Perpetua and Felicity were young mothers who died for their faith during a time of persecution in Carthage, northern Africa (modern-day Tunisia). Together with a group of men martyred with them, they are commemorated March 7, the anniversary of their death A.D. 202 or 203.
by Joy A. Schroeder
Why were Christians persecuted? The city of Carthage belonged to the Roman Empire. Most Romans worshipped gods such as Jupiter, Juno, and Apollo. They believed these ancient deities protected their empire. Romans called the emperor “divine” in prayers and sacrifices for his well-being. Christians refusing to worship Roman gods or call the emperor “divine” were considered treasonous. Romans also charged Christians with atheism, since having only one God seemed the same as worshipping no gods at all. Some Romans thought Eastern religions were superstitious cults. With roots in Judea and Galilee, Christianity was regarded as Eastern. Outsiders speculated that Christians, who met clandestinely, committed depraved acts like incest or cannibalism.
While there were no widespread, systematic attempts to stamp out Christianity at that time, Christians experienced sporadic, localized attacks. Persecutors desecrated Christian graves and paraded offensive caricatures of Jesus. Sometimes Christians were arrested and executed. Roman authorities often targeted new converts before baptism, trying to intimidate them into not converting. Early Christians avoided martyrdom when they could do so without denying their faith. However, when arrested and given a choice between dying or denying Christ, they courageously chose death, confident in Christ’s promises of resurrection.
The Rev. Dr. Joy A. Schroeder, an ELCA pastor, teaches church history at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Capital University. She is the author of Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2014).
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