Perpetua and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have spoken here before of the need for a ‘hermeneutic of love’ in dealing with patristic writings, drawing on NT Wright’s work on the concept (and now glad to see Miroslav Volf’s criticism of the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ in Captive to the Word of God). I was recently reminded of how important yet — perhaps — uncommon a way of reading this is.

I am auditing a class on Early North African Christianity, but can only make it to the fortnightly post-graduate seminars attached to the class. The first set of texts discussed in this class were the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.

When these were discussed in the mixed class with both post-graduates and undergraduates, apparently some of the undergrads had decided that suspicion and mistrust were the best ways to read ancient Christian literature.

People said that Perpetua was ‘un-Christian’ for allowing her father to be beaten and her child to be raised without its mother — that she was being selfish in pursuing her desire for martyrdom at the expense of others.

As well — and this happened in the postgrad seminar as well, but more subtly — this martyrdom account was likened to militant Islamic suicide bombers. No joke.

And at the postgrad seminar, one of the people there noted that he was concerned over the fact that here we had an older, charismatic man leading a group of enthusiastic youths to their deaths in martyrdom. He also felt that the text was imbalanced and produced a troubling picture of Christianity since all it talked about was martyrdom.

So. Here’s the hermeneutic of suspicion in full swing.

As regards Perpetua being ‘un-Christian’ in allowing her father to be beaten rather than recant her Christian faith, one of my friends pointed out that, according to our earliest Christian traditions and writings, what she was doing was the most Christian thing, for Jesus said that he would divide families and that we are not to love our earthly families more than him.

I reckon that an overemphasis in certain ecclesiastical groups within Scotland on the need for social action and that social action is what makes the true Christian has produced this result.

To compare Christian martyrs with suicide bombers misses the point of each type of death. Suicide bombers seek not just their own deaths but the deaths of those around them. Theirs is a tactic of fear and terror; suicide bombing is a form of terrorism, of violence on the part of the so-called ‘martyr.’

Martyrs who die for their faith, who die because they refuse to engage in the religious practices of others or because they refuse to recant their faith or because they refuse to give up practising their own faith — whether they have sought to be killed by the authorities or not — are in an entirely different circumstance. When they die, no one else dies with them. They may choose death, but they choose death because they have been given the options of denying their religion or dying. And so they die for a very modern, contemporary reason — religious freedom, a basic human right.

Concerning the older, charismatic man leading the youths, who else in Roman society would? Saturus, Perpetua’s catechist, was a man versed in the faith and who was instructing these young people in the faith. They were arrested. Did they put themselves forward for martyrdom? Were they informed against? The text does not say. It simply says that they were arrested.

The hermeneutic of suspicion says that this charismatic man manipulated them and made them drink the Kool-Aid.

The hermeneutic of love says that they came to faith freely, and when that faith was tested, he helped them stay firm.

Finally, the criticism that the text is imbalanced is just ridiculous. All Christian texts are, therefore, imbalanced. The Rule of Benedict does not talk about evangelism; is it imbalanced? St. Leo the Great, discoursing about Christology in the Tome, does not discuss ethics; is he, on that score, imbalanced? Luther’s 95 Theses have little to do with anything other than indulgences; are they thus imbalanced? The Book of Revelation has little to give us in terms of how to live — is it imbalanced?

Books are, to borrow from Miroslav Volf’s Captive to the Word of God, social relations. Someone, somewhere, is using the medium of writing, using that particular book, to communicate something. In the Passion of Perpetua, that something is the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and their fellows. Why should we expect a full view of the Christian life, of normal ethics, of worship, of prayer, of distinct belief? I do not expect a martyr story to give me these.

In fact, apparently only spurious martyr stories give us these things because the Roman judges were not concerned with them; the martyrs had no chance to discuss the ins and outs of daily Christian life and belief.

So Perpetua. It is sad to see someone who should be an example of faith treated with such suspicion, to see a text that should give us strength scorned in such a way. If there is to be a specifically Christian reading, should it not seek to treat not just the living, but the writings of the dead, with love?

6 thoughts on “Perpetua and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

  1. I agree with your characterization of the problem, but I’m also not very surprised. The hermeneutic of suspicion is bred in the bone of academics; in some senses, it is the starting point of all academic disciplines- early Christianity as well as Classics. It can and does lead to the absurdities that you are highlighting.

    Yet, I think there is another factor which I also find disturbing (and disturbing even within the academic frame of reference which nurtures the hermeneutic of suspicion): that is the clear sense of anachronism. Many of the criticisms you highlight show a shocking failure to understand Roman conditions as well as Christian. So, even in the academic frame of reference there is a problem here.

    • Your highlighting of the issue that this is not even how we should read any ancient or early Christian literature regardless of personal convictions points to a lack of methodological rigour in the training of undergrads in Divinity as well as certain of the post-grad population.

  2. That’s alright. Back in the late 90s, my wife was taking a history course, Christianity from AD 1 to 600 (she insisted on calling it 0-600 to annoy me) and, just before the final example, someone asked the prof if, when answering exam questions, she should ‘stay in the period’. “Yes” was the mild response of the prof, as my wife’s head exploded.

    One of my own concerns has been to link the worlds of Classics and Patristic. Really, we need the intellectual, social and cultural background to understand the Fathers or we wind up with the kind of anachronism we’re talking about.

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