St. Thecla: Remembering Paul and Being Remembered Through Paul

in Vigiliae Christianae
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This paper interprets the Acts of Thecla, as they are part of the non-canonical Acts of Paul (and Thecla) as a piece of literature that seeks to make the Pauline heritage meaningful in a new context and a for a new kind of audience, specifically through a renewed accentuation of his apostleship and his teaching on self-control. By remembering Paul as Thecla’s mentor and subsequent colleague in the apostolic ministry, the Acts of Thecla make the Pauline ministry relevant and accessible for those whose unmasculine bodies would not otherwise have presented them as plausible, or even viable candidates for this “job.” The papers uses the notion of cultural memory to achieve its aim.

Vigiliae Christianae

A Review of Early Christian Life and Language




See, e.g., Helen Rhee, Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries (London: Routledge, 2005), 125-142.


See: Richard I. Pervo, The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).


See for the dating: Esch-Wermeling, Thekla, 13-15.


See for an overview e.g., Esch-Wermeling, Thekla, 97-136.—Merz, ‘Power,’ does not refer to the use of these genres in relation to her genre sensitive exegesis of the Acts of Thecla, even if she does so in idem, ‘Thecla,’ 22.


As Glenn E. Snyder, Acts of Paul (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 143, puts it, Thecla indeed has ‘manned up’ in doing so, as her action could well have meant a certain death; relates this both to the notion of baptism as dying with Christ and with a narrative exegesis of Gal. 3.28, according to which this text refers to the abolition of the (essential) distinction between men and women.


See, e.g., Merz, ‘Power,’ 7.


Translation: Barrier, Acts, 78. This and all subsequent translated quotations from the Acts of Thecla are taken from Barrier’s translation and referred to by chapter and verse.


Esch-Wermeling, Thekla, 212.—Such references to Thecla’s potential failure as a disciple create narrative suspense; at the same time, the narrative as a whole discredits them, given that Thecla remains steadfast. Those that continue to doubt her credibility as a disciple, such as Paul, consequently lose some of their own credibility. See, e.g., Merz, ‘Power,’ 7-8.


See, e.g., Merz, ‘Power,’ 7.


With Wehn, Sklavin, 281.


Blossom Stefaniw, ‘Becoming Men, Staying Women: Gender Ambivalence in Christian Apocryphal Texts and Contexts’, Feminist Theology 18 (2010), 341-355, 354.


Dunn, ‘Her,’ 39.—Esch-Wermeling, Thekla, 259, is probably right when she writes that the focus of the Acts of Thecla on a betrothed young woman serves the “Veranschaulichung der Wirkmacht der Enthaltsamkeitslehre.” 6, notes, the Acts of Thecla are addressed to both men and women; therefore, they are both critical of a view according to which men are “naturally” more masculine than “unmen,” such as women (and slaves), and open up masculine identity for “unmen.”


Esch-Wermeling, Thekla, 267.—Merz, ‘Power,’ 8, argues that those becoming “masculine” in this way, or rather: achieve virtue, pay a steep price for it “dies bezahlen sie . . . mit körperlichen Einschränkungen. Zwar wird der gesellschaftliche Diskurs bezüglich des öffentlichen autoritativen Sprechens von Frauen im Dienst der christlichen Verkündigung herausgefordert, doch ist es der von Geschlechtsmerkmalen quasi gesäuberte Körper der AsketInnen, der allein im Stande ist, das Wort Gottes zu empfangen und verkündigen. Der Frauenkörper ist nicht einem Mann unterworfen, männliche und weibliche Askteten unterwerfen vielmehr ihre Körper Gott, indem sie strikte Kontrolle über natürliche Bedürfenisse ausüben.” While it may well be doubted that neither male nor female ascetics in the Acts of Thecla are cleansed of gender characteristics (rather, they all have masculine characteristics—at the very least, Thecla wears a man’s vestment, not a gender neutral one), it may also be doubted that the (21st century) category of “natural needs” is helpful here; in fact, its use leads to a misframing of what texts such as the Acts of Thecla seek to achieve, i.e. to liberate people from that what restricts and subdues them physically and socially—should Thecla have lived according to the “natural needs” of her time, she would have remained locked in patriarchy.


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