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

7 thoughts on “The Life of Thecla: When Chastity Gets You into Trouble

  1. Interesting! I had never heard of St Thecla or the Acts of Paul, though due to a religious upbringing I was at one time very familiar with the biblical Paul. Never very impressed with his views on women though!

    • I think there is some debate about whether or not Paul wrote some of the more offensive passages, such as “women keep silent in the church”, but he doesn’t come off very well in this book either. I’ve been interested in the 20th century manuscript finds for a while, but had never run across Thecla until recently either.

  2. Although I am not Christian, I was brought up High Church and did study Religion and Biblical Literature. In my opinion, there should never have been an orthodox Canon. What this did was to lead people later on to think that everyone was in one, big, happy family. NO. You would have really been able to see that this whole thing was a complete human construction that had absolutely nothing to do with the original teachings of the Rabbi Joshua who had no intention of creating a new religion. Paul was from Ephesus and was not around until later in the century.
    Saints’ stories have always been a fun read. I don’t remember how many years ago it has been; but, the Roman Catholic Church put the list of saints through a vigorous editing process. This was when St. Christopher was removed (couldn’t prove he existed).

    • Julia, you’re right. I remember being under the impression that if we could just get back to the original meaning of the Bible, then we would know what the earliest Christians believed and thus (the implication was) what Jesus intended. But the reality (based on the diversity of texts that have been uncovered) is that the earliest followers of Jesus believed MANY different things. But Athanasius and his faction won out, became the ‘orthodox’ group, and started suppressing the others. I find it all very fascinating and love learning about the different ideas and beliefs.

  3. Susan, thanks for this posting. I read as much early church history as I could find for pretty much the same reason. The adoption of the “Canon” was done without any editing process. Nor any real discussion. The church fathers truly failed the generations of Christians who would come later when they shrugged their duty in this matter. Sadly, the misogynist traditions of the desert and Judaism were all too readily passed on by the early Christian leaders, in spite of the fact that they were ignoring the clear example of their Lord and Prophet. The resultant suffering continues to this day. The church is indeed imperfect, yet much good also comes out of it. Love thy neighbor is still a much better message than most of the alternatives.

    • Gerald, I agree with you. Power is seductive and when people sincerely believe they are right they often use religion to justify suppressing and oppressing others. When I read the alternative texts, what I see is people who are sincerely trying to understand the message and its depths. In my opinion, that is a good thing and I’m glad these texts and history have come to light. And I agree “Love they neighbor” is a wonderful message! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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