PERPETUA'S PASSIONS, ed. Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano

PERPETUA'S PASSIONS, ed. Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano

Peter Westmore

Edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano
(Oxford University Press, 2012, 383pp, Hardback, $144.95, ISBN: 978-0-199-56188-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)

In the February AD2000, I reviewed The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, a recently-published book which examined an ancient manuscript that includes an account of the trial and imprisonment of St Perpetua, one of the early Christian martyrs, and her companions, shortly before their execution during the Roman persecutions in 203AD.

As part of the growing academic interest in this manuscript, a conference was held at Humboldt University in Berlin in 2007. Rather than inviting historians of the ancient world and early Christianity, the conveners wanted new perspectives, so invited scholars from various fields (classics, comparative and modern literature and cultural history) who had not previously worked on the Passion to contribute their specific interpretations of this extraordinary manuscript.

Perpetua's Passions, the result of this conference, also includes a new translation of the text, based on a careful study of separate Latin and Greek versions which have been handed down to us.

The contributors explain how the document was preserved down the ages when so many ancient texts from better-known writers did not survive intact.

After the manuscript was compiled, a few years after the death of Sts Perpetua, Felicity and their companions, it was widely copied and read out loud during church services, and over time became widely distributed across the Roman world.

The complete Latin text was discovered in the monastery at Monte Casino only in the 17th century, and a Greek version in the library of the convent of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the 19th century.

How do we know that the Passion of St Perpetua is not a medieval invention? The short answer is that there were many quotations from the Passion in the writings of some of the early Christian authors, such as St Eusebius and St Augustine, but not a complete text.

Additionally, there are numerous church documents which show that the saints were the subject of popular devotion from the third century onwards.

The Passion also identifies the Roman officials who governed the town then known as Thuburbo Minus (now Tebourba), just near the modern city of Tunis and about 45 km west of the city of Carthage at the time of their martyrdom. Their identity is known from other ancient documents.

The Passion shows clearly that these officials tried to get the Christians to abandon the faith by offering sacrifices to the gods. This indicates that the persecution was not initiated locally, but was the general policy of the Emperor at that time, Septimius Severus. The document also indicates that the jailer was converted by the witness of the martyrs.

It is known, from ancient Roman sources, that this town was established in 35BC for veterans of the Eighth Roman Legion, and has been occupied continuously since that time.

Walks of life

There are many interesting aspects of the manuscript which are examined in detail in this book. The martyrs came from different walks of life. Perpetua, whose name became associated with the manuscript, was clearly a well-educated woman, who came from a Roman patrician family which had settled in the provinces.

According to the manuscript, she was "well born, well educated, honourably married ... with an infant son at her breast. She herself was about 22 years old." The others martyred at the time included two slaves, Revocatus and Felicity, two others, possibly freed slaves, named Saturninus and Secundulus, and their catechist (teacher) Saturus, who handed himself in and was martyred with the rest.

The manuscript is strange in many respects. For example, it discusses at length the attempts by Perpetua's father, a pagan, to get her to recant. But her mother and brother (who apparently were Christians) never tried to dissuade her, and in fact supported her.

A chapter on Perpetua, subtitled "An Indecent Woman", attempts to paint Perpetua as a symbol of sexual attraction, in contrast to the way she was described two centuries later by St Augustine as a bride of Christ. Such an interpretation contradicts the clear reading of the Passion itself which conveys a strong-willed Christian woman, totally at ease with her sexuality and motherhood.

Similarly, in the chapter titled "Jewish martyrdom", I found the claim that Perpetua's father "represented her former, non-Christian identity" unconvincing, likewise the claim that "the Passion implies that it is impossible to be a mother and a martyr at the same time."

One of the most interesting chapters, "Visions, Prophecy and Authority", discusses the four extraordinary visions of Perpetua in the context of both the second and third century preoccupation with visionary experiences, and their link with the Christian tradition.

Christians of the third century would have immediately seen the connection between Perpetua's visions, one of which predicted her death, with the Apostle Paul's description of prophecy as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the vision experienced by St Stephen before his execution, as described in Acts, and the vision of the second century martyr, St Polycarp, in which he foresaw that he was to be burnt to death.

This book is a reflection of the increasing interest by contemporary academics and historians in the remarkable third century account of the martyrdom of St Perpetua and her companions

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