Seton Hall University

Core II Students Explore Early Christian Texts  

Stained Glass Window in Chapel depicting Jesus speaking to three people. During this third week of Core II, students will most likely be reading the required text, "the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas," which consists for the most part of Perpetua's prison journal, and at least one of the optional writings from Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Augustine of Hippo. Last year, I wrote in some detail about Perpetua at this time, so for this year, I will focus on how she connects with the other three writers.

Perpetua was a young North African noblewoman killed for her faith in Carthage under the reign of Septimius Severus in the year 203. Accompanied by six others, including Felicitas, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, Perpetua was a new mother, still nursing her infant son when arrested. Her prison journal attests to the emotional struggle of concern for her baby, her passionate and painful encounters with her pagan father (who was trying to persuade her to renounce her faith), and her spiritual maturity and courage as she became strengthened in her resolve to cling to her new-found faith, no matter the cost.

Tertullian is believed by many to be the person who completed the story of Perpetua and her companions from the time her journal ends, telling the story of what happened in the arena. Like her, he also was a leader in the African church and wrote powerfully in defense of the faith. Though trained in philosophy, he did not incline toward blending his new faith with other perspectives (though his writings show his classical training), as we can see in his famous rhetorical question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" He was a powerful defender of his fellow believers, though he himself did not die a martyr.

Justin Martyr, the only one of this group of writers who was not from Africa, was born in Flavia Neapolis, a Roman city in Samaria, and, like Tertullian, Perpetua, and Augustine (as we shall see) received a good classical education. However, he was unsatisfied with the various philosophies he was taught and became a Christian. He wrote in defense of the faith, trying to show how Christianity is the true philosophy, fulfilling the hopes and hints of prior beliefs. Unlike Tertullian, Justin used Greek philosophical terms, like "Logos," to try to explain the new faith to non-believers. He even argued that philosophers like Socrates who were devoted to the truth were proto-Christians. He died, like Perpetua, a martyr, but under the reign of Marcus Aurelius and in Rome. He was beheaded with some of his students.

Finally, Augustine was born in Thagaste, Numidia (present day Algeria) in 354. Being born after the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal in 313, Augustine did not face the persecutions endured by the other three early Christian writers. However, he was close enough to their legacy to value them deeply and, in fact, wrote about Perpetua, once warning believers not to put her journal on the level with Scripture, though honoring the lives of her and her companion martyrs in several sermons. Augustine wrote his City of God during the period when Rome (and its extended empire, reaching to North Africa, where he lived and ministered as a bishop) was under attack by tribes from the northern parts of Europe. In this text, he explores how Christians should live both in this world, the City of Humanity, (which to him and his contemporaries seemed to be falling apart) and, at the same time but more importantly, the City of God, the heavenly City. Living in both cities at once requires an awareness of how the values of heaven should affect the way believers live on earth, even when living "in the world." Augustine died in 430, while the Vandals were attacking Hippo, the seat of his bishopric. His influence on the theology of the church, including all forms of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) is incalculable.

Students can read these great writers alone or in conversation. Many of the issues explored by them are relevant to today's problems, which are as complex and significant as those they faced in the early years of Christianity.

Categories: Arts and Culture , Education , Faith and Service

For more information, please contact:

  • Nancy Enright
  • (973) 275-4847