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Acts of Paul and Thecla

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The Acts of Paul and Thecla (Acta Pauli et Theclae) is an apocryphal story—Edgar J. Goodspeed called it a "religious romance"—of St Paul's influence on a young virgin named Thecla. It is one of the writings of the New Testament apocrypha.


History of the text

It is attested no later than Tertullian, De baptismo 17:5 (c 190), who tells a presbyter from Asia wrote the History of Paul and Thecla, and was deposed by John the Apostle after confessing the forgery. Tertullian inveighed against its use in the advocacy of a woman's right to preach and to baptize. Eugenia of Rome in the reign of Commodus (180-192) is reported in the Acts of her martyrdom to have taken Thecla as her model after reading the text, prior to its disapproval by Tertullian. Jerome recounts the information from Tertullian, and on account of his great care to chronology, some scholars regard the text a 1st-century creation.

Many surviving versions of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in Greek, and some in Coptic, as well as references to the work among Church fathers show that it was widely disseminated. In the Eastern Church, the wide circulation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in Greek, Syriac, and Armenian is evidence of the veneration of Thecla of Iconium. There are also Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions, sometimes differing widely from the Greek. "In the Ethiopic, with the omission of Thecla's admitted claim to preach and to baptize, half the point of the story is lost." The discovery of a Coptic text of the Acts of Paul containing the Thecla narrative suggests that the abrupt opening of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is due to its being an excerpt of that larger work.

Narrative of the text

The author sets this story during Paul the Apostle's First Missionary Journey, but this text is ideologically different from the New Testament portrayal of Paul. The extravagant praise of virginity, however, was a running thread in many brands of Early Christianity.

Here, Paul is described as travelling to Iconium (Acts 13:51), proclaiming "the word of God about abstinence and the resurrection". Paul is given a full physical description that may reflect oral tradition: in the Syriac text "he was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy; at one time he seemed like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel." Paul gave his sermons in the house of Onesiphorus (cp. 2Tim 1:16) in a series of beatitudes, by which Thecla, a young noble virgin, listened to Paul's "discourse on virginity" from her window in an adjacent house. She listened, enraptured, without moving for days. Thecla's mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris, became concerned that Thecla would follow Paul's demand "that one must fear only one God and live in chastity", and they formed a mob to drag Paul to the governor, who imprisoned the apostle.

Thecla bribed a guard to gain entrance to the prison, and sat at Paul's feet all night listening to his teaching and "kissing his bonds". When her family found her, both she and Paul were again brought before the governor. At her mother's request, Paul was sentenced to scourging and expulsion (cp. Acts 14:19, 2Tim 3:11), and Thecla to be killed by being burned at the stake, that "all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid." Stripped naked, Thecla was put on the fire, but she was saved by a miraculous storm which God sent to put out the flames.

Reunited, Paul and Thecla then traveled to Pisidian Antioch (cp Acts 14:21)), where a nobleman named Alexander desired Thecla and offered Paul money for her. Paul claimed not to know her, and Alexander then attempted to take Thecla by force. Thecla fought him off, assaulting him in the process, to the amusement of the townspeople. Alexander dragged her before the governor for assaulting a nobleman and, despite the protests of the city's women, Thecla was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. To ensure that her virtue was intact at her death, Queen Tryphaena took her into protective custody overnight.

Thecla was tied to a fierce lioness, and paraded through the city. She was then stripped and thrown to beasts, which were provided by Alexander. The women of the city again protested against the injustice. Thecla was protected from death, first by the lioness who fought off the other beasts, and then by a series of miracles until finally the women of the city and Queen Antonia Tryphaena intervened. The way in which Thecla was said to have baptized herself in the arena was quite strange and unique (the account of this is found in chapter 9 of the Acts of Paul and Thecla and also in the Acts of Thecla). While in the arena, she saw a vat of water that contained seals/sea-calves. Since she thought it might be her last chance to be baptized, she jumped into the vat and proclaimed that she was baptizing herself. A miracle occurred and all the seals/sea-calves were killed by lightning before they could eat her.

Thecla returned to Paul unharmed. She later returned to Iconium to convert her mother. She went to live in Seleucia Cilicia. According to some versions of the Acts, she lived in a cave there for 72 years, becoming a healer. The Hellenistic physicians in the city lost their livelihood and solicited young men to rape Thecla at the age of 90. As they were about to take her, a new passage was opened in the cave and the stones closed behind her. She was able to go to Rome and lay beside Paul's tomb.


Acts of Paul and Thecla Wikipedia