One element more preachers need to add to their sermons is stories about women. Churches need to tell stories of women for the sake of young girls and for the ake of young men for, in so telling stories of women, other models are formed for what constitutes Christian living.
A rich source of stories about women comes from the patristic period and so Lynn Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes’ new book, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through the Fifth Centuries, is an exemplary rich source.
Their first chapter is about Thecla, and her story is mostly found in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. A good text can be found in W. Scheemelcher’s NT Apocrypha (v. 2). The APT combines a romance novel and a hagiography. It is at times fantastical and at all times relevant to church concerns of the 2d Century (and well beyond). This book and Thecla herself were honored for centuries in the church.
A young woman smitten by a man’s presence—this is the stuff of romance. A woman striving to chart her own path, undaunted by obstacles—this is inspiring. A woman rejecting a life of respectable stability and marital love and choosing an existence of want and possible danger—this is puzzling. A story that combines all this and more is bound to captivate, and indeed the story of Thecla has challenged and inspired Christians, especially in the second through fifth centuries.
Those are the main themes of APT, but there are some other features that become irrelevant or…
The intense physical violence of the arena, the strong asceticism, and the fantastical miracles—these are disorienting to modern readers.
One issue that always comes up is this one: Is she real? Is he historical? Was there a Thecla? Yes, perhaps, and No, perhaps, but does that matter? Is she not more than real?
Is she a historical figure? Does her narrative draw on a historical figure? There are several ways to address this question. If one means, is there a first-century Thecla who worked alongside the apostle Paul in Asia Minor?, then we must recognize that we have no other first-century evidence of such a person.
Ultimately, these historical details do not add up to the conclusion that the text reveals solid historical events about a real figure, Thecla, the faithful disciple of Paul and of Christ. If she existed as a historical figure, the account of her life has been enhanced, changed, and remixed such that only the barest outline of historicity can be discerned. More plausible is the theory that Thecla’s narrative builds on a charismatic late first-century or early second century female disciple whose persona invited reflection. Like a grain of sand captured by an oyster is overlaid with rich layers of protein and crystals to become a pearl, so too it may be that a first-century female teacher caught the attention of a pious writer who sketched her testimony, to which a later witness added layers and interpretations, producing a lasting pearl of remembrance in the current figure of St. Thecla.
Thecla’s story turns upside-down Roman values: a woman’s modesty, a woman’s silence, and a woman’s passivity overcomes male aggressions and power.
In the Thecla story, the notion of marriage as civic duty and moral responsibility of the elite is upheld by her mother but critiqued by Paul’s gospel. Thecla embraces the Christian modes of kinship, which devalues familial ties and loyalty to clan. Thus the call of continence for Thecla comes not as a call to reject sex, or even embodiment; it comes as a call to reject her social class. The insight here is that marriage represented different things to the various social classes. For the elite Thecla, her renunciation of the marriage package includes rejecting the moral and civic underpinnings that gave meaning to the conjugal union.
So what can we learn from Thecla, the character and whoever stood behind that character?
First, Thecla’s example encourages women to pursue the ascetic life with great determination. Second, women read Theela’s story, which highlights the rising educational level among Christians in the later centuries. Archaeologists have discovered two pocket-sized books of the Acts of Thecla in Egypt, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries. The picture of Eugenia reading Thecla while traveling matches the evidence. Third, in her defense in court against charges of sexual misconduct, Eugenia specifically states she has imitated Thecla, and to show that she is female, she tears her garment to reveal her breasts. Interestingly, her pose presents a picture similar to those stamped on votive clay containers, as Thecla stands naked to the waist.
But there’s far more here. Je suis Thecla. You and I are Thecla. We are Thecla. Thecla is Us.
Part of the genius of Thecla is that she is a character in a cosmic drama: she is every person or “the church,” vulnerable to the terrifying forces of “the world” and yet victorious. Her story tells the church’s story and models the church’s proper posture toward the world. Thecla becomes what any specific generation of the church needs her to be. In a limited sense, perhaps Thecla is the ancient church’s avatar, for she makes a new appearance in successive generations. She presents a “self” to the world that the church upholds and aspires to imitate.
If you can mention Lucy among the Pevensies, if you can mention a character in a movie, say Meryl Streep, or a person in a novel, pick any by Flannery O’Connor, then you can talk Thecla.