Persecution In the Third Century, Part 2

Perpetua & Felicitas
Perpetua & Felicitas

The History of Christianity #57

Our Scripture verse today is 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 which reads: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Our quote today is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Today, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Persecution Under Septimius Severus (Part 2)
The most famous martyrdom of that time is that of Perpetua and Felicitas, which probably took place in 203 AD. It is possible that Perpetua and her companions were Montanists, and that the account of their martyrdom comes from the pen of Tertullian. In any case, the martyrs were five catechumens – that is, five people who were preparing to receive baptism. This agrees with what is known of the policies of Septimius Severus. These five people – some of whom were in their teens – were charged, not with being Christians, but with recently converting, and thus disobeying the imperial edict.

Perpetua is the heroine of the Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. She was a young, well-to-do woman nursing her infant child. Her companions were the slaves Felicitas and Revocatus, and two other young men, Saturninus and Secundulus. A great deal of the text of the Martyrdom is placed on the lips of Perpetua, and some scholars believe that she may actually have spoken most of these words. When Perpetua and her companions were arrested, her father tried to persuade her to save her life by abandoning her faith. She answered that, just as everything has a name it is useless to try to give it a different name, she had the name of Christian, and this could not be changed.

The judicial process was a long and drawn-out affair, apparently because the authorities hoped to persuade the accused to abandon their faith. Felicitas, who was pregnant when arrested, was afraid that her life would be spared for that reason, or that her martyrdom would be postponed and she would not be able to join her four companions. But the Martyrdom tells us that her prayers were answered, and that in her eighth month she gave birth to a girl who was then adopted by another Christian woman. Seeing her moan in childbirth, her jailers asked how she expected to be able to face the beasts in the arena. Her answer is typical of the manner in which martyrdom was interpreted: “Now my sufferings are only mine. But when I face the beasts there will be another who will live in me, and will suffer for me since I shall be suffering for him.”

The account then reports that the three male martyrs were the first to be put in the arena. Saturninus and Revocatus died quickly and bravely. But no beast would attack Secundulus. Some of them refused to come out to him, while others attacked the soldiers instead. Finally, Secundulus himself declared that a leopard would kill him, and so it happened.

We are then told that Perpetua and Felicitas were placed in the arena to be attacked by a crazed cow. Having been hit and thrown by the animal, Perpetua asked to be able to retie her hair, for loose hair was a sign of mourning, and this was a joyful day for her. Finally, the two bleeding women stood in the middle of the arena, bid each other farewell with the kiss of peace, and died by the sword.

Shortly thereafter, for reasons that are not altogether clear, persecution abated. There were still isolated incidents in various parts of the empire, but the edict of Septimius Severus was not generally enforced. In 211 AD, when Caracalla succeeded Septimius Severus, there was a brief persecution; but this again did not last long, and was mostly limited to North Africa.

Next time, we will continue looking at Persecution Under Septimius Severus.

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