“Nor She Is Mine”: Thecla’s longing for and independence from the apostle Paul in their Acts 

Jessica Wu

Classics student at Mount Holyoke College


The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, a part of the Apocryphal Acts of Paul but also a text sometimes circulated independently, is a popular account of the life of Thecla composed in the second half of the 2nd century CE. The narrative tells how Thecla, a daughter of the aristocracy, fell in love with the apostle Paul’s teaching about chastity, abandoned her will-be marriage, was convicted twice to death and saved by divine interventions, and cross-dressed to travel as a preacher. In this essay, I want to focus on the relationship between Thecla and the apostle Paul. I observe that the text presents simultaneously Thecla’s longing for Paul’s presence in her life and Thecla’s independence from Paul’s authority. Paul’s ineffectiveness in Thecla’s struggles provides a necessary opportunity for Thecla to grow her autonomy. This understanding might help justify the lack of criticism the apostle receives in the text.

Thecla has autonomy. By autonomy, I am talking about Thecla’s ability to convert, travel, and guard her body by her own orientation. For Thecla, the teaching of chastity from Paul serves her empowerment because it eventually forces her to leave her household and enter the public space first as a martyr, and then as a spiritual leader. Theologian Carmen Bermabe Ubieta insightfully points out that the chastity of a Christian woman in the Apocryphal texts does not necessarily lead to her autonomy. Self-denial and complete passivity is another alternative, as, for example, the daughter of Peter in The Acts of Peter represents (Bermabe Ubieta, “Ways of life in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles,” 139). But Thecla represents a type of Christian virgin who obtained empowerment as an active individual free from the control of a father, a brother, or a husband.

Thecla’s autonomy is realized not until she leaves Iconium. Many scholars say her autonomy and strength are implied in the text because of Paul’s lack of assistance when she needs him. The two most mentioned scenes are Chapter 25 when Paul refuses to baptize Thecla, and Chapter 26 when Paul denies knowing Thecla and thus doesn’t protect her from a certain Alexander’s sexual assault. Both happen after she has left her hometown to travel with Paul. Moreover, Thecla lacks a conversing voice in Iconium. She does not answer her mother, her fiancé, or the governor. Even her meeting with Paul in jail is not written as a conversation. Her only speech is apparently to herself, “As if I were unable to endure, Paul has come to look after me.”(Acts of Paul and Thecla, 21) Her first presented conversation happens on her way out of Iconium when she has escaped death and seeks Paul (23). It can be assumed then, the author of this text had the intention to keep Thecla’s silence and passivity, fitting the social expectation of her gender and her class, when she remained in her hometown. 

In Iconium, the virgin’s attraction to the foreign preacher is understood as her subjection to Paul in lieu of her belonging to her future husband. Even though Paul’s threat to the city is understood as encouraging youths “so that they should not get married but remain as they are,” (11) citizens of Iconium only speak about Thecla’s behavior in sexual and marital languages. Thecla’s mother Theocleia complaints that “as if upon some pleasure sight she is devoted to a foreigner,” (8) “and so the virgin has been captivated,”(9) “My daughter is bound to the window like a spider, seized by new desire and fearful passion through his words.” (9) Her fiance Thamyris thinks that “she so loves the stranger and I am prevented from marriage.” (13) When he learns about Paul’s teaching, he is “filled with jealousy and anger.” (15) Other members of Thecla’s household see her “chained to him by affection” (19) when they find Thecla listening to Paul in jail. People imagine a rivalry between Paul and Thamyris in Thecla’s mind. Thecla’s intense interest in Paul’s teaching is described as if it is a sexual desire. The teaching of chastity weighs nothing. Instead, they think the girl only prefers a lover whom she should not prefer over a proper future husband. Bernabe Ubieta provides a theory to read a woman’s body as a symbolic and disputed territory (Bermabe Ubieta, 134). When Thecla is in her hometown, she is understood indeed as a passive territory whose domination is in dispute between a foreign man and a local elite male.

Thecla’s autonomy appears and grows when she becomes an exile and a traveler. This growth happens because of Paul’s lack of guardianship of her. Paul and Thecla travel to Antioch. As they enter the city, a leading citizen of Antioch, Alexander, feels sexually attracted to Thecla. Assuming Paul owns Thecla, he brings money and gifts to Paul and asks for Thecla. Instead of acting as a guardian to her, Paul says, “I know not the woman of whom you speak, nor is she mine.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 26) Without Paul’s protection, Thecla is left to defend herself. She proclaims openly, “Do not force the stranger, do not force the servant of God. I am one of the chief persons of the Iconians, and because I would not marry Thamyris I have been cast out of the city.” (26) Then she rips his mantle and pulls down his crown on the street. She actively attacks and humiliates her assaulter in public. More importantly, she claims her right by her own social status for self-protection. She seeks Paul, but Paul is not available. In a guardian’s absence, Thecla has to identify herself not as a subordinate to any person.

Thecla’s independence from Paul can be read as a reaction to her townsmen’s false perception of her belonging. The only subordination in her relationship is to God. Previously in chapter 21, having been ordered to be burned at the stake, she saw“the Lord sitting in the likeness of Paul,” rather than Paul himself. Thecla back then is also seeking Paul. In both cases (21 and 26), she is fully willing to seek protection from and be subordinated to Paul. Yet, Paul’s absence forces her to be directly connected to God. In Chapter 25 Thecla requests baptism but Paul refuses, saying, “Times are evil and you are beautiful. I am afraid lest another temptation comes upon you worse than the first and that you do not withstand it but become mad after men.” (25) Eventually, she can tell Paul her baptism as an already established fact, made possible not by Paul’s approval, but by a divine intervention during her intended martyrdom. She tells Paul, “I have received baptism, O Paul; for the one who has worked with you for the gospel has worked with me also for baptism.” (40) With Paul’s absence, Thecla’s baptism is realized with her self-initiation and granted directly by the divine —she jumps into a pool filled with seals, and a fire burst out of the water (36). Taking all episodes into one consideration, Thecla is placed into a direct dependence on God’s authority and independence from that of the apostle. This is made possible through Paul’s unavailability. 

The next time meeting Paul at Myra, Thecla becomes a leader with a group of followers. On this journey from Antioch to Myra, Thecla wears a man’s cloak. In the dangerous world of antiquity, a woman might travel in a man’s cloak for practical protection, especially against rape. For Thecla, her male dress is also a symbolic reflection of her spiritual maturity. On the journey from Iconium to Antioch, Thecla says she will cut her hair and dress as a man to travel with Paul. Paul does not approve. The text does not describe if she is wearing a man’s clothes then. But Alexander of Antioch recognizes Thecla as a woman and desires her, so cross-dressing would be a pointless failure if it is only for the female traveler’s convenience. I prefer to believe she is not in a man’s cloak from Iconiumto Antioch(when her capacity is untried) but is from Antioch to Myra (when her autonomy is an established fact). Benjamin Edsall, a scholar of early Christian studies, analyzes that Thecla’s masculine dress symbolizes her masculine character (Edsall, “(not) baptizingThecla: Early interpretive efforts on 1 Cor 1:17,” 256-257). According to the ancient gender ideology, her character’s transformation from feminine to masculine is a spiritual improvement toward perfection. When she meets Paul again, “she had completed the required preparation for her full initiation.” She has already made her next traveling plan to Iconium before acquiring Paul’s approval (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 41). In Chapter 41, Paul recognizes Thecla’s spiritual maturity by encouraging her to go and teach. This maturity is inspired by Paul’s teaching but not caused by Paul’s guardianship at any stage. 

Thecla’s homecoming illustrates the significance of Paul’s absence for her. She comes back to Iconium, to the house where Paul used to preach. There she weeps, calling this place “where the light shone upon me,” and praises God as her helper in prison, her helper before governors, her helper in the fire, her helper among the wildbeasts (42). This moment concludes the relationship between the apostle Paul, God, and Thecla. On the one hand, Thecla longs for Paul without ever criticizing him. This confirms the story’s standpoint: the apostle is never a negative figure and his teachings is always an inspiration. On the other hand, from initiation to maturity, his absence at each essential moment of Thecla’s growth fastens her autonomy from his authority. In the end, she becomes his co-worker in Christ instead of a subordinate to him. As Paul once claimed, she is indeed not his, but she belongs to her God. 

Theologian Peter-Ben Smit points out that the character of Paul in The Act of Paul and Thecla can be understood as a cultural memory of the apostle adjusted by the community who produced the text to fit their (probably unconventional) leadership structure (Smit, “St. Thecla: Remembering Paul and being remembered through Paul,” 551-553). Following his argument about cultural memory, the relationship between Thecla and Paul, not just their characters, might also reflect a particular memory, adjusted to fit the community’s usage of the Apostolic authority. The text envisions a community primarily concerned with, and dominated by females. Indeed, it would be an act of intentional blindness and dishonesty to claim that women are exclusively the crowd who sympathize with and help Thecla. After all, both women and men in Antioch speak once, “O that the city would be destroyed on account of this iniquity! Kill us all, proconsul; miserable spectacle, evil judgment!”(Acts of Paul and Thecla, 32) The governor grieves for Thecla and even weeps. Eventually, under his order, Thecla is given new clothes and relieved (38). After Thecla’s relief, her followers include youth and mains, male and female (40). Most importantly, of course, Paul is a man.

Nevertheless, the impression that the story is women-centered is not just an illusion because the story is full of women in visible actions. Thecla herself is a young virgin, who, on her own initiation finds Christianity attractive (7). She seeks engagement with the apostle on her own expanse as she bribes the jail guards with her bracelets (18). Because Thecla is obsessed with Paul’s preaching, Thecla’s mother summons Thecla’s future husband and later accuses her in front of the governor. In Antioch, after Thecla is condemned to death, a certain queenTryphaena takes her into her house and takes care of her (27). The wealthy queen’s dead daughter Falconilla appears in her mother’s dream and tells her mother to be kind to the stranger girl (28). A crowd of women citizens of Antioch utter a great cryto show their sympathy to Thecla (32, 33). A lioness in the arena shows obedience to Thecla and protects her, fighting over other beasts, till death (33). Despite all the miracles from the divine, what truly ceases the governor’s attempt to execute Theclais Queen Tryphaena’s fainting, uttered by her female slave, as she cries, “The QueenTryphaena has died.” (36) Finally, when Thecla returns to her hometown as a preacher, she finds her mother Theocleia, and her mother alone (her fiancé has died). A scene of reconciliation happens, initiated by Thecla talking to her mother (43). 

Instead of calculating the genders of Thecla story’s participants, it is more important to notice the strength of bonds between females and the weakness of bonds between females and males in the story. Paul as a character is distant, absent, and ineffective. Meanwhile, in the public sphere, a bond of sympathy is emphasized by the female sex. In the arena in Antioch, we read that “A fierce lioness ran up and lay down at her feet.” “The multitude of women cried aloud.” And when the lioness tangled with the lion and was destroyed along with it, “The women cried more since the lioness, her protector, was died.” (33) While elsewhere the crowd reacting to Thecla’s martyrdom is not specified by gender, the sex in the correspondence between the lioness and the women crowd is. Such an intense scene of violence and voice stresses the gender of the victim, her protector, and her supporter among the spectators. 

Moreover, Thecla’s intimate relationship is predominantly the one between mother and daughter, between Thecla, her mother, and Queen Tryphaena. While Thecla’s father is not mentioned, her mother somehow acts as the head of the household. She urges the governor to burn her daughter in the theater, making an accusation in court. In contrast to Thecla’s real mother, Queen Tryphaena is a loving mother who understands the holiness, therefore the faith, of her “second child.” (29) She loves her deeply just as her daughter Falconilla (29). When Thecla is going to the arena, the Queen grieves her household has mourned the second time (30). She accompanies Thecla to the arena, leading her by hand as if taking her own daughter to the tomb (31). The Queen acts as if she processes Thecla. The emotional recognition of this mother-daughter relationship is significant. At the end of Thecla’s Acts, she goes back to her own mother who once wanted her death. She preaches her God to her mother, then speaks in comfort, “For if you desire riches, the Lord will give them to you through me; or if you desire your child, behold, I am standing beside you.” (43) The story starts with a mother willing to dispossess her daughter because of the daughter’s Christian faith. Then, an accepting mother appears, taking comfort in the new daughter who is a Christian. Finally, the Christian daughter goes back to her mother and declares that her daughter is not lost. If we pay attention to Thecla’s identity as a daughter, her story can be viewed as a comfort to the mothers whose daughters have embraced Christianity and decided on a life of celibacy. Even if the future husbands will lose their wives, mothers will not lose their daughters through the new faith. The confirmation is on the female bonds. 

The story of Thecla presents a “female universe,” in which, sympathy and relationships between women are the primary concerns. The community organized itself in the absence of a functional leader with the Apostolic authority. Taking the teaching as inspiration, they grow relatively independently. Thecla is placed in the center of such a narrative of women. If she should have a certain power or autonomy, it would be impossible to disconnect that aspect of hers from a community that imagined women’s liberation. As historian Despina Iosif describes in her article “Shut up woman!- The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla and their Impact,” the text is “a manual for educating liberal and strong women.” Nevertheless, instead of women’s resistance against the social norm made by male authority (as the chastity of Thecla alone might or might not represent), I think that the text emphasizes more on the independence of the female protagonist and the female community from male guardianship. The theme of gratifying the male apostle as a source of piety and liberating female converts to be independent agents co-exists within Acts of Paul and Thecla, without hostile exclusion of each other. 


Work cited

Bernabé Ubieta, Carmen. “Ways of life in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles:”Ancient Christian Apocrypha, 5 Aug. 2022, pp 127–146,  https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv2rh2cqj.13. 

Edsall, Benjamin. “(not) baptizing Thecla: Early interpretive efforts on 1 cor 1:17.”, Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 71, no. 3, 8 May 2017, pp.  235–260,  https://doi.org/10.1163/15700720-12341303. 

Elliott, J K. “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” The Apocryphal New Testament:  A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1993, pp. 364–327.

Iosif, Despina. “Shut up, Woman! – The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla and Their Impact.” Ancient World Magazine, 11 Mar 2021,  www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/apocryphal-acts-paul-thecla/

Smit, Peter-Ben. “St. Thecla: Remembering Paul and being remembered through Paul.” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 68, no. 5, 24 Nov. 2014, pp. 551–563, https://doi.org/10.1163/15700720-12341206.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.postaugustum.com/en/nor-she-is-mine-theclas-longing-for-and-independence-from-the-apostle-paul-in-their-acts/