Thecla – Woman Apostle
By Dr. Kluane Spake
According to several extra-Biblical manuscripts, twelve women in the early church were said to be commissioned to operate in significant positions of apostolic leadership.
Here is the story of Thecla… an Apostle.
Thecla is one of my favorites! Though not mentioned in Scripture, much Gnostic historical narrative evidence considers Thecla to have been an apostle and associate of Paul. In numerous manuscripts, Thecla is venerated as a “protomartyr” and as an “equal of the apostles” in Roman and Orthodox tradition.
In the late 1990’s, I visited the ruins of her still existing gigantic complex that included a huge church, a monastery, convent, and hospital that THECLA BUILT near Selleucia in Syria. Amazingly, these remains of these buildings still stand today. When I saw this, I was stunned… “who knew?”
We marched up the hill with banners and colorful little flags singing joyously — then we sat in her cave and read her story in “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” This story contains her first century accounts — which were probably greatly embellished as time went on until it came to us.
Here I am (with dark hair!!!) holding onto a pillar from her structure. There is no question to the truth of her existence and the actual remains of the work that she accomplished (pictured below).
In 1902, Germans excavated Thecla’s center, which apparently remained in active use for over 1,000 years under strong female apostleship and oversight.
The story of Thecla’s life is told throughout the manuscripts of the Early Church particularly in “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” that tell how she and Paul overcame many persecutions and peril. This article is a compilation of many stories told about her.
The issue is Thecla has been all but removed from the Christian history. Well.. if you study, you can find her. But, did God not want us to know about powerful women? …Or did the old boys network try to reduce all traces? To keep women back.
Thecla was a young noble virgin who was born in Turkey in 30 AD. She became engaged to Thamyris. She sat by her window for three days and three nights, listening to St. Paul and his teachings. Upon hearing his preaching, she left her fiancé to follow Paul.
Early on in these Acts of the second century, describes Paul’s physical appearance. In the Syriac text, “he was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes.” His eyebrows met, “his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy. At one time he seemed like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel.” The Armenian text adds that his eyes were blue.[1
Horrified, that Thecla broke off her engagement to Thamyris, her mother, Theokleia and Thamyris went to the governor of the city and complained about Paul and his incessant preaching. This Iconium governor arrested Paul and imprisoned him to await trial.
When Thekla heard about Paul’s arrest, she secretly went to the prison, and bribed the guard with her golden bracelets in order to be admitted into to his cell.
Seeing Paul the Apostle with his hands and feet bound with chains, she knelt before him and kissed the chains.
Well, her mother found her kissing his chains… and the influencial mother brought both her daughter and Paul before the governor for sentence.
Castelius asked, “Why won’t you marry Thamyris, in accordance with the law of the Iconians?” Thecla did not reply, but continuously gazed at Paul instead. Everyone now understood that Thecla had abandoned Thamyris after spending the night in prison being taught the Gospel by Paul.
Then, Thecla’s mom, Theokleia and found out she went again to governor asking for immediate judgement. The governor ordered that Paul be stoned, scourged, and expelled from that country.
When Thecla told her mom that she had vowed to remain a virgin for the sake of Christ, her mother became furious and instructed the governor to burn Thekla at the stake unless she renounced her faith in Christ. She said was so that “all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.”
Thekla refused and only requested that her virginity stay in tact. She was kept in the house of Queen trypheaena (a relative of Caesar) to be protected until her punishment. In their short time together, Tryphaena grew found of Thecla.
Soon the day arrived, Thecla was stripped naked before a huge crowd taken to the arena to be burned. As she was tied to the stake she saw a vision of Jesus and was given the courage to face the ignited flames. Thecla viewed her fate as a minor obstacle to finally meeting her Creator.
Suddenly, before everyone, an enormous thunderstorm began and a great deluge of rain and hail poured down from heaven and extinguished the fire.
Finally, Queen Tryphaena and the other women of the city intervened, and the governor officially pardoned Thecla from further persecution. Thecla then preached to Tryphaena and her household, most of whom became Christians.
Thecla found Paul six days later. She told him that she would cut her hair and follow him. Paul warned her that she would face another tribulation, worse than the first if she came with him and she must be prepared to endure it. In response, Thecla begged for the seal of Christ, asking to be baptized, so that she would have the strength necessary to resist temptation and endure this trial. But, at that time, Paul refused and told her to be patient for the time would come.
Thecla escaped and joined Paul on his next trip. They traveled into Antioch in Syria. As they arrived, a young nobleman who was also a provincial high priest named Alexander saw Thekla and was entranced by her extraordinary beauty. Alexander offered Paul money to buy her. When refused, Alexander tried to seduce her.
She fought him off, assaulting him in the process, beating him in the in front of the amused townspeople! She tore his clothes and knocked off the crown that bore Caesar’s image from his head. Again, Thecla was put on trial for assaulting him.
This time, Thecla faced wild beasts in the arena. The women of the city protested against this injustice, to no avail.
A lioness was set free to attack her naked body… but the lioness came near and sat at her feet licking her. A bear was then released, but as it came close to her, the lion killed the bear.
Meanwhile, went over to the a tank of water (which was also there to kill her) contained wild seals. There, she baptized herself. She said, “In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize myself on the last day.” Her nakedness was hidden, and the seals floated to the surface dead. A cloud protected Thecla from being harmed by other beasts.
Finally Tryphaena and the other women of the city intervened, and the governor officially pardoned Thecla from further persecution. Thecla stayed with Tryphaena for eight days preaching the Gospel to her and her household, most of whom became Christians.
Finally, Thecla, disguised herself as a man in order to travel to see Paul at Myra. She gave Paul all the gold and jewels that she had collected when living with Theokleia. In time, he baptized her again. She declared with joy that she was now a baptized Christian. Paul commissioned her to continue to preach the Gospel. Paul “sent” her to Iconium to preach.
She returned brieflyl to Iconium, finding that her betrothed husband had died. After a brief reunion with her mother, she found her mother’s heart to still be hard and unbendable. She went on to Seleucia, where she “enlightened many.” There she lived life of asceticism.
The remarkable accomplishment of Thecla was THE FACT (what we know absolutely from this story) that she established a community of nuns who ran the hospital, her own churches, a monastery, and convent that SHE had built – the remains still today in Syria. I went there in the late 90’s and have included my photos as well as stock.
She apparently moved in gifts of healing so much that people did not need the local doctors. The story tells that the Hellenistic physicians nearby lost their livelihood. When she was 90, the physicians came to kill her, but a new passage was opened in near the cave, and the stones closed behind her.
After 72 years living here, Thecla goes to Rome to see Paul again, but he had been executed before she arrived, so she laid down by his grave. She is said to have been buried beside St. Paul’s tomb.
The cult of Saint Thecla was in wide evidence, and the story made her the most famous early female saint. Saint Thecla was venerated widely in late antiquity and is recognized today by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
Saint Thecla is celebrated on September 23, which is still her feast day in the Roman Church. The Orthodox churches commemorate her on September 24. Her name is given on several other days in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum.
St. Thecla is regarded by many as the first virgin martyr of the early Church even though she faced certain death three times and did not die, she certainly showed a martyr’s heroic faith.
AD 280, Methodius of Olympus wrote his Symposium. St. Thecla is featured as one of the characters, from whom we learn that she was “well versed in philosophy, and various branches of literature, of eloquent yet modest discourse.” He says that she received her instruction in divine and evangelical knowledge from St. Paul, and was eminent for her skill in sacred science (“Logos 8”).
Troparion (Tone 4) –
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
- Bremmer, Jan N.The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 2. Kampen: Kok Pharos Pub. House, 1996.
- Davis, Stephen J.The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Ehrman, Bart D.Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Goodspeed, Edgar Johnson.The Book of Thekla. Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 1901.
- Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald.The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study. Hellenic studies, 13. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2006. ISBN 9780674019614
- Spake, Kluane, Apostolic Authority, https://kluane.com