The Acts of Paul and Thecla is an alternate name for a second-century apocryphal writing also known as The Acts of Thecla. In this work, a young woman named Thecla hears Paul preaching in Iconium and becomes a zealous convert. The message that attracts her to Paul is his teaching on chastity and celibacy. She breaks off her engagement, and she follows Paul to jail where she bribes the jailers and spends a night listening to him describe Christian doctrine. She is then sentenced to death by burning at the stake. According to the story, Thecla is saved from the fire by a miraculous downpour of rain. She escapes to find Paul again, and they travel to Antioch.
After Paul tells her to wait for baptism, Thecla is nearly raped by a nobleman in Antioch, arrested for fighting off her attacker, and again sentenced to death. This time, she is thrown nearly naked into an arena full of wild animals. A lioness protects her, and Thecla jumps into a pool full of seals, as a self-baptism. According to this story, seals are man-eaters, but Thecla is covered by heavenly fire that kills the animals. A third attempt is made to kill her, via bulls, but she is once again saved by supernatural fire.
At this point, the locals give up trying to kill her. Thecla converts many people through her testimony and then, dressed as a man, goes in search of Paul once more. When she finds him in Myra, he commissions her as a teacher. Thecla takes a vow of absolute celibacy and encourages women to follow the Lord and remain unmarried. She becomes a hermit, living in cave, which supernaturally closes around her to protect her from another attempted rape. According to The Acts of Paul and Thecla, her life is spent in prayer, teaching, and performing healing miracles. After 72 years as a hermit, Thecla leaves to see Paul again, in Rome, but he is executed before she arrives, and she lies down by his grave.
The Acts of Thecla appeared around the end of the second century. It is similar to other Christian-flavored writings rejected by the early church, such as The Apocalypse of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas. The Acts of Paul and Thecla contains several non-biblical embellishments. For example, Thecla’s miraculous experiences are highly flamboyant; in contrast, most biblical miracles are (relatively) understated. She baptizes herself, a practice never found in Scripture. Paul commissions her as a teacher and female apostle, in violation of his own words in 1 Timothy 2:12. And the book promotes speaking to the dead and praying for the dead that they may obtain eternal life (8:5–7).
The Acts of Paul and Thecla seems to have been popular in its day, but the leaders of early Christianity rejected it as false. The Acts of Thecla is interesting as one of the few early books to include a physical description of the apostle Paul: “A man . . . of a low stature, bald on the head, crooked thighs, handsome legs, hollow-eyed; had a crooked nose; full of grace; for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel” (1:7).
A major problem with The Acts of Paul and Thecla is its focus on unbiblical views of sexuality. For example, the book puts these words in Paul’s mouth: “Blessed are they who have wives, as though they had them not; for they shall be made angels of God” (1:16). And another ludicrous beatitude: “Blessed are the bodies and souls of virgins; for they are acceptable to God, and shall not lose the reward of their virginity, for the word of their Father shall prove effectual to their salvation in the day of his Son, and they shall enjoy rest forevermore” (1:22). Such teachings conflict with the Bible’s principles concerning marriage and sex. Husbands and wives are not to leave each other or deprive one another of sex (1 Corinthians 7:5, 10–14). Celibacy and asceticism do not earn salvation. Paul condemned those who forbid others to marry (1 Timothy 4:3).
The emphasis on virginity and total denial of the flesh makes The Acts of Paul and Thecla a Gnostic writing. Ancient Gnosticism saw the body and all material things as inherently evil. Thecla’s conversion is partly attributed to her desire to be “blessed” for abstaining from sex, pleasure, and so forth. This teaching on celibacy has made the book popular with those who believe that chastity is a requirement for spiritual service, such as in Catholicism. In fact, the Catholic Church has made Thecla a saint worthy of veneration—despite the fact that she probably never even existed.