Witness: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
A charge was given to the early disciples in the Book of Acts. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. The Greek word used for “witness”, as most readers know, is “martyr”. Now, most of us consider our witness to Christ is in our teaching and living. Yet, in the early Church, it was very possible that a person or a community might be called to follow Christ in the way of the cross, that is, by a willingness to give up their lives rather than abandon their faith. We see this in the New Testament in the death of Stephen in Acts and in the Revelation in which we hear of Antipas of Pergamum “my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you”.
During the first centuries of the Church we have several accounts of martyrdom outside of the record of the New Testament. We even have the report of one of the Roman officials, named Pliny, who is seeking advice from the emperor Trajan concerning the trials, torture and execution of Christians. In that the correspondence dates from about 110 CE, a full forty years before our earliest detailed accounts of martyrdom written by Christians, we may assume the almost ordinary and somewhat arbitrary nature of persecution and martyrdom among many of these early believers. By the middle of the second century, however, we actually begin to have eyewitness accounts written from the point of view of those undergoing persecution. There is an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, likely a disciple of John the Apostle, written c. 156 CE. The account of the deaths of Justin and his companions appears to date from about 165 CE. Yet another record from north Africa recounts the trial and executions of the Martyrs of Scilli in 180 CE. All of these and other similar accounts were widely circulated among the expanding early Christian communities.
One account, however, arose out of Carthage and, more than any other, captured the imagination of the Church.
In the account entitled ‘The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas’ we come as close as is possible to the record of a martyrdom written by the martyrs themselves. Perpetua, describes her experiences of trial and imprisonment up to the very eve of her execution. An eyewitness then takes up the account with a description of her death and that of her servant, Felicitas, as well as four other companions. From what we know, Perpetua was a noblewoman. She was well educated and knew at least a smattering of Greek in addition to Latin. About 22 years of age, she was married and had recently given birth to an infant she was nursing. Her servant, Felicitas, was pregnant when arrested and gave birth in prison. Both were being instructed in the faith as catechumens, but had not yet been baptized.
On the day of their execution, they were led into the amphitheater in Carthage to provide entertainment in the games celebrating the birthday of Emperor Septimius Severus. At first exposed to wild beasts, a gladiator eventually cut the throats of the others before turning his attention to Perpetua. The account says that she guided the blade of the sword to her throat.
Now, I have wondered why this account in particular was embraced by the early Church. While dramatic in form, it bears similar motifs to other accounts of martyrdom. In all such accounts we find the imitation of Christ’s passion in the death of the martyr often accompanied by visions or prophetic pronouncements. As Prof. William Weinrich points out, “Christian martyrdom [was considered] a clear manifestation of the Spirit’s continuing activity in the Church”. In many ways, martyrdom could be seen as the end result of what happens when we are bidden to take up our cross and follow Christ. The end of that journey involves the giving up of a life… our life. Now, the giving up of that life might not be in an arena. It may instead be in the daily death to self manifested in self-sacrificing love. Nevertheless, to follow Christ, our life is required.
Nothing can prevent the giving of that life in one way or another.
Perhaps that lesson is the reason that early Christians embraced the account of Perpetua and Felicitas. It illustrated that nothing could stand in the way of giving ones life to Christ.
The Oxford historian of late antiquity, Mary Beard, made the astute observation that the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions was, however, something new. This was “Romans killing Romans” as entertainment in the arena. Most of the accounts of martyrdom from this period show Christians as outsiders, from the lower rungs of society. This was different. Perpetua was a young woman, a patrician, a new mother, one supposedly protected by Roman law and the accepted rules and norms of Roman society.
I had not seen it before, but Mary Beard is right. This was the breaking of civil society. This event would have convinced Christians that heard of it that there was no possibility of accommodating the state. Any hope that politics might make a difference was gone.
It was a noblewoman and a slave. Any thought that social distinction might matter was eliminated.
Gender, age, education… all were set aside in this account. All that mattered, in the words of Perpetua, was to “stand fast in the faith and to love one another…”
I think this account was embraced by the early Church because it reflected the truth of life and death in the shadow of the cross. In so much of the Church today, it is a witness we have, for the most part, lost.