The Acts of Paul and Thecla (Acta Pauli et Theclae) is one of the most widespread and popular of the apocryphal narratives of early Christianity. It presents a dramatic and entertaining account of the travels and exploits of Thecla (or Thekla), a young woman who, upon hearing the apostle Paul's message, defies social convention, and ultimately transitions into a resilient female figure who spreads the good news. The Acts of Paul and Thecla represents but one segment (approximately one-fourth) of the larger Acts of Paul, which also includes Paul's episode with the baptized lion at Ephesus, the Pseudo-Pauline correspondence called 3 Corinthians, and the Martyrdom of Paul. In this portion of the broader narrative, the focus rests primarily upon Thecla (thus the text is sometimes also known simply as the Acts of Thecla). This second-century text is especially significant because it demonstrates a sanctioning of Thecla's role both by numerous divine interventions and miracles on her behalf and by Paul's ultimate approval and commissioning.

Relation to Canonical Books.

Although not currently part of the Christian canon, in the first few centuries many early Christians used and accepted the Acts of Paul (including Acts of Paul and Thecla), and judging from its multiple translations and extensive references to Thecla in the church fathers, it appears that many early Christians looked upon this text as authoritative.

The relevance of this text lies, in part, in the preservation of the historical competition for the use of the authority of Paul, including the way the Acts of Paul and Thecla completely contradicts an alternative claim to Paul's authority as represented by post-Pauline epistles and their more restrictive portrayal of women's leadership roles within early Christianity. An evaluation of the contradictory portrayals of Paul's perspectives shows that in some significant ways the Acts of Paul and Thecla can claim to represent the authentic Pauline legacy as well as, if not better than, the Pastoral Epistles. For example, Paul's support of Thecla's teaching in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the way he even commissions her with the words, “Go and teach the word of God” (3,41), corresponds well with Paul's recognition of women's participation and leadership in his own letters (see Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1–2, 7). By contrast, the deuteropauline corpus advocates the silencing of women, such as in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Another point of comparison occurs in the genuine Pauline epistles when Paul encourages people to refrain from marriage if possible (1 Cor 7:38), and in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, when Thecla, as the result of Paul's influence, decides to abandon her plans to marry her fiancé Thamyris and, instead, travels across the countryside spreading the good news of the Christian message. Although the Acts of Paul and Thecla makes the case for celibacy even more strongly, it still resonates more with Paul than the deuteropauline texts, which indicate that women's duty is to get married and be “saved through child-bearing” (1 Tim 2:15), a sentiment never appearing in the authentic Pauline epistles. Likewise, Paul and Thecla's actions in the Acts of Paul and Thecla frequently challenge traditional authority structures, as they face charges before magistrates and imperial representatives, but apparently carry on the legacy of Paul, who also seems to have had a propensity for being arrested for his words and actions. The narratives of Thecla's independence, therefore, including baptizing herself, depict a far stronger leadership image than the female submission that the Pastoral Epistles require. Thus this text represents a viable continuation of the tradition that venerates Paul while simultaneously supporting strong female leadership.

Tertullian in the late second-early third century may shed some light on the historical context and why the church eventually denied the Acts of Paul canonical status when he complains about women following Thecla's example rather than the Pastoral Epistles: “…certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize” (De Baptismo 17,5). Although it is not entirely clear whether Tertullian is referring to the Acts of Paul as a whole or only to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, nevertheless it appears that for some time the figure of Thecla played a noteworthy role in supporting women's contributions in speaking publicly and taking part in initiation rituals or baptisms and may well have been quite useful in arguments against the restrictions of the Pastoral Epistles, even though the Pastoral Epistles eventually came to represent orthodoxy.

Thus the theological conflicts and intertextuality between the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Pastoral Epistles appear quite clear. However, the relationship between the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the canonical Acts of the Apostles remains significantly more ambiguous. On the one hand, some scholars see the Acts of Paul as autonomous and early enough that the author was unaware of Luke's Acts (as Rordorf [1997] believes), while others interpret the text as a sequel to Acts (as Bauckham [1997] argues), or a congenial rereading of Acts (Marguerat 1997), or possibly even functioning to correct, rival, and supersede Acts (Pervo 1995). The common ground between these two texts encompasses Paul's travels and destinations, including Ephesus (although with different itineraries), as well as some possibly rare expressions (see Hills 1994), and some common prosopography, such as Theophilus, Prisca, and Aquila.

The relationship between the Acts of Paul and Thecla and Acts is further complicated by the lack of verifiable citations, since allusions do not clarify whether an author actually knew the other text or merely the narratives that stood behind that text. Therefore, if some intertextuality or possibly even rivalry exists, then the differences between them in their perspectives and theologies require further research for a clearer reconstruction of their historical contexts.

One of the important themes for both Paul and Thecla in the Acts of Paul and Thecla appears to be resistance to imperial and hierarchical structures. The scene between Thecla and Alexander in the Acts of Paul and Thecla could merely portray a gender injustice, but it could also be symbolic of imperial resistance as well. For example, Alexander seems to be the one at fault for inappropriate attraction to Thecla, since he is described as a “powerful man” who “embraced her [Thecla] on the open street” (3,26), yet it is Alexander who brings Thecla before the governor. Alexander's actions make Thecla's case seem all the more unjust, except that three of the four Syriac manuscripts have either preserved or added an important explanatory detail, namely, when Thecla fights off Alexander, she knocks “the crown of Caesar” from Alexander's head. MacDonald (1983) discovered a similar dynamic in the Armenian version of the Thecla text, where again the accusation against Thecla is not assault but sacrilege—her struggle with Alexander becomes an affront against emperor worship because she defiled the headgear associated with imperial power.

The possibility of a conflict or rivalry between these two acts would explain their avoidance of the other's text or tradition. While Luke-Acts domesticates the narrative of the church in numerous, subtle ways, including the positive portrayals of Roman figures, such as magistrates and centurions, the Acts of Paul and Thecla champions its leading characters, Paul and Thecla, for suffering persecution for religious convictions, especially for resisting familial, social, and political pressures.

Authorship, Date of Composition, and Historical Context.

Scholars continue to dispute the origins and authorship of the text, with a few still attributing the authorship to an unknown Asian presbyter (against whom Tertullian argues), some claiming that a community of widows preserved the independent stratum of oral storytelling that lies behind the written form, and some seeing the Acts of Paul merely subsuming the Thecla cycle into the Pauline compilation of narratives.

With respect to date, the text of the broader Acts of Paul stems from the second half of the second century. If Tertullian is referring to this text, he provides the terminus ante quem when he references Thecla in his opposition to the right of women to preach and to baptize (see Bapt. 17,5). The terminus a quo is much more difficult to determine and depends upon whether this text is a second-century literary composition by the author or if it is a compilation of earlier written or oral traditions, some of which may date back even to the first century. If oral narratives underlie these texts, they may forge a somewhat closer link to Paul himself, especially since this affirmation of female apostleship coincides with Paul's own affirmation of women's leadership (such as Phoebe in Rom 16:1–2, and Prisca in Rom 16:3).

The provenance of this text appears to be Asia Minor; the action within the narrative itself takes place primarily in Iconium and in Antioch (probably the Pisidian city, but possibly the Syrian one). From there the legends spread extensively in all directions, a phenomenon to which the multiple translations from the Greek original into Coptic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic, Ethiopic, and Arabic attest. These versions sometimes differ widely from the Greek original because they, too, embody differing theologies; nevertheless, this diverse group as a whole provides ample witness to the story's broad-based popularity.

Literary History.

The wide diversity of labels with which scholars attempt to categorize this material (including historical novel, romance novel, novelistic biography, legend, fiction, entertainment, instruction, propaganda, and hagiography) confirms the complexity of categorizing this text. Ultimately, the complicated textual history reveals a mixture of genres including aspects of both literary invention and oral traditions, which together function to establish an authoritative link with the apostle Paul while at the same time preserving and maintaining reminiscences of Thecla's independence in the story. Although the legendary accretions to the story are undeniable, they do not rule out the possibility of an original historical nucleus to the Thecla cycle any more than the miraculous accretions in Acts diminish the historicity of Paul and Peter, such as when the canonical Acts portrays the hope for healing from Peter's shadow (Acts 5:15) or from touching Paul's handkerchiefs (Acts 19:11–12). It appears that Queen Tryphaena may actually have been an historical personage (widow of King Cotys of Thrace, and a relative of Emperor Claudius), who existed and possibly lived in Iconium around 38–63 C.E. Such detail increases slightly but does not confirm or verify the possibility of Thecla's historicity. If indeed a historical nucleus exists behind this narrative, unfortunately there is no way to determine exactly at what point the historicity ends and the legendary accretions begin.

Paul's presence in the Acts of Paul and Thecla is often strangely secondary to Thecla despite the overall text being named in his honor, so much so that that some scholars have even denounced the figure of Paul and his actions in this text for curiously abandoning and even betraying Thecla whenever she faces a crisis. However, if one studies this text with a focus specifically upon the inconsistencies in the narrative, the odd “disappearance” of Paul in the story, the awkward transitions, and the literary glitches, they support the possibility that Paul may well have been merely grafted onto the already established Thecla legend. For example, although in the narrative Thecla has already been teaching the word of God and has even converted Tryphaena's entire household, only at the end of the narrative does Paul finally commission her, saying, “Go and teach the word of God” (3,41). Also, the repetition of two versions of Thecla's announcing, “‘Now I baptize myself,’ and she threw herself in” and three lines later, “So, she threw herself into the water” (3,34) highlight the question of continuity and additional narrative glitches.

At some point the Acts of Paul and Thecla became detached from its place as chapters 3 and 4 of the Acts of Paul and circulated independently of the larger text, while the hagiography of Thecla grew and the narrative received even longer endings.

Contents.

  • 1. The apostle Paul arrives in Iconium and preaches in the house of Onesiphorus and Lectra. His sermon consists primarily of thirteen beatitudes, including special blessings from God for the wise, the merciful, and those who renounce the world and keep themselves pure.
  • 2. Thecla, listening from the window next door, becomes completely enraptured with Paul's preaching, hangs onto every word, does not eat for days, and finally decides not to marry her fiancé Thamyris.
  • 3. Both Thamyris and Thecla's mother Theocleia publicly denounce her decision and bring charges against Paul for preaching a message they claim deprives young women and men of marriage.
  • 4. While the governor deliberates the issue, he sends Paul to prison, where Thecla bribes her way past guards in order to visit him, and after listening to Paul all night, converts.
  • 5. As a backlash against her defiance of social convention and Iconium law, and as an example to other women who might wish to act similarly, the governor condemns Thecla to be burned at the stake.
  • 6. A thunderstorm miraculously quenches the fire and saves Thecla.
  • 7. She seeks out Paul and offers to follow him wherever he goes. They arrive in Antioch, but after she rejects Alexander, the Syrian, an official of the city, who wishes to pursue her and even attempts to bribe Paul for her, she is again arrested and persecuted for her insistence upon the practice of self-control.
  • 8. Queen Tryphaena takes Thecla into her protection until the time when her sentence is to be carried out, when Thecla is taken, stripped, and flung into the stadium.
  • 9. A fierce lioness in the stadium saves Thecla by destroying the other beasts and sacrificing herself on Thecla's behalf.
  • 10. Thecla continues praying and then throws herself into a body of water to baptize herself. Additional miraculous events occur; however, Queen Tryphaena falls into such a deep faint that the crowd believes her dead and becomes alarmed. In order to avoid retribution, especially since Tryphaena is a kinswoman of Caesar, the governor therefore decides to set Thecla free.
  • 11. Thecla, accompanied by a group of young women and men, once again searches for Paul, and finds him in Myra. Paul leads her into the house of Hermias and after hearing everything that had transpired, he “marvels greatly” and commissions Thecla to preach and to teach.
  • 12. Thecla settles in Seleucia, where after converting many, she dies a peaceful death.

[Some later manuscripts add shorter and longer endings that convey more of her healing miracles and even one last amazing delivery in which her disappearance into a rock saves Thecla from lawless young men who wish to molest her.]

Interpretation and Reception History.

Not only were the narratives of Thecla and Paul widely enjoyed in popular circles, but they also circulated extensively among the church fathers who frequently referred to Thecla or expressed positive regard for her actions. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, praises her for renouncing the world and carnal desires (HomCant 14 = PG 44.1068) and records a visitation by Thecla to his mother (Vita Mac. = PG 46.961–62); Eusebius describes her as admirable (The Confession of Timotheus); Epiphanius of Salamis compares her to Elijah, John the Baptist, and Mary (Panarion sive Advers. haer. 79.5 = PG 42.748); and Pseudo-Chrysostom writes a panegyric to Thecla praising her renunciation of worldly goods and spiritual martyrdom (BHG3, no. 1720). Ambrose uplifts her chastity as an example for all women and states that she teaches us how to die (De Virginibus Book II, chapter III = PG 16.211); and Pseudo-Basil praises her in a two-volume work, the first being a rewriting of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the second a collection of miracle stories at Thecla's tomb (PG 85.473–618, see Dagron). Others who mention Thecla include Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Methodius, who writes a Symposium that highlights Thecla among the ten virgins at his dinner party (PG 18.27–220) (for more details, see Hayne [1994] and Pesthy [1996]). Jerome eventually helped turn the tide against the text as a whole as he referred to the Acts of Paul as “apocryphal writings” (Vir. ill. 7).

Nevertheless, in the centuries after Jerome, Thecla's story spread from around the Mediterranean to Egypt and Europe, where she has an ongoing legacy in texts, art, artifacts, and other forms of material culture (see Davis 2001). Her veneration grew especially from the fourth to the seventh centuries when she was honored with a number of sacred sites, such as the martyrium in Seleucia, where Egeria wrote of her visit to this holy city of Thecla, and where the Thecla cult established a strong presence in Asia Minor. The extensive impact of Thecla's legend is embodied in images at numerous sites around the Mediterranean including a remarkable set of paintings in a cave above Ephesus (where she is portrayed side-by-side with the apostle Paul), as well as abundant representations of Thecla on pilgrim flasks, paintings, and grave stelae in Egypt further attesting to the expansion of her cult and veneration. In the painting above Ephesus, it is striking that the image of Thecla's eyes were later scratched away and the hand she raises in prayer or teaching defaced, while the image beside her of Paul's eyes as well as his hand raised in the same manner was not (see Crossan and Reed 2004). Even to this day, Christians continue to recognize Saint Thecla's feast day on 24 September in the East, and 23 September for some Christians in the West.

As an interesting aside, in addition to being significant for reconstructing the conflicts concerning women's role and leadership, this text also provides one of the few physical descriptions of the apostle Paul—one which has been influential in art history. Whether this description of Paul (Acts of Paul and Thecla 3,3) is historical or not, it has made its way into endless iconographic representations in which Paul is portrayed as small of stature, bald-headed, hook-nosed, with bowed and crooked legs, and full of grace.

The exceptionally popular story of Thecla may well have functioned in the disputes over the teaching and authority of Pauline Epistles, challenging the post-Pauline patriarchal restrictions of women's roles in order to defend women's rights to preach, teach, and baptize in the early church. This inspirational portrayal of personal transformation and courage in the face of adversity continues to spark the imagination, and Thecla's example remains relevant even today in debates on women's early Christian leadership.

[See also ACTS and APOCRYPHA, subentry NEW TESTAMENT.]

Bibliography

Editions and Translations

  • Conybeare, Frederick C., ed. The Apology and Acts of Apollonius and other Monuments of Early Christianity. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1894. Armenian. See pp. 49–88.
  • Gebhardt, Oscar von. Passio sanctae Theclae virginis: Die lateinischen Übersetzungen der Acta Pauli et Theclae. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 22.2. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902. Latin.
  • Geerard, Maurice. “Acta Pauli.” In Clavis Apocryphorum Novi Testamenti, pp. 117–126. Corpus Christianorum. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1992.
  • Lipsius, Ricardus A., ed. Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1959. Greek. See vol. 1, pp. 235–272.
  • Schmidt, Carl. Acta Pauli aus der Heidelberger koptischen Papyrushandschrift Nr. 1. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1965. Coptic.
  • Schmidt, Carl. PRAXEIS PAULOU: Acta Pauli nach dem Papyrus der Hamburger Staats- und Universitäts-bibliothek unter Mitarbeit von Wilhelm Schubart. Hamburg: J. J. Augustin, 1936. Greek.
  • Wright, William. Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1, The Syriac Texts. Vol. 2, The English Translations. Amsterdam: Philo, 1968. Syriac.

Secondary Works

  • Barrier, Jeremy W. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: A Critical Introduction and Commentary. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 270. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.
  • Bauckham, Richard. “The Acts of Paul: Replacement of Acts or Sequel to Acts?” Semeia 80 (1997): 159–168.
  • Brock, Ann Graham. “Political Authority and Cultural Accommodation: Social Diversity in the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter.” In The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: Harvard Divinity School Studies, edited by François Bovon, Ann Graham Brock, and Christopher R. Matthews, pp. 145–169. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004.
  • Dagron, Gilbert, ed. Vie et miracles de Sainte Thècle: Texte grec, traduction, et commentaire. Subsidia Hagiographica 62. Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1978.
  • Davis, Stephen J. The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Ebner, Martin, ed. Aus Liebe zu Paulus? Die Akte Thekla neu aufgerollt. Stuttgarter Bibelstudien 206. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2005.
  • Elliott, J. K. “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” In The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation, pp. 353, 364–374. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Esch-Wermeling, Elisabeth. Thekla—Paulusschülerin wider Willen? Strategien der Leserlenkung in den Theklaakten. Neutestamentliche Abhandlungen. Neue Folge 53. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2008.
  • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. “Engendering Palimpsests: Reading the Textual Tradition of the Acts of Paul and Thecla.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William E. Klingshirn and Linda Safran, pp. 177–193. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.
  • Hayne, Léonie. “Thecla and the Church Fathers.” Vigiliae Christianae 48 (1994): 209–218.
  • Hills, Julian V. “The Acts of the Apostles in the Acts of Paul.” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 33 (1994): 24–54.
  • MacDonald, Dennis. The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983.
  • Marguerat, Daniel. “The Acts of Paul and the Canonical Acts: A Phenomenon of Rereading.” Translated by Ken McKinney. Semeia 80 (1997): 169–183.
  • Matthews, Shelly. “Thinking of Thecla: Issues in Feminist Historiography.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17, no. 2 (2001): 39–55.
  • Pervo, Richard I. “A Hard Act to Follow: The Acts of Paul and the Canonical Acts.” Journal of Higher Criticism 2/2 (1995): 3–32.
  • Pesthy, Monika. “Thecla in the Fathers of the Church.” In The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, edited by Jan N. Bremmer, pp. 164–178. Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles 2. Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1996.
  • Rordorf, Willy, et al. “Actes de Paul.” In Écrits apocryphes chrétiens, edited by François Bovon and Pierre Geoltrain, vol. 1, pp. 1115–1177. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
  • Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, ed. “Acts of Paul.” In New Testament Apocrypha, translated by Robert McL. Wilson, vol. 2, pp. 213–270. Rev. ed. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: James Clark & Co.; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1991.
  • Snyder, Glenn. “Remembering the Acts of Paul.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2010.

Ann Graham Brock