Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Today I've been studying Thecla, the heroine of the apocryphal Acts of Paul & Thecla. This work was probably written down around 160-180CE, but is based on oral traditions surround the apostle Paul and the lesser-known Thecla. She is a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and she had a cult following for the several centuries after her death and especially in the 5th-9th centuries.

It's interesting to note that most of the apocryphal acts of the apostles feature key female figures...and most of the Christian books that made it into the Bible don't. There's usually a good reason for the apocryphal books not making it into the canon, but it's unfortunate that all the books featuring women were left out. Thecla's story is fairly fantastical, but so are the stories of Daniel in the lion's den, or Jesus walking on water.

Thecla is a young woman engaged to be married to the first man of the city of Iconium, but she hears Paul preaching and becomes enthralled with the teachings about Christ. She believes Paul that it is best for people to remain virgins so they can focus on God exclusively. She vows to remain a virgin, and her fiance and mother are upset. They have Paul arrested, but Thecla sneaks in to be with him and continue hearing about Christ. This makes them even angrier, so when Paul & Thecla go to trial, Paul is flogged and thrown out of the city, and Thecla--at her mother's request--is sentenced to be burned to death. God saves her from the fire and she escapes and follows Paul, but is again captured by the authorities (and ignored by Paul) so that she is put in the arena with wild animals twice. A woman of Antioch, Queen Tryphaena, takes her in and makes sure her virginity is kept pure before she goes to the arena. Tryphaena faints at the sight of Thecla in danger, but Thecla is not in true danger because the animals will do her no harm--or if they try, the fierce lioness keeps the other animals away from her. Thecla, thinking she will die, baptizes herself in the arena, but she is released because it becomes clear that God is keeping her safe. She speaks the gospel to those watching in the arena. She finds Paul again and asks to go with him but he won't let her because it's too dangerous for a woman to travel on the open road. So she goes home to Iconium and preaches and makes many converts there, healing many, and is translated to heaven when she is ninety.

Now, perhaps we wouldn't exactly want this story in the canon, because it explicitly reveres celibacy and asceticism, but at the same time, it also shows a strong female character who baptizes, preaches and heals. She refuses to let anyone keep her from preaching and doing what God wants her to do, even the apostle Paul. In some ways she is a stereotypical heroine that an ascetic community would champion, but we have to keep in mind that in her culture, she had two options, both of which defined her by her sexual status: she could be wife and mother, or she could be a celibate saint. This is not to say that she could not follow God as a wife and mother, but she would have had far less freedom in her culture as a wife and mother than she could as a single woman known for her healing powers, physical salvation from wild beasts, and voice that could speak the truth of God.

Apparently women in the second century were using Thecla's story to legitimate women baptizing, teaching and preaching, because Tertullian wrote against this story, saying that it was not true, and even if it was it shouldn't be used to allow women to minister publicly. We may not have much witness to women's leadership in the centuries following the time of the apostles, but that is a witness (if only from the curtailment of it) that women were practicing ministers in some congregations.

Ascetics and monastics for centuries took encouragement from Thecla's story, and I do too. I'm glad I don't have to choose between the two options she had, but in her situation I would probably have chosen similarly.

Here are some links about Thecla:

Full text of Acts of Paul & Thecla (it's not very long)

The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women article by Nancy A Carter

1 comment:

Joy said...

Thank you. I am glad I visited here and followed and thus read the provided links.

As a wife and mother, I can say it would be very hard for me to have the freedom that Thecla needed.

I think it's kind of "neat" that we Friends allow women to preach, teach and be leaders in church.

Your blog always gets me thinking!