Thecla: Fearless Apostle
The Radical Young Church
The growth of the church during the second century was a time of great challenge, unrest, and great excitement. The new Christian movement was expanding rapidly from its primarily Jewish boundaries and into pagan and gentile territories. A diverse mix of people from eclectic backgrounds were coming together to form the church. Discussions were evolving about the role of men, of women, of sexuality, the worthiness of marriage, divorce and singleness, wealth, and self-control as tools for the expression of faith.
Both men and women were rapidly joining the movement and leadership took many forms. However one thing is clear, women led alongside men and their authority was not questioned by leaders of the movement. The political unrest of the Roman Empire, coupled with rampant plagues, earthquakes and civil war left issues of gender-related leadership in the church relatively untouched in the first centuries.
Although women and men both always lived with awareness of the cultural norms of the day, the revolution began by Jesus made space for and even encouraged the gender norms to be questioned, elevating the authority of the Holy Spirit above any culturally mandated requirements.
Many women during this era made controversial decisions drastically altering their lives once they encountered the power of the Holy Spirit and felt the calling to press into this radical movement. One of these women was named Thecla.
Thecla was an Egyptian woman from a wealthy family. Her story leaves us with a fascinating example of the life of a woman who rejected her life of comfort, marriage and the expected gender norms of her time to carve out her own ministry as a scholar, teacher, preacher, healer and missionary.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla: Part One
The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a part of the larger Acts of Paul written around 190 C.E.  This is where we encounter Thecla’s story:
Paul came to Iconium where Thecla was living and here she heard Paul preach from the Sermon on the Mount from her window (Acts: 13:51). When Thecla heard his preaching, after several days, she converted to Christianity. Enthralled by Paul’s message, Thecla rejected her family, financial stability as well as her fiancé and snuck out of her home to find Paul (who was in jail for causing a disturbance with his preaching). She sat with Paul and learned from him. Thecla’s family was distraught over her decision and they joined in a plot to destroy Paul. The governor had been won over by Paul’s preaching as well and instead of an execution, he exiled Paul after having him beaten. Thecla refused to return to her family and her previous life. Her family rejected her and called for her execution (not uncommon even today in some societies deeply entrenched in the honor/shame dynamic).
Thecla was sentenced to be burned, and as was the custom during the Roman Empire, she was on display, naked, in the arena for public torture and execution. Her crime was serious, a rejection of the social conventions expected of a woman and a daughter of an affluent family. However, Thecla courageously remained steadfast, fixed on her determination to become an apostle and disciple of Paul. She prayerfully climbed up on the pile of wood meant to burn her alive. However the fire did not touch her. God released a cloud of water and hail which poured upon her and the fire was extinguished.
Thecla escaped death and left the city in search of Paul. When she found Paul she offered to cut her hair to take the appearance of a male (which would have been safer and less controversial than having a female companion who was not a relative). She asked him to baptize her. Paul refused both requests and called for her patience.
At this point in her journey Thecla is between two worlds. Now rejected from her home and family and not yet accepted as a disciple ready for a role in the new church.
She is living in tension.
This tension is familiar to those of us who have sought to align ourselves with the work of God in the world despite knowing the next step. Obedience to God’s calling doesn’t usually provide us instant answers but instead calls for a stretching of our faith, preparing us for the work God will later ask us to do. Thecla, as a mother of Christianity, models this faith season for us. Her legacy as a faithful healer, disciple and apostle began here.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla: Part Two
Thecla remains with Paul to learn what she can. She joins him on his journey to Antioch, where Alexander, (a powerful leader), becomes enamored with Thecla, her beauty and her teaching. He attempts to rape her. A woman in her time would have been culturally considered “asking for it” by traveling unattached to a male relative. Thecla fights back, tearing his cloak and knocking the crown off his head. Her fight enraged him to the point where he dragged her to the local authorities who then condemned her to death by wild beasts.
Thecla had gained great popularity in the city from her teaching and women gathered to defend her. Queen Tryphaena, described as a relative of Caesar, (and therefore untouchable by local authorities) took Thecla in until her execution. As Thecla awaited her execution in the arena, Tryphaena received a dream of her deceased daughter, who told her to accept Thecla as a daughter in her place, and that she, the daughter, is now more righteous in heaven because of Thecla’s prayers.
Thecla’s day of execution arrives and there is great unrest in the crowds as women cry out in protest of the injustice. Thecla is defenseless, tied, (probably naked and beaten as was customary), to the back of a lioness and sent into the arena with other wild beasts poised to kill her. To the crowds amazement, the lioness protects Thecla, licks her feet and then dies defending Thecla from a lion and a bear. More beasts are released into the arena and Thecla outstretches her arms in prayer. She opens her eyes and sees a pool filled with flesh-eating seals. As she prepares to jump in, the crowd begs her not to, however she declares: “Now it is time to wash myself… In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day” (APTh). As she jumps, a lightning bolt strikes the pool, electrocuting the seals and leaving Thecla unharmed. Additional wild beasts are released to kill her and the women in the stadium rebel, throwing herbs and spices to distract the animals.
Enraged at the spectacle, Alexander declares that Thecla be drawn and quartered by his bulls. However, as she is being tied up, the ropes burn from a heavenly fire and she again is freed. At this point, Queen Tryphaena faints and the Governor puts a stop to the violence. The people are fearful of Caesar's wrath at the thought that Tryphaena, his relative, may be dead.
The Governor asks Thecla by whose powers has she been so miraculously saved, and she responds: “I am a slave of the living God'' (APTh). Tryphaena welcomes Thecla into her home again and Tryphaena’s household is converted to Christianity. Tryphaena gives Thecla enough wealth to give her independence. Thecla travels to Myra seeking Paul, dressed as a man for safety, she finds Paul and tells him of her baptism. He receives the news of her miraculous experience and baptism with joy and exclaims: “Go and teach the word of God” (APTh). (With Paul’s blessing she returns back to her home and preaches from the same spot she first heard Paul preach. She converts many to Christianity through her testimony and life as an apostle.
Thecla’s story turns the Roman virtues of honor and shame for women on its head. Her story redefines what is honorable and virtuous by aligning the powerful Christianity with those traits associated with women at the time: silence, patience and even courageous passivity. The traditional male traits such as aggression, violence and control are represented by the foolish Alexander and overpowered by God’s will. Additionally, Thecla embodies the traditionally understood male virtues of courage and self-control and shows mastery in them.
Thecla’s impact in the early church cannot be overstated. A large church called Hagia Thekla (St. Thecla) near Seleucia, in Asia Minor (now modern day Silifke in Turkey), was dedicated to her and excavations have revealed it was as long as a football field. Egeria, a pilgrim from Spain whose impact in the early church was also greatly profound, kept a diary of her travel to Hagia Thekla and describes it as a bustling influential center of Christianity, used extensively for worship, for traveling pilgrims and as a home for both male and female monks.
In 1998, an ancient grotto was cleaned near Ephesus that revealed frescos on the wall that tell the story from the Acts of Paul and Thecla dating back from the fourth century. Additioanlly, a third or fourth century sarcophagus illustrates Thecla and Paul’s relationship with an image of Paul at the stern of a ship and the name Thecla inscribed on the Ships side. Scholars have debated if it represents Paul steering his apprentice Thecla into ministry as his disciple or if it is Thecla who carried Paul’s into places he could not minister without her.
Extensive evidence has been found revealing Thecla’s veneration by Christians in Egypt, especially around Alexandria from the fourth century. Flasks, housewares, pottery and lamps have been uncovered with images of Thecla battling beasts and representations of her attempted martyrdoms with the inscription domina victoria meaning “Lady, the victory is yours”.
It is rare that Chrsitians speak of Thecla today, however it is clear from historical records that she was profoundly impactful in the epicenter of Christianity’s beginnings. She is a mother of the faith whose great courage and bold actions made a way for an unconventional ministry needed in her time. Given our vast cultural differences, yet similar gender-related restrictions still present in much of the church today, how might her courage inspire us to act differently?
- Have you heard of Thecla before? What was surprising to you about her legacy?
- Thecla’s miraculous escapes from death run parallel to a lot of early Chrisitan literature about early Christian martyrs and saints. What is difficult or easy to believe about this story?
- What is valuable to you in this story of Thecla? Does knowing her strengthen or inspire your faith?
- Historical copies and a variety of translations of the Acts of Paul and Thecla reveals it circulated widely in the church up until the 5th century. What do you think of its disappearance in the church and what are some of the implications for women because of it?
About the Art
Thecla’s appearance is inspired by the Fayum burial portraits, ancient mummy portraits that date back to 100-250 C.E.. Thecla, Egyptian in heritage, originally came from a wealthy family. She had to disguise herself (at least twice), to hide her beauty to appear male while she traveled according to the Acts of Paul and Thecla. She has been remembered by women throughout the ages for her defiance against social norms of her day as well as defiance against death through God's miraculous provision. The animal print in the background represents her facing wild beasts during her second trial of execution for fighting off attempted rape. Thecla has been a role model and icon for women since her height of fame in the 4th century C.E.. A mother, apostle, missionary and rebel in the early church, many icons have been discovered revealing that she was a venerated saint for centuries.
- Lynn H Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes. Christian Women in the Patristic World : Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 2.
- Darrell Pursiful, “Ordained Women of the Patristic Era” Priscilla Papers, volume 15, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 8, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/ordained-women-patristic-era (accessed May 8, 2020).
- David R. Cartlidge, “Thecla: The Apostle Who Defied Women’s Destiny” Bible Review, 20:6, (December 2004): 2, https://www.baslibrary.org/bible-review/20/6/7 (accessed May 8, 2020).
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 3.
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 3.
- Cohick, “Christian Women,” 5.
- Cohick, “Christian Women,” 13.
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 6.
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 6.
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 7.
- Cartlidge, “Thecla,” 7.