Thecla’s story begins at her window. She listens from her window to the speaker whose been invited to her neighbor’s house – Paul of Tarsus. For three days and nights she’s fascinated by the things that she’s heard – so much so that she won’t go to eat or drink or attend to her usual duties. This worries her mother, who calls over her fiance to talk some sense into her. Essentially, Thecla breaks off the marriage so that she can follow Christ whom Paul preaches.
I know, extra-biblical books are often full of heresy and inconsistency – but I was curious as to Thecla’s story because I had heard of her in passing in one of those t.v. documentaries about Christian history and she had a huge following. Even if she herself didn’t exist, there’s a number of martyrs and other memorable Christian women who named her as their personal example; as something akin to the Proverbs 31 woman, only in a first-century follower of Jesus context. Her story wasn’t a long one, she consistently fights off the social pressure to settle down and constantly gets punished for it and constantly gets rescued by God.
Still, it’s terribly sad that for millennia, following God and having a family had been pretty much an either/or sort of deal; especially for women. There really was no option of having a family while following God, or while following God, having a family. As I was reading about deaconesses in Christian history, part of the ordination process was the promise to serve God fully. Any woman could be a deaconess, but she would have to give up her position in order to marry and have children. I guess that was easier than the other way around, abandoning one’s familial obligations in order to pursue a spiritual life. Technically speaking, a woman could have a family and follow God provided that she followed her husband as he followed God; that’s why there’s so many accounts in Scripture of one person believing and the whole household being baptized – Cornelius, Stephanus, and Lydia are the more prominent examples and the jury’s out on who Lydia’s male headship guy was. Men seem to have always had an out, after all, while Paul wasn’t a family guy, Peter was. Paul gave up family in order to follow God, Peter didn’t give up in order to follow God. Even though the centuries – some of the early popes had families, some didn’t. Different churches promote different theologies on that point, some requests it’s leaders avoid marriage; others insist upon marriage. So men get the option of following God as they have families if they so choose.
Tertullian mentions that John the Apostle once removed the presbyter from office after he had confessed to writing the forgery of the Acts of Paul and Thecla – so it goes right back to very nearly the beginning of Christian writings. I’d like to think it was the first Christian fiction novel meant to encourage young women as they chose to blaze their own trails in following Jesus in the face of social pressure to settle down. Sure, lots of the details are wrong, but that’s to be expected in such works. You can read her story here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/thecla.html