This account of the martyrdom of a bishop named Felix in North Africa during the Great Persecution (304 C.E.) contains many of the standard scenes of early Christian martyrology: the judicial scene before the Roman official who attempts to persuade the Christian to renounce his faith (here replicated up through the chain of Roman administrators in North Africa), the refusal of the martyr to place the commands of the emperor before the will of the Lord, and the confession of faith before execution. Other elements, however, give a sense of the particular issues and concerns at stake during this last Great Persecution. Martyrs of the second and third centuries usually refused to offer sacrifices to the genius of the emperor; here, Felix refuses to turn over the Christian Scriptures to the Roman officials, a demand made exclusively during the persecution under Diocletian. In addition, we find an extended confession on Felix's part, in which he notes not only his age and service, but the fact that he has "guarded [his] virginity." The refusal to hand over Scriptures and the rigorous ascetic practices of North African Christians became hallmarks of the later Christian movement called Donatism (see Chapter 7).
(1) Under the Augusti Diocletian (consul for the eighth time) and Maximian (consul for the seventh time), an edict of the emperors and caesars went out over the whole face of the earth. It was promulgated in the towns and cities by the officials and magistrates, each in his own area. They were to wrest by force the sacred books from the hands of bishops and presbyters.
On the Nones of June1 the edict was posted in the city of Thibiuca. At that time Magnilianus the curator ordered the seniores of the people to be brought to him. (On that same day Felix the bishop [of Thibi-uca] left for Carthage.) Magnilianus ordered Aper the
presbyter and Cyril and Vitalis the lectors to be brought to him.
(2) Magnilianus the curator said to them, "Do you have the sacred books?"
Magnilianus the curator said, "Turn them over to be burnt in the fire."
Then Aper said, "Our bishop has them with him."
Magnilianus the curator said, "Where is he?"
Magnilianus the curator said, "Then you will remain in custody until you render an account to An-ulinus the proconsul."
(3) The next day, however, Felix the bishop arrived at Thibiuca from Carthage and Magnilianus the
From Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, trans. Maureen A. Tilley. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1996. Used with permission.
curator ordered him to be brought in by an officer. Magnilianus said to him, "Are you Felix the bishop?"
Felix answered, "I am."
Magnilianus the curator said, "Turn over whatever books or parchments you have."
Felix the bishop said, "I have them but I won't turn them over."
Magnilianus the curator said, "Turn over the books so they can be burned."
Felix the bishop said, "It is better for me to be burned in the fire than the sacred Scriptures, because it is better to obey God than any human authority (Acts 5:29)."
Magnilianus the curator said, "What the emperor ordered takes priority over what you say."
Felix the bishop said, "The Lord's command takes priority over human authority."
Magnilianus the curator said, "Think it over for three days, because if you fail to obey what was commanded in this city, you will go before the proconsul and you will continue this conversation in his court."
(4) Then, after three days, the curator ordered Felix the bishop to be brought to him and he said to him, "Have you thought it over?"
Felix the bishop said, "What I said before I am saying now and I will say before the proconsul."
Magnilianus the curator said, "Then you will go to the proconsul and you will render an account there." Then Vincentius Celsinus, a decurion of the city of Thibiuca, was assigned to him as an escort.
(5) So Felix the bishop set out from Thibiuca to Carthage on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of July. When he had arrived, he was presented to the legate who ordered him to be thrown into prison. The next day, however, Felix the bishop was brought out before dawn. The legate said to him, "Why don't you hand over your useless Scriptures?"
Felix the bishop said, "I have them but I will not turn them over." So the legate ordered him to be sent into the lowest reaches of the prison.
After sixteen days Felix the bishop was brought out in chains to Anulinus the proconsul at the fourth hour of the night. Anulinus the proconsul said to him, "Why don't you give up your useless Scriptures?"
Felix the bishop responded, "I cannot give them up." At that point Anulinus the proconsul ordered him to be executed by the sword on the Ides of July.2
Felix the bishop, raising his eyes to heaven, said with a loud voice, "Thank you, God. I have been in this world for fifty-six years. I have guarded my virginity, I have served the gospel, and I have preached the truth. Lord God of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, I bend my neck to you as a sacrificial victim, you who remain forever."
When he finished speaking, he was led off by soldiers and beheaded. He was buried in [the Basilica] Fausti on the road called Scillitan.
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