The Acts of the Apostles details some acts of some of the Apostles; ever since it was written there has been an audience for additional stories about the exploits of the Apostles. Later Christians, motivated by a sincere but misguided piety, proved willing to tell stories to satisfy this audience. These stories often tell us far more about these later Christians than they would about the Apostles; and so it is regarding the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla is an episode in a larger work known as the Acts of Paul, of which it is the best preserved and best attested part. It was originally written in Greek but spread throughout the world of Christendom: the story is preserved to some degree or another in Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, and Syriac versions. The Acts of Paul, and thus the Acts of Paul and Thecla within it, was not written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle, and is thus an apocryphal work. Tertullian provided testimony regarding its origin:
But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a licence for women’s teaching and baptizing, let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office (On Baptism 17.5; ca. 190 CE).
Tertullian did not provide a specific time frame regarding this presbyter and his work, but most believe he was an early contemporary of Tertullian, and thus wrote the Acts of Paul sometime around 160 in the Roman province of Asia. We cannot know whether the author of the Acts of Paul had any testimonial basis for anything he wrote. He wrote in a misguided piety, seeking to further glorify what God had done through Paul, but according to the taste of the middle of the second century. To this end, the Acts of Paul and Thecla would presume to glorify God for what He was believed to have accomplished through Thecla, although, as we shall see, much of what was said and done stand at odds with what Paul proclaimed in the New Testament.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla can be read here. The Acts of Paul and Thecla began with Paul entering Iconium with Demas and Hermogenes, who take offense when Paul greeted Onesiphorus well but had not done so for them; Paul then entered Onesiphorus’ house and taught the church there regarding abstinence and the resurrection, and Thecla, a virgin betrothed to be married, heard it and accepted it (Acts of Paul 2:1-7). Thecla’s mother Theocleia was very concerned about her daughter, and encouraged Thecla’s prospective husband Thamyris to see to her welfare; he found out about her listening to Paul, and Demas and Hermogenes met with him and indicted Paul for defrauding men of their wives to chastity (Acts of Paul 2:8-13). Thamyris then had Paul brought before the governor to give an account; Paul was then imprisoned (Acts of Paul 2:14-17). Thecla visited Paul in prison and kissed his chains; she was found there; Paul was cast out of the city, and Thecla was condemned to be burned, but was miraculously preserved from the fire (Acts of Paul 2:18-23). Thecla then found Paul and sought baptism, but he counseled patience; they both entered Antioch of Pisidia; Alexander the Syriarch saw her and desired her, but could not have her, and thus had her brought before the governor, who condemned her to be sent out to wild beasts; she was brought into the house of Tryphaena, a local queen esteemed by Caesar, to be kept there until the struggle; Thecla baptized herself before the contest; the wild beasts tore one another apart and Thecla was again miraculously delivered (Acts of Paul 2:24-36). Tryphaena was converted on the basis of Thecla’s experience and adopted her so she could obtain her inheritance; Thecla yearned to see and hear Paul, and found him in Myra; Paul commissioned her to go and preach the Gospel (Acts of Paul 2:37-41). Thecla returned to Iconium and found Thamyris dead but her mother living, and sought to convert her mother (many manuscripts add a note indicating she was not successful in this); she then traveled to Seleucia, converted many to the ways of the Lord Jesus, and later died (Acts of Paul 2:42-43). Some copies add further stories of Thecla being preserved in old age from a man who would have hurt her by entering a rock which opened for her; other stories would then add that she thus traveled to Rome, seeking to explain why her body ended up there.
What shall we make of the Acts of Paul and Thecla? There was an Antonia Tryphaena, a Roman client queen of Thrace, who would have lived in Cyzicus of Mysia from 38 until her death in 55; her brother married Julia Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa I, converted to Judaism, and likely later to Christianity. Based on the Acts of Paul and Thecla she was reckoned to be a Christian and eventually a martyr, but we have no other corroborating evidence to suggest any of this. Demas and Hermogenes were no doubt to be associated with the Biblical personages of those names in Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 1:15, 4:10, and Philemon 1:24; while Demas would forsake Paul for this present world, and Hermogenes would turn away from him, these events would not take place until at least the early 60s, years after Tryphaena died. We have no evidence that either Demas or Hermogenes were associated with Paul during the first or second missionary journeys, during which these events would have taken place.
What is presented in the Acts of Paul and Thecla regarding Paul’s teaching remains at odds with what Paul taught in the New Testament. Paul did encourage celibacy, and exhorted Christian engaged couples to maintain celibacy if they could manage it, yet all the while spoke of marriage as good, said couples who married did well, and would not have encouraged one of the betrothed to resist marriage if the other desired it, as seen in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40). We have no reason to believe that Paul would have been preaching abstinence and the resurrection; “blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not, for they shall inherit God,” as said in Acts of Paul 2:5, is at odds with what Paul said about husbands and wives not depriving one another in 1 Corinthians 7:5. We also find no reason to believe that Paul would have counseled patience for Thecla when she desired baptism, or that Thecla should have baptized herself; all who sought baptism from Paul received it immediately (e.g. Acts 16:31-33). Paul’s commission for Thecla to go and preach in the Acts of Paul and Thecla came under significant censure from Tertullian, prompting his comment in On Baptism 17.5; Tertullian can have a tendency to go to extremes, and it is possible for Thecla to have been thus commissioned while remaining faithful to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
In all of these variances we see the effects of the emphases of Christendom in the second century: the glorification of celibacy beyond what the Apostles decreed, the expectation for catechumens to wait for baptism, and ministry for women among women. Thus the Acts of Paul and Thecla tell us much more about the state of Christianity in Asia in the middle of the second century than it does about the Apostle Paul. While Thecla of Iconium would be venerated across Christendom, likely on account of this narrative, we cannot know whether Thecla ever even existed; miraculous deliverance from certain death represented a common trope in early Christian stories, and we have no means by which to ascertain if she did exist, what she may or may have done, whether she was miraculously preserved or not, or anything of the sort. We can, however, appreciate the warning behind the story of the Acts of Paul and Thecla: God appointed the apostles and their associates to make known the great works of God accomplished in Christ and the Apostles, and it is not for any of us to add to them. Whatever we might think to add, even with the best of intentions, will undermine confidence in what was truly revealed, and ultimately will say more about us and what we emphasize than anything about the truth of God in Christ. May we uphold what God has made known in Jesus, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry
“Antonia Tryphaena” (accessed 24/09/2019).
“The Acts of Paul” (accessed 24/09/2019).
“The Acts of Paul and Thecla” (accessed 24/09/2019).