Re Thecla, then other commentary:
The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women
by Nancy A. Carter*
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Women, Paul and Early Christianity
A Contemporary Christian Icon of Saint Thecla
The Acts of Paul and Thecla is part of a Pauline tradition that provided apostolic blessing for women's leadership roles in the church. Although the events related in the Acts are legendary, a real Thecla may have lived in Asia Minor. Like many stories about Jesus and the Apostles, originally her tales were told orally. The content of the book, with its wealth of women characters, most of whom support each other (including a lioness who protects Thecla!), suggests Thecla's adventures were popular in women's circles.
An orthodox Christian, probably from Asia Minor, penned the Acts of Thecla between 160-190. The book circulated in several languages, including Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. The Syrian and Armenian churches included the Acts of Thecla in their early biblical canons. It is now a part of the Christian apocrypha.
The extant manuscripts reflect masculine editing that probably de-emphasized Paul's support of women's leadership. No longer present are references to Thecla's baptizing others, which were most likely in the earliest stories. Even so, the Acts of Thecla includes a story about Thecla baptizing herself with Paul's blessing! Later Paul commissions her to return to her home town Iconium to teach and evangelize.
A Women's Tradition
Although Thecla's adventures were popular, particularly in Asia Minor, the stories angered some of the church's best known opponents to women's leadership. The African church father Tertullian (160-230) complained that some Christians were using the example of Thecla to legitimate women's roles of teaching and baptizing in the church (On Baptism 17).
The controversy among different Christian groups about women's roles is reflected in the Bible. For example, 1 Timothy 4:7 warned, "Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives tales." Quite possibly "old wives tales" alludes to stories told by women that supported female leadership roles.1
By the turn of the first century, the landscape and expectations of the church had changed. Paul and other church leaders had believed that the end of the world was coming soon, in their lifetime. For this reason, certain institutions, such as marriage, were de-emphasized in order to prepare for the Christ's return. Christians were preparing for a different kind of "marriage"-- to the Heavenly Bridegroom. Now Christian leadership realized that the time of Jesus' return could not be known and that they needed to approach life differently.
The Pastoral Epistles, I & II Timothy and Titus, rejected ascetic values like those embodied by Thecla and the women prophets in Corinth. I Timothy (100 -110 C.E.) proclaimed that teachings which forbade marriage and demanded abstinence from certain foods came from "deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons" (4:1-3). In the Acts of Paul, those who became Christian also chose chastity. Paul and Thecla were vegetarians and teetotalers, perhaps because of a cultural belief that meat and alcohol inflamed sexual passion. The author of I Timothy instructed, "No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (5:23). 2
In the second century, the women's ascetic movement had become too strong for the taste some of the male leadership. In stark contrast to the letters of Paul, I Timothy declared that women would not be saved by living chaste lives but rather through bearing children (2:15). Paul had proposed in his first letter to the Corinthians (7:9) that it was better to marry than "burn" ("be aflame with passion," NRSV); he preferred but did not insist that Christians choose sexual continence. Calvin Roetzel observes that "in spite of Paul's preference for celibacy as a divine gift (I Cor. 7:7), scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to this historical datum of the apostle's life."3
Both the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul and Thecla drew upon material in Paul's letters and other sources. In reality, Paul certainly did not teach that women must birth children in order to be saved; neither did he insist that women remain virgins or cease sexual activity in marriage in order to be saved. "The only passages in the Acts of Thecla which explicitly condemn marriage (the Encratite heresy) are 2:16 and 4:2, and it will be noted that the speaker is not Paul himself but his accuser attributing this view to the Apostle" [Pachomius Library Notes]. In this instance, the noncanonical writing is truer to Paul's teaching than the canonical one.
The Power of Thecla and Her Story
In the Early Church
Without a doubt, Thecla and Paul were key symbols for the ideals of early Christian ascetic movements, especially in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. Obviously the women's ascetic movement did not end, even though the Pastoral Epistles declared women's salvation was bearing children. Christian ascetic practices by both men and women continue to this day.
The power of Thecla's story spread throughout early Christianity. Following are just a few illustrations. Several early church fathers from both the East and West praised Thecla as a model of feminine chastity. She became "venerated from the shores of the Caspian almost to the shores of the Atlantic. In the fourth century a church in Antioch of Syria was dedicated to Thecla. Another church in Eschamiadzin, Iberia, from the fifth century has a wall design showing Paul preaching to her. In Egypt [are several examples of art]. In Rome, scholars found a sarcophagus graced by a relief portraying Paul and Thecla traveling together in a boat."4 At least three places claim her burial place: Meryemlik [Ayatekla], Turkey; Maalula, Syria; and Rome, Italy.
Tradition says that Thecla traveled with Paul to Spain. Another apocryphal Acts which mentions Thecla is the Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca (c. 270). Some women in Spain hear Paul's preaching and leave their husbands to follow him.
In the Modern Church
Called "Equal to the Apostles," Thecla is especially revered in the Eastern church. In Maalula, Syria, the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla, built near a cave said to be the martyr's, the nuns and novices continue in her tradition, which included care of orphans and assisting those who were poor. Santa Tecla (Spanish for "Saint Thecla") is the patron saint of Tarragona, Spain.
In the early 1980s, interest in the Acts of Thecla revived in Christian scholarship, particularly though not exclusively among women scholars. Whereas Thecla's virginity was her most praised aspect by early church fathers such as Methodius (c. 300), some modern writings emphasize how sexual continence provided a means for early Christian women take leadership in the church.
In modern times, virginity is viewed as a conservative value but, in early Christianity, abstention from sex empowered women in new ways. They became the "feminists" of their day, no longer participating in the traditional hierarchy of the household where the patriarch was in charge and woman's primary role was childbearing. For example, one way the ascetic women prophets in Corinth celebrated their new life in Christ was through ecstatic prayer and prophesy. In Christ there was no male or female; all were of equal status.
Today the figure of Thecla is seen as reflecting primarily traditional values that the post-apostolic church encouraged in women, including prayer and contemplation, but also challenging opposition to women's leadership in other aspects of early Christian life. For example, Margaret Y. MacDonald says, "Even if Thecla's life is purely fictional, it remains significant that in second-century Pauline circles, a woman could be depicted as a teacher and evangelist in her own right.... Moreover, her story sheds light on how women who chose to remain unmarried or who dissolved engagements and marriages to unbelievers may have contributed to growing hostility between early Christian groups and Greco-Roman society."5 Gail Corrington Streete observes that some women in the Christian apocryphal literature are given "a place in the line of apostolic authority" in that they exercise leadership even when male apostles are not present, such as Thecla. She, with Paul's blessing, baptized herself and was commissioned as a missionary in her own right."6
Next: The Acts of Paul and Thecla
The Read the Short Book
Learn More About Thecla
Acts of Paul and Thecla, Translated probably by Jeremiah Jones (1693-1724), Conflict and Community in the Corinthian Church
This version ends with Thecla's assumption in Syria; the Roberts & Donaldson version below ends with Thecla's dying in Rome and also provides the alternate ending
Acts of Paul and Thecla, Ante-Nicene Fathers to A.D. 325, Volume VIII, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors
The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women by Nancy A. Carter, Conflict and Community in the Corinthian Church
The Acts of Paul and Thecla is part of a Pauline tradition that provided apostolic blessing for women's leadership roles in the church.
Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca
Some women in Spain hear Paul's preaching and leave their husbands to follow him. Thecla is mentioned too.
An Antiochene Legacy: Greek Orthodox in Syria Catholic Near East magazine, Volume 25, Number 1
The long-standing tradition of Syrian monastic life continues at the monastery of St. Tekla in Maaloula. A destination for both Christian and Muslim pilgrims, the monastery is named for an early Christian saint — Brikhta, or "the blessed" in Aramaic — who embraced Christianity after hearing of the words and deeds of St. Paul the Apostle.
The Banquet of the Ten Virgins Or, Concerning Chastity by Methodius, bishop of Olympus in Lycia, Asia Minor (c. 300)
Persons of the Dialogue are: Euboulios, Gregorion, Arete; Marcella, Theophila, Thaleia, Theopatra, Thallousa, Agathe, Procilla, Thekla, Tusiane, Domnina. Thecla is held up as the chief of virgins and leads them in song.
BOOK REVIEW: Stephen J. Davis, The Cult of St. Thecla: a Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity, by Catherine Burris, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 2002.
Stephen Davis' recent book . . . is an important and substantial contribution to our study of the cult of saints in ancient Christianity, and further, to our reconstruction of women's piety during the late antique period.
Discovery of St. Paul's Grotto in Ephesus, Some Recent Archeological Findings by Professor Renate Pillinger of Austria, translated by Peri Chapar
St. Thekla the Protomartyr
According to ancient Syrian and Greek manuscripts, Saint Thekla was born into a prosperous pagan family in the Lycaonian city of Iconium (present-day south central Turkey) in A.D. 16.... Because of her many sufferings for the Faith the Orthodox Church counts her as a "Protomartyr". And because she converted so many people to Christianity she is also known as an "Equal-to-the-Apostles."
Portrait of Paul in Ephesus Cave, Zenit News Agency, May 11, 2000
Inside the cave, there are paintings depicting the Transfiguration and a sequence inspired in the Acts of the Apostles, referring to St. Thecla and St. Paul's preaching. Paul's portrait is one of the best preserved frescoes in the cave.
Some Further Notes on Thecla in Syriac Christianity, by Catherine Burris and Lucas Van Rompay, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, July 2003.
This paper is a follow up to an earlier publication in which data related to the Syriac Acts of Thecla and to the cult of Thecla in Syria were provisionally collected and surveyed. Some further data are presented here. They are taken from Syriac literary sources: the letters of Severus of Antioch, a liturgical hymn, and the biography of John of Tella. In addition, the Armenian tradition of the Acts of Thecla is briefly mentioned as a witness to the early Syriac text.
Stronghold Aainst Time , Cairo Times, January 13-19 2000
Maaloula is one of 3 villages in the world where Aramaic--widely known as the language of Jesus Christ--is still spoken.... A Convent of St. Thecla is located here.
Women Evangelists in the Early Church by Katherine Riss
Begins with some general background about women in the early church; goes most in depth about Thecla.
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Thecla highly regarded as being significant in role of women in spiritual matters. Regarded as Saint in Catholic Church and a number of towns named after her etc Over the years male interrpretations have diminished her role and that of women generally. Any knowledge of Middle East at that time would reveal minimal education of women at that time and no role in leadership. Not so different to Afghanistan and Iran of today. Current NT has been modified by "man" usually I recall from memory 11th and 12th century popes mainly, none of whom had much regard for women - why should they? Worth doing some simple historical research on this. It just shows how we can be so easily manipulated by leaders if they so choose. Regards CJ