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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