Joyce E. Salisbury’s Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman examines the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and her five companions. There is no doubt that Salisbury wrote a very interesting, extraordinarily well researched and well organized book on the six African martyrs. However, I found her inability to allow the text of St. Perpetua’s Passion to speak for itself insufferable. So insufferable in fact that I will describe the negative aspect of her work first as it overwhelms the praise-worthy elements.
While dedicating much space to criticizing Augustine in her final chapter entitled “Aftermath” for supposedly re-interpreting “the text to make it relevant to the fourth-century audience” (Salisbury, 1997, p. 178) she seems to completely overlook the fact that she re-interprets the visions St. Perpetua records in her autobiography. Instead of allowing the visions to speak for themselves, Salisbury attempts to offer alternate interpretations of spiritual realities at every turn, for example: “[Perpetua] may well have been familiar with such dream interpretations that have shaped the images her mind created” (Salisbury, p. 101). Where in St. Perpetua’s text was it stated that her mind created any of the images she saw? It doesn’t say anything of the sort. But for the carnal minded (and I mean here simply those who think only from the point of view of a body, not a soul) such spiritual matters are well beyond their realm of understanding. This statement: “we know [Perpetua] sought after the prophetic dreams and visions that marked divine presence or she would not have recorded her own dreams so carefully” (Salisbury, p. 32) reveals unfounded claims in Salisbury’s text.
And not only does Salisbury attempt to offer rational explanations for St. Perpetua’s divine visions, she makes ignorant commentary on a host of matters of the Christian Church which she also fails to understand: “Obedience to authority would become the way to control charismatics in the church, but that was not to be fully implemented until well after Perpetua’s death” (Salisbury, p. 68). It is telling that in a book that has over 600 footnotes this and similarly ignorant statements are not cited, revealing a lack of historical evidence and an obvious bias regarding such matters of the Christian faith.
All of this is very unfortunate because once I was able to push myself to read past all the subjective, shallow attempts at interpretation of spiritual matters, I found Perpetua’s Passion to be an incredible resource. It is full of interesting information about Carthage at that time and its role in the Roman Empire. I found the research on Septimius Severus, Carthagian history and art, the geographic locations of important places and Roman paganism to be extremely fascinating. I even appreciated the fact that she did not end her book with the death of the martyrs but offered us a look at the subsequent centuries of the Church of Northern Africa.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in that time period and the historical events surrounding the martyrdom of Saints Saturus, Saturnius, Revocatus, Secundulus, Perpetua and Felicity if – and that is a big if – the reader were to completely disregard Salisbury’s weak attempt to suck the spirit out of St. Perpetua’s spiritual experiences. Salisbury should have stuck to the historical aspects of her text and allowed St. Perpetua’s Passion to speak for itself.
You can find Perpetua’s Passion here on amazon.