• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Imitatio Theclae: Exploring Gender in Thecla's World



A disciple and colleague of the apostle Paul, Thecla was the most celebrated female saint of late antiquity. Recognised for her chastity[1], honoured as an apostle and revered as a protomartyr (first female martyr) the saint’s reputation can be traced as far back as the second-century Acts of St Paul and Thecla.[2] Her cult originated in Asia Minor. During the fourth century she was lauded as an exemplary virgin and martyr by various figures such as Methodius, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. Methodius, for example, wrote in Symposium c. 300 that Thecla was “chief” among a choir of virgins[3], a woman who extolled the virtue of those who thought little of “wealth, glory, birth and marriage.” Nazianzus included her as the only female witness in a list of early Christian apostolic martyrs.[4] Elsewhere, she was honoured as the female protomartyr and ranked along her male counterpart Stephen (Acts 6:8–7:60).

The focal point of her devotion was the martyr shrine, Hagia Thekla, near the city of Seleucia (modern Silifke). In 374, Gregory of Nazianzus withdrew to the shrine of the “highly praised young maid” in order to evade an episcopal post.[5] Egeria’s Itinerarium showed the pilgrim made a special trip on her return from Jerusalem, stating that “Only three nights from Tarsus in Isauria is the martyr shrine of St Thecla. Since it is so close we were pleased to travel there.”[6] In the early fifth century Marana and Cyra (two ascetic women) from Beroea in Syria journeyed to the shrine and back without food.[7] Such an important figure’s story is worth recounting. Hailing from Iconium (later Konya), Thecla was betrothed to Thamyris when Paul preached a message of chastity. She left her fiancé to follow Paul only to find her mother (Theocleia) and ex-fiancé had petitioned the governor to have the apostle exiled and his new disciple burned at the stake. A storm, however, quenched the flames and Thecla was united with Paul in a cave at Daphne (near Antioch) where she requested baptism. The apostle feared she might succumb to future temptations, however, and postponed her request. When they travelled to Antioch a man named Alexander attempted to rape her. Although she successfully resisted he connived to have her thrown to the beasts. In the arena Thecla dived into a pool of seals (to baptise herself) and God protected her by throwing bolts of lightning at the threatening animals. She later found Paul in Myra and with his blessing returned to Iconium to teach the Gospel. An epilogue claims she “slept a noble sleep” near Seleucia.[8]


Thecla’s life was originally published as a chapter of the larger Acts of Paul, which later sprung a life of its own (the genre of “Apostolic Acts” was a popular one in the second and third centuries: Acts of Peter, Andrew, John and Thomas were also produced). Tertullian (c. 200) is the first known external reference to Thecla’s story. In his treatise On Baptism he commented that the “exemplum Theclae” (example of Thecla) in the “Acta Pauli quae perperam scripta sunt” (falsely written Acts of Paul) was a common source for those who misguidedly “ad licentiam mulierum docendi tinguendique defendere” (defend the rights of women to teach and to baptise).[9]


It is unsurprising that the text was seen as supportive of female agency in the ecclesiastical sphere. It contains numerous references to Thecla’s female supporters during her imprisonment and trials. For instance, after the governor sentenced Thecla to the beasts a group of women protested “An evil judgment! An unholy one!” (ATh 27). Later, when Thecla emerged (baptised) from the water, the women threw leaves, nard, cassia etc. into the arena (in anticipation of her death as perfumes were used to anoint bodies for burial). The wealthy lady Tryphaena also provided love and shelter for the virgin, and managed to bring the trial to end (as the governor did not want to upset a lady who was supposedly a relation to Caesar). Thecla also rescued a mainly female clientele. These included a grandmotherly devotee of the Greek hero Sarpedon, a woman in danger in Macedonia, a lady who complained about the unbelief of her husband, two girls who suffered broken legs, the wife of general Vitianos who feared the soldier was cheating on her, a bride whose marriage belt was stolen, a virgin who incubated herself at the shrine, a suppliant threatened by a sexually aggressive man, another who sought to leave her husband to become an actress, and so on. When compared with male characters in the text the contrast is stark. Thamyris is simply awful, Paul’s disloyal companions Demas and Hermogenes are not much better, Alexander is a rapist, the governors of Iconium and Antioch are corrupt, and even Paul often appears obtuse or diffident.

The real-world picture was more complex. Christian men often valued the accounts of women. Indeed, many recorded their oral communications as hallowed witnesses of the faith. Papias of Hierapolis, for example, incorporated two stories he heard from the daughters of Philip the Evangelist in his Expositions of the Oracles (Eusebius H. E. 3. 39. 9). Then there’s the Marcionite book of Apelles on the oracles of Philoumene (Tert. De prase. haer. 30) . Finally, the Montanist Asterius Urbanus’ account of the oracles of Maximilla (H.E. 5. 16. 17). In fact, Tertullian reckoned it was a “in Asia presbyterum qui eam scripturam construxit” ([male] presbyter in Asia who put the book [i.e. the Acts of Thecla and Paul] together).[10]


Respect from men wasn’t always forthcoming, however. The author of 1 Timothy enjoined his readers to “avoid the profane tales of old women,” and criticised widows who “learn to be idlers, meddlers and babblers of nonsense” (1 Tim. 4:7; 5:13). Clement of Alexandria also warned against those who spent their days with women “idly telling erotic legends.”[11] These views had a long history. Plato had voiced concern about the stories women told in the home, noting that “We shall persuade [the women] to tell only the stories we have chosen… Many of those now being told must be thrown in the bin.”[12] While the first-century Philo would set gender relations for centuries by describing masculinity as asexual, aligning it with the concepts of activity, incorporeality and nous, and associating the feminine with the sensual aspects of passivity, corporeality and sensory feeling. As a result he saw the surrender of the female gender (turning into a male) as a philosophical advance.[13] Christianity often gave a theological sheen to this position (spiritual virility was said to make a woman “oblita sexus et fragilitatis corporeae” [forgetful of her sex and fragile body])”[14] with many Christians holding a position similar to Tertullian when he demanded that women recognise their direct share in Eve’s guilt: “Are you ignorant of the fact you are an Eve? The sentence of God on that sex lives in this Age; it stands to reason that the guilt must live as well. You are the devil’s gateway, the unsealer of the tree; you are the first deserter of divine law.”[15] Female oracles were often associated with heresy. Priscilla and Maximilla (c. 160) for instance left their husbands and lived as ecstatic “virgins” in the New Prophecy Movement (AKA Montanism) which was especially active in Phrygia. This meant the role of the fairer sex in the Church became increasingly contested. A third-century church manual from northern Syria, the Didascalia Apostolorum, for example, criticised widows who taught and performed baptisms. Politics aside, the shrine dedicated to Thecla (Hagia Thekla) was built on a hill to the south of Seleucia (sometimes referred to as Seleucia on the Calycadnus). Egeria claimed in the Spring of 384 that “In the vicinity of the church… there are innumerable monastic cells for men and women… and in the middle there is a huge wall that surrounds the church. It is beautiful.”[16]

In the fifth century the shrine was relocated to a nearby cave at the southern end of the same hill where a three-aisled basilica was built into the grotto. Over this cave another larger basilica was constructed in the same century. This three-naved structure exceeded eighty metres in length and was ordered – according to Evagrius – by the Emperor Zeno c. 476-478 who, when exiled by Basiliskos, recovered his powerbase in Isauria. While there he received a promise from Thecla that his reign would recommence again and when the prophecy came true he dedicated this large church to the virgin.[17] Building activity continued into the sixth century with two new churches, cisterns and a public bath. The north church stood on the path from Seleucia. The other (domed) church was over seventy metres in length. Literary productivity was equally frenetic in generating modified and extended versions of her life. Two examples are the Life and Miracles of Saint Thecla (incorrectly attributed to Basil of Seleucia) and a later expanded version of the Acts of Paul and Thecla.[18] The Life was particularly eccentric as it claimed Thecla never died but “still living sank and entered secretly into the earth.”[19] While the updated Acts provided justification for the relocation of the shrine to the grotto. This was achieved by claiming pagans who sought to nullify Thecla’s powers (which competed with Artemis’ deeds) sought to defile her. The virgin, however, appealed to God who allowed her to disappear into a large rock, which opened up leaving only a garment behind. An interesting connection with Stephen can perhaps be made given he met his death beneath a pile of stones. An even more peculiar manuscript tradition on Thecla belongs to Rome. The city’s Acts attempted to make a claim on the saint by describing her subterranean transportation to Rome after disappearing into the Anatolian rock. It asserted she “came to Rome to behold Paul and found him asleep. She remained only a short time and then slept a noble sleep [too].”[20] In fact, by the seventh century there was even a church dedicated to Thecla in Rome which was where she was reputed to have been buried.[21]

Back in Anatolia the breach with paganism was not so large as either party pretended. The virgins at Hagia Thekla, for example hardly functioned very differently to their predecessors, the female seers whose auguries and epiphanies were facilitated by sleepy trances within a holy sanctuary. Indeed, the presence of virgins attracted unwanted attention as well as pious crowds. In one of the miracles (34) a pair from Eirenopolis travelled to the shrine to rape one before Thecla intervened and – mercy being low on the divine menu that day – drowned both on their return home. Thecla’s virginity also created problems as well as admiration in Egypt where Athanasius felt forced to reprimand virgins who – quoting an apocryphal beatitude – thought their chastity and asceticism satisfied their Christian vocation: “This you have heard, ‘Blessed are they who have preserved their bodies by means of purity (for they have become the temple of God)’ but truly you have not heard what follows: ‘Blessed are the meek, peacemakers, merciful, poor, pure in heart and so forth.’ There are many, many blessings. And, what, you have heard of only one [virginity]?”[22] Outside orthodox ranks the Manichaeans even had a go at appropriating Thecla, admiring her as “a despiser of the body.”[23] It’s easy to look back at theological sects today and tread modern views of bloodless abstractions and obtuseness into the historical grape harvest. But for virgins who emulated Thecla theology was anything but bloodless. In 339, they were stripped and dragged through the streets by hair and hands by Arians to prison.[24] In 356, St Theonas (Alexandria) was raided and many virgins killed.[25] Two years later at Pentecost, the Roman commander Sebastian (A Manichaean with Arian sympathies) pushed things further and “Having lighted a pyre, and forced virgins against its flames, tried to make them say they would accept the Arian faith. When he saw their faith prevailed he stripped them and beat them so hard that their bodies and faces were broken, most could no longer be recognised.”[26]

Those who survived such persecution were then exiled to locations like the “Great Oasis” i.e. the Kharga Oasis. Used since pharaonic times as a place of isolation – an open-air prison – Nestorius had been banished there after the council of Ephesus (431), remaining there from 436–451 when he was taken hostage in a barbarian raid.[27] Christians had eventually built a permanent settlement there complete with necropolis (nowadays called El Bagawat, probably a corruption of “the domes”) decorated with the crux ansata as well as portraits of the dead in the form of orantes. Indeed, the orans type was not restricted to early Christian burials in Rome, it had antecedents in Egyptian art. The figure standing with arms stretched had been a component in hieroglyphic writing of the verb “to mourn” and the ancient letter ka (which looked like arms being held aloft) symbolised the essence of the dead.[28] [1] Virgins appear in lots of early Christian literature as escorts to the Jerusalem Temple of celestial realms. In particular, in the Protevengelium of James, Mary is accompanied to the Temple as a child by “seven pure virgins of the tribe of David. In the third-century Pistis Sophia, a retinue of seven virgins escorts the soul during its ascent to the realm of light. The motif of a female retinue welcoming the deceased also appears in early Christian art. In a fourth-century fresco in the Coemeterium Maius in Rome, a woman buried there is depicted as an orans. On the left, she is welcomed to a heavenly banquet by five female figures.

[2] She certainly had competition in the chastity stakes. Other chastity stories included the Story of Agrippina, Nicaria, Euphemia, Doris and Xanthippe, the Story of Maximilla, the Story of Drusiana, the Story of Artemilla and Eubula, the Story of the Princess Bride and the Story of Mygdonia and Tertia.

[3] Methodius, Symp. 11.1, ed. H. Musurillo, SC 95 (1963) 308.

[4] Gregory of Naz., Or. 4. 69 (Contra Julianum i); PG 35. 589B.

[5] Gregory of Naz., De vita sua, 548-9 (PG 37. 1067).

[6] Egeria, Itin. 22.2, ed. E. Francheschini & R. Weber, CCSL 175. 65-6.

[7] Theodoret of Cyrrhus, H. rel. 29 (PG 82. 1283-496).

[8] ATh 43.

[9] De Bapt. 17 (CSEL 20. 215).

[10] Tert. De bapt. 17 (CSEL 20. 215).

[11] Paed. 3. 4. 27. 2.

[12] Rep. 2. 377C.

[13] Philo, Quaestiones et solutiones in Exodum 1. 8.

[14] Jerome, Ep. 108. 14; PL 22. 890.

[15] Cult. Fem. 1; CESL 70.59-60. Tertullian was admittedly a conservative figure, writing that women should not appear in public except for visiting the sick and attending worship. Enough luminaries (among Egyptian monastics for instance), however, appear to have held similar enough positions for him to be considered fairly representative, in other words communicating boldly and explicitly what the silent majority held to be implicit norms. Men did not have a monopoly on extremist positions, however. The anchoress Alexandra told the fourth-century Melania the Elder that “A man was disabled in mind because of me and, so that I did not distress or mislead him, I chose myself this tomb in which to live [for ten years] rather than cause a soul made in the image of God to stumble” (Palladius, H. Laus. 5; PG 34. 1017D). The flip-side to this eccentric view was that ecclesiastics were also unafraid to condemn men who attended church in order to simply ogle the women (John Chrysostom, Homily 73, in Mt. [PG 58. 676-7]).

[16] Itin. 23. 2-4.

[17] Evagrius Scholasticus, H. E. 3. 8, ed. J. Bidez & L. Parmentier, 107-8.

[18] See Dagron (ed.), Vie et miracles.

[19] Life 28. 7-8 (Dag. 280).

[20] Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, ed. Lipsius and Bonnet, 270.

[21] References to this church appear in the Notitia ecclesiarum urbis Romae (an itinerary compsed under pope Honorius I) and in De locis SS. Martyrum que sunt foris civitatis Romae.

[22] De virg. 117-21.

[23] A Manichaean Psalm-book, pt. 2, ed. & trans. C. R. C. Allberry (1938) ii. 192. 25.

[24] Athanasius, Epistula ad episcopos encyclica 3-4.

[25] Ath. Hist. Ar. 81; cf. Apol. Const. 25.

[26] Ath., Fug. 6.6-7.

[27] The ex-patriarch’s captors were the Blemmyes – Ethiopian nomads who invaded the Thebaid around 450 (Evagrius, HE 1.7. 258-60).

[28] R. V. McCleary, “Funerary Stelae with the Orans Motif: Workshop Traditions of Terenuthis during the Roman Occupation,” PhD diss. University of Toronto (1985) 447.

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