Women Deacons In The Early Christian Church: Thecla

Women Deacons in the early Christian Church

In her Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (1931), Margaret Smith writes: “Asceticism and the monastic life found almost as many adherents among the women of the early Christian Church as among the men….Women held a high position in the early Christian Church; we note that St. Paul salutes fifteen women alongside of eighteen men. Women exercised the prophetic office, and Priscilla, whose name is twice mentioned before that of her husband by St. Paul, as if she held a more prominent position in the Church, was evidently a missionary and teacher of distinction, and it has been suggested, with some reason, that she was the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The order of deaconesses (ministræ) is mentioned by Pliny, and there appears to have been an order of regular female ascetics, who formed an important part of the organisation of the Church in the first three centuries, and had their names enrolled on the list of church officials….The Acts of Paul and Thekla, written about A. D. 179, which appears to contain some genuine information about St. Paul, gives a prominent role to women, as prophetesses, and above all to the ‘apostle’ Thekla of Iconium, who is said to have baptised, and to have enlightened many with the word of God….Origen had a number of women pupils….Up to the end of the second century or later, women appear to have been prominent in the Christian Church as deaconesses, prophetesses, teachers and missionaries….Women seem, indeed, to have been in the majority, at least among the upper classes, in the early Christian Church, and in the persecution of Licinius, about A. D. 322, special prohibitions were directed against women, as if the emperor realised that the strength of Christianity lay in its women members.”

Regarding the female ‘apostle’ Thecla, in her work The Lost Apostle (2006) Rena Pederson writes: “There are multiple examples of art honoring Thecla in Egypt….In Rome, scholars found a sarcophagus with a relief showing Paul and Thecla traveling together in a boat….A catacomb of St. Thecla can be found on the Via Ostiensis, not far from the burial-place of St. Paul, and is mentioned in the seventh-century itineraries to the graves of the Roman martyrs. Santa Thecla also is the patron saint of Tarragona, Spain, and there are Iberian wall designs from the first century showing Paul preaching to Thecla….There appear to have been attempts to obscure Thecla’s role in later years….One of the foremost Jesus scholars in the United States, John Dominic Crossan, of DePaul University, and Jonathan L. Reed, a leading authority on first-century Palestinian archaeology, recently brought to light an attempt to suppress the Thecla story. In their book In Search of Paul, Crossan and Reed tell of a cave that was discovered around 1906, high above the ruins of Ephesus. Just to the right of the entrance are two sixth-century images of St. Thecla and St. Paul. Both are the same height, an iconographic sign that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a blessing gesture, again an iconographic sign that they are of equal authority. While the image of Paul was left untouched over the centuries, someone later scratched out the eyes and upraised fingers of the Thecla figure, erasing her blessing gesture….If both figures had been disfigured, Crossan and Reed point out, it could be chalked up as a random act of vandalism. But it was only the Thecla figure that was defaced. Paul remains as an authority figure. The woman is blinded and silenced. Crossan and Reed observe that ‘even the cave’s present name, ‘St. Paul’s Grotto,’ continues the negation of female-male equality once depicted on the walls’.”

An orthodox Christian, probably from Asia Minor, penned the Acts of Thecla between 160-190. The book circulated in several languages, including Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. The Syrian and Armenian churches included the Acts of Thecla in their early biblical canons. It is now a part of the Christian apocrypha.

The extant manuscripts reflect masculine editing that probably de-emphasized Paul’s support of women’s leadership. No longer present are references to Thecla’s baptizing others, which were most likely in the earliest stories. Even so, the Acts of Thecla includes a story about Thecla baptizing herself with Paul’s blessing! Later Paul commissions her to return to her home town Iconium to teach and evangelize.
Although Thecla’s adventures were popular, particularly in Asia Minor, the stories angered some of the church’s best known opponents to women’s leadership. The African church father Tertullian (160-230) complained that some Christians were using the example of Thecla to legitimate women’s roles of teaching and baptizing in the church (On Baptism 17).

The controversy among different Christian groups about women’s roles is reflected in the Bible. For example, 1 Timothy 4:7 warned, “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives tales.” Quite possibly “old wives tales” alludes to stories told by women that supported female leadership roles. By the turn of the first century, the landscape and expectations of the church had changed. Paul and other church leaders had believed that the end of the world was coming soon, in their lifetime. For this reason, certain institutions, such as marriage, were de-emphasized in order to prepare for the Christ’s return. Christians were preparing for a different kind of “marriage”– to the Heavenly Bridegroom. Now Christian leadership realized that the time of Jesus’ return could not be known and that they needed to approach life differently.

The Pastoral Epistles, I & II Timothy and Titus, rejected aesthetic values like those embodied by Thecla and the women prophets in Corinth. I Timothy (100 -110 C.E.) proclaimed that teachings which forbade marriage and demanded abstinence from certain foods came from “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (4:1-3). In the Acts of Paul, those who became Christian also chose chastity. Paul and Thecla were vegetarians and teetotalers, perhaps because of a cultural belief that meat and alcohol inflamed sexual passion. The author of I Timothy instructed, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (5:23). 

In the second century, the women’s aesthetic movement had become too strong for the taste some of the male leadership. In stark contrast to the letters of Paul, I Timothy declared that women would not be saved by living chaste lives but rather through bearing children (2:15). Paul had proposed in his first letter to the Corinthians (7:9) that it was better to marry than “burn” (“be aflame with passion,” NRSV); he preferred but did not insist that Christians choose sexual continence. Calvin Roetzel observes that “in spite of Paul’s preference for celibacy as a divine gift (I Cor. 7:7), scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to this historical datum of the apostle’s life.”3

Both the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul and Thecla drew upon material in Paul’s letters and other sources. In reality, Paul certainly did not teach that women must birth children in order to be saved; neither did he insist that women remain virgins or cease sexual activity in marriage in order to be saved. “The only passages in the Acts of Thecla which explicitly condemn marriage (the Encratite heresy) are 2:16 and 4:2, and it will be noted that the speaker is not Paul himself but his accuser attributing this view to the Apostle” [Pachomius Library Notes]. In this instance, the uncanonical writing is truer to Paul’s teaching than the canonical one.

The Power of Thecla and Her Story In the Early Church
Without a doubt, Thecla and Paul were key symbols for the ideals of early Christian aesthetic movements, especially in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. Obviously the women’s aesthetic movement did not end, even though the Pastoral Epistles declared women’s salvation was bearing children. Christian ascetic practices by both men and women continue to this day. The power of Thecla’s story spread throughout early Christianity. Following are just a few illustrations. Several early church fathers from both the East and West praised Thecla as a model of feminine chastity. She became “venerated from the shores of the Caspian almost to the shores of the Atlantic. In the fourth century a church in Antioch of Syria was dedicated to Thecla. Another church in Eschamiadzin, Iberia, from the fifth century has a wall design showing Paul preaching to her. In Egypt [are several examples of art]. In Rome, scholars found a sarcophagus graced by a relief portraying Paul and Thecla traveling together in a boat.” At least three places claim her burial-place: Meryemlik [Ayatekla], Turkey; Maalula, Syria; and Rome, Italy. Tradition says that Thecla traveled with Paul to Spain. Another apocryphal Acts which mentions Thecla is the Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca (c. 270). Some women in Spain hear Paul’s preaching and leave their husbands to follow him.

In the Modern Church
Called “Equal to the Apostles,” Thecla is especially revered in the Eastern church. In Maalula, Syria, the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla, built near a cave said to be the martyr’s, the nuns and novices continue in her tradition, which included care of orphans and assisting those who were poor. Santa Tecla (Spanish for “Saint Thecla”) is the patron saint of Tarragona, Spain.

In the early 1980s, interest in the Acts of Thecla revived in Christian scholarship, particularly though not exclusively among women scholars. Whereas Thecla’s virginity was her most praised aspect by early church fathers such as Methodius (c. 300), some modern writings emphasize how sexual continence provided a means for early Christian women take leadership in the church.

In modern times, virginity is viewed as a conservative value but, in early Christianity, abstention from sex empowered women in new ways. They became the “feminists” of their day, no longer participating in the traditional hierarchy of the household where the patriarch was in charge and woman’s primary role was childbearing. For example, one way the ascetic women prophets in Corinth celebrated their new life in Christ was through ecstatic prayer and prophesy. In Christ there was no male or female; all were of equal status.

Today the figure of Thecla is seen as reflecting primarily traditional values that the post-apostolic church encouraged in women, including prayer and contemplation, but also challenging opposition to women’s leadership in other aspects of early Christian life. For example, Margaret Y. MacDonald says, “Even if Thecla’s life is purely fictional, it remains significant that in second-century Pauline circles, a woman could be depicted as a teacher and evangelist in her own right…. Moreover, her story sheds light on how women who chose to remain unmarried or who dissolved engagements and marriages to unbelievers may have contributed to growing hostility between early Christian groups and Greco-Roman society.” Gail Corrington Streete observes that some women in the Christian apocryphal literature are given “a place in the line of apostolic authority” in that they exercise leadership even when male apostles are not present, such as Thecla. She, with Paul’s blessing, baptized herself and was commissioned as a missionary in her own right.”

 Underneath the documentary is the PDF file; The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which seems to date from around 200 AD, but as introduction states, may have been from an earlier period.

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