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Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity

Gail P. C. Streete
Published by Westminster John Knox in 2009

Several years ago, when teaching a humanities course, I discovered the now-popular martyrdom story of Perpetua and Felicitas. In several history and humanities classes since then, I have introduced my students to The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas using the narrative as an opportunity to inquire about authority, power, and gender. Some students have surprised me with their complete distrust of Perpetua’s radical faith while others sometimes have disappointed me with their unquestioning acceptance of her motivations and their seeming inability to see her narrative as a response to the changing church structure of the early third century. Like Gail Streete, author of Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity, I have been not only fascinated by what such stories uncover, but I have also determined to introduce these narratives to my students. Thus, I was pleased to see Streete’s new study.

Written with an eye for connecting contemporary martyrdoms with those of nascent Christianity, Professor Streete provides an illuminating study of women martyrs. Redeemed Bodies elucidates how early martyrs were viewed by their audiences and how that understanding constructs a usable past for considering modern-day martyrs or constructing martyr narratives such as those from Colorado’s Columbine shooting or those persisting in war-torn Palestine. Focusing on identity through body and its accompanying spiritual empowerment, Streete argues while there are similarities between male and female martyrs, important differences remain. And in these differences, she claims, we can find insights about how gender was understood in early Christianity.

Beginning with a focus on body as witness and as a place of spiritual discipline, Streete argues, “the body serves as a visible symbol of the power of God as it was imagined to exist over earthly opposing powers, political, social, and personal, working through the limits of fragile mortal flesh so that it becomes transparent, as a ‘wholly convincing spectacle of power ’”(12). In other words,

The body is not only an immediate visual device but also, through narratives about bodies, a “textual device,” one that is put to use in the service of the writer’s rhetoric. Thus the body of the martyr is doubly witness: once as literally visible and often speaking, hence as continually “seen” or “speaking” through the text, the written witness (15).

Moreover, as these narratives indicate, women were presented as figures placed on a threshold of cultural expectations. To the extent that women confronted their opposition—namely Roman/secular society—and died for disobedience to such powers, they demonstrated values usually ascribed to men: endurance and courage. In other words, in their dying, they acted not as women, but as men. Their courageous, death-producing acts enabled them to do what living did not permit: they transgressed culturally-prescribed boundaries.

As ancient Greco-Roman attitudes toward physicality and women infiltrated Christianity during its infancy, it, too, ascribed such notions of gender so that when women in these boundary-crossing situations demonstrated “rational choices and the extraordinary exercise of control over what were regarded as weak, passive bodies,” they were essentially taking on a higher moral and spiritual nature, one that was, in one word, male (21). For early Christians who perceived the feminine as an obstacle to spiritual growth, death via martyrdom provided the avenue to achieve a spiritual status otherwise impossible for women.

Despite Jesus’ lack of literal speech leading up to his death, subsequent martyrs in seeking to imitate his selfless act give voice, Streete suggests, not only through their bodies, but also in the continuing narratives around their deaths. And for women, both their public acts and stories serve as double transgressions of social norms. To illustrate, Streete draws on The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas.

The narrative introduces two young women, Perpetua still nursing a newborn baby and pregnant Felicitas, who are imprisoned and about to be executed because of their faith despite Perpetua’s father’s ardent pleas. Bolstered by Perpetua’s visions and only days following Felicitas giving birth, both are delivered into the stadium where they are killed before the gathered crowd. Streete points out, though, that even while demonstrating the supposed male virtue of courage, Perpetua—and her companion in death—Felicitas, meet their demise precisely as women. Perpetua’s modesty in the face of beastly aggression, specific mention of Felicitas’ baby, no mention of husbands, all create an “overemphasis on them as women and as women who have bodies” (90, emphasis Streete’s).

Streete’s most useful insights emerge when she contrasts the narratives of Perpetua and Thecla, noting how their audiences subsequently viewed their actions and what these assessments indicate about gender. Perpetua transgressed cultural assumptions not only by defying her father and ignoring her familial responsibilities, including her newborn baby, but also by her attentiveness to female decorum and dress while in the arena surrounded by wild beasts. While she demonstrated masculine properties of courage—drawing to her neck the knife wielded by a less-than-courageous soldier (after the beasts had been ineffective in creating her demise)—she also attended to feminine values of propriety by keeping her dress and hair neatly in place while at the same time being challenged by beasts and soldiers. Here her courage did not completely outweigh her modesty. And, she was, in fact, dead after this act of cultural transgression.

Thecla’s story, on the other hand, raises an ongoing problem. Hearing the apostle Paul preach during his visit to Iconium, Thecla renounces her decision to marry Thamyris and instead seeks to follow Paul. As such, she becomes a threat to society, rejecting cultural values and replacing them with counter-cultural actions. Sentenced to die for her cultural transgression, Thecla is saved from the fiery pyre by a hailstorm and sets out to follow Paul once again, only to be rejected by him in Antioch, a rejection fraught with curious gendered ambivalence: “Times are ugly (shameful) and you are beautiful: may a trial (temptation) greater than the first one not seize you, so that you will not endure it, but act like a coward” (85). Seeing Paul’s response contrary to the scope of what we now construct as canonical Paul, Streete sees here the work of a redactor and one that illustrates a recurring theme: “the woman’s body as a source of strength, all the more remarkable because that same body should be a source of weakness and stumbling” (86).

The narrative continues as Paul and Thecla travel to Antioch where Alexander the Syriarch strives to obtain Thecla from Paul and he, reminiscent of ancient Hebrew narratives, fails to render aid, leaving Thecla to fend for herself. When he kisses her publicly, she dishonors him publicly, resulting in her second transgression of refusing marriage and sexual relations. Taken into the arena for public punishment and death, Thecla once again receives miraculous intervention and outlasts the numerous wild beasts and in the midst of the dangerous battle; she also manages to baptize herself in the pit of water housing the seals. After visiting Paul one last time and finally receiving his instruction to go and preach, she returns to Iconium.

Thecla’s story, though popular, poses a problem that not only Tertullian stridently recognizes, but others, too. While she is a model of Christian purity and celibacy, willing to die to maintain her virginity, she does, in fact, live, and has the audacity to baptize herself and then to preach—both transgressions of culture.

Streete’s concluding chapter moves from these ancient martyr narratives to corresponding acts in contemporary society. In shifting the readers forward, the author invites us to recognize the opportunity to consider similar issues as those raised by Perpetua, Felicitas, Thecla, and others, namely: “religious motivation, reaction to perceived political oppression, defiance of gender, family, religious, and political norms” (105).

One example begins with conservative evangelicals and their response to the Columbine tragedy in 1999. Despite lacking awareness of Christian saints and martyrs of history, many within this segment of American Christianity have embraced a version of Columbine exalting a couple of female students as martyrs. As with the nascent Christian movement, those who believe this school shooting to have overtones of martyrdom (Cassie and Rachelwere killed because they believed in God and said so) can only support such a narrative if apocalyptic notions and an embattled sense of fear from culture exist. Working from thisplace of anxiety, much like Perpetua’s narrative, these contemporary figures are allowed to witness to their faith publicly because their speech is located in their deaths.

To Streete’s useful analysis I offer one further suggestion: those who elevate the Columbine narratives in this way are also ones who would not allow women to transgress cultural norms any other way. In other words, women are legitimate witnesses to God in death; in life though, their appropriate sphere remains private and one bound by familial attachments.

Redeemed Bodies is an excellent primer for those wanting to explore women martyrs in their social and cultural contexts. While it would be a better study to have integrated insights from contemporary figures throughout rather than placing them in a final chapter, Streete nevertheless provides a succinct analysis shedding additional light on why women martyrs chose death and their narratives live.

Cite this article
Kendra Weddle Irons, “Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 253-256

Kendra Weddle Irons

Reviewed by Kendra Weddle Irons, Texas Wesleyan University