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Paradisus in carcere: The Vocabulary of Imprisonment and the Theology of Martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis

From: Journal of Early Christian Studies
Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2006
pp. 217-223 | 10.1353/earl.2006.0035

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Paradisus in carcere:
The Vocabulary of Imprisonment and the Theology of Martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis

Christian martyrdom, a complex amalgam of late Jewish fidelity to the law and aspects of Greco-Roman thought embodied in the exitus illustrium virorum tradition, fashioned an eschatological ideology of sacrifice founded on a Pauline paradox: to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live (Phil 1.21-23; 1 Cor 9.15; 2 Cor 6.9 and Col 2.20).1 Origen, in his Exhortatio ad Martyrium, illustrates such an understanding in a remark to the imprisoned Ambrosius and Protoctetus. Here he reverses the classical understanding of death as annihilation and life as animation, as he makes clear by the phrase, "When you are at the gates of death or rather of freedom."2 The Christian Latin tradition [End Page 217] shared a similar rhetorical point of view. Flavian, the Carthaginian deacon who was martyred following Valerian's second edict (c. 258), said in response to friends who tried to persuade him to save himself and sacrifice to the Emperor, "We live though we die; and we are not conquered by death but conquer it."3 The act of Christian self-sacrifice had to be volitional. The more volitional, the more efficacious the sacrifice. And the more efficacious, the more likely that God would honor the actions of the martyr.4 Such sacrificial voluntarism sees its earliest and most dramatic post-canonical New Testament expression in Ignatius' Epistula ad Romanos.5 While there is little rhetorically as stirring as Ignatius' desire for the martyr's death until we reach Tertullian, Tertullian does nonetheless embrace the Ignatian idea that to desire to die as a martyr is to respond positively to providence and is the highest good. Tertullian moreover extends such a choice to all Christians, male and female.6

In Ad Martyras7 Tertullian very explicitly acknowledges that martyrs have not only endured persecution, but even "eagerly desired it" (et ultro appetita, 4.3). He counsels those in prison awaiting persecution that soon they will pass through a noble struggle, in which they will gain "an eternal crown of angelic essence, citizenship in the heavens, glory everlasting" (3.3).8 His zealous exhortation "the leg does not feel the chain when the mind is in the heavens" underscores the change which the mind of the martyr undergoes when he or she longs to join Christ (2.10).9 No text associated with the circle of Tertullian better illustrates such a passionate attachment to an ecstatic celebration of martyrdom than does the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. The first subtle suggestion of such desire (hitherto unnoticed) in that text is in the use of the otherwise unremarkable verb recipimur (3.5).10 [End Page 218]

The Passio notes that within a few days of their arrest, five young Carthaginians were baptized and were about to be moved to a prison. The Latin text of the Passio reads post paucos dies recipimur in carcerem. While grammatically and syntactically unremarkable, this is nonetheless semantically nuanced. The Greek text reads very differently: inline graphic (3.5). 11 The two verbs recipimur and inline graphic are significant not only for their different emphases. The Latin "welcome, receive, admit" is pacific, almost decorous, while the Greek "thrown down, hurled" is forceful, almost violent. But more significantly the respective verbs should be noticed for the light they cast on the theological differences between the two texts.12 The semantic range of the classical use of recipio ranges from "welcoming, receiving or entertaining a person at a lodging" to "the recovery of something lost."13 The word is seldom associated with imprisonment. Although the verb is more commonly used in its original sense, we believe its use in this "logo-centric" text is intended to reflect Perpetua's desire for martyrdom. [End Page 219] The narrative portrays Perpetua as someone who takes great care in her choice of words and their meanings.14 The Greek aorist inline graphic expresses the certainty of the outcome: the individual is irrevocably lost, thrown away, driven out.15 The Greek reading has...