The Acts of (Paul) and Thecla

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The story of these Acts begins abruptly, which suggests that it was part of a larger work, or that the beginning was lost. Almost from the beginning, several Church Fathers (i.e. Tertullian, ca 190) spoke against these texts primarily for their advocacy of women as able to preach or baptize. Despite such disapproval, many versions -- Latin, Coptic, Greek, and Ethiopic -- have survived, indicating that it circulated widely and was used over many centuries.

Besides being an interesting and compelling story, there are several noteworthy aspects that should be mentioned. Perhaps one of the most interesting is the physical description of Paul. He was described as "a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built, with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace. For sometimes he seemed like a man, and sometimes he had the countenance of an angel." This description forms the basis for much of the art that has portrayed Paul over the centuries. And while the physical description is fascinating and fun, there are other statements about Paul in these texts that are quite disturbing and have major implications. For example, the whole theme of the story (and the major reason for its rejection as a canonical piece) is that a woman (Thecla) was authorized to preach and to baptize. Ironically, she did not do this within the role of a traditional woman. She did everything to make herself look like a man, including cutting her hair and dressing as a man would dress. But the fact is, she still had her own ministry – and was very successful at it.

Within the story, Thecla's role made a great deal of sense since the main message of Paul's preaching was that people should remain pure in anticipation of the resurrection. This meant that young women were renouncing husbands and young men were renouncing wives. This particular message of asceticism is what got Thecla into trouble time and time again. Whenever she was in trouble, Paul was nowhere to be found. Twice, she chose to forego an opportunity to marry men who weren't used to being rebuffed. And they didn't handle her rejection well. Though she was rescued both times, the fact remains that she defied the societal expectations at will. This message was extremely popular among women at the time, which might also explain why the Church Fathers rejected it.

The book opens with Paul being on his way up to Iconium after leaving Antioch. He resided at the house of Onesiphorus where he preached the word of God about resurrection and purity. Living next door, Thecla listened to him speak day and night about virginity and was mesmerized by his message. Neither her mother nor her fiancé was able to interrupt her reverie.

Angry about losing his bride, the fiancé brought Paul before the public officials, charging him with destroying their society. Paul was placed in prison, and that night Thecla snuck out to be in his presence and to learn as much as she could about his teachings. The next morning they were both taken to the governor, who ordered Paul flogged and expelled from the city. Thecla, however, was to be burned at the stake. Though she was placed on a blazing pyre, Thecla was not harmed. A huge rain and hail storm put out the fire.

Now saved, Thecla was free to find Paul and accompany him to Pisidian Antioch. They had barely arrived before another nobleman fell in love at first sight. He offered to buy her from Paul, who said he didn't even know her! Thecla, meanwhile, rebuffed the nobleman's advances, which embarrassed him among his fellow citizens. His response was to take her to the governor on the charge of assaulting a nobleman. Much to the dismay of the women of the town, she was condemned to the wild beasts. In order to safeguard her purity during the night, Tryphaena, a noblewoman, took her home.

The next morning, Thecla was bound to a fierce lioness that did nothing but lick her feet. That angered the nobleman all the more, and other dangerous animals were brought in. The women of the city cried out in protest, but to no avail. A lioness intervened and kept her safe. At one point, Thecla saw a vat of water and jumped in it in order to baptize herself. Though the vat was filled with flesh eating seals, none of them hurt her. Then even more dangerous animals were brought in, but she remained unharmed. Finally, Tryphaena fainted, and the "games" were called to a halt.

Freed again, Thecla searched for Paul until she found him. After hearing all that had happened, Paul told her to "Go, and teach the word of God." Tryphaena had sent her much clothing and gold, much of which Thecla gave to Paul for the service of the poor. Then she went back to Iconium where she found that Thamyris had died, but her mother was alive. She converted her mother and provided for her the rest of her life. Thecla, however, went on to Seleucia where she dwelt in a cave for 72 years, enlightening many about the word of God, caring for the poor, and healing all those in need.

There are two endings to the story. The longer one states that Thecla resided in a mountain cave near Seleucia. She was there many years, undergoing many trials, but bearing them nobly, being assisted by Christ. Some of the well-born women learned the oracles of God from her and lived an ascetic life with her. Many cures were done by her to the point that the physicians of Seleucia had nothing to do. So they plotted against her by sending disorderly men to defile her. She prayed mightily to be kept from harm, and with that a rock opened. She fled from the lawless ones into the opening, and as soon as she entered, the rock closed.

The shorter ending includes the attack, but adds what happened after she entered the rock. She departed to Rome to see Paul, but found that he had fallen asleep. After a short time, she also rested in a glorious sleep. She was buried about two or three stadia from the tomb of her master Paul. All told, she was cast into the fire when seventeen years old and among the wild beasts when eighteen. She was an ascetic in the cave for seventy-two years: she lived until she was ninety.

That Thecla was highly influential in early Christianity is borne out by several statements made about her by early church fathers. Of Thecla they have said: "she was venerated from the shores of the Caspian almost to the shores of the Atlantic." Several churches were dedicated to her. One has a wall design showing Paul preaching to her. In Rome, scholars found a sarcophagus portraying Paul and Thecla traveling together in a boat. At least three countries claim her burial place: Turkey, Syria, and Rome, Italy." One tradition even has her traveling with Paul to Spain.

Somewhere in the tradition she became a saint. The Eastern Church refers to her as equal to the Apostles. There is a Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla in Syria, supposedly near the cave where she was martyred. There, nuns and novices continue to care for the poor and the orphaned. Santa Tecla is the patron saint of Tarragona, Spain.

Since about 1980, scholars have been very interested in the Acts of Thecla. Her sexuality is always an issue. Sexual continence seemed to be the way that women were active in the church. We never hear of anyone juggling a ministry and a family. So, were these early workers the first feminists? They definitely went against the culture in choosing not to have a traditional family where the husband was in charge and the woman was confined to the household – and to having children. These women took Paul's words to heart: "In Christ there is no male or female." All were equal.

Today, however, most scholars see Thecla as a model embodying the traditional values of the church. She spent her days in prayer and doing good works. Even if her life had been mostly fictionalized, it would have been incredible to find a woman teaching and evangelizing on her own in the second-century among Paul's disciples. It is also possible that her story illustrates how women who chose to go against the grain by not marrying or getting engaged or staying married to unbelievers might have contributed to the growing animosity between early Christian groups and Greco-Roman society.

There is no doubt that Thecla, with Paul's blessing, was a missionary in her own right. And it does not seem as though her ministry was confined to women. It says that she enlightened "many." If "many" referred to women only, the translators would have made that fact painstakingly clear. As it is, people are only beginning to look at Thecla's life and influence. As more scholars take up the study, there is no question we will gain a fuller glimpse of what life was like in the early centuries – for both men and women! And maybe someday, Thecla will be a household name once again.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha