Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Thecla

Thecla (1), the heroine of a romantic story which from a very early date has had a strong hold on the imagination of the church, and which, though under the form in which it is now extant it can only be received as a fiction, has enough appearance of a foundation in fact to warrant us in treating of her as a real person. She was, as we read in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a contemporary of St. Paul, a Virgin of Iconium, daughter of a woman of rank (apparently a widow) named Theocleia, and affianced to Thamyris, a youth who was first among the nobles of that city. At the time when the narrative opens St. Paul is represented as being on his way to Iconium, after having been driven from Antioch of Pisidia; but whether his flight from Antioch, related in Acts xiii. 15, is meant, and consequently whether the ensuing events are to be taken as belonging to his first visit to Iconium, is not clear. One Onesiphorus of

Iconium, whose house adjoined that of Theocleia, hearing of his approach, went with his wife and sons to meet him, and recognizing him by a description he had received from Titus, invited him to his house with joy. Two persons named Demas and Hermogenes, who under a hypocritical guise of seeking instruction in the gospel had attached themselves to the apostle on his journey, were at their urgent request admitted along with him by Onesiphorus (though not without demur). In this house Paul began at once to preach "the word of God concerning temperance and the resurrection"; his discourse consisting of a series of beatitudes, in form like those of the Sermon on the Mount, but in substance taken up with the commendation of asceticism and celibacy. Thecla, sitting at a window in her mother's house, heard his words and became filled with passionate faith and zeal for virginity. Being restrained from satisfying her longing to see him and hear his doctrine face to face, she remained listening at her window, despite her mother's remonstrances. The tender entreaties of her betrothed Thamyris, whom Theocleia summoned, proved equally unavailing. The lover, thus repulsed, hurried into the street and watched the house where the stranger was preaching, whose eloquence had cast this deplorable spell over Thecla. Observing Demas and Hermogenes among those going in and out, he questioned them, invited them to a rich banquet at his house, and offered them money for information concerning the preacher. They disclaimed personal knowledge of Paul, but represented him as urging on the young abstinence from marriage, under the threat of forfeiting their part in the resurrection, which (they said) he promised to the celibate only; whereas the true resurrection (as they professed themselves ready to explain) was already past for those that have children in whom they live anew; and men rise again when they fully know the true God. They also advised him to bring Paul before Castelius the governor on the charge of teaching "the new doctrine of the Christians," which (they assured him) would ensure his execution. Accordingly, next morning Thamyris, with other magistrates, and a great multitude, repaired to the house of Onesiphorus, and dragged Paul before the tribunal of Castelius the "proconsul," accusing him merely of dissuading maidens from marriage; though Demas and Hermogenes were at hand prompting him, "Say that he is a Christian, and thus shalt thou procure his death." St. Paul, being called on by the governor for his defence, delivered a speech, not answering the specific charge of Thamyris, but declaring his gospel message and pleading his mission from God. The governor committed him to prison until it was convenient to hear him more attentively. Thecla made this imprisonment her opportunity. That very night, by bribing her mother's doorkeeper with her bracelets and the jailer with her silver mirror, she visited St. Paul's cell; and there, after a night spent at his feet in hearing his doctrine, was found next morning by her mother and lover. At their instance St. Paul was immediately dragged again before the governor, pursued by the multitude with the cry, "He is a sorcerer! Away with him!" Thecla was summoned likewise, and followed him exultingly to the tribunal. Castelius was at first disposed to listen favourably to Paul, as he declared the works of Christ; but afterwards, finding that Thecla would give no reply to his interrogations, but remained silent with her eyes fixed on Paul, and being wrought on by her mother, who demanded that her daughter should be burnt alive as an example to warn other women, he scourged Paul and cast him out of the city, and sentenced Thecla to the stake. When the pyre was ready, she mounted it undismayed. A deluge of hail and rain quenched the fire, the people fled, and Thecla escaped. Meantime St. Paul, with Onesiphorus and his family, on their way to Daphne, had taken refuge in a tomb, where he continued in prayer for Thecla, and sent one of the lads back to lconium to sell his outer garment and buy bread. The youth met Thecla, who was seeking Paul, and brought her to the hiding-place. There they found Paul praying for her deliverance, and a scene of joyful thanksgiving ensued. The apostle with Thecla went on his way to Antioch. As they entered Antioch her beauty caught the eye of Alexander the Syriarch (this seems to prove that the city here meant is the capital of Syria), who sought to obtain possession of her by offering money to Paul. Baffled and enraged the Syriarch brought her before the Roman governor, who condemned her to be cast to wild beasts; committing her meanwhile to the care of Tryphaena, a widow lady (afterwards described as a queen, and kinswoman of the emperor), who, having lately lost her daughter Falconilla, found comfort in the charge of the condemned maiden, who converted her to Christ. After a series of marvellous escapes from the beasts, Thecla, interrogated by the governor, made profession of her faith: "I am a handmaid of the living God, and I believe in His Son in Whom He is well pleased; and therefore it is that none of the beasts hath touched me. . . . Whoso believeth not on Him shall not live for ever." Amid the jubilations of the women she was released. To rejoin St. Paul was her first thought, and hearing he was at Myra in Lycia, she disguised herself in man's attire and set out with a train of attendants, male and female. There she found him preaching the word. After relating to him in the house of Hermaeus (or Hermes) the wonderful story of her deliverances, she proceeded to Iconium, receiving from him the parting charge, "Go and teach (δίδασκε) the word of God." Arrived at Iconium, she first visited the house of Onesiphorus, and there prostrating herself on the spot where St. Paul had sat and taught, she thanked God and the Lord Jesus Christ for her conversion and preservation. There was no longer anything to fear from the importunities of Thamyris, who had died. She found her mother still living, and endeavoured, but apparently without success, to bring her to believe in the Lord. Finally, she departed to Seleucia, where she "enlightened many and died in peace." Thus the story ends in its oldest form, as preserved in ancient Syriac and Latin versions; but the four extant Greek copies represent her as living an anchorite's life in a cave, on herbs and water, and they subjoin a marvellous account (certainly of more recent composition) of her latter years. She (according to three of these copies, A, B, and C) went to Rome to see St. Paul again, but was too late to find him alive. She died there soon after, aged 90, and was buried near his tomb 72 years after her martyrdom.

Though the story was undoubtedly written originally in Greek, the oldest Greek MS. is not earlier than 10th cent. But ample proofs of its high antiquity are forthcoming. The so-called Decree of Gelasius, de Libras Recipiendis et non Recipiendis, which is probably of the early years of the 7th cent., formally excluded (c. vi.) from the list of "scriptures received by the church" the "book which is called the Acts of Paul and Thecla." The Syriac version, extant in four MSS., one of 6th cent., contains internal evidence that the Greek text had been long in existence and frequently copied before the Syrian translator did his work. We have also an expanded Life of Thecla, composed before the middle of 5th cent. by Basil, bp. of Seleucia (in Isauria), professedly framed on the lines of a previous work then ancient. A comparison of our Acts of Paul and Thecla with this Life leaves no doubt that the former is the basis of the latter. These Acts (as we shall now call them") were thus "ancient" early in the 5th cent., and can hardly therefore be later than 300. In the 4th cent. Hilary (the Ambrosian) has several clear references to these Acts (Comm. on I. Tim. i. 20; II. Tim. i. 15, iv. 14; cf. Acts 1: also on II. Tim. ii. 18; cf. Acts 14); and even, as it seems, cites them in connexion with the last passage, as "alia Scriptura." Jerome, then or a few years later, mentions (de Vir. Ill. c. 7) but rejects a book called Περίοδοι Παύλου καὶ Θεκλης, which he says was discredited by startling marvels; probably Jerome is here inaccurately describing the book as we have it. The very early currency in Christendom of a written narrative of the life of Thecla is proved by the much earlier, more exact, and more authentic evidence of the writer whose authority Jerome here appeals to, Tertullian, in his treatise de Baptismo (c. 17), written c. 200. Tertullian refuses to admit the authority of certain writings falsely assuming the name of Paul, which some alleged in support of the claim of women to teach and baptize after "the example of Thecla"; for these (he says) were the production of a certain "presbyter of Asia," who was, on his own confession, proved to have composed them "through love of Paul" (as he said) and who for this fraud was degraded from the presbyterate. Jerome represents this degradation as occurring in St. John's time, which seems to be merely an addition of his own, and is inconsistent with our Acts, for they, in the age to which they prolong Thecla's life, imply that she survived St. John. Tertullian is our earliest witness that a story of Thecla existed; but whether the extant book of her Acts is identical with the Asian presbyter's production is a question. The balance of probability distinctly favours the identification. If so, it would be the oldest of the extant N.T. Apocrypha.

The story thus traced back, certainly as regards its substance and probably as regards its existing written form, to 2nd cent., was widely current in the church, East and West, thereafter. But though she is frequently mentioned by the Fathers, none of them, except Basil of Seleucia, cite our Acts or any written narrative. But of all the references to Thecla in ecclesiastical writers, not one (except that already noticed in Jerome) lies distinctly outside the range of the incidents which the Acts relate; so that a history of Thecla reconstructed out of the references to her in early Christian writers would be in fact an abridgment of these Acts, containing nearly all its chief points and adding nothing to them. Of these writers, the earliest seems to be Methodius, in his Symposium Decem Virginum (written c. 300; see Migne, Patr. Gk. xviii. ). The incident of Thecla's sacrificing her ornaments to purchase access to Paul is turned to account by Chrysostom, "Thecla, for the sake of seeing Paul, gave her jewels; but thou, for the sake of seeing Christ, wilt not give an obolus" (Hom. 25 in Acta App. 4). Isidore of Pelusium (lib. i. Ep. 87) is apparently the first to style her by the glorious title, ever since appropriated to her, of proto-martyr—that is, as Basil of Seleucia explains (p. 232), first among women as Stephen among men. Theodore of Mopsuestia is stated by Solomon of Bassora, a 13th-cent. Nestorian (cf. Assem. B. O. iii. p 323), to have composed an oration on Thecla, in which it appears that her prayer for Falconilla was mentioned. Epiphanius (Haer. lxxviii. 16; lxxix. 5) praises her for sacrificing under St. Paul's teaching her prospects of prosperous marriage, and reckons her near to Elias, John the Baptist, and even the Virgin Mother. In the West her name is similarly joined with that of Agnes as a virgin worthy to rank with Mary herself, by Ambrose (de Lapsu Virg. p. 307); and by Sulpicius Severus (c. 400), who relates (Dial. ii. 13) how St. Martin of Tours was favoured with a vision, in which Mary, Agnes, and Thecla appeared and conversed with him (Migne, Patr. Lat. t. xx. col. 210). Ambrose likewise associates her with Mary the Lord's mother, and Miriam, Moses' sister (Ep. 63, ad Vercell. Eccl. t. ii. pt. 1, p. 1030); and here and in de Virginibus (ii. 19, p. 166) dwells on her deliverance from the wild beasts. Jerome in one of his Epp. (xxii. p. 125) also associates her with Mary and Miriam, promising that they shall welcome Eustochium, to whom he writes, into the virgin choir of heaven. And in his Chronicle (s.a. 377) he tells of one Melania, a Roman lady who by her sanctity earned the name of Thecla.

That the book as we have it is a fiction few will doubt; but it is a fair question whether it has been formed on a nucleus of fact; and if so, how far we can distinguish fact from fiction. The incidental reference to Thecla by Eusebius proves that he regarded her as a real person; and if Athanasius wrote her Life, he must be reckoned on the same side. Tertullian, even in rejecting her written history, raises no doubt as to her existence, as he certainly would if he had suspected her to be a creature of the Asian presbyter's imagination. Jerome, while still more emphatic in condemning the book, expressly names her as a virgin saint. It is hardly likely that if Thecla had not existed, her history and example could have so powerfully impressed themselves on the mind of Christendom for so many ages and been honoured by so many generations of the devout faithful, including some of the foremost intellects of the church. The monastery that marked her place of retreat and bore her name, which, as we learn from Gregory of Nazianzum (Orat. xxi. p. 399, t. i.; Poemata Hist. s. i. 11, p. 703, t. ii.), had made Seleucia a place of pilgrimage before he retired there (c. 375), is a further evidence of her reality, and also confirms the localization in that city of the traditions concerning her. It thus appears that our Acts probably grew out of a true tradition, handed down from the later apostolic age, of a maiden of Asia Minor who was converted to the Gospel and for its sake renounced all and braved death that she might remain a chaste virgin for Christ, and, having escaped martyrdom, lived and died in sanctity at Seleucia. The Asian presbyter whom Tertullian makes known to us, casting about for materials for a story in exaltation of virginity, would naturally choose for his hero St. Paul, as an unmarried apostle and the only N.T. writer from whom the doctrine of the superiority of the celibate over the married state could claim any support. The tradition which we have supposed current in the church, of a Christian who incurred the peril of martyrdom for virginity and ended her days as an anchorite near Seleucia would supply his heroine and leading incidents. Her name was probably part of the traditional story; for an invented name would no doubt have been either a Scriptural one or one of obvious Christian significance. II. Tim. iii. 11 might suggest the scene, "at Antioch, at Iconium." Being of no critical turn, and writing for uncritical readers, the author would not inquire to what stage of St. Paul's course this Epistle belonged, or which Antioch was meant.

The history of Thecla, as we have it, whether this account of its origin be accepted or not, is not without literary merit. It has many touches of pathos, its incidents are striking and effectively told, and here and there the speeches (never of tedious length) rise nearly to the height of eloquence. Defective as we have seen it to be in structure, yet even here, as well as in interest of narrative, it compares advantageously with the clumsy dullness of the Clementine literature; its marvels, however startling, are less extravagant than those of the apocryphal Gospels and Acts; and on the whole it is distinctly above the level of the class of writings (most, if not all, of later date) to which it is usually referred. Its chief defect is the failure to realize and reproduce the spirit and personality of St. Paul. Schlau's opinion (p. 17), that the local knowledge displayed in the work is such as might naturally belong to a resident in Asia Minor, is not to be accepted without qualification. It might, on the contrary, be said that if the author had more carefully studied the canonical Acts with a view to local and chronological knowledge, he might have assigned the scene and date of his narrative with much more definiteness and accuracy. For instance, he seems uncertain how Lystra lay relatively to Iconium (cc. 1, 3 ), and his idea of the position and distance of Daphne seems equally indistinct (c. 23). So too in his records of Thecla's journeys he is content to name the starting-point and the terminus, never noting any place on the way. His knowledge of political geography is shewn to be lacking when he represents the chief magistrates of Iconium (c. 16) and Antioch (c. 33) as addressed by the title of proconsul (ἀνθύπατε), thus betraying that he supposed these cities to belong to proconsular provinces, whereas Iconium, though territorially included in Lycaonia, was in St. Paul's time extra-provincial, as the head of an independent tetrarchy (Pliny, Nat. Hist. v. 25), and Antioch was the capital of Syria, an imperial province governed by a propraetor. Even if we regard Iconium as of Lycaonia, and the Antioch meant to be the Pisidian, in neither city would so high an official as the proconsul of Asia be resident, as the Acts represent. The author, being of Asia—that is, of the Roman province supposed a proconsul to be found at Iconium and at Antioch, because he had himself been accustomed to see a proconsul at Ephesus or Smyrna; and thus Tertullian's statement that he was of Asia (taken in that limited sense) is borne out, not by his exact knowledge, as Schlau supposed, but by his mistake. He has such knowledge of places and political arrangements, and only such, as would naturally belong to an untravelled ecclesiastic of the Roman province of Asia, possessing a familiar but far from critical or precise knowledge of N.T. in general and the book of Acts in particular. The contents of these Acts serve indirectly to confirm the authenticity of the canonical Acts by shewing how difficult—it may safely be said how impossible—it would be for a falsarius, even if writing at no great distance in place or time from the scene and date of his fictitious narrative, to avoid betraying himself by mistakes; and the history of the reception of his work proves that such attempt to palm off pseudo-apostolic documents for genuine was not difficult of exposure, nor passed over as a light offence. The Asian church of the 2nd cent. was quick to detect the pious fraud and severe in punishing it; and in her dealing with the case there is no trace of uncritical promptitude to receive whatever offered itself as apostolical, or of the lax morality that would accept as true whatever seemed edifying-such as some writers have imputed to the early generations of Christians. Dr. Lipsius, indeed, maintains (p. 460) that the work and its author were condemned, not because of the fraud attempted, but because of the Gnostic doctrine which he supposes it to have originally embodied. But this is mere conjecture; and, moreover, one which, while professedly based on Tertullian's authority, substitutes for his express statement an essentially different one. Tertullian, writing of a matter on which he was apparently well informed, and which was recent, is surely a competent witness; and his testimony is express, that the author of the Acts was deposed from the presbyterate, not because the teaching of his book was heretical, but because its narrative was an imposture.

Of edd. the best is Tischendorf's (in his Acta Apost. Apocrypha, p. 40; 1851). For Eng. translations see Hone's Apocryphal N.T. p. 83, and Clark's Ante-Nicene Libr. vol. xvi. p. 279. The principal authorities on which this article is based have been specified. To Dr. Schlau's work it is largely indebted for its materials, and in some cases for its conclusions. For further discussion of the story see Tillem. Mém. t. ii. p. 60 (2nd ed.); Spanheim, Hist. Christiana, i. 11; Ittig, de Bibliothecis, c. xx. p. 700; Ritschl, Die Entstehung der altkath. Kirche (2 Aufl.), pp. 292–294 ; Harnack, Zeitschrift f. Kirchengesch. ii. pp. 90–92; Ramsay, Church in Roman Empire before 170 (2nd ed. Lond. 1893). pp. 375–428; and by the same, A Lost Chapter of Early Christian Hist. (Acta Pauli et Theclae), in Expositor, 1902, pp. 278–295.