(some time between 30 and 200 AD)
This is a story that happened almost two thousand years ago, sometime by the end of the 1st century AD in the city of Iconium – today known as Konya, the seventh-most-populous city in Turkey. It was the hometown of the young noble beautiful Roman virgin named Thecla. She was just about to marry Thamyris, whom her mother Theocleia promised her to. We do not know whether she was at least a bit excited about the marital life, or not. In fact, in Roman society, marriage was seen as a civic duty and moral responsibility. Respectable wives and women, in general, were associated with weakness, powerlessness, passivity, limited intellect, and numerous other deficiencies, and hence, their husbands had full authority over their lives.
What we know though is that around that time a man of beautiful voice arrives to Iconium, and begins delivering feverish speeches, mostly about marriage and virginity. His name is Paul and he claims to be a direct disciple of Jesus the Christ or the Son of God. Paul is quite a controversial figure in the early Christian history – some say that he took advantage of all his statuses being a Jew, a Roman and later a Christian. Prior to his conversion he had persecuted the early disciples of Jesus; yet, by the time he arrives to Iconium, he preaches Lord’s word:
Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be pleasing unto God and shall not lose the reward of their continence.
Thecla listens to his teachings through her window, she remains seated for three days and three nights, neither eating nor drinking or sleeping. She determines to follow Paul’s message. Our major document for what happens those days is the Acts of Paul and Thecla – the 2nd century scripture by an unknown author. Yet it is interesting that we access her story from a narrative which reminds of a romantic novel, and not from a personal diary, a court transcript, or a historian’s notes. Yet, this narrative quite precisely describes the details of the events, which it claims to document, such as:
She stirred not from the window, but was led onward by faith, rejoicing exceedingly. And further, when she saw many women and virgins entering in to Paul, she also desired earnestly to be accounted worthy to stand before Paul’s face and to hear the word of Christ; for she had not yet seen the appearance of Paul, but only heard his speech.
Her fiancé is devastated. Along with her mother, they cry and ask Thecla to talk to them but she is indomitable – she does not even turn her head to them but continues listening to Paul.
Meanwhile, Paul is arrested. The crowd shouts that he is a magician who turns wives against their husbands – apparently there are many more who decided to recklessly follow the beautiful voice. Thecla manages to leave her house at night and visits Paul in his prison cell where she reaffirms her commitment to follow him and his teachings. She kisses his feet and his chains, we don’t know if anything more between them happens that night. In fact, Saint Paul had said later:
So that the revelations of God would not make me too proud, God gave me a Satan who always slaps me.
Of course, we are curious to know what that Satan would be. However, when Paul is taken back to see the governor, she remains in the cell rolling about in the spot where he sat. Paul’s odor is, for Thecla, the smell of heaven. The governor then commands to bring her as well, and asks her:
Why wilt thou not marry Thamyris, according to the law of the Iconians?
But she stands silent and throws a fervent gaze at Paul. Her mother Theocleia then loses control and cries out, saying:
Burn the lawless one, burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theatre, that all the women which have been taught by this man may be affrighted.
While Thecla faces being burned alive, Paul is beaten and driven out of the city. As she enters the theatre – and people used to be executed in the theatre – she looks around for Paul, and, instead, sees the Lord sitting as Paul. She walks naked to the fire and the governor is amazed at her “power”. The fire burns but Thecla is saved by a violent storm with hail that kills most of the other people in the theatre.
Meanwhile, Paul has fled the city and is staying in a nearby cave. Soon, Thecla finds him and they are reunited, she begs Paul to allow her go with him and continue his ministry together, she even promises to cut her hair to look less like a woman. However, he refuses saying that she is too young and beautiful, and might yet draw men into temptation. Afterwards, they both arrive in the city of Anthea, where Thecla’s beauty arouses the desire of Alexander, the leading figure in the city. When Alexander tries to embrace her, Thecla tears his coat and knocks his crown from his head. At such provocation he has her taken to the governor who condemns her to the wild beasts in the arena.
Before her execution, Alexander asks to speak to Thecla again but she refuses, even though she knows that humility could save her. Thecla enters and the beasts attack her. Yet, a lioness protects her from a monstrous bear and then dies while killing a lion. Thecla rises her hands in prayer and plunges into a pool filled with aggressive seals. Suddenly there is a lightning strike which kills all the seals. Thecla emerges with a cloud of fire covering her nakedness. Even more beasts are set out but many women in the crowd throw herbs and spices into the arena to calm the animals.
Meanwhile, Thecla’s patroness Tryphaena faints out of horror, and the governor gets terrified because Tryphaena is related to the emperor. If she were dead at the emperor’s sponsored spectacle it could cause immense trouble for the governor himself, and he stops the spectacle.
Later Thecla travels to Myra in search for Paul. For the journey she dresses as a man and is joined by a group of young women – she gains immense popularity. Once reunited, Paul finally accepts her commitment and they continue teaching the word together.