- The New Prophecy & "New Visions": Evidence of Montanism in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas
The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is, for good reason, a fascinating document. This early third-century document contains the diary of an early North African Christian woman marty—the first such surviving writing—supplemented by a firsthand account of one of her male companions in prison, both enfolded into a larger editorial framework. Its dating and the vitality of the accounts make it a real treasure. Its influence on other martyrdoms such as The Passion of Marian and James is unmistakable.
In the history of scholarship of this document, the question of the identity of the editor has long been raised. Many commentators hoped to prove that the editor was Tertullian. Attributing it to a famous person whom history already knows seems to anchor the document more securely in literary and religious history. Locating it in his "Montantist" period raises the hopes of some iconoclasts and modern Pentecostals who wish to claim her as their own and the hackles of those who seek to rescue Perpetua for an orthodox narrative of African Christianity. Most scholars deny a secure identity to the editor of the document or at least that it was Tertullian. Without assigning a personal identity to the editor, Rex D. Butler revives the question of the Montanist sympathies of the entire document. This volume represents a revision [End Page 320] of Butler's dissertation directed by James T. Spivey, Jr., at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The central thesis of the book is that "the Passion evinced Montanist influence throughout all its sections" (p. 2).
Butler's first chapter surveys the characteristics of Montanism, based heavily on Eusebius and nineteenth-century scholarship, but conspicuously lacking direct reference to securely identified Montantist materials—though Labriolle and Tabbernee do figure in his bibliography. The second chapter collects arguments on the identity of the author but breaks no new ground. Butler accepts Tertullian as editor but rightly grants that this is not essential to his argument; merely the Montanist identity of the editor suffices.
Chapter 3 examines the Passion for evidence of Montanism, specifically "prophecy, women's authority, eschatological expectation, rigorism and the exaltation of martyrdom" (p. 2). What makes Butler's reading interesting, though not entirely convincing, is his careful attention to currents and texts influential in Africa which influence the Passion and may link it to Montanism. This part of the book is weakened by his failure to distinguish "Montanist" characteristics from the distinguishing marks of North African Christianity generally. With the exception of women's leadership, his "Montanist" characteristics represent all of the strands of African Christianity from its origins to Augustine. He never proves a "schism" in Africa, although schism is vital to his analysis (e.g., p. 105). His overreaching conclusions, e.g., the Passio as warranting a belief in the treasury of merits (p. 131), and Perpetua as mediator between Montantists and Artotyrites (p. 130) do not help his case. He fails to recognize that the actions in Perpetua's and Saturus's dream are dream material and not historical occurrences. Rather than mounting a convincing argument , Butler details copious evidence for possible literary influences on the Passion from Hermas to 4 Ezra. Original to Butler's work is his extensive attention in Chapter 4 to the history of the appropriation of and revisions of the Perpetua story to tame it and keep it out of the exclusive clutch of Montanist sympathizers, but even here he cannot maintain a clear distinction between Catholics and Montanists. Because of significant lapses in logic and failure to attend to detail, e.g., the slave Felicity as married and named as wife of Christ (p. 89), and overreliance on dubious secondary material, this book cannot be recommended. [End Page 321]