Who Was Thecla?

She is still revered as a Saint in some parts of the world today, yet few today know her name. Said to be a companion of the Apostle Paul, her story would come to be known in a text called “The Acts of Thecla,” sometimes included as part of a larger non canonical text called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”.  Thecla shrines appear early and her story is found in so many locations, with numerous copies, that many scholars believe Thecla was a real person. Therefore, the title for this post naturally enough is: Who was Thecla?

Thecla appears to have been an early Gentile convert to Christianity, who was once revered almost as much as the Virgin Mary came to be in the Catholic tradition, yet her story is nowhere to be found in the New Testament (NT). All we know about her is what was recorded in the extra biblical text: The Acts of Thecla. The actual composition of the Thecla text dates to roughly 170 AD, it records a series of legendary “Acts” by the Christian convert, and was representative of a broader “Thecla devotion” movement that began along the Caspian Sea in Syria (and Antioch), spreading south through Palestine and ending up in Egypt, where it became very popular. This devotion to Thecla as a Saint had spread across all of early Christendom, even as far west as Spain. Therefore, excluding the Eastern Orthodox Church, which still counts Thecla to this day among the many Saints of the early Church, this naturally raises the question:    Why is Thecla largely unknown to so many Christians today?

The reason her story is largely unknown among Christians today is likely due to a controversial doctrine among early Christians that came to be closely associated with her. Known as “asceticism”, this doctrine called for complete celibacy. The idea of Christian asceticism goes back to the NT itself. Jesus was celibate, as was the Apostle Paul, who preached a form of an ascetic message, and it is to the Apostle Paul that Thecla’s story is closely tied. In the tradition, Thecla is one of Paul’s disciples (followers), and the reason she became interested in Paul’s message was because she had heard him preach a “doctrine” of renunciation towards marriage. Specifically, he proclaims that people, who were saved, could only stay right with God by remaining chaste (virgin). However, in the NT (1 Corinthians 7:1-9), Paul actually said it would be “good” for one to remain unmarried and stay celibate. But he also said, and this is KEY, that we all have our own gifts. Some can remain celibate (like himself), while others cannot (who should marry), but he NEVER said that one MUST remain celibate. However, in this alternative extra canonical (non biblical) text, it is Paul’s call for total celibacy that attracts many women, including the young virgin Thecla — who subsequently rejects her wealthy fiancé in favor of total celibacy. And thus so begins the story of The Acts of Thecla. For anyone interested, the following paragraph is a brief summary of the rest of the story.

As one of the wealthiest men in the city, Thecla’s fiancé became outraged by this rejection and drags her before the town’s local tribunal, who declare that she has broken one of its most important laws (marriage). Paul is subsequently flogged and exiled for “corrupting” the women, and Thecla was to be made an example of via a public execution for her refusal to follow through with the marriage. It is here that “The Acts of Thecla” records its first miracle. Stripped naked and tied to wooden pillars, Thecla was going to be burned at the stake. But God intervened with a great miracle, for just as the fire was set ablaze, God sent a great thunderstorm which put out the flames. Fearing they had angered a powerful God, the town folks cloth her and send Thecla on her way. Having escaped death, she rejoins Paul on his missionary journeys. The two travel to Antioch in Syria, where the pattern is repeated. An influential wealthy man of the city is taken by Thecla’s beauty and falls in love with her. He proceeds to make a move to seduce her, but Thecla rips his coat and rebuffs him in the town square for all to see. Embarrassed, he takes her off to the local Governor, where once again Thecla finds herself in trouble and in a perilous situation. This time it leads to a spectacle in the local arena. She is released into an arena filled with wild man eating beasts, which were to rip her limb to limb and kill her. But instead, the she lions protect her from the other beasts. A prominent woman in the crowd seeks to have Thecla spared, but she is later ordered back into the arena where Thecla performs her final Act of Faith. In the arena, Thecla sees a large tank of water filled with man eating sea creatures. Unforced, she marches towards the tank and announces her own Baptism to the crowd, then jumps in, totally submerging herself in the water. Showing his approval, God then sends a lightning bolt crashing down into the water tank killing all the sea creatures, which now float lifeless atop the water’s surface. However, Thecla then emerges from the water both alive and unharmed. With the crowd in shock and awe, she is then given a pardon by the Governor and sent on her way, where she subsequently begins to preach the Word of God. And thus concludes the Acts of Thecla.

Now there is no denying this was a very popular and widely read book in the early Church, and it certainly is a very entertaining story to read. In fact, it is probably my personal favorite extra-canonical book from early Christianity. But let us now explore the reasons why it was ultimately excluded from the official NT canon.

The act of baptizing herself and preaching may have given some in the early Church pause with this text. However, the late date of this anonymous text coupled with its promotion of total celibacy (even within marriage) would have been the most critical factors in its exclusion from the NT. Furthermore, this fight over celibacy had threatened to split the early Church. Once more, the idea of mandatory celibacy was also popular among another controversial group, the Gnostics. To that end, there were two types of Ascetics in early Christianity: Christian and Gnostic. But the reasons for their ascetic lifestyle were quite different from one another.

In the case of the latter group, the very heretical Gnostics – review my earlier posts on Gnosticism for more information on their beliefs, – they promoted asceticism because for them the material world was completely evil. Therefore, Gnostics were hostile to marriage and procreation, women in particular, because in their view they were responsible for perpetuating (continuing) this evil creation. This is why in Gnostic texts Jesus is often (falsely) depicted as proclaiming such nonsense as: “I have come to destroy the works of the female,” or “No woman will inherit the Kingdom of God unless she first becomes like a man”. So despite what some radical New School scholars may promote, Gnosticism was NOT kind, nor enlightened, in its view or treatment towards woman. Certainly not when compared to the New Testament texts. Which leads us now to the other group of Ascetics, who were otherwise orthodox Christians in their beliefs, except when it came to the question concerning celibacy.    In particular, their belief or demand for total celibacy.  This naturally put them at odds with other orthodox Christians who did believe in marriage. But what led some orthodox Christians to become Ascetics?

Paul certainly preached a version of asceticism, but that was because he was more or less an apocalyptic, i.e. one who believed that God was soon to overthrow the evil forces of this world (through the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). In other words, Paul, like many Christians today, believed that the end was near. This belief can naturally lead to asceticism, because one should not be attached to the things of this world if the end is looming. In other words, what is the point of marriage and starting a family with Christ’s return so imminent? Therefore, many otherwise orthodox Christians were also Ascetics who believed in total celibacy for these reasons. In addition, many Ascetic Christians believed they were also following in the example of Christ, who also lived a single celibate life. However, by the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the Second Coming had still not occurred, the ascetic message of total celibacy became problematic. The obvious reason is that if the only “true Christian” is a single celibate one, then a Faith is going to need a massive conversion rate to sustain itself, because there would be no internal procreation. As a result, the “doctrine” of total asceticism (celibacy) was later declared a heretical view by the Church. But interestingly total celibacy for the Clergy, at least within the Roman Catholic Church, remained. In any event, the story of Thecla was beloved in the early Church, and celebrated by the Christian group of Ascetics.

So it was this idea of total celibacy, or extreme asceticism, coupled with the late date of the text that ensured the Acts of Thecla would have no place in the official canon. But her story was widely known, and it is fair to say that there would not still be so many copies of this story in existence today if there were not so many early Christians to whom celibacy was an important vocation. Thecla’s story was a text that defended these beliefs. But as we have discussed, it was not consistent with the Apostle Paul’s full teaching on this matter, as referenced by his Letter to the Corinthians. Nevertheless, it was still a very engaging and entertaining story to read.

But enough, time to wrap this post up and answer the question: Who was Thecla? Because the only stories we have about Thecla were written over a century after she lived, it is hard to say much definitively. But because of the numerous copies in multiple languages of her story, and early shrines devoted to the Saint, many scholars do believe Thecla was indeed a true historical figure. Thus, The Acts of Thecla is believed to most likely be a collection, or assembly, of different stories that were in circulation about the early Gentile Christian convert’s brushes with death. These accounts were then beautifully woven together into a single story. Precisely how much of the story is true vs legend is impossible to say. But it is safe to say that she was most likely once a follower of the Apostle Paul; or at the very least associated in some way with the Apostle’s Missions or Churches. Once more, her “Acts” and courage became the stuff of Legend, ultimately leading to her Sainthood by the Church.  And in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Thecla is still commemorated every year in the month of September with a feast.

That concludes this post. I hope some may have found it interesting.

JDN

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