Women of the Bible Series: The Acts of Paul and Thecla

paul_theclaTo me, the most memorable part of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale, is the chapter where she relates the story of a scandal in Hallowell, Maine.  Rebecca Foster, wife of the minister Isaac Foster, brought charges of rape against a Colonel North.  Town records document the proceedings, as does the diary of midwife Martha Ballard.  After months of awaiting trial, Martha finally records its outcome with a characteristically brief entry:

July 12, 1790. “At Mr Kiders. Mr Ballard attended Coart. North acquited to the great surprise of all that I heard speak of it.”  Her reference to the “great surprise” suggests that the evidence against North had been damning. [1]

Martha Ballard was a very consistent, if laconic, diarist, and Ulrich is equally restrained in the conclusions she draws from Ballard’s diary.  So Ballard’s great surprise and Ulrich’s interpretation of it speak volumes about the culture and values of 18th century New England; volumes that as a skilled historian, Ulrich is able to relate.  A mention of a woman against the paucity of women’s names, experiences, and stories in scripture also speaks volumes.  The fact of a woman’s presence in the narrative means there was a story that was too bright, too moving, too profound to be forgotten by patriarchal record-keepers.

Filling out the stories of women in the Bible is very difficult for those of us without the training or resources to do historical research, or the time and creativity to write our own midrash.  [That is, for almost everyone.]  And so we are left squinting at the few words we have about these women, wondering what else was seen and said, wishing for more.

It comes as little surprise, then, that many women’s stories are present only in apocryphal writings.  The Acts of Paul and Thecla are one example, and what this text lacks in canonization, it makes up for in meaty detail.  You can read the full text here, but I’ll summarize it for you briefly.

Paul is come to the city of Iconium, and receives a friendly reception from the family of Onesiphorus (who also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:19).  Paul preaches in the home of Onesiphorus, and a young woman, Thecla, overhears his words from her open window.  She is so moved by them that she doesn’t leave her window for 3 days, much to the consternation of her mother and fiance.

Her fiance is so bothered by Thecla’s attention to Paul that he gets the governor to question Paul, and Paul is imprisoned.  Thecla sneaks out at night to visit him in prison and hear more of his teachings.  When Thecla is found missing, she and Paul are both taken to the governor, who declares that Paul is to be whipped out of the city and Thecla to be burned.  She is tied to a pyre, but is saved from burning by a miraculous earthquake and downpour of rain and hail; she also sees Christ in a vision.

Thecla escapes and finds Paul in hiding with Onesiphorus and his family, and asks to follow him as a disciple.  Paul agrees, after requiring a vow of chastity from Thecla, which she readily gives, thereby refusing the wishes of her mother and suitor that she be married.

At the first city she visits with Paul she is again troubled by a man who falls in love with her, whom she rejects, and for which she is to be punished by being thrown to the beasts.  However, the lion licks her feet instead of killing her.  This happens twice.  She baptizes herself in a pit of water before the crowd who has gathered to watch her demise.  Undaunted, this governor throws more wild beasts her way, all of whom leave her unharmed.

“Then the governor called Thecla from among the beasts to him and said to her, Who are you? And what are your circumstances, that not one of the beasts will touch you?Thecla replied to him, 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. He alone is the way to eternal salvation and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress, a support to the afflicted, a hope and defense to those who are hopeless, and in a word, all those who do not believe on him shall not live, but suffer eternal death.”

Thecla leaves the city and seeks Paul again, this time dressed in the habit of a man.  Paul is surprised to see her, amazed at her story, and after the reunion she returns to her home town.  There, she is unsuccessful in converting her family, and leaves to Seleucia under cover of a bright cloud.  In Seleucia she lives a long monastic life in a cave, and people come to her for healing.  The physicians of Seleucia are jealous, and determine to take away her virginity, which they assume is the source of her power.  They come to her cave to rape her, she calls out to God for deliverance, and the rock opens for her to walk into, then closes up behind her.  She is thus martyred.

OK, so there is a lot of fabulousness in this story.  It’s like Daniel in the lion’s den, Alma & Amulek in prison, Moses and the burning bush, and an odd sort of inverse of parting the Red Sea all rolled into one person’s life.  But I’m betting the miracles aren’t the reason the early Christian fathers rejected the Acts of Paul and Thecla as forgery.  More likely they couldn’t abide a canonical example of a woman doing the things Thecla did. Especially baptizing herself.  What’s that about?  A commentary on The Acts of Paul and Thecla explains [2],

“The key feature missing… is the presbyter. It appears that Thecla forgoes the necessity of the presbyter, and yet God sends several divine signs to suggest this has been sanctioned by God. … The implications of this self-baptism are far reaching.  Thecla has been sealed in Christ without the [assumed] necessary apostolic sanctioning, but rather is directly selected by God.  This is no different than the calling of Paul and other apostles (Acts 2).  The implications of this are that Thecla has the authority by God to teach, and Paul can do nothing but sanction what God has already sanctioned.”

The authority by God.  It’s not hard at all for me to believe that God isn’t the one who excluded women from miraculous calls to apostleship.  Sometimes, the things that are excluded can speak volumes, too.

[1] Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1991). A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
[2] Barrier, Jeremy W (2009). The Acts of Paul and Thelca: A Critical Introduction and Commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

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2 Responses

  1. EFH says:

    I happen to read her story from Apocrypha last week. I do not remember her being killed or martyred. After she enters the rock, the drunk young men who have come up to her cave to rape her are astonished and scared at the same time. She is able to live into her 70s healing and administering to people who would go to see her.

    What I noticed about her story is that she is a very successful preacher and healer because of her faith in Christ. A beautiful example of faithfulness and yet, removed from the official bible. What is interesting is that by her refusing to get married and live the female prescriptive life of the time, she takes upon herself the oath of virginity and makes something of herself. A choice that even Paul was not sure if it was going to work at the beginning because she was very beautiful and young.

  2. spunky says:

    This is so powerful! I was not previously familiar with Thelca, and am so very grateful that you have brought her to my attention. I love the concept of self-baptism; sort of like blessing and the sacrament for yourself, or physically washing away the wraith of sin.

    It is so disappointing to learn of the things that have been excluded from the bible. I suppose that is one hidden hope I have– that the remaining part of the book of Mormon, when it is revealed, it will shout out the stories of righteous, anointed, apostolic women. This hope is perhaps one of the reasons I can remain Mormon at times when the masculinity of the church crushes my soul.

    Thank you so much for this post!

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