Paul and Thecla

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (July, 2005)

A story known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla is found in the longer document the Acts of Paul. It records how a young woman named Thecla in South Galatia decided to become a nun under the influence of the preaching of Paul, and continued in that resolve despite intense persecution.

One reason why the story was once believed to be fictitious, like all the "apocryphal" works, was the assumption that there was no such thing as Christian monasticism, with its orders of monks and nuns, until at least the third century AD. That assumption was reinforced by Protestantism, but it was possible to hold it in the apparent absence of evidence for any such institution.

As we have been seeing at point after point of traditional Christian belief, the information from the Dead Sea Scrolls has overturned the assumption. Christians came from Essenes - as some scholars had recognised long before the discovery of the DSS. The Essenes were a monastic institution, prizing celibacy as the holiest way of life. Sexual activity was considered to be a defilement, and should only be practiced by members of dynasties in order to continue their lines. A man who wanted to be a "holy one" - a saint - was a permanent celibate, and women also could adopt the same way of life.

It was in South Galatia that the preaching mission of Barnabas and John Mark was carried out, as we have seen in the Acts of Barnabas (in this section on this site). They belonged to the celibate branch of the early Christians, and had sharp differences from Paul and Peter. Once the historicity of the Acts of Barnabas is accepted, there is every reason for believing that a young woman in South Galatia should want to adopt the "holy" way of life.

However, the story of Thecla says that it was Paul who preached celibacy. Paul himself says that he emphasised different teachings in different company. "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews...To those outside the Law I became as one outside the Law....I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In countries close to the homeland he communicated with people holding the original ascetic doctrine, which was much more popular in the east. He was maintaining its value while giving it a more Christian language.

Another point of interest is that the story contains a physical description of Paul.

He was said to be "small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel".

The story was intended to recruit women to the kind of life that Thecla had espoused. It is a missionary document, telling impressionable girls and women about the great experiences of their role model Thecla. Natural events are presented as miracles after the manner of the gospels.

It begins with Paul's arrival in Iconium, and his stay in the existing church in the house of Onesiphorus, a man who was later commended by Paul in 2 Timothy 1:16-18. Paul broke bread and preached, his preaching including beatitudes upholding celibacy. After "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God", is found "Blessed are they who have kept the flesh pure, for they shall become a temple of God. Blessed are the continent, for to them will God speak. Blessed are they who have renounced this world, for they shall be well pleasing unto God. Blessed are they who have wives as if they had them not, for they shall inherit God... Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their purity." The form of a beatitude is found in both the gospels and the Scrolls, but in this case the form set out the benefits of the celibate way of life. It would have been a set of precepts already in existence, quoted by Paul.

A young woman named Thecla, aged seventeen, who was betrothed, sat at a nearby window and listened night and day to "the word of the virgin life as it was spoken by Paul", and as a result devoted herself to his teaching, and refused to marry. Paul is quoted as saying to women: "Otherwise there is no resurrection for you, except you remain chaste and do not defile the flesh, but keep it pure". The man she was to marry was advised to bring Paul before the governor, for "seducing the crowds to the new doctrine of the Christians". When Paul was brought to judgment he gave an account of himself: "The living God, the God of vengeance, the jealous God, the God who has need of nothing, has sent me since he desires the salvation of men, that I may draw them away from corruption and impurity, all pleasure and death, that they may sin no more".

Paul was imprisoned for a time, then scourged and driven out of the city, and Thecla was subjected to cruel tortures, from which she was miraculously rescued. The fire that was to burn her did not touch her. After she was put on a pile of faggots to be burned, "a cloud overshadowed them from above, full of water and hail. And the fire was put out, and Thecla saved". The more natural explanation is that influence was brought to bear on the authorities by "the Cloud", the levite who enacted the part of the Pillar of Cloud in the Exodus drama of the Therapeuts. A holder of this office appears in Luke 9:34-35 and Acts 1:9..

Thecla was taken into the care of a distinguished woman named Tryphena. A Tryphena appears in the list to whom Paul sent greetings in Rome (Romans 16:12). She would have acted in the role that became that of Mother Superior.

On the orders of the governor, Thecla was then stripped and exposed to the lions. But a "cloud of fire" was seen near her, "so that neither could the wild beasts touch her, nor could she be seen naked". In other words, she was again protected by a Christian minister, one who acted the part of the Pillar of Fire.

Thecla subsequently went to Seleucia, where she lived as an ascetic for many years, dying at the age of 90. During this time she went to Rome to visit Paul, but found that he had died. A visit to him at Myra in Lycia is recorded in the story; it could have occurred when Paul's ship called in at Myra on his way to Rome in AD 60 (Acts 27:5).

Another piece of the earliest Christian history rescued by new information. (A more detailed account on the career of Paul can be extracted from Acts by application of the pesher. See subsection titled 'The Career of Paul' in section 7.)