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The Martyr Perpetua and Her Estranged Family

Yesterday I began to talk about the Martyrdom of Perpetua, one of the most interesting and moving texts to come down to us from early Christianity.   It is an account of a 23-year old Roman matron who is willing to die a gruesome death for her Christian faith.   Among other things, the text shows that her faith is far more important to her than her family.  In particular, she is shown in conflict especially with her father (no husband is mentioned, which has led to considerable speculation: Divorced? Widowed? Unwed mother? Something else?).  And even though it is with regret, she is willing to leave behind her own infant child by being martyred.

Family figures prominently in the two excerpts here.  In the first her father begs her to avoid martyrdom, to no avail.  In the second (chs. 7-8) we have an account of her dream and intervention on behalf of her dead brother Dinocrates.  This is the part that I will be most interested in for the next post.  Is it an early adumbration of the later doctrine of Purgatory?

Part of the intrigue in these early sections …

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Part of the intrigue in these early sections (before the description of the martyrdom itself) claim to be in Perpetua’s own hand – a kind of diary she kept in prison.  One of the major issues in scholarship is whether this really is her writing – in which case it would be the earliest Christian writing of any kind known to be by a woman – or whether it was forged to make it *appear* to be by her.  The latter opinion seems to be the one taken by most scholars today.  In either event, it’s an unusually important text (would she really have the leisure and materials to write in a dark, dank prison?).   Here are the two passages.





5   A few days later there was a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me. “Daughter,” he said, “have pity on my grey head—have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of others. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.”


This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.


I tried to comfort him saying: “It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.” And he left me in great sorrow.


Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.


7Some days later when we were all at prayer, suddenly while praying I spoke out and uttered the name Dinocrates. I was surprised; for the name had never entered my mind until that moment. And I was pained when I recalled what had happened to him. At once I realized that I was privileged to pray for him. I began to pray for him and to sigh deeply for him before the Lord.


That very night I had the following vision. I saw Dinocrates come out of a dark hole, where there were many others with him, very hot and thirsty, pale and dirty. On his face was the wound he had when he died. Now Dinocrates had been my brother according to the flesh; but he had died horribly of cancer of the face when he was seven years old, and his death was a source of loathing to everyone. Thus it was for him that I made my prayer. There was a great abyss between us: neither could approach the other. Where Dinocrates stood there was a pool full of water; and its rim was higher than the child’s height, so that Dinocrates had to stretch himself up to drink. I was sorry that, though the pool had water in it, Dinocrates could not drink because of the height of the rim. Then I woke up, realizing that my brother was suffering. But I was confident that I could help him in his trouble; and I prayed for him every day until we were transferred to the military prison. For we were supposed to fight with the beasts at the military games to be held on the occasion of the emperor Geta’s birthday. And I prayed for my brother day and night with tears and sighs that this favor might be granted me.

8On the day we were kept in chains, I had this vision shown to me. I saw the same spot that I had seen before, but there was Dinocrates all clean, well dressed, and refreshed. I saw a scar where the wound had been; and the pool I had seen before now had its rim lowered to the level of the child’s waist. And Dinocrates kept drinking water from it, and there above the rim was a golden bowl full of water. And Dinocrates drew

close and began to drink from it, and yet the bowl remained full. And when he had drunk enough of the water, he began to play as children do. Then I awoke, and I realized that he had been delivered from his suffering.[/private]

The Birth of Purgatory
The Martyrdom of Perpetua



  1. Avatar
    darren  March 28, 2018

    I’m noticing more comments from mythicists on the blog. Have more of them joined (which would be great for the charities but ironic nonetheless)? Or are you just suddenly more willing to post their comments?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      There’s only one that I know of. But he posts a lot on the issue!

      • Avatar
        Tony  March 29, 2018

        Huh what? My postings are strictly in the nature of community education, and for the prevention of this blog becoming an echo chamber. 🙂

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 30, 2018

      Mythicists are like roaches. For every one you see there are dozens just lurking.

    • Avatar
      JRH  April 6, 2018

      Although I believe Jesus was a real person, in defense of the mythicists, I would like to mention Mike Fink. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Fink Most historians don’t think Mike Fink ever existed. He was just dreamed up by story tellers in back woods America. Note that his supposed date of birth varies by 10 years and his date of death is also unknown. And yet lots of people think he was a real person. This myth was generated in the United States in the years following the Enlightenment. So if myths can arise in the relatively modern age of the nineteenth century, imagine how much easier it was to create a legend in the superstitious world of the Middle East in the first century AD. Just sayin….

      • Avatar
        Tony  April 8, 2018

        Good point. Mythicists do not believe the gospel historical Jesus was completely dreamed up. Jesus of Nazareth was based, in part, on Paul’s celestial Jesus. It was Mark who, after the destruction of the Temple in 70, created an earthly Jesus. Mark’s modification was successful and allowed, among other things, for apostolic succession.

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    ardeare  March 28, 2018

    Her previous version of the ladder rising to heaven but laden with deadly weapons on either side seems to signify that this world is full of suffering but when she reaches the top, peace awaits those who have faithfully passed from this existence to the next. Her vision of the young brother seems to echo this as there is a pool of water that he cannot reach, which causes him great suffering. When she sees him again, the pool is only waist high and he can now drink freely, signifying his suffering on earth has ended and he now enjoys happiness in the afterlife.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  March 28, 2018

    Seems like Jesus and Paul were dismissive about family, since the end was at hand, but the pastoral epistles put more value on the family (a criterion for being an elder, in fact), and then the Perpetua story again seems dismissive of the earthly family in favor of the spiritual family. Do you think the early church went through different phases about the view of the family, or did competing ideas co-exist throughout?

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  March 28, 2018

    What I find most interesting about this passage, Dr. Ehrman, is how it seems to offer a way of sparing the innocents. It’s telling that Dinocrates was a child who died of disease, a case that most normal human beings would consider tragic and worthy of compassion (“his death was a source of loathing to everyone”). Thus there was an attempt to create a loophole, by which the innocents could avoid such unjust, unfair suffering by no fault of their own — a logic that anyone familiar with the former Catholic Church’s concept of Limbo would understand.

    What it looks like to me, at least, is as the original binary concept of an eternal paradise for the saved and an eternal conflagration for the condemned started to look absurdly rigid and blatantly unjust, its deficiencies became a serious impediment to proselytizing. As time passed by, and the concept came up against genuine concerns for gray areas, it became necessary to formulate various grades of salvation and damnation. The first distinction — one that Jesus and his disciples seemed to hold — was between those “righteous” Israelites (ha-Tzaddiqim) who are saved to live on a New Earth — a literal paradise on earth, with a glorious Jerusalem as its capital, and the Messiah as its king — and for those “righteous” who have also achieved “holiness” (ha-Qodeshim), or the so-called elected “Saints,” who will not remain on earth, but will, instead, be removed to heaven, to live with the angels.

    It seems early Christians came to disguish themselves as “saints,” who would come to live in heaven, distinct from merely the “righteous” who would remain on earth. As this logic of stratification became more thoroughly developed, new levels and regions were invented to reflect the growing need for a more balanced and variegated form of Divine Justice (think the Tower metaphor in the Shepherd of Hermas), more on par with how human beings are wont to construct a justice system. And along with such a complete Divine Justice System evolved commensurate forms of punishment and reward — an idea also on part with normal human ideals of justice.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  March 29, 2018

    The comments of Perpetua’s father imply that she could have saved herself. So do we know what offense she was actually supposed to be charged with? Simply being a Christian?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      YEs, she could have gotten off the hook by performing a sacrifice.

  6. Avatar
    mikezamjara  March 29, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman I want to make an offtopic. I saw your debates. In the one which you participated vs Dr Dan Wallace he mentioned that he has a manuscript of the gospels from the first century. Has he published it yet or have any news. Have you seen it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      No, it appears not to be a genuine manuscript of the first century; it has not been published and from what I understand never will be published.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  March 29, 2018

        Thank your for your response Dr. Ehrman

  7. Avatar
    Alfred  March 29, 2018

    I had no idea that the terrible Christian practice of describing children in hell/purgatory had such an ancient history. Dawkins claims this is chid abuse (when communicated to children).

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 29, 2018

    I was wondering how she wrote it in prison?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      I wonder too!

      • Avatar
        JRH  March 30, 2018

        Hi Bart,

        As I theorized once previously, maybe she used a scribe to “write” her diary.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2018

          There still seem to be logistical problems (having a secretary in a dungeon).

      • Avatar
        JRH  March 30, 2018

        I mean would the guards really care if she dictated her manuscript to a scribe? And if they did care, maybe the scribe could bribe them to look the other way. After all, her parents were wealthy.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 29, 2018

    In my psychiatric practice, it was not unusual for me to see patients who contended that what we would call dreams, they considered to be actual visits from deceased loved ones. I also have wondered whether Freud got his emphasis on interpreting dreams from Bible stories, such as those about Joseph.

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 29, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, why was Barnabas (born Joseph) called Zeus? He was raised higher than Paul with this name. Why?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      Because Paul was doing all the talking, so he was the *messenger* of Zeus.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  March 29, 2018

        It’s probably because of the myth of Baucis and Philemon (from teh same region), which influenced the story.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2018

          I guess because he was the most amazing miracle worker they could imagine.

        • Josephsluna
          Josephsluna  March 31, 2018

          Dr. Ehrman, I could be joking or I could be serious. I was astonished when seen this post. I do not remember stating something as the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Also, I know the comma goes before the parenthetical element. Huh, I am saying I am joking or I am serious to protect myself. I that is the first time I have heard of this story, and it was posted by me! I know I posted the Barnabas and Paul situation… Huh… I know you read this, you can post if you want Dr. Ehrman. Thanks…

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2018

            It’s because in the Baucis and Philemon myth the two figure who appeared to them are Zeus and Hermes. If the myth is the background for the story in Acts 14, and Paul is Hermes because he speaks so much, then his companion Barnabas would be Zeus.

  11. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 29, 2018

    I hope I am not disrespectful, but Revelation 4:10 I picture the Olympians kneeling before Zeus and setting their crowns to the ground.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

      The Greek authors definitely would have heard of Titanomachia. It’s not surprising that the author of Revelation would use familiar imagery. The book is packed with it. The author looked favorably on Israel, so would certainly have used Jewish apocalyptic imagery, but I don’t think he stopped there.

  12. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 30, 2018

    I just ordered a book of scholarship on The Ascension of Isaiah by Bremmer from Amazon. He wrote something about the afterlife too, so I added it to my cart. Hope this guy knows what he’s talking about for Ascension.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Yup, he’s a bona fide expert. His afterlife book is very learned.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 4, 2018

    I see there’s yet another Bible movie out, this one about Luke and Paul, with the same actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion…. I don’t plan on seeing it.
    Has any Bible film, in your experience, been respectful of the source texts (not mixing and matching gospels or assuming modern world views) or made use of legitimate scholarship? I’d like to see one decent Bible movie, just to know it can be done.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      You might try Passolini’s The Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Very different indeed!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 6, 2018

        I have seen it. Probably should see it again. Back in my Baptist college days, I had the idea of a tetralogy of films, each following a different canonical gospel. The preacher boys thought that was a crazy idea.

  14. Avatar
    KingJohn  September 22, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    I this the full text of it? https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/perpetua.asp

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