After watching the movie “Religulous” and cringing at the stupid answers most people gave Bill Maher, I got an idea for my blog: What questions do people have about the Bible, theology, and Christianity? I don’t have all the answers (actually, I find that I have very few), but I do have resources and love research. Here is the first series (they rarely come in singles) of question:
Autumn asked: Who is Thecla in the early church? Was she a real person? Did she really travel with Paul? What about other women in the early church?
Then she asked: How did the books of the Bible get into the cannon? What were the criteria? Oddly enough, these questions are related, and we will see fairly quickly how they intertwine.
Thecla, according to legend and myth, was a woman who, upon hearing a sermon preached by Paul (the great Apostle in the first century CE) about the virtues of chastity, became enthralled by his Gospel message to the point of obsession. This obsession led to the breakup of her engagement and irritated her mother, and she sought Paul himself – that she could learn under him and join him in his travels. Through a series of events that become increasingly strange (to the point that her mother tried to get her killed because she was preaching Paul’s Gospel – there are also rainstorms, a fire, a cave, hookers, and wild animals), she eventually gains Paul’s blessing to be a traveling preacher, much like himself.
You might be asking, at this point, where in the Bible all of this takes place: it doesn’t. In the second century, there was a book called the Acts of Paul which was intended to be similar to the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts, for short). In fact, there were lots of books supposedly about (and by) the Apostles describing them do all kinds of crazy things. We read about Thecla in the “Acts of Thecla,” which appears to have been part of the Acts of Paul.
It turns out that the Acts of Paul was fiction, written by an Asian bishop who had a man-crush on him (I’m not making this up – Tertullian wrote about this). The Acts of Paul, along with the Acts of Thecla and a number of other works that were circulating around various churches, were deemed “not Scripture.” Church leaders decided that the Acts of Paul had been poorly copied (ie, lots of errors made in the copying process), was irreconcilable with the Acts of the Apostles which was well known to be accurate, and was eventually shown to have been made up. Literally. The bishop in question lost his job over this.
This is where the whole “Bible and canon” thing comes into play. Various controversies forced church leaders to actually decide what writings they were going to accept as Scripture, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla were no exception. Too many works were being read and circulated that contained very strange things (far stranger than in the Bible, believe me), whose copies were poorly maintained or overly edited by the scribes doing the copying, or simply went against those works that had been circulating for a long time: like the Gospels, Acts, Romans, etc.
It was not a power play by the church, as some suggest, but rather a more organic process where the most respected works were used as a measure for the others. There were criteria: They had to have been written by an Apostle, had to have been copied accurately, etc. But it was not a way to solidify power, as the DaVinci Code seemed to think.
So where does this leave Thecla? She might have been a real person, but that is about all we can guess. I think it would be very unlikely that she travelled around with Paul and became a great preacher. That does not mean, oddly enough, that there were no women who played important roles in the early church – some of them even being leaders. This takes us to the next question that Autumn asked.
Consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. For the most part, especially after Jesus dies, his disciples (all male) hide, and John mentions that this was done out of fear. As it turns out, they were smart in being afraid. Their leader had just been executed because those in power decided that he was a threat, and as Jesus’ followers, they would be considered suspect. Peter and John run to the burial spot, but for the most part, the important men who were clearly part of Jesus’ inner circle are out of the picture. The big question here is: why?
In times of conflict (for the most part), women were generally safe to walk about in public. The men involved, and especially those identified as leaders, were not. They could be killed if they were found because they were specifically part of the conflict. Women were never leaders in the various insurrections, rebellions, and other bits of violence that took place in that time period. This is why we read about the disciples hiding in a locked room while the women come and go as they please.
But what happens in the book of Acts, when Saul is on his way to Damascus in chapter 9? Saul specifically goes to seek out the “men and women” who belong to this troublesome group. Within the ancient Middle Eastern context (and I suspect this would be largely true today, as well), the only way the women would be included as targets would be if they were also identified as leaders in the movement. While I don’t pretend that this is a conclusive proof of female leaders of early Christianity, it is a trend that ought not be overlooked.
Combine this with the subversive move by John, who describes women as being the first witnesses of the Resurrected Jesus – who then charges them to take the news to the disciples. In the cultural context, it would be stupid to do this. Everyone knew, and various pagan writers end up making fun of Christians for this, that if you want your story to be believable and valid, you have an upstanding man be the bearer of news. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. This, of course, gets turned upside down by John, and I think there is a very subtle message being made about gender roles here.
So much more can be said about this, and it gets complicated quickly, but Romans 16 is also wildly important for this discussion. Paul describes Phoebe as a deacon, and he mentions several other men and women that are important to the church – many in leadership roles. The big name, however, occurs in verse 7: Junia. While some have tried to argue (or just plain assumed) that Junia should be spelled Junias (which is a male name), there is simply no textual evidence. This is important because Paul makes a statement about her in relation to the Apostles.
Scholars argue over this one, but the phrase is often translated incorrectly: “They are well known to the Apostles,” as the ESV translates it, doesn’t adequately capture the meaning of the phrase. It should read (I will spare you the geeky details): “They are well known among the Apostles.” It is a phrase that is inclusive, indicating that Junia was an important leader in the early church.