Women Apostles: Preachers and Baptizers
This chapter expands the redaction analysis in Chapter 2 to narratives about four women remembered as evangelists. When the longest surviving edition of the narratives about these women are investigated, we discover that each author originally called their female protagonist an “apostle,” depicted her baptizing other people, and performing the types of activities usually associated with male apostles. These four women apostles were Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla.
Relying upon the shorter recensions of texts about women in the early Jesus movements has distorted our modern imagination of the past with respect to the gendered role of women in those movements. In actuality, the longest surviving narratives about these women almost uniformly depict them with far greater religious leadership than do shorter recensions. As a result, an intertextual analysis of the longest narratives about women turns upside down our imagination of the past as a time when only men were apostles and church leaders.
The long biographies of four women whose biographers remembered them as active in the spread of the Jesus movements contain remarkable synchronicities. Each author called their female protagonist an “apostle.” Each described her baptizing (or sealing and washing) other people. Each described her performing various other activities that today are associated with male apostles—preaching, healing, exorcising demons, and other wondrous feats, even raising the dead. These four women apostles were Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla.
This chapter uses three studies to focus on the long narratives about these four women. The first study follows Bovon’s restoration of the narrative about the evangelist Mariamne from manuscript fragments of the Acts of Philip , a text compiled sometime between the second and fifth centuries.1 The second study analyzes a long narrative about the first-century evangelist Irene of Macedonia, and also parallels it to a long history about Nino, the woman who reportedly converted all of ancient Iberia in the early part of the fourth century. The third study analyzes depictions of Thecla in two related narratives, the short Greek Acts of Thecla , which is usually dated second century, and the longer work, the Greek Life of Thecla , which is usually dated fifth century.
From different angles, each study illustrates what should perhaps be called the extracanonical rule-of-thumb for narratives about women leaders: longest is oldest, or, longest is preferred. This rule is especially true to form when it comes to narratives about women exercising religious leadership. When added to the apostle Junia and the description of Jesus’s mother herself sending out women evangelists, these long narratives evince the conclusion that women apostles were rather ordinary during the early era of the Jesus movements.
Assembling a Jigsaw Puzzle—The Apostle Mariamne in the Acts of Philip
Unlike with the rich Six Books manuscript tradition, which includes the long text of the fifth-century palimpsest against which shorter manuscripts can be compared, the Acts of Philip survives only in much later manuscripts, mostly short. Even the longest manuscripts have large gaps in the text, either due to missing folios or scribal excision. The process of centuries of scribal redaction in the Acts of Philip manuscript tradition was so complex that, according to Bovon, even the longest manuscript, the fourteenth-century Xenophontos 32 from Mt. Athos, contains evidence of rewriting, passages omitted, sources added, and individual folios extracted by an unknown hand. Bovon observed that the acts that survived in Xenophontos 32 were “considerably larger and less expurgated”2—but some of the acts survived only in one of the shorter manuscripts, and Act 10, as well as portions of other acts, remain lost.3
Due to missing folios as well as scribal redaction of the text, Bovon and his associates compiled the narrative about the apostle Mariamne using the three most important manuscript fragments of the Acts of Philip. They fit sections together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These three manuscript fragments are the fourteenth-century Xenophontos 32 in Mount Athos, the eleventh-century Vaticanus graecus 824 in Rome, and the fifteenth-century Atheniensis 346 in Athens.
Each of these three manuscripts preserves some of the same parts of the narrative about Mariamne’s evangelical activity, but more importantly, each also preserves unique narrative elements describing her liturgical authority. If only one manuscript were studied, these individual unique elements might be dismissed as the fanciful additions of a later scribe. As Bovon has demonstrated, the texts of all three manuscripts together provide a complex portrait of Mariamne as an apostle.
Who was Mariamne? The Acts of Philip is one of several ancient texts that are not specific regarding which Mary is its protagonist, whether Mary of Bethany, the Magdalene, the mother, or some other Mariamne.4 This lack of specificity is probably because the manuscript is fragmentary and the text was abbreviated over centuries. Most likely it originally included stronger clues regarding which Mary was meant. According to the surviving text, Mariamne was Philip’s sister—but it is uncertain whether this means she was his blood sister or his spiritual sister. Mary Ann Beavis has pointed out that the text says Mariamne “prepared the bread and the salt, and the breaking of the bread,” while Martha served the crowds—here Mariamne’s association with Martha could signify that Mariamne was to be seen as Mary of Bethany.5 Recent research, however, suggests that the presence of Martha cannot be considered decisive, because sometimes later scribes added Martha to scenes that originally had a solo Mary, usually to diffuse, or even undermine, Mary’s authority.6 By this analogy, if originally “Martha” was not present, then Mariamne both prepared the bread and also served the crowds. Bovon, who edited the Acts of Philip, concluded that Mariamne probably represented Mary Magdalene—but pointed out that the oldest manuscript of the Protevangelium, Papyrus Bodmer 5, similarly called Jesus’s mother “Mariamne,” spelling it the same way, and that “titles, metaphors, and functions applied to the mother [of Jesus] in patristic texts appear here as characteristic of Mariamne.”7 Given the fragmentary state of the medieval manuscripts of the Acts of Philip, it seems unlikely we will ever know with certainty which Mary the author intended to signify—Mary from Bethany, Magdala, Nazareth, or somewhere else. For the purpose of this argument, I agree with Ann Graham Brock that Mariamne most likely represented Mary Magdalene.8 What is most important here, however, is that originally the Acts of Philip described Mariamne, like Philip, as an apostle who baptized people.
Vaticanus graecus 824 preserves the ending of Act 8 and part of Act 9, which is where the author repeatedly called Mariamne an “apostle.”9 Atheniensis 346 preserves the first half of Act 8, which explains how she became an apostle. Mariamne stood beside Jesus and “held the register of the regions” while Jesus assigned missions, and—because Philip was afraid—Jesus sent Mariamne to evangelize with Philip.10 Vaticanus graecus 824 preserved an exorcism that paired Mariamne and Bartholomew, who was on the same mission, at the ritual: “Philip said to Bartholomew and Mariamne: ‘Now rise, lift up your hands with the cup that we hold, and sprinkle in the air the sign of the cross.’”11 The text of the same manuscript depicted Mariamne preaching to a woman named Nicanora, as well as Mariamne persuading people to enter a house where Philip and Bartholomew were preaching.12 Bovon argued that since at each step of her missionary journey Mariamne was seen with the duties and privileges of an apostle, and also called an “apostle,” most likely the original composition had depicted Mariamne with a preaching load as full as that of the male apostles.13
Even more explicit pairings of male and female clergy survived in Xenophontos 32, the manuscript which according to Bovon contained the longest and least expurgated text for the few acts which it preserves. For example, according to its Act 14, “Philip was baptizing the men and Mariamne the women.”14
Act 1 of Xenophontos 32 again paired male and female clergy in a passage that depicted blasphemers being tortured in hell. The author wrote that the people being tortured had been condemned to hell because they had “blasphemed against male and female priests, eunuchs, deacons,deaconesses, and virgins with lies about debauchery and adultery.”15Bovon translated πρεσβυτέρους and πρεσβύτιδας (presbuterous and presbutidas) here as male priests and female priests, concurring with Maximilien Bonnet that when an ancient author paralleled masculine and feminine church titles, then both titles must be treated in the same way, which was how Bonnet also treated them when he found the gender-parallel church titles of πρεσβύτερος and πρεσβυ̑τις (presbuteros and presbutis) paired in the Martyrdom of Matthew .16
Sexual Slander as Evidence of Women in the Clergy
The Acts of Philip demonstrates the way that sexual slander, which was used by both pagans and Christians, was leveled against Christian communities with female clergy.17 The Acts of Philip’s author described people being tortured in hell because they had “blasphemed” male and female clergy—male and female priests, male and female deacons, eunuchs and virgins—“with lies about debauchery and adultery.”18 This passage, which portrayed these blasphemers undergoing awful tortures, was almost certainly the author’s literary revenge against opponents who had slandered clergy in the author’s own community.
This type of sexual slander often included a charge of deliberately “upsetting the lamp” during an evening service so that an orgy could take place in the dark. Justin Martyr of Rome is the first known to have used this particular sexual slander against other Jesus followers. He described it as “the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse.”19 This kind of “lies about debauchery and adultery” was probably what the Acts of Philip’s author was complaining about, and indeed, Justin appears to have had in mind communities which had both men and women clergy. In any case, Justin leveled this slander against the followers of two men, Simon and Marcion, both of whom were known to have evangelized with a woman. Without question Justin knew that Simon evangelized with a woman, because in the same passage that he reported that Simon and Helena evangelized together, he sexually slandered Helena, calling her a prostitute.20 Although Justin did not mention the woman who worked with Marcion in Rome, he probably also knew about her, because Jerome (374–420), who lived in Rome, knew Marcion had worked with her.21 Suggesting that Justin Martyr likely knew that women in their community performed priestly duties, including baptism, and that was why he sexually slandered them, only a few decades later, Tertullian, writing in Latin North Africa, apparently knew this.22
Sexual slander was arguably most damaging to women, because their reputations were more at stake in an accusation of inverting the gender roles of good wife and mother. Some writers even leveled the charge of blood libel—killing a baby to bake the Eucharistic bread—against Jesus communities known to have women leaders. For example, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) leveled blood libel against New Prophecy, the Jesus movement which Epiphanius recorded ordained woman bishops and priests, or presbyters,23 and which Bovon suggested could have been the community of the Acts of Philip’s author.24 In a passage where Augustine invoked the names of New Prophecy’s three most famous prophetesses—Priscilla, Maximilla, and Quintilla—he complained, “They give such great positions of leadership to women that women even receive the honor of priesthood among them,” and said, “They are reported to have gruesome sacraments, for they are said to confect their Eucharist from the blood of a year-old infant which they squeeze from tiny punctures all over its body; they mix it with wheat and make bread from it.”25 Justin Martyr may have been the first to reference this blood libel, for he said that the communities of Simon and Marcion performed “the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh.”26
One thus can understand the social dynamic behind the author of the Acts of Philip writing about people who had been condemned to hell because they “blasphemed against male and female priests, eunuchs, deacons, deaconesses, and virgins with lies about debauchery and adultery.27 Bitter conflict appears to have arisen between communities that had male and female priests, deacons, and other clergy, and those which did not. People who did not have female clergy accused Christians who did of upsetting the lamp, having orgies, and making Eucharistic bread with baby blood—and these Christians in turn said that people who opposed women clergy were blasphemers.
It is uncertain in which century the Acts of Philip was composed; most scholars suggest the fourth, but Bovon suggested perhaps earlier, commensurate with his identification of its composition within the New Prophecy movement, which was closely associated with Philip and also very active in the second century.28 Whenever it was composed, whether second century, third, or fourth, it preserves the favorable memory of a woman named Mariamne who was called an apostle, the commonplace of male and female clergy in the author’s community, and also, the witness of a bitter conflict with another community over women clergy.
Irene, Apostle of Jesus
Bovon argued that apocryphal texts were often abbreviated, and he emphasized the importance of searching to find that rarity, a long edition of a saint’s life.29 I found a very long edition of a saint’s life in an eighth-century collection of eleven narratives about early Christian women. Most of the narratives in the collection were short, but one was much longer than any of the others. It was about the apostle Irene.
In 778, a scribe named John the Stylite wrote eleven narratives about women leaders over a fourth-century manuscript of the Old Syriac Gospels, thereby creating a palimpsest. Agnes Smith Lewis discovered the famous Old Syriac Gospels in the lower script of the palimpsest, and edited, translated, and published them in what is now her most famous work. She later published the narratives about the eleven women that had been written over these gospels.30
The eleven translated narratives ranged in length from six to fifty-four pages. The nine shortest narratives contain few markers of female leadership other than the women’s ability to bravely withstand pain when they were tortured. Their torture is so often focused on their female bodies—their breasts pinched, squeezed, or crushed between rocks—that today we might call it violent porn.
The second-longest narrative, about Eugenia, was twice as long as any of the nine shorter ones—and, as might be expected by now, it contained more markers of female religious authority than all of the shorter nine narratives combined. Today both the Roman and the Eastern churches recognize Eugenia as a second-century saint, and according to her narrative, Eugenia read her “book of Thecla,” disguised herself as a eunuch, became the abbot of an all-male monastery where she taught the monks, healed with her hands, exorcized demons, and finally, became the leader and teacher of a group of women.31
By far, the longest narrative in the collection was about Irene.32 The narrative about Irene is fifty percent longer than the narrative about Eugenia and comprises over a quarter of the total words in the collection. Moreover, and consistent with the research above, this long narrative preserves many more markers of female religious authority than all the other ten narratives put together.
The Long Narrative About Irene’s Life
Irene is known in the Eastern Church as Saint Irene of Macedonia, who according to Eastern tradition was baptized in the first century by Timothy, after which, she became an evangelist. The long biography about Irene can be compared to a much shorter biography about her—one-tenth as long—that Stephen Janos translated from the Life of Saint Irene in the Moscow Patriarchate texts. This short recension preserves that Irene converted 10,000 pagans by traveling to various cities, “preaching about Christ and working miracles, healing the sick.”33 This short recension, while clearly describing Irene as an important evangelist, nonetheless omits a great deal that is in the long narrative. As I detail below, the long narrative additionally calls Irene an “apostle,” describes her baptizing people, raising her arms and leading the prayer, exorcizing, sealing, and raising the dead—many of the activities that Mary performed according to the palimpsest text—and also, activities that authors of narratives about male apostles described them performing.34
In the long narrative about Irene, the author first described her upbringing. According to this writer, Irene’s father was the king of the city of Magedo and made sure she learned to read.35 Women’s literacy does not seem to have been as objectionable to later scribes as some other markers of women’s autonomy, because several of the women in the shorter narratives—Eugenia, Marinus, Euphrosyne, and Onesima—were also described as literate.36
According to the narrative, just before Irene was to be married, Timothy came with a letter from Paul. He taught Irene and then baptized her with oil and water.37 Afterward, in a long defiant sermon to her father and other high ranking men, Irene proclaimed herself a bride of Christ.38 She broke idols and exorcized a demon from her city.39 When her father was killed, she turned to the East, lifted her hands high, prayed, and—like the male apostles who raised the dead in their acts—she raised her father to life.40 Afterward, the text says, Irene “remained in the city doing miracles and signs and cures. And she taught the word of truth and instructed many, and baptized them.”41
Male Re-Baptizers and the Apostle Nino
Although the text states that Irene baptized the people in her city, a subsequent passage describes the “holy priest” Timothy coming back and Irene begging him to baptize the people in her city—the very people, including her family, whom she had already baptized!42 This pair of seemingly contradictory passages—both Irene and Timothy baptizing the same people in the same city—is similar to contradictory passages found in a manuscript about the life of Nino, the woman who evangelized Iberia (Georgia) in the early fourth century.43
My holy father patriarch, my mother’s brother, called me and placed me on the steps of the altar and laid his hands on my shoulders. He signed towards the heavens and said, “O Lord, God of fathers and ages, into Your hands I place my sister’s orphan child, and I send her to preach Your divinity, so that she may spread the good tidings of Your resurrection” … and he parted me from my mother and gave me a cross and blessing.45
Consistent with her ordination by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the author called Nino “the Apostle and joy of the Son of God.”46 According to the narrative, Nino baptized forty women in a monastery on her way to Iberia, then preached and baptized with her own hands several tribes in Iberia, as well as their queen.47 Yet, as with the inconsistent passage about Timothy in the narrative about Irene, which depicted the same people Irene had already baptized re-baptized by Timothy, a later copyist sometimes added a male cleric to Nino’s narrative, too. Typically this cleric was a priest, who arrived and baptized the people Nino converted; in those passages instead of the text reading that Nino baptized them with her own hands, the text instead reads, for example, “She baptized the sons of the nobles through the hands of Jacob the priest.”48
According to the much shorter Armenian translation of the history about Nino, Nino did not baptize any of her converts. In this short recension, male clerics baptized all the people Nino converted.49 Not all scribes, however, were as thorough as the Armenian scribe, for in both the long Georgian narrative about Nino, and the long narrative about Irene, the scribes were inconsistent, as if sometimes they remembered to change the baptizer from a woman to a man, but most of the time, they forgot.
Irene Baptizes and Seals
The narrative about Irene contains three more places that describe her baptizing people, for a total of four scenes of her baptizing. The second is another scene of Irene baptizing in her home city of Magedo—where first Irene and later Timothy baptized. After Irene’s father finally died, a new unbelieving king came and ruled, after which Irene returned and apparently re-baptized the people whom Timothy had re-baptized. According to the text, she returned to Magedo and, “The blessed lamb of Christ went into the city, and taught many, and baptized them.”50 The third scene of Irene baptizing says: “She was in the city of Callinicus for thirty days doing signs and wonders; and she cured many in the name of Jesus. She made the deaf hear; she opened [the eyes of] the blind; she cleansed the lepers; and she healed all who were in pain; and she baptized many.”51 In yet another city, Tela, a later scribe appears to have redacted that Irene baptized, because the text says that Irene “won many to Jesus”—but then a priest came and baptized the people that Irene converted.52 In the fourth scene that preserves Irene baptizing, she arrived in Nisibis, and “spent a long time in that city, teaching the word of God and making many disciples. And great was the praise of God because of her. And the number of all those who believed in God and were baptized by her hand were a hundred and thirty thousand souls.”53
This author also described “sealing” in several passages fortunately preserved. For example, Irene, like Paul, had a vision of Christ who “set His seal upon her.”54 Irene herself “sealed” a dying woman—who then died and was taken to heaven.55 Irene also “sealed” a child to exorcize demons from him, and after the demons left, sealed him again and he was healed.56 Finally, she twice sealed herself when she thought she was about to die.57 In one of these passages, “She made the sign of Jesus between her eyes, and on her breasts, and threw herself downwards into the midst of the pit.”58 This language of sealing is likely an archaic reference to the seal of baptism, or perhaps the redemption by oil that Irenaeus of Lyon knew, or the bishop’s signing the forehead of the newly baptized after the bishop’s hand laying ceremony, or some other chrism or chrismation or anointing by oil, several of which to readers of that time likely would have signified that Irene was a bishop, since these were actions performed by or controlled by bishops.59 The text itself presents Irene as the overseer of these new Jesus communities.
The narrative concludes with Irene dying in the city of Ephesus, where “she did many cures and miracles in the name of Jesus; and she made disciples of many, for the citizens held her as one of the Apostles of Jesus.”60 Thus, when one follows Bovon’s recommendation and searches for the longest edition of a female saint’s life, one may discover a long narrative about a woman apostle. One may read about a woman like Irene, a woman called an “Apostle of Jesus”—a woman evangelist, who likes male evangelists, traveled, preached, healed, sealed, exorcized, raised the dead, taught, converted, and baptized many people.
The “Apostle” Thecla Baptizes and Seals
Thecla, one of the best-known early Christian women, was revered in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean as a first-century evangelist who had learned from the apostle Paul and then evangelized on her own in Asia Minor. The best-known narrative about Thecla is the short Greek often called the Acts of Thecla (hereafter the Acts).61 Fifty manuscripts of the Acts have survived from just the fourth to sixth centuries, with a variety of titles.62 The Greek Life of Thecla (hereafter the Life) was far less popular. Although it essentially mirrors the narrative structure of the Acts, it is approximately four times longer.63 In comparison with the shorter Acts, which evidences hundreds of manuscripts, only twelve manuscripts, or important fragments, of the Life have survived, none older than the tenth century.64
Narratives about Thecla reveal the same pattern seen in other narratives about women leaders—the longest narrative preserves the most markers of female liturgical authority.65 For example, the Acts does not once call Thecla an “apostle.” The Life, by contrast, five times titles Thecla an “apostle.”66 Similarly, the shorter Acts describes Thecla baptizing only herself. It never describes her baptizing other people. Just as the longest narratives about Mariamne, Irene, and Nino depict these women baptizing the people they converted, the Life not only depicts Thecla baptizing herself—it three times describes Thecla baptizing other people.
The first time the Life describes Thecla baptizing other people is inside Thecla’s adoptive mother Tryphaena’s home, which the text explains was “more a church than a home”—Thecla “began to catechize and win by the word of faith Tryphaena herself along with a good number of men and girls attached to her service, and by the seal she enrolled them for Christ.”67 Andrew B. McGow an explains, “Baptism is often referred to in ancient texts as a ‘seal.’”68 Commentators thus agree that the passage in the Life which describes Thecla sealing people in Tryphaena’s house means that Thecla baptized them, both men and women.69
Go teach the word, complete the evangelic race, and share with me the zeal for Christ. It is for this reason that through me Christ chose you, to take you up to the apostolate and to put into your hands some of the cities that have not yet been catechized.72
This comprises the second time that the Life depicts Thecla with the right to baptize people. Paul telling Thecla that she was in the “apostolate,” and that Christ “put into your hands” cities not yet catechized, signified that Thecla would go fourth, catechize, and baptize them.
The third time the Life describes Thecla baptizing is in the conclusion. Here, the language is explicit. Just before Thecla died, the author summarized her life: “She had catechized, baptized, and enlisted many people into Christ’s army.”73 The conclusion of the shorter Acts, merely, says that Thecla died after “enlightening many with the word of God.”74
The Life originally may have contained even more passages that described Thecla baptizing. Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson have published an additional fragment of the Thecla narrative, and according to this passage, Thecla told a woman, “If you want your daughter to be healed, receive the seal of Christ. … After they renounced the devil and submitted themselves to our Lord Jesus Christ, Thekla gave them instruction, teaching them the Gospel of God and, anointing them with the oil of gladness, she baptized them.”75
Dating Controversy: When Was the Life of Thecla Composed?
The composition of the Acts is dated prior to the end of the second century because Tertullian complained about a narrative about Thecla.76 The Life is dated later in part because it is longer and therefore is assumed to be later. Yet there are two other reasons it is dated later. Here, I contend that neither these reasons are a valid reason to date it later either.
The first reason the Life is assumed to be fifth century is because in three manuscripts of the Life are followed by a second text called the Miracles of Thecla, which includes some fifth-century personages. Yet the Life itself does not reference any personages after the first century. Gilbert Dagron and Johnson, both of whom have translated the Life, agree that the Life was written before the Miracles.77
The second reason the Life is assumed to have been composed later than the Acts is because some of Thecla and Paul’s speeches, which are longer in the Life than in the Acts, contain fourth-century Trinitarian formulae.78 During the centuries of the contentious Trinitarian doctrinal debates and councils, scribes sometimes inserted creedal formulae into texts, including even the New Testament. For example, a Latin translator of the letter 1 John inserted the Trinitarian formula into 1 John 5:6–7—which is where it remains in my family’s King James Bible, despite that mainstream Bible commentators agree that the Greek manuscript tradition for 1 John makes it clear that the Trinitarian formula was not original.79 Similarly, the sole place that the phrase “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” appears in our modern Bible editions is at Matthew 28:19, yet, according to Jane Schaberg, even this use may have been a dogmatic insertion made after Nicaea. No pre-Nicaean manuscript of Matthew with that verse has survived, but other evidence indicates that before the Trinitarian debates, Matthew 28:19 read like the similar verse Mark 15:16, that is, it did not contain the Trinitarian formula. For example, prior to the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Caesaria sixteen times quoted Matthew 28:19 as Jesus commanding the disciples to baptize “in my name.” Only in writings after the Council of Nicaea did Eusebius begin to use the Trinitarian formula for Matthew 28:1980—“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (RSV). If scribes could insert a Trinitarian formula into a NT text, why would it be a stretch to believe that they would do the same thing to a popular narrative about Thecla, thereby using her story to carry the new theology to the masses? In any case, these Trinitarian formulae do not account for the Life’s long length. At almost every point in the narrative, the Life is considerably more detailed than the Acts.
More significant in my opinion, is the fact that the Life’s scribe actually warned the reader in the preface that extra public speeches had been inserted!81 While warning the reader, this scribe claimed that the text itself was: “received from another history, the oldest, which was followed step by step in the composition. We know only this: we have not undertaken this work in the hope of adding something to what has been said in the past, to write better, or to be more exact.”82 In short, the Life’s scribe both warned the reader about the insertion of the new language, and also assured the reader that, despite these additions, the narrative itself was taken from the oldest history of Thecla.
Peter Turner suggests with respect to ancient authors: “If authors were sincere in their guarantees of truthfulness then this clearly constitutes a reason at least to give the contents of their works a serious hearing.”83 In warning the reader about these theological insertions instead of trying to pass them off as original to the text, the Life’s scribe appears to be sincere. For this reason, when the scribe claimed that the narrative about Thecla was “received from another history, the oldest,” we should give that claim a serious hearing.
The Thecla Tertullian Knew
The most important reason to conclude that the long Life of Thecla is much older than the fifth century is that the Life is the sole writing about Thecla that comports with Tertullian’s complaint about the writings about Thecla. The shorter Acts does not. Tertullian, therefore, must have been complaining about a composition like the Life, not the Acts.
But the woman of pertness, who has usurped the power to teach, will of course not give birth for herself likewise to a right of baptizing, unless some new beast shall arise like the former; so that, just as the one abolished baptism, so some other should in her own right confer it! But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a license for women’s teaching and baptizing [exemplum Theclae ad licentiam mulierum docendi tinguendique defendant], let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office.84
Tertullian claimed that Thecla’s example in this text provided a license for women’s teaching and baptism. The short Acts depicts Thecla baptizing only herself—and no one else. How could other women have used Thecla’s example in the Acts as a license to baptize other people? The obvious answer is that they could not.
The Acts lack the very point about which Tertullian and his opponents argue. Paul does give Thecla the right to teach, but this is not Tertullian’s main concern in De baptismo. Indeed the very fact that Thecla in the Acts is clearly given the right to teach by Paul and does go forth teaching provides a strong contrast to the fact that she is not given the right to baptize and does not go forth baptizing. No one could claim on the basis of the [Acts of Thecla] Thecla’s example as a license for both teaching and baptizing. It is incredible that Tertullian and his opponents would engage in argument over a text which does not mention the point in disagreement.85
Thecla baptizing only herself and no one else in the Acts has led other scholars to conclude that Tertullian was not talking about the Acts. Davies, for example, proposes that a different text, not the Acts, was probably behind Tertullian’s complaints.86 Anthony Hilhorst alternatively argued that the Acts “may well have undergone an abridgement.”87 The longer Life satisfies both of their hypotheses. The Life is a different text than the Acts. The Acts is an abridgement of the Life or of their shared source.
If the Acts is an abridgement, as Hilhorst proposes, that would explain what Johnson calls “syntactical difficulties” in the Acts, which he notes that the text of the Life “erases.”88 These syntactical difficulties in the short Acts suggest that some scribes indiscriminately butchered the long literary Life. Evincing the way that later scribes of the Dormition narrative independently made massive cuts to the text, even the texts of the two most important manuscripts of the Acts—one a fourth-century Greek and the other a late fifth- or sixth-century Coptic—barely overlap. These two manuscripts’ texts are, according to Hal Taussig, “stunningly different in their content.”89 The short Acts appear most comparable to the Dormition homilies—short versions of a much longer narrative, which various scribes sanitized in accordance with what they or their master thought was suitable for reading in churches on a special day, which in this case would have been the special day commemorating Saint Thecla.
The most important factor in dating the composition behind the Life of Thecla is its portrayal of Thecla baptizing other people. Thecla baptizing other people is consistent with Tertullian’s second-century complaint about women using Thecla’s example as a license to baptize other people. The witness of Tertullian itself leads to the conclusion that Tertullian must have been complaining about a second-century narrative like the Life, not the Acts, which only describes Thecla baptizing herself. The witness of Tertullian also explains why scribes so widely distributed their short Acts: Women could not use Thecla’s example in this shortened narrative as a license to baptize other people.
These five long narratives about women—the mother of Jesus and four women called apostles—Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla—were all composed in the Eastern Mediterranean where Christianity initially was the strongest. Given the matter-of-fact way that the authors of these narratives presented their protagonists’ activities, as well as the way several were translated into other languages, these narratives must have reflected the gender norms in a significant number of Jesus communities.
Later decrees such as the so-called Gelasian Decree90—which anathematized the Dormition narrative, the Acts of Philip , and the Acts of Thecla —condemned these texts. Perhaps such condemnations were one of the motivating forces behind some editors who excised the long narratives. In other cases, such as the Dormition narratives attributed to John of Thessalonica and pseudo-Melito, the scribes appear to have been trying to sanitize the text in order to permit it to continue to be read in their church on days that commemorated Mary. Thecla, Nino, and Irene each became identified as saints, which may be why later scribes shortened their narratives—to make them suitable for reading in their church. Based on what scribes excised, one reason for this shortening was to bring the older, longer text into conformity with later gender norms—or desired norms.
When we follow the wrong rule of thumb for interpreting texts about women leaders, we become inundated with numerous sanitized short manuscripts. These later editions then become used as “evidence” to undergird a false imagination of the early Christian era as a time when only men were fully active.
One advantage of looking across multiple long narratives about women leaders in the Jesus movements is the ability to recognize correspondences between texts. This intertextuality strengthens the argument that none of these authors was unique, for example, in calling a woman an “apostle,” because, as we have seen, all four called their women protagonists an “apostle.” This intertextuality likewise strengthens the argument that women who washed, sealed, or baptized other people were common when these texts were written.
Each of the four long narratives about these women apostles describes them “sealing,” “washing,” or “baptizing” other people. In addition, the palimpsest text says Mary “took water, and sealed them, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And she sprinkled (it) upon their bodies; and straightaway they were healed.”91 Given that the seal “was at first simply a way of talking about baptism itself,” Mary sealing women with water suggests that she, too, was described performing a type of baptismal ritual.92 All five authors therefore depicted their female protagonist baptizing. We would not realize how common this depiction was if we did not examine multiple narratives.
Tertullian not only complained about Thecla giving women a license to baptize. He complained about women preaching, exorcizing, healing, and sacrificing.93 Each of the five authors described a woman performing many of these leadership activities. Quite possibly the original compositions described these women performing all the activities about which Tertullian complained. Let’s continue our search for this nearly lost evidence.
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