Thecla (fl. 1st c. CE)

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Thecla (fl. 1st c. ce)

Early Christian, follower of St. Paul and one of the best-known saints of the Greek Church, whose miraculous escapes from certain death became a famous legend. Name variations: Thecla of Seleucia. Flourished around the 1st century ce; born at Iconium, a small town in Cilicia (southern Anatolia); daughter of Theocleia.

Alleged to have been an early Christian who miraculously escaped martyrdom more than once, Thecla was originally linked to St. Paul in a late 2nd century ce apocryphal treatise entitled the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a work which can be characterized as a Christian romance. She does not appear in what eventually would become the canonical books of the Bible. Although mostly unhistorical, Thecla's story illustrates many of the ways in which 2nd century Christians perceived themselves to be at odds with the prevailing values of their contemporary imperial culture.

According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla was born at Iconium, a small town in Cilicia (southern Anatolia) to which Paul once fled from Antioch with two sycophantic companions named Demas and Hermogenes. Demas and Hermogenes were more interested in the prestige to be accrued by associating with Paul than they were in his message. Paul was welcomed to Iconium by an admirer named Onesiphorus, in whose home Paul preached, especially emphasizing the virtues of a celibate life. The house of Thecla's parents lay close to that of Onesiphorus, so that although Thecla was not one of the women who initially came to Onesiphorus' house to hear Paul speak, she nevertheless had the opportunity to overhear Paul from a window in her own home. Although not previously inclined toward Christianity and betrothed before Paul's arrival, Thecla was so mesmerized by Paul's sermons, it is asserted, that she longed to sit at his feet and absorb both his voice and its message. For three days and nights, however, she meekly eavesdropped from her window-seat.

Thecla's mother Theocleia noted Paul's eerie hold over her daughter and despaired at its implications, for a daughter's celibacy meant no continuation of an earthly family—a great tragedy to most pagans, and even some Christians. Summoning Thamyris, Thecla's fiancé and Iconium's first citizen, Theocleia hoped to restore Thecla to her pre-Pauline state of mind, but although Thamyris added his appeals to those of Theocleia and the maidservants of the house, Thecla remained speechlessly transfixed by Paul's voice. Frustrated, Thamyris strode into the street to see who was entering and leaving the house of Onesiphorus. There he met Demas and Hermogenes, who were becoming extremely jealous of Paul's popularity, while none of the locals paid them any heed at all. Realizing an opportunity, Thamyris offered to pay Demas and Hermogenes to report what they knew about this "false" teacher encouraging celibacy. Initially they denied knowing Paul, but confirmed that his message was pro-celibacy and anti-marriage. A distressed Thamyris invited the duo to dinner, during which they traitorously suggested to their host that he ought to accuse Paul of propagating Christianity before the Roman governor of the region, one Castellius.

The next morning Thamyris and an armed crowd descended upon Onesiphorus' house to demand that Paul—as a "sorcerer" and "corruptor of wives"—be brought before Castellius. Interrogated by the Roman official, Paul affirmed that he had been preaching the will of God, but admitted to no wrong thereby. The governor, however, thought the matter worth greater deliberation and had Paul incarcerated. Learning of Paul's arrest, Thecla went to his prison at night and bribed her way into his cell to hear him preach. That night capped Thecla's conversion experience. After her family discovered Thecla at Paul's side, Thamyris and another hostile crowd again descended upon Castellius, howling for something to be done. Paul was brought before the gubernatorial throne while Thecla initially was left to her rapture in his cell. Eventually, however, she too was brought before Castellius. When the governor asked her why she now would not honor her pledge to marry Thamyris, Thecla remained mute, staring at Paul. Unable to bear the silence, Theocleia called out for her disobedient daughter's destruction as an example to the others who had fallen under Paul's anti-social spell. Castellius became greatly agitated at the situation but was unwilling to kill Paul, fearing the power of his "magic." Instead, Castellius ordered Paul's scourging and his removal from the city. Castellius then dealt even more harshly with Thecla: he ordered her immediate death by immolation in the town's theater. Looking to Paul for help, Thecla is said to have had a vision of Jesus in Paul's mein. Before this revelation ascended into heaven, it affirmed the truth of the message which had so entranced her. Preparations for Thecla's burning then proceeded. Stripped naked, she calmly made the sign of the cross and mounted the pyre. A fire was kindled and began to blaze, but it did not reach Thecla before a sudden downpour doused the flames. The throng which had bayed for Thecla's blood stood in awe of her and set her free.

Expelled from Iconium, Paul had made his way to Daphne. With him went the family of Onesiphorus, which had thought to divest itself of worldly possessions in order to follow Paul. Several days after Thecla's miraculous escape, this entourage was going without food for lack of the funds to procure it. When Onesiphorus' sons complained of hunger, Paul removed his outer garment and gave it to one of the children with instructions to sell it in a nearby village and buy some bread. The rest remained by the roadside near an open tomb where they had stopped to fast. On his way to buy food the boy discovered Thecla and led her back to Paul. As she approached, Thecla found Paul by the open tomb in the act of praying for her salvation. (The open tomb, of course, making reference to the Resurrection of Jesus and Christian salvation.) A joyous reunion ensued, followed by a break in the group's fast. In the midst of this festive afternoon, Thecla proclaimed that she would henceforth demonstrate her embrace of celibacy by cutting her hair, after which she would follow Paul anywhere. She also sought baptism, but Paul demurred, arguing that the time was not yet ripe for her total commitment to Christianity, for Thecla was very beautiful and might yet fall prey to some future sexual temptation. And, as Paul posited, any succumbing to temptation after baptism would weigh far more heavily upon her soul than if she had yet to be baptized.

After his reunion with Thecla, Paul sent Onesiphorus and his family back to Iconium while he and his new traveling companion made for Antioch. Soon after they arrived there, Alexander, a prominent citizen of the town, was smitten by Thecla at first sight. Alexander assumed that Thecla was Paul's slave and tried to buy her, until Paul told him that she was not his to sell. When Alexander then shamelessly pawed at Thecla in public, she protested, making known her station and the reason for her expulsion from Iconium. She then physically defended herself against her molester and made of him a laughingstock. Alexander responded by bringing charges against Thecla before the local governor. When she admitted that she was guilty of leaving her physical mark upon Alexander, the local magistrate condemned her for the second time. Her punishment was to be thrown to the animals in the games Alexander was then sponsoring. Considering the fact that it was Alexander who had initiated their physical contact and that Thecla had only defended her honor, the women present when this verdict was handed down reviled it. Thecla, however, merely requested that her virginity be honored until she faced her new tribulation. Between sentencing and sentence, a rich local widow named Tryphaena (a woman with imperial connections, whose daughter had recently died) sheltered Thecla in her home.

When the time for Thecla's execution came, her tormentors lashed her to a lion in the hopes of inciting the animal to fury and paraded her through the streets. The attempt to goad the beast backfired, for far from enraging the lion, Thecla's presence mollified it to the point where it harmlessly began to lick her feet. Amazement arose, but the crowd's reaction was mixed. On the one hand, the authorities were disturbed and added a charge of sacrilege to the previous one of criminal assault. (For whatever good that was supposed to do: one can only be martyred once.) On the other hand, the women and children in attendance berated this additional condemnation and predicted that bad times would descend upon Antioch as a result of these injustices. Regardless, this episode caused a delay in Thecla's punishment, and she was again housed with Tryphaena. During this stay, Tryphaena had a dream in which her dead daughter appeared, exhorting her to treat Thecla as a second daughter in return for Thecla's prayers for the deceased's eternal salvation. When asked to pray for the departed, Thecla willingly did so, with the result that Tryphaena embraced her as a daughter newly discovered. Thus a Christian "family" was born, many times more significant to its members than any conceivable biological family could ever be.

When Alexander again came to claim Thecla for her destiny in the arena, Tryphaena intervened. The governor then sent soldiers, and although Tryphaena prayed to Thecla's God to protect her in her time of trial, she acquiesced to the authorities and accompanied Thecla to the stadium. As they proceeded, many women again made clear their opposition to the overly harsh sentence. At the arena, Thecla and Tryphaena parted, and Thecla was made ready for what was to come. Then came another miracle, for when a lioness and a bear were set loose on Thecla, the lioness protectively positioned itself between Thecla and the bear, much to the delight of the horde of discontented women in attendance. In the duel which followed, the lioness tore the bear apart. This feat was followed by the release of a specially trained lion, which the lioness also battled until both beasts died. Within a Christian context, femininity was asserting itself against an oppressive and impious male domination.

Thereafter many beasts were loosed against Thecla. She prayed for deliverance and, turning, discovered a body of water in which swam several watery nemeses. Thecla approached the water to the dismay of the audience and dove in so as to cleanse (baptize) herself spiritually. Far from being consumed by the monsters lurking therein, she was saved when a bolt of lightning appeared from nowhere and slew all of these creatures. Thecla was then enveloped in a cloud of fire. More beasts were unleashed, but these were overcome by sleep, so that nothing came near her. Alexander then requested of the governor that Thecla be torn asunder by bulls (the gender again is no accident in this context), and his request was granted. Thus, she was bound to the legs of four bulls, who were incited to a frenzy by the placement of red-hot irons under their stomachs. The bulls leapt, but the same burning which aroused their panic destroyed the ropes which bound Thecla to them, freeing her.

All of these auspicious events caused Tryphaena to fall into a faint so profound that those around her thought she was dead. Everyone present was thoroughly alarmed by this portent, for Tryphaena was of high station: even the vindictive Alexander begged his superior to free Thecla, lest the wrath of the Roman emperor loosed at Tryphaena's loss raze the city. The governor concurred and summoned Thecla, wondering what kind of creature could survive all of her trials. She answered that she was but a follower of the "living" God and his Son. Thereafter, she humbly accepted her pardon. The governor acknowledged Thecla's piety, but this was overshadowed by the acclamation of Antioch's women, who praised the power of Thecla's God. Then Tryphaena revived to proclaim the salvation of her deceased daughter. She also acclaimed Thecla's God.

Thecla stayed with Tryphaena for a short time, but yearning for Paul, sought him out. Discovering him to be at Myra, Thecla proceeded there, attired as a man (the issue of gender remains a prominent theme). Paul was astonished at her arrival, and even more astonished after learning of the manner of her baptism. Paul then took Thecla's hand and led her into a meeting of the local faithful, there to retell her story. Paul's community marveled at the tale and prayed for Tryphaena. Thecla then announced her intention to return to Iconium, and Paul advised her to teach God's word. With Tryphaena's financial support, Thecla was able to serve the poor. Returning home, Thecla renewed herself with the house of Onesiphorus (conveniently restored to him) from which place Paul's voice had changed her life. She also returned to discover her ex-fiancé dead, but her mother alive. Thecla and Theocleia remained unreconciled. Thecla reproached her biological mother for valuing the things of the flesh over those of the spirit and implied that Tryphaena was now proven more her mother than was Theocleia. Having revisited Iconium and the places where she had been led to Christ, Thecla is said to have abandoned the city of her birth to live in a cave near a small town which would later be renamed Hagia Thecla (modern Meriamlik, near the more important ancient city of Seleucia) in her honor.

To whatever degree the Acts of Paul and Thecla are historical, Thecla's legend grew with time. A 5th-century tract credited her with miracles (including acts of healing and premonitions) and many good works which spread the word of God. This treatise avers that when she was 90, Thecla again faced persecution: this time at the hands of local pagan shamans, jealous of her healing powers. Yet, once again Thecla survived through felicitous support: as she fled her tormentors, the stone which rolled back and forth to permit or close off access to her cave is said to have autonomously opened to receive her, and closed behind her, before her adversaries could lay their hands on her.

Clearly, the legend of Thecla was developed in stages, initially to hearten Christian women during a time when the moral ethos of a burgeoning movement was at odds with that of the pagan culture in which they found themselves. Thecla's saga became widespread, as did her image in art. A sanctuary at Seleucia in her honor became a very popular site of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages and thereafter, and her purported accomplishments became institutionalized among Greek Orthodox Christians. September 24th is widely recognized as her feast day.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California