Chapter 1: Perpetua
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses (martyrs) in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:7b
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10,11
Very early on Christians associated the highest form of witness to the Lord Jesus with dying for the sake of His faith. Indeed, the English word “martyr” (one who dies for a cause) is simply a form of the greek word for “witness.” Stephen was the first martyr who died by stoning after seeing a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). Later, James the Apostle (the brother of the John who wrote the Gospel), was put to death by Herod the Tetrarch (Acts 12:2). I believe in the truth of church tradition that says that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero (the first time that the Empire persecuted Christians as a group). Tradition also holds that most of the other apostles (John being the exception) were martyred, but the other stories are much less reliable. What seems to have happened is that martyrdom came to be so highly regarded in the Church, that believers came to feel that the witness of the apostles was somehow watered down unless they had been put to death for Jesus’ sake. Therefore, stories appeared regarding the violent deaths that each one faced.
Although some of the stories of the death of the apostles seem to have been made up, there were plenty of amazing, yet true, stories of men, women, and children who had indeed borne faithful witness unto death. During its first three centuries of existence, the church had ample opportunity to grow in this kind of witness, which the anti-Christian Roman Empire from time to time renewed with increasing brutality as Roman officials were increasingly frustrated by the growth of the church and the Christians’ stubborn refusal to cooperate with the patriotic duty to perform sacrifices to the Emperor. For more than 200 years after the death of the Apostle John, the Church was shaped more by the reality and ideal of martyrdom than by any other factor including theology, music, missions, or doctrine.
Other religions and ideologies have their martyrs (Che Guevara is a Communist martyr, for instance), but no other faith has been shaped by the ideal of nonviolent resistance unto death as Christianity has—over the centuries and even into our own days the sheer number of Christian martyrs is staggering (more Christians died for their faith in the 1900’s than any previous century). One early church writer by the name of Tertullian famously and with great insight wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” For this reason, it is appropriate to begin the series of articles on “100 Christians You Should Know” with six of the greatest of them.
We begin with Perpetua, who died in 203 AD, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus.
Perpetua was a young mother, a noblewoman, who lived with her husband and parents near the city of Carthage in North Africa. Septimius Severus, a soldier who had come to the throne through a military coup, wanted to unite the Empire under the banner of presumed tolerance. He initiated an empire-wide persecution of Christians (who were viewed as intolerant of other people’s religious views), but not all Christians. Septimius Severus’ decrees did not make it illegal to be a Christian but to convert to Christianity. For that reason, the persecution was directed at candidates for baptism, called “cathechumens,” and their teachers. Perpetua was arrested along with her pregnant slave, Felicity, three other cathechumens, and their teacher, Saturus, who turned himself in so as to accompany his students.
The goal of the Roman Empire was not to kill Christians, but simply to make them accommodate the religious and political needs of the Empire by offering a sacrifice before the image of the Emperor: to declare that Caesar was Lord. For this reason, the authorities gave ample opportunity to Christians to recant their faith. For Perpetua it was her father who most insistently begged her to renounce Christ. She said to him, “Father, do you see this water pot here?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Can it be called anything other than what it is?”
“Well, in the same way, I cannot be called anything other than what I am: a Christian.”
Her father was so angry, he threatened to tear her eyes out! It was a relief for Perpetua to be finally dragged off to prison, she and the other cathechumens having hastily been baptized. Her situation was made better when two of the church deacons (God bless deacons!) bribed the jailers and made it possible for Perpetua to have her baby with her and the other cathechumens in the “better” part of the prison. She says that at that point to her the prison became a palace.
You may be interested to know, that we know of Perpetua’s situation by her own writing. She wrote about her own experiences in a document that also includes a word from the teacher Saturus and which was completed by an unknown someone after her death, including all of the gory details of that death. The portions that are her own are very likely the first documents ever written by a Christian woman, and her testimony was so influential in North Africa that Saint Augustine, the bishop (pastor) of Hippo, had to remind his congregation that it was not a part of Scripture.
Perpetua’s brother suggested that she request a vision from the Lord, because visions very frequently accompanied the martyr’s experiences, to see if she would be freed or condemned. She asked and accordingly the first of three visions came to her. She saw a ladder reaching up into heaven, only one-person-wide and with dangerous knives at the sides that made the ladder more narrow still. Coiled at the foot of the ladder was a dragon that tried to hinder people from getting on the ladder. Perpetua saw Saturus go up first, and then she began to climb—in the name of Jesus using the head of the dragon as the bottom rung. She told her brother that she had abandonded hope in this life.
Perpetua’s father returned to plead with her again: “Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us!” . . . He cast himself down at her feet, his sorrow was so profound.
Not long afterward, Perpetua and her companions were taken to a hearing before the governor, Hilarianus. Her father was still there, with her baby in his arms, trying to dissuade her from her chosen destiny, crying “Perform the sacrifice—have pity on your baby!”
The governor undoubtedly had arranged to have them there, because he said to Perpetua: “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.”
“I will not,” Perpetua retorted before the Governor and all the witnesses in this typically public trial (most of the martyrs were tried in public, just as Jesus had been).
“Are you a Christian?”
“Yes I am.”
When Perpetua’s father cried out, the governor had him beaten with rods, in a final bid to have Perpetua recant. Then he sentenced the cathechumens and their teacher to face wild beasts in the amphitheater.
Now I don’t want you to think that everything about Martyrdom was pure and holy and biblical. There are aspects of many of the testimonies about martyrdom that sound disturbing to our ears, especially on biblical grounds. For one thing, the fanaticism with which the martyrs sought death is disturbing. Felicity was worried, for example, that because she was pregnant the officials would refuse to carry out her execution and she would not die with her companions. Fortunately (depending on your point of view), her baby was born one month early and a few days before the executions. When her labor pains began and she was crying out with pain, one of her jailers sarcastically observed, “If you are complaining now, what will you do when you are thrown to the wild animals?”
Felicity shot back, “Right now I suffer what I suffer, but then One shall be with me who will suffer for me, because I will suffer for Him.”
For another thing, some of the visions the martyrs had are disturbing. Perpetua had a second vision in which she saw a brother of hers who had died as a child of a disfiguring skin diseas. He was separated by her by a large chasm, but she saw as his disfigured face looked up to a fountain of water that he could not reach. She began praying for him, feeling that her impending martyrdom made her worthy to intercede even for the dead. Finally, she saw him healed, cleansed, and drinking from the fountain until he was satisfied and could run off to play with other children. She felt that her prayers had been heard, and I am left feeling that even in the midst of a glorious martyrdom our flesh and our fancies can get in the way.
The day chosen for their appearance in the amphitheater was the birthday of a vice-emperor. The soldiers forced the men to put on robes of Saturn, but when they tried to force Perpetua to dress as priestess of Ceres (patron goddess of Rome), she argued with them that since she was being executed because of conscience, it was unfair to force her to wear the costume of a religion she rejected. She convinced them.
As they entered the amphitheater the male Christians showed the crowd by signs (I wonder what signs?) that although the crowd had condemned the Christians to death, God would condemn the crowd to eternal death. This was typical of martyrdoms, but it rarely endeared the martyrs to the crowd, which demanded that the Christians be scourged. The Christians claimed to rejoice that they were able to suffer in this way with Jesus.
The Christians were subjected to being torn by a variety of wild animals—on this occasion a bear, a leopard and a boar (which so severely injured its handler that he died a few weeks later). Whoever arranged the spectacle thought it would be funny to have the women trampled by a mad cow. All were injured, bloodied, and humiliated, but only the leopard succeeded in mortally wounding only Saturus the teacher. He predicted his mode of death to Pudens, the soldier in charge of guarding them. After the leopard had cut him open Saturus said to Pudens, “then remember the faith and me; and let not these things trouble you, but strengthen you.” Then he took a ring from the soldier, soaked it in his own blood and gave it back to him as a reminder of the blood of Jesus shed for his sins.
The Christians said farewell to each other with a holy kiss, and then they were paraded before the crowd one last time to have their throats cut by the soldiers. The soldier who was assigned to execute Perpetua, however, was a rookie, and she screamed when he missed and simply cut her to the bone. She had to take his hand and guide it to her own throat.
It is a shocking and disturbing story. But such events, repeated over and over throughout the Roman Empire, were profoundly moving to many who witnessed them. The Romans were shaped by the philosophy of stoicism. They admired courage and the ability to face adverse circumstances and suffering without complaining. The Romans were profoundly elitist as well, and the philosophers among them claimed that the courage shown by Christian women, children, and slaves didn’t count because it was a courage born of ignorance, not of true philosophical wisdom. Many others, including possibly that soldier Pudens (and we know that although the Christians did not endorse military careers, there came to be believers in the ranks of the Legions), witnessed the positive attitudes the Christians carried into the arena and came to believe that only the supernatural power of a Risen Savior could account for this display of loving stubbornness.
Paul writes, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” The martyrs faced all of these circumstances and proved beyond any reasonable doubt that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
We are indebted to those who taught us that when the world would have us proclaim “Caesar is Lord,” we will proclaim “Jesus is Lord.” And we take warning from their experiences that, even though they were great heroes, they were also sinners like us. For that reason we, like they, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, “the author and perfector of our faith.”
Resources used in this article: Musurillo, Herbert “The Martyrdom of Perpetua” Christian History, Issue #17, 1988; W.H. Shewring, trans. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, (London: 1931) in the Internet Medieval Source Book, (c)Paul Halsall April 1996, firstname.lastname@example.org.