Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.20

Rex D. Butler, The New Prophecy & "New Visions": Evidence of Montanism in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Patristic Monograph Series 18.   Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2006.  Pp. xx, 211.  ISBN 0-8132-1455-6.  $44.95.  

Reviewed by Ian H. Henderson, McGill University (
Word count: 1774 words

There can be few texts of ancient Christianity as important for scholarship as The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Written in North Africa at the beginning of the third century, the text presents itself as generically and compositionally hybrid: an editorial and narrative framework (perhaps by Tertullian) presents apparently first-hand accounts of the experiences of Perpetua and Saturus leading up to their martyrdom. A large part of the composite work therefore bids fair to be the oldest extant text written by a Christian woman, as well as one of the texts of Greco-Roman antiquity most clearly and plausibly intended to represent subjective religious experience. In terms of literary genre the text mixes martyrology, memoir and apocalypse, drawing some of its argumentative authority from each component. Both the memoir and the editorial/martyrological frame seem designed to support the somewhat controversial charismatic authority of contemporary personal (in this marked case a woman's gender-bending) revelatory experiences by combining it with the widely acknowledged though also problematic charismatic authority of martyrs. In consequence, the Passion has quite properly received scholarly analysis from an unusually wide range of theoretical perspectives.

In the volume under review here, Rex D. Butler (henceforth, B.) shows an awareness of this breadth of interest, but chooses to read the Passion from the point of view of its perceived Montanism. The choice is justifiable: Montanism ranks easily among the most interesting movements in the busy world of Christian antiquity. Spanning the key regions of Asia Minor and North Africa across generations, Montanism defined one of the perennial questions for Christianity in all times and places, in Weberian terms, the relation among co-existing charismatic and institutional authority roles. From a heresiological point of view Montanism was unusual, though not unique, as a renewal movement not easily dismissed by its detractors as doctrinally or even organisationally deviant: the "new prophecy" sought to relativize catholic hierarchy, but not to abolish it. Moreover, the Passion's general affinity with texts representing Montanism is undeniable, though the affinity can be minimized or maximized (often apologetically).

In this revised doctoral dissertation (supervised by James T. Spivey, Jr.) B. argues, on the whole persuasively, the maximalist option, that the Passion, at all levels of its redactional history, was intended to promote Montanism. The historic Perpetua and the Passion thus become evidence for understanding Montanism's inner dynamics at a particular place and time, rather than, say, Tertullian's Montanism providing merely a general background to the spiritual atmosphere behind the Passion. B. is aware that the issue of Perpetua's and/or the Passion's Montanist Tendenz is not the only focus of interest in this complex text, but he makes a good case for his choice. Unpretentiously argued, the resulting book is a good starting place . for the study of either Montanism or . Perpetua's Passion.

The first of four chapters is indeed a competent .outline of Montanism. With the Introduction, this chapter also gives a good sense of the history of scholarship on the "new prophecy." B. recognizes that the characteristic emphases of the movement -- direct experience of the Holy Spirit/Paraclete; prominence of women in charismatic leadership roles; ecstatic oracular prophecy; intense eschatological expectation; intense ascetic practice; esteem for martyrdom/martyrs-- mean that Montanism was only ever relatively distinct from adjacent competing strains of Christianity. Throughout the book, however, I am not sure that this point has really sunk in. The discussion of Montanism's "character" is, I think, symptomatic of a certain dereliction of imagination:

The study of the character of Montanism concerns its origins and purposes. Examinations into its character can be organized under three rubrics: reclamation of primitive Christianity, heterodox sectarianism, and synthesis with the Phrygian cult of Attis-Cybele. (14)

Especially, but not only, if B.'s greater thesis is correct, that Perpetua's Passion expresses the character of Montanism, the movement deserves to be characterized on some richer basis than whether it was implicitly Protestant, heretical or pagan.

B.'s second chapter, on the authorship of the Passion, ably defends the basic (and rarely challenged) authenticity of the passages attributed to Perpetua herself and to her companion Saturus. I suppose this matters, if we are to seek evidence in the Passion of actual psychological states of candidates for martyrdom and actual authority structures in North African Christianity, rather than of normative prescriptions/fictions of how prospective martyrs ought to feel. On the other hand, if an attractive, bilingual young matron really did take the trouble to generate an authentic memorandum of her pre-martyrdom apocalyptic experiences, then the issue of her relative/possible Montanism is perhaps not the main point for critical understanding. In any case, the remainder of the chapter treats the trickier question of whether the editor was Tertullian himself or someone else just like him. B., of course, would prefer to be able to say that Perpetua's (already Montanist) text was found and edited by (a famously Montanist) literary executor.

The heart of this book is its third chapter, sketching B.'s reading of the Passion itself for expressions of its authors' undeclared but, ex hypothesi, also unconcealed Montanism. At the outset, B. must acknowledge the text's fundamental ambiguity, though he does so in terms which I find unhelpful:

Each section contains a variety of allusions both Montanist and Catholic. This admixture is not surprising, considering the Carthaginian Montanists' situation as members of house churches within the larger Christian community. In fact, the value of this examination of the Passion consists not only in the appraisal of Montanist evidence but also in the discovery of the subject matter of early catechesis. (58)

B.'s reading of the Passion thus involves more than just an argument for the writers' Montanist background and apologetic goals; despite disclaimers, B. assumes a clarity of division between Montanist and Catholic identities in Carthaginian Christianity which the text, in fact, systematically belies: in keeping with the genre of martyrology, Perpetua insists to her judge, 'Christiana sum' (6.4), but in contrast with some other martyrologies there is no attempt to distinguish between catholic and illegitimate victims (Martyrdom of Polycarp 4?; Martyrdom of Pionius 11.2; 21.5-6). Indeed, Perpetua insists, to her (Christian?) father's fury, that she cannot be called anything else than 'Christian' ('ego aliud me dicere non possum nisi quod sum, Christiana' [3.3]). If B. is right, that thePassion is essentially a Montanist text, it would seem to be a Montanist text in which Catholic and Montanist identities are insistently elided, in which indeed the authors' hopes are still very much alive for peaceful reform of the bishops' church under the guidance of visionaries and martyrs like Perpetua (Passion 13). If Perpetua and the anonymous editor of the Passion were self-consciously Montanist, the projected 'Christian' audience is invited to ignore the fact.

B.'s research problem thus only arises because the Passion itself never explicitly labels anyone as "Montanist." A final chapter therefore usefully surveys the work's reception history, noting a tendency to de-emphasize the Montanist traits of Perpetua's tradition. Again, I must wonder to what extent this de-Montanising of Perpetua's legacy reflected conscious anxiety about perceived heretical traits: some aspects of the Greek translation cited by B. are clearly not anti-Montanist; others seem to me explicable as linguistic simplifications rather than ideological revision. The liturgically-oriented, abbreviated Acts omit much of the argument and dramatic detail of the Passion, but this has potentially as much to do with liturgical conformity and literary genre as with doctrinal, confessional worries. Certainly, as B. notices, Perpetua and Felicitas were early accepted as martyrs in the widest circles of Latin Christianity without any taint of heresy or schism, so that "by the time formal schism developed between Montanists and Catholics" the Passion and its heroines were too well established to be discredited even among the latter. (105) We may wonder with Harnack whether North African Montanism ever became as segregated from "Catholic" Christianity as it did in Asia Minor. Even B. notes -- surely correctly -- that this early acceptance of the Passion by all parties is "evidence of compatibility between Montanists and Catholics in Carthage" at the beginning of the third century (104). Yet such compatibility cuts against the clarity of B.'s thesis: when the Passion was composed, some Carthaginian Christians (such as the Greek-speaking (13) Perpetua?) were consciously under the influence of the "new prophecy," many more were attracted to charismatic prophets and martyrs, and some were worried by threats to biblical and episcopal authority, but was even Tertullian thought of consistently or clearly as a "Montanist"? Following Kenneth Steinhauser, B. argues that Augustine two centuries later was neither unaware of nor indifferent to the Passion's Montanist "overtones." (105) Instead he apparently accepted aspects of the Passion's narrative and of Perpetua's popular cult and made the best of them in his pastoral context. But this again tells against treating North African Montanist tendencies too consistently as anything like an organized schismatic identity.

B.'s interesting comparison of the Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne seems to me to crystallize the inability of his thesis to handle the softness of boundaries between Montanist tendencies and other strains of Christian discipline, at least outside Montanism's organisational homeland. Following Heinrich Kraft, B. concludes

...that the Gallic Christians represented an early, proto-Montanistic (vormontanistische) expression of faith, which was less strict and schismatic, due to the smaller Christian population in Gaul compared to Asia and Africa.

Kraft's thesis provides an explanation for the similarities and differences between the letter and the Passion. Both the Gallic and the Carthaginian communities were influenced by Montanism. In Lyons and Vienne, however, the influence was less direct and from an earlier, moderate source. Therefore, the Passion, despite its similarities to the Gallic letter, is a uniquely Montanistic document... (120)

Montanist influences in Gaul may indeed have been more moderate than those in Africa a generation later. Nonetheless this does not explain the most important similarity of the Letter and the Passion: both express Montanist-sounding values without ever explicitly mentioning Montanism. Both texts seem unselfconsciously Montanist and, indeed, deliberately designed to influence audiences toward Montanist devotional sympathies, but not toward any institutionalized separation from other Christians on Montanist principles, or any loyalty to distinctively Montanist leaders. If these two texts represent Montanist apologetics against anti-Montanist attacks, then those apologetics are singularly low-key and non-sectarian in tone. If the Passion is "a uniquely Montanistic document," B. fails to persuade that it was ever perceived as unacceptably or distinctively so.

In general, then, this sensible and well-presented book suffers mainly from its own virtue: it takes a clear and straightforward position on the relationship between one of early Christianity's most evocative texts and one of its most interesting and under-documented movements. The result is, perhaps, a little too clear.

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