Meet Thecla: Christianity’s first female martyr

And other women the Church forgot

“Who on earth is Thecla?” you may ask. Exactly. Thecla is just one of the women who helped shape early Christianity and the Church has largely forgotten about.

“We don’t have a whole lot of information in the 2nd century, but what we do have [shows] that women were testifying to the gospel sometimes with their lives,” says Lynn Cohick, provost/dean and professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in the US.

Cohick is in conversation with John Dickson in the latest episode of Eternity‘s Undeceptions podcast – “Remembering Women” – about some of Christianity’s lost heroines.

In the early church “nearly every early Christian knew her name”.

One of the most influential was Thecla, whom Cohick says had a profound impact on early Christians “for hundreds of years” after her death. This is remarkable given women were oppressed and had no legal standing in Thecla’s area and era.

Thecla was a 1st-century noblewoman who became a rebellious, faith-filled Christian convert upon hearing the teachings of the Apostle Paul in her home city of Iconium (in modern-day Turkey). After her conversion, she devoted herself to the spread of the gospel, witnessing and baptising alongside Paul, despite persecution.

A historical record of Thecla’s ministry (probably penned in the 2nd century) is the “The Acts of Thecla“, part of the Apocryphal book “The Acts of Paul” – an ancient Christian writing that didn’t make it into the Bible’s canon.

Thecla’s greatest claim to fame was becoming the first female Christian martyr.

While many spheres of today’s Church might not know about Thecla, her heroism as a missionary and role model did lead to her veneration as a saint in the Catholic Church. Certainly, in the early Church, “nearly every early Christian knew her name”.

“In the 2nd and the 3rd century [there were] just a handful of Christians who are actually martyred, but we talk about that as a period of oppression for the church by the wider community. So … the few that were martyred became model disciples for others. And one, in particular, was Thecla,” Cohick explains.

"Saint Tekla" by Polish painter Antoni Szulczyński

“Saint Tekla” by Polish painter Antoni Szulczyński Wikimedia Commons

On top of Thecla’s oft-forgotten influence on the Church, her life was also a mind-blowing tale about God’s miraculous power and protection.

It begins, in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, with a young virgin, Thecla, sitting by a window in her house from where she hears Paul preaching in a nearby house-church.

“She both night and day heard Paul’s sermons concerning God, concerning charity, concerning faith in Christ, and concerning prayer,” records the book. Thecla’s mother then gives a report about this strange behaviour to the man to whom Thecla is engaged: “Thecla, for the space of three days, will not move from the window not so much as to eat or drink.”

“It’s a great story,” Cohick recalls. “She hears the gospel and she realised that she’s got a choice: I’m either gonna follow what my family has been doing forever, which is I marry my wealthy fiancé ’cause I’m also part of a wealthy family. And we, as elite, just run the city like we always have. Or I follow this gospel and I begin to think not of what I can gain, but what I can give, what I can give to this world and what I can gain in the world hereafter.”

Thecla becomes a Christian and goes against her family’s wishes by deciding to remain unmarried and celibate, like Paul. When she visits Paul in prison, Thecla is also thrown into prison and condemned to be burnt at the stake.

But, miraculously, Thecla survives. In fact, not a single flame touches her: “When they had placed the wood in order, the people commanded her to go upon it, and she did so, first making the sign of the cross. Then the people set fire to the pile; though the flame was exceeding large, it did not touch her, for God took compassion on her and caused a great eruption from the earth beneath, and a cloud from above to pour down great quantities of rain and hail,” records The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

"Saint Thecla"

“Saint Thecla” Wikimedia Commons1 License

Afterwards, Thecla follows Paul in his missionary work but is again condemned to death – this time by being thrown into an amphitheatre with wild animals for refusing the advances of a Syrian magistrate, in the city of Antioch.

But again, a miracle occurs and Thecla remains unharmed: “They brought out many other wild beasts, but Thecla stood with her hands stretched towards heaven and prayed. When she finished praying, she turned about and saw a pit of water and said, ‘Now is a proper time for me to be baptised.’ Accordingly she threw herself into the water and said, ‘In your name, O my Lord Jesus Christ, I am this last day baptised,” says The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The governor of Antioch who condemned her is mystified: “Then the governor called Thecla from among the beasts to him and said to her, ‘Who are you? And what are your circumstances, that not one of the beasts will touch you?'”

“Thecla replied to him, ‘I am a servant of the living God, and as to my state, I am a believer on Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased. For that reason none of the beasts could touch me. He alone is the way to eternal salvation and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress, a support to the afflicted, a hope and defence to those who are hopeless, and in a word, all those who do not believe on him shall not live, but suffer eternal death.'”

Thecla is undeterred by any opposition and continues her missionary work in Seleucia, where she lives a monastic life in caves outside the city “because she was afraid of the inhabitants because they were worshippers of idols”.

She also became known as a miraculous healer.

Here Thecla is said to have “enlightened many in the knowledge of Christ” and undergone “a great many grievous temptations of the devil, which she bore in a becoming manner by the assistance which she had from Christ.”

She also became known as a miraculous healer, “so that all the city and adjacent countries brought their sick to that mountain, and before they came as far as the door of the cave, they were instantly cured of whatever they had. The unclean spirits were cast out.”

Unfortunately, her healing fame caused her to again become a target of opposition, with the “physicians of Seleucia” planning to attack her.

Cohick retells the final moments of Thecla’s story: “She’s in a cave and she’s going to be attacked. And then, the side of the cave opens and she’s able to step through and be saved from her attackers. But she also dies in the process.”

This slit in the rock, according to The Acts of Paul and Thecla, is the miraculous provision of God, and opens as a voice from heaven says: “Fear not, Thecla, my faithful servant, for I am with you. Look and see the place which is opened for you; there your eternal abode shall be.”

The account ends with the following summary: “Thus suffered that first martyr and apostle of God, the virgin Thecla, who came from Iconium at eighteen years of age; afterwards, partly in journeys and travels, and partly in a monastic life in the cave, she lived seventy-two years, so that she was ninety years old when the Lord took her.”

“Her story just captures the church’s imagination. They think of her as someone who, no matter what happened, she would stand firm in the truth of the gospel and the confidence that God would save her.” – Lynn Cohick

“Thecla becomes this model of someone who gives their all for God and eventually is martyred,” says Cohick.

“Her story just captures the church’s imagination. They think of her as someone who, no matter what happened, she would stand firm in the truth of the gospel and the confidence that God would save her, and would save her in the hereafter.”

While Cohick believes that Thecla – along with several other “forgotten women” whom she discusses on the Undeceptions episode – should be remembered by today’s Church, she adds a note of caution.

“Remembering is important … We need to hear women’s voices and their actions more, but we don’t want to either put them on some kind of pedestal that is unrealistic or fail to acknowledge that the Church also acted at times in patriarchal ways …”

“So I think that responsible remembering is choosing to remember, and doing so in a way that gives full voice to the women without creating a woman that’s not real flesh and blood because that separates them again from us.”

You can listen to the full episode of the Undeceptions podcast “Remembering Women” here