|St Thekla Chapel, Silifke, SE Turkey
St Theklais celebrated on 24 September. She is reported to have become a Christian through the preaching of St Paul who visited her home town on Iconium. Her story is told in the Acts of Paul and Thekla (click on the link to access the text) which was probably written in the 2nd Century.
The Apostle Paul visited Iconium in the course of each of his missionary journeys recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and probably took place between the years 47/8 and 57. Ramsey suggests that Thekla’s meeting with Paul took place on his first visit to Iconium, at about 50and that the Antioch where Thekla was accosted by Alexandra and then condemned to die in the arena was Pisidian Antioch.
The first chapter of the Acts of Paul and Thekla gives an account of Paul’s arrival in Iconium and of the sermon he preached. The sermon is summarised as the members of the household hearing: ‘…Paul preach the word of God concerning temperance and the resurrection,..’ The text gives eleven macrions which are not unlike the beatitudes in Matthews Gospel. These macrions emphasise the chastity as a condition of entering into an enjoyment the Resurrection of Christ. In the story of Thekla that follows she desires to be unmarried and follow Paul and his teaching and remain a virgin in order to give her whole life to God and find her fulfilment in her relationship with Him. Her virginity is threatened by Thamyris and Alexander the priestly figure in Antioch and then finally when she is in old age and dies in her cave, swallowed by a propitious rock which opens for her when her life and virginity is threatened for one final time by drunken young men who have been set up to rape her.
The Greek Romance
In the period that Thekla would have lived and her story written the people of Asia Minor and the Mediteranean were reading a genre of literature called the Greek Romance. Haight in her discussion of the Greek Romance says that the Acts of Paul and Thekla ‘..have so many points in common with the pagan Greek Romances of the times that they were probably influenced by them.’
The basic ingredients of the Greek romance were ‘love, religion and adventure’ which were all ingredients of the Acts of Paul and Thekla. Some of the characteristics of the Greek romance seen in the Acts of Paul and Thekla are as follows:
· Paul has a true friend
· Paul also has false friends
· Thekla falls in love with Saint Paul
· Thekla visits Paul in prison
· Reunion in a cave
· The miracle of salvation from burning seems similar to Chariclea’s miraculous rescue in Heliodorus
· Ordeals and tests of chastity are common
· Devices of developing character by soliloquies and prayers, by speeches and sermons, by initiation into relgious cults and the seal of baptism
Thus in summary it can be said that:
‘..in the second and third centuries the Greek story-teller, whether pagan or Christian used the same themes, episodes, and arifices, calculated to interest the reading public of the period.’
Thekla’s story is not only about Thekla herself but also about the women in her life and as such they represent women in society as a whole. One of the main roles is taken by Tryphaena who as her patron protects Thekla when she is remanded in custody pending being thrown to the beasts in the arena. De Weg also makes the following pointsabout Thekla’s need for Tryphaena’s patronage
· Tryphaena guarantees Thekla’s ‘honour’…
· Imprisonment of women could and often did mean rape. Rape meant an irretrievable lost of honour.
· Whereas the honour of men could be injured but also restored, the boundaries of the honour of women coincided with their sexuality. The honour of a woman could not be gained, only lost.
· The text accentuates ‘remaining pure’ as a main theme.
· Triyphaena enables Thekla to lead an independent and autonomous life.
· There is also a measure of repciprocity in that Thekla prays for Tryphaena’s daughter.
· Tryphaena’s patronage is not adoption which was not possible for a woman until the third century AD.
De Weg in her essay on Tryphaena as a patron in her relationship with Thekla concludes by saying: ‘Reading the Acts of Thekla against the cultural background highlights some aspects of the Graeco-Roman roots of second century Christianity.’ Thus implying that the text of the Acts of Thekla has a second century date.
First Century Society
Thekla was living in Iconium, in what is today the central Anatolian city of Konya. She was living in a home with servants and with her mother. No mention Is made of a father or brother. When her mother wants to bring Thekla into line she calls upon the help of Thamyris, Thekla’s fiance, not her brother or father. It could be that there are no other male relatives such as a father or brother, who could exert authority over Thekla. It is not clear whether Thekla was Greek or Roman, probably not Roman. Deborah Sawyer states that as a result of Aristotle defining the female sex as defective and the male as normative, …such a philosophy led to men, often slaves, being responsible for the early education of boys rather than their mothers which had been the usual practice in early Roman society.’…
In the upper echelon of Greek society women who were not slaves and who were married to the head of a household, led lives of seclusion from male company, spending most of their time in the gynaikonitis, the women’s quarters.’ 
In contrast, ‘a Roman wife would have had a high profile not only in household management where she had the task of overseeing male servants and slave, but also in the education of both her sons and her daughters.’
A woman of that time probably lived a very closed and closeted existence. The Acts of Paul and Thekla describe how Thekla listened to Paul preaching from the window of her house and heard Paul’s words through a window in the house of Onesiphorus, where he was staying. It was when she could not be prevailed upon to leave the window that trouble brewed and Thamyris was called to intervene.
Sawyer in her discussion of the lives of women in Roman and Greek society states that the norm for women in either society was for men and women to be married and have children. There were times when Roman law was changed to give women more authority over their affairs but by and large women were expected to marry and be part of a household, the head of which was a man.
Fiorenzashows how oriental mystery religions and the early Christian Missionary movement gave leadership opportunities to women and met in houses, some of the cults and sects in that period of history also had an emphasis on remaining virgins. In Pauls teaching about marriage and the life of women he advocates that people stay unmarried, but if they are married they should stay married unless their non-believing partner releases them from marriage and also gives permission for married couples to fast from sexual relationships by mutual agreement for a season. Women are allowed to minister in meetings, to exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit and to exercise leadership. In the context of a discussion of women who were cited as Apostles in the New Testament Fiorenza also talks about Thekla’s life and ministry. Fiorenza’s opinion is that the form of the Acts of Paul and Thekla ‘is the work of male ecclesiastical writers, who could tolerate women as ascetics persevering in contemplation and prayer but not as itinerant missionaries preaching the gospel.’
Thekla then was one of these women who was liberated, seizing the opportunity to embrace a different lifestyle by not being married and of entering into a ministry to preach the gospel and baptise. In the Acts of Paul and Thekla, Paul eventually commisions her, she has according to the text already baptised herself in a pool in the ampitheatre in Antioch.
In the chapter preceeding Thekla’s conversion, “Paul’s preaching consists of thirteen beatitudes (or macarisms), beginning with a quotation of Matthew 5:8 and using the word “pure” as a springboard to the related themes of chastity, renunciation of the world, fear of God and of God’s word, receiving the wisdom and understanding of Jesus Christ, keeping one’s baptism “secure” and being merciful.” McGinn continues by saying that:
“..the Acts of Thekla does emphasize sexual abstinence, but this emphasis should not be taken to imply that continence was the sole requirement for attaining the life of the resurrection.
Paul’s sermon ends with the following verse:
“Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their purity. For the word of the Father shall be for them a work of salvation in the day of his Son, and they shall have rest for ever and ever.”
McGinn states that “this passage is pivotal to understanding the Acts of Thekla; it serves as a synopsis of the theology of the entire Thekla story.”
The believer is being encouraged to renounce marriage, to embrace chastity and to receive a foretaste of their heavenly reward as they receive the word of God, exercise a prophetic minister and minister that word to others and to see them saved. McGinn says that “the life of Thekla provides the key illustration of this.”
In the course of her struggles Thekla adopts men’s clothes and cuts her hair. McGinn takes this to mean that “…a woman must become “manly” to be allowed to refuse marriage and pursue a public career as did Thekla.” The writer of the Acts of Thekla “By presenting a Christian woman in the role of apostle…opens possibilities for imagination and action among Christian readers today” and in the early centuries of the Christian Church when the tale was told and this text was circulated.
Thekla as a role model
Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff writes that:
‘The story of holy women in Christianity begins…with the images of three women in the Gospels: Mary, the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, and Martha, the sister of Lazarus. During the time of persecution in the early centuries of Christianity, the images of the holy martyrs were added: virgins walking gravely to their deaths in the arena.’ She then goes on to say about these Virgin Martyr Saints that they are ‘both mythical and historical figures’ who were ‘said to have been tortured and martyred in early adolescence. The crime that brought them to the attention of the magistrates was a dual one: refusal to marry a pagan prince and insistence on their identity as Christians, which they felt permitted them to remain virgins.’
Thekla was engaged to marry and it is Thamyris her fiancé brings charges against the apostle before the Roman authorities. The outcome of this is that ‘Paul is flogged and released, but Thekla, at her mother’s insistence, is condemned to the pyre.’In this account we see Thekla’s refusing to marry Thamyris, going against the will of her mother and her fiancé which results in her being brought before the judicial authorities.
The account continues as ‘She and Paul then enter Antioch of Pisidia, where an officer of the Emperor cult attempts to have his way with her. In defending herself she violates the imperial symbols alexander wears and thus is accused of the captial offense of sacrilege. A Roman judge condemns her to the beasts.’ This incident illustrates Petroff’s statement that the ‘commitment (of the virgin martyrs) entails virginity, and virginity invites attack and elicites rape and violence’
Thekla’s experience does seem to be that her commitment to virginity results in attack and elicites violence, although in Antioch she is saved from rape by Queen Tryphaena taking her into her own home.
Petroff in her discussion about the life of Macrina written by her brother, St Gregory says that:
“St Gregory draws on an image of female heroism and evangelistic activity from the past, St Thekla, the disciple of St Paul.” She then goes on to state that:
“Recent scholarshipholds that Gregory’s description of Macrina as virgin teacher is modeled on two depictions of St Thekla, the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thekla (first century AD) and the Symposium of Methodius of Olympus (Second half of the third century AD). In the ActsThekla is “an evangelist, a confessor who faced martyrdom, and a model and teacher in the virginal life…..In the Symposium, St Thekla is the intellectual leader of a group of virgins. In this adaptation of Plato’s Symposium, in which virginity rather than eros is the topic under discussion, Thekla reveals herself to be a master of scriptural interpretation and of rhetoric; she knows enough pagan philosophy to refute it for the benefit of Christianity. Virginity is here seen not as a rejection of the flesh as evil but as a state of freedom that prepares one for the kingdom of God.”
The connection between Thekla and Macrina seems to have been there from birth as Macrina’s mother is reported to have had a vision of Thekla as she gave birth to Macrina. Petroff comments about Gregory writing about his sister’s life that he does so ”..in the context of this double perspective – the figural one of St Thekla and the historical situation of the time – that Gregory gives us the facts about Macrina’s education, her decision not to marry, and her creation of a new community, first for women and then for men.”
These references to Thekla suggest that she was a by-word for sexual continence which was one of the marks of early spirituality.
Tertullian writing about 200 CE says that:
“But if we claim writings which are wrongly inscribed with Paul’s name – I mean the example of Thekla – in support of women’s freedom to teach and baptize, let them know that a presbyter in Asia, who put together that book, heaping up a narrative as it were from his own materials under Paul’s name, when after conviction he confessed that he had done it from love of Paul, resigned his position.”
Hilhorstin his essay on Tertullian’s comments has some discussion about what Tertullian actually wrote but concludes that:
“…this is the only case in which we have information on any author of apocryphal writings;…The presbyter’s idea to compose a romanticized narrative of Paul’s preaching activities was naïve and was not appreciated by more critical members of his community, who forced him to resign…this is an indication that the Acts of Paul and Thekla were ‘apocryphal’ from the very beginning and never had any official states in the milieu in which they were written…. the Acts of Paul and Thekla survived the degradation of the author and were read even in the West, more specifically in Tertullian’s Carthage. There they were used in a debate in which Christian women claimed their right to administer baptism.”
Hilhorst also examines Jerome’s reference to the Acts of Paul and Thekla and says that “Jerome..was able to date the book between 68 and 98 AD.” As a result of this he suggests that a more reasonable dating for the text would be AD 140 – 200.
On the basis of these references to Thekla we can see that she ‘was popular in the imagination of early Christians.’ In art she was widely depicted as listening to Paul preach, half naked between two wild beasts, an orant surrounded by flames.
Gregory of Nazianzus called Seleucia “the city of the holy and illustrious virgin Thekla”
Evagarius Scholasticus, the ecclesiastical historian, writing about 590 states that:
“after the Emperor Zeno had abdicated his empire and Basilik had taken possession of it, he had a vision of the holy and excellent martyr Thekla, who promised him the restoration of his empire; for which, when it was brought about, he erected and dedicated a most noble and sumptuous temple to this famous martyr Thekla, at Seleucia, a city of Isauria, and bestowed upon it very noble endowments, which (says the author) are preserved even till this day”
The Anchor Bible Dictionary states that in Seleucia “archaeologists found a richly decorated, huge basilica – almost the length of a football field – as well as other shrines, all in honour of St Thekla.”
The fourth to the sixth centuries were the zenith of her popularity which was largely concentrated in Seleucia, Isauria as it was the traditional location of her ministry. One of the visitors to Seleucia during that time the fourth century nun, Egeria. She visited Seleucia and recorded in her diary – “The travels of Egeria”(23, 1-6) Egeria describes how from Tarsus she made a detour to Seleucia then went on to Thekla’s church.
“Holy Thekla’s is on a small hill about a mile and a halffrom the city, so, as I had to stay somewhere, it was best to go straight on and spend the night there…Round the holy churchthere is a tremendous number of cells for men and women…and in the middle a great wallround the martyriumitself, which is very beautiful…I arrived at the martyrium, and we had a prayer there, and read the whole of the Acts of holy Thekla; and I gave heartfelt thanks to God for his mercy in letting me fulfil all my desires so completely, despite all my unworthiness.”
What does the existence of a large bascilica on this site tell us? Dr. Catherine Kroeger of Gordon Conwell seminary writes:
“The site of her ministry (Aya Theckla) was consistently occupied as a place of pilgrimage and monastic community until invaded by the Turks in the fifteenth century. The ruins are still extant, with part of the apse yet standing from the great sanctuary which was built over the original cave. The little underground chapel attached to the cave bears evidence of masonry dating to the first century. The French scholar A. J. Festugiere declared to the Academie de belles lettres that Aya Theckla is one of the best attested sites in Christian antiquity. The continuous occupation from the first century until the Muslim Conquest argues for the presence of a thriving ministry, and the consistent attachment to the site of the same feminine name indicates the involvement of a strong woman leader in the early christianization of Seleucia. The ancient ruins stand as mute testimony to Paul’s encouragement and empowerment for women in ministry.”
Gillian Clokes describes Thekla as “..ending up as a contemplative in a mountain cave, teaching and healing those who came to her” Similarly McNamara suggests she lived the “..the contemplative life of a hermit”.
I have come to believe that there was a Thekla who dared to believe in Jesus Christ, to become a Christian as a result of hearing Paul preach. She then embraced the liberation of there being ‘no longer male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. In the process of living out that understanding of Paul’s preaching she refused to remain in her household, to marry and conform with the norm of society but sought to express her love for Christ (and if the Hellenistic romance is correct for Paul) in the public arena by wanting to be with Paul, to learn from him, to travel with him and to exercise a ministry like his. The conflict with her fiance, mother and the authorities comes because she is wanting to be in the public arena, unmarried and adopting a different lifestyle. Thekla’s behaviour was threatening the ‘the cultural values of honour and shame and the importance of female chastity in maintaining thoe values in the ancient Mediterranean context’. I would also suggest as does MacDonald that these values are still extent. In her work she quotes an anthropologistsobservations about village life and the concern of villagers with honour and shame. Seeing their more enclosed village life as honourable and clean, whereas Turkish cities and the west in general epititomises dishonourable living (namusuz), dirt (pislik) and loss of reputation (namussuzluk).
Thekla, like her modern day Anatolian sisters is battling with families and a society who protect their honour and expect men and women to conform to certain norms. In first century Anatolia the norms of that society were threatened when preachers such as the Apostle Paul preached about Jesus, the resurrection, establishing house churches where men and women worshipped together, where women were given an option to adopt a different lifestyle, not to marry, to have equality with men, to have a public ministry and so much more. Society doesn’t change much.
Not only Thekla but others in Asia exercised a ministry “Cyprian of Carthage knew of a prophetic woman in Cappadocia who claimed the power not only to baptize but also to celebrate the Eucharist.”
To the west of Cappadocia and Seleucia Pulcheria siezed power and organized the Council of Chalcedon. Pulcheria had helped organize the victory of the Marian forces at the Council of Ephesus in 449. McNamara describes how at this council
“Mary became the first consecrated virgin, never carnally subjected to human intercourse. She thus conveniently displaced the more aggressive figure of Thekla, whose exemplary role had disturbed even the Montanist Tertullian.”
Thekla was a suitable role model for the early years of Christianity when it was seen as a temporary sect but when the church became more developed and the leadership was more exclusively male role models such as Thekla were not as attractive to the heirarchy. Women were more common in leadership positions in the early years of Christianity because of the seeminly transient nature of Christianity, the expectation that the end would come and the church would cease to exist.
Sawyer states that:
“It is important to note that in early Christianity there was a link between female leadership and imminent eschatology. It would seem that female authority could be accepted and acclaimed for an interim period when history was about to come to an end. When Christianity began looking to the long term then conventional male leadership and hierarchy became normative.”
The Acts of Paul and Thekla looks like a far-fetched legend that it is tempting to reject as too incredible, but I don’t think we should. First century Asia may have been filled with many Theklas, some of who experienced the conflict and difficulties which are recounted in the Acts of Paul and Thekla. Other evidences such as a small column decorated with a crudely carved woman’s head bearing the name Thekla and a crosslead us to believe that atleast one Thekla of that time was a Christian.
Thekla deserves the attention of the modern-day church as she dared, because of her faith in the saving power of Christ, her belief in her personal experience of Christ’s resurrection and her calling to be a minister of the gospel to get up and go. Women in modern day Turkey may well experience similar opposition as they turn their backs on family, marriage and seek to incarnate the presence of God in their own society. But it is good to be reminded by MacDonald and others that it was because Thekla chose a lifestyle that was against the cultural mores she was persecuted and threatened with execution. Persecution because of the content of the Christian faith came later in Asia Minor when Christians refused to sacrifice to pagan deities.
You were enlightened by the words of Paul, O Bride of God, Thekla,
And your faith was confirmed by Peter, O Chosen One of God.
You became the first sufferer and martyr among women,
By entering into the flames as into a place of gladness.
For when you accepted the Cross of Christ,
The demonic powers were frightened away.
O all-praised One, intercede before Christ God that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion (Tone 8) –
O glorious Thekla, virginity was your splendor,
The crown of martyrdom your adornment and the faith you trust!
You turned a burning fire into refreshing dew,
And with your prayers appeased pagan fury, O First Woman Martyr!
In Greek her name is Θέκλα or Thékla. It can also be written as Thekla or Tecla. This essay will use the form Thekla.
Present day Konya.
See Acts 14:1-7. Thekla is not mentioned in these accounts.
Acts 13:51, 14:1, 19, 21, 16:2.
Dowley, Dr Tim, (Ed) (1977) The History of Christianity.
Lion Publishing, Tring, Herts, UK. P.64
These dates may not be the most accurate available but are only intended as a rouch guide in which to set the possible life and times of Thekla.
Ramsey, William The church in the Roman Empire.
Acts of Paul and Thekla 1:11.
Haight, Elizabeth Hazelton (1945) More Essays on Greek Romances. Longmans, Green & Co, New York.
Bremmen, J (Ed). (1996) The apocraphyl acts of Paul and Thekla
Kok Pharos Publshing House, Kampen, Netherlands.
P. 29 – 32.
Sawyer, Deborah F, (1996) Women and Religion in the first Christian Centuries
Acts of Paul and Thekla Chapter 11, Verse 1-4.
Schussler-Fiorenza, E. (1983) In Memory of Her.
Acts of Paul and Thekla 10:4
Mc Ginn, Shiela: The Acts of Thekla in Schussler-Fiorenza, E. (Ed) (1994) Searching the Scriptures Vol 2.
SCM, London. P.809
Footnote as follows:One must also consider, however, that looking like a man may have provided an additional measure of safety in travel.
Further, female dress styles are more constricting than men’s – and often seem designed expressly for that purpose (e.g., the practice of foot binding and its modern equivalent – high heeled shoes).
Dresses are impractical for travel, whether on foot or horseback, and long hair is difficult to maintain when one spends much time in the open air.
Pragmatic issues such as these may have had at least as much to do with thedecision to dress “like a man” as did any putative desire to abandon one’s female nature.
Petroff (1986) Medieval women’s Visionary Literature.
Oxford University Press, Oxford
P.60 – 61.
Anchor Bible Dictionary P443 – 444.
Op. cit. Petroff
Footnote 21: Wilson-Kastner, “Macrina, Virgin and Teacher,” Pp. 106 and passim.
Roberts and Donaldson (Ed) (1885-97) Anti-Nicene Fathers,
vol Vl, P 309-55.
Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints
P.58 quoted in Petroff P.65.
Op Cit Petroff P. 65.
Anchor Bible dictionary Vol 5 P.434
from De Baptismo. 1.17
Hilhorst A, Tertullian on the Acts of Paul in Bremmen, J (Ed). The apocraphyl acts of Paul and Thekla.
Kok Pharos Publshing House, Kampen, Netherlands.
Op. Cit. Haight P. 61 – 65 describes paintings and frescos which depict Thekla listening to Paul preaching.
The Cathedral of Tarragona, Spain, the city of which Thekla is patron saint also has a depiction of Thekla.
 On the great Athanasius 22
in The Anchor Bible Dictionary P.444.
Hist. Eccl. Lib. 3 cap 8. Quoted in introduction to Acts of Paul and Thekla in Home, William (1820) The Apocryphal New Testament. William Home, Ludgate Hill, London. P. 99.
Wilkinson, John (trans) (1981) Egeria’s travels to the Holy Land.
Aris & Phillips, Warminster, England.
P.229 A mile and a half: The distance is greater by the modern road, but Egeria’s estimate corresponds with the old one, which still exists as a track running south-westwards from Silifke.
Ibid P.229 round the holy church: Egeria speaks as if there were a single church in the late fourth century, though the site today contains three of the fifth century.
Ibid P.229 Great wall of which remains are still visible in places
ibid P.229 Marytyrium is a crypt in the rock under the church
 Wilkinson, John (trans) (1981) Egeria’s travels to the Holy Land. Aris & Phillips, Warminster, England. P.121-2.
Dr. Catherine Kroeger of Gordon Conwell Seminary, USA and President of Christians for Biblical Equality. E-mail: email@example.com
Ernest E.Herzfeld and Samuel Euyer, “Miriamlik und Korkyos, zwei christliche Ruinenstätten des Ruhen Kilikiens, Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua II,
 Ernest E.Herzfeld and Samuel Euyer, “Miriamlik und Korkyos, zwei christliche Ruinenstätten des Ruhen Kilikiens, Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua II,
Cloke, Gilliam (1995) ‘This Female Man of God’ Women and spiritual power in the patristic age, Ad 350-450.
Routledge, London & New York. P.166
McNamara, Jo Ann Kay (1996) Sisters in Arms:Catholic Nuns through Two Millenia.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, P.25
for further discussion of the conflict between private and public in the experience of first century Christians see MacDonald, Margaret Y, (1996) Early Christian women and Pagan Opinion.
Cambridge University Press, UK. P.127.
Carol Delaney, ‘Seeds of Honour, Fields of Shame’, in Gilmore (ed), Honour and Shame,
P.44 quoted in McDonald P.150.
McNamara, Jo Ann Kay (1996) Sisters in Arms:Catholic Nuns through Two Millenia.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, P.30 quoting Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 75.10, in R.Bernard, trans., Letters
(Washington:Fathers of the Church, 1964).
Quoted in McNamara P.51.
Footnote:Jerome, Dialogue against Helvidius,
17 in Schaff & Wace (Eds) (1979) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,
Eerdmans,Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Sawyer P.108 – 9.
FB of Konya – in the garden of either the Antalya or the Adana Archaeological Museum.
 Taken from: http://ww1.antiochian.org/life_of_thekla
Copyright © 2018 Rev Ros Wilkinson