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Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)


Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Vibia Perpetua and Felicitas by Thomas John


Background

Vibia Perpetua and Felicitas lived in the end of second century AD in Carthage. North Africa. Carthage was a ‘prosperous port through which flowed corn, oil, slaves and cattle from the fertile parts of Numidia and Mauretania’. (A.G. Weisford, Life in the Early Church [AD. 33 to 313], Connecticut: The Seabury Press, N.Y.) In Carthage ‘Latin was the delight of all who had any pretention to literary skills -- the writers, rhetoricians and lawyers’. (Ibid.,) Perpetua was from a prominent family in Thuburobo, (C.A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, Delaisore, USA: Michael Glazier Inc., 1983.) was ‘liberally educated, honorably married, had father and mother and two brothers, one like herself, a Catechumen and an infant at the breast’. (Welsford, op. cit., p. 295.) ‘She was about 22 years old’. (Clark, op. cit., p.98.) ‘She was arrested along with certain young catechumens like Revolatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secondolos. They were still unbaptized catechumens at the moment of their arrests.

The source of information about their martyrdom is Tertullian’s The passion of SS Perpetua and Felicitas (Welsford, op.cit). in his writings ‘AD martyrs, which is confirmed by another remarkable contemporary document ‘the Passio-Perpetauae’. (W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, Oxford: Oxford Press, 1965, p. 363.) There is ‘an introduction very probably. by Tertullian himself, a narrative by Perpetua and another by Saturnas of their experiences in prison and finally an account of the actual martyrdom in the amphitheatre at Carthage’. (Welsford, op.cit.)

Context

‘Though major empire wide persecution did not begin until 250 AD. ... accounts exist from as early as 112 AD. that indicate that Christians were being persecuted simply because they bore the name Christians ... Their refusal to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods and the pinch of incense to the emperor caused the Romans to suspect Christians of political disloyalty. In addition their suspicion of Christian rituals such as the Lord’s supper, and their annoyance at Christians refusal to conform to the mores and pleasures of the age may have also contributed to their zeal as persecutors’.(Clark, op.cit., p. 97.)

In this context not only were men executed, but also women of high society like Perpetua and slaves like Felicitas. ‘Her father who was not a Christian was deeply distressed by her determination to die as martyr for the faith which she had so recently espoused. This family grief was her severest trial’. (Philip Carrington, The Early Christian Church Cambridge: University Press, 1957 p. 425.) While still under the Roman trial her father out of love for her, tried to persuade and shake her resolution.’ She replied to him, "Father, do you see this vase here for example or this water pot or whatever?". "Yes, I do" replied he. And I told him, "Could it be called by any other name other than what it is ?" And he said "No". "Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian."

On hearing the name Christian her father moved towards her as though he would pull out her eyes. (H. Mururilo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, p. 159.) In prison the deacon Tertius and Pomponius came to minister unto them. Perpetua was much worried about her child and when she got permission for her baby to stay with her in prison so that she could feed her, not only did she recover her health but, "My prison suddenly became a palace so that I wanted to be there rather than any where else". (Ibid., p. 111)

Her father tried to dissuade her many a times and she records, "was sorry for my father’s sake because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer." (Ibid., p. 113.) But Perpetua had only one thing to say to her father, "what happens on that platform will be God’s choice, for you may be sure that we are not in our own power, but in the power of God". (Bruno Chenu, et.al The Book of Christian Martyrs. London: SCM Press. 1990, p. 64.) On the day of their trial the procurator Hilarian who had received his judicial powers (the power of life and death) instead of the late proconsul Minucius Timiniasnus said to me, "Spare your father’s white hairs, spare the tender years of your child. Offer a sacrifice for the safety of the emperor". And I answered, "No !". "Are you a Christian?" asked Hilarian. I answered, "I am . ... The judge then passed sentence. We were condemned to the beasts. (Mururilo, op. cit., pp. 113, 115.)

While being in prison she was granted visions twice of her younger brother Dinocrates who had died at the early age of seven. She also knew before hand whether she was going to be freed or would be martyred. Through one of her final visions which she had the day before she was going to fight the beasts, she realized that it was ‘not wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I will win the victory. (Ibid., p. 119.) She also tells the experiences of Felicitas who was pregnant when she was arrested. "One month before her baby was due, she became concerned that her martyrdom would be delayed because it was not permitted to execute a pregnant woman". (R.A. Tueber and W. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987, p. 101.) "Thus she might have to shed her holy innocent blood afterwards along with others who were common criminals. Her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She suffered a good deal in her labor because of the natural difficulty of an eight month’s delivery". (Mururilo, op.cit., p. 123.)

The divine vision is distinguished from ‘the satanic or hallucinatory by it’s effects, persistent light, divine love, peace of soul, inclination towards the things of God, the constant fruits of sanctity (c.f. Ignatius, Spiritual Exercise "rules for the discernment of Spirits"); judged by these virtues the visions of Perpetua and Saturnus are clearly marked as Divine, for they encouraged and guided both the martyrs’. (E.C.C. Owen, Some Authentic Acts of the Early Martyrdom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927. p. 77.)

Manner of Martyrdom (March 7, AD. 203)

This has been recorded so beautifully by Tertullian himself. ‘The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism. For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from child-birth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up, she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for pin to fasten untidy hair for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up .... Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: "You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through". All of them were thrown in the usual spot to have their throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out in the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, ... Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator, and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing’. (Mururilo, op.cit., pp. 125-131.)

Theological Reflections

The following theological beliefs can be deduced from this brief account of the life and martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas.

1. The transforming power of God was so real to her that she could call herself nothing else, but a Christian.

2. She believed in the ministry of the Holy Spirit for she records that she was ‘inspired by the Spirit not ask for any other favor ... but simply the perseverance of the flesh’. (Ibid., p. 109.)

3. The constant visions that God gave her shows that she had an intimate relationship with God. Her own brother tells her, "Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed. She promises to do so knowing that she ‘speak with the Lord whose great blessing I had come to experience."’ (Ibid., p. 111.)

4. When her father, fearing for her life, tells her to offer incense to the Emperor, she replied, "It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power," and refused to offer incense. This shows that she believed in the sovereignty of God.

5. She not only believed in God but also in the Devil and the reality of Spiritual Warfare. For, after seeing one of the visions in which she fights with her opponent, she wakes up ‘realizing that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil’.

6. She believed in the resurrection. In her very first vision she describes of climbing up a ladder, though hindered by the Devil in the form of dragon. She reaches on top and enters a garden where a grey haired man, in shepherd’s clothing was milking sheep and who called her and gave, as it were, a mouth full of milk which she took and consumed. In one of her other visions she mentions of entering a place where the elders and the angels before a throne chant endlessly, "Holy, holy, holy". Her belief in the continuance of life after death either as an Immortal soul or in the resurrected body form can be gathered.

7. She continually depended upon the grace of God to face her martyrdom in a way which would bring glory to Him. In the arena when she was fighting with heifer she fell down and her tunic was torn. Instead of thinking of her pain and sure death, she was more concerned about her modesty and so she covers herself up. When her hair was in disorder she asked for a pin to fasten it up so that she might not seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Personal Reflections

The martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is, to speak the least, an inspiring one. Though they were in their early adolescence and that too females who are usually considered to be the weaker sex, yet because of their faith in Jesus Christ and their constant dependence on His sustaining grace and power they were able to face the discouraging pleas of a father, the sadistic mob and the wild animals in the amphitheatre at Carthage. Faith in Jesus Christ was to them, not just an emotional experience, but a gut level assurance in the person and the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross’ of Calvary. Faith for these martyrs was not a matter of convenience but that of conviction. They were willing to seal their faith/testimony by their own blood as a proof of their whole hearted commitment. This world with all its relationships and material blessing considered to be at its best temporary for which they were not willing to give up their faith in Jesus and their accountability to God which was more precious and everlasting than anything else in the world.

In our own struggle today for the upliftment of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the so-called outcast, we need to be willing to give up our own selfish ambitions in life and go all the way out to work out for the betterment of the less fortunate in our society. This could mean even laying down our lives as people like Shanker Niyogi did, or living a crucified life like Mother Teresa, Ms. Medha Patkar, and others.

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