One of the classes I took last quarter is the History of Christian Spirituality. We started out by reading some source documents written about two early martyrs of the church, Felicity and Perpetua. These two women were from Northern Africa and gave their lives rather than renounce Christianity. Perpetua kept a diary while she was in prison that tracked her thoughts. This is especially significant because it speaks to a woman with an advanced education. Her family was Roman citizens and she was a mother of a two-year-old. When asked if she would renounce being Christian, she said:
“Father, do you see this vase here?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Could it be called by any other name?”
“Well, so too I cannot be called by anything other than what I am, a Christian.”1
The absolutely fascinating thing about Perpetua and Felicity is the development their stories took in Christian history over time. Both women stood fast during their tempting and fought valiantly when they were thrown to the lions. It was said that they spiritually “became as men.” Meaning that in order for a woman to be brave and steadfast, she essentially had to be a man. Through time, this further got twisted as magically, Perpetua and Felicity were canonized as Saints and further writings suddenly had then both as virgins. It is quite a magical trick! Essentially, to be saintly or spiritual during the development of the early church meant that women had to deny their sexuality or that their sexuality was denied for them retroactively. Men were considered as made in the Image of God while women were considered to be made in the Image of Man.
I read the stories of Perpetua and Felicity and then heard Dave preach on Mary and whether she may or may not be a virgin. Since I am not one to deny the power of God, I always hedge my bets and say either scenario is possible. What is important to me is that Jesus was born—the “how’s” I will leave up to scholars to argue about. However, the stories of how virginity was conferred onto Perpetua and Felicity because of their spiritual strength does add further thoughts to the idea of Mary being a virgin. If the general idea is that a virgin is a spiritual giant, then Mary certainly was a spiritual giant! Interestingly enough, there are folks who maintain that Mary retained her virginity even after giving birth. And I wouldn’t even bring up to them that Jesus had siblings!
History is an interesting proposition! Nothing is quite as it seems. At SU, they teach us that we need to:
1. Go behind the text: Understand the historical, cultural, and sociological implications of the text and when it was written
2. Be in the text: What does the text mean word for word?
3. Get in front of the text: How can the text be applied to our world today?
By keeping this methodology in mind, the Bible and it’s text becomes an ever living document that breathes life into us and into each succeeding generation.
1 “The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas” from Herbert Mursillo, ed. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. London: Oxford Press, 1972:107-131.