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The Martyrdom of Perpetua

A long time ago now I was pursuing a thread on the development of the Christian views of the afterlife but I got side tracked.  And then I got side tracked from my side track.  And then … well, it’s been a long time.  The thread died.  I need to bring it back to life.  So I’m hoping now to begin on the afterlife of the thread on the afterlife.

Over all these months I have continued to read, think, and sketch my thoughts on where the Christian ideas of the afterlife came from – especially the view so common today that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven for an eternal reward or hell for eternal punishment.  That is not the view of the Old Testament and it is not what the historical Jesus preached.  So where did it come from?  That is the ultimate issue I will be pursuing in my book.

But there are other topics of interest as well, such as where did the idea of “purgatory” come from.  And what about the old Christian teaching of the “Harrowing of Hell” (where Christ goes to the underworld to redeem the saints who died before his incarnation)?  And what about the teachings of reincarnation in the early church?  Or the universalist notion that everyone will ultimately be saved – even the devil?  And, well, and lots of other things.

I’ve decided to plunge right in where I am right now in my reading.   Just yesterday I finished reading a book on the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee.   And so I’ll start there.

Purgatory never made it big in Protestant Christian circles.  But it is an age-old doctrine, the idea that a person needs to suffer for their sins before allowing into heaven for a blessed eternity.  It is kind of a temporary hell.  No one can get off scott-free.  But the saved will be saved.  First, though, for most people, there will be suffering.

To make sense of the origin of the idea, I have to talk about the dreams of the woman martyr Perpetua, who was executed for her faith in 203 CE in Carthage, North Africa.  And to do that, I need to give you some information on the surviving account of her last days and martyrdom, a book called the Passion of Perpetua.

This a flat-out fascinating book, for all sorts of reasons.  The issue of purgatory is very much a secondary issue for the book.  Less than that.  It’s a tertiary issue.  But since it’s what I want to talk about, I have to say a few things about the book first.

Here I give the Introduction to the text found in my book After the New Testament, and the first few chapters of the book in a modern translation (the book is written in Latin), just to give you a taste of what it is like.  (This opening section does not involve purgatory – the part I’ll be dealing with next does.)




An account filled with gripping pathos, “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas” records the arrest, imprisonment, trials, and execution of a young Roman matron, Perpetua, and her female slave, Felicitas. Remarkably …

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The Martyr Perpetua and Her Estranged Family
The Golden Rule



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 27, 2018

    I would guess that, for many of us, the primary motivating force to being Christian has been the hope of seeing our loved ones in heaven. If this idea is not in the Old Testament and Jesus did not preach this, then how this became the basic foundation of our faith is really important to understand. Did people just gradually make this up as a way of dealing with death?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      That’s what I hope to explore! (It actually was a Greek idea before it was a Christian one)

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  March 28, 2018

        Wasn’t The parable of the rich man and Lazarus a well-known parable told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke indicate a teaching of an afterlife?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2018

          Yes, I’m not talking about Luke’s Jesus but about the historical Jesus, when I refer to what Jesus actually preached. The Gospels put all sorts of things on his lips (think: Gospel of John) that Jesus himself almost certainly didn’t say.

  2. Robert
    Robert  March 27, 2018

    Sorry, fixed line breaks:

    “The House of Shammai say, “[There will be] three groups on the Day of Judgment [when the dead will rise]: one comprised of the thoroughly righteous, one comprised of the thoroughly wicked, and one of middling [people].

    “The thoroughly righteous immediately are inscribed and sealed for eternal life.

    “The thoroughly wicked immediately are inscribed and sealed for Gehenna, “as it is written [Dan. 12: 2]: ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’

    “Middling [people] go down to Gehenna, scream [in prayer], and rise [again], “as it is written [Zec. 13:9]: ‘And I will put this third into the fire and refine them as one refines silver and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them.’”

    (Bavli Rosh HaShannah 16b-17a, Jacob Neusner’s translation)

  3. Avatar
    fishician  March 27, 2018

    Is there anything about the name “Vibia Perpetua” that would suggest a literary creation vs. a real name? And is it reasonable to think such a person would be able to keep up with a diary during an imprisonment? More to the point, do you think it likely that this is based on an actual diary? (I’d like to think so – it’s an interesting story!)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      1. No the name doesn’t help much 2. Yes, that’s a problem 3. I long thought it was a diary, but in the last few years I’ve been having my doubts. Seems a bit implausible.

  4. Avatar
    jimdomino@comcast.net  March 27, 2018

    Dear Professor Ehrman:

    Although you are not a Christian, I believe you are living the Christian message that Jesus taught, maybe more closely than many Christians. I wanted you to know that I appreciate the help you are providing to the poor, through this blog.

    Jim Domino

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  March 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I hope you’re not implying that visions like this were unprecedented until the first century. As you know, there were plenty of Jewish apocalyptic visions even in the century before Jesus. But — and I’m sure you have already thoroughly considered this, but for completeness sake I believe it can’t be stressed enough — the ultimate precedent of such visions must be the so-called Jacob’s Ladder vision of Genesis 28:12-15. Indeed, the similarity of Jacob’s dream vision to Perpetua’s dream vision are so uncanny that one can’t help but conclude that the ladder of the latter is a reference to the ladder in the former.

    ~ וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה — Bereshit 28:12
    “And he [Jacob] dreamt, and, behold, an earth-fixed ladder, its top, heaven bound.”

    Compare that to the opening of Perpetua’s vision (since I don’t have and can’t translated the original Latin, I’ll have to trust the translation is right):
    “and this was the vision I had. I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens”

    They’re the same vision. The composer of Perpetua’s vision is clearly alluding to — either directly or indirectly — Jacob’s vision. As to whether the author of the Perpetua vision was borrowing the image directly from Genesis, or from a tradition that goes back to Genesis, well, I guess that’s what you’re trying to find out, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      Of course not!!! Why would I be suggesting that?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 28, 2018

        I mean that readers might be confused that when you write “That is not the view of the Old Testament” that you mean to suggest that having visions of ladders to heaven was also somehow a novel idea post-Jesus, when, in fact, it’s an idea that comes straight from Hebrew scripture. I know you don’t think that, but others may come away with the wrong inference. This kind of stuff gets awfully nuanced and esoteric, so it’s important to be as clear as possible about what was already a part of Jewish tradition and what was brought in by later Christians (usually by the pagans). In this case, the vision of the ladder to heaven came directly from Jewish tradition. The part that Christians seem to have added was the idea that a martyr may use such a ladder to ascend to heaven after death.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2018

          Maybe I wasn’t clear. What is not a view of the OT is that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven or hell.

  6. Avatar
    RVBlake  March 27, 2018

    As I have stated here before, I am puzzled at the view of Heaven as an eternal reward. Eternal, never-ending, it sounds dreadful. One Catholic blogger stated that the Beatific Vision would be so wonderful that it would overwhelm the fact that you would not see loved ones. I have been prompted by this Blog to seek Christian explanations for pointless suffering, in view of what I am told by priests of God’s love and mercy. One explanation I found online was a Catholic site which promised that the miseries suffered here would be more than compensated for in the Afterlife. That will have to be some Afterlife.

    • Avatar
      fishician  March 28, 2018

      As a good person, how long would you be willing to torture someone if you knew a big reward would follow? My conscience would not allow me to torture at all, and I would hope that the Supreme Being has a better conscience than mine! Theology creates some weird ideas.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 2, 2018

        Taking a very literal view of torture as the deliberate inflicting of pain on another, regardless of the motive, I can see situations in which it is the loving and right thing to do. Routine immunizations come to mind. I remember being forcibly restrained to have injections that would ultimately save my life, if I were exposed to certain pathogens. If suffering in this life could save me from an eternity of hell, I think I would excuse God for putting me through it.

  7. Avatar
    Tony  March 27, 2018

    “where the Christian ideas of the afterlife came from – especially the view so common today that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven for an eternal reward or hell for eternal punishment.”
    The earliest form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion. This was Paul’s adopted cult as described in his letters. As in other Hellenistic mystery cults individual salvation was procured by a ritual initiation into a set of “mysteries”, the knowledge of which and participation in which, such as baptism and partaking of the the Eucharist, ensured blessed eternal life.

    Like other mystery religions, primal Christianity was based on a savior deity, a son (sometimes daughter) of God, who underwent suffering which procured salvation for all who participated in the cult. Christianity did not start with an earthly Jesus as invented by Mark decades later.

  8. Avatar
    Stanislaw Ruczaj  March 28, 2018

    Prof. Ehrman,

    My question is slightly unrelated to this post. Is it possible that Christian authors invented the fact that Jesus’ death happened around the Passover in order to make a theological point (i.e., Jesus’ death as a Passover sacrifice?), but in fact Jesus died at a different time of the year? Does any historian that you know of takes this possibility seriously?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      It’s possible, but it’s usually thought that the Christians were making hay out of a tradition already in circulation — evidenced already in Paul.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

        1 Corinthians 11 doesn’t go into that detail. They were sharing a meal. I see no reason to conclude that it was a Passover meal.

        Each tradition begins somewhere. I don’t think it was Paul. Since we don’t have earlier writings, the traditions could have been started by the gospel diarists themselves.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2018

          Yes, but Paul does say “Christ our passover lamb has been sacrificed; therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7)

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  April 27, 2018

            Yes, Paul makes that analogy, but the context is the behavior of the whole assembly, not a particular ceremony (either Eucharist of Passover).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 28, 2018

      Well, consider the possibility that if Christians had the luxury of choosing the day Jesus died, they would probably go one step further and make up a story where Jesus didn’t die at all, but, rather, ascended to heaven, like Enoch or Elijah. I mean, if they had the liberty to massage the details of the story that much, why not really exploit the opportunity? The way it looks from here, they didn’t have that luxury. It was already common knowledge within the nascent Christian movement that Jesus was crucified during the Passover, so they had to leave that part in and find some way to find meaning and purpose in those details.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

        “consider the possibility that if Christians had the luxury of choosing the day Jesus died, they would probably go one step further and make up a story where Jesus didn’t die at all, but, rather, ascended to heaven” — absolutely not! The central idea of earliest Christianity was the universal sacrifice of Jesus. A sacrificial animal has to die, no more, no less. It mattered that he died as a sacrifice, not when he died, or even that he rose from the dead. We don’t even know the year he was born or died, much less the time of year.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 2, 2018

        What if the earliest oral tradition of his death and resurrection mentioned no day because it was just another day, but as a later follower (Paul or someone before him) was trying to make theological sense if it, Passover or Yom Kippur seemed the logical alternatives. Then the question arises: why would Passover win out?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          The argument *against* that is that the Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sins.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  April 4, 2018

            Not for individual sins, at any rate. But the Passover lamb is associated with marking God’s chosen ones to spare them from death.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 4, 2018

            I’m not sure that’s how it was normally interpreted.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  April 10, 2018

            The original purpose of the Passover sacrifice — the purpose that extends far back into the First Temple period — was to sacrifice a yearling of the fold to יהוה as a thanksgiving offering for the fecundity of the herd. The Exodus story was only added later.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 10, 2018

            Yes, that’s certainly one of the hypotheses!

  9. Avatar
    ardeare  March 28, 2018

    This story is interesting not just because it’s interesting……but because she’s awaiting baptism and confirmation. At least that’s how I understand the word, “catechumen.” It shows that the early church had a system of converting, teaching, and evidently requiring repentance and a commitment to Christ before a person would officially be recognized as a member. You may talk about this in your newest book but I’m sorry to say that even though I pre-ordered it, I’ve been caught up in other things and am still on chapter 2.

    I had a preconceived idea that people heard the “good news” and if they accepted it, were instantly recognized as Christians and baptized in the nearest body of water asap.

    • Avatar
      Duke12  March 30, 2018

      Regarding catechumens: that’s another early Church element still preserved in Eastern Orthodox practice and liturgics (I’m not familiar with how its done in Catholicism): In the Orthodox Liturgy there is a part after the Epistle/Gospel readings and before the preparation of the Eucharist where the priest includes prayers for the catechumens and then announces “all Catechumens depart, let no Catechumen remain” (no catechumens or non-Orthodox visitors are really expected to leave, but it is still in the text of the Divine Liturgy, if omitted in some American churches). Towards the end of Great Lent (which is believed by some to have originally been a 40 day preparation period for catechumens and only before becoming a fast period for the entire Church after it’s legalization by Constantine), prayers are included in some services for “those who are about to receive illumination.” Lazarus Saturday (day before Palm Sunday) and Holy Saturday were/are the traditional days for Baptism of the adult catechumens. In current church practice, the catechumenate lasts from a few months to a year.

  10. Avatar
    clongbine  March 28, 2018

    To me it seems she is connecting her own suffering with the suffering of Jesus and the way to cross, like the letters of Ignatius. Jesus’ exhortation to follow him, taken literally (rather than a distant membership), to go to death the way he did. A re-enactment of his own martyrdom among those who then trust him to raise them from the dead and welcome them to paradise. Is it seen here as a cleansing act?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      In one of her visions it appears there are lots of others in paradise — not just martyrs; other authors at her time claimed that martyrs who imitated the passion of Jesus went straight to paradise and all other believers had to wait till the end of time

  11. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 28, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I am just thinking to myself. Why do people deny the Mt. Olympus? As, a historian you must know the answer. I think I know the answer, but I want to hear your answer. Yes, I know of Constantine’s vision. Do humans know Zeus is known as the punisher? Do humans know of the last line of Plato’s story of Atlantis? Do humans know of the Gospel of Thomas line 30 and yes I know of logion. I am just thinking to myself.

  12. Avatar
    Duke12  March 28, 2018

    FYI: for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the “Harrowing of Hell” teaching is still very much current doctrine (as seen in most Orthodox icons of the Resurrection). There has been a small but growing movement in America over the past 30-40 years of conversions from Protestantism (including Evangelicalism) and Catholicism into Orthodox Christianity. Some even read your books :-).

  13. Avatar
    Johann Smit  March 30, 2018

    Hi! After reading again about the Old Kingdom of Egypt (appr 3400 – 3200 BCE) I wondered about the influence of their view about the afterlife on other religions, aspecially the Christians. I am spesifically talking about, as referred to in The Ancient World (Caldwell and Gyles), the ambitious theology of the Memphites. Long story short. Osiris was said to bring hope of immortality for the ordinary man. It was immortality to be spend in Osiris’ blessed kingdom inhabited by the good and the just. (p 79; 1966)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2018

      It’s usually thought that Christians were not much influenced by the uniquely Egyptian view of the afterlife (since they were not actively connected with Egypt in the first hundred fifty years or so)

  14. Avatar
    steveandcris  April 2, 2018

    Thank you for the interesting post. I would like to say I really enjoyed your new book “Triumph of Christianity”. I believe it’s the twelfth book of yours I’ve purchased. I’ve in fact enjoyed them all. I have even bought additional copies of your books for friends and family members. Recently discovered your lectures in The Great Courses, very excited about that. I acquired “How Jesus Became God” and “History of the Bible”. I would recommend folks to check these out.
    The afterlife is one of the mysteries on my list of things to discover the origin of. I can’t wait for your new book.
    This is what I’ve learned so far.
    The Afterlife:

    In Alan Segals’ book of The Afterlife, he mentions how in the sixth century BCE during the time of Ezekiel, Zoraoastrianism was growing in importance.
    He says:
    “By the time the visions of the book of Daniel were written (168 BCE), Zoroastrianism was virtually the national religion of the elite Persian rulers and left us clear evidence of bodily resurrection and a beatific afterlife. These surely stimulated and encouraged similar notions in Jewish life, though we lack proof of how the transfer took place.”
    The Greeks contributed with their aristocratic Platonism with its elitist view of the immortal soul.
    He says of the Egyptians:
    “In Egypt, where the body was preserved by mummification, the person after death was a living image. Afterlife was conceived of as bodily in roughly the same way as we inhabit this life, though the glorified spirit could take up residence in the stars at the same time.”
    The Persians exposed their bodies to predators such as Vultures, in an effort to reconstitute themselves bodily to achieve the afterlife.
    “Every culture designs its own vision of a perfected life and expresses it in its notions of afterlife.”
    Martyrdom played an important role in the formulation of the afterlife as we see it today also. Because they were freely willing to give up their lives in this lifetime, they needed to know they would be taken care of in the next life. The 2 Maccabees passage demonstrates this idea.
    I think also one has to make a distinction between immortality and resurrection. Not the same critter. Resurrection does not necessarily mean immortality, and achieving immortality does not mean you were resurrected first. I think all of this (including the passages below) help to construct at least the beginnings of the afterlife for Judaism, and consequently Christianity. I believe the Daniel 12 passage is probably the most important and influential passage of the group. Jesus certainly must have been aware of it, and is certainly the most distinct and descriptive passage coming very close to what is believed today.

    Daniel 12
    “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth [ 63 ] shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, [ 64 ] and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end.”

    2 Maccabees 7
    This is the story of the mother and her 7 sons being tortured to death for not eating swine. This is what the 2nd brother said.
    And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

    Psalm 34
    “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the L ORD rescues them from them all. 20 He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. 21 Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. 22 The L ORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

    Ezekiel 37

    When Ezekiel enters the valley of the bones and sees dry bones everywhere.God animates the bones and returns flesh and sinew to them. Later says he will bring them out of their graves and place his Spirit in them. This is a great passage, you can picture these bodies reconstructing themselves in front of Ezekiel. Very SciFi.

    “O dry bones, hear the word of the L ORD . 5 Thus says the Lord G OD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the L ORD .” 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”
    Further on:
    “And you shall know that I am the L ORD , when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil;then you shall know that I, the L ORD , have spoken and will act, says the L ORD .”

    And then there’s Paul:
    1st Corinthians 15

    44 “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”

    47 “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

    Paul is all about the resurrection of Jesus, (which was a bodily resurrection) but seems to believe and preach the body is risen in Spirit form.
    That’s what I’ve learned so far. My knowledge of the origins of heaven and hell needs more understanding. Many passages in the Bible speak of “the heavens”, but not much on heaven and hell. Can’t wait to add to it with your new book. Do you Dr. Ehrman believe that Daniel 12 was as influential as I think to the idea of the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      yes, Daniel 12 is the first clear statement of a future resurrection of (some of) the dead.

  15. Avatar
    Dakka  October 24, 2018

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, I have followed your writings closely and have come to realize how misled I was after about 60 years in the Charismatic movement as well as the evangelical movement and in general religion.
    For that I thank you.
    I do have a question about the afterlife (If there is one), and you may have addressed this elsewhere at some time, but here it comes again.
    I would greatly appreciate your personal views on the books about past lives and reincarnation written by the likes of Dr. Michael Newton (Journey of Souls, Memories of the Afterlife, etc), Dr. Ian Stevenson (Children who Remember Past Lives), Dr. Brian Weiss (Many Lives, Many Masters), and the list goes on ad nauseam. However, it would appear that many of these writers are serious researchers and have documented their findings. In many cases, there is definite proof of reincarnation. Your opinion and comments would be greatly appreciated.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      I’m afraid I haven’t read them, since my research has been almost entirely on the views of the afterlife in the ancient world. What I *have* read about reincarnatin has never struck me as particularly persuasive, even when sensationally presented….

      • Avatar
        Dakka  October 26, 2018

        Professor Ehrman, I know that you are an extremely busy man and I really appreciate the fact that you stopped to reply. Thanks a ton!!!

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