written by Montanist-friendly Church Father Tertullian (d. 220). If Perpetua did write the more “autobiographical” portions of her “Passion” (which is likely considering her noble background), then she also deserves the title of “first female Christian author.”

In light of female martyrs like Perpetua, E. Glenn Hinson at Oxford suggests “adjusting the story of early Christianity so as to include women.” “Even as late as the persecution under Diocletian,” Hinson explains, “we find a complete martyrology devoted to Agape, Irene, Chione and other consecrated women. Such specific attention demonstrates, in the absence of comparable press elsewhere, that women played an exceptional role among the martyrs; otherwise, they would have been damned by faint praise. If so, does it not place upon church historians a responsibility for retelling the story of early Christianity in a more balanced way, recognizing that the martyrs had a big hand in shaping Christian spirituality?”

Relation to Jews

I want to highlight what Judith Perkins says about Perpetua in her article from Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses: “The Rhetoric of the Maternal Body in the Passion of Perpetua.” According to Perkins, violence is not the real universal of humankind, rather, “[The Passion], with its focus on birth, nurture, torture and death, proclaims and reminds us that the vulnerable body is the real universal shared by all humans in all historical periods.”[1] In this quote somewhere is the insight that can be gleaned from juxtaposing the violent Jared Loughner and the vulnerable Perpetua.

Recognizing the vulnerability of the body as the true human universal, I would argue, is a concept we inherit from the Jews. In fact, the Christian understanding of martyrdom is largely if not completely informed by the Jewish understanding of martyrdom. The account of the Maccabean martyrs in II Maccabees Chapter 7 inform the Christian understanding not only of Christian martyrs but of the death of Jesus himself.

[1] Perkins, Judith.  “The Rhetoric of the Maternal Body in the Passion of Perpetua,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele.  (Boston: Brill, 2007), 313.



2 thoughts on “Epiphany: Perpetua

  1. In my Early Christian Writers Course, we’re not looking at Perpetua, but we are looking at Egeria’s Travels and the sayings of the Desert Fathers, incl. the Mothers. Our lecturer says that there are only 2.5 Church Mothers (the DM’s are the .5). Thanks for this post.

    (Thanks for your comment on my blog as well!)

  2. Helpful information for my course
    Women, Mysticism, & Liberation at Bellarmine University in the Masters in Spirituality Program.

    I love the Desert Ammas and Abbas!
    Their story influenced Augustine of Hippo during his conversion process – last part – his mother Monica had been praying tears for many many years as part of her intercession for his soul.
    She was a Christian but his father was a Pagan until near the end of his life.

    Keep up the Good Work!

    A Poet Speaks

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