St. Thecla: Transvestite Saint and Woman Apostle by Michele Stopera Freyhauf
The story of Thecla is an intriguing one – it is above all a story that demonstrates a woman in active ministry – a story that shows a woman as an Apostle. The story found is found in the apocryphal literature called Acts of Thecla (sometimes found in “The Acts of St. Paul and Thecla) and seemed to attract the ire of Tertullian and the writers of the Pastoral Epistles. In fact, some of the names in this story also appear in the New Testament writings. Thecla used to be a Saint in the Catholic Church, and is still a Saint in the Byzantine Rite. Please note that what I say here is not my original work but a compilation of various interpretations of stories about St. Thecla.
St. Paul was travelling in Iconium with his two companions, Demas and Hermogenes. They were offered hospitality at the house of Onesiphorus. Paul was giving a sermon praising virginity, stating that eternal reward awaits anyone who lives a chaste life. Thecla overheard his sermon from her window and became enamoured by his teaching to the point that she was unable to move from her window for three days and three nights.
Infuriated and with the prompting of Paul’s two companions, Thamyris, Thecla’s fiancé, gathered a group of citizens who took Paul to the local magistrate and accused him of influencing the citizens with unnatural teachings. Paul was remanded to prison to await trial. Later that night, Thecla bribed a prison guard and visited Paul in his cell to receive further teachings. Her family learned of her absence and frantically searched for her. When they found her with Paul, they were enraged. They dragged both before the judge who ordered Paul whipped and expelled from the city. Thecla was condemned at the insistence of her mother by being burned alive in the theatre. Taken to the theatre, she was stripped naked and tied to a pole. She found comfort in a vision of Christ who bore a aresemblance to Paul. The pyre was set blazing around her. Miraculously, a hailstorm from heaven extinguished the fire and killed many of the observers. Thecla escaped and started to search for Paul.
Thecla found Paul six days later. She told him that she would cut her hair and follow him. Paul warned her that she would face another tribulation, worse than the first. He urged her to be prepared to endure it. In response, Thecla begged for the seal of Christ, asking to be baptized, so that she would have the strength necessary to resist temptation and endure this trial. Paul refused and told her to be patient.
They travelled to Antioch where Alexander, a provincial high priest was struck by Thecla’s beauty. He embraced her at the marketplace. She resisted him by tearing his clothes and knocking the crown that bore Caesar’s image from his head. Because of her actions, she was arrested and ordered thrown to the beasts. Until the time of her sentence, Thecla begged that she be permitted to maintain her chastity. She was permitted to stay with the rich and powerful Queen Tryphaena, a relative of Caesar. In their short time together, Tryphaena grew found of Thecla.
When the day came for Thecla to be executed, she was repeatedly exposed to a series of animals. She baptized herself in the amphitheatre trench and remained unharmed. Just as she was about to be drawn between two bulls, Tryphaena swooned and fainted. The festival abruptly came to a halt for fear of reprisal from Caesar. To the joy of the community, and especially the women, Thecla was released and stayed with Tryphaena for eight days. During that time, Thecla converted the entire household.
Longing for Paul, Thecla dressed as a man and together with a large group of people went to the city of Merou. Upon finding Paul, she announced that the one who commanded her to preach baptized her. Paul acknowledged her mission and sent her home to Iconium to continue preaching. Upon returning to Iconium, she learned that Thamyris had died. Her mother still had hardened her heart and remained immune to her message. After leaving Iconium, she went to Seleucia where she ministered to many. She lived as a hermit performing miraculous cures until a district physician became upset with her. People would seek her out instead of coming to him. In response, he hired a group of people to “ravish her.” Hearing this, she fled and went into a rock that miraculously opened and closed her in, never to be seen again.
In future articles, I will address the correlation of this story to the Pastoral Epistles, Tertullian’s document on Baptism, as well as provide other examples of Transvestite Saints in Byzantine Church, stories with similar plots or circumstances. Stories that always seem to shock men (usually monks) because they are surprised to find that women can indeed be holy and devout Christians.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.