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Paul the Feminist? The Thecla Legends

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 a later interpolation into his letters (that is, an insertion that ended up in every single one of our manuscripts)  It’s an important issue.  This is the passage where Paul sternly tells women that they are NOT to speak in church.   They can’t only not be *leaders*.  They can’t *talk*.

Wow.  OK, then.  Did Paul really write that?  I’m going to be arguing he did not, that it’s an interpolation (I’m doing this in part in order to show how one can show that a passage is not “original” even if the manuscripts all agree.  It doesn’t happen much.  But *sometimes*).

But to make sense of it, I have to talk about the two views about Paul and women that emerged after he was dead, one that portrayed him as very much on the side of women, a kind of early Christian proto-feminist, and the other that saw him as a complete misogynist, one of antiquities most outspoken.   Both of these portrayals have come down to us in the written record, and have been believed as gospel truth by one set of Christians or another over the centuries.  Is either historically accurate?  And how does it related to the harsh words of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

Today I talk about the view of Paul as an early Christian fore-runner of women’s liberation.  Of course he would not have argued for women’s rights in the way they have been pushed in modern times, in the feminist movements that emerged in the 19th century, erupting big time in the 1960s and 70s (when many of us were coming of age), and becoming far more compelling for far more people in the past few decades.  Paul was an ancient Jewish male, for good or ill.  He wasn’t a 1970s New York feminist.  Still: the portrayal is striking for its day — and can be seen nowhere better than in the one-time very famous legends about his interactions with a follower named Thecla, once a house-hold name in many Christian circles, but now only in circles of scholars and those they teach.

These stories present liberation in a different, and possibly unexpected mode.  They come through Paul’s insistence on sexual renunciation.  People should have sex.  That’s liberating for women?  It can be in a society where a woman is throughout her entire life legally, socially, and morally subject to the authority, power, and whims of a male adult (first the father; then the husband).  What if one didn’t *have* a husband?  That changes the equation.

This, in part, is what the tales of Thecla are about.  Here is what I say about her and her significance in my Introduction to  the New Testament:

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Some of the most interesting pieces of early Christian literature are narratives composed around the person of Paul and modeled, to a limited extent, on the book of Acts, the only narrative about him to be included in the New Testament. Of the noncanonical accounts, perhaps the best known are those that relate the exploits of Paul and his female disciple, Thecla. In these and similar accounts, Paul is portrayed as a hard-core advocate of sexual renunciation, an apostle who preaches the joys of abstinence to audiences eager to escape the drudgeries of arranged marriages and to evade oppressive social arrangements that appear in the guise of established family.

Not surprisingly, those who take Paul’s words to heart (in these tales) are usually women, destined otherwise to live under the oppressive yokes of their future husbands. Thecla’s story is typical of these narratives. Engaged to a wealthy man of the upper classes, she hears Paul’s disquisition and breaks her engagement. She leaves home to follow the apostle and enjoy the freedom of one liberated from the concerns of the body and the domination of a husband. Her estranged fiancé, as you might imagine, is not amused.

Thecla’s exploits are recounted in a second-century novelistic work called The Acts of Paul and Thecla. As the plot develops, her fiancé (in cahoots with her mother, who is set to lose a prosperous retirement from the deal) turns on her and prosecutes her, eventually seeking her execution. She is….

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Paul the Misogynist? The Alternative Perspective
Paul and the Status of Women

19

Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 17, 2020

    This is similar to the message in the Gospel of Thomas, isn’t it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      Read Gospel of Thomas 114 and tell me if you think so!

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  March 18, 2020

        I apparently thought about the Acts of Thomas. The one where Jesus sells Thomas into slavery and he goes to India.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 20, 2020

          Ah! Yes, it certainly promotes complete sexual abstinence.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  March 17, 2020

    “Christian women who, as converts, enjoyed a certain liberation from the constraints of marriage and enforced subservience.”

    This is the negative for a woman being married in the first and second century. But wasn’t the positive that being married was generally the only way for a woman to live her life without resorting to stealing and/or prostitution?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      It depended on so many other factors, I’d say. But yes, teh options were limited…

  3. Avatar
    joncopeland  March 17, 2020

    Was Thecla a historical person or a fictional character?

  4. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  March 17, 2020

    So in your opinion is Thecla a real historic person or is she legendary? Could it be possible that a later writer made her up based on the inspiration of Paul’s view of women in his letters?

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 17, 2020

    Speaking of these legends being popular among women, Thecla comes out as more heroic than Paul by far in this story IMO. Not only that, but she even baptizes herself [not very Catholic of her]. Bart, do you see a connection between the attitude of the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of Paul/Thecla in the sense that both share the attitude that chastity is not just preferred, but virtually required? And is this an expression of proto-orthodox ascetism, or does it contain a Gnostic flavor?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      Yes, that’s often pointed out. Paul does not come off well in the story — especially when you actually read it. And yes, all of the Apocryphal Acts (Thecla is part of the Acts of Paul) promote an ascetic perspective.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  March 17, 2020

    These pronouncements constraining women’s roles in the church were not issued in a vacuum, right? May we intuit from these prescriptions that women were speaking out and some forces in the church perceived this as a problem that needed addressing?

    thanks

  7. Avatar
    fishician  March 17, 2020

    Paul seems to be pretty liberal about the role of women in the church, but I think part of that is because he thinks time is short and Christians shouldn’t bother with sex anyway, so that kind of levels the playing field. Jesus is quoted as saying that in the new kingdom people won’t be married, but will be “like the angels.” Do you think Paul knew this teaching of Jesus, or was it a common belief among apocalyptic 1st Century Jews already? (Gee, no sex in the Kingdom of God? It’s going to be a looong eternity!)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      I think it was both a common belief and a teaching of Jesus that Paul knew.

  8. sschullery
    sschullery  March 18, 2020

    I am reminded of the folk song sung by Joan Baez in the ’60s:

    Oh hard is the fortune of all womankind,
    They’re always controlled. They’re always confined.
    Controlled by their father until they’re a wife;
    A slave to their husband the rest of their life.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      Yes indeed! I’ve returned to Joan Baez in recent months. She was/is absolutely amazing, both the writing and the voice; amazing.

    • Robert
      Robert  March 18, 2020

      Years ago, I actually asked Joan Baez to marry me. Jokingly, of course–‘though I wonder what I would have done if she said yes?

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