by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
“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)..”
The pilgrim Egeria> “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.1 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.”2 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.3 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. Once the fires are lit around her, however, God sends a miraculous torrent of rain which extinguishes the fire and allows Thekla to escape to Paul, who is mourning her death outside the city.
From there they proceed to the city of Antioch (perhaps not the Syrian one) only to be accosted at the gates by a town councilor named Alexander. Alexander attempts to rape Thekla, and she tears his ceremonial cloak in the process. For this she is dragged again before a governor’s tribunal and she is condemned to be fed to wild beasts in the arena of Antioch. In the meantime, however, she is entrusted to a local dignitary, Queen Tryphaina, who admires her faith and asks her to pray for her dead daughter Falconilla. On the appointed day, Thekla is thrown to the wild beasts and in an act of desperation casts herself into a pool, baptizing herself in the process. Despite this apparent suicide, she miraculously survives unscathed. The governor ultimately releases her because Queen Tryphaina has fainted watching Thekla’s trials, and he and Alexander fear retribution from the emperor. Thekla leaves Antioch, having thus survived her second martyrdom, and she finds Paul in the city of My.ra
Paul approves her trials and sends her out to preach the Gospel. She then returns to her home city of Iconium and, finding her former fiancé dead, calls on her mother to believe in Christ. Without any further elaboration the story abruptly ends with the notice that Thekla spent the remainder of her life in Seleukeia.
This romantic epic is most likely the very story Egeria read aloud two hundred years later at the site of Thekla’s last resting place. Where did Egeria get this text? The story is said by ancient authorities, notably Tertullian, to have been composed in Asia Minor, which seems likely given the geograph- ical compass of its narrative.4 But the evidence of Tertullian shows that the text, and perhaps even a Latin translation of it,5 was available in the western Mediterranean from a very early date: he condemns it as “falsely written” (perperam scripta) in his On Baptism of c. 200.6 Therefore, it is very possible that Egeria knew the account in Latin before her pilgrimage, but she could easily have learned about Thekla in Jerusalem or in Antioch.7
Egeria’s detour to the shrine of Thekla in Seleukeia thus opens a new window on the importance of the ATh as a foundational text for Thekla’s cult in early Christianity. Without the entry in her pilgrimage account we would have very little idea, beyond Tertullian’s brief aspersions, that the ATh was so important before the fifth century. Furthermore, certain circumstantial details involving Thekla in the fourth century make more sense in this context.
For instance, the writer Methodius has the personified Arete crown Thekla the supreme virgin in his Symposium, written around 300.8 Likewise, Gregory of Nazianzus retreated to Thekla’s shrine at Seleukeia following the death of his father in 374, just ten years earlier than Egeria’s visit.9 And Gregory elsewhere points fleetingly to Thekla as a model for imitation by Christian women and lists her among the apostle martyrs.10 Alongside Egeria’s pilgrimage account, Methodius’ and Gregory’s approving nods to Thekla bespeak a crucial role for the ATh—much more crucial, in fact, than allowed by Tertullian’s (and subse- quently Jerome’s) dismissive appraisal of the text.11 Surely one of the most dramatic witnesses to Thekla’s reputation in the fourth century is the secret, spiritual naming of Saint Macrina as “Thekla” in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina (c. 380): Macrina’s mother is visited in a dream three times by a divine being who instructs her to name her child Thekla. As Gregory says, it was not meant to be his elder sister’s public name but rather a secret name that predicted the type of (ascetic) life that she would come to lead.12
After the fourth century, evidence of the importance of the ATh begins piling up in earnest. Stephen Davis has recently drawn attention to the signifi- cant material remains of her cult in Egypt—notably, pilgrim flasks (ampullae)— terracotta tokens which often depict Thekla in a posture of prayer (orans) and framed by two lions.13 This image is, of course, a visual reference to the arena scene in Antioch, demonstrating a familiarity with the traditional legend among this Egyptian concentration of Thekla devotees, perhaps women, who bought and carried the ampullae.14
Similarly, pilgrimage to Thekla’s shrine in Seleukeia continued after Egeria, as evidenced by the fifth-century writer Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who says that two holy women of his own time, Marana and Cyra, made a pilgrimage there from Beroea (in Roman Syria).15 Finally, in the late 470s the emperor Zeno, himself of Isaurian origins, is thought to have constructed at least one major church on the site. Evagrius Scholasticus, writing in the late sixth century, says that the emperor dedicated a “huge sanctuary (μέγιστον τέμενος) of outstanding beauty and magnificence” at Thekla’s shrine near Seleukeia, out of gratitude for a vision of the martyr and his subsequent victory over the usurper Basiliscus.16 The excavations of the hilltop site suggests that this “huge sanctuary” may have included up to three churches, bringing the potential number of churches at the shrine to as many as five in the late fifth century.17
In the midst of all this activity arises the crowning jewel of Thekla devo- tion in late antiquity. This is the anonymous Life and Miracles of Thekla and the subject of the present study. The Life and Miracles (hereafter LM) is a literary work in Greek, about 10 times as long as the ATh, completed around AD 470 (just under three hundred years after that foundational text)….”