Thecla

Contributor

Date

Location

Map

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

The Acts of Paul and Thecla

Historical Context

Thecla’s story is set during Paul’s First’s Missionary Journey in 46-48 CE, where he established the first churches in Asia Minor and Cyprus, as well as ministered to the Jewish populations in the area. Although Paul was never an actual disciple of Jesus, he was and continues to be one of the most influential Christian leaders from the first century.

During the time period in which this text was written, women were not afforded the same freedom of movement they enjoy in modern Western societies. Considered socially inferior, women during this time typically functioned as homemakers and were the physical reflection of the financial trade between families during a marriage. Females of strong and independent beliefs were not respected, and often times women going outside the boundaries set by their families were disowned.

Summary

At the beginning of her story, Thecla is 17 and engaged to a man by the name of Thamyris. Paul has just arrived in her city of Iconium, and she sits unwaveringly by her window listening to his teachings on virginity and chastity. Thamyris and Thecla’s family become upset by her devotion to Paul’s words, because following a life of chastity would prevent her from marrying and having a family. In their anger, they convince the local authorities of Iconium to put Paul on trial, but Thecla comes to his defense. Thecla’s mother is furious because of Thecla’s disobedience and orders her to be burned at the stake. When she is bound naked to the stake, the wood piled around her is lit and her death seems imminent, God prevents the fire from touching her by summoning a storm of rain and hail to put out the fire and scatter the crowd.

Once she is no longer bound, Thecla escapes Iconium and sets off to find and follow Paul. The next leg of Paul’s journey led them to Antioch. An “influential citizen” of the city named Alexander fell in love with Thecla and tried to win her affection. When Thecla ignored his attempts, he tried to force his affection upon her by “embracing her in the street.” After yelling and trying to escape, Thecla tears off his cloak and pulls off his crown, humiliating him. Her disorderly behavior earns her another trip to the local court, where she is condemned to the wild beasts.

A prominent local woman named Tryphaena took Thecla under her protection and followed Thecla as she is tied to a lioness to be dragged through the city. The lioness refused to drag Thecla through the city, but licked Thecla’s feet instead. Thecla is sent to the stadium to fight the wild beasts after being taken through the city, while the townspeople gather to watch. She was given only a girdle to wear as the lions and bears were released to kill her. The lioness, who refused to drag her through the city, again refused to participate in her humiliation, protecting Thecla by killing the other animals.

After the lioness was eventually killed and could protect her no more, Thecla baptized herself in a pool of water. The baptism’s effects prevented the beasts from touching her, while also preventing her nudity from being seen by the onlookers. Outraged because she would not die, Alexander bound her feet between two bulls. He put coals under the bulls’ genitals to anger them, so that they might tear Thecla apart. Thecla was protected once more when the coals caught her ropes on fire, setting her free. At the sight of Thecla being freed once more, Tryphaena faints and the governor put a stop to the games, as he thought Tryphaena had died. The governor of Antioch then issued an edict setting Thecla free, and Tryphaena took her in.

Thecla soon set off to find Paul once more. Before Thecla left to find Paul, she altered a mantle to create a man’s cloak and shaved her head, changing her image to that of a man, allowing her to preach throughout the land. She went to Paul, taking riches from Tryphaena to help the poor. After she met with Paul, she ventured on to Iconium in order to convert her mother, and from there she continued to spread the word of God until she passed away in the city of Seleucia.

A later work, The Life and Miracles of St. Thecla, extends Thecla’s story even further. According to this manuscript, Thecla continued spreading the word of God for seventy-two years, living in a cave outside of Seleucia, surviving off only herbs and water. Some followed her, living an ascetic life, while others brought their sick to her to be healed. All was well in this way until physicians from the city, whom she had put out of work with her healing, decided to finally defile Thecla. These physicians showed up to her cave, drunk with wine, trying to reach Thecla. Seeing Thecla in danger once more, God saved her one last time by opening up a rock, sealing Thecla inside. There, as a ninety-year-old woman, Thecla was protected from harm for the rest of history.

Significance

The most significant aspect of Thecla’s martyrdom is that she never, in fact, died; yet she is well known as the first female martyr for the Christians. There were multiple murder attempts throughout her account, but God saved her through each, because he saw that she had strong faith. Her very status as a martyr is questionable for this reason, as well as ambiguity and historical inconsistencies within the text. Some believe that her account may be a fictional narrative rather than a historical document.

Secondly, her close ties with Paul have many implications. The roles of females in the Christian Faith have been controversial for centuries. A comparison of Paul’s language between the Thecla account and the canonical Pauline texts does not clear up the ambiguity. For example, Paul (or someone writing as Paul) specifically commands that he does not “permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man, she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 1:12). Yet in Thecla’s case, he was the one who directly commanded her to spread the gospel. She not only walks alongside Paul as an equal, but she spreads the faith on her own throughout most of her lifetime.

Further questions regarding her femininity also arise throughout the story. The account raises questions about gender because she dresses as a man, shaving her hair and altering her garments to appear as a man. Her self-baptism in the story has also sparked much controversy, as it was seen as justifying the practice of women baptizing, which was not generally permitted at the time.

Finally, Thecla’s account led her to be one of the most popular female saints of early Christianity. Her popularity was not always in a positive light. The Christ writer Tertullian says that the author of the Thecla account was a presbyter who lost his position, because the story supported baptizing by women, even though he wrote the story out of his love for Paul (On Baptism 17). A cult  (veneration) of Thecla developed from Asia Minor into Egypt and farther, justifying just how strongly her story spoke to others, whether it was a true account or not.

Bibliography

Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Cobb, L. Stephanie. Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Davis, Stephen J. The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.



Dulk, Matthijs den. "I permit no woman to teach except for Thecla: the curious case of the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul reconsidered." Novum Testamentum 54.2 (2012): 176-203. 

Elliott, J. K. The Acts of Paul and Thecla. In The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Lipsius, R. A. and M. Bonnet, eds. Acta Pauli et Theclae. Pages 235-72 in vol. 1 of Acta apostolorvm apocrypha post Constantinvm Tischendorf. Leipzig: Mendelssohn, 1891. Repr., Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1972.

Streete, Gail Corrington. Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Image Credit

By Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Citation

“Thecla,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed December 12, 2018, http://www.mappingthemartyrs.org/items/show/36.