The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas
The Passion of the Holy Martyrs (“the Passion”) offers insights into the beliefs of the church at a very early time because it was recorded in 202-3AD. A vital piece of historical church literature, this document provides key insight into a range of contemporaneous issues, from theology proper, through to feminism. Importantly, it also helps us to understand the reverence in certain church traditions for those who submitted to “voluntary martyrdom”.
The document is widely believed to have been narrated by Tertullian, who later became associated with the Charismatic movement called Montanism.
Scholars are often interested in the relationship between these martyrs and “The New Prophecy” movement in the church. It eventually became known as “‘Montanism’, after one of its founders, a man named Montanus”, and was later declared heretical. It was “apparently … not yet viewed as a heresy or a breakaway movement”, so Litfin sees it “analogous to the modern-day charismatic movement … within larger evangelicalism.” Some elements in the Passion which reflect supposedly Montanistic beliefs include Perpetua’s confidence in seeking instruction from the Spirit, and the editor’s mention of, “prophecies, modern visions”, as well as, “… Holy Spirit [whom] is always operating even until now”. These reflect the “uninterrupted gift of prophecy” for which the New Prophecy was known.
Supposed References to Montanism
The martyrs in this account display an eagerness for martyrdom. Perpetua reports that, upon being condemned to “the wild beasts”, “we went down cheerfully to the dungeon”. Further, Felicitas “was in great grief lest on account of her pregnancy she should be delayed [in her martyrdom]”, and so “joining together their united cry, they poured forth their prayer to the Lord” in order that she could deliver her baby early and be martyred with the others. This “burning desire for martyrdom”, which Jinkwang attributes to their belief in an imminent Parousia, is supposedly also Montanistic.
However, Frend observes that only from 207AD do “references to the New Prophecy begin to find their way into Tertullian’s work”, despite him being a local “Carthaginian presbyter”. Wilhite suggests a two-way influence between these martyrs and “Montanism”, and Jinkwang observes: “Generally speaking, the Christian Church in the first two centuries was charismatic”, but “recognition of the continuous inspiration of the Spirit attacked [the then developing] closed concept of canonicity”.
Daniel and Revelation
Felicitas’ confidence that Christ would suffer “for” her in her martyrdom is not distinctively Montanist and can be seen as a then contemporary church understanding of Daniel 7 and Revelation in that it “joined their suffering as martyrs with the … ‘one like son of man’”, according to Munoa. Perpetua’s ecstatic trance during her ordeal can also be seen simply in the light of the wider church charismata.
Other aspects of the Passion also reflect the contemporary beliefs of the early church without any suggested link to Montanism:
Authority of the Martyr
Firstly, Tabbernee reports a wider church belief about martyrs representing “a third locus of authority” besides the “bishops” and “elders”, as reflected in Saturus’ vision of Perpetua resolving a conflict between a bishop and a presbyter. Further, in the wider church, Klawiter says that “martyrs awaiting death could exercise … the power to forgive … [certain] sins”.
Prayers for the Dead
Secondly, As Perpetua prays for Dinocrates, her dead brother, she receives a confirming vision that he is “translated from the place of punishment”. Scholer says, “This is one of the earliest texts we have about someone praying for the dead and that prayer affecting another’s destiny in eternity”. The editor, who added the “Elucidation”, seizes on this at a later time to point out that these prayers “not only make no mention of a Purgatory, but refute the dogma.”
Women in the Church
Those studying beliefs about women in early church life have also benefited from the Passion. Malone says that it “is the oldest piece of Christian literature available to us from a woman’s hand” and notes the “type of parental defiance”, shown toward Perpetua’s father, “is repeated endlessly in the stories of Christian women”, and Lefkowitz says, “The Christians Perpetua, Agape, Irene, and Chione die courageously but in noticeable isolation from their families, in defiance of, rather than in loyalty to, their husbands or fathers”. Malone observes, “Perpetua places herself at odds with the whole of the ancient world and its assumptions about the father / daughter relationship”, and Tabbernee suggests that later redaction of the Passion document attempted to “control” the “blatant reversal of the traditional role of women” for a later audience.
Introduction to the Passion
The Passion reveals the motivations of the martyrs and the early church’s beliefs about martyrdom, women, charismata, praying for the dead, the exercise of the “power of keys” (the prerogative to grant salvation), and the way in which some important scriptures, such as the Revelation and Daniel, were received. It provides a valuable, and in some ways unique, window into the early church’s beliefs at a time when it wrestled with issues of canonicity versus revelation, in an atmosphere of relatively heavy persecution.
So Check it out: The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas
Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 2 (2002): 303-25.
Scholer, David M. “”And I Was a Man” : The Power and Problem of Perpetua.” Daughters of Sarah 15, no. 5 (1989): 10-14.
Tabbernee, William. “Perpetua, Montanism, and Christian Ministry in Carthage C. 203 C.E.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32, no. 4 (2005): 421-41.
Wilhite, David E. “The New Prophecy & “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.” Journal of Religious History 32, no. 4 (2008): 475-77.
 “what has been called voluntary martyrdom was an important feature in the New Prophecy.”- Frederick C. Klawiter, “The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity : A Case Study of Montanism,” Church History 49, no. 3 (1980): 253.
 “it was condemned as a heresy by the early Christian writers and bishops such as Eusebius and Epiphanius.” – Kim Lucien Jinkwang, “Is Montanism a Heretical Sect or Pentecostal Antecedent?,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 12, no. 1 (2009): 113.
 “And I, who knew that I was privileged to converse with the Lord” -A. Cleveland Coxe, James Donaldson, and Alexander Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, American reprint of the Edinburgh ed., 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1969), i:3 P700.
 “it is … difficult to decipher what elements in [the Passions] are due to “Montanist influence” and what elements actually influenced later Montanists” – David E. Wilhite, “The New Prophecy & “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas,” Journal of Religious History 32, no. 4 (2008): 476.
 “as if aroused from sleep, so deeply had she been in the Spirit and in an ecstasy” – Coxe, Donaldson, and Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vi:3 P705.