By Rex Butler, Professor of Church History and Pastristics at NOBTS
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
These famous words were written around 200 A.D. by Tertullian, an early church father who lived in Carthage, North Africa. This adage proved true over and over during the first centuries of the church as Christians demonstrated their faith in Christ by delivering the ultimate witness: their martyrdom. In fact, the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word martus, which means “witness.”
When many of those living in the Roman Empire saw that Christians were willing to die rather than renounce Jesus Christ as Lord, they ceased jeering and began seeking after such a faith that could change their own lives.
In A.D. 203, some new believers and their teacher were martyred in the arena in Carthage. Their story is preserved in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, a document that includes Perpetua’s diary (the earliest existing writing by a Christian woman), a vision of heaven recorded by the teacher named Saturus, and an eyewitness account of the martyrs’ deaths.
In 202, the year before these martyrdoms, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus desired to restore the glory of the Roman Empire through the revival of devotion to the Roman gods, so he issued an edict forbidding conversions to other religions, including Christianity. Those who were suspected of becoming Christians were brought before the local magistrate and told to worship the emperor with the words, “Caesar is Lord!” True Christians refused because they held to the confession, “Jesus is Lord!” Such Christians were the heroes of the aforementioned Passion.
Perpetua was a twenty-one year old noblewoman with an infant son. Her husband is never mentioned in the story, perhaps indicating that he had abandoned her at her conversion.
Her father, however, figured prominently, as he often came to his daughter to beg her to renounce her faith in Christ. Perpetua said to him: “Father, do you see this vase? Can it be called by any other name that what it is? In the same way, I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am – I am a Christian!”
When Perpetua first was placed in prison along with her companions, she complained bitterly that the place was dark and hot, that the soldiers were cruel, and mostly that she longed for her baby.
But soon deacons from her church arranged for them to be housed in a more comfortable section of the prison and for the baby to be brought periodically to visit his mother. Then Perpetua said that the prison became a palace for her. Shortly before her death, however, she was forced to give up her baby to her father.
Also, Perpetua had access to writing materials, and she kept a diary in which she recorded her experiences as well as several visions related to her upcoming martyrdom and life after death. In one vision, Perpetua saw a bronze ladder that reached up to heaven, and Saturus, who was already at the top. The sides of the ladder were lined with swords, spears, and knives, which threatened to tear her flesh if she did not climb it carefully. In order to reach the ladder, she had to face a great serpent that was there to frighten her away. But, when she spoke the name of Jesus, the serpent cowered before her. She stepped on its head and then on the bottom rung of the ladder and climbed to the top.
The ladder represented martyrdom, the pathway to heaven, but the weapons, representing the government, and the serpent, representing Satan, were obstacles to Perpetua’s desire to complete her witness to Christ by that greatest of honors, being deemed worthy by God of martyrdom because of refusing to denounce Christ.
When Perpetua, in her vision, reached the top of the ladder, she found herself in a garden. There she saw a tall, white-haired shepherd, who was surrounded by thousands of people dressed in white – reminiscent of the martyrs that John saw in Rev. 7:9. The shepherd offered Perpetua some cheese, and, as she ate it, the martyrs said, “Amen!” When Perpetua awoke from the vision, she knew that she and the others were destined for martyrdom.
Finally, on March 7, 203, what the Christians believed would be “the day of their victory,” Perpetua and her servant Felicitas, two young men Revocatus and Saturninus, and their teacher Saturus were led from the prison to the arena.
An eyewitness recorded the events of that day and observed that Perpetua left behind traditional family relationships with her father and her son and entered the arena as the bride of Christ and beloved of God.
The arena was filled with tens of thousands of spectators ready to cheer for the gladiators and jeer at the Christians.
A highlight of the entertainment scheduled for that day would come when the Christians were forced into contests with wild beasts.
First up, Revocatus and Saturninus were mauled by a leopard and a bear. Saturus was tied to a wild boar but was only dragged along the ground, although the gladiator who was handling the boar was gored to death.
Next, Perpetua and Felicitas were brought out to face their fate. Because of their gender, a mad heifer was chosen to oppose the young women. They were placed in a net that was tied to the cow, which trampled them in its madness. When the women were released from the net, Perpetua first helped Felicitas to the side of the arena and then rearranged her torn clothing – more concerned for her modesty than for her pain. She also pinned up her hair, which had fallen, because loose hair was a sign of mourning and she was not grieving but rejoicing in her witness to Christ. Seeing believers among the spectators, she called out to them to stand fast in the faith and not to be shaken because of their suffering.
Among the witnesses was their jailer Pudens, who, during their imprisonment, became a believer in Jesus Christ. He was close by when Saturus was attacked by a leopard. When the mighty fangs bit deep into Saturus’s shoulder, Saturus became covered with blood. The spectators jeered, “Well washed! Well washed!” This was a typical greeting in the public baths that they used to mock Saturus as he was soaked in his own blood. But, as the eyewitness explained, the truth was that Saturus was undergoing the “baptism of blood,” as martyrdom was often called. Before he died, he called Pudens to his side. He took from Pudens a ring and dipped it in his wound before he handed it back as a memorial of his blood.
At the end, all the Christians were brought to the center of the arena. There they gave each other the kiss of peace, and, one by one, they were beheaded. Perpetua was the last to die, but the inexperienced gladiator missed his mark and sliced her collarbone instead, causing her to scream in pain. She then took the gladiator’s hand and guided his sword to her own throat. As the eyewitness concluded, “It was as if so great a lady, feared by the evil one, could not be killed except that she herself willed it.”
This story and others like it that tell of persecution and martyrdom in the early church still inspire Christians today. Perpetua reminds us that, even in the midst of suffering, “Jesus is Lord!”
Furthermore, when Christians witness to their faith in Jesus during difficult circumstances, their witness to those around them is heightened, God is glorified through their faithfulness, and the kingdom is advanced – as is seen in the conversion of Pudens, the jailer.
The martyrs knew that they were engaged in spiritual warfare, that the forces arrayed against them were placed there by the enemy Satan.
They also had a keen sense that their home was in heaven, that they no longer were citizens of this earth. Despite the persecution that Christians endured, the church not only survived but thrived.
Rex Butler Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics at NOBTS.