The Story of St. Paul and St. Thecla
If it may be summarized very briefly, for St. Paul celibacy was an ideal Christian condition because it did not prescribe any worldly obligation which might prevent one from devotion to the Lord. This message and the absurdity of marriage in the light of the expected kingdom of God was taken further in the course of time and became a source of popularity of legends of virgins in Anatolia.
The legend of Thecia begins with St. Paul’s departure from Antioch to Iconium and his preaching there. His praise of the virgin life and resurrection attracted a certain girl named Thecla, who sat and eavesdropped on St. Paul at the open window of her house, because her mother did not let her go and listen to the apostle. Thecla’s mother, alarmed about the devotion of her daughter to the preaching of St. Paul, took the news to her fiance Thamyris; ‘for three days and three nights Thecla did not arise from the window, neither to eat nor to drink…this man upset the whole city of the Iconians…for all the women and the young men go in to him’. When Thamyris’ efforts to prevent the young girl from listening to the apostle gave no result, the men of Iconium caught St. Paul and brought him to the office of the governor where he was accused of corrupting young girls, teaching them to stay virgins and not to marry, thus disregarding the traditional customs. The governor ordered St. Paul to be thrown into prison so that he could listen to him later at leisure.
When Thecla learned what had happened, she left her home in secret and bribing the doorman and the jailer entered the prison and ‘went in to St. Paul and sat by his feet and heard the wonderful works of God…as she kissed his chains’. The following morning, however, when she was found in the prison, the governor ordered St. Paul to be scourged and thrown out of the city. Thecla was also brought to trial and condemned to be burned in the theatre so that this might teach a lesson to all the women who had listened to and believed in the apostle. When the pile of wood and straw on which she was placed bound to the stake was lighted, a sudden rain shower put out the pyre and Thecla was saved. Changing into male attire she searched for St. Paul and found him in a new tomb outside the city where he was hiding with Onesiphorus and his family. Thecla vowed to cut her hair short and follow the apostle wherever he went. St. Paul saying ‘The time is ill-favoured and thou art comely’ refused her wish. Thecla, nevertheless, followed him to Antioch.
In Antioch a Syrian nobleman named Alexander saw Thecla and falling in love with her on the spot tried to buy her from St. Paul with money and gifts. When the man tried to take her physically she resisted, tearing the man’s cloak and taking his crown with the figure of Caesar (the priestly crown of the imperial cult) from his head. Thecla was taken before the governor and charged with sacrilege and condemned to wild beasts. Another text adds that it was Alexander who gave the spectacle. Epigraphic material from the region dating from the last quarter of the first century CE mentions the existence of a wooden amphitheatre for animal fights and gladiatorial combats in Pisidian Antioch, and the games held here may have inspired the writer of the story of Thecla at this point. Several attempts to carry out the verdict failed. She was thrown to lions and bears but saved by a lioness which ‘licked her feet’ and was slain after saving her from the other animals.
Then saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize myself on the last day’ she jumped into the great pit of water full of seals and the wild beasts were struck dead by a flash of lightning that did not harm her. Thus Thecla was also baptized and whether married or not was now bound to live a celibate life, the act symbolizing her decision to stay celibate and her covenant with Christ that ruled out sexual intercourse forever. Her naked body was shielded by a curtain of fire. When the last beast let into the theatre did not touch her she was bound by the feet between the bulls and hot irons were put under the animals’ bellies, but the flame burned the ropes and she was saved. Meanwhile one of the spectators, Queen Tryphaena (‘lady magnificence’) who had lost her daughter a short while earlier and who had given Thecla shelter in her house, fainted and Alexander thought that she had died. Worrying that the Emperor might punish the city and that her death would be bad for his city, Thecla was forgiven. Queen Tryphaena is a historical personage. She is thought to have already been a very old age during the time of journeys of St. Paul. At the time of St. Paul’s travels, from 41 CE a part of Rough Cilicia was given to her son Polemo II by Claudius and this may have been the reason why her name is associated with the episode.
At the end of the episode Thecla dressed as a boy searches for St. Paul and finds him at Myra in Lycia. Thecla told the apostle her sufferings for Christ’s sake and received her baptism: ‘1 have received the washing [the vow of lifelong celibacy], 0 St. Paul; for he that has worked together with thee in the Gospel has worked with me also unto my baptizing’. St. Paul offered her the commission of teaching the Gospel. Later, Thecla returned to Iconium but did not stay there. She went to Seleucia on Calycadnus (Silifke) where she retired to a cave on Mount Calamon and lived to the age of ninety. When she was threatened by men, who were jealous of her healing powers, for she was by then running a nunnery which threatened the business of local healers, she was saved by the rock of her cave opening to receive her. Although she died peacefully in her cave she was regarded as the first Christian woman martyr. Her sanctuary became a popular place of pilgrimage. A tradition adds that she went underground to Rome which accounts for the presence of her body there.
Christian tradition regards a cave at Silifke’s Meryemlik (‘place of Mary’) district as the place where Thecla disappeared into the rock. In the fourth century the cave was probably enlarged and given the shape of an underground basilica. The reused building material shows that there was a Roman building here probably belonging to a pagan shrine. During the second half of the fifth century a church, one of the largest in Cilicia, was built over the cave. Only a section of its apse has survived to the present. Pilgrimage to this cave church was revered throughout Byzantine history and at one time its walls were probably decorated with mosaics. The story of Thecla, the most famous virgin martyr of early Christianity, is narrated in the apocryphal Acts of St. Paul which is thought to have been recorded by a presbyter in Anatolia toward the end of the second century.
According to Tertullian its author was deposed from the church for writing this document which created a false view of Paul and the role of women in the church, such that in the Pastoral Letters St. Paul permits ‘no woman to teach (1 Tm 2.12)’ and condemns those who ‘forbid marriage’ (1 Tm 4.3). In the story Thecla is discouraged from matrimony and encouraged to become a teacher, tendencies best manifested in the Montanist movement which was then growing in Anatolia. Its popularity has led some scholars to believe that the story may have been based on a real Christian martyr of the same name.