This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Mary Beard was right in the observation she made in the opening of her book Women and Power that the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to “shut up”; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public is immortalized in the Odyssey 1.346-7 and 356-9 when Telemachus orders his mother not to express her thoughts and will in the presence of others but rather to withdraw to her quarters (Beard 2017).
Throughout antiquity in the Mediterranean, it was widely held that women were by nature inferior to males and prone to error, that their subordination was totally justified and that it was preferable for them to remain silent.
The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla (from now on: AAPT) did not follow widely held notions on women. It is a fascinating early Christian text written in the second half of the second century AD as a manual for educating liberal and strong women.
This was also precisely the reason why it was soon considered by mainstream Christian fathers as a far too dangerous read for Christian maidens and it got rejected. What if it got ideas into silly little female heads?
Divergent early Christian communities
During late Roman times various Christian communities existed, often with divergent and sometimes even strikingly divergent understandings of the teachings of Jesus and the meaning of His messages. These communities produced and circulated their own texts (which they trusted to be Spirit-filled) in order to protect and consolidate their ideas.
All this diversity did not escape the notice of mainstream Christian leaders who were horrified because of it; so they got together, for the first time towards the end of the second century, most probably in Rome, in order to create a list of acceptable writings, i.e. the Canon. The names of the Christian fathers who created the Canon haven’t survived, most probably on purpose, so as to show, without a shadow of doubt, that the selection of acceptable writings was far from random but rather it was meant to be such by God. It was a matter of authority.
The texts which were rejected are known as the apocryphal gospels, from the Greek word apocryphon which means something that needs to remain hidden. The fact that certain texts were considered as inappropriate Christian reads, and thus rejected, did not deter Christian generations from continuing to read them and to be influenced by them. The numerous translations of the apocryphal gospels that have survived throughout the Mediterranean, the numerous mentions of them even in the works of canonical authors, and the abundance of Christian art inspired by them, is ample evidence for this.
Scholars who study the early Christian world ought to consult the entire early Christian literary production, both the canonical and the apocryphal productions, both mainstream and marginal, and not just the fortunate texts that passed the selection process and finally prevailed. For all texts satisfied at one time the needs of the communities which produced them and thus are windows that afford a view of the past and they can help us grasp the preoccupations and the problems troubling the entire early Christian world.
The endeavor to form a list of acceptable writings, fit for the edification of Christians, proved to be far from easy. It did not have the anticipated success and lasted for centuries. Bishops had to repeatedly meet in formal assemblies (i.e. Synods) in order to discuss which texts they were to approve and which to reject, and the ways they were to be used in order to enforce their will. The last text that made it to the Christian Canon was the Revelation of John, which only became part of the Canon as late as the twelfth century. The apocryphal gospels have been unjustly neglected by scholars for centuries. The Orthodox Church, for it respects tradition, detests them particularly.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
According to the AAPT Thecla had a most interesting life. She was born early in the second century AD in Iconium in Asia Minor. She totally ignored the social norms of her times. She distanced herself from her upper class family – at first metaphorically and soon after literally – she dissolved the engagement with her fiancée which according to the social standards of the time her family had chosen for her.
Thecla chose to keep her virginity at a time when one was meant to get married and procreate. She travelled around the Mediterranean in order to preach the word of God. She escaped martyrdom a couple of times and ended her years as an ascetic. And she became a role model for virgins, not only female but also male. Gregory of Nazianzus for example as an act of recognition for the values Thecla represented for him, i.e. an ideal model for virginity, withdrew to the shrine of “the highly praised young maid Thecla” for three years, as we learn in his Concerning his own Life 548-549.
The AAPT were composed in the second half of the second century in Asia Minor to narrate Thecla’s story and to promote Thecla as a role model. It was a very popular read. Many Christian fathers knew it, although they did not necessarily agree with it, and translations of the text survive in many languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic, Ethiopian and maybe Arabic.
The text was written in the not very intellectually demanding koine Greek and it could easily be read regardless of one’s educational background. People could easily follow it as another read it aloud to them; this it seems was the most common way in which texts were disseminated in the ancient world.
The earliest mention of the text belongs to Tertullian, a little after 190, who wrote in On Baptism 17.5, that a presbyter (an elder or minister of the Christian Church) from Asia composed the AAPT and as a result was deposed by apostle John after confessing the sin of its composition. Jerome was convinced he could date the text between AD 60-98, but this seems as a far too early estimate (Iosif and Triantafillou 2008, p. 61).
Why did the text as soon as it circulated offend the sensibilities of male Christian fathers? One reason must have been because it preached an impossible code concerning sexuality. However, I will argue in this paper that it was rejected mainly because it presented Thecla as an empowered, independent charismatic figure and even more so because it showed the remarkable impact Thecla had on her female contemporaries.
Women appear in the text as strongly admiring Thecla – for the choices she made as far as her sex life was concerned, her traveling, her preaching in male clothes around the Mediterranean as a wandering charismatic and her resistance against authority and being vocal about their admiration. Thecla is the undisputed inspirational protagonist of the story. She clearly overshadows the apostle Paul and she highly impresses other women who can no longer hold their enthusiasm for her.
At the same time there is the idealization of lifelong celibacy over marriage, of cross-dressing and of traveling as a wandering charismatic. Paul, settling in one place, getting married and behaving according to what society has already prescribed for one’s gender (silence and passivity as far as women are concerned) are clearly of lower value. The text explicitly upsets the boundaries each gender was to observe.
This in my view was the main reason why it infuriated to such an extent mainstream Christian fathers of its time. Although the text was officially rejected, the figure of Thecla was lauded in later literature and preaching. Not earlier than a century after her death and the composition of the APTT prominent theologians such as Methodius of Olympus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus praised Thecla first and foremost as an exemplary virgin and then an ascetic and a martyr.
Thecla was a beautiful maiden from an upper class family residing at Iconium. Her family was about to marry her with a socially equal young man called Thamyris. The plan was disrupted when the apostle Paul came to the city and started preaching the Christian ideal of virginity. Thecla was mesmerized and shunned her fiancée and the plans made by others for her future.
Her mother Theocleia was furious with the unexpected disobedience and turned to the authorities and accused her own daughter for being anome (against the laws) and anymphe single), and Paul for being a xenos (foreigner) and a magos (magician). As a result, Paul was arrested and sent to prison, where Thecla visited him. As was customary, she bribed the prison guards (with a silver mirror) to allow her access.
In prison, Thecla sat at Paul’s feet all night listening to his teaching and kissing his bonds in adoration. A public trial was soon held. The judge decided to expel Paul and to have Thecla burnt at the stake. Against all odds, Thecla was saved and she left the city. She met with Paul and she suggested that the apostle let her cut her hair short and join him in his travels around the Mediterranean. Paul unenthusiastically agreed. She also suggested that Paul baptize her. Paul refused, for it was too early.
Thecla and Paul then begun their travels together and reached Antioch where an upper class individual called Alexander found Thecla attractive and tried to rape her. Paul did absolutely nothing to help her out of the dire situation and even pretended not to be acquainted with her and left the city. Thecla stood her ground. But as a result she had to stand yet another trial for assaulting a nobleman. This time she was sentenced to be thrown to the beasts.
The female citizens of Antioch furiously protested and wholeheartedly and openly supported her. They could not keep silent. She had a tremendous impact on them and they could not endure passively the injustice. A wealthy, upper class woman called Thryphaena, who happened to have just lost her daughter (mortality rates in antiquity before the advent of antibiotics were extremely high), said publicly she would protect Thecla.
In a dramatic episode, as she was about to meet her death Thecla, who could not afford to wait any longer for an unwilling male (i.e. Paul) to baptize her, baptized herself in the arena in front of the crowd. (Baptism signified remission of sins and guaranteed entrance to heaven, so Thecla could take no chances.)
By another divine intervention Thecla was saved and set free. She then adopted male attire and started looking for Paul and indeed found him in Myra. Paul suggested she teach the word of God as a wandering charismatic. Thecla happily complied. After many years Thecla returned to Iconium where she tried to be reconciled with her mother. She ended up in Seleuceia and she met her death there.
According to another version of the story that survives Thecla lived for seventy two years as an ascetic and offered superb medical services to her frequent visitors. The Christian Church promoted ascetics and monks as the new highly successful and highly powerful physicians of the day in an attempt to keep people away from Asclepeia where incubation was practiced. When Thecla was ninety there was yet another attempt of rape against her, this time by a gang of pagans solicited by the physicians of the city who, because of Thecla, had lost their clients. God intervened and prevented the rape.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla in context
It is crucial to try to read the text in context. Let’s first focus on Thecla’s sex life – or rather lack of it. Thecla’s decision to shun marriage was very serious for the cultural norms of her times. In reality not only did she despise the wishes and expectations of her family, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, she ignored the Roman tradition and Roman laws.
Roman law punished those who were childless and single, and only later the first Christian emperor, Constantine (r. AD 306-337), abolished them. Society expected a maiden to realize and fulfill her destiny by becoming a wife and a mother. Especially the upper classes cared to have descendants to inherit their property. Selecting lifelong celibacy was virtually unthinkable for a conservative pagan. It was a radical choice Christianity offered its members.
Today in western cultures, lifelong celibacy is generally thought of as a conservative choice, but in late Roman times, when the norm was marriage and procreation, lifelong celibacy offered independence from the dominion of a spouse and freedom in the management of one’s body and sexuality.
Christianity attacked the traditional social values and offered the possibility of constructing a new “family”. A common pagan complaint against early Christians was that they weakened the grasp that pagan parents rightly and traditionally had over their offspring.
Thecla’s sexual choices were not unique. Melania the Younger’s case is similar to Thecla’s. According to the Life of Melania, composed in AD 440, a year after her death, by the priest and monk Gerontius, Melania was a senator’s daughter forced by her family to marry and to procreate. Melania apparently had other priorities, and she managed to convince her new husband Pipianus to follow together an ascetic lifestyle, in poverty, charity, fasting, prayer and asexuality. In order to persuade him she promised he would have total control over her considerable assets. Pipianus agreed with one condition, that they first have two children together. Celibate couples became a trend in late antiquity, especially in upper class Christian circles during the fourth and fifth centuries (Alwis 2011).
The AAPT, like the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of John, present Paul extolling lifelong celibacy. The canonical letters To Timothy 1 and 2 and To Titus present a totally different approach on sexuality. In these two texts Paul extols marriage and procreation. In 1 Corinthians Paul offers Christians the choice between lifelong celibacy and marriage; lifelong celibacy and marriage are presented as two equally valid options, and both lead to salvation.
Many apocryphal gospels promoted an impossible code concerning sexuality, rejecting sexual relations of every kind, not only outside marriage but also within. In the canonical gospels we find both options. If the communities that followed texts like the AAPT, the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of John had prevailed, the human race would have been extinct. In the end moderation prevailed, and only ascetics and monks were expected to attain perfection by maintaining angelic standards and by distancing themselves from what makes us human.
In early Christian circles it was disputed if women should preach the word of God. Thecla was contemplating preaching the word of God and Paul encouraged her at one point to do so. Contrary to two canonical texts, 1 Tim 2.11-15:
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing –if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
And 1 Cor 14.34-35:
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
It seems that as far as women were concerned two traditions associated with Jesus and Paul circulated from a very early stage. 1 Corinthians 11 allows women, although it is recognized that they are by nature inferior to men, to preach the word of God as long as they keep long hair and their head covered with a veil. And it is stated that a woman is essential to a man as man to a woman.
1 Cor 14 and the Pastoral Letters (= 1 and 2 Tim and Titus) prevent women from teaching the word of God, command women to remain silent during service and obey their husbands, and 1 Tim. 2.15 declares that women will only be saved through childbearing. 1 Cor 14 – which is probably an interpolation – and the Pastoral Letters – which were attributed to, but probably not written, by Paul – present a stark contrast to the views set forth in 1 Cor 11 and the AAPT. Which is so ironic! Paul has gained, and retains still, the reputation of misogynist upon works and quotes he most probably never penned.
In the apocryphal Acts of Philip and in the Story of Simon and Theoni women seem to have a very active role in their communities. In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles women take the back seat. Not all apocryphal texts showcase powerful women.
For example, the Acts of Peter take a similar stance as the one we find in the canonical Acts. This shows that early Christian communities differed significantly and that there were two early Christian traditions on the appropriate conduct of the female gender, on the appropriate choices in erotic life, marriage and relations with other genders. These differences are echoed in the texts they produced and it is imperative to try to trace them, otherwise we will have a distorted picture of the past, of an idealized past in which early Christians lived in harmony the “perfect” life with no deviations (Iosif 2013, pp. 8-9).
It is undeniable that certain women played a prominent role in the earliest Christian communities and served as evangelists, preachers, teachers and pastors, as well as providing financial support and acting as patrons. But it seems that by the end of the first century they met with serious opposition from those who denied them the right to occupy posts of status and authority outside the domestic quarters.
This opposition succeeded in pressing Christian women into submission to male authority and obscured the record of their earlier involvement. Even the canonical Romans and Corinthians provide an impression of women’s active role in the Christian community. For example, in the Acts, the Christian community in Philippi began with the conversion of Lydia, a woman of means whose entire household came to follow her in adopting this new faith and she became the head of the Christian local community that gathered in her house.
Jesus and women
Jesus associated with women, which makes sense since He was interested in the suffering of those unprivileged. The apocryphal Gospel of Philip mentions how intimate Jesus was Mary of Magdala and how He used to kiss her somewhere; and then there is a frustrating lacuna in the manuscript that leaves scholars and the public wondering where Jesus used to kiss Mary of Magdala.
Even if the missing word was “mouth” we ought to keep in mind that in antiquity a kiss on the mouth did not always or necessarily imply sexual intimacy; it was also a means of transferring secret knowledge and spiritual power especially in mystical or philosophical circles between a master and a disciple.
Jesus and Mary of Magdala may not have been intimate, at least not according to the author of the Gospel of Philip. We know that in certain early Christian communities once the liturgy was offered, members turned and kissed on the mouth the person standing next to them, regardless of whether they were acquainted or not, as a way of transmitting Jesus inside the bodies of fellow Christians.
This soon led to scandals and misunderstanding and the practice was dropped. Today in some Christian congregations the practice has changed to a simple handshake. The significance of kissing in spiritual terms is still retained in the Orthodox Church, and exhibited daily, every time icons and relics are kissed, or the hands of priests, monks and nuns are kissed.
Women and travel
In antiquity some people held that women should never travel. Jerome in Letter 22.25 reminded a young woman, so as to prevent her from setting off, of Genesis 34 where the calamities Dinah’s decision to travel caused both herself and her family are enumerated in a lengthy account:
1 Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. 2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her… 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the dead bodies and looted the city where[c] their sister had been defiled. 28 They seized their flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs in the city and out in the fields. 29 They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses (…) 31 and replied, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
Although mainstream early Christian fathers did their best to prevent women from traveling, it seems that many pious early Christian women ignored their wishes and traveled, especially for pilgrimage in the fourth and fifth centuries; for example Egeria who in the mid 380s began a three-year pilgrimage to holy sites including the shrine of Thecla in Seleuceia, keeping a traveling journal which she addressed “to her fellow ladies” back home in Spain.
The APTT is also significant for it preserves an early surviving case of cross dressing. In the apocryphal Acts of Andrew we find various women dressed as men in order to secure safe travel (19, 28 and 46). Male attire may have offered protection from rape.
At the same time, in antiquity, it was held that males are closer to wisdom than females. Male attire enabled females to overcome the setbacks society posed to them and to establish their authority more easily. Howe claimed that male attire allowed Thecla to obey 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Tim 2.11-15 according to which only men could preach the word of God (Howe 1980, 40).
Deuteronomy 22.5 ordered:
5 A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the L your God detests anyone who does this.
Likewise, the thirteenth canon of the Synod of Gangra in the middle of the fourth century anathematized women who followed the advice of ascetic Eustathius and chose to wear male clothes. Augustine, in Letter 78, also taught against the practice of cross-dressing. So did Jerome, in Letter to Eustochium 22.27. The fact that Synods and Christian fathers repeatedly felt the need to condemn the practice is testimony that in fact it was much more widespread than the conservative leaders wished.
Manual for female liberation?
In several early Christian biographies of female figures the aim was to shame men who were not as pious as they could be. The APTT do not show that most early Christian women were free from male dominion but rather that certain early Christian communities offered a choice. Scholars are torn if the text is to be read in a feminist light or not, and to what extent.
Davies did not believe that the author was a female, but does not argue convincingly for his case (Davies 1980). Dunn argued against reading the male characters of the story in a bad light pointing to the fact that the Roman governor only reluctantly agreed to the killing of Thecla and that Onesephorus took her home (Dunn 1993).
However, these episodes are not central to the narrative. Dunn also believed that Thecla appears weak in her endeavor to appear male and that she was far too attached to Paul (Dunn 1993). In reality, Thecla was simply in love with Paul, something that did not make her weak.
On the other hand, Hilhorst proposed that the original text was even more dramatic and showed Thecla baptizing not just herself but also others and that is something which infuriated Tertullian, one of the most prominent theologians of the time, and in due course these passages were removed (Hilhorst in Bremmer 1996).
Burrus suggested that the text was based on oral tales which circulated among women (Burrus 1987). Maybe the presbyter whom Tertullian mentioned was the one who wrote down Thecla’s circulating tale. MacDonald mentioned in his work cases of early Christian men who collected and preserved for posterity female tales (MacDonald 1983).
As far as I am concerned, the AAPT must have been written as a manual for female empowerment, by a female author or by someone sensitive to women. An unusual lot of attention is paid on women and on their positive portrayal. Women are all around Thecla, to support and encourage her: Thryphaena and her slaves, the female citizens of Antioch, even the good animals inside the arena are female. The women of the city resemble an ancient Greek tragic chorus, acting in unison and showing solidarity.
Women are throughout the text very prominent, something we certainly do not normally encounter in ancient literary works. At the same time, all the male characters in the AAPT are either outwardly mean or in the end prove inefficient: the fiancée Thamyris, Paul’s servants Demas and Hermogenes, the Roman officials, the male beasts in the arena, all plot against good and Thecla.
Even apostle Paul seems gradually, as the plot progresses, all the more disappointingly weak, having a hard time keeping up with Thecla. We can certainly see the text appealing to a female audience. Another early Christian feminist read is undoubtedly the Life of Fevronia. Fevronia met a martyr’s death in 302 in Syria where her Life was also composed, by a female author, as stated in the text.
We do know that the APPT had an impact on women’s lives and that certain women found inspiration from the text and modeled their lives accordingly. Eugenia of Rome is reported in the Acts of her martyrdom to have taken Thecla as her model after reading the APTT.
Allegedly, Eugenia was the daughter of the governor of Egypt who suffered martyrdom under emperor Valerian (r. AD 253-260). She had earlier fled her father’s house dressed in men’s clothing and became an abbot. While she was an abbot she cured a woman of an illness, and when the woman made sexual advances, which she rebuffed, the woman accused her publicly of adultery. Eugenia was taken to court, where, still disguised, she faced her father as the judge. At the trial, her real female identity was revealed and she was exonerated. Her father converted to Christianity, became bishop of Alexandria and then the emperor had him executed.
Euphrosene of Alexandria was convinced by a monk to withdraw from society. She obliged. She wore male clothing, cut her hair and presented herself as a eunuch in a male monastery so as not to be discovered by her father. The monks were impressed by the novice’s beauty and in order to avoid temptation they sent him to live by himself to a separate far away cell. After thirty-eight years Euphrosene got sick and died and only then they realized she had been a woman posing all along as a man. Her father was present at her funeral and testified publicly that Euphrosene was his daughter.
Pelagia was a rich and famous actress and courtesan living in Antioch early in the fifth century when she met bishop Nonnos, converted to Christianity, wore male attire and lived as an eunuch hermit in Jerusalem. Her gender was only discovered at the preparation of her funeral. Stories of females posing as males and attaining perfection were extremely popular in late antique Christian circles for all genders.
Early in the third century AD, at Thuburbo Minus, west of Carthage in North Africa, Perpetua, a young, upper class, well-educated Roman citizen, converted to Christianity and chose a heroic public death instead of conforming to pagan social expectations and sacrificing to the traditional gods of the Roman Empire. Her decision was interpreted by her pagan contemporaries as a grave insult to the gods and to the emperor, and a direct challenge to the established order, and resulted in her being sentenced to death by the beasts of the arena.
It is extremely fortunate that Perpetua’s diary, which she kept while in prison awaiting her death, has survived. It is an authentic, bold, vivid and honest account of an early Christian female hero while in prison, with a special emphasis on her dreams. Fourth- and fifth-century bishops felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of Perpetua in her diary and surrounded it with homiletic commentaries.
Instead of letting the diary speak directly to the community of the faithful, they guided the understanding of words, subtly changing its messages, and carefully controlled its dissemination. It is fascinating to try to follow the desperate efforts by male Christian leaders, such as Augustine a century after her martyrdom and Quodvultdeus another century after that, to make Perpetua less appealing as a role model and thus less threatening to the social order (Iosif 2004).
Nun Macrina felt connected to Thecla through her virginity and the admirers of Melania the Elder, grandmother of Melania the Younger, used to call her “second Thecla” for her extensive travels (Isidore of Pelusium, Letter 1.87 and Rufinus, Apology 2.26). Melania was an incredibly wealthy woman who in around 365 lost her husband, became an ascetic, traveled the Mediterranean, and used her immense wealth for establishing monasteries, for acts of charity and for promoting Christianity.
Thecla was not the first or the only wandering charismatic of her times, but she probably was the most successful as far as the impact she had on other women’s lives. Priscilla and Maximilla were her exact contemporaries who around 160 left their husbands in order to live as virgin prophetesses. They were followers of Montanism, a movement which flourished in Asia Minor, in nearby Phrygia, next to Iconium, who preached that the end of the times was near and strongly believed in the power of prophetic speech.
The fact that Montanism recognized the power of female prophets and had many significant female leaders was very disturbing for many mainstream Christian fathers (Trevett 1996). As the eschatological fervor began to wane, women took a back seat.
But we still remember Thecla.