Paul and Thecla

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings, Paul


What do scholars think about Paul's views on marriage as described in the Acts of Thecla?


There is no doubt that at various times, the early Church struggled with the issue of marriage. It probably stemmed from the fact that Paul and the other leaders really believed the end of the world would be coming in their lifetime. And if they really believed that, there would be little need for marriage even though this would have gone against all cultural norms and expectations. In fact, Christians (and some scholars might argue that this was more the position of Christian women than of the men) saw themselves in a different kind of "marriage." This marriage would have been a spiritual one, a marriage where Christ would be the bridegroom.

When Jesus did not return by the end of the century, the expectations of the church had to change. We begin to see some of this change in 1 Timothy, the first of three letters commonly referred to as the Pastoral Letters. 1 Timothy is a book attributed to Paul, but scholars think these letters came from a period long after Paul. The language of 1 Timothy is very different from Paul's authentic writings. Moreover, these letters reveal that the churches already had a well-established clergy, complete with deacons and presbyters.

In 1 Timothy 4:1-3, the author of this text explicitly condemns false teachings. And what are some of those false teachings? One false teaching is that people should not marry. Another one is that they must abstain from certain foods. This letter stands in opposition to such ascetic practices, which may have been influenced by Gnostics who taught all matter was evil, but that true Christianity brought freedom in Christ. The author goes on to say that everything God created was good and should be received with thanksgiving. He prays a prayer of thanksgiving that recognizes God's role in the creation of food. All is consecrated by the word of God. This gospel does not preach abstinence.

Now obviously, if Paul were the author, this letter would have been written before 62 CE. But, many think it was written by an anonymous author around 140-150 CE. That would make it rather contemporaneous with Thecla, or maybe slightly earlier. What scholars are in the process of considering is whether or not Thecla might have been written as a counterpoint to the ideas presented in 1 Timothy.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is part of a Pauline tradition that provided apostolic blessing for women's leadership roles in the church. Paul specifically told her to return to Iconiun for the expressed purpose of teaching and bringing others to the faith. And there is no doubt that these stories angered a lot of the church's strongest opponents to women's leadership. Tertullian (ca 160-230 CE) is on record as complaining that some Christians were using the stories of Thecla to legitimize women's leadership in the church – they were healing and teaching and even baptizing!

By the second century, many scholars think the women's movement had become very strong. It is likely that many of these women were choosing ministry over families. The implications for a patriarchal society cannot be overstated. Some male leaders were fighting back. So we continue to read in 1 Timothy 2:11-15: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent….Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." The irony, of course, is that childbirth was terribly unsafe for women; it was probably the leading cause of death for young women. But notice the text says they will be safe "if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety."

Plus there's another verse in 1 Timothy that might be relevant here. It's found in chapter 4, verse 7 and states: "Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives tales." Maybe some of these old wives' tales included stories like Thecla, stories that were told by women, stories that highlighted women as leaders, teachers, and healers.

What would it mean if Thecla were written as a response to this line of thinking? Most scholars think the issue is between what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians in the 50s and what the unknown author of 1 Timothy wrote (most likely) 100 years later. Yet, Paul was not teaching that women would be saved through childbirth; nor did he advocate being celibate in marriage. He did say to virgins, "I think it is good for you to remain as you are" (I Cor 7:25). What if it wasn't so much a Pauline issue as a woman's issue? That would suggest that women entered the fray and the topic was under discussion for a hundred years. Women who were doing ministry, women who were sharing the stories of women doing ministry, women who were telling stories of great healings, deliverances, miracles by other women -- these were the ones who kept these stories alive.

Isn't it ironic then, that Thecla didn't make the canon while 1 Timothy did? The one that is closer to Paul's teaching was eliminated; the one that is in variance with it was accepted. Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done on the dating and the implications of those dates to determine some of the more viable issues of the early church.

Regardless of the influence of 1 Timothy, not all women chose to be saved through childbearing. Indeed, the women's ascetic movement continued for a long time in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. Some would argue that it continues even today in the form of nunneries and other religious organizations.

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