The Acts of (Paul) and Thecla: a romance about chastity

This past week I’ve been leading a small group (quite small!) through the 2nd century text, ‘The Acts of Paul and Thecla’. It’s a very interesting text which relates the story of how a young betrothed woman in Iconium meets Paul, becomes entranced by the teaching of Christ, goes through various trials, and emerges as an independent Christian teacher and leader.

One of the very intriguing features of the text is that it is essentially an ‘Ancient (Christian) Novel’, drawing on the structures of other ancient novels of the same period, but refracted through a Christian lense. That creates a very interesting dynamic, because ancient novels are, by genre, romances involving a pair of paramours who go through various trials to be united at the end. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is similarly constructed, so that it is a romance between Thecla and Paul. But with a twist! Already by the time of this text a strong strand of early Christianity is placed on sexual chastity, and particularly virginity and abstinence. While Thecla and Paul are depicted in romantic terms, they are in a romance that is united primarily by a devotion and affection for Christ. The sexual undertones are employed to depict the triumph of chastity, and the threats to Thecla repeatedly center around threats to her virginity. In this way the text artfully (re)combines what appear to be two disparate motifs (romance and perpetual chastity) into a romance about chastity in which the narrative climax and resolution is not the sexual union of the two protagonists, but the tension and danger of sexual threat to the female protagonist, and the conquest of that threat and the victory of virginity.

There’s much, I’d say, to find theologically problematic, even disturbing, in this novel, but that’s no reason not to read it. As I keep saying, our knowledge of ‘Koine’ as a language, and our understanding of early Christianity, are only ever enhanced by stepping outside the Canonical Garden.

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