The Theme of Virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla
A couple of weeks ago I read the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This work of fiction dates to around 150 AD and is thought to have been written by a presbyter somewhere in Asia Minor. It was well known in the early church, and several prominent early church fathers refer to it (Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others) which indicates its widespread influence.
The repeated theme of virginity and chastity (not having sex) is striking in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. (This theme is a feature in all the Apocryphal Acts.) In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, this theme is apparent from the beginning where Paul brings the “word of God” in a house church in Iconium. This “word of God” is mostly about chastity and sexual self-restraint (egkrateia) which is associated with resurrection. Thirteen beatitudes constitute Paul’s message; the following four are specifically about chastity:
Blessed are those keeping their flesh chaste, because they will be a temple of God.
Blessed are those with self-control (egkrateia), because God will speak to them.
Blessed are those having wives as though not having them (i.e. being married and celibate), because they will receive an inheritance from God.
Blessed are the bodies of virgins, because their bodies are pleasing to God and they will not lose the reward of their chastity; because the word of the Father will be a work of salvation to them in the day of his Son, and they will have rest forever. (Sections 5-6)
The last beatitude links virginity with salvation. Paul’s supposed message is that the life of a good Christian is a life of celibacy and that chaste living has a bearing on our salvation and on our resurrection. Thecla, the virgin par excellence, embraces this teaching and resolutely remains a virgin despite bitter opposition and mortal danger. And she later becomes a teacher and preacher endorsed by Paul.
The Theme of Not Having Children in the Egyptian Gospel
Other early Christian writings also extol the virtue of celibacy, and they explicitly connect it with not having children. In the days before relatively safe and widely available contraceptives, having children was not an unexpected result of the sexual union of husband and wife. Several Christian documents that promoted virginity and celibacy, by extension, also promoted not having children. One of these documents is the Gospel of the Egyptians, dated to between 80-150.
The Gospel of the Egyptians does not survive as a whole but several early Christian authors quote from it, giving us glimpses of its content and ethos.
Ron Cameron writes,
“Despite the paucity of the extant fragments, the theology of the Gospel of the Egyptians is clear: each fragment endorses sexual asceticism as the means of breaking the lethal cycle of birth and of overcoming the alleged sinful differences between male and female, enabling all persons to return to what was understood to be their primordial and androgynous state. This theology is reflected in speculative interpretations of the Genesis accounts of the Creation and the Fall (Gen. 1:27; 2:16-17, 24; 3:21), according to which the unity of the first man was disrupted by the creation of woman and sexual division. Salvation was thus thought to be the recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s primordial state, the removal of the body and the reunion of the sexes.”
Clement of Alexandria is one person who quoted selections from the Gospel of the Egyptians and provided commentary on them. In Stromata 3.9.66 (written around 200) he provides this quotation: “Salome said, ‘How much longer will people (anthrōpoi) continue to die?’ . . . The Lord answers: ‘So long as women bear children.’ Salome answers, ‘I have done well, then, in not bearing children.’”
A saying contained in the Gospel of Thomas gives a different account of an incident recorded in Luke 11:27. Jesus’ supposed statement in saying 79 in the Gospel of Thomas highlights the perceived ideal of celibacy and not having children:
“A woman from the crowd said to him, “Blessed is the womb which bore you and the breasts which nourished you.”
[Jesus] said to her, “Blessed are those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, ‘Blessed is the womb which has not conceived and the breasts which have not given milk.'” (Logos 79, Gospel of Thomas) 
Asceticism and Gnosticism in 1 Timothy
The person, or community, who compiled the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas had Gnostic sympathies which included encouraging asceticism. Tertullian, in his work against Gnostics (written sometime around 200), mentions 1 Timothy in the context of the teaching of the Gnostic teachers Marcion (c. 85-160) and Apelles. Tertullian writes, “Instructing Timothy, [Paul] attacks those who forbid marriage. This is the teaching taught by Marcion and his follower Apelles.” (Prescription Against Heretics 33) Apparently, Marcion did not allow married converts to be baptised.
Irenaeus, in his work opposing Gnostic heresies (written about 180), mentions the school of the Gnostic teacher Saturninus who spoke strongly against marriage and procreation. Irenaeus wrote, “They say marriage (gamein) and procreation (gennan) are from Satan. Many of those, too, who belong to his school, abstain from animal food, and draw away multitudes by a feigned temperance of this kind.” (Against Heresies 1.24.2 cf. 1 Tim. 4:3) Irenaeus likewise criticises the teachings of Tatian (120-180): “. . . like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication.” (Against Heresies 1.28.1) [I provide Irenaeus’s paragraph about Tatian in a postscript below.]
C.K. Barrett, writing about the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament (which includes First Timothy), notes an implied attack on Paul and his teaching “by those Jewish Gnostic Christians whose heretical kind of Christianity lurks in the background of the Pastorals.” Gnosticism was a “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation” that swept across the Roman Empire and was a real threat to apostolic Christianity. Christian Gnosticism syncretised (or combined) Greek philosophical and pagan religious ideas with Christian and Jewish teaching. Asceticism, including celibacy or chastity, was a major tenet of several strands of Gnosticism.
There are several indications in First Timothy that the heresy being addressed in the letter was an early or incipient form of Gnosticism that promoted chastity. One of these indicators is 1 Timothy 4:3 where Paul states that some in the church at Ephesus were forbidding marriage. This heretical teaching is one of the factors behind Paul’s advice that idle younger widows remarry (1 Tim. 5:11-15). It is possible that Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 corrected some of the many false ideas circulating about Adam and Eve that would become popular among some Gnostic teachers. Furthermore, Gnostic-like beliefs, especially sexual renunciation, may be squarely behind Paul’s corrective teaching on salvation in 1 Timothy 2:15.
“The Childbirth” or “Having Children” in 1 Timothy 2:15?
Yet she will be saved through childbearing (tēs teknogonias) if they continue in faith, and love, and holiness with moderation. 1 Timothy 2:15
1 Timothy 2:15 is an enigmatic verse and several interpretations have been put forward to explain its meaning. Some scholars suggest that this verse is about physical safety during the childbirth process. A few English translations of 1 Timothy 2:15 convey this idea (e.g., NASB; Darby Translation, Moffat Translation, Weymouth New Testament).
Another interpretation of verse 15 is that “childbearing” should be translated as “the childbirth” (tēs teknogonias) and that it refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation comes. (The ISV, and footnotes in NEB and NLT, convey this idea.) Those who propose “the childbirth” interpretation highlight the connection between the birth of Jesus Christ and the seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15. However, while two verbs in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 are borrowed directly from the Septuagint’s version of Genesis 2:7-8, 15 and 3:13 (plassō: form/ mould and apatatō: deceive), 1 Timothy 2:15 has no clear linguistic connection with Genesis 3:15.
The definite article is also highlighted in “the childbirth” interpretation. Abstract nouns, however, are commonly used with a definite article in Greek and these articles are usually left untranslated in English translations. So the definite article may not be significant. Some also make the argument that we can’t be sure of the precise meaning of teknogonia. Yet, the cognate infinitive teknogonein appears a few chapters later in 1 Timothy where it is typically translated as “to have children” or “to bear children” (1 Tim. 5:14).
The difficulty of “the childbirth” interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 is that elsewhere in 1 Timothy, Jesus and salvation are mentioned together plainly, but Jesus is not mentioned in 2:15. I agree with Margaret Davies when she says, “Had Christ’s birth been the subject, the name Christ Jesus would have been highlighted, as in 1:15 and 2:5.” Nevertheless, I believe that salvation, rather than safety, is the meaning in 2:15. The verb sōthēsetai (“s/he will be saved”) is usually, but not always, used in the New Testament with the meaning of eschatological salvation. For example, “… the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13b).
I suspect “Gnostic, or semi-Gnostic, ideas” are the impetus for Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15. It is plausible that in this verse Paul was assuring a married woman (or women) in the Ephesian church that if she renounced celibacy, had sex with her husband, and became pregnant, she would not jeopardise or lose her salvation. Rather, “she will be saved.”
I suspect Paul’s message in 1 Timothy 2:15 is that salvation is not dependent on celibacy and remaining childless, but involves continuing in faith, and love, and holiness (hagiasmos) which are “expressions of a saved life.” Holiness is an ascetic ideal, but Paul wants holiness “with good sense” (meta sōphrosunē), or, in moderation. He doesn’t want extreme piety or asceticism. By associating holiness with childbirth, he indicates that marriage, sex, and procreation are not opposed to piety as many Christians, including Jewish Proto-Gnostic Christians, were teaching in Ephesus and in many other parts of the Roman world.
Paul’s teaching about marriage and having children in 1 Timothy 2:15, 4:3-4 and 5:11-15 (cf. Tit. 2:4-5) is distinctly different from the teaching attributed to him in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And it is the antithesis of the teaching found in many Christian documents that circulated widely in the second century, documents that strongly promoted virginity and chastity as saving virtues.
 The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a work of fiction and contains several literary devices typical of the romance novels of the day. Since other characters in the story, such as Paul and Queen Tryphaena, were real people, some have thought that Thecla was also a real person even though her surviving story has been obscured by exaggerated and fabricated embellishments. She was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church, but her sainthood was revoked in 1969. An English translation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is here.
 See Léonie Hayne, “Thecla and the Church Fathers,” Vigiliae Christianae 48.3 (September 1994): 209-218. Hayne cites the works of these men who mention Thecla with a brief discussion. (Online at JSTOR)
 Tertullian (who was born around the time the Acts of Paul and Thecla was written) also connects chastity (or continence) with salvation. In Ad Uxorem 1.7 he wrote, “We have been taught by the Lord and God of salvation that continence is a means of attaining eternal life. In Ad Uxorem 1.8, he adds, “ . . . virgins, because of their perfect integrity and inviolate purity, will look upon the face of God most closely . . .” Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated and annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951), 19, 21. Tertullian did not forbid marriage, especially first marriages, but he and his wife lived in continence; they did not have sex.
 Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann write, “The position which Thecla assumes in the Acts of Paul as teacher and preacher is very relevant” to the context of 1 Timothy. They also note that certain virgins held privileged positions in Gnosticism. Dibelius and Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia; Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1972), 48.
 Two ancient works are called by the name The Gospel of the Egyptians. The one referred to in this article is the Egyptian gospel originally written in Greek, not the later Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.
 Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press 1982), 49. (Google Books)
 Clement of Alexandria poses the rhetorical question, “What about those who use religious language for irreligious practices involving abstinence . . . and teach that we ought not to accept marriage and childbearing or introduce yet more wretches in their turn into the world to provide fodder for death?” (Stromata 3.6.45) Clement notes that the people who advocate for abstinence believe the resurrection has already happened. (Stromata 3.6.48) Much of book 3 of Stromata discusses the tension between marriage and having children, on the one hand, and celibacy and continence, on the other. (Here is another online source of book 3.)
 James Dunn notes that the “Hellenization of Christian thought”, especially in relation to sexuality, resulted in “the denigration of sexual relations” which “became a feature of Christian spirituality in late antiquity [third–eighth centuries]. . . . Virginity was exalted above all other human conditions. Original sin was thought to be transmitted by human procreation.” Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 73. There is already some evidence of these attitudes in first and second-century Christian thought. (See footnote 22.)
 Texts and information on the Gospel of Thomas can be found at Early Christian Writings.
 Tertullian, “Early Latin Theology”, S.L. Greenslade (transl. & ed.) Library of Christian Classics V (1956), 54, footnote 71. (Tertullian.org)
 C.K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 15.
Dibelius and Conzelmann saw the author of First Timothy as someone “who had to withstand the mighty assault of syncretistic and ascetic tendencies and movements” of the second generation of Jesus’ followers. Dibelius and Conzelmann, Pastoral Epistles, 49.
 Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963), 32.
 Artemis (also known as Diana) of Ephesus was the patron goddess of the city of Ephesus where her presence was pervasive. Unlike other goddesses, Artemis of Ephesus had no male consort and no child; she was regarded as a virgin and a champion of virgins. Did this mythology influence the heresy in the Ephesian church? On the other hand, the goddess was also regarded as a midwife, and women in childbirth would call on the Ephesian Artemis/Diana for help (e.g., Acts of Andrew 25). Even though Artemis is not mentioned or clearly alluded to in 1 Timothy, some suggest her role as midwife is relevant in understanding 1 Timothy 2:15. (More about Artemis here.)
 Craig Keener writes, “It may thus be that Paul’s promise that the women will be brought safely through childbirth is seen as a relief from part of the curse, from which believers will not be completely free until they share fully in the resurrection.” Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 119.
David Instone-Brewer also suggests that safety is the meaning, but he believes Paul’s statement may have been designed to contradict an idea among some Jews, an idea later expressed in the Mishnah. He writes,
To make sure wives remembered these duties, they literally instilled the fear of God into them, by teaching them an ancient and chilling saying: “Women die in childbirth for three reasons – because they are not meticulous in the laws of menstrual separation, of dough offering, and of kindling the Sabbath lamp” (Mishnah Shabbat 2.6). About a third of women died in childbirth, so this terrifying threat would be scarred into their minds. Christians overturned this saying by reversing it: “Women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness” (1 Tim. 2.15). This shows that God is in the business of saving us; he isn’t on the lookout for a reason to kill us. And instead of the three forgotten details of ritual in the Jewish saying, the Christian saying replaced them with three virtues.
Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Scripture in
Context Series; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 137-138. (Google Books)
 Lynn H. Cohick writes that teknogonia “is rather elastic and can indicate pregnancy, delivery or raising the child.” Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 138.
 Margaret Davies, The Pastoral Epistles (Epworth Commentaries; Westminster, London: Epworth Press, 1996), 21.
 Frances Young, and others, connect pistos ho logos, which can be translated as “this is a faithful saying,” with salvation.
The pastoral epistles (1 Tim 1:15; 3:1 (referring back to 2:15); 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8) are “punctuated by ‘faithful sayings’. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the standard phrase ‘faithful is the saying’ refers to what has gone immediately before or what follows immediately after, but what is evident, I submit, is that the formula is invariably attached to a statement about salvation. This would suggest that the phrase does not simply signal a reliable Pauline tradition, or a secure doctrine but rather heralds an assurance of the gospel.”
Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 56.
 This is suggested by Dibelius and Conzelmann who also provide some of the references to ancient sources that I quote in this article. Pastoral Epistles, 48-49.
 I suspect that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 was aimed at a particular married couple in the church at Ephesus. Accordingly, here is my expanded paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:15:
But she [the woman in 1 Tim. 2:11-12] will not lose her salvation if she has children, provided they [the man and the woman of 1 Tim. 2:12] continue in faith, and love, and holiness in moderation.
 Davies, Pastoral Epistles, 19.
 For example, the apocryphal Acts of John, written in the second century, tells of a respected Christian woman in Ephesus, who, “for the sake of godliness,” refused to have sex with her husband. The woman, Drusiana, is portrayed in a positive and pious light. (Acts of John 63)
In the Acts of Peter (second century), four concubines agree together to “remain pure from the bed of Agrippa” their husband (Acts of Peter 33). In the next paragraph, an elite woman, Xanthippe refuses even to sleep in the same bed as her husband. And “Many other women also, loving the word of chastity, separated themselves from their husbands, because they desired them to worship God in sobriety and cleanness.” (Acts of Peter 34)
In the Acts of Philip (fourth century), a man name Ireus is told by Philip the apostle to live in faith and continence (i.e. no sex). Ireus’s wife complains that Philip “separated husbands and wives.” (Acts of Philip 49-51)
These stories, and others like them, are fictitious, but they reveal attitudes and behaviours of some early Christians regarding celibacy and abstinence as acts of piety. The situation of Christians abstaining from sex in marriage is also behind Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:4. (More on 1 Cor. 7:4 here.)
 Benjamin Fiore brings up the Acts of Paul and Thecla in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, and writes, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla extols the extreme against which the Pastoral Epistles are reacting: chastity, emancipation from a wife’s role, ascetical abstinence, realized resurrection.” Fiore, The Pastoral Epistles (Sacra Pagina Series; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 67.
Postscript: November 14, 2019
Here is the paragraph about Tatian’s unorthodox ideas which Irenause writes about in Against Heresies 1.28.1. It includes the idea that Adam was not saved. Irenaeus says this was a recent idea and unique to Tatian. But I wonder if the idea may have been circulating earlier and if it has anything to do with Paul’s correction in 1 Timothy 2:14, “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Springing from Saturninus and Marcion, those who are called Encratites (self-controlled) preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming Him who made the male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things. They deny, too, the salvation of him who was first created. It is but lately, however, that this opinion has been invented among them. A certain man named Tatian first introduced the blasphemy. He was a hearer of Justin’s [Justin Martyr], and as long as he continued with him he expressed no such views; but after his martyrdom he separated from the Church, and, excited and puffed up by the thought of being a teacher, as if he were superior to others, he composed his own peculiar type of doctrine. He invented a system of certain invisible Æons, like the followers of Valentinus; while, like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication. But his denial of Adam’s salvation was an opinion due entirely to himself. Against Heresies 1.28.1
Postscript 2: November 12, 2021
Melito of Sardis (d. 180) quotes a hymn in which male and female virgins are exalted. “Mother” here may be the Holy Spirit who is often described as a mother (and as “she”) in early Christian writings written in Syriac. (I’ve written more about this here.)
The following comes from Daniel R. Streett’s website here.
Sing a hymn to the father, O holy ones!
Sing to the mother, O virgins!
We, the holy, sing a hymn, we highly exalt [them].
You were exalted, O brides and grooms,
Because you found your bridegroom, Christ.
Drink the wine, brides and grooms! (Melito, Fragment 17)
Ὑμνήσατε τὸν πατέρα οἱ ἅγιοι,
ᾄσατε τῇ μητρὶ παρθένοι.
Ὑμνοῦμεν, ὑπερυψοῦμεν, ἅγιοι.
Ὑψώθητε, νύμφαι καὶ νυμφίοι,
ὅτι ηὕρατε τὸν νυμφίον ὑμῶν Χριστόν. (Source)
Εἰς οἶνον πίετε, νύμφαι καὶ νυμφίοι.
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