For second century Christians, there was a unifying belief that in the end, God would win. Therefore, whoever was on God’s side won as well. While their views and understanding of this cosmic battle seemed less apocalyptic than contemporary views of God winning in the end, the early Christian community was deeply indebted to its martyrs, who died to prove that God would, in fact, defeat the Roman empire – not by might and military power – but by subversive conversions and the growth of a clandestine community. In essence, God would win because early Christians believed Jesus won, even though he was tortured, beaten and killed. Thus, the early Christians tried to make sure their martyrs were of the same mold as their savior. By doing this, the first Christians gained confidence that they would eventually be freed from the oppressive Roman rule, even if they never saw such a day with earthly eyes.
In the account of Perpetua and Felicity, immediate parallels are drawn between the martyr and the one for whom they are dying (Jesus). By accepting execution for their desire to follow Jesus, they believed they were literally following in the footsteps of Jesus as they relinquished earthly control and commit only to their religious beliefs. They hated their mothers and brothers (in this case, their fathers and children) by refusing to recant for the sake of family harmony (Ch. 2-1). Also, Perpetua sought the good of her fellow prisoners in the dungeon, even at the expense of attending to her own needs (Ch. 1-2). After a few attempts were made to change her mind, Perpetua stood firm, and therefore, cheerfully accepted her fate, dying by the Roman sword while thousands watched.
Modern ears are quick to note the very masochistic nature of one willing to die for a cause, particularly a cause that had such dire consequences, and seemed so ambiguous and so easy to relinquish. But, early Christians needed these martyrs in order for their faith to survive. While no one would come close to truly imitating the perfection of Christ, by being willing to die for its faith, the early church communicated to the rest of the empire that their religion was something worth dying for, and therefore, would outlast Rome herself. There was something deeper that compelled these individuals to undergo three years of catechism, to spur each other on as they refused to swear an oath to pagan gods, and to even fix their hair while being attacked by animals so that they would not appear to be mourning their own death (Ch. 6-3).
But the early Christians did not need these martyrs to die only for the sake of public relations. They also needed them to die in order that they might believe more deeply. If a person followed Christ before death, then they would surely follow Christ after death. Upon martyrdom, these resilient individuals were able to intercede for others, commune with the Holy Spirit, and have direct access to God. Following Jesus in life came with the pain of martyrdom, but it also came with the fringe benefits of a very intimate afterlife with God.
Likewise, dying willingly for the sake of Jesus carried notions of freedom. Feeling trapped by religious prohibitions at the hands of the empire, these Christians knew that their deaths would release them not only to Christ’s open arms in heaven, but it would also release them from this world, its regulations, and its Roman oppressiveness. Perpetua and Felicity ceased to have any hope in this world (Ch. 1-3) and underwent their full punishment, even refusing to adorn pagan costumes because that, too, was a restriction upon their liberty. (Ch. 6-1)
But these women hardly died for democracy and religious tolerance. They died because they simply had no other option. While martyrs did not actively seek their own arrest or death, were that situation to arise, the only way to remain a true (Ch. 1-2) Christian was to confess and await the consequences. Following these rules enabled one to receive a very high reward – that of one’s own passion, similar to Christ’s last moments on earth.
One could follow Christ in the feeding of the hungry, the blessing of the poor, the healing of the sick, and the hating of the parents. But, one would be hard pressed to completely follow Christ, in life and in death, unless one underwent a passion. After seeing visions (Ch. 2-3), Perpetua and Felicity were beaten (Felicity only days after giving birth), bitten by animals (Ch. 6-3), stabbed with the sword (Ch. 6-4), and then killed (Ch. 6-4). This after they suffered in prison and gave a defense at their trail. Until the very end, these women (and three other male martyrs) were uniquely able to say that they had lived and died in the way of Jesus. Consequently, they were afforded a higher place in the early Christian mindset, for they were as close to Jesus as one could be.
Also in the account are interesting gender dynamics worth noting, but that are unable to fully indulged within this paper’s content. Perpetua is married (Ch. 1-1), but her husband is not mentioned. The femininity of the two martyred women is described in detail, mentioning birthing (Ch. 5-2), nursing (Chs. 1-2; 2-2), and washing after giving birth (Ch. 6-1). A vision is had in which Perpetua sees herself in the ring as a man, defeating her combatants (Ch. 3-2). It is also striking that a woman could follow in the steps of Jesus (a man) so closely. The document itself, if coauthored by Perpetua, is perhaps one of the earliest manuscripts by a woman, and deserves special note. Such notions are interesting to consider, but may not make a sweeping pronouncement regarding the state of women in the early church.