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 (more on my site here in connection with the Lycos valley).

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.

For further online discussion of Thecla see, for instance, Nancy A. Carter’s site, The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women.

For more on Tertullian, go to the substantial Tertullian Project site.

2 thoughts on “Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

  1. Phil Harland Post author

    5 Comments

    Angela said…

    It is evident in some early christian texts that some women played a significant leadership role in their communities and were influencial. I feel the need to ask though- how successful could Christianity have been if women continued to maintain these influential roles? If traditional Greco-roman society had a distinct private/public divide where women barely entered the public and were ideally constrained to the private, would a religion that promoted a more full female participation have been accepted by the general population in the first few centuries? I tend to think not.

    8:01 AM
    Sacha M. said…

    Angela makes a good point concerning the success of the early Church. On an unrelated point, I would like to call attention to Chloe (1Cor 1:11) as one of the leaders of the Corinthian church; one that Paul clearly approves of. This is contained in one of Paul’s authentic letters, as oppossed to the Pastorals.

    11:10 AM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Angela makes a very good point, and there is considerable truth to the suggestion that women were (in theory and often in practice) restricted primarily to the private spaces. I do not have the sources in front of me right now, so forgive the lack of clear references to literature. Margaret MacDonald’s book on perceptions of Christian women among “pagan” authors clearly shows that the position and presence of women within some Christian congregations was the target of “pagan” critique. Celsus (mid-second century, combatted in Origen), for instance, tries to undermine the legitimacy of Christianity by suggesting it was made up of a bunch of women and children, as well as the dregs of society. But he might have had the same things to say of other non-elite “pagan” associations, if he were asked about it.

    The public/private divide regarding gender expectations may not always coincide with the realities on the ground. There are clear signs that within “pagan” religious groups or associations (as attested by inscriptions rather than elite produced literature), women could be participants and sometimes even leaders in some groups (though not the majority). And, of course, there are many women benefactors of associations. So some Christian congregations are not all that different from some “pagan” associations on the roles of women in relation to the group.

    But if cases like Thecla (who rejects marriage and the family) are to be taken as reflective of trends in some Christian circles, then the critique of Christianity as a home- and society-wrecker would be a natural accusation, even if some other Christians were expressly trying to counter such perceptions (e.g. the Pastoral epistles). Greek and Roman authors alike saw the family as the basic unit of society, and celibacy could be perceived as a threat to the order of society as a whole. See Dennis MacDonald’s _Legend and the Apostle_ on the Pastoral epistles and Acts of Paul and Thecla as alternate sides of this issue of how Greeks and ROmans perceived Christians. Phil

    4:09 PM
    Laura said…

    Most of these female characters are also interesting to look at in terms of their relationship to males, and especially the male disciples.
    Example: Mary Magdalene and Peter.
    I wonder if certain people or perhaps certain groups of early christians had ‘favourite’ disciples.

    I think Luke is the only canonical gospel which claims that Peter saw the resurrection first. Therefore establishing the primacy of Peter.
    Was this just Luke’s personal opinion (or his source’s opinion!) or was it a point of controversy amongst christian circles?

    I’d like to think that the women were stirring things up back then…

    ;)

    10:17 AM
    glaserildiko said…

    I really don’t think that women took a backseat role in the development of Christianity. They just took a less visible role. If women were ‘in charge’ of the private domain, they would have been influential in spreading Christianity in that area. And early Christian gatherings took place in private homes (the private), where it would make sense that women would play an active, even a leadership, role. (it would account for Paul’s Posse in Rom.16)
    By the way, even though the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter, Mary Magdalene and the other Marys got the news first. Makes you wonder…

    12:53 PM

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