Unfamiliar to many of us, but famous in early Christianity, Thecla survived her mother’s betrayal, her betrothed’s treachery and the government’s condemnation. Her crime? She rejected marriage in favor of following Jesus. A Christian ascetic, one who submits to intense self-discipline and abstains from pleasure, Thecla was a role model for women.
In all likelihood, the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, the source of information about Thecla, is also unfamiliar. Acts of Thecla is embedded in Acts of Paul and describes her introduction to Christianity, her trials and travels, and her death as a martyr. (It is available at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/thecla.html.)
Thecla first heard about Jesus through a window from her home when Paul preached a sermon across the street. Entranced by Paul’s preaching, Thecla refused to leave her vantage post at the window. Her mother, Theoclia, sent for Thecla’s betrothed, Thamyris, “the chief person of this city.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, Chapter 2) Theoclia and Thamyris tried to talk Thecla out of her fixation with Paul, but with no success. Thecla refused.
Thamyris hired two spies to follow Paul, which led to Paul’s arrest, appearance before the governor and imprisonment. A subsequent appearance before the governor included both Paul and Thecla. The governor asked her to explain her reasons for not marrying Thamyris. When Thecla did not respond to the question, her mother yelled, “Let the unjust creature be burned; let her be burned in the midst of the theatre for refusing Thamyris, so all women may learn from her to avoid such practices.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, Chapter 6)[i] One has to wonder what benefit Theoclia hoped to gain from her daughter’s marriage. A benefit so great that she was willing to sacrifice her daughter for it. One also wonders about Thecla’s life with her mother and if abuse was a common part of it. The public humiliation of having your mother call for your death could only add another layer of pain.
The public humiliation continued when the execution moved to the amphitheater and young people brought wood and straw to burn Thecla. She stood naked on the pile of wood and the crowd lit it. God made the earth shake and the rain fall, so much rain that it put out the fire, leaving Thecla unscathed. She escaped.
She searched for Paul and found him in a cave with several others. She wanted Paul to baptize her and give his blessing to her ministry. Unlike many other women missionaries, Thecla worked primarily by herself, without a male partner who could protect her. Paul, however, declined, saying it was too dangerous.
Thecla, Paul and others traveled to Antioch, where a community leader attempted to assault Thecla, but she resisted. She tore his coat and knocked his crown off his head, embarrassing him She was again arrested. She was condemned to be killed by wild animals, but a she-lion defended Thecla from the other animals. That same day, a pool of deadly sea lions was in the arena. Thecla jumped into the pool and baptized herself, defying Paul who had earlier refused to baptize her, and surviving the deadly sea lions.
The governor called to Thecla, undoubtedly confused by the afternoon’s events. “Who are you? And what are your circumstances that not one of the beasts will touch you?” he asked. Thecla replied, “I am a servant of the living God, and as to my state, I am a believer on Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased. For that reason, none of the beasts could touch me.” (The Acts of Paul and Thecla, Chapter 9)
After preaching and teaching throughout the area, Thecla went home to Iconium. Thamyris had died, but her mother was alive. Thecla attempted to persuade her mother to accept her, but she would not do so.
Ultimately, Thecla moved into a cave on a mountain. Despite her remote location, women, in particular, found her and sought to follow her example of the ascetic life. Thecla also emerged as a healer. Her success was so great that the local doctors looked for ways to remove her as competition. Their scheme involved hiring thugs to rape the virgin and, presumably, destroy her power to heal. The thugs failed when God opened a rock and told Thecla to walk into it. It closed. Thecla’s life ended in that stone. She was 90 years old.
The controversies that appeared throughout Thecla’s life continued after her death. Some early Christian leaders used Thecla’s life as a model for expanding women’s roles in the church. The early Christian author Tertullian (c.155-220), however, denounced Thecla, using her life as an argument to allow women to preach and to baptize (both of which she did with Paul’s blessing). Others, however, like Ambrose (c. 340-397), Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) and Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390) accepted women like Thecla as missionaries, preachers and teachers. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 297-373) pointed to her as “the most important model of women’s ascetic piety.”
The Acts of Thecla was probably written between 160 and 190 CE. It appeared in Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian. Churches and cathedrals in Lebanon, Spain, Milan and Syria are dedicated to her or bear her name. Three Roman Catholic parishes in the United States are named for her. In addition, cities and towns in France, El Salvador, Canada, Portugal, Germany and Wales are named for her.[ii] According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Chapter 11, she was the first martyr and apostle of God. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates Thecla on Sept. 24.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/thecla.html(accessed March 24, 2021.
Nancy A. Carter, “The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women,” https://web.archive.org/web/20120213054326/https://gbgm-umc.org/umw/corinthians/theclabackground.stm (accessed March 24, 2021).