Four Reasons You Should Read the Acts of Thecla

I was originally going to publish this yesterday to coincide with International Women’s Day, but I went and saw Captain Marvel (Which was great! Go watch it!) instead. Either way, I’m still excited to share this weird and wonderful early Christian work with you.

For those of you who don’t know, which is probably most of you, this semester I am taking an Introduction to New Testament class. For the most part, it’s been a review of what I’ve already found in my own studies, but occasionally I’ll learn something cool/interesting. This week we were going over the Pastoral Epistles and the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, comparing them with Pauls letters. We also went over a little gem called the Acts of Thecla (also known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla) for another example of how the Pauline tradition continued. I was absolutely blown away by how crazy it was, but also how progressive (well, at least for the time) it was with gender roles/social norms. If I haven’t piqued your interest yet, here’s a few more reasons why you should check out this little-known but important text.

  1. It’s counter-cultural. Rome and its provinces (including Judea) were a “single-sex” society, and it was commonly believed that women were an inferior version of men. Among the upper classes (which is whom the Pseudepigraphical Pauline letters were written to) women were expected to be “silent and submissive” (Sound familiar?) and relegate themselves to the private or home spheres. While they did usually have some say, marriages were arranged financial contracts between the eldest males of each family. Marriage was not for love, and certainly not for sexual pleasure (it was considered disrespectful to have sex with your wife for any reason other than procreation). Rather, it was for maintaining the “social order” and class system. Thecla, in stark contrast, rejects this as a whole and lives the life she believes is best for her.
  2. Socially and Theologically, it Reads much more like Paul than the Pseudepigrapha. Paul believed the world was ending soon and Jesus would return any day. He taught a radically egalitarian and ascetic worldview. As far as we can tell from his surviving letters, he was probably asexual and wasn’t a huge fan of marriage (but didn’t care that much if people did get married). He also references and affirms various female ministers and apostles. This clashes a lot with the letters forged in his name, which basically act as PR letters to the general Roman world (Hey, look at us, we’re not a threat, we’re preserving the Social Order even better than Non-Christ Followers). Unlike Paul, these authors were very concerned with preserving the family/class system around them, and they definitely didn’t believe the world was ending anytime soon (In fairness, they were right about that one). Despite being written almost a century later, we can easily see that the author of Acts of Thecla was a part of the original Pauline tradition, which eventually died out. Probably because they weren’t having sex or getting married, and you can only recruit so many people to a lifestyle like that.
  3. It Was a Very Popular and Influential Work Within Christianity. If you’ve studied Church history at all, especially the development of the modern canons, you know that early Christianity was very diverse and most of its ideas, especially the popular ones, didn’t make it into the “final cut”. We know from both the number of surviving copies and numerous references from at-the-time-contemporary scholars and Church fathers that Acts of Thecla was among the most popular for several hundred years. It was extremely influential, and at its peak, there was even a Church of Thecla. For a long time, she was even a Catholic saint and is still a saint among some Eastern Orthodox traditions. If Church history and the evolution of Christian faith/beliefs interests you at all, Acts of Thecla is a must-read.
  4. Did I Mention It’s Absolutely Wild and Crazy? If you’ve been paying attention so far, you might be under the impression Acts of Thecla was some serious, solemn work that has some relevant as well as antiquated teachings. But, that’s not all. It’s also hugely entertaining. The narrative is intentionally comedic and consists of a series of increasingly unlikely and over-the-top events. Arguably the climax of the story is when after surviving a battery of vicious animals in the local coliseum for refusing to marry her fiance and breaking Paul out of prison, she dives into a pool of ravenous seals (you read that right) and baptizes herself. It’s absolutely bonkers and incredibly progressive and I love it.

It’s easy to see why in spite of its popularity Acts of Thecla didn’t make it into any of the modern Biblical canons. While a life of celibacy and asceticism is not attractive or relevant to most modern readers, the tale of defying social norms, standing by your values, and choosing a lifestyle best for you remains timeless. For Christians and Secular readers alike it offers refreshingly feminist takeaway as well. If I’ve won you over and you want both and insightful and entertaining reading, the entire Acts of Thecla can be found at this link. Have a great day and a Happy Belated International Women’s day to you!

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Top Tips for Bible Study This New Year

Well, it looks like once again my post is late, this time by about two weeks.  Oh well, what can I do? (maybe actually write them on time) So, here we go.

Today, I’m gonna go over a few helpful tips that may be useful to you’re interested in Bible study.  I’m fairly certain most of my readers are, though if you aren’t, feel free to skip this post.  Or don’t, you might still find it interesting.  All of these techniques I use on a regular basis and have found extremely helpful.

  1. Understand Genre: One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen many people make (I’m guilty of having made this mistake myself) is not recognizing the genre of a book in the Bible.  A book’s genre will greatly affect its meaning and value.  The Bible is a diverse collection of documents and ideas written over thousands of years, so pinning down a single book can make it much easier to understand.  Is it history, wisdom, parable, prophecy, apocalypse, gospel, myth, a letter (and which type of letter) or even a collection of erotic poetry (I’m looking at you Song of Songs).  These are just a sampling of the genres found in the Bible.  If you aren’t sure of a book’s genre, look it up, you’ll find plenty of helpful resources available online.
  2. Attempt to understand the original intent: Unfortunately for many of the books in the Bible, it’s difficult to decisively determine the original author’s meaning.  For some, it’s not even possible.  This is why we have over 40,000 denominations today, even though we’re all basing it off of (mostly) the same books.  In spite of this, don’t give up hope!  We can certainly try!  Researching the context in which a book was written can prove very useful, and we have a wealth of commentaries, some dating back to within decades of when these books were written, others from the top Biblical scholars of today.  Often times meaning can be distorted or even lost in the translation process.  Luckily, the everyday user can now find resources that will allow them to compare copies of the original texts with modern English.  If you’re extra-curious, turn to some extra-biblical texts.  These can help open your eyes to the world around the Biblical authors and understand events, culture, and social norms that may have influenced them.
  3. View the Bible Through the Lens of Christ: Some of you may be familiar with the term “hermeneutic”.  While this may sound like a technical, esoteric term, it really isn’t.  All a hermeneutic is is the viewpoint or perspective through which you study the bible.  There are many different hermeneutics out there, all of which are useful for extrapolating different meanings from the text.  One of my favorites is to view the Bible through the lens of Christ and his teachings.  As the Bible is so big and full of so many different ideas, I find this helpful in digging up truth that can be applied to my life.
  4. Midrash Aggadah: Study the Bible like Jesus!: Better yet, why not study the Bible like Jesus!  Due to the ambiguous nature of some portions of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Jews had (and still have) a variety of study techniques for different situations.  One such tool is Midrash Aggadah, and it just so happens to be one of those favored by Jesus in the Gospels.  Rather than focusing on the legalistic nature of a passage, Midrash Aggadah attempts to find and extract the moral meaning or message from it.  Jesus would use this to find radically different and sometimes even new meaning from the same texts those around him were studying.  This isn’t just for the Hebrew Bible though, it’s also useful when studying the New Testament as well.
  5. Pray: Different groups of Christians have different opinions on the purpose and usefulness of prayer, but one thing that most agree on is for guidance from the Holy Spirit, or presence of God.  If you’re feeling puzzled by a passage, take a break, pray, and come back to it later.  You might just stumble upon a meaning you missed earlier.
  6. Study with Other Believers: One of the perks of being a part of a religious group (i.e. church) is being a member of a collection of different people.  Each of you comes from a different walk of life with their own unique traits and experiences.  By discussing your studies together, or even studying together, you can share your insights with others, and likewise, hear from them.  You might just be surprised by what you hear, and in a good way!
  7. Don’t Be Afraid to Get It “Wrong”: I would agree with the statement that there is objective truth in the Bible, and that many passages have a definitive intended meaning.  But if there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout history and even today, is that this meaning can be difficult to find, and that not everyone is going to agree.  This is ok.  The purpose of your Bible study isn’t to find this objective truth, because frankly, it’s impossible.  Rather, it should be to build your relationship with God and other believers, and to find truths that apply to your life.  Many Bible passages were written with the intent of having multiple meanings, this is even built into the very language much of it was written in.  So when you and your peers come to different conclusions, don’t be discouraged, but encouraged.  With the right mindset, you might just learn something new.

So here are seven tips for a new year, I figured that’s a good number.  I often employ a very academic approach when studying the Bible, which some of you may find unfamiliar or even uncomfortable.  That’s fine.  What works for me will not necessarily work for you.  I do hope, however, that for those who are interested, I’ve inspired a year of discovery and reinvested interest.  And who knows, you might even employ a trick or two that I’ve discussed today.

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