I thought it a good idea. But which of the Bible’s many women should I choose?
Then I discovered the stories concerning Thecla. These stories are parabolic in nature. To what extent they are based on historical events is hard to say. But the stories of Thecla do shed light on how the early church in the first and second centuries viewed women and their role in the church.
Thecla was a young woman, about 13 or 14 years old, and recently engaged to be married to a man named Thamyris. That seems young to us, but it wasn’t then. Mary was probably about the same age when she was engaged to Joseph, and when she became pregnant with Jesus.
One day, Thecla was sitting by her window when she heard from outside, in the city, the preaching of the Apostle Paul. For several days she sat and listened, and became so in love with what she was hearing that she decided to leave her well-to-do life – and leave her fiancé – and become a disciple of Paul.
The only problem is that, in the ancient Roman world, women just didn’t do such things. Women weren’t supposed to associate with men at all, other than their husbands. That’s why Thecla was listening from her window.
Remember Martha’s embarrassment when her sister Mary goes into the room to sit and listen to Jesus, as if she were one of his disciples? Remember the disciples’ embarrassment when they discover Jesus engaged in a one-on-one conversation with a Samaritan woman beside a well? A man just didn’t talk with a woman in that way in ancient Rome.
Strangely, though, Jesus himself didn’t seem to mind the presence of women. He was not embarrassed to count them among his followers, to talk with them, to teach them.
But what about the apostle Paul? According to the story, it was his preaching that inspired Thecla. Paul gets a bad rap these days when it comes to women’s rights and roles in society. How is it, then, that Thecla found what he said to be so empowering?
Let me say again: it went against the norms of society for a man to welcome women into one’s presence and to associate with women. In patriarchal Rome, only men had a role in public life.
So any talk or act that even suggested a public role for women is one that many would find hard to swallow.
And yet that is exactly what the Apostle Paul suggested.
Now you might be saying, “What? I thought Paul was against women…” Let me explain…
Thus, some of the letters in the New Testament have Paul’s name attached to them, but were actually written by someone else.
Generally speaking, the letters that scholars agree were written by the authentic Paul himself all describe a role for women in the public life of the church. In the book of Romans, Paul mentions several apostles who were women; in his letter to the Galatians, he says there is neither male nor female in the body of Christ.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, a part of which we heard as our scripture reading this morning: did you notice how Paul gives equal attention to men and women when teaching about marriage? The fact that he even addresses women at all is radical. Again, in a patriarchal society, one was not supposed to address a woman directly, but only through her husband…yet Paul does it anyway.
Then later in First Corinthians, Paul gives instructions for how both men and women are to properly preach, teach, and prophesy.
Now when later writers used Paul’s name to write what they believed Paul would have said to their own community had he been around, they followed through on most of his teachings… But some of Paul’s teachings were just too radical. The actual, authentic Paul advocated freeing slaves. Well, that was too radical. The actual, authentic Paul advocated equality for women. Again, that was too radical for later writers.
On these issues, the later writers presented teachings that were more in line with what was acceptable in society, even if they strayed from the radical teachings of the apostle Paul. Thus, we get in Ephesians: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”
And in First Timothy we read, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She is to keep silent.”
That’s not Paul; that’s a later writer who found Paul’s teachings on the subject too radical.
When Thecla sat by her window, and felt herself empowered by the words of the apostle Paul, do you think these were the words she heard?
I really think not.
So even though the story of Thecla is a mixture of history and parable, it still helps us understand more fully just what the actual Paul thought about women in the church and in society. If Paul was as anti-woman as we often think, then Thecla would have found no inspiration in what he said.
So back to the story of Thecla:
She left her family and her fiancé to follow the apostle Paul. As she was preparing to do so, her mother – Theoclia – pleaded with her to reconsider. Her mother summoned Thamyris, the fiancé, and asked him to talk some sense into Thecla. But Thecla had made up her mind.
Well, this was not only an offense to Thecla’s family; it was an offense to the whole Roman way of living. It was seen as an act of rebellion against all of society. And Thecla’s mother was furious.
Thecla was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
Now you see why later writers changed Paul’s teachings on equality. Equality is dangerous! Society just does not tolerate teachings of such a radical nature. Look what happens when you upset the laws of society! Better soften some of those radical teachings, so we don’t bring down society’s wrath upon us.
Even today, there are those who try to rewrite the Bible’s teachings on equality, or on helping the poor, or on caring for creation. They rewrite the Bible’s teachings because those teachings are too radical. They demand that society pay more attention to the poor and the oppressed, and even re-orient society so that those who are last become the first priority.
The words of Jesus and the prophets, in particular, emphasize over and over the importance of justice, of a fair sharing of wealth, and yet we see our nation’s leaders passing laws that allow the wealthy to gain an ever greater share of wealth while the poor are given increasingly heavier burdens. Our leaders have created a society where the inequality between the rich and the poor is obscenely large, and continues to widen… and while our leaders do this, they talk about how this nation is founded and based on Biblical principles!
It continues today, this practice of taking scripture, and changing it and distorting its message to suit one’s needs, because the real message of scripture is just too hard to swallow.
There is no doubt that what Thecla heard from her window was the teaching of a man who truly believed that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, that all are welcome to participate in the full life of the church. Thecla believed it, and she followed that teaching… and ended up condemned because of it.
So since that didn’t work, Thecla was thrown into the arena with wild animals, and again, God saved her: the female beasts in the arena protected her from the male beasts. And the women of the arena – whether they were Christians or not – all cheered for Thecla, but all the men were rooting for the beasts.
But Thecla, miraculously, was spared.
Now in those days, it had not yet been decided which writings would be considered holy scripture and which would not. A couple of centuries later, these things were decided… and when they were, The Acts of Paul and Thecla obviously did not make the cut.
You could say that The Acts of Paul and Thecla was written too late, later than any of the books that did make it into the Bible.
But you could also say that the Acts of Paul and Thecla contains in its pages the most vivid portrayal of the radical equality of men and women, and that it bases that equality on the teachings of the apostle Paul… and that this was just too much for people to accept. Notice this ancient painting of Paul and Thecla: both are shown in the same position, with the same posture – the posture of teaching and authority. But look closely: some ancient person came in and vandalized the painting by defacing Thecla’s image, obscuring her eyes and her hand raised in an authoritative gesture. They are scratched out. This ancient portrayal of a woman apostle was just too much to accept. Maybe that’s why it was kept out of the Bible, while those writings that insisted on women keeping silent made it in.
Nevertheless, in those days, the story of Thecla had a huge following. I’ve read that she was more important than even Mary, the mother of Jesus, and devotion to her was widespread.
That didn’t last. But even today, the Catholic church does consider her a saint; and her inspiring story continues to shed light on what Paul actually thought about women in the church, and her story can continue to inspire the church today when it talks about biblical interpretation, the role of women, and the Biblical call for equality.