Thursday, 30 April 2015

Megan DeVore: ‘New Converts’ or Catechumeni? Revisiting the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis

While abundant interpretive dialogue continues to transpire in regards to the early third-century Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, a ubiquitous assumption with significant exegetical consequences remains to be called into question. The Passio purports to narrate the trial, prison experience, and deaths of six Christians in Carthage.  Passio scholarship past and present asserts that since five of these martyrs are adolescentes catechumeni (2.1.1), their Christian identity and instruction was nascent, exiguous at best. This is particularly significant because one among them, the elite matron Vibia Perpetua, is a main character and the second narrator within the text.  The pervasive assumption that the catechumens are ‘new converts’ has cultivated dismissive interpretive engagement with her voice in particular: any apparent engagement with sophisticated Christian concepts or vocabularies must be clever mimicry, muddled vestiges of paganism, or oneiric symbolism.  This paper counters that we cannot assume that ‘catechumen’ equates to incipient exposure to Christian texts, oral teachings, corporate practices and identities, etc. Variegated contemporary sources and scholarship on the catechumenate, in fact, indicate that though catechetical praxis featured variations depending upon time, place, and participants, some generalities may be discerned. Suppositions about the adjective ‘catechumen’ in Passio studies  are thus challenged, and, consequentially, it is insinuated that interpretive endeavor can seek potentially mature engagement with Christian texts, traditions, and teachings among the Passio catechumens.  The implications of this study affect exegesis of this text but also contribute to gender studies and scholarship on early Christian identities and practices.

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