Acts of Paul and Thecla

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The Acts of Paul and Thecla (Acta Pauli et Theclae) is an apocryphal story—Goodspeed called it a "religious romance"[1]—of St Paul's influence on a young virgin named Thecla. It is one of the writings of the New Testament apocrypha.

The text[edit]

It was written prior to AD 190.[2] Eugenia of Alexandria in the reign of Commodus (180-192) is reported in the Acts of her martyrdom to have taken Thecla as her model after reading the text, prior to its disapproval by Tertullian.[3] The discovery of a Coptic text of the Acts of Paul containing the Thecla narrative[4] suggests that the abrupt opening of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is due to its being an excerpt of that larger work. It is attested as early as Tertullian, De baptismo 17:5 (c 190), who inveighed against its use in the advocacy of a woman's right to preach and to baptize. Jerome says that the presbyter who wrote the History of Paul and Thecla was deposed by John the Apostle (Catalogus Script. Eccl. ch:7).[5]

Many surviving versions of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in Greek, and some in Coptic, as well as references to the work among Church fathers show that it was widely disseminated. In the Eastern Church, the wide circulation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in Greek, Syriac, and Armenian is evidence of the veneration of Thecla of Iconium. There are also Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions, sometimes differing widely from the Greek. "In the Ethiopic, with the omission of Thecla's admitted claim to preach and to baptize, half the point of the story is lost."[6]

The narrative of the text[edit]

The author sets this story during Paul the Apostle's First Missionary Journey, but this text is ideologically different from the New Testament portrayal of Paul. The extravagant praise of virginity, however, was a running thread in many brands of Early Christianity.

Here, Paul is described as travelling to Iconium (Acts 13:51), proclaiming "the word of God about abstinence and the resurrection". Paul is given a full physical description that may reflect oral tradition: in the Syriac text "he was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes[7] and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy; at one time he seemed like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel." Paul gave his sermons in the house of Onesiphorus (cp. 2Tim 1:16) in a series of beatitudes, by which Thecla, a young noble virgin, listened to Paul's "discourse on virginity" from her window in an adjacent house. She listened, enraptured, without moving for days. Thecla's mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris, became concerned that Thecla would follow Paul's demand "that one must fear only one God and live in chastity", and they formed a mob to drag Paul to the governor, who imprisoned the apostle.

Thecla bribed a guard to gain entrance to the prison, and sat at Paul's feet all night listening to his teaching and "kissing his bonds". When her family found her, both she and Paul were again brought before the governor. At her mother's request, Paul was sentenced to scourging and expulsion (cp. Acts 14:19, 2Tim 3:11), and Thecla to be killed by being burned at the stake, that "all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid." Stripped naked, Thecla was put on the fire, but she was saved by a miraculous storm which God sent to put out the flames.

Reunited, Paul and Thecla then traveled to Pisidian Antioch (cp Acts 14:21)), where a nobleman named Alexander desired Thecla and offered Paul money for her. Paul claimed not to know her, and Alexander then attempted to take Thecla by force. Thecla fought him off, assaulting him in the process, to the amusement of the townspeople. Alexander dragged her before the governor for assaulting a nobleman and, despite the protests of the city's women, Thecla was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. To ensure that her virtue was intact at her death, Queen Tryphaena took her into protective custody overnight.

Thecla was tied to a fierce lioness, and paraded through the city. She was then stripped and thrown to beasts, which were provided by Alexander. The women of the city again protested against the injustice. Thecla was protected from death, first by the lioness who fought off the other beasts, and then by a series of miracles (during which she appeared to baptize herself), until finally the women of the city and Queen Antonia Tryphaena intervened. The way in which Thecla was said to have baptized herself in the arena was quite strange and unique (the account of this is found in chapter 9 of the Acts of Paul and Thecla and also in the Acts of Thecla). While in the arena, she saw a vat of water that contained seals/sea-calves. Since she thought it might be her last chance to be baptized, she jumped into the vat and proclaimed that she was baptizing herself. A miracle occurred and all the seals/sea-calves were killed by God before they could eat her. [8]

Thecla returned to Paul unharmed. She later returned to Iconium to convert her mother.[9]

One later ending describes Thecla as dwelling in a cave for the next 72 years, then traveling to Rome to be buried with Paul.

Significance[edit]

During the fourth and fifth centuries, Thecla was lauded in literature as an exemplary virgin and martyr by ascetic writers and theologians such as Methodius of Olympus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, and her burial place became a vibrant centre for international pilgrimage

In 374, Gregory of Nazianzus himself withdrew to the shrine of ‘the highly praised young maid Thecla’ (De vita sua, 548–9) at Seleucia in order to evade an undesirable episcopal post. About a decade later (c.384) the female pilgrim Egeria, whose Itinerarium provides us with valuable information about early Christian pilgrimage and the Jerusalem liturgy, made a special trip to Hagia Thekla on her way back home from visiting the Holy Land, tells us that at Thecla's martyrium either a prayer or speech was made and that all of the Acts of Saint Thecla were read. Pilgrimages and devotions continue to this day.

Portrayal of Paul[edit]

Paul is also an ambiguous figure in this work. He is seen as a preacher of asceticism, but one with whom women are besotted. His teachings lead Thecla into trouble, and yet he is never there when the trouble comes. This presentation of Paul as ascetic preacher, discouraging marriage, appears to be very different from that of the Pastoral Epistles. For instance, 1st Timothy 4:1-3 has Paul explicitly condemning anyone who forbids marriage. However, 1st Corinthians 7 is more ambivalent about marriage, saying that "it is well for a man not to touch a woman" (7:1). This text has been interpreted as ideologically closer to Paul and Thecla.

In any event, Paul and Thecla indicates one possible understanding of Paul's legacy in the second century.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, "The Acts of Paul and Thecla" The Biblical World 17.3 (March 1901, pp. 185-190) p. 185.
  2. ^ Tertullian's notice of it gives a terminus ante quem.
  3. ^ "...there fell into her hands the History of the holy Apostle Paul and of the blessed Virgin Thekla, and as she read it in secret, day after day..." ("ACTS OF S. EUGENIA", chapter ii) Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare, The Apology and Acts of Apollonius and other monuments of early Christianity Swan, Sonnenschein & co., 1894, p.158
  4. ^ In a papyrus conserved at Heidelberg (Goodspeed 1901:185).
  5. ^ Ceresa-Gastaldo has shown that Jerome’s “care for the chronology is constant and fundamental”; from this he was able to deduce from the De viri illustribus and Chronicon that the “History of Paul” (incorporating the earlier Acts of Paul and Thecla) was originally published between AD 68-98: Studia Patristica 15 (1984) 55-68. Affirmed by A. Hilhorst [“Tertullian on the Acts of Paul” , p.159f], S. Reinach, Cultes, mythes et religions IV (Paris, 1912) 229-51 ('Thekla'), esp. 242,and Theodor Zahn, (Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 1877, p.1307), cf. W. Rordorf, 'Tradition et composition dans les Actes de Thecle', Theologische Zeitschrift 41 (1985) 272-83, esp. 276, reprinted in his Liturgie, foi et vie des premiers Chretiens (Paris, 1986*) 457-68
  6. ^ Goodspeed 1901:186 note.
  7. ^ The Armenian text adds "blue" according to Goodspeed 1901:186.
  8. ^ Ehrman, Bart (2003). Lost Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 120. 
  9. ^ Digest, Reader's (1992). "Up from the Wilderness". In John A. Pope, Jr. After Jesus: the triumph of Christianity. Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader's Digest Association. p. 187. ISBN 0-89577-392-9. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Eliott, J.K. The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation 1993 Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • MacDonald, D.R. 1983 The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon Philadelphia: Westminster Press
  • Kirsch, J.P. Sts. Thecla. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew 2005. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-518249-1.
  • Streete, Gail C. Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity2009. Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 978-0-664-23329-7.

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