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Paul and His Female Disciple Thecla

I’m in the middle of talking about whether Paul wrote the verses now found in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, or if they were later added to his letter by an editor/scribe.  To make sense of what I have to say next about the issue I need to provide just a bit more background, specifically about a legendary figure well known in the early church, but not widely known about today outside the realm of early Christianity scholarship.  This is a one-time-household-name: Thecla, supposedly a female disciple of Paul.

Here is what I say about her and her significance in my Introduction to  the New Testament:


Paul’s words (in his authentic letter) may have taken on a life of their own as they were used in new contexts, gaining a meaning that was independent of what they originally meant when he proclaimed them to his converts. Interestingly, the distortion of Paul’s message is explicitly recognized as a problem even within the pages of the New Testament (2 Pet 3:16).

This may be what happened in a series of stories that we know were in circulation at the beginning of the second century among other Christians who saw themselves as adherents of the teachings of Paul. Scholars have long known of a letter, written pseudonymously in the name of Paul’s companion Titus, that endorses a strict ascetic life involving, among other things, the total renunciation of the joys of sex. In his own letters even Paul urged celibacy for the sake of the gospel. If possible, Christians were to refrain from marriage and the fleeting pleasures of conjugal bliss; it was better for them to devote themselves completely to the Lord, since the time of the end was near (1 Corinthians 7). Never, however, does Paul make salvation contingent upon total abstinence.

The end that Paul anticipated never came, of course, but his teachings concerning celibacy survived, and indeed took on a life of their own. Some of the most interesting pieces of early Christian literature are…

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Was Paul a Misogynist?
Paul’s Views of Women



  1. Avatar
    Seeker1952  January 17, 2018

    What are currently a few of the “Big Issues” in mainstream/consensus New Testament scholarship from the scholars’ points of view including, but not necessarily limited to, some that might be of special interest to laypeople? I’d be especially interested in any that are very controversial and/or have serious theological implications (maybe the “empty tomb?). But they could also be questions about big unknowns that have attracted the attention of a large number of mainstream/consensus scholars.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2018

      They are ones that I try to deal with on the blog! For example, women’s roles in early Christianity: a perennially hot topic!

      • Avatar
        Jana  January 18, 2018

        And one I am keenly interested in .. the main reason I left the church at around 17 is because women’s roles were subordinate to men and women were denied priesthood positions and thought innately incapable of mystical experiences. Thank you Dr. Ehrman.

  2. Avatar
    joncopeland  January 17, 2018

    Although The Acts of Paul and Thecla preaches sexual abstinence, it also has several “almost-sensual” scenes. Thecla kisses Paul’s chains. She rolls in the warm ground on which he sat. In another scene, she has her clothes ripped off of her. What do scholars make of these scenes? Seems that the author is trying to write a sexless romance novel. But why?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2018

      Yes indeed — among the most interesting parts! Their appears to be a kind of displaced sexuality going on.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  January 19, 2018

        If you want to sell an ascetic lifestyle, you gotta make it sexy!

  3. Avatar
    3Timothy  January 17, 2018

    I enjoyed recent blogs on cut-and-paste jobs in Paul’s letters, which reminds me that the four “we” passages in Acts seem to be passages from one source (a travel diary) attached to a different work of writing.

    Bart, I read your pages on the “we” passages in THE NEW TESTAMENT text (3rd edition, pages 149-151).

    My question is whether you think Luke did a clumsy job with these passages–or are these passages less jarring in the original Greek? As an editor, Luke should have eliminated first person pronouns so Acts has consistency with third person.

    At the start of his gospel Luke brags that he is a superior writer, but the writing seems off at the end of Acts as if Luke was rushed to finish.

    Do you agree that Luke as a writer runs out of steam near the end of Acts, with the cut-and-paste being clumsy? (I can’t recall your views on Luke as a writer–a bigger topic.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2018

      I’ve actually changed my mind about those passages. I no longer think they go back to a travelogue, but are an authorial device intended to make the reader think he was one of Paul’s actual companions (to lend authority to his account).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 18, 2018

      After the several years I’ve spent pouring over Luke-Acts, I have come full circle to the opinion that they were, indeed, composed by Luke the companion of Paul. (I also think “Mark” was actually written by a Mark the companion of Peter, but that “Matthew” was not written by the disciple Matthrew; rather, it was written by a more Jewish sect less in line with Paul’s antinomianism, and “John” — and the Johannine letters — was written not by the disciple John but by a splinter sect distinct from the Pauline Christians in Asia minor — but that’s a different issue.) Anyway, I’m not the expert here; Bart is. But I do think that the end of acts, which you rightly point out as out of character with the rest of Luke-Acts, actually supports the theory that Luke really wrote them. Just ask yourself these simple questions. Why does “Luke” give so much more detail to the passages in which he uses the first-person plural, indeed, to the point of giving almost too much extraneous details that have next to no bearing on theology, christology, eschatology, soteriology — all the -ologies?

      By way of example, take Acts 27:13-20

      13 When a moderate south wind began to blow, they thought they could achieve their purpose; so they weighed anchor and began to sail past Crete, close to the shore. 14 But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete. 15 Since the ship was caught and could not be turned head-on into the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. 16 By running under the lee of a small island called Cauda we were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control. 17 After hoisting it up they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they would run on the Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and so were driven. 18 We were being pounded by the storm so violently that on the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard, 19 and on the third day with their own hands they threw the ship’s tackle overboard. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

      Now compare that passage to the same author’s recounting of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples in Jerusalem.

      2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

      The first passages describes, in great detail, the typical, and arguably rather mundane, perils of sailing the Mediterranean in the first century. The second passage describes in somewhat detailed, but surprisingly abridged form, an event that, if historical, would be world-shattering. If you were “Luke,” which event would you have devoted the more detail to, the former or the latter?

      Now, many scholars, and I’m assuming Bart is one of them, argue that the sailing passage fits Roman storytelling tropes, and that “Luke” invented much of it to give his gospel some credibility. But one has to ask, if “Luke” was making up that mundane part, qal vahomer, he must have made up most of the Pentecost story as well. And if he’s making up both, why not go all in and recreate a Pentecost story just as, if not more detailed than the sailing story? Why not have a Pentecost story that goes on for 3 or 4 chapters, and sailing story that’s only 4 verses long? Well, the simplest answer (using Occam’s Razor) is that “Luke” wasn’t making up either part, i.e. as purposeful fiction. He was actually writing down everything he knew. And since he wasn’t there at the Pentecost, he didn’t offer that much detail. But he was there for the sailing narrative, so he was able to offer much more detail. Suggesting that “Luke” was trying to put one over on the reader is an assumption that requires one to ignore the obvious — the unimportant stuff has greater detail because the writer was a witness to the unimportant stuff.

  4. Avatar
    doug  January 18, 2018

    You’ve said that Thecla was written about in the second century “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”. Apparently at least some of the things written about Thecla were fiction, but –

    1) Was Thecla a real person?

    2) Or was the character Thecla based on a real person(s)?

    3) And if Thecla (or the person she was based on) was a real person, was she a follower of Paul?

  5. Avatar
    godspell  January 21, 2018

    It sounds a lot like the relationship between St. Francis and St. Clare.

  6. cheito
    cheito  January 21, 2018

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    Paul’s words (in his authentic letter) may have taken on a life of their own as they were used in new contexts, gaining a meaning that was independent of what they originally meant when he proclaimed them to his converts.

    My Comment:

    I believe Paul’s words were deliberately altered to say things he didn’t say. For this very reason, I also believe that (1 Cor. 14:34-35) is not the only place, in the letter Paul to the Corinthians, were the scribes, priests and those who had authority over those who copied the scriptures, edited, changed and/or added and subtracted from the originals they possessed.

    As for what Paul’s words originally meant, well, I believe we have enough of his original words to make sense of what Paul believed about things.

    Personally, I have a problem, not only with 1 Cor. 14:34-35, but also with the very chapter you’re quoting.

    I have a spiritual-gut-feeling that many of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 have been changed to say words, that to me, describes a way an ascetic thinks and believes.

    I doubt, very much, that Paul stated the words found in 1 Corinthians 1:7.

    I doubt very much that Paul said, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

    I only hear Paul in some of 1 Cor. 7. The rest of 1 Cor. 7 was changed, just as words were added to make Paul look like a man who didn’t want women to speak in the Church.


  7. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 23, 2018

    What do you make of Philippians 4:3? I’ve heard that the person Paul addresses as “true yokefellow” (KJV) may have been a spouse of sorts – maybe in a celibate marriage. Could the Greek syzigus also refer to a fellow apostle or someone named Syzigus? Was that a name by which anyone is known to have been known? The request to help reconcile two women who were estranged might suggest the reconciler was female, but is that what you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2018

      Yeah, it’s a stretch. He doesn’t say that she is *his* Syzigus. And I don’t know why he’d have a spouse in Philippi of all places!

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