St. Thecla: Transvestite Saint and Woman Apostle by Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, BibleThe 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.

Thecla, Paul, Ephesus, Transvestite, Saint, Byzantine, Woman Apostle

Cave Painting of Thecla found at Ephesus               Image found at http://emu.edu/now/ports-of-paul/2012/10/24/with-women-in-ports-of-paul/

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.

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Categories: Archaeology, Bible, Catholicism, Female Saints, Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church

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19 replies

  1. I looked up Thecla and found this which adds that Thecla was an apostle for about 70 years; in light of that, I wonder how significant disguising herself as a man to excape really was. She seems to have viewed Jesus as her bridegroom, which suggests she was not transgender.

    Thekla was born in Iconium (modern Konya, Turkey) to wealthy parents. After having heard St. Paul speak when she was eighteen years of age, she decided she must follow Christ and abandon her plans to marry. Her mother and her fiancé were opposed to this decision, and their accusations to the governor landed St. Paul in prison. St. Thekla slipped away from her house to visit St. Paul, having bribed the guards with her gold jewelry to gain entrance.

    At his trial, St. Paul was banished from the city, and Thekla refused to change her mind against the threats from her mother and the governor. She was firm in her conviction to devote herself to Jesus Christ the Bridegroom. Her mother, enraged, persuaded the judge to sentence Thekla to burn to death. Emboldened by her love for Christ, she made the sign of the Cross over the flames and was surrounded by a light, untouched by the flames. Rain, and hail extinguished the fire, and, with thunder, helped to drive away those who wished to put her to death.

    She sought out St. Paul and his companions, including St. Barnabas, who were hiding in a cave near the city, and proceeded to spread the Gospel of Christ with them in Antioch. Throughout her life, she performed many miraculous feats and suffered many tortures to give glory to God. Having retired to a desolate region of Isaurian Seleucia with the blessing of St. Paul, Thekla continued to preach God’s word.

    When St. Thekla had reached the age of 90, pagans appeared with the purpose of killing her. St. Thekla called on Christ, and a large rock split open, covering her. Thereafter, she offered up her soul to the Lord.
    http://www.antiochian.org/node/16752

    There is also a later saint born on the island of Lesbos in my village, of the same name.
    http://www.antiochian.org/node/16869
    She has a church in our village, and her name day is not as given in the above citation, but rather in summer.

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    • I refer to Theca as transvestite not transgender. The term transvestite in late antiquity has a different connotation then today. The term is normally used to describe women who dressed as a man (even cutting her hair applies). It is taking on the appearance of man that she “returns to the form of Adam” and can thus be saved. In this story there are two references to that act. However, of the transvestite stories, hers is the most unique (and intriguing once you line up elements with the pastoral epistles).

      Thank you for your information. There are some slight variations in her story, one of which has an alternate ending. Her story existed in oral tradition before being penned. Plus, about 12 other stories that contain similarities to thus one are known. I have seen her name spelled at least 3 ways and would not be surprised if the last example you refer to is another variation of this same story.

      I think the beauty of this story is the demonstration of female apostleship and, along with the other stories, a resourcefulness to claim salvation that the church otherwise denied women – unless they became men.

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      • willl stay tuned for more on the questions about denying femaleness, transgenderism, transvestism, the safety of wearing men’s clothes, and so forth in your future posts…

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    • Thank you so much, Carol P. Christ, for giving us an unpolluted, traditional catholic summary of this great saint!

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  2. Thank you so much for introducing us to St Thecla. I am glad to know her.

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  3. This is really interesting, but who on earth would have a crush on Paul of all people???

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  4. Thanks for telling the full story of this heroic transvestite woman saint!

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  5. crush on Paul…well I read somewhere, may be Bertrand Russel says this: St. Dominic, the Founder of the Order of Preachers, was only happy in the company of nubile women. Thecla, did not know of her…this is an amazing blog…I am a practicing Hindu Brahmin who has specialized in Christian theodicy…living and working in a remote part of India. I am interested in this blog particularly since we Hindus can learn a thing or two from your concept of spirituality. Not the hierarchical concept…incidentally, one of the reasons given by a Catholic writer recently why women cannot be priests is that the Episcopal Church in New York is selling its building to stay afloat in this financial climate. I have never been to New York or the US for that matter. Hmm…and here you write what should be written. thanks again.

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  6. Didn’t see any evidence of St. Thecla being transvestite in your article. If you’ve ever read St. Paul’s work you’d know that it was highly unlikely that either Paul or Thecla would be interested in persuing that behaviour.

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    • I am quite familiar with Paul and Theclas work and I think that you misunderstand the term transvestites in Late Antiquity. It is has nothing to do with sexuality and the word is understood in a completely different way in the 5th/6th century CE.

      Moreover, transvestites in that time period were almost always women. The early Church Fathers made it clear that the only way to attain salvation is to become a “man” (a return to Adam). The answer to this was one of creativity and persistence – it was an assertion of right to claim salvation. Women would take on the appearance of a man – cutting the hair is a big factor and the dress is the other. The women in the 13 stories broke stereotypes, went against what was expected of them. Most would live in monasteries (a monastic life), and stories exist about not menstruating and breasts shrinking. The message was this, women can be as holy as men, which is usually the conclusion (sometimes even a shock and awe) of the stories.

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    • Read the article & comments for explanation please

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