A Modest Apostle: Thecla and the History of Women in the Early Church by Susan E. Hylen, Oxford University Press: New York, 2015.
Since the 1980s, the story and figure of Thecla have featured in vibrant currents in scholarship. Thecla’s activities in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which include courageous near-martyrdoms, self-baptism, and forsaking marriage in favor of a virginal life spent teaching the Christian gospel, have particularly appealed to those interested in early Christian perceptions of gender and sexuality. This new publication brings a fresh perspective to Thecla’s depiction in light of social expectations for women in the Greco-Roman world. For many readers today, Thecla represents radical first- or second-century Christian movements that rejected marriage and welcomed women’s leadership, in contrast to surrounding patriarchal norms—and much to the chagrin of those contemporary and later Christian writers who sought to curtail female authority. Juxtaposition of Thecla’s story with the New Testament letter 1 Timothy has often served to illustrate diverse ways early church communities put Paul’s teachings into practice, with increasing restrictions for women over time in proto-orthodox Christianity.
Hylen counters this common narrative of divergent gender practices among competing Pauline traditions. Rather than characterizing the Acts as promoting women’s celibate autonomy and 1 Timothy as restrictive for women in its exhortations to silence, submission, and childbearing, she argues that “both works share a wider perspective that encourages modesty and submission, on the one hand, and civic participation, on the other” (4). Thus, instead of attributing the texts’ disparate messages about women’s authority to discrete groups with rival approaches, she sees them as different variations on shared cultural assumptions about women, marriage, and leadership.
Hylen draws on cultural theorists to make the point that a given culture produces complex messages about gender, some of which can conflict. For modern readers, the idea of women holding civic office or a high degree of religious authority stands at odds with the ideals articulated in ancient texts concerning feminine modesty, subordination to male family members, and relegation to a domestic sphere. As Hylen demonstrates, however, these things coexisted in ancient contexts. In a chapter on Greco-Roman women’s virtues and activities, she shows that women were expected to be modest, industrious, and loyal to their families, yet often did so through forms of household management and civic involvement that appear surprisingly “public” to present-day scholars. Though hierarchy persisted, women served as active leaders. In the Imperial period, ideals for governance and civic participation drew on domestic models; excelling in domestic virtues was seen as a useful qualification for civic leadership. Women of sufficient means enacted their virtue by wielding authority over slaves and clients, overseeing the production of goods, sponsoring buildings and events for their cities, holding offices such as priesthoods and magistracies, and exercising political influence in the interests of their families. Hylen notes that in contrast to many scholars’ claims, being single may have offered fewer opportunities for exercising power than marriage did, even among the upper classes.
Chapters 3 and 4 argue for the potential compatibility of 1 Timothy and the Acts of Paul and Thecla in the eyes of ancient readers. Literary parallels with non-Christian Roman texts suggest alternatives to common interpretations of 1 Timothy; its exhortations to modesty and orderly household relationships could serve multiple possible purposes or reflect multiple possible circumstances. Meanwhile the letter takes for granted that women occupy positions of leadership and honor as deacons and widows. Similarly, readers of Thecla’s Acts may have understood her story not as one of transformation from conventional modesty to radical autonomy, but as a coherent and familiar portrait of a virtuous woman’s exercise of leadership (albeit within a Christian community instead of through typical civic channels). The feminine silence and conventionally chaste behaviors in Thecla’s initial depiction do not give way to her confident speech and defiant Christian chastity, but justify them. Women in her story exemplify typical combinations of modesty and authority, while Thecla’s newfound Christian piety replaces but does not entirely overturn traditional piety toward one’s parents, city, and gods. In Hylen’s view, the text’s promotion of chastity and elevation of a celibate heroine leave ample room for Christians to practice self-restraint within marriage as well as outside of it.
A final main chapter considers Thecla’s reception in later centuries. Hylen disputes the now-classic narrative of Thecla’s “domestication” by church leaders, who supposedly sought to celebrate her dedication to virginity while erasing or condemning her roles as a teacher and baptizer. On the contrary, multiple aspects of her story are commemorated in early art and texts, and several portrayals affirm her authority. A brief conclusion to the monograph distills major points about women’s modesty and women’s leadership that can aid future research, advocating “an approach in which modesty and leadership are not viewed as opposites but as part of the complexity of culture in the early Christian period” (115).
Hylen’s work follows an important trajectory in scholarship on women in antiquity. Whereas earlier studies painted with broad strokes in assigning states of oppression or liberation to women of different groups or different periods in early church history, more recent studies seek to account for the complexities of evidence that Hylen identifies. Scholars denounce previous claims of Christian exceptionalism that used alleged limitations for “pagan” and Jewish women as negative foils for Christian women’s initial freedom or as explanatory factors for Christianity’s eventual suppression of female authority. Ancient expectations for women are now frequently found to be similar across religious groups in a given period, and it is acknowledged that social class surpasses other identity categories in determining the types of freedom that women and men could exercise. Hylen furthers this work by dismantling common generalizations, offering new interpretations of frequently invoked texts, and issuing a call for historians to craft “a different story about the roles of women in the early church” (4).
Julia Kelto Lillis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Early Christianity at Duke University