1 Sep 2007

The Witness of Perpetua: A Woman on the Family Tree

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Church History, Ministry, Mission, Women

The Witness of Perpetua: Woman on the Family Tree

Most Christians know of the story of Polycarp and his powerful testimony to the Christian faith. His name is deservedly remembered and honored.

There is another story mostly forgotten among modern Christians, just a generation after Polycarp, of incredible sacrifice that concerns a young twenty-two year old girl who died facing the wild beasts in North Africa. She was revered in the early church and it is tragic that her memory has faded among Western Christians. Her name was Perpetua.

Perpetua came of age during the reign of Septimius Severus in Carthage. She, along with her brother and a slave named Felicitas and others were arrested on the charge of being Christian in A.D. 203. Her parents were not Christians and disapproved of her actions. Christians are most fortunate that Perpetua kept a diary of her time in prison and it has been preserved by an anonymous editor who included an account of her death in the arena. This classic is known as the Passio Perpetuae (in English The Passion of Perpetua).

Prison Drama

The scene opens with the twenty-two year old being counseled by her beloved father to make a simple concession to the Romans. She asks if a vase can be called anything but a vase? “No,” he replied. “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this point in the story we learn that Perpetua is a new mother and has her baby with her.

Perpetua apparently had the gift of prophecy thus her brother asked if she was to die as a martyr. That evening she received a vision of a ladder and a vicious dragon. She comes to understand that the dragon is Satan himself and she will battle him in the arena. Indeed Satan returns in the person of her father. He appeals to her,

Have pity on my grey head—have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father … do not abandon me to the reproach of others. 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!” (5).

Hilarianus, the governor apparently did not want to kill Perpetua either. He called on her and said, “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” she retorted. “Are you a Christian?” asked Hilarianus. She answered forthrightly, “Yes, I am.” The governor had her father beaten in front of her in an act to get her to “come to her senses.” She did not cave in.

On the “day of victory” as Perpetua calls it, she and her compatriots gathered together and exchanged the “kiss of peace.” Indicative of the great esteem she was held, two leaders of the church in Carthage meet her and appeal to her wisdom for guidance. Optatus, a bishop, and Aspasius “the presbyter and teacher” had let Christian love depart from their relationship. They beg her “make peace between us. For you have gone away and left us thus” (13).

Once in the arena, Perpetua led the Christians in singing a psalm (which one is not stated). One by one the Christians, male and female, were murdered either by the animals or an Egyptian gladiator. A “mad heifer” had been “prepared by the Devil” to meet Perpetua. The animal rammed her and tossed her into the air tearing her clothing and exposing her thigh. She stood and fixed her clothing and straightened her 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” (20). As she was being maimed she encouraged her compatriots, “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”

Perpetua’s end came at the hands of the Egyptian. Being struck with the sword, the Egyptian stood in front of her and strangled her to death for the gleeful mob.

Our anonymous editor concludes the Passion of Perpetua by saying “these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord …”

Her Legacy

The story of Perpetua is filled with gripping pathos. More importantly, her life and death empowered Christians to live as resident aliens in North Africa. She was praised by Augustine … and he did not always say the wisest things about women. I am proud to have Perpetua on the family tree. She is a woman whose sandals I am unfit to tie. What a woman of faith from Africa.


Bobby Valentine

12 Responses to “The Witness of Perpetua: A Woman on the Family Tree”

  1. Blume Family Says:

    Keep going with this Bobby. The Lord is using you to bless those of us who know of this blog with this look at different Spirit filled women. I am learning so much and am being blessed. Hugs to the family for us.


  2. Anonymous Says:

    i am enjoying this series. was not familiar with her.


  3. preacherman Says:

    What an example she is for all of us as Christians and especially for Christian women in the Church today. I think there is alot that we can learn. I love this series.

  4. john dobbs Says:

    Thanks, Bobby … I was unfamiliar with this great witness.

  5. ben overby Says:

    Interesting and edifying. Thanks, Bobby.

  6. Gardner Hall Says:

    When considering such sacrifice and faith, our own trials seem so trivial. Thanks,

  7. Greg Says:

    This is a fascinating series, Bobby. Thanks for introducing me to people I’d yet to meet. Great and inspiring stories of faith and valor.

  8. Matthew Says:

    Just wondering, what do you think of Foy E Wallace’s role in the church. I did a blog on him today.

  9. Steve Puckett Says:

    Continued good stories, bro. It was great to have your wife in my class and in church on Sunday!


  10. K. Rex Butts Says:

    This is a good counter-presentation. I really like the way you present your case (which I happen to share) without sucombing to cheap shots or questioning the integrity and sincerity of these writters love for God and God’s will.

    Further, as you point out, the key is that the argument being made by these authors (I have not read the book but I am familiar with other presentations of this argument) is really about hermeneutics and methodology not biblical authority. The hermenutic they are presenting was developed, as many already know, during the Scottish Reformation. That in itself does not necessarily make the hermeneutic a good or bad approach, but it is wrong to replace the gospel as the basis for unity with Reformation methodology.

  11. Nedra Willoiams Says:

    Thank you, Bobby. Her faith and commitment is amazing. It would be so hard to watch your family suffer for your faith.

  12. John Acufff Says:

    as so often I am to give thanks for you Bobby I wish you did not look like a red necked hick from northern Alabama

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