NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Most doctoral students dream of seeing their dissertation in print. Rex Butler, associate professor of church history and patristics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has seen that dream realized.
In 2006, the Catholic University of America Press published his doctoral study of the deaths of early Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas. But the attention given to Butler’s expertise didn’t stop there. He participated in the filming of a documentary on the event, which occurred in 203 A.D. in Carthage, an ancient North African city located in present-day Tunisia.
Robert Fernandez produced the documentary, which will be distributed by Torchlighters, a company that produces animated children’s videos about Christian heroes. Previous Torchlighters videos have focused on William Tyndale, John Bunyan and Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador’s Auca people group. Torchlighters includes with each animated video a live action documentary on the same subject.
“Robert contacted me and asked me to participate,” Butler said. “I expected him to come to New Orleans. He decided he wanted to go on location and film from the amphitheatre where Perpetua was martyred, from Bursa Hill where she was imprisoned and from some other sites that provide a backdrop from the Roman Empire.”
Butler was on location in Tunisia from Dec. 16-27. To His surprise, his role in the film was much more than mere interviewee.
“I expected for them to ask me questions and for me to answer them,” he said. “It ended up being a lot of drama as well as a lot of teaching.
“The focus of the interview was the Passion of Perpetua, which includes her diary about her imprisonment and the visions she had in prison, the vision of heaven that was recorded by Saturus her teacher and an eyewitness account of the deaths of all the martyrs,” Butler recounted.
The Passion of Perpetua tells the story of six Christians who were imprisoned and killed for their faith. Five of the martyrs were catechumens, or new believers who had not yet been baptized. The sixth prisoner was the young Christians’ teacher, Saturus. Their martyrdom took place during the reign of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Seeking harmony through syncretism (the blending or merging of religious belief systems), Septimius Severus outlawed conversion to Christianity and Judaism.
“Roman religion was polytheistic and relatively tolerant of other religions,” Butler said. “As the Roman Empire spread, they would assimilate other religions into their own. They really did not object to worship of gods other than their Roman gods as long as the new religion’s adherents would worship the Roman emperor.”
Butler called this emperor worship the “predominant religious glue” that held the empire together. Refusing to worship the emperor was considered treason, and that became a major source of conflict between Christianity and the empire.
“They had to speak the confession ‘Caesar is Lord,'” Butler said. “For Christians, only Jesus is Lord.”
Of course, there were still conversions to Christianity. And that’s where Perpetua, her teacher and her companions enter the story.
“Perpetua was a young noblewoman who was newly married and had an infant son,” Butler said. “The other converts were all slaves, perhaps from Perpetua’s household. When Perpetua was arrested, her father begged her to renounce her faith in Christ, but she refused.”
Perpetua was imprisoned at Bursa Hill, the governmental seat of Carthage. Part of the documentary was actually filmed from the Bursa Hill dungeon where Perpetua and the others were most likely held.
“When she first arrived there, she said the dungeon was dark, it stank and it was hot,” Butler said. “The deacons of her church were able to bribe the guards to allow her to receive her infant son. When she had him and was able to nurse him, she said the prison became a palace and that there was no place she’d rather be.”
While in prison, Perpetua was able to keep a diary. Butler said she recorded three visions, all of which focused on her approaching martyrdom and the afterlife. Saturus also had a vision that is similar to the vision recorded in Revelation chapters 4 and 5.
“The diaries must have been passed on to someone they knew in their congregation,” Butler said. “One of the martyrs died in prison. The other five faced wild beasts in the arena.”
Perpetua and Felicitus, another female martyr, were tied to and beaten by a wild heifer. A leopard killed Saturus. Perpetua survived the heifer, so a gladiator was ordered to kill her.
“The final story goes that Perpetua was dispatched by a young, inexperienced gladiator,” Butler recounted. “When he went to strike her, he missed his aim and struck her collarbone. It’s said that Perpetua actually had to guide the gladiator’s sword to her throat.”
The passion story then closes with a benediction.
“O most brave and blessed martyrs,” the benediction says. “O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom whoever magnifies, and honors, and adores, assuredly ought to read these examples for the edification of the Church … Amen.”
The full passion narrative is available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers/0324.htm. For more information about the documentary featuring Rex Butler, visit the Torchlighters website at http://chi.gospelcom.net/torchlighers.