Visions of the end: the dreams and death of Vibia Perpetua

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2014-12
Authors
Ponder, Ross Philip
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Abstract

After being arrested and jailed with other Christians in 203, Vibia Perpetua, a young matron, requests a dream-vision (visio—a technical term for a prophetic dream) to determine their fate. Perpetua sees a bronze ladder reaching up to the sky where a gray-haired man offers her cheese in a paradisal garden. Scholars often use this so-called stairway to heaven in order to characterize early Christian martyrdom in North Africa as apocalyptic ascent (Balling 1994, Frankfurter 1998, Moss 2012) or to attribute such phenomena, however tangentially, to the renewal movement of the ‘New Prophecy’ (Butler 2006). While not disputing the presence of apocalyptic features in the martyrologies of North Africa, this reports contends that such descriptions tend to be homogenizing and imprecise. Instead, the present study further nuances the debate by analyzing the function of dream-visions in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis and the oneirology—i.e., the study of dream interpretation—in Tertullian’s De anima. Both documents, composed in the first fifteen years of the third century, reveal discursive practices marking boundaries around Christian identity in Roman North Africa (Rebillard 2012). Dream-visions in the Passio lend authority to the text—placing it alongside the “examples of ancient faith” (vetera fidei exempla; 1.1)—and train martyrs to die for God in the arena. The present study argues that dream-visions in the Passio, rather than fitting a form-critical definition of apocalypse or adherence to a single group identity, illuminate some third century debates of Christians with their many identities regarding prophecy, death, and dreams.

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