BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Who Was Thecla?

The early Christian saint, rebel, and protagonist of the Acts of Thecla

ars-st-thecla

St. Thecla. Who was Thecla? The saint, rebel, and leading lady of the Acts of Thecla is depicted on this stained glass window from the Basilica of Ars in France. Photo: Vassil by CC0-1.0.

Who was Thecla?

The leading lady of the apocryphal work the Acts of Thecla may not be a well-known figure today, but nearly every early Christian knew her name. She was renowned as a Christian martyr and missionary and later venerated by the Church as a saint.

Alicia D. Myers investigates the figure of Thecla, as well as early Christian perceptions of motherhood, in her column “Motherhood and the Early Christian Community,” published in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In the early Church, St. Thecla was seen as a heroine and role model, who eschewed the social norms of the Roman Empire and chose to follow the teachings of the Apostle Paul—despite persecution.

So, who was Thecla really, and what did she believe?

Although it is not clear if St. Thecla was a historical person, stories of this figure come to us from the Acts of Thecla—a section of the Acts of Paul—dated to the end of the second century C.E.

According to the Acts of Thecla, Thecla is a first-century noblewoman of Iconium (in modern Turkey). When she hears Paul preach in her hometown, she is so absorbed in his message that she neither eats nor drinks for three days. She promptly becomes a Christian and decides to remain unmarried and celibate, as Paul advised.

Unfortunately, this is seen as a subversive act by her fiancé and her family, and Thecla is violently persecuted by being burned in a bonfire. Miraculously, the flames do not touch her, and she is spared.


In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

After this close brush with death, she leaves Iconium and follows the Apostle Paul to Antioch. There, Alexander, one of the city’s leaders, desires Thecla. When she rejects him, Alexander hauls her in front of the governor, who sentences her to be thrown to wild beasts in an arena. Again, she miraculously survives this persecution—and emerges from the arena unharmed.

After her second miraculous deliverance, Thecla is freed, and she goes in search of the Apostle Paul once more. When she encounters him in Myra, he commissions her to spread the Gospel of Christianity, teach the Bible, and even baptize converts. She goes to Seleucia (in modern day Iraq) and teaches there.

Thecla’s commitment to Paul’s teachings, particularly her disavowal of marriage, was seen as a serious threat to the Roman Empire. Alicia D. Myers explains why:

Rejecting the “blessedness” of motherhood for the kingdom come was threatening to an empire that prided itself on establishing peace for the whole world (the Pax Romana). The Romans certainly weren’t looking for another kingdom to replace their own, and, for their empire to survive and thrive, it needed children. …

In the Roman world, good girls became mothers. Of course, to be able to wed and become a “woman” (the Greek word gyne means both “woman” and “wife”), one needed to be free and of enough means. Becoming a mother, bearing living children (ideally, sons) for her husband and for the stability of his household was essential to being a good wife. In fact, many ancient philosophers and medical authors believed that motherhood was a woman’s sole purpose in creation.

Thecla’s actions were revolutionary to say the least. Her countercultural stance set her at odds with the Roman Empire. Yet her fierce determination and faithfulness were celebrated by many in the early Church, and eventually this perspective would infiltrate the Roman Empire itself.

Learn more about Thecla in Alicia D. Myers’s column “Motherhood and the Early Christian Community,” published in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full column “Motherhood and the Early Christian Community” by Alicia D. Myers in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

Related reading in the BAS Library:

David R. Cartlidge, “Thecla: The Apostle Who Defied Women’s Destiny,” Bible Review, December 2004.

David R. Cartlidge, “The Christian Apocrypha,” Bible Review, June 1997.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Women in the Bible

Lydia and Tabitha in the Bible
Women leaders in the early Christian church

Tabitha in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine by Robin Gallaher Branch

Anna in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 24, 2018.


 

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2 Responses

  1. Ezra says:

    The irony is that Romans loved silphium, a flower that served as a contraceptive agent which was used as an abortifacient. It was the major industry of Cyrene, where conditions made it practically the only place where it flourished, which it did up to the end of the first century, when it was over-harvested and no longer available. During the height of its popularity, it was so appreciated that the image was stamped on coinage.

    1. Ezra says:

      Last paragraph of the article is this, “The Cyrenians tried to balance the harvests. However, the plant eventually was harvested to extinction by the end of the first century AD. The last stalk of silphium was reportedly harvested and given to Roman Emperor Nero as an “oddity.” According to Pliny the Elder, Nero promptly ate the gift. Clearly, he had been poorly informed on the plant’s usages. Though the plant is extinct, there still exists a modern day tribute to it that you might find familiar — the modern heart shape. Silphium seed pods were reportedly the inspiration for the popular symbol of love. Fitting, when you consider why the plant was so popular. . . . SOURCE for the above, Katie Serena, “The Greatest Contraceptive Was Silphium – A Plant That The Romans Ate To Extinction,” 15 September 2017, 22 August 2018.
      http://cc.bingj.com/cache.aspx?q=Roman Empire, Silphium&d=4984087980345561&mkt=en-US&setlang=en-US&w=WSL2IRPmhSjagGiDoEuuP0tZ5DjetE_Z …

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2 Responses

  1. Ezra says:

    The irony is that Romans loved silphium, a flower that served as a contraceptive agent which was used as an abortifacient. It was the major industry of Cyrene, where conditions made it practically the only place where it flourished, which it did up to the end of the first century, when it was over-harvested and no longer available. During the height of its popularity, it was so appreciated that the image was stamped on coinage.

    1. Ezra says:

      Last paragraph of the article is this, “The Cyrenians tried to balance the harvests. However, the plant eventually was harvested to extinction by the end of the first century AD. The last stalk of silphium was reportedly harvested and given to Roman Emperor Nero as an “oddity.” According to Pliny the Elder, Nero promptly ate the gift. Clearly, he had been poorly informed on the plant’s usages. Though the plant is extinct, there still exists a modern day tribute to it that you might find familiar — the modern heart shape. Silphium seed pods were reportedly the inspiration for the popular symbol of love. Fitting, when you consider why the plant was so popular. . . . SOURCE for the above, Katie Serena, “The Greatest Contraceptive Was Silphium – A Plant That The Romans Ate To Extinction,” 15 September 2017, 22 August 2018.
      http://cc.bingj.com/cache.aspx?q=Roman Empire, Silphium&d=4984087980345561&mkt=en-US&setlang=en-US&w=WSL2IRPmhSjagGiDoEuuP0tZ5DjetE_Z …

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