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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— Goodspeed called it a "religious romance"[1]— of St Paul's influence on a young virgin named Thecla. It is one of the writings of the New Testament Apocrypha.

The text

It was written in the second century.[2] The discovery of a Coptic text of the Acts of Paul containing the Thecla narrative[3] suggests that the abrupt opening of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is due to its being an excerpt of that larger work.[4] It is attested as early as Tertullian, De bapistero 17:5 (c 190), who inveighed against its use in the advocacy of a woman's right to preach and to baptize. Tertullian states that these Acts were written in honour of St Paul, by a presbyter of Asia, whose fraud was identified, and he was degraded from his office, at a date about AD 160. 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."[5]

The narrative of the text

The author sets this story about Paul into the framework of the Book of Acts, 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, 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[6] 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 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 and 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, 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, 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, a 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 (during which she appeared to baptize herself), until finally the women of the city and Queen Tryphaena intervened. Thecla returned to Paul unharmed.

One ending describes Thecla as dwelling in a cave for the next 72 years, then traveling to Rome to be buried with Paul.


Although probably consciously unhistorical, and certainly overstated, the tale reflects ascetic tendencies, and the experience of persecution in early Christianity. However, many have noted that it is also almost erotic, even mildly pornographic in places. When Goodspeed called it a "religious romance" [7] it was to the literary genre he referred.

A local martyr legend, of Tecla of Iconium, may have inspired this episode, in which she was connected to Paul of Tarsus. "It is otherwise difficult to account for the very great popularity of the cult of St. Thecla, which spread over East and West, and made her the most famous of virgin martyrs," wrote M.R. James, the editor of this Acta, (James 1924).

Portrayal of Paul

Paul is also an ambiguous figure in this work. He is seen as a preacher of asceticism, but one with whom women are besotted. His teachings lead Thecla into trouble, and yet he is never there when the trouble comes.

This presentation of Paul as ascetic preacher, discouraging marriage, appears to be very different from that of the (possibly pseudonymous) Pastoral Epistles. For instance, 1st Timothy 4:1-3 has Paul explicitly condemning anyone who forbids marriage.

However, 1st Corinthians 7 (universally regarded as authentically Pauline), appears to share more ambivalence about marriage, with the statement "it is well for a man not to touch a woman" (7:1). This text has been interpreted as ideologically closer to Paul and Thecla.

In any event, Paul and Thecla indicates one possible understanding of Paul's legacy in the second century.

See also


  1. Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, "The Acts of Paul and Thecla" The Biblical World 17.3 (March 1901, pp. 185-190) p. 185.
  2. Tertullian's notice of it gives a terminus ante quem.
  3. In a papyrus conserved at Heidelberg (Goodspeed 1901:185).
  4. Goodspeed eo. loc.
  5. Goodspeed 1901:186 note.
  6. The Armenian text adds "blue" according to Goodspeed 1901:186.
  7. Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, "The Acts of Paul and Thecla" The Biblical World 17.3 (March 1901, pp. 185-190) p. 185.


  • Eliott, J.K. The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation 1993 Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • MacDonald, D.R. 1983 The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon Philadelphia: Westminster Press
  • Kirsch, J.P. Sts. Thecla. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew 2005. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195182491.

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