The Life of Thecla: When Chastity Gets You into Trouble

Saint Thecla (source)

Saint Thecla (source)

In the early days of Christianity, many people believed they were living in the last days. Life was difficult, persecution was increasing, and to many it made sense to live a life as unencumbered as possible. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul recommends that people remain celibate, but says that it is not a requirement. However, in the extra-canonical book The Acts of Paul he takes a much stronger stance saying that it wasn’t just preferable, but necessary. This was of course quite controversial, particularly when married women wanted to stop having sex or when virgins refused to go through with weddings.

One of the most well-known adherents to the teachings of Paul was a young woman named Thecla. It was in Iconium when she first heard him teach. Sitting in her window three nights in a row, she became enamored of Paul and his message much to the horror of her mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris. Thamyris, fearing that he had been deprived of his wife, stirred up a mob and had Paul brought before the governor. After a brief hearing, Paul was put in prison to be held for further questioning.

During the night, Thecla bribed the guards to let her into Paul’s cell where she spent the night listening to him and “kissing his fetters.” The next morning they were both brought before the governor. As an outsider, Paul was scourged and expelled from the city, but a more dire fate awaited Thecla.

The governor asked Thecla why she was refusing to marry Thamyris. She remained silent, refusing to answer and simply gazing at Paul. This was too much for Theocleia who cried, “Burn the lawless one! Burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theater, that all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.” (You have to wonder what Thecla’s mother was getting out of this marriage.) Although the text says that the governor wept and marveled at Thecla’s strength, he agreed and Thecla was led to the pyre. However, God had compassion and when the fire blazed, Thecla wasn’t burned. Then a cloud appeared bringing rain and hail to put out the fire saving Thecla and allowing her to escape.

Thecla fled the city and set out on the road to join Paul. Curiously, even though Paul had been praying that the fire wouldn’t touch her and after her miraculous escape, he refused to baptize her, “lest she fall prey to temptation.” In spite of this, Thecla travels with Paul to Antioch where once again a powerful man is smitten with her.

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Thecla must have been very special because once they arrived in Antioch, a man named Alexander saw her on the street and fell in love with her. He first tried to buy her from Paul, who denied even knowing her. When that didn’t work, he tried to take her by force in the street. But Thecla wasn’t easily taken. She ripped his clothes and knocked the crown off of his head, much to the amusement of the crowd. Alexander was humiliated and once again Thecla found herself standing before city officials.

For her “assault” on Alexander, Thecla is sentenced to be thrown to the beasts. In most cases in these stories it’s pagan vs. Christian, but in this case all of the women protest the sentence calling it an “evil judgement.” Thecla asks that she be able to remain “pure” while waiting, so a wealthy woman named Tryphaena offered her protection. (I assume this is protection from sexual assault, hence remaining “pure.”) Tryphaena’s daughter had recently died and she becomes quite attached to Thecla, who prays for her, bringing her comfort.

On the following day, Thecla was taken to the arena, stripped, and cast into the stadium where bears and lions were released to attack her. As the animals came into the arena, a fierce lioness ran to her and lay down at her feet. The first animal to attack was a bear, which the lioness defeated. The second was another lion. The lioness killed the lion, but also died in the process. Thecla was now defenseless.

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Realizing that her time might be short, Thecla saw a large vat of water and decided to baptize herself before she died. She threw herself into the water and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize myself on the last day.” Evidently, God approved because a flash of lightening killed all of the seals in the water before they could attack her.

One more attempt is made to kill Thecla. She was bound by her feet between two bulls and red-hot irons were placed under their bellies. They leapt forward, but instead of ripping Thecla apart, her bonds are burned through setting her free once again. Finally, it is all too much for Tryphaena and she faints. Tryphaena, however, is a kinswoman of Caesar and Alexander becomes afraid that any harm to her will bring Caesar’s wrath on the entire city, so he asks the governor to set Thecla free.

Of course Paul is long gone, and when she is released, Thecla once again sets out on the road to find him. This time, however, after telling him about her ordeal and her baptism, she informs him that she is returning to Iconium. Paul not only gives her his blessing, but commissions her to preach. When she returns home, she visits with her mother, finds out that Thamyris has died, and leaves for Seleucia, where she has a long life preaching the Christian gospel.

It must be said that The Acts of Paul is a forgery. Although it wasn’t unusual for documents to be attributed to a more well-known person, in this case the writer, in fact a church leader, was caught, confessed, and was excommunicated. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in the story. It is likely that there was an oral tradition of a woman named Thecla and the author simply recorded events that had been passed down. In any case, she was extremely popular from the early 3rd century up through the middle ages, especially in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Syria, and Egypt.

One more note, we know about the forgery because of the writings of Tertullian, a 2nd century church father who disapproved of the document. Why? Because it portrays Thecla acting like a man! She preaches and baptizes (herself and possibly others), and of course in his thinking these things are supposed to be done only by men.

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Resources

Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman
The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures ed. William Barnstone
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
(Translation probably by Jeremiah Jones, (1693-1724))
Early Christian Writings: The Acts of Paul

Jezebel and Asherah: Controlling a Culture by Slut Shaming the Queen

Today I am pleased to welcome Kyra Kramer, author of “The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters.”

Jezebel, the Painted Queen, is one of the most notorious women to have ever lived. Her name has come to literally mean a woman who uses sex to corrupt men and tempt them into sin. She is the ultimate trollop and has been slut shamed longer and more fiercely than any other woman in history. But why? Did she really lead her husband, King Ahab, astray from the paths of righteousness? Did she really use her womanly wiles as a weapon to destroy God’s chosen prophets? History and archeology suggest not. It seems as if Jezebel’s real “crime” was to embrace the Hebrew religion a little too well. Could she have been maligned not for turning Ahab away from Yahweh, but for keeping him loyal to Yahweh’s feminine side?

ezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Most people don’t know it but Yahweh (AKA Jehovah or God or Allah) had a goddess consort named Asherah for thousands of years. In fact, Asherah may have been more than a consort. Just as a coin has two sides but is a single object, or like the Holy Trinity represents a single deity, Asherah may have been God’s female ‘face’ — the female hypostasis of God. This means that to venerate Asherah was not necessarily a distinct form of worship, but rather would have been an official part of the Hebrew religion itself.

Asherah disappeared from official Judeo-Christian dogma roughly three thousand years ago, but archeological evidence shows her presence throughout Israel and the ancient Near East for millennia before that. In several instances her name is directly linked with Yahweh. An archeological site in eastern Sinai, called Ajrud, found inscriptions on ancient Israelite stelae that decree, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah/asherah”, “by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”, and “I bless you by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”.

Evidence of Asherah also lingers in the written historical record of Judaism, if you know how to spot it. Asherah was associated with trees and groves, and was often symbolized by a wooden pole or tree. She was so strongly connected to trees and tree images (especially oak, palm, tamarisks, almond, terebinthes, and poplar) that Biblical mentions of planting trees near altars, shrines, or holy places are forgotten references to her. Furthermore, the multiple mention of burials of holy men and women taking place near (or under) sacred trees are also contextual remnants of her worship.

Several passages in the Bible suggest miracles Asherah wrought via her sacred trees. For example, when Jacob’s father-in-law tried to trick him after promising him every spotted member of his flock:

“Jacob … took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted” (Genesis, 30:37-39). Why would Jacob use poles made from poplar and almond trees to facilitate this miracle if it were not to call on Asherah, the feminine half of the God of Abraham, for aid? Additionally, when Joshua reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews, he recorded it “in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. 27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God” (Joshua, 24:26-27).

An oak tree in the sacred place of Yahweh was almost certainly a symbol of God’s feminine aspect, Asherah.

Acceptance for Asherah worship was also implied by what wasn’t said in sacred text. When Jehu overthrew Ahab’s son and became the unlawful king of Israel, his excuse was that God commanded him to purify Yahwehism. Nevertheless, Jehu didn’t tear down or desecrate a religious structure built by Ahab to honor Asherah, which suggests Asherah WAS a part of orthodox Yahwism. In 1 Kings Chapter 18, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were slaughtered in Kishon Valley because they worshiped a false god, but there is no mention of an execution for the four hundred prophets of Asherah that had accompanied Baal’s priests. Why would the prophets of Asherah be spared if they were not legitimate practitioners of Yahwism? Finally, devotion to Asherah was not explicitly condemned in the earliest books of the Hebrews and seldom even in the later works. If her worship was so closely connected to that of Baal, why was her veneration treated with kid gloves? The lack of prophetic criticism for the worship of Asherah is a strong indication that devotion to her was once a normal part of Yahwistic piety.

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah’s legitimate status among Hebrew practitioners opens up the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jezebel acted as a priestess of Asherah as part of her responsibilities as queen of Israel. As an official part of Yahwism, the goddess Asherah would have doubtlessly had state celebrations and rituals in her honor that would have been overseen or implemented by the highest ranking woman in the nation, which was obviously the wife of the king. Jezebel is mostly connected to Baal in popular culture, but it is practically a given that she was a follower of Asherah. Not only did four hundred prophets of Asherah “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), her father was recorded historically as being a priest of Astarte [Asherah] or a priest of the Goddess. That means that Jezebel would have been, at least in practice, a pluralistic Yahwist who venerated Asherah along with her Hebrew husband.

Of course, we know in hindsight that the fundamentalist arm of the Jewish religion was victorious in the end. The Hebrew conservatives, known as the deuteronomists, eventually eradicated almost all evidence – even the memory – of Asherah as a part of the Yahwistic godhead or consort to God. One of the ways this happened was with creative editing of the early Hebrew texts. The veneration of Asherah was repackaged as having always been counter to the will of Yahweh and having never been an acceptable part of Yahwism. Although the idea of an exclusively masculine God only became significant during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, the deuteronomists rewrote the earlier records and cleared out as many direct references to Asherah as they could. Over time, the people forgot that there had ever BEEN any other form of Judaism. The idea that God has both a male and a female aspect was not just removed from the orthodox belief system; the very concept of it was lost to believers because it never existed in the first place.

This was not an overnight process. It took hundreds of years to remove Asherah from the state cult and codified texts, and even then she remained in Jewish rituals long after she had ceased to be formally acknowledged as a part of Yahwism. Nor has Asherah disappeared entirely even in modern times. The menorah — the seven-branched candlestick used during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – appears to be modeled after the seven-branched stylized “Tree of Life” that represented Asherah and thus serves as an unrecognized and unspoken testament to Yahweh’s female aspect.

There are several biblical records of direct conflicts between those who still wanted to co-worship Asherah and those who wanted Yahweh to stand alone. The prophet Jeremiah told Jews living in Egypt that if they did not stop their reverence for Asherah then God would punish them. Defying the prophet, the people resisted this command:

15 Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, 16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” 19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Jeremiah 44:15-19

Likewise, the prophet Hosea was in despair because the Israelites “consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant. Therefore your daughters turn to prostitution and your daughters-in-law to adultery” (Hosea 4:12-13). The prostitution and adultery Hosea speaks of is the continued worship of Asherah in her sacred groves, which was described by deuteronomists as “harlotry” because it was “cheating” on Yahweh — failing to maintain Yahwistic purity — in their opinion.

Clearly, the conservatives faced an uphill battle in eradicating Asherah from Judaism, even centuries after the death of Ahab and the establishment of deuteronomistic authority. The situation must have seemed especially dire for fundamentalists during Ahab’s reign. The deuteronomists of Jezebel’s time couldn’t have known that their version of the Lord would become the orthodox version of the Hebrew religion. For the contemporary conservatives, Jezebel’s worship of Asherah (which would have been seen as a righteous act by the majority of the Israeli populace) was terrifically problematic. As the queen of Israel, Jezebel’s influence would have been seen as a formidable obstacle for the fundamentalist cause to overcome because she promoted and participated in the populist worship of Asherah. With the queen bolstering the goddess, it would be even more difficult for Jewish extremists to convince the Hebrew people that Yahweh had no consort.

From a deuteronomistic perspective, Jezebel had to die and her death had to be seen as a punishment from God to undermine those who considered Asherah to be a part of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the queen’s murder was portrayed.

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

According to Biblical text, Jezebel died after being thrown out of a window at the behest of the God-sent usurper Jehu. In Canaanite royal society, the “lady-in-the-window” motif was a common way to represent many goddesses throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Asherah. For Yahwistic fundamentalists the act of looking out of the window would have been symbolically linked with the “harlotry” of goddess worship. If Jezebel, looking out of the window, was the representation of Asherah, then having the queen thrown down from the window served a twofold purpose. It wasn’t just the queen who died. Jezebel’s fall symbolically represented the destruction of Asherah worship in Yahwism.

Okay, but why did Jezebel get slut shamed? Asherah worship did not indicate unfaithfulness to Ahab, her husband. Nor are there Biblical texts indicating Jezebel had sex with anyone else. If she committed no sexual infidelities or transgressions, how did she become remembered as a strumpet? Well, it comes back to the fact that devotion to Asherah was seen as the worst kind of “harlotry” by the conservatives. Jezebel’s harlotry was particularly bad because it served as an example and support for others who wanted the continuation of Asherah in official Yawheism. Over time, Jezebel’s polyamorous spirituality became confused and conflated with the physical act of intercourse. Thus, Jezebel the harlot who worshiped Asherah became Jezebel the slut.

By recasting Jezebel from a devout queen to an evil slut, those Hebrews who supported Asherah worship – especially the women – could be implicated for immorality because they followed in Jezebel’s footsteps. Women would have their honor and reputation denigrated if they were found to venerate Asherah, making women less likely to risk private rituals or pass that knowledge on to their children. Public rituals would become a source of shame, something ‘good girls’ didn’t do. Worshiping Asherah had come to mean that a woman was like Jezebel, and no one wanted to be an evil slut in the eyes of her people. The flame of Asherah was rapidly snuffed out after her followers were branded de facto sluts.

Jezebel was slut shamed in order to control an entire culture and eradicate the last traces of Asherah.

*****

Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

The Jezebel Effect book coverHave you heard that Catherine the Great died having sex with her horse? Or perhaps you prefer the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers and slept with her brother? Or that Kathryn Howard slept with so many members of the Tudor court that they couldn’t keep track of them all? As juicy and titillating as the tales might be, they are all, patently untrue.

Modern PR firms may claim that no publicity is bad publicity, but that, too, is untrue. The fact that Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft, and that Jezebel is remembered as a painted trollop rather than a faithful wife and religiously devout queen, isn’t a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it’s a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability. This is The Jezebel Effect.

Bibliography:

Ackerman, Susan. (1993) “The Queen Mother and the cult in ancient Israel” Journal of Biblical Literature p. 385-401.
Cohen, Daniel. (2010) “Asherah: Hidden Goddess of the Bible” in Goddesses in World Culture
Dever, William G. (2012) The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
Kein, Jenny. (2000) Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism
Hadley, Judith M. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess
McKinlay, Judith E. (2004) Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus
Moascati, Sabitino. (2001) The Phoenicians
Seeman, Don. (2004) “The Watcher at the Window: Cultural Poetics of a Biblical Motif” In Prooftexts 24:1
Silver, Morris. (1995) Economic Structures of Antiquity
Yee, Gale A. (2003) Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible

Biblical quotes are from The New International Version (NIV).