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.
First, it begins with a brief ekphrasis on a visual depiction of Thekla that is ostensibly placed before the congregation. The liturgical setting appears to be the saint’s feast day: {231|232}
Today it seems appropriate to reflect on that blessed maiden as she is represented on the icon of memory. On the one side it depicts the crown she won against pleasures, and on the other the crown she won against dangers. On the one side it depicts her virginity, and on the other her presentation of martyrdom to the Master of all. [3]
The binary theme of victory over pleasure and danger is then continued throughout the exposition, corresponding to the two sides or panels of this diptych. But Thekla’s victory over physical pleasure is emphasized at the beginning with so much attention to female concerns that it seems reasonable the preacher is speaking to a group of women. [4] “Indeed, nature submitted to the maiden. Even though nature rules as a tyrant among other people, raging for sexual intercourse, in Thekla it adorned virginity.” He goes on to cite 1 Corinthians 7:34 in this context: “The unmarried woman cares for the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.” Then a short lecture on the difficulties of child-bearing and rearing is presented with rhetorical flourish: “How will one provide their education? How should one prepare their marriage contracts? How should one clothe them?” [5]
There are very few direct references to the details of the legend as represented in the ATh and the Life. [6] Nevertheless, it is clear that the homilist knows the basic story, at least the first half of it: for example, he knows 1) Thekla’s parents were ignorant of her desire to be a virgin, 2) she was seduced by Paul’s words, 3) she had a suitor that “titillated her” with marriage, and 4) the judges were hesitant to condemn her. There is no mention of fire, or wild beasts, or the arena at Antioch, or her baptism, and there is no suggestion of a ministry of miracles and healing. The suitor who tempted her with marriage is presumably Thamyris, and this may refer to the mysterious “another temptation worse than the first” of ATh 25, but there is no indication elsewhere in the sermon that the homilist was reading the text very closely.
Finally, he adds a new story to Thekla’s struggles: while pursuing Paul through “the desert,” a “suitor on horseback” attacked her where she had {232|233} no refuge; immediately after praying to God for rescue, she was made invisible and the rider went away with only “a horse-race of licentiousness.” [7] Even though the homilist elsewhere reveals little of which recension of the Thekla legend he might have known, this climactic disappearance may be referring to the extension to the ATh discussed above in Appendix 1. Just following her disappearance and the rider’s frustration the text reads, “The bride presents herself to the Bridegroom, perhaps singing, ‘Truly my help is from the God who save the upright in heart’ (Psalm 7:10).” [8] The scene is written as if, when made invisible, Thekla is translated directly into heaven, becoming the (multi-valent?) bride for the bridegroom Christ. This interpretation would coincide with how her disappearance was read in the extension, and also to some degree in the Life, in that she turns into a spiritual being with spiritual powers. [9] This narrative addition, common to all three late antique texts considered thus far, was perhaps necessary because she was never ultimately martyred in the original; the conflict between divine agency in her rescue(s) in the ATh and her lackluster “falling asleep” at Seleukeia precipitated revisions for the sake of a heroic finale to her legend.
In this sermon by “Pseudo-Chrysostom” Thekla’s legend has been even further reified. Her virginity is highlighted in this text to such a degree that even her famous battle with the beasts at Antioch, depicted on what must originally have been hundreds of contemporary pilgrim flasks from Egypt, is completely ignored. [10] Thus, when close textual adjustments are not central, given the homiletic genre, the setting, or perhaps even the homilist’s general ignorance of the legend, Thekla’s virginity has become the focus—not her martyrdoms and, especially, not her miracles. Stephen Davis has shown how this kind of reification of Thekla’s legend was also occurring among female monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. [11] A century or more earlier than the pseudo-Chrysostomic homily, Athanasius delivered an address to a community of virgins in which he appropriated Thekla as a model for female chastity. [12] Likewise, in the later homily, the residual memory of Thekla’s two {233|234} heroic martyrdoms—“martyrdom before martyrdom”—is translated into an appeal for courage in the present, sexual battle. In both situations, Thekla’s legend has already been “embraced” by the ascetic community. [13] But what is characteristic of each is the synecdochic emphasis on the part for the whole.
While the pseudo-Chrysostomic sermon focuses on one aspect of the Thekla legend, thus reifying her virginity—and in so doing corresponds to Athanasius’ attention to that element in On Virginity—a sixth-century sermon on Thekla by Severus of Antioch attempts in grand style, like the Life, to take in and retell the whole of the legend, albeit in a much shorter narrative space. [14] Severus, in addition, interprets the legend metaphorically as an image of the Church and offers the most interpretatively audacious and sophisticated re-presentation of the ATh of all four late antique texts considered in this study (LM, ATh Greek extension, Pseudo-Chrysostom, and Severus). The sermon is in fact so complex in its intertextuality that the short analysis below will not do justice to all its facets—the sermon’s reception of the Thekla legend deserves a dedicated study in its own right. Nevertheless, some important comparative material can be brought to bear on the significance of the ATh for late antique literature more broadly.
Severus’ sermon begins with what appears to be the scripture reading set for the occasion, Psalm 45:10–17. In later eastern exegesis, this passage was employed as a proof text for Mary’s Dormition. [15] Here, however, in sixth-century Syria, Severus interprets the Canaanite “queen” to be the Church. Woven into this interpretation is the story of Thekla, who “by her works produces a reading (yahba l-meqra) in her very self (bah) of these words of the prophecy.” [16] In retelling Thekla’s legend, Severus thus makes the ATh serve as the avatar of an ecclesiological reading of Psalm 45.
Further analogies between Thekla and the Church are made through examples of marital imagery elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, Severus quotes from Ephesisans 5:25–27 toward the beginning of the sermon, before he has even recounted the story of Thekla’s self-baptism. “Christ loved his Church and delivered himself unto her, in order to sanctify her by purifying {234|235} her through the bath of water (sḥata d-maya) according to the word . . . in order that she be holy and immaculate.” [17] Immediately he adds, “Do you see the agreement of these words?”; Paul and David “cry out” to one another in their mutual identification of Thekla and the Church. As might be expected, Severus also makes use of the Song of Songs, the textual site of so many patristic sermons on the Church. “She entered into the bedroom, in the manner/type of a bride (ba-dmut kalta), of which [scene] she spoke through the means of (b‑yad) the Song of Songs, ‘the king made me enter his chamber.’” [18] The spousal imagery in regard to Thekla’s virginity appears to be particularly late antique, since the ATh makes no use of it, and in that broader sense this sermon falls in line with the extension to the ATh and the pseudo-Chrysostomic sermon. However, Severus explicitly calls Thekla the “primary/typical image” (yuqna tapnkaya) of the Church, which theologizes both her physical sufferings and her chastity far beyond any text considered thus far. [19]
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:
Do you see how the martyr resembles up to the end the maternal image (yuqna ʼemhaya)—of the Church (ʿidta), I mean—in connection to her first elevation [to martyrdom]? “On this rock,” says our Savior, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against her.” This is why the flame did not conquer the valiant [girl]. [22] {235|236}
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:
And how could Paul write to the Corinthians, “When it comes to the woman, I do not allow her to teach”? And how have those who govern the holy churches ordered in a canon (qanuna), “It is not lawful for a woman to cut her hair nor to cover herself with the clothing of a man?” [24]
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.