Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

Among the controversies that led to conflicts between early Christians (both authors and groups) was the role of women within the congregations. Leadership was generally undefined and varied from one Christian group to the next in the first century. As certain Christian authors and leaders (such as Ignatius and the author of the Pastoral epistles) began to seek and impose a clear definition of leadership structures (especially beginning at the turn of the second century) there was a tendency to expressly exclude women from the more important positions in the newly emerging hierarchy in some congregations.

The Acts of Paul (and Thecla) (online here) is among the sources that attest to circles of Christians (in second century Asia Minor) who continued to see an important role for women in teaching and leading. The author presents a Thecla who is extremely attentive to Paul’s preaching (which centres on celibacy in this case) and who, in the end, baptizes herself in the midst of potential martyrdom in a pool of vicious seals (sharks?): “And when she had finished her prayer she turned around and saw a large pit full of water and said, ‘Now it is time to wash myself.’ And she threw herself in saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day'” (34). Thecla ultimately goes on to have her own mission of “teach[ing] the word of God” with the acknowledgement of Paul (41) and “enlightened many” (43), according to this narrative. (Translations from J. K. Elliott, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993].)

The positive stance of this author to women’s leadership within the Christian congregations is mirrored, in some ways, in contemporary movements in Asia Minor specifically. The so called Phrygian movement (aka Montanism) was characterized by a heavy emphasis on prophetic authority, and its main charismatic leaders were two women prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla.

But there were opponents to this active role for women, including the author Tertullian who lived in North Africa and who, despite adopting some aspects of the Phrygian movement himself at a later point (esp. the prominence of the Spirit), openly opposed those who (most likely) used the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) to support women’s activity in baptizing converts in North Africa. Tertullian writes the followingin his treatise “On Baptism” (chapter 17; c. 200 CE):

“To round off our slight treatment of this subject it remains for me to advise you of the rules to be observed in giving and receiving baptism. The supreme right of giving it belongs to the high priest, which is the bishop: after him, to the presbyters and deacons, yet not without commission from the bishop, on account of the Church’s dignity. . . Except for that, even laymen have the right. . . But the impudence of that woman who assumed the right to teach is evidently not going to arrogate to her the right to baptize as well – unless perhaps some new serpent appears, like that original one, so that as that woman abolished baptism, some other should of her own authority confer it. But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.'” (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: SPCK, 1964]. Online source: The Tertullian Project).

Tertullian clearly opposes the local people in North Africa who appealed to writings associated with Paul and likely Thecla (the textual evidence for the reference to Thecla is shaky) which had women baptizing and teaching. Moreover, the modern historian should not take Tertullian’s perspective (or the perspective of those who spoke against the elder in Asia) as though it was an objective description of the situation. Also problematic would be to argue from this passage (as does Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 29-32) that Tertullian provides objective evidence that the author of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, “forgery” in some sort of official hearing (see the earlier posts on the “forgery” issue here and here). (Nor is this further evidence that writing in the name of a respected figure of the past was universally rejected, as implied by Ehrman). With both Tertullian and the opponents of the “elder” in Asia, we are witnessing one side of a many-sided struggle over how to define Christian practice within the congregations, and the figure of Paul (understood or portrayed differently) was one of the weapons in the struggle. Polemical rhetoric and accusations on any side of the struggle should not be mistaken for historical description.

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