Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian, and Cyprian

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Prophecy in Carthage:Perpetua, Tertullian, and Cyprian. By Cecil M. Robeck, Tr. (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press. 1992. PD. xii, 329. $29.95.)

The phenomenon of prophecy in the New Testament and early Christian literature has not always received its due. That imbalance is beginning to receive correction through such good research as that by David Aune, David Hill, and Christopher Rowland. We may now also add the name of Cecil Robeck, who in this book undertakes the task of providing a historical and theological account of prophetic gifts in North African Carthage during the first half of the third century. Robeck investigates the Passion of Perpetua and the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian to determine what factors gave rise to the visions and oracles reported by these authors, what backgrounds account for their symbolism, and what factors influenced their interpretations and applications. Robeck, wisely (I think), eschews any attempt to explain psychologically the prophetic gifts mentioned in these signal figures of early North African Christianity. In his introduction he distinguishes between "prophetic function" (interpretation, application, and effect on other Christians) from the "prophetic person," and he makes clear that this book concerns itself only with "prophetic function" (p. 4). In the conclusion, however, Robeck contends that certain psychological factors were at work in the visions and oracles and that further work "in psycho-history and/or psychoanalysis would be helpful." Having read a little of that already, I am not so sure.

Overall Robeck presents an insightful and balanced analysis of the prophetic material found in the writings of Perpetua,Tertullian, and Cyprian. He evinces a thorough familiarity with the primary sources and the secondary scholarship and is judicious in his own argument and conclusions. While he certainly at times engages other scholars in debate, a strength of the book is Robeck's concentration on the texts themselves. Since the author declares himself to be a "lifelong Pentecostal," the overall balance and good judgment of the book is to be commended. This is a book of good scholarship; special pleading is on the whole absent.

Robeck's discussion of the visions of Perpetua and Saturus is perhaps the least creative of his sections. He breaks no really new ground for our understanding of these visions, although his conclusions, I would judge, are largely correct. I remain, with Robeck, of the opinion that the Passion of Perpetua is not Montanist and is an example of mainstream North African Christianity. The chapter on Perpetua's visions of Dinocrates (Pass. Perp. 7) includes a good discussion on the Greco-Roman background of the imagery. Yet, I think Robeck overemphasizes Perpetua's "anxiety" (pp. 54f.). The discussion of Perpetua's climbing the ladder (Pass. Perp. 4), although largely fine, has some doubtful elements. The "two ways" notion in Judaism hardly is the background for the image of the ladder, and therefore the ladder is not a "symbol of the Christian life itself" (p. 27). It seems evident to me that the ladder simply symbolizes the martyrdom which Perpetua is about to undergo. The figure of the Shepherd addresses Perpetua as "child" upon her arriving at the top of the ladder. Robeck's discussion of this address is meager, although he does note that the address is in Greek and therefore is a traditional form of address. Suggestive is Robeck's claim that Christian catechesis based on certain extra-biblical and biblical books provided the raw material for Perpetua's understanding of her visions. Tipping his hat to contemporary women's studies, Robeck is disappointingly taken with the idea of gender transformation in Perpetua's vision of the Egyptian in which she becomes a man." This transformation is said to be an example of women's empowerment in the early Church, an idea that almost certainly never occurred to Perpetua herself. That Robeck fishes in Gnostic waters for adequate background here is indicative that in this discussion he is astray. …