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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

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Notes and Credits

   *Nancy A. Carter (ncarter@gbgm-umc.org) has an M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she won the Hitchcock Award in Church History. Her Ph.D. is in literary studies (literature and theology) from American University in Washington, D.C. She has authored books for church laity including Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Who Do You Say That I Am?, a spiritual growth study for United Methodist Women written with Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly.

   This web page was originally written in January, 2000.

   1 [Return] Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), pp.57-77.

   2 [Return] MacDonald, pp.57-77.
   For more information about the ascetic movement and early Christian beliefs about the body and spirituality, consult the very readable book by Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). Brown speaks of the association of eating meat and drinking wine with sex on pp. 92-93. He describes the Encratites and Tatian on pp. 92-101.

   3 [Return] Calvin Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 135.

   4 [Return] MacDonald, pp. 92-93.

   5 [Return] Margaret Y. MacDonald, "Rereading Paul" in Women & Christian Origins, edited by Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 250.

   6 [Return] Gail Corrington Street, "Women as Sources of Redemption and Knowledge" in Women & Christian Origins, edited by Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 346.

   All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission.

   Disclaimer: Some links jump to outside sites for further information on Corinthians, the Bible, Paul, and other resources. Links do not constitute an endorsement by the Women's Division of the information on other web sites. External web sites offer us diverse perspectives; afford us an opportunity to compare them to United Methodist positions; and, encourage us to critically analyze the issues raised by the Corinthians web pages.

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