Christianity’s First Woman Writer?

Today is the feast of SS Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred at Carthage on 7 March 203. Much of the account of their martyrdom (strictly speaking a Passio) is written in the first person by Perpetua herself and therefore has a claim to being the earliest known text by a Christian woman. There are two versions, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation here.

Historians and hagiographers love these texts because they contain many puzzles, but I think the ‘ordinary Christian’ can get a great deal from them because they plunge us straight into the world of the third century with the dramatic intensity of a good thriller or whodunnit. Put simply, they are the record of profound faith and heroic courage. They remind us that family and friends are often the last people to understand why we believe or the importance of faith to us; that what we sometimes think of as ‘persecution’ in the west is nothing of the sort; and that often it is those whom we least regard who show the most sterling qualities.

Cold and wet as it is here today, I intend to spend a few minutes under the broiling heat of a Carthaginian sky nearly two thousand years ago. The noise of the crowd, the smell of sweat and blood, recall another and greater Passion. Christianity’s first woman writer makes incomparable Lenten reading.

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