The Acts of Paul and Thecla is an apocryphal text which was widely disseminated and read in the early church. It was written sometime between 70 – 190 AD. If it was composed closer to the earlier date, that would make it contemporary with the other books of the New Testament. It did not make it into the New Testament canon primarily because of Tertullian, who condemned the text for advocating women’s rights to preach and baptise.
The story begins with Paul, who was preaching in Iconium. He gave a sermon of beatitudes, much like those of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, and a young woman named Thecla, who was betrothed to be married, overheard him. She was moved by his presence and message and decided to renounce her marriage and take up a life of celibacy dedicated solely to God instead. Her fiance, who was a wealthy and influential man, was not well pleased by this decision and decided to have Paul arrested for corrupting young women and encouraging them to renounce the marriages which had been arranged for them.
When Paul was arrested, Thecla snuck out of the house and bribed the guards of the prison so that they would let her see him. She sat with him all night and in the morning when they were found they were both brought to court. Paul was sentenced to a beating and expulsion from the city but Thecla’s mother demanded that Thecla be put to death. Her mother was willing to sacrifice her own daughter in order to send a message to other young women that they must be married and not be persuaded by Paul’s preaching.
After Paul had been removed from the city, Thecla was stripped naked and bound to a stake so that she could be burned alive in the theater for all to see. While she was tied to the stake, she saw a vision of Christ in the form of Paul watching from the audience. She knew that she was safe because of that. As soon as the fire was lit a great storm came out of nowhere and a downpour of rain quenched the fire and saved her.
Meanwhile, Paul was recovering in the outskirts of the city and he sent a child of the family he was travelling with to go into the market and buy food. The little boy saw Thecla, who had been saved from her execution and jumped for joy. The two of them returned together to Paul with the bread from the market. When Thecla arrived at the tomb where Paul was staying she realised that he had been fasting and praying for her for six days. When they were reunited, they feasted on the bread and vegetables and celebrated together. Thecla wished to be baptised on the spot but Paul told her to be patient, that her time would come.
A little while later, Thecla caught the eye of a powerful man named Alexander. He first tried to buy Thecla from Paul, but Paul claimed that he did not know her. So, Alexander grabbed her in the street and tried to force himself on her. Thecla fought him there in public, accused him of violating a stranger (reminiscent of the story of Sodom) and publicly humiliated him by tearing off his cloak and crown and running away. Alexander sentenced her to be fed to wild beasts in the theater as a punishment for her behaviour despite the pleas of the women around him to spare her.
The queen had a dream in which her daughter, who had died a little while previously, came to her and implored her to spare Thecla’s life, saying that she should accept Thecla as her own daughter in her place. The queen was not able to convince her husband the governor to spare her and so Thecla was fed to the lions the next day. She was thrown into the pit with lions and bears but one lioness protected her, killing the bears and even going head to head with the largest male lion killing him and dying in the process. Because of the courageous act of the lioness, the blessed Thecla was saved.
Alexander decided to throw more animals in, since the lioness who protected Thecla had died in the battle. Thecla lifted her hands up to God in prayer and then turned towards an aquarium full of sea lions which was also in the theater. The crowds pleaded with her not to jump in because the sea lions would eat her but she proclaimed “in the name of Jesus Christ I baptise myself on the last day!” Lightning struck the water and killed all the sea lions so that Thecla could baptise herself in their water without being injured.
Eventually, the governor came to realise that God was protecting the holy woman and chose to release her from the punishment Alexander had placed on her. The text says that all the women present praised God together in one voice which was so loud that it shook the foundations of the city and was felt by all. Thecla dressed herself in the cloak of a man afterwards and went out with a small entourage in search of Paul, who she knew was in Myra. When she found Paul and told him that the baptism she had been waiting for came about according to the miracles of God and the prayers of Paul, he blessed her, and gave her authority to preach the word of God. She spent the rest of her life as an ascetic living in the desert, praying to God and living a holy life. She died on Sept 24 at the ripe old age of 90 and was buried next to Paul.
There are many amazing things in this story and a person could write many books of commentary on it, but I will only make a few short comments here. This story, as Tertullian accurately pointed out, grants the right to preach and baptise to women. It does so under the authority of Paul who, after Christ, is the most authoritative person in Christian history. It also gives us a hint into the fact that the gospel message liberates the oppressed. In this case, the oppressed who were being liberated were women. The Acts of Thecla clearly speaks against the inhumanity of forced marriage and the place women held in society. The fact that Thecla began to wear a cloak in the style of a man and that she was given authority to preach is a clear call to loosen the chains placed around women so that they may have the same opportunities as men.
While the details of the struggles which Thecla faced are not the same as those faced by women today, many people would still side with Tertullian who felt this story was dangerous and immoral. In most of the world’s churches women are still not allowed to preach and baptise. I like to imagine how Christian history would have been different if The Acts of Thecla had been given its rightful place next to The Acts of the Apostles. While we cannot undo the past, it is not too late to imagine a new future. I pray that we may use our voices to shake the foundations of our society in the same way that the brave women of Antioch did when God saved Thecla from the corrupt men who governed their society.
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