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From Women's Piety to Male Devotion: Gender Studies, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Evidence of an Arabic Manuscript

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 September 2015

Stephen J. Davis*
Yale University


When we read early Christian narratives such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, what is the relationship between the characters portrayed in the story and the “real-life” persons and groups who composed and transmitted the work? In the second-century Greek account, Thecla abandons her fiancé and family to follow Paul and his ascetic message. She endures a trial by fire in Iconium, resists sexual assault on the road to Antioch, and survives attacks by beasts in the Antiochene arena, all the while supported by a wealthy widow as her patron, a friendly lioness as her protector, and a chorus of women in the stadium who extol her perseverance and cry out to the governor for mercy. In the end, after baptizing herself, Thecla is released, dresses herself like a man, and begins preaching the gospel as an itinerant apostle.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2015 

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1 Von Dobschütz, Ernst, “Der Roman in der alt-christlichen Literatur,” Deutsche Rundschau 111 (1902) 87106Google Scholar.

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8 See, e.g., White, Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973)Google Scholar; and Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)Google Scholar. For a helpful summary of this shift, see Martin, D. B., “Introduction,” in The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography (ed. Martin, D. B. and Miller, P. C.; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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13 Matthews, Shelly, “Thinking of Thecla: Issues of Feminist Historiography,” JFSR 17.2 (2001) 3955, at 54Google Scholar.

14 Kraemer, R. S., Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 150Google Scholar.

15 Kraemer, Unreliable Witnesses, 148.

16 Burrus, Virginia, “Mimicking Virgins: Colonial Ambivalence and Ancient Romance,” Arethusa 38.1 (2005) 4988CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 85.

17 Burrus, “Mimicking Virgins,” 65.

18 Stichele, Caroline Vander and Penner, Todd, Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Thinking Beyond Thecla (London: Clark, T.&T., 2009)Google Scholar.

19 Such arguments have not gone uncontested. Most recently, Susan Hylen has downplayed readings of Thecla as a subversive or transgressive figure, arguing that the Acts of Paul and Thecla portrays her in fact as embodying the conventional Greco-Roman virtue of modesty—a virtue Hylen sees as compatible with, and indeed facilitating of, public expressions of female leadership in ancient society: Hylen, Susan E., A Modest Apostle: Thecla and the History of Women in the Early Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar esp. chapter 4.

20 Davis, Stephen J., The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; idem, “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men,” JECS 10:1 (2002) 1–36.

21 Burris, Catherine and van Rompay, Lucas, “Thecla in Syriac Christianity: Preliminary Observations,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 5.2 (2002) 114Google Scholar,, accessed on August 9, 2015; and idem, “Some Further Notes on Thecla in Syriac Christianity,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 6.2 (2003) 337–42,, accessed on August 9, 2015. See also Catherine Burris, “The Reception of the Acts of Thecla in Syriac Christianity: Translation, Collection, and Reception” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2010).

22 Castelli, Elizabeth A., Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) esp. 134–71Google Scholar.

23 Johnson, S. F., The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2006)Google Scholar. Johnson's analysis is indebted to the earlier critical edition of the Greek text by Dagron, G., Vie et miracles de Sainte Thècle: Texte grec, traduction, et commentaire (Subsidia Hagiographica 62; Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1978)Google Scholar.

24 Barrier, Jeremy W., The Acts of Paul and Thecla: A Critical Introduction and Commentary (WUNT, 2. Reihe, 270; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009)Google Scholar.

25 Barrier, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, 52–53.

26 London, British Museum, cat. no. MME 1856.06–23; Barrier, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, 51–52, 61 (figure 13).

27 Archaeological analysis of this cave and its wall paintings has been conducted by the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Institut für Klassische Archäologie der Universität Wien, under the direction of Renate Pillinger. On the archaeology of the cave in which the Paul and Thecla fresco was found, see Pillinger, Renate, “Neue Entdeckungen in der sogenannten Paulusgrotte von Ephesos,” Mitteilungen zur christlichen Archäologie 6 (2000) 1629Google Scholar. For an analysis of the wall painting and its context, see eadem, “Vielschichtige Neuigkeiten in der sogenannten Paulusgrotten von Ephesos (dritter vorläufiger Bericht, zu den Jahren 2003 und 2004),” Mitteilungen zur christlichen Archäologie 11 (2005) 56–62; and eadem, “Paratextual Literature in Early Christian Art (Acta Pauli et Theclae),” in In the Second Degree: Paratextual Literature in Ancient Near Eastern and Ancient Mediterranean Culture and Its Reflections in Medieval Literature (ed. Philip Alexander, Armin Lange, and Renate Pillinger; Leiden: Brill, 2010) 251. For interpretations of the figure of Theocleia as presenting an alternative teaching (of traditional family values) in competition with Paul's ascetic message, see Crossan, John Dominic, “A Woman Equal to Paul: Who Is She?BRev 21.3 (2005) 2931Google Scholar, 46, 48; and Ruth W. Ohm, “The Ambiguity of Interpretation: Paul and Thekla in Ephesos” (paper presented at the SBL Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, November 20, 2006).

28 Haines-Eitzen, Kim, “Engendering Palimpsests: Reading the Textual Tradition of the Acts of Paul and Thecla,” in The Early Christian Book (ed. Klingshirn, William E. and Safran, Linda; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2007) 177–93Google Scholar; and eadem, The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). In her 2011 book, Unreliable Witnesses, Ross Shepard Kraemer is also interested in tracking “what possibilities the story licenses among actual (and differently gendered) readerships in late antiquity” (152).

29 Hylen, A Modest Apostle, ch. 5.

30 ML.MS. 21, ff. 151b–171a:, accessed on August 9, 2015. A diplomatic edition of this Arabic copy of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is forthcoming in Thecla: Paul's Disciple and Saint in the East and West (ed. J. W. Barrier, et al.; Studies in Early Christian Apocrypha; Leuven: Peeters, 2015). On other surviving Arabic manuscripts of the Acts of Paul and Thecla (also unpublished), see Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur (5 vols.; Studi e Testi 118; Vatican City: Bibloteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1944) 1:514.

31 Davis, Stephen J., Orfali, Bilal, and Noble, Samuel, A Disputation over a Fragment of the Cross: A Medieval Arabic Text from the History of Christian-Jewish-Muslim Relations in Egypt (Beirut: Dar al-Machreq, 2012)Google Scholar.

32 ML.MS. 21, f. 151b.

33 ML.MS. 21, f. 152a–b.

34 ML.MS. 21, f. 151b. On the significance of the “crown” and the link between martyrdom and monasticism in early Christian literature and material culture, see Davis, Stephen J., “Completing the Race and Receiving the Crown: 2 Timothy 4:7–8 in Early Christian Monastic Epitaphs at Kellia and Pherme,” in Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity (ed. Weidemann, Hans-Ulrich; Testamentum, Novum et Antiquus, Orbis; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013) 334–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 ML.MS. 21, f. 170b.

36 Burrus, “Mimicking Virgins,” 49–51, 54, 56, 64–65, 69, 80, 82, 84–85.

37 Vander Stichele and Penner, Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse, 92–101.

38 Tertullian, On Baptism 17 (CSEL 20.215).

39 ML.MS. 21, f. 152a.

40 While the full version of her story would have been read on occasion, it would probably have been more common for the monks to hear an epitomized version, such as that preserved in the Copto-Arabic Synaxarion: on published editions of this hagiographical-liturgical compendium, see Coquin, René-Georges, “Synaxarion, Copto-Arabic: Editions of the Synaxarion,” in The Coptic Encyclopedia (ed. Atiya, A. Y.; 8 vols; New York: Macmillan, 1991) 7:2172–73Google Scholar; for an accessible English translation of the entry for 25 Abīb (“The Departure of St. Thecla”), see, accessed August 9, 2015.

41 ML.MS. 21, f. 161b.

42 Haines-Eitzen, The Gendered Palimpsest, ch. 5.

43 Burris (“The Reception of the Acts of Thecla,” 51, 69, 82) shows how Thecla's change of dress is, in fact, especially accentuated by Syriac scribes.

44 In this context, I think that Hylen (A Modest Apostle) does not take full account of such acts of scribal domestication in her argument for literary continuity in the way that Thecla was represented as the embodiment of modesty as a virtue.

45 On the paintings in the Monastery of St. Paul and their recent restoration, see The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit at the Monastery of St. Paul, Egypt (ed. William Lyster; New Haven: Yale University Press and American Research Center in Egypt, 2008). On the medieval program of paintings, see the articles by Elizabeth S. Bolman, “The Medieval Paintings in the Cave Church, Phase One: Continuity” (163–77) and “The Medieval Paintings in the Cave Church, Phase Two: Tradition and Transformation” (179–207). On the eighteenth century program, see the articles by Lyster, “Reviving a Lost Tradition: The Eighteenth-Century Paintings in the Cave Church, Context and Iconography” (209–31) and “Reshaping a Lost Tradition: The Eighteenth-Century Paintings in the Cave Church, Style and Technique” (233–73). Finally, on the accompanying inscriptions identifying the figures, see G. Gabra, “The Coptic and Arabic Inscriptions in the Cave Church,” 275–85.

46 In Byzantine Greek versions of her Life, she is known as Mary but enters the monastery under the pseudonym Marinos. For the Greek text, see Richard, Marcel, “La vie ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommée Marinos,” in Corona Gratiarum: Miscellanea patristica historica et liturgica Eligio Dekkers O.S.B. XII Lustra complenti oblata (2 vols.; Brugge: Sint Pietersabdej, 1975) 1:8394CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an English translation, see Constas, Nicholas, “The Life of St. Mary/Marinos,” in Holy Women of Byzantium (ed. Talbot, A-M.; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996) 712Google Scholar. For an intertextual analysis of the relationship between Marina's vita and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, see Stephen J. Davis, “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex,” esp. 2–5, 31–36.

47 Lyster, “Reviving a Lost Tradition,” 222 (figs. 11.15); idem, “Reshaping a Lost Tradition,” 254 (fig. 12.29).

48 Lyster, “Reviving a Lost Tradition,” 226.

49 Lyster, “Reshaping a Lost Tradition,” 253.

50 ML.MS. 21, f. 152a.

51 ML.MS. 21, f. 152a.

52 Los Angeles, St. Shenoute the Archimandrite Society. ML.MS. 21 (1755 CE), f. 151b–171b., accessed August 9, 2015.My method of transcription includes the addition of final hamzahs, which are generally not included in the orthography of the text. However, I leave other irregularities alone, including cases where a final alif stands in for an alif maksūrah, where either a tā’ or a tā’ marbūṭah stands in the place of the other, or where the scribe “hyper-corrected” in his use of accusative forms. Where such irregularities occur, I usually include a footnote indicating the standard form.

53 Or, alternatively,







60 There is an extra added here at the end of the word .



63 Or, alternatively, “the blessed evangelist.”

64 2 Tim 4:8.

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