In the Company of the Fathers: The Female Martyrs

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Read more from the series, In the Company of the Fathers:

In the Company of the Fathers: An Introduction
In the Company of the Fathers: Irenaeus
In the Company of the Fathers: Origen

When the introduction to this series on the Fathers first posted, one of my female colleagues asked, in effect, “what about the Mothers?” It is a good question, one for which there is not a great answer. Male voices reign in the first few centuries of the Church reflecting, of course, the androcentric Greco-Roman culture in which Christianity developed. Nevertheless, it is not the case that the female voice is altogether absent from this period and its presence, though minimal, serves as a critique to the patriarchy that became normative.

Nowhere is the female voice more prominent than in the martyrdom literature.

From 112 C.E. – 313 C.E., Christianity was outlawed by the Roman Empire. This reality led to the fairly common experience of local persecution and martyrdoms of Christians who refused to renounce their faith. Other Christians who observed the public spectacles recorded the events as a way of remembering the martyrs and inspiring faith and endurance in others facing the same ordeal. Moreover, these narratives, among the most popular early Christian writings, are instilled with rich theology on the nature of discipleship and the Kingdom of God.

Women play a central role in these stories. Of the numerous examples that could be brought forward, two will suffice. The first concerns a woman named Blandina, one of the Gallican Christians martyred around 177 C.E., the account of which is preserved by Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. The second concerns a young woman named Vibia Perpetua, who was martyred along with several others in the North African city of Carthage at the beginning of the third century. Although preserved by an editor, the bulk of the story comes from Perpetua’s journal, making it the earliest Christian document written by a woman.

In the narratives, both women serve as leaders among the martyrs. Blandina, for example, constantly is looked to as a source of inspiration by the Christians undergoing torture. In one place, her direct encouragement to a young man in his hour of weakness allowed him to remain steadfast. Likewise, in her imprisonment Perpetua is given a series of heavenly visions, which she shares with the group to encourage perseverance. Notably, this feminine leadership occurs despite the presence of numerous men in both groups, including, among the Gallican Christians, the revered bishop Pothinus.

Both stories also portray the women in ways scandalous to the norms of a patriarchal culture where women are defined by and have worth only through their roles as daughters, wives, or mothers. Perpetua, for example, is first introduced in her roles as a mother (she has an infant son) and a daughter (she is visited in prison by her father). However, Perpetua refuses to heed her father’s pleas for her to deny Christ in order to save her life and raise her son. Instead, she gives up the care of her infant to her father, thus renouncing both roles to follow Christ. Far from condemning her, the narrative praises this action as one of paradigmatic discipleship. For her part, Blandina, who has no affiliation to a man, is described as “a noble mother who had comforted her children and sent them on triumphantly to the king” (Church History, 5.1.55). Nevertheless, her children are not biological, but rather her fellow martyrs who had looked to her for strength and had found it.

Finally, in both stories, the women are featured as the martyrs in whom Christ is most present. Indeed, like Stephen in the New Testament, both women become figures of Christ. In the midst of her torture, Perpetua thinks not of herself but lifts up and sustains another Christian before being pierced in the side. And when the Gallican Christians were released to be eaten by lions, Blandina was “hung on a stake” to make her easy prey. The image is stunning: “She appeared to be hanging in the shape of a cross, and her constant prayers greatly inspired her fellow victims, who saw the One who was crucified in the form of their sister” (Church History, 5.1.14).

In these Christ bearers, the female voice emerges. And the narrator understands the importance, “Christ proved that what men think lowly God deems worthy of great glory” (Church History, 5.1.17).

There is a tragic irony in these accounts. At a time when the Church had already identified “maleness” as an essential quality of Christian leadership and authority (1 Timothy 2:11-3:13), the Romans did not distinguish according to gender in their torture and killing of Christians. What mattered to them was simply the confession, “I am a Christian.” But pointedly, the same can be said for the martyrs who were visited by Christ through women. In those moments, the gender of the Christ bearer mattered not; the martyrs were sustained by their ministry and “sent on triumphantly” through it.

The female voice in the Patristic age is preserved, then, in the martyrdom literature, and we ought not to miss the implication. For in this unique genre, we do not read treatises regarding the nature of God or humanity or the Church from a human perspective. Rather, we encounter the lives of true disciples—those who have conformed themselves to Christ, even in death—which ultimately demonstrates the startling nature of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, in the stories of the martyrs, we see it breaking through the clay jar of cultural patriarchy, revealing I believe, Jesus’ liberating message which, at least in regard to women, became obscured in the Patristic period. For the powerful ministry of Blandina and Perpetua and countless other Mothers, named and unnamed, shows us that where the Kingdom of God is, “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

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Jackson Lashier is Assistant Professor of Religion at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University where his studies focused on the Patristic Era of Church History. He is the author of Irenaeus on the Trinity (Brill, 2014). He is married to Julie and the father of children Ruthie, Rachel, and David. He loves reading fiction, playing golf, and all things baseball. He is a longtime member of the United Methodist Church.

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