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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Not Gnostism

This post is going to be dedicated to resolving a misconception that’s come up several times in multiple groups and churches I’ve been a part of/attended.  It’s going to deal with Church History, an area that’s often not taught or mistaught because frankly, it’s not of interest or even relevant to most people.  And that’s perfectly fine, but it interests me and if you’re reading my blog it must interest you or you’re very bored and have nothing better to do.  Now, let’s look at the issue at hand.

Multiple times now, from multiple groups, individuals, and churches, I’ve heard people claims the Johannes letters (1, 2, 3 John in the New Testament) are in condemnation of Gnosticism “running rampant” in the early church.  A couple of times (though not nearly as often) I’ve heard this said about a few of the Pauline Epistles as well.  This bothers me because not only does it reflect a lack of accurate knowledge of Church History it also shows a misunderstanding of what Gnosticism is in and of itself.  Here’s why:

  1. Gnosticism did not even exist at the time this letters were written: That’s right, Gnosticism truly didn’t exist until the early third century one to two hundred years after these letters were written.  You could argue that the individuals/groups being criticized held “proto-gnosticist” beliefs, but that’s an entirely different thing and difficult if not impossible to prove.
  2. Gnosticism initially coexisted with other Christian beliefs: Gnostic Christians and other Christian groups did not conflict until the end of the 4th century, when the proto-orthodox church began to determine orthodox and heterodox.  The early Christian church did not have cohesive beliefs, and many of the more predominant at the time “orthodox” beliefs are not held by most (especially western) Christians today.
  3. Paul himself was a Proto-Gnosticist: Paul was (and to a few today is) held as the “father of gnosticism”.  Now, this really is entirely accurate (as I’ll explain in the next bullet) but he definitely held proto-gnosticist beliefs.  He advocated asceticism, was (at least for the time) radically feminist, and even went so far as to testify before an early Christian court that his Christian knowledge was superior to others because Jesus came to him in a vision (aka “secret knowledge”) and he was opposed to legalism and traditional Jewish customs/regulations.  All of these (and I’m sure there’s others) were hallmark beliefs of proto-Gnosticism, and the early Gnostic Christians held Paul’s letters in high regard.  Now, this is not to say Paul was a Gnostic (he would have probably been sharply opposed to later-on Gnosticism) but it is unlikely in his letters when he rebuked false teachers and doctrine (which is ironic considering some of that comes from forged letters) he was addressing proto-gnosticists.
  4. Gnosticism isn’t inherently Christian and doesn’t represent a single belief set: While the early development of Gnosticism is closely associated with Christianity, the two are by no means mutually exclusive.  In fact mainstream Gnosticism shares more in common with Judaism and also stems from dozens of other religions and philosophies.  In addition Gnosticism is not a single religion, it’s like calling Hinduism a religion, it’s extremely misleading.  Gnosticism represented a range of beliefs, some branches of which had no connection with Christianity at all.  Back when Gnosticism was even really a thing (though I am aware there are a few Gnostics today) they didn’t call themselves Gnostics, just as the early Christians didn’t initially call themselves “Christians”.

Hopefully I’ve shed light on this issue, even if it doesn’t really bother most people (which is fine), but it bothered me so I decided to write a short rant on it.  Yes, the Pauline and Johannine epistles did feature rebukes of teachings viewed as false or heretical by their authors (though depending on the issue not necessarily the early Church) but it would literally have been impossible for it to be a refutation of Gnosticism, and at least in Paul’s case it is unlikely he would have criticized the then extant emerging ideologies of proto-Gnosticism.  If anyone knows where this misconception originated from, please let me know, because I tried googling it and found very little, so you’d make my day if you did.  That’s it for this post, so have a good rest of your day.

 

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