I recently read the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.
I think it was in an introductory New Testament class that I first
heard the idea that the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament (I-II
Timothy and Titus) were a response to the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
The idea makes sense, at first. In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,”
the apostle Paul’s preaching persuades Thecla, a woman, to become a
Christian. Thecla embraces the Christian path of celibacy that Paul
preaches, so she refuses to marry Thamyris, the man to whom she is
betrothed. According to Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” God
wants people to be celibate. Thecla’s decision is controversial and
places her life at risk. Thecla also teaches people the Christian
In the Pastoral Epistles, we see a different perspective. The
Pastoral Epistles are attributed to the apostle Paul, but many scholars
doubt that Paul was the one who wrote them; there are conservative
scholars, however, who think that he did. When I mention Paul in
discussing the Pastoral Epistles, I will mean Paul as he is depicted in
those epistles, whether he was the person who wrote them or not.
Whereas Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” is very pro-celibacy,
Paul in I Timothy believes that women should marry and have children (I
Timothy 2:15; 5:14). In I Timothy 4:3, Paul criticizes false teachers
who forbid people to marry. Whereas Thecla in the “Acts of Paul and
Thecla” teaches the Christian faith, Paul in I Timothy 2:12 forbids
women to teach. II Timothy 3:6 criticizes false teachers who “creep
into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with
divers lusts” (KJV). Some scholars think that sounds like what Paul
did in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
In short, the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” depicts Thecla converting to
Christianity and rejecting society’s expectations that she become a wife
and mother. I Timothy, by contrast, maintains that Christian women
should marry and raise children rather than alienating society with
bizarre behavior. And II Timothy 3:6 seems to advocate that women stay
at home rather than leaving the household to follow a teacher.
In reading the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” however, I developed doubts
that the Pastoral Epistles were a response to it. Rather, the “Acts of
Paul and Thecla” seemed to me to be using the Pastoral Epistles, or at
least II Timothy.
The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” mention Demas and Hermogenes as
companions of Paul, and they are depicted negatively. Where have we
seen those names? In II Timothy. In II Timothy 4:10, Paul says that
Demas forsook him because Demas loved the present world. Similarly,
Demas in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” forsakes and betrays Paul when
Demas is bribed. II Timothy 1:15 mentions Hermogenes as a companion of
Paul. Moreover, II Timothy 1:16 says that Onesiphorus refreshed Paul,
and Onesiphorus was a supporter of Paul in the “Acts of Paul and
Thecla.” Vridar has a chart here that lists these and other parallels between the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” and II Timothy.
The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” also seemed to me to be interpreting II
Timothy in light of its pro-celibacy ideology. II Timothy 2:18 attacks
a heresy that says that the resurrection from the dead is past. In the
“Acts of Paul and Thecla” 3:4, Demas and Hermogenes want to teach
Thecla “that the resurrection which [Paul] speaks of is already come,
and consists in our having children” (translation in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden).
In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Paul is teaching people to be
celibate and to live in light of the future resurrection from the dead,
but there is a heresy going around that the resurrection from the dead
occurs when women have children. According to this heresy, childbirth
is a sort of resurrection.
I did some research to see what scholarship has said about the
relationship between the Pastoral Epistles and the “Acts of Paul and
Thecla.” My impression is that, in the 1980’s, scholars like Dennis
MacDonald and others argued that I Timothy was a response to the “Acts
of Paul and Thecla.” Later, scholars were saying that these two works
are independent of each other but reflected different views on what the
roles of women should be in the Christian church. Richard Bauckham
argued that the author of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” drew from II
Timothy. And, in the article “I Permit No Woman to Teach Except for
Thecla: The Curious Case of the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul Reconsidered” (Novum Testamentum
54 (2012): 176-203), Matthijs den Dulk argues that the author of the
“Acts of Paul and Thecla” rejected I Timothy and its ideas, while
drawing from II Timothy. Matthijs den Dulk even rejects the idea that
II Timothy 3:16 relates to what Paul did in the “Acts of Paul and
Thecla,” arguing that there are differences between the two.
See here, here, and here.
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