Thecla: Oracle, Prophet, Feminist Figure- Thecla and radical feminism in early Christianity
Written by Joel Guttormson
“We are, as a sex, infinitely superior to men.”-Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The bible is arguably one of the most influential, widely recognized and read books in the world. However, given its long, torturous and winding history the bible is not the whole story. There exist books, written at or around the time the canonical books were written, that were left out of the bible we read and study today. These books, known today as the “Apocrypha”, meaning hidden writings”, are some of the lesser-known books of the bible. In this analysis, the focus will be the apocryphal book known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This book is of great importance, or should be, to feminists (especially Christian feminists) due to the radical ideas it presents, given the period in which it was originally written. Through a feminist lens, this book could and should be a source of inspiration for Christian women. However, due to the stigma placed upon apocryphal books by the many varied authorities of the differing Christian church denominations, Christians are hesitant or even afraid to, and thus do not, read them for fear of god’s wrath, punishment or social repercussions that would accompany such questioning. Hopefully, this paper can begin the process of discovery for those who feel that way and open their minds to the fact that their religion did not start as a homogenous, cohesive movement. Nor was its main focus anything one would call ‘inclusivity”. Though it is not true that the early church’s main goal was to suppress and control women, it was a clear and direct effect of the idea that the male point of view and the status of the male was the most important in the canon and that any diversion from that was blasphemy.
“The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”-Lucretia Mott
We do not know, of course, who wrote the Acts of Paul and Thecla. However, what is clear is that the writer had both an affinity for Paul and, to some degree, a feminist bias. According to New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, early church father Tertullian, who defended including into the cannon apocryphal books such as the Book of Enoch, viscerally opposed even considering the Acts of Paul and Thecla as anything but useless blasphemy.
“…Tertullian is severe in his judgment against the Asiatic presbyter who acknowledged that he had written the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The author defended himself at his trial by pleading that it was because of his love for the great Apostle that he had composed the account. His plea, however, was unavailing, and he was deposed from the ministry-and rightly so, Tertullian implies because in the book the author made Paul guilty of allowing a woman to preach and to baptize” (Metzger, 1972, p. 14) (Emphasis added).
It certainly does not help the above author’s case that the title or subtitle, it is unclear as to which, is “The Life of the Holy Martyr Thecla of Iconium, Equal to the Apostles”. However, several implications arise from this paragraph aside from the obviously “damning” evidence of feminism in the title. First, if the account can be trusted for authenticity, then this passage can aid in dating the writing of this book to sometime before the death of Tertullian around 220CE ( Encyclopædia Britannica). This means that this book was contemporary with most of the canonical books that appear in present-day bibles. Second, this shows the pervading attitude among the early church fathers that all forms of feminism and female empowerment were not to be tolerated. This is a disturbing, yet unsurprising fact given the current knowledge of the societal customs and norms of the time. Notice also that the language being used in the preceding paragraph, specifically the use of the word “guilty”. This implies that at the time (and possibly still somewhere in the world today) that it was not just frowned upon that women would “preach the word” but that it was illegal, and consequently carried with it some form of physical or mental punishment. This seems to contradict entirely the idea of “spreading the good news”. What possible difference could it make, if Christianity is true, which sex organs one had? Should not the spreading of the good news be blind to such apparently superficial and unimportant mortal matters?
It should suffice to say, before the following section overviews the book known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla that the book need be read with two separate yet equally important eyes. One eye trained and fixed on the past as if aiming at it through a scope; the other, focused through the lens of feminist thought. This is the approach taken in the proceeding sections. The goal of this approach is to be both open minded and topically focused, to give the reader new or opposing ideas to consider about the text rather than conducting it in a way that is more akin to a wandering hitchhiker.
The Seed is Sewn
“When I see the elaborate study and ingenuity displayed by women in the pursuit of trifles, I feel no doubt of their capacity for the most herculean undertakings.”-Julia Ward Howe
As previously stated, the alleged author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla was steadfast in his conviction to Paul and that he did not intend to empower women by its writing. However, this is not entirely true; which becomes clear after even the most superficial glace of the text. Here I will supply the reader with a “Cliff Notes” version of the book, highlighting obvious points, verses and stories that beg or require further analysis and criticism.
Chapters 1 through 5 are mainly focused on three important events: Thecla hears and accepts Paul’s teachings about Jesus and chastity, her disobedience with regard to an arranged marriage, and the first miracle on her behalf. Chapters 6-10, specifically through 10:13, are focused on the travels of Paul and Thecla and at least three repeats of the occurrence in Thecla’s hometown of Iconium. During these journeys, she and Paul preach a doctrine of chastity, a man or a group of men find this destructive and dangerous and condemn Thecla to be put to death, resulting in yet more miracles on her behalf culminating in Thecla baptizing herself. Chapters 10-11, beginning with 10:13, relates to when Thecla abodes in a cave, preaching the message of Jesus Christ as Paul had taught her. Let us begin by giving detail and analysis regarding the main themes of Chapters one through five.
Chapter 1 begins with Paul going to Iconium from Antioch. There, a man of Antioch, presumably, named Onesiphorus runs out to greet Paul just outside the city as he excited about his arrival. After going to Onesiphorus’ house in the city, Paul began to “(1:11) preach the word of God concerning the temperance and the resurrection” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Helen Rhee, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at Westmont College with a Doctorate in Church History from Fuller Theological Seminary, explains that Paul does this “[i]n a series of beatitudes in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, virginity is directly juxtaposed with a blessed life with God and is seen as a prerequisite for the future glory of resurrection and the reward of heavenly bliss: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; blessed are the continent for God shall speak with them…Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well please to God and shall not lose the reward of chastity. For the word of the Father shall become to them a work of salvation in the day of the Son, and they shall have rest for ever and ever” (Rhee, 2005, p. 125). Though some of above “beatitudes” differ from those in the translation I am using for this analysis, those highlighted above differ in wording but not in intention or sentiment. Paul is exalting virginity to this status because he believes, very strongly, that Jesus Christ will usher in the Kingdom of God in his lifetime. Thus, his teachings of chastity do not seem steeped in any kind of chauvinism, as many other rules and teachings of the church and the bible seem to be, but are a logical and reasonable deduction given the belief of the eminent end of the world.
It is in Chapter 2 that Thecla hears “Paul’s sermons concerning God, concerning chastity, concerning faith in Christ, and concerning prayer sitting “(2:1) at a certain window in her house”, as described above (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Interestingly, the author reveals that Thecla does not want to meet or see Paul until “(2:4)…she saw many women and virgins going in to Paul, she earnestly desired that she might be thought worthy to appear in his presence, and hear the word of Christ; for she had not yet seen Paul’s person, but only heard sermons, and that alone” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Two things are noteworthy in this passage. First, the author distinguishes between women and virgins and does this simply by specifying both implying that they are different in some way. By now, it is clear how they are different. Those referred to as women in the generic sense are probably those women who have had sexual relations with a man in their lifetimes, whereas the virgins (also being of the female gender) have not. The second is what was alluded to before, that Thecla appears only to be interested in being in Paul’s presence after seeing other women flocking to him. The implication, intentional or not, is that being a woman (especially one not formally a follower of Christ) makes her inherently weak mentally and incapable of making decisions herself and may be prone to petty emotions, such as jealousy. Although the author does his best to soften the blow of this implication, it is nonetheless there and not difficult to extract from the context. The story continues with Thecla’s mother lamenting to Thecla’s betrothed husband Thamyris, that she is able to move from the window “(2:6) or the space of three days, [she] will not move from the window not so much as to eat or drink” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) (pronoun added for readability). This is when Paul begins to be vilified for his presence; for in the same verse Thecla’s mother, Theoclia, continues saying Thecla “(2:6)…is so intent on hearing the artful and delusive discourse of a certain foreigner…will suffer herself to so prevailed upon” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). After Theoclia’s and Thamyris’ several failed attempts to draw her away from the window listening to Paul preach, the author tells us “(2:11) [t]hey wept exceedingly: Thamyris, that he had lost his spouse; Theoclia that she had lost her daughter…and there was an universal mourning in the family” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). It is strange that they are weeping that they had “lost” her, but metaphorically, they indeed had “lost” her to the preaching and the teachings of Paul. This of course spells trouble for Paul as Thecla is betrothed to Thamyris.
In Chapter 3, Thamyris, feeling quite angry gathers other people of the town that have been similarly affected and marches to Onesiphorus’ house saying “(3:8) Thou hast perverted the city of Iconium, and among the rest, Thecla, who is betrothed to me, so that now she will not marry me. Thou shalt therefore go with us to the governor Castillius. (3:9) And all the multitude cried out, Away with this imposter (magician), for he has perverted the minds of our wives, and all the people hearken to him.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Thus, it appears that Paul, not Thecla, is being punished for not only “poisoning” the people of Iconium, but also for ruining the arranged marriage between her and Thamyris, as was, it seems, Thamyris’ intention.
This inexorably leads to Paul’s trial and Thecla’s act of deference to Paul in Chapters 4 and 5. Paul is brought before Thamyris and the governor and after Thamyris makes his case, the governor, in a small show of temperance, asks Paul to defend himself. However, in the classic Pauline way, only says, “As I am now called to give an account, O governor, of my doctrines, I desire your audience. (4:6) That God, who is a God of vengeance, and who stands in need of nothing but the salvation of his creatures, has sent me to reclaim them from their wickedness and corruptions, from all (sinful) pleasures, and from death; and to persuade them to sin no more. (4:7) On this account, God sent his Son Jesus Christ, whom I preach, and in whom I instruct men to place their hopes as that person who only had such compassion on the deluded world, that it might not, O governor, be condemned, but have faith, the fear of God, the knowledge of religion, and the love of truth. (4:8) So that if I only teach those things which I have received by revelation from God, where is my crime?” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). After hearing this, the governor of Iconium apparently becomes angry and has Paul arrested and thrown in prison. Thecla then, determined to be in Paul’s presence, bribes her way into the prison and to the cell where Paul is being held, bounded by chains. When Thecla finds him “(4:12)… she perceived Paul not to be afraid of suffering, but that by divine assistance he behaved himself with courage, her faith so far increased that she kissed his chains” and thus signifying to the reader that Thecla has now completely given over to the teachings of Paul and stays in the prison at his cell to listen to him preach. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) After Thamyris and a mob searched for her, a porter tells them that she is in Paul’s company at the prison. When this is verified, the mob lead by Thamyris goes to the governor who summons, first Paul then Thecla to be judged. The governor then questions Thecla, having already questioned Paul, who does not answer but keeps her gaze on Paul. Her mother, in a fury of rage then yells out to the governor that Thecla should be burned as an example to other women not to follow her lead. The governor abides and orders Paul be thrown out of the city. Looking at the mob, Thecla has a vision of Jesus, who is in Paul’s form, who ascends to heaven before her eyes. Interestingly, the sight of the naked Thecla “(5:13)…extorted tears from the governor, with surprise beholding the greatness of her beauty” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). It seems that the author is attempting to make the governor seem somewhat remorseful for his decision or is just making the governor seem worse in Christian eyes for only appreciating what Christians, especially Paul, call “pleasures of the flesh”. However the governor might feel now “(5:14)…the people commanded her to go upon it; which she did, first making the sign of the cross. (5:15) Then the people set fire to the pile; though the flame was exceeding large, it did not touch her, for God took compassion on her, and caused a great eruption from the earth beneath, and a cloud from above to pour down great quantities of rain and hail; (5:16) Insomuch that by the rupture of the earth, very many were in great danger, and some were killed, the fire was extinguished, and Thecla was preserved” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). The above describes the first miracle in Thecla’s favor. This shows God’s favor with Thecla and the faith she gained from Paul. Not only does this event serve to make Thecla a great figure in faith communities, but it also reinforces Paul’s stature as a great preacher and carrier of the message that Christians, even at the time this was written and widely read, recognize and exalt.
Chapters 6-10:13 are the meat of this story. This is where we see the most action and the most material for analysis from a feminist perspective. Moreover, as we will see, Thecla is portrayed in a quite flattering and empowering light.
Chapter 6 describes the happenings shortly after her escape from the pyre at Iconium. She finds Paul “(6:1)…in a certain cave, which was in the road from Iconium to Daphne”, with Onesiphorus and his family. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) While one of the boys is obtaining bread, as per his instruction, he find Thecla, looking for Paul of course, and is directed to him. When she arrives Paul is praying that she not be harmed, an emotional celebration takes place with many praises to Jesus and God. Then, Thecla says, what may be the most important phrase in the story thus far, “ (6:12)…[i]f you be pleased with it, I will follow you withersoever you go”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) If, at first glance, this passage does not seem to be of any importance, it is an understandable position to take. However, if this is not said, and more importantly not done, then the story does not allow the rest to take place in a way that will legitimize her, through Paul, which will be a topic for further analysis in the next section, as a saint or martyr figure that we know her as today.
Chapter 7 sees Thecla becoming the center of another controversy, similar to the one experienced in Iconium, in Antioch. While traveling with Paul, a rich and powerful man of Antioch, a Syrian named Alexander lays eyes on Thecla and immediately falls in love. Alexander, thinking that Thecla was the property of Paul in some way, “(7:2)… endeavoured by many rich presents to engage Paul in his interest”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Paul then gives a most interesting response, saying “(7:3) I know not the woman of whom you speak, nor does she belong to me” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Unfortunately for Thecla, this does not detour his lustful quest. He finds her and forces a kiss upon her and she, understandably becomes enraged. She tears his clothing, knocks the crown off his head making him look generally ridiculous in front of the large crowd that was present. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) Alexander reacts in a similar way to Thamyris and escorts her to the governor for, it seems, not letting him take advantage of her against her will. This theme will also be explored in the follow section. When the governor is presented with the story of what had recently transpired, which Thecla confesses to, “(7:6)…he condemned her to be thrown among the beasts”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995)
Chapter 8 is not much for story substance, but it is necessary to quickly point out some important events from it. A wealthy widow by the name of Trifina, among a crowd of the people (probably women given future context) that is unhappy with the judgment of the governor, hears the governor ask “(8:2)…[w]ho would entertain her” and immediately volunteers. A day later Thecla is brought to amphitheater to see the beasts to which she has been condemned. The “she-lion”, upon seeing Thecla, lays down and licks her feet (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Trifina then takes Thecla home where Trifina has a vision of her dead daughter, imploring her to make Thecla her daughter and to have Thecla pray for her that she may go to heaven. The next day, Alexander comes to the house and requests that the criminal, Thecla, be brought to the amphitheatre. In a fit of rage, Trifina scares off Alexander and the governor is forced to send one of his own officers to bring her, and the officer does. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) When Thecla is in the amphitheatre something strange happens regarding the people of the city, starting with the women. “(8:13) But the women cried out, and said: Let the whole city suffer for such crimes; and order all of us, O governor, to the same punishment. O unjust judgment! O cruel sight! (8:14) Others said, Let the whole city be destroyed for this vile action. Kill us all, O governor. O cruel sight! O unrighteous judgment” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). We are not provided any information as to the governor’s thoughts on this occurrence, but it is reasonable to assume that he must have been either enraged or perplexed. However, these passages are here to show Thecla’s far-reaching, short term, and powerful influence on the people of the city by her faith alone. This is yet another attempt to legitimize Thecla as a great transmitter of the Christian faith, possibly equal to Paul.
Chapter 9, the most important chapter of this section, begins, quite vividly, with Thecla being forcibly taken from Trifina, stripped naked and thrown in the fighting area of the amphitheatre. Then, “(9:2)… a she-lion, which was of all the most fierce, ran to Thecla, and fell down at her feet. Upon which the multitude of women shouted aloud. (9:3) Then, a she-bear ran fiercely towards her; but the she-lion met the bear, and tore it to pieces. (9:4) Again, a he-lion, who had been wont to devour men, and which belonged to Alexander, ran towards her; but the she-lion encountered the he-lion, and they killed each other” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is the second major miracle, notwithstanding the she-lion earlier licking Thecla’s feet, and is the most well-known. After seeing this, the women were, understandably, concerned because the protective she-lion was dead. Now, Theca “ (9:6)… saw a pit of water, and said, Now it is a proper time for me to be baptized”. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995) This passage damned the author of the book in the eyes of Tertullian. However, it may be the most powerful and feminist actions taken by Thecla in the story; the ramifications of which will be discussed in the next section. Thecla then goes about baptizing herself by jumping into the water and saying the verbal enchantment of the ritual. Watching the this, the governor expects the sea-calves and fish in the water to kill and devour her. However, Thecla is again spared; “(9:9) But the fish (sea-calves,) when they saw the lightning and fire, were killed, and swam dead upon the surface of the water, and a cloud of fire surrounded Thecla, so that as the beasts could not come near her, so the people could not see her nakedness” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is the third major miracle on her behalf, and may be the most dramatic. If ever there was a miracle to discourage further attempts on her life by the governor of Antioch, this certainly was it. Nevertheless, being stubborn, they turned more beasts on her, who fell asleep at once. Alexander then suggests they tie her to fierce bulls, which he keeps in order to finish the job, to which the governor complies. However, Thecla, still aflame, burns through the ropes and stands unharmed. Upon seeing this Trifina collapses and dies. Finally, after seeing all this Alexander pleaded with the governor to let Thecla go. The governor complies but first summons her from the floor of the amphitheatre saying “(9:17)…Who art thou? and what are thy circumstances, that not one of the beasts will touch thee?”, to which Thecla replies “(9:18)… I am a servant of the living God; and as to my state, I am a believer of Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased; and for that reason none of the beasts could touch me. (9:19) He alone is the way to eternal salvation, and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress; a support to the afflicted, hope and defense to those who are hopeless; and, in a word, all those who do not believe in him, shall not live, but suffer eternal death”. After listening to this, the governor orders clothing to be brought to her. After seeing this and hearing Thecla speak “(9:22)…the women cried out together with a loud voice, and with one accord gave praise unto God, and said: There is but one God, who is the God of Thecla; the one God who hath delivered Thecla. (9:23) So loud were their voices that the whole city seemed to be shaken; and Trifina herself heard the glad tidings, and arose again, and ran with the multitude to meet Thecla; and embracing her, said: Now I believe there shall be a resurrection of the dead; now I am persuaded that my daughter is alive. Come therefore home with me, my daughter Thecla, and I will make over all that I have to you” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Here is yet another instance of Thecla’s conversion power via miracle and “God’s grace” on her behalf. In addition, it should be noted here, that the author makes note that all the women of the city are on her side, so much so that their collective uproar in favor of Thecla supposedly raises Trifina from the dead. However, given the context, it is more likely that she was overcome with emotion and fainted severely. Nonetheless, Chapter 9 serves to solidify Thecla’s power and prove her to be in “God’s graces”.
Chapter 10:1-13 relates Thecla’s return to Iconium. Only two noteworthy events appear in this section of the Chapter. First, “(10:6)…she came to the house of Onesiphorus, she fell down upon the floor where Paul had sat and preached, and mixing her tears with her prayers, she praised and glorified God…” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is important because this shows her and the author’s reverence for Paul. Showing that no matter how woman friendly this book has been thus far, it still is about the man, Paul and his glory. Second, Thecla goes to find her mother. When she arrives at her house, she says, “(10:8)… Theoclia, my mother, is it possible for you to be brought to a belief, that there is but one Lord God, who dwells in the heavens? If you desire great riches, God will give them to you by me; if you want your daughter again, here I am. (10:9) These and many other things she represented to her mother, [endeavouring] to persuade her [to her opinion]. But her mother Theoclia gave no credit to the things which were said by the martyr Thecla. (10:10) So that Thecla perceiving she discoursed to no purpose, signing her whole body with the sign [of the cross], left the house and went to Daphine; and when she came there, she went to the cave, where she had found Paul with Onesiphorus, and fell down on the ground; and wept before God” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This passage is important due to fact that Thecla is there to both forgive her mother and to try to mend their relationship. Unfortunately for Thecla, her actions may have dishonored her mother Theoclia so much by disobeying her, the law of Iconium and becoming a Christian that her mother disowns her. She then leaves Iconium, never to return. She then heads to a city/state known as Seleucia to preach and spread the word of Christ as Paul had taught and instructed her to. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995)
Chapter 10:13-Chapter 11 is a section that seems to be an afterthought or late addition, but that is speculation given the break in the story that seems to occur. She begins to engage in “non-Theclan” behavior. For instance, “(10:13) And after she had arrived at Seleucia she went to a place out of the city, about the distance of a furlong, being afraid of the inhabitants, because they were worshippers of idols. (10:14) And she was led [by the cloud] into a mountain called Calamon, or Rodeon. There she abode many years, and underwent a great many grievous temptations of the devil, which she bore in a becoming manner, by the assistance which she had from Christ” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). I call this behavior “non-Theclan”, due to the lack trouble she seems to stir up in the city and her reclusiveness given how outspoken and lively she had been in previous cities. Chapter 10 then concludes with Thecla performing miracles and curing the sick from Seleucia and the surrounding counties. She is joined with other virgin women who lead a celibate, monastic life with her in the cave. However, although I call this behavior “non-Theclan”, these acts still cause her trouble as seen in the last verse of the chapter: “(10:18) Insomuch that the physicians of Seleucia were now of no more account, and lost all the profit of their trade, because no one regarded them; upon which they were filled with envy, and began to contrive what methods to take with this servant of Christ” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This is an attempt to emphasize her effectiveness as a healer and worker of miracles that also continues the theme of Thecla having no peace wherever she may go to preach, no matter how unassuming, quiet, and noble her approach (at least in this particular instance) may be.
Chapter 11, the final chapter of the book, holds in store the last of Thecla’s miracles that proves she is an equal of Paul, in terms of preaching the word of Christ. The physicians of Seleucia plot to do harm to her so to take the power of her virginity away from her in an attempt to diminish her status. When they made their way to the cave where she had been residing, the conversation is had: “(11:6)… Is there any one within, whose name is Thecla? She answered, What would you have with her? They said, We have a mind to lie with her. (11:7) The blessed Thecla answered: Though I am a mean old woman, I am the servant of my Lord Jesus Christ; and though you have a vile design against me, ye shall not be able to accomplish it. They replied: It is impossible but we must be able to do with you what we have a mind” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Here we see that her virginity is indentified as her source of power by the perpetrators who seek to destroy it. So they grabbed a hold of her and held her down. Afraid, Thecla begins to pray to God for her deliverance from the men who are attempting to do her harm. God responds and gives her instructions, saying “(11:11) Look and see the place which is opened for thee: there thy eternal abode shall be; there thou shalt receive the beatific vision” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Thecla sees a rock open up and enters the rock which thusly closes. The men are unable to do her harm and are astonished at the sight of this miracle, the final Theclan miracle. The book ends with a strange and specific verse, one directly from the author to the readers (believers), saying, “(11:17) The day which is kept sacred to her memory, is the twenty-fourth of September…” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This verse is strange as it gives a specific day to honor Thecla with no accompanying reason, prior to or following the verse. It also implies that the book was written after the Julian calendar was in widespread use to the point that the author could specify a date and all would understand.
Thus concludes the summary of the Acts of Paul and Thecla. It now suffices to say that Thecla may well be one of the most colorful figures in Christian lore. Now, the following section will be dedicated to analyzing key points of the book that can only be well understood with a proper summary of the entire book.
A Deeper Understanding
“We have to be careful in this era of radical feminism, not to emphasize an equality of the sexes that leads women to imitate men to prove their equality. To be equal does not mean you have to be the same.”- Eva Burrows
As has been the pattern of this work, it would be proper to begin this analysis in the same manner as we began the latter section. This will be accomplished by analyzing the issues in the order in which they appear; in order of chapter and verse. In this way, confusion will be avoided, as some issues and themes in this story repeat themselves and may have slightly differing meanings because of the given context.
First, let us examine Paul’s beatitudes, enumerated in Chapter 1. The central purpose of the beatitudes seems to be glorification of virginity and chastity. In Paul’s theology, Jesus Christ is coming back within the lifetime of the believers to whom he preaches. As a result of this premise, Paul preaches that “a requirement for future resurrection, celibacy, which is regarded as a commendable and exceptional option by the Apologists, here becomes a demand incumbent upon all Christians who believe and hope in the true God” (Rhee, 2005, p. 126). The inclusion of these beatitudes seems to foreshadow that “Thecla will ultimately overcome all the dangers and forces that threaten virginity and will also experience God’s empowerment and blessings along the way” (Rhee, 2005, p. 126). Chastity and virginity are then cast as sources of feminine power. In the case of Thecla, the power she gains from chastity appears to masculinize her by making her more authoritative and autonomous (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). The theme of virginity being powerful is ubiquitous throughout the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
The next issue is a combination of two; Thecla’s conversion to Christianity because of Paul and her rejection of the arranged marriage between her and Thamyris. Thecla comes to Christianity by Paul’s visit to Iconium. Thecla, then betrothed to Thamyris, may have ulterior motives for converting, given her behavior. She may have believed in Paul’s message, not because it was terribly inspiring (we are not told what Paul talks about specifically, we are only availed generalizations), but because she may not have wanted to marry Thamyris at all. Thus, the teachings of celibacy and redemption through a savior figure offered Thecla an escape from this unwanted marriage. From which she also accepts the divinity and power of Jesus Christ. However, another effect of her conversion is that it “transforms her relationship with in, in which she resists male dominance and increasingly gains and exerts considerable independent” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Another element present is her seemingly undying affection for Paul which may have led her to obtain the courage to go through with the rejection of the marriage. From Thecla’s perspective, Paul and his teachings of Jesus have saved her from a quite undesirable situation and because of this; she dedicates herself to Paul and Jesus. The rejection of this marriage has several implications. The first, and most obvious, is the social trouble in which she becomes entwined. Her actions are treated as a serious crime punishable by death. Given the culture, it appears that this treatment of the situation would only happen to a woman. A man, on the other hand, could, presumably, refuse the hand of a woman he had been betrothed to. According to Rhee, her conversion and its consequence, “masculinize” her and that this is “the most outstanding example of the ‘the liberated female ascetics’” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). I tend to agree with Rhee on this point. However, it will not be clear until more examples are discussed.
Thecla is to be put to death for her disobedience of civil law for refusing to marry Thamyris. It is odd that, even though the society at large pays lip-service to her decision, they abide by her wish insofar as they do not force her to get married. The alternative is not better however, for she is sentenced to death (recall her own mother suggests this punishment) as to be an example to other woman not to disobey the law. However, in this instance, because Thecla has listened to Paul and heard the word of Christ and has converted, God shows mercy on Thecla and prevents the flames from touching her; the first miracle on her behalf. God must intervene on her behalf because Paul does not do anything to defend her. One may say that this is because he is thrown out of the city and is not in a position to do so. However, one must remember that Paul is present at Thecla’s sentencing and could have made some verbal defense of her at that moment. This absence and his absence when she is condemned in Antioch “shows his ‘feminine’ features by his ‘cowardly’ retreat and failure to defend Thecla” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Though Rhee seems to be using sexist language in casting Paul’s cowardness as being an inherently feminine trait, the reader should use caution in making this assessment. Rhee puts the respective words in quotations indicating she is speaking from a historical context in which the two traits, femininity and cowardness, encompass one another. From this point of view, Rhee is correct.
Legitimacy is the next issue that will be discussed and can be found mainly in chapters six and eight, and thus this topic must take the chapter sequence out of order to properly address it. It is an unfortunate truth, given the social contexts of the book, that Thecla can only be legitimized as a “true” martyr and promoter of the faith through a man, specifically Paul. Though Paul is the best man through which to be legitimized by, it nonetheless makes Thecla dependent on Paul, regardless of how much she should be able to stand alone on the works and wonders conveyed in the book. There exists two examples of this. The first is in chapter six. Verses 6:8-12, described on page 9, reveal a subtle intention of the author. When Thecla finds Paul praying on her behalf, attempting to show Paul was trying to help her when he really had done nothing, Thecla is overcome with joy. Immediately afterwards, she asked permission to follow Paul in his teaching travels. This request comes with a subtle metaphorical meaning, namely that Thecla must ask permission to preach and that permission is supposed to give her legitimacy. It appears that without this granted permission to follow him, Thecla’s works would not, in fact, could not be considered as anything but blasphemy as she would have been acting and pursuing male endeavors.
The next example of Thecla being legitimized, or in this case compared to Paul, appears in 8:13, wherein it says that the women of the town objected with one voice to Thecla’s treatment and sentence. What is more, they later come to convert to Christianity because of her and the miracles they witness on her behalf (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). The undertones of this account attempt to show Thecla as not only having favor with God, this point has been made transparently obvious in the previous chapters of the book, but to also show that Thecla is as great of a conversion artist and true preacher of the Word as Paul. Though there exists no direct comparison, there is no other reason to include this story of a conversion of a mass number of people, specifically women, if the author did not intend for her feats to be compared to those of Paul. It also is made clear that the author wants to draw a distinction between who each person is able or successful at converting. Paul seems able to only be effective with the men while Thecla is effective with women. This gender casting is harmful to the persona, legacy and theological significance of both figures, but since the damage is equal, this point can remain without further examination. One must conclude then, that regardless of what Thecla does and how much of an independent figure she is and what great works she does, it is still a victory for Paul. Paul is given credit for her works and deeds and is the measuring stick to which Thecla must live up to in order to be a legitimate figure in Christian theology.
In Chapter 7, there is a series of statements made by Paul and actions carried out by Thecla that require attention. After their arrival in Antioch a man named Alexander is intent on having Thecla for his wife. Thinking that she belonged to Paul, which would have been a reasonable position to take given the cultural context, Alexander goes to Paul and attempts to pay him for Thecla. Then, in 7:3, Paul denies knowing her and denies she is his property (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). This denial seems to be Paul’s poor attempt to protect Thecla, which does not at all work. Not deterred, Alexander attempts to kiss her. Not only does she refuse but makes Alexander look like a fool in front of the people of Antioch. By doing this, “Thecla not only rejects male ownership of her body but also inflicts shame on men by her rejection (whether he is her fiancé or an illegitimate suitor)” and from here on, marks herself as an independent women, to the extent she can (given the above analysis) (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). This makes Thecla a criminal, it seems, for refusing a man’s advances. This is a awfully strange concept for us living in the 21st century to truly understand due to the desperately needed progress made and seen in the feminist movement the past 100 years. However, in that society, women were thought of, not as people, but as property, something to be acquired, and had few, if any, rights. This passage serves to further masculinize Thecla by showing her independence, a supposedly masculine trait.
After this rejection of Alexander, like in Iconium, Thecla is sentenced to die. Here it will be necessary to combine the next three important events as they have similarities in terms of theme. From 8:2, we are told that she is brought to see the animals that are supposed to be her executioners. While there, a female lion licks Thecla’s feet upon seeing her (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). There is significant gender imagery here. It is not a male lion that recognizes Thecla, but a female lion. This indicates that females of all species, but more meaningful, all classes, appreciate or will appreciate Thecla’s actions and follow her. There is also the implication that even the animals know she is in God’s grace and show her proper respect by licking her feet.
This continues into Chapter 9 when she is in the amphitheater. In this account, a female lion, possibly the same indicated in Chapter 8, ran to Thecla and laid down at her feet. When a female bear attempts to kill Thecla, the female lion kills the bear, thus protecting Thecla. Then, a male lion attacks and the female lion protects Thecla again but dies doing so (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995). Though the same gender imagery as that found in Chapter 8 is present in this story, there exists two more important ideas being expressed. First, the female and male lions kill each other, subtlety indicating some kind of gender equality. However, because the female lion also defeated a bear, it shows that the female is stronger than the male lion. This element serves to caste women in a light that indicates their strength as greater than or equal that of men.
From here, the story “shifts from her relationship to Paul to her independence from Paul. As [she] faces her second martyrdom, she does not turn to Paul but to God and baptizes herself in the arena (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Theologically speaking this is the most blasphemous, feminist, “masculinizing” action Thecla takes. This is the action so vilified by Tertullian, and completes her independence from Paul, at least in the story. The author furthers this apparent blasphemy but showing God’s approval and consecration of the act thus sanctifying it, at least in the eyes of God and believers, by sending lightning and fire to kill the sea creatures in the water, all of which are there to kill her. After this final miracle, she “gains a reputation as a teacher who ‘enlightened many by the word God’ and is confirmed by Paul at the end” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). As previously stated, all of Thecla’s accomplishments, I argue, only have legitimacy in Christian theology if they are in some way attributed to Paul. Above, as Rhee said, Paul confirms Thecla, again showing that she is nothing but another “good Christian” woman, even given all that she has supposedly gone through, until it is approved of or confirmed by a man. However, the author’s intention was to do just this. Use the popularity and influence of Paul to legitimize a powerful and influential female figure, possibly in an attempt to win more converts from the surrounding pagan religions; this is speculation only, however. Though this book is incredibly more women friendly than nearly all books of the bible and most of the rest of the Apocrypha, it still is all about men, as shown above.
The overriding theme that seems to move through each chapter and growing throughout the book is Thecla’s increased masculinity. Though it has been touched upon lightly above, it deserves more than just paid lip service. Throughout the book “Thecla moves from the conventional female space of household into the public (male) space, where she challenges man’s honor and engages in male activities, including the gladiatorial games” (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). The above provides the necessary examples of this and have been examined thoroughly. However, her masculinization does not at all stop here. She goes into partial-solitude to preach the Word of Jesus Christ as Paul had taught her. Rhee points out that “her masculinization reaches a climax in her gestures of ‘shedding her femininity’: cutting off her hair, and donning man’s cloak” and it is “[w]ith these physical gestures [that she] incorporates the bodily dimension of maleness as well as the social and spatial spheres of maleness” prior to this partial-solitude (Rhee, 2005, p. 140). Rhee is using sources unavailable to me to assert that she cuts off her hair and begins wearing male clothing. However, if we may trust her, and I am inclined to, then Thecla’s asceticism takes on an entirely new dimension and has some implications that are not necessarily feminist friendly. This implies that women should aspire to be like men, as much as is possible. Thecla goes the furthest with this and shows women that to become male is, at least partially, to become righteous and holy. In some parts of the world, Thecla is regarded as a saint, furthering the importance of a woman’s religious duty to increase her maleness. However, there is a silver lining in all this misogyny. Thecla, by her actions, is an example for women insofar as her ability to break through gender barriers in the social spheres. She also is an example to women who want to become church leaders because of her prolific and successful preaching. From a theological perspective, she is a source of hope and wonder to Christian women who find Mary unappealing due to her pacifism and “vessel” role. Thecla, in contrast is a firecracker of a woman, ready to stand up not only for herself, but also for women in general.
To conclude this section, let us reflect on what has been explored. On the one hand, Thecla is a mostly forgotten figure, lost to the sands of time to all but a few believers and biblical scholars. She is a daring and colorful figure, bent on preaching the Word of Jesus Christ. The positive consequences cannot not measured but can be enumerated. She became a pioneer for feminism, taking no deeming or gender-biased law seriously and challenging concepts of gender roles and spheres. It is a shame that the early church fathers did not consult any “church mothers” in deciding the canon. For I think that if they had, this book, and those similar to it, would have been included. Their inclusion in the canon may have resulted in a very different, more egalitarian, less oppressive, less violent Christianity. This book in particular would have had a profound impact on the theology. Imagine, no childish bickering about who can and cannot be a priest/deacon/cardinal/pope/etc.., based solely on gender. It may have had the effect of allowing for the aforementioned leadership roles to being occupied by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or handicapped individuals. With more pronounced feminine influence at work in Christian theology, it is possible that the Witch Trials, both in Europe and the USA, could have been avoided altogether. This is all extremely optimistic speculation, but it is a quaint thought. Whenever one gets a chance to read a book such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, they should stop and ask themselves, ‘What if…?’ Doing so with an open mind, unfettered and undisturbed by bias or dogma, will allow the reader to explore deeper meaning in the text as well as the canon that they accept.
Thecla: The Christian Oracle at Calamon (Rodeon)
“The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become”-Mark Twain
This final section of analysis will examine the similarities between Thecla and Pythia (commonly known as The Oracle at Delphi). In order to investigate this similarity suitably, it is necessary to summarize the Delphic Oracle myth. Interestingly, this requires us to start with Apollo, the Greek god of Prophecy. I will assume that the reader can draw upon common knowledge of Greek mythology as it relates to Zeus and the other gods to make Apollo the starting point for this summary.
Leto, Apollo’s mother, was attempting to find a suitable place to give birth to her son. She was doing this because she feared Hera’s wrath, as did the people and thus would not allow Leto to abode there. This is until she reaches the island of Delos. After being guaranteed safety there and swearing to Styx that “Apollo will honor her and despise her because of her rocky soil, and he will build a great temple there”, does the island of Delos allow Leto to give birth there. Leto does so after enduring nine days of labor pains (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 46). According to the myth, Zeus favors certain days, namely: the first, fourth, seventh, eighth, and ninth days. These days are what one could call holy days. Notice the two days that Zeus favors, the seventh and ninth. It is on the seventh day that the Apollo is born, after nine days of labor pains from Leto. This not only implies that Apollo’s birth should be celebrated because of his divine origins (parents, day of birth), but also implies that Leto, and the birthing that she endured, is holy and should also be celebrated. Apollo then, has some parallels to Jesus insofar as their birth origins are concerned. Knowing this and the other holy days was important to avoid “wronging the gods, judging birds of omen, and [avoiding] transgression” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 28). This is of course similar to what we see today in modern Christianity with the holy day of worship being the seventh day, Sunday, to praise and worship Jesus the Son of God. Extrapolating the Greek myth we have the seventh day being a holy day to, possibly, worship Apollo the Son of Zeus.
After Apollo reaches adulthood, he must seek a place to create a temple. However, in the place that he wishes to create this temple, there exists a great female snake that is guarding Typhon. Apollo defeats Typhon and “has made his shrine safe for all the visitors who will come with their sacrificial offerings” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 48). The place that Apollo chooses is what we now call Delphi, which has been described as a cave, upon a mountain (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 49). From this place, Apollo is able to interact and express his will through the priests and later the oracles that occupy the temple.
The oracle in question for this is Apollo’s priestess known as the Pythia. At Delphi, she serves and coveys the will of Apollo (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 125). However, the Pythia serves other gods at this shrine, the most notable of which is Dionysus. That Dionysus is one of the gods that the Pythia serves is important because of the myth surrounding Dionysus and the many similarities between his story and that of Jesus Christ. According to legend, Dionysus was born of a virgin, had disciples, performed miracles, was called The Way, The Truth and The Light and was crucified, was dead for 3 days and was resurrected. The similarities to the story of Jesus Christ are obvious. That the Pythia serves Apollo and Dionysus at the same time is incredibly significant. Next, I will briefly explain what similarities exist between the Pythia and Thecla stories and offer commentary on those similarities.
From 10:13-Chapter 11 of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the setting is a cave on a mountain called Calamon (or Rodeon). While there, she is tempted by the devil, overcomes them and then begins to preach the Word, as taught to her by Paul, thus becoming a priestess (although, admittedly, this term is being applied after the fact as there was little structure in early Christianity). Virgins from the city in the shadow of the mountain flock to hear her teachings and to live with her at the cave. She is reputed to perform miracles, dispense wisdom and allow Jesus to speak through her. Possibly because of the number of women going to her and adopting her teachings of celibacy, a group of physicians (who were all men of course) plan and attempt to rape Thecla so that her power of virginity is squashed. However, God intervenes on her behalf yet again after hearing her prayers to deliver her from the men. God does this by opening a rock for Thecla to enter. After she does the rock closes and this miracle concludes the story, implying Thecla was divinely buried there (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1995).
The purpose of the following is not to imply at all that the author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, forged or was in anyway copying from the Greek myth. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the author could have been influenced by similar stories told by the Romans since they came just short of completely adopting Greek religion and mythology. When one looks at the Roman pagan religion is it nearly identical to that of the Greeks, only difference being the names of the gods and places of events. The similarities between the story of the Pythia and Thecla are superficial given the attention to summarizing the respective stories and myths. Both the Pythia and Thecla live in a mountain cave from where they serve divine entities as priestesses. The divine entities which they serve have many commonalities, a topic that is now within the scope of this work. Both gain followings, nearly of a cult nature, for those seeking truth, wisdom and, in some cases, healing. What it most interesting about the parallels is that it may show that instead of the author being influenced by Roman culture and religion, as previously stated, but by a societal need to seek wisdom and guidance from a female perspective. Given the full breadth of knowledge of the more successful ancient cultures of the world, we can see this topic manifest itself in one way or another. Finally, it is interesting to examine how each story/myth was treated by the different cultures. For the Greeks, the Oracle at Delphi (the Pythia) was as important to their religion, myths and culture as was the other myths regarding the other gods. It does not seem that beyond the Olympian god hierarchy that there is much in the way of hierarchical order in the other myths in terms of gender. On the other hand, all but a select handful of Christians either completely reject Thecla and the Acts of Paul and Thecla as utter heresy, just as Tertullian did. There were, and possibly still are, those Christians who regard Thecla as a great saint, revere and pray to her. However, most mainline denominations of Christianity have rejected her and the idea that women had or should have any sort of religious power or positions of leadership. Obviously, the ancient Greeks and Christians occupy to opposite sides of a gender equality spectrum. However, it is fascinating to see the valiant attempts to egalitarianize Christianity in the early years of its creation and organization.
“My idea of feminism is self-determination, and it’s very open-ended: every woman has the right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do.”-Ani Difranco
In summary, it should be now clear to the reader the level of “radical” feminism in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Although Thecla is an example of women being empowered and taking their life into their own hands, which should be very much applauded, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of her acts are only legitimate because they can be traced to a man, Paul. In addition, it is important to notice that the source of Thecla’s power is primarily her virginity, in a similar way to Mary, and her faith seems to be a distant second. The author does not disguise this in the least as he goes out of his way to make this point clear. Celibacy is used both as an instrument of social change and as part of theology wherein Jesus is supposed to come back in Thecla’s (and presumably Paul’s) lifetime. Important too were the ideas of purity and cleanliness that were and are of the greatest focus of the Torah. It is quite a shame that this book was not included in the final Christian canon, as said above. I think that this book would have had an extremely positive effect on Christianity, ranging from its social and theological treatment of women to how it interacts with the society in which the religion is practiced. I also think this book could have led to a better appreciation of women in general as the respectful and equal treatment of women is a transcendent value that need not be the intellectual or theological property of any one religion, culture or state. This is all speculation of course, but it should be noted that it really is not too late to include this and other Apocryphal books in the Christian cannon. After all, who decides what the canon is? People do. It is precisely because of this that there is no reason to think that, possibly somewhere in the future, this book will not be included either in part or in full in the Christian bible. For the sake of progress and human decency, I, for one, hope that it is.
Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). When did Tertullian die? Retrieved 11 9, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/facts/3/6704/When-did-Tertullian-die
Acts of Paul and Thecla. (1995, September/October). (J. Jones, Trans.) Retrieved October 26, 2009, from Fordham.edu: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/thecla.html
Lefkowitz, M. (2003). Greek Gods, Human Lives. Willard, OH: R.R. Donnelley & Sons.
Metzger, B. M. (1972). Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 91, No. 1 , 14.
Rhee, H. (2005). Early Christian Fiction : The Apologetics, Apocryphal Acts and Martyr Acts. New York, NY: London Taylor & Francis Routledge.
No comments yet.