The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study

  Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald. 2006. The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study. Hellenic Studies Series 13. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix 2: The Reception of the Acts of Paul and Thekla in Late Antique Sermons (Pseudo-Chrysostom and Severus of Antioch)

The close reading of the Life offered in Chapter One above is designed to illustrate the literary activity of one writer on one text. The Life is a literary paraphrase of the ATh that exhibits certain choices in language and technique unique to its author and setting. However, it is hoped that this analysis also has important things to say about late antique literature and religious culture more widely. With this in mind, I would like now to present and analyze briefly below two late antique sermons that receive the legend of Thekla and change it in a similar way to the Life. The homilists’ changes to the original story reveal, along with the Life, the diversity of the reception of early Christian literature in late antiquity.

The first sermon comes from the large and varied corpus of writings falsely attributed to John Chrysostom. Most of these texts have been shown on manuscript evidence to originate in the fifth and sixth centuries. [1] This Panegyric to Thekla is on that basis assumed to come from this period, even though no firm date can be offered. [2] Despite the fact that this sermon is relatively short (a few columns in PG) its reception and re-presentation of the Thekla legend is interesting on a number of counts.

Severus proceeds after a lengthy introduction to recount the whole story of Thekla as recorded in the ATh. A few details of his narration are worth mentioning. First, he pinpoints her hearing Paul’s teaching for the first time at the window as the exact moment at which Thekla “fulfilled the image of the Church” (mmalya l-yuqnah d-ʿidta): as if she were an iconographer painting its image through her life. Severus includes no reflection on the writer who penned the legend; rather, Thekla accomplished it all herself. [20] Second, when she visits Paul in prison, she learns from his chains, as the Church does, “how to suffer for Christ.” [21] Thekla’s intellectual growth through the course of the narrative thus becomes paradigmatic for apostolic history as a whole. For instance, Severus goes on to adduce Matthew 16:18 in describing God’s quenching of the flame on the pyre in Iconium:

Severus’ use of a verse typically associated with the West in this period demonstrates very well the creativity with which he is intertwining a parainetic ecclesiology and Thekla’s legend. Thirdly, and finally—though there is much more of interest in his retelling—Severus addresses directly the question of Thekla’s right to teach, which (he affirms) she inherited from Paul. [
23] He poses some rhetorical questions:

Severus’ answer to these questions is ultimately an appeal to her presence with Paul, but his analogy between her and the Church also saves him. “In effect, Thekla was in possession of, before the [male] appearance (ʼeskima), the force of the reality (ḥayla da-ʿbada).” [
25] Thus, the intricacy of his audacious dual exposition of Psalm 45 and Thekla’s legend serves the complementary purpose of rescuing Thekla’s legitimacy as a virginal model.

Severus’ conclusion places Thekla at Seleukeia, as in the ATh, but he is also clearly aware of secondary traditions. “She committed (ʼagʿlat) her body to the earth,” he says, “[where] it is now hidden in a holy and glorious temple and does those things that are proper to Thekla, that is to say, healings and wonders (ʼasyawata w-tedmrata).” Severus seems to imply here something similar to the Life: that she went into the ground of her own volition and did not die, even though he states that her body is still present there, in contradiction to the LM. Nevertheless, her continuing spiritual existence at Seleukeia, well known in the LM, is consciously affirmed in a way that also affirms the Church’s own spiritual activity at Seleukeia “in a joyous and peaceful manner” and in the whole world. He reveals at the end the location of his own sermon, that is, “the church dedicated to the name/memory of Stephen and indeed of her [Thekla].” [26] Like the author of the Life, Severus reminds his audience that these two form a pair because they stand as the first martyrs of the Church, male and female. [27] At this point, therefore, his analogy between Thekla and {236|237} the Church breaks down somewhat while he ponders Thekla’s place in the company of martyrs (no doubt in remembrance of her feast day, 24 September). In his final exhortation he speaks specifically to the virgins, pointing to Thekla as “an image of perfection similar to the Mother of God” and “the first of the martyrs,” and he encourages them “to imitate her intellectual beauty (šupra methawnana).” [28] Thus, even though Severus has interrupted the analogy, he returns at the end to the maternal theme he emphasized at the beginning and thereby constructs a unity of metaphor and presentation that far surpasses the pseudo-Chrysostomic sermon.

How, then, does Severus fit into the history of the reception of Thekla in late antiquity? It should be emphasized up front how audacious the conception of this compact sermon really is: in the sense that it places Thekla into a grand literary endeavor similar to, though more subtle and much shorter than, the LM. Whereas the extension to the ATh and the pseudo-Chrysostomic sermon reify Thekla’s virginity—of course, already reified to some degree in the ATh itself—Severus’ sermon actually seeks to unpack the reification and re-apply Thekla’s legend, subverting the traditional picture by proposing an analogy (or even an allegory) of her and the Church. The element of surprise in Severus’ sermon is unique to him—perhaps somewhat present in the Miracles also—and shows the high level to which the best late antique writers could take cultic and literary intertextuality. While he shares certain narrative devices with the Life, his presentation is not dominated by narrative, and at points the original story—which, to reiterate, he includes in toto—runs with real fluidity. This is a very different experience from reading the Life, with its plodding speeches and formal Greek. Severus has, in fact, improved on the ATh both in narrative speed and elocution: he assumes some knowledge of the legend but nevertheless furnishes his audience with the whole story, all the while pointing to a larger, more homiletically powerful theme.

Although the Life and Severus’ sermon represent different genres, a comparison of their use of source material proves instructive. The genre of the paraphrase, at least as it is deployed in the Life, seems like much more of a school exercise which the author is working through, not feeling that he has something new to contribute, even though he claims that he does. The immediacy of Severus’ appropriation of Thekla is plain from the beginning, where he starts, however, with neither Thekla or the Church but with Psalm 45, and he continues to interweave this text at various points throughout the {237|238} sermon. Overall, the sermon is convincing in a way that the Life is not. The Life is an important work from late antiquity in terms of its length, in terms of its genre, in terms of its reorientation of the legend towards Seleukeia, and in terms of its author’s unique self-presentation. However, in terms of literary value and success, Severus’ collage of Thekla, Pauline ethical texts, Psalm 45, and late antique ecclesiology is a greater achievement of creativity and authorial control. {238|}


[ back ] 1. For “Pseudo-Chrysostom” see Aldama 1965, though much unedited material still awaits scholarly attention.

[ back ] 2. The text of the Panegyric exists in two parts: the majority of the text is printed in PG 50, cols. 745–748, but Aubineau 1975:351–352 provides the three concluding paragraphs. See BHG 1720 for full manuscript details. See also the translation and short analysis by MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986.

[ back ] 3. Trans. MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986:154. See also their discussion of Thekla in iconography (157–159), along with the fuller study of Nauerth and Warns 1981.

[ back ] 4. MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986:153.

[ back ] 5. Trans. MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986:155.

[ back ] 6. Nauerth and Warns 1981 presents two hypotheses on the icon relating to why the sermon does not recount the story more precisely: either the diptych represents a more primitive version of the legend (49), or its actually an image of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne on horseback being reinterpreted ex tempore in a Christian festival setting (72–81). They suggest this sermon was delivered in Pisidian Antioch, a city known for its plethora of classical statuary, but there is little evidence to support this suggestion.

[ back ] 7. Trans. MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986:156.

[ back ] 8. Trans. MacDonald and Scrimgeour 1986:156–157.

[ back ] 9. The new scene could thus be 1) a re-interpretation of Apollo/Daphne (n. 6 above), 2) a much-streamlined version of the attack on Thekla by the thugs in the ATh extension, or 3) as Aubineau suggests, “un épisode inconnu de la vie de sainte Thècle” (1975:353). Aubineau, however, unnecessarily assumes the antiquity of the episode and, like Nauerth and Warns, does not provide the comparative research on the Life and ATh that could contextualize this kind of heroic finale to the ATh.

[ back ] 10. For the sixteen surviving, published ampullae, see Davis 2001:195–200.

[ back ] 11. Davis 2001:87–94.

[ back ] 12. See Brakke 1995:301–309 for textual information (n. 7) and a translation of the address On [ back ] Virginity. The Athanasian authorship of this work is not absolutely secure: see the Introduction above (n. 11) and Johnson 2004a, a review of Davis 2001.

[ back ] 13. As Davis 2001:89 says for the Egyptian community.

[ back ] 14. The sermon has been edited and translated into French by Brière (1975 PO 25.121–138). While my interpretation of this sermon differs considerably from her own, I am grateful to Catherine Burris for a pre-publication copy of her forthcoming paper in Studia Patristica.

[ back ] 15. E.g. John of Damascus Homilies 3.4. See Daley 1998:236 and, more generally, Mimouni 1995 and Daley 2001.

[ back ] 16. Brière 1975:121.

[ back ] 17. Brière 1975:122.

[ back ] 18. Brière 1975:124–125; cf. Song of Songs 1:4, which John of Damascus quotes in his first Dormition homily (Homilies 1.11, trans. Daley 1998:196).

[ back ] 19. Brière 1975:126.

[ back ] 20. Brière 1975:127.

[ back ] 21. Brière 1975:129–130.

[ back ] 22. Brière 1975:130–131.

[ back ] 23. See Brière 1975:132: “And she was attached to a preacher of the truth, while preaching at the same time as him. And, in effect, as she was also his disciple (mettalmada), she was in possession of the preparation/purpose (ʿutada) of the master.”

[ back ] 24. Brière 1975:132–133.

[ back ] 25. Brière 1975:133. This sentence is admittedly rather obscure in the Syriac.

[ back ] 26. Brière 1975:137.

[ back ] 27. Cf. Life 1.13–18.

[ back ] 28. Brière 1975:138.