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.


What is lacking in Davis’s study, and Dagron’s edition for that matter, I have attempted to provide in the chapters above: namely, a reading of the LM that would take account of its literary nature. I have emphasized from the beginning that the LM is, first and foremost, an artful work of late antique {221|222} writing in Greek. My conviction is that to appreciate it in its cultural context is to read it as such. The close readings that I provide in Chapters One and Three attempt to carry this argument to fruition. Likewise, the literary histories in Chapters Two and Four stress above all that the LM is not alone in its endeavor but can be read alongside vibrant literary traditions of paraphrase and collecting in the ancient and late antique worlds.

It remains, therefore, for me to say in conclusion something about the theological context of Thekla devotion in the fifth century. This plays only a minor role in the chapters above, but it is nevertheless important because the author of the LM, an educated reader and orator on the scriptures (Mir. epilogue 31–45), would doubtless have been aware of the theological landscape taking shape around him.

The absence of references to Mary may seem odd as well considering the level to which Thekla devotion had risen by the late fifth century. Surely these two female figures had similar trajectories over time within the cult of the saints? Surprisingly, this is not the case at all. It is precisely at the point when Thekla seems to have achieved the pinnacle of her success in Christian devotion and pilgrimage that the cult of Mary, at least in the eastern Mediterranean, is only just beginning to take off. Thus, it is not until the mid to late fifth century, after Mary’s role in Christology has been acknowledged by the Council of Ephesus (431), that personal devotion to her begins to grow in a substantial, textual way. Prior to this time it appears that Thekla is by far the most revered female saint, that is, if the popularity of her foundational legend, the ATh, can serve as an indicator. (And, as we have seen, there is little to show that Thekla’s cult continued to flourish at Seleukeia after the sixth century, at the latest.)

This is obviously not the place for a history of Marian devotion in the Christian East; however, a few high points can be mentioned for the sake of comparison with Thekla. [7] First, one of the only early apocryphal narratives to deal in any detail with Mary is the late second-century Protoevangelium of James, a fascinating text which describes the birth of Mary and her young life up to and including the birth of Jesus. [8] As a literary work the Protoevangelium clearly depends, as the ATh does, on certain holes in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. These holes allowed for further elaboration: the elaboration in this case centers on Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, who are of course not mentioned in the New Testament and appear in the Protoevangelium to be literary inventions based upon Old Testament models (such as Hannah, mother of Samuel, and Sarah and Abraham). While the story does not include a doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate conception,” her conception and birth are suitably miraculous (imitating Samuel’s). [9] The Protoevangelium does, however, include Mary’s perpetual virginity and claims that Jesus’ “brothers” (e.g. Mark 3:33) were only half-brothers by a previous marriage of Joseph. For this reason the text was condemned by the western church in the so-called “Gelasian {223|224} Decree” of the sixth century. [10] The Protoevangelium also insists, interestingly, on Mary’s descent in the Davidic line, over and against the Gospel accounts that it was Joseph who descended from David (Matthew 1:16; Luke 3:23).

Following this initial outburst of devotion to the Virgin—coincident, by the way, with Justin Martyr’s and Irenaeus’ declarations that Mary was the “Second Eve”—there is more or less silence for a couple of centuries. [11] It will be good to reiterate here that in Methodius’ Symposium (c. 300), it is not the Virgin Mary who is crowned chief of the virgins but Thekla. Nevertheless, in the fourth and fifth centuries some examples of Marian devotion show up, such as the few wall paintings of Mary in the catacombs of Rome and the incomparable mosaics of the Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi in Santa Maria Maggiore. It is not until the sixth century, however, that eastern devotion to her begins in earnest: in sixth-century Constantinople, for example, icons of the Virgin are produced, liturgical feasts are dedicated to her, and hymns, such as the famous “Akathistos,” are written in her honor. While it is true that Mary’s virginity is often cited in the fourth and fifth centuries as proof of the value of sexual renunciation (especially by Ephrem, Ambrose, and Augustine), her role in the doctrinal debates of the fifth century is, as noted above, primarily for the purpose of defining Christ’s two natures, divine and human—is she to be called Theotokos (“God-bearer”) or Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”)? Thus the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Nestorius anathema and Mary Theotokos in the same breath. Nestorius, in the view of Ephesus, had not allowed the divine nature of Christ its proper place; and the positive counterpart of his condemnation is to name the mother of Jesus the “the one who bore God.”

One lesson to be learned from this brief comparison is that the cult of the saints is rarely simply a “bottom-up” or “top-down” social phenomenon. In reality the development of devotion to Thekla and to Mary shows both elements: text and cult mutually interacted to the point that there is no {225|226} way today to separate them without doing damage to the surviving record. Nevertheless, in Thekla’s case the ATh is preeminent in every surviving reception of her persona: not least because there was nothing else to go on—for the ancients as much as for us. The crowning jewel of late antique devotion to Thekla, the LM, is in one way a “top-down” approach: it is clearly a literary text in both its paraphrase and collection forms. However, the genius of the LM is its reorientation of the cult: this is less a “top-down” imposition as a “bottom-up” (i.e. localized) exegesis of a mysterious, haunting, living saint.


[ back ] 1. See especially pp. 35–36, 46–48, 50, 59, 142–143, and 212 above.

[ back ] 2. See, e.g. Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and their Interpreters, ed. Catherine M. Mooney (Philadelphia, 1999). While a recent treatment of saints under the salacious rubric of their “sex lives” certainly should have a voice in scholarship on hagiography (Burrus 2004), I would be resistant to this methodology being used on the LM. This is because I am convinced that the internal logic of the text produces a more meaningful and, from a literary historical point of view, more challenging interpretation than the anachronistic imposition of “sexuality” as a known quantity. In other words, the dissonance between narrative saints’ Lives of the fourth and fifth centuries in terms of their literary form remains a wellspring of interpretive opportunity still untapped by scholarship focusing on the salacious (perhaps circumstantially so?) aspects of late antique hagiography.

[ back ] 3. Dagron notes that the treatment of female gender, Thekla’s and others’, in the LM appears completely ad hoc: the author sometimes appears misogynist and other times highlights the pro-female elements of the ATh (1978:37–39). Also, the miracles that Thekla works are spread evenly among male and female recipients. Simply put, gender has very little to do with the literary deployment of the text.

[ back ] 4. Davis 2001. See also Burrus 1987 and Cooper 1996:45–67. Cf. Dunn 1993. Davis, incidentally, includes the LM as part of the pro-female reception of the ATh. In my opinion there is little basis for this interpretation (cf. n. 3 above).

[ back ] 5. Dagron 1978:96.

[ back ] 6. See e.g. pp. 32–35, 43, 62, 136, and 159 above.

[ back ] 7. For this see now the elegant catalogue of the “Mother of God” exhibition held at the Benaki Museum, Athens in 2000–2001 (Vassilaki 2000) and the new volume of essays (Vassilaki 2004).

[ back ] 8. See Strycker 1961 and Hennecke and Schneemelcher 1992:421–439.

[ back ] 9. The Immaculate Conception was not declared official Roman Catholic doctrine until 1854 (Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX). Similarly, the Assumption of the Virgin (see below) was not officially declared until 1950 (Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII).

[ back ] 10. Hennecke and Schneemelcher 1992:38–40. The ATh is likewise condemned, but had been for some time due to Tertullian and Jerome. Jerome also condemns the Protoevangelium and says that Jesus’ brothers were actually his cousins, which remains the official Roman Catholic position (Elliott 1999:50–51).

[ back ] 11. For the following paragraphs I have relied primarily on Averil Cameron 2000a and Shoemaker 2002. See also these other recent studies: Peltomaa 2001; Constas 2003; and Averil Cameron 2004.

[ back ] 12. See Constas 2003:56–71 and Daley 1998 and 2001.

[ back ] 13. Shoemaker 2002:31: “The sudden appearance of these [Dormition] traditions at this moment [in the late fifth and sixth centuries] identifies this time as the era when various traditions of the end of Mary’s life first became an important component of the now well-preserved ‘orthodox mainstream’ of ancient Christianity.”

[ back ] 14. There is evidence that Thekla devotion continued in Egypt into the sixth century (Davis 2001:177–194).

[ back ] 15. Ramsay 1893:375–428.

[ back ] 16. It is significant that the Protoevangelium of James mainly survives in hagiographical collections, not collections of apocryphal Acta. The earliest papyrus (Bodmer 5) probably dates from the fourth century and the earliest Syriac fragments date from the late fifth or sixth century: see Hennecke and Schneemelcher 1992:421–422.

[ back ] 17. See Appendix 1 below.

[ back ] 18. Dagron 1978:19.

[ back ] 19. Dagron 1978:50–51. Likewise, the Syriac tradition does not seem to know the LM, and its translations of the ATh are very literal—typical, perhaps, for sixth-century Syriac translation technique, but also indicating a reverence for the original legend: see Wright 1990 [1871]:2.116–145 and Burris and Van Rompay 2002 and 2003. The Armenian tradition also seems to know only the ATh, but its translation is based on the Syriac (Burris and Van Rompay 2003:10).