A Formidable Female: Thecla of Iconium

Daily Office reading for The Feast of Thecla of Iconium: Luke 24:1-11

The Gospel reading for the feast of Thecla reminds us that, just as the women who tended to Jesus in the tomb were the first to see the resurrected Christ, some of the earliest most devoted Christians were also female. It is no wonder, then, that this early saint gathered a large female following, in addition to being one of the earliest “cross-dressing saints”.

As is the case with many of early “saints,” it is unclear whether Thecla actually existed. She first appears in the Christian consciousness through the apocryphal book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla … and we are not privy to the kernel of truth that forms her legend. 

Accordingly, Thecla was a virgin of noble class, engaged to a fellow named Thamyris. She heard Paul preach and immediately decided to remain a virgin following the risen Christ rather than marry.  Incensed that his fiancée spurned their marital arrangement, Thamyris supposedly set in motion Paul’s imprisonment and Thecla’s arrest.  She was ordered to be burned at the stake, but an oncoming thunderstorm and hail intervened to extinguish the executioner’s fire.

This was not her only miraculous escape, but one of many.  Once freed, Thecla decided to cut her hair short and dress as a man so as to be free to follow Paul. She followed him to Antioch where a nobleman named Alexander became smitten with her and tried to assault her.  She rebuffed him, tearing his cloak and knocking his crown off his head.  Another woman, Tryphaena, secretly took Thecla in to protect her.  The authorities found Thecla anyway, and she was again sentenced to death by lion. The lioness, however, sensed a kindred spirit and merely licked Thecla’s feet.

The governor did not free her, this time, choosing instead to postpone her execution. Women who had witnessed the lion-miracle cried-out. Still, the next day she was thrown into the arena again, with lions and a bear.  A different lioness defended her from the other animals, sacrificing her life to protect Thecla’s.  Once again, the local women protested.  Additional beasts were added, including aggressive seals in a pool.  Remembering that she had never been baptized, Thecla threw herself in with the seals, baptizing herself. Lightning stuck the seals (but evidently not her).  In the meantime, the women in the arena threw so many flower petals into the arena, the overpowering fragrance caused the beasts still pursuing Thecla to fall asleep.

Thoroughly enraged, the governor ordered wild bulls to be sent into the arena, which caused his relative, Tryphaena, to faint.  The frightened governor – thinking Tryphaena to be dead – freed Thecla to return to Tryphaena’s home, whereupon she again dressed as a man to find Paul.

At least one version of her story has Thecla performing one additional miracle before she died. Having lived as a hermit in a cave for 72 years, healing people and performing miracles, a local physician – jealous of her powers, hired a bunch of young hoodlums to rape the now 90-year-old Thecla.  She escaped by stepping through a rock cleft that miraculously opened and closed behind her. Thecla was never seen again, escaping death entirely, something only few other Biblical heroes experienced. 

It might be easy to dismiss Thecla’s hagiography as nonsense–in fact, most scholars did for hundreds of years. Still, the overarching story of women banding together across the years to embrace Thecla’s courage has led many women to faith. Early Christian writers saw her as the most exalted of virgins, perhaps surpassing the Virgin Mary.  By the end of the fourth century, however, her name became linked to heresy.  Only recently has Christianity began to look beyond the duality of the good girl/bad girl image. 

Why should Thecla and the sensationalized account of her life matter to us in 2022?  She matters, I believe, because Christianity as a whole still struggles with women as ministers. “Brave, uppity women” still complicate the picture in denominations where women are not fully accepted in all orders of ministry.  In this vein, Thecla is fighting patriarchy for us, even today.  

Also of note in her story is the recognition that women banding together can still change the world.  Is Thecla any different than women today who take great risks to educate or empower women in countries where this is dangerous?  I like to think that Thecla speaks through present-day “uppity women”, and that a tiny bit of Thecla is in the DNA of any group of women who band together to lift all women to a higher plane of equality.  I can’t help but think of the women I met in South Sudan from their local Mother’s Union who were empowering women through self-determination projects that were bringing clean water and a source of income to the villages I visited.  They patiently and deliberately were pushing back at the patriarchy of their past society to create a new society where women could read, have job skills, and create women-owned businesses.  I also think of the ways our own ECW groups pushed back at the patriarchy in the United States and became a major force in our churches, and created part of the milieu that would eventually lead to women’s ordination.  Even if we find ourselves rolling our eyes at parts of her hagiography, we still catch ourselves rooting for her.  Her sartorial choices have also created a window to see her as a queer icon, and it should come as no surprise that Thecla is an intriguing and well-liked saint in parts of the LGBTQ+ community.  There’s still a lot to appreciate about Thecla.  Her story is a fantastic one, to say the least–but is it any less fantastic than the gains women have made so far along the long arc of history, through real live women of similar determination?

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as Interim Priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hannibal, MO. 

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