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The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study
By Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
Center for Hellenic Studies & Harvard University Press, 2006
Introduction: The extended epigraph printed on the previous pages comprises the pilgrim Egeria’s journal account of her journey to the shrine of Saint Thekla near Seleukeia (modern Silifke in southeastern Turkey). Her visit occurred in May of AD 384 on the way back to Constantinople from visiting Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Egeria’s journey was not unusual for her time and situation in life. A number of wealthy pilgrims from the West are known to have made such journeys from the fourth century onwards. However, one unusual aspect of her account is this very visit to Thekla’s shrine in Seleukeia: she is the only pilgrim to have made such a journey and recorded it. The absence of any account besides Egeria’s is remarkable given that she describes such an impressive amount of activity at Thekla’s shrine.
Egeria offers a number of details suggesting that the cult of Thekla was very popular indeed. There were “a tremendous number of [monastic or pilgrimage] cells for men and women” around the church, a “great wall” around the “very beautiful martyrium,” and a deaconess Marthana, also a pilgrim to Jerusalem, who was “the superior of some cells of apotactites or virgins.” Given the scarcity of accounts like hers of Christian pilgrimage sites in the fourth century, the amount of information is highly significant. Perhaps the most significant detail, however, is the description of her own worship at the shrine: “In God’s name I arrived at the martyrium, and we had a prayer there, and read the whole Acts of holy Thekla.” For Egeria, her devotion to Thekla involved a story so well known that she only has to name it as the “Acts”. Egeria’s account of reading this story in the martyrium is told briefly and without special pleading—she is grateful to God that she has the opportunity to do this—and it seems an entirely appropriate act of worship in the setting.
What is this story and why is Egeria reading it at the shrine in Seleukeia? The “Acts” which Egeria names is probably the famous late second-century apocryphon called the Acts of Paul and Thekla (hereafter ATh), which details Thekla’s adventures with the apostle Paul and, in particular, her miraculous escape from two attempted martyrdoms. At the beginning of that story, two hundred years earlier in its composition than Egeria’s visit, Thekla is described as a well born young woman from Iconium who is engaged to be married to a young man named Thamyris. One day, while sitting by the window, she hears the Apostle Paul’s voice wafting her way from the neighboring house. Paul is preaching “about abstinence and the resurrection.” Thekla is immediately struck with a desire to be near Paul and to “attend to his words.” On this basis she refuses to talk at all with her fiancé Thamyris, who subsequently figures out what has happened and drags Paul before the governor. The governor throws Paul into prison, where Thekla secretly goes and visits him at night, only to be discovered the next morning and accused of impropriety. This time both of them are dragged before the governor, with the result that Paul is expelled from the city and Thekla is condemned to be burnt on the pyre, to her furious mother’s delight.