Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

3 Legendary Ladies: Judith, Thecla, and Catherine of Alexandria

Judith Apocrypha Holofernes Thecla Catherine of Alexandria

Judith by August Riedel (1840) (Wikimedia)

There are more than a few women in the Bible and in church history who risked their lives for a godly cause. In this post, I look at three brave women who are not in the Protestant Bible. These women were, most likely, not even real people. They are legendary ladies with inspiring stories. Their stories give us insight into the religious thoughts and aspirations of past generations and deserve to be better known.

1. Judith of Bethulia in Judea

Judith was a heroic woman who has long been admired by both Jews and Christians. Her story is found in the book that bears her name which is included in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. It was also included in early editions of the King James Bible until it began to be published without the apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) books. Since then, the memory of Judith’s exploits has faded among Protestant Christians.

The Book of Judith was written around 100 BCE and is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is mentioned, for example, in the early Christian letter known as First Clement (1 Clem. 55). Judith is a work of fiction and contains several historical inaccuracies. But it is an interesting tale with echoes of stories of real women in the Hebrew Bible.

The setting of the narrative is the siege of a town in Judea named Bethulia. The Assyrian army, led by Holofernes, has cut off the town’s water supply and the Jews of Bethulia appear to be doomed. So Judith, a beautiful, wealthy and respected widow, takes matters into her own hands. With her female servant, she goes to the enemy’s camp where she pretends to defect to the Assyrian side.

Judith asks to see Holofernes and, as planned, the general is charmed by her beauty and wants to have sex with her. Judith waits a few days and at an opportune moment, when Holofernes is dead drunk, she stabs at his neck and cuts off his head. She and her servant then escape back to Bethulia with the severed head of the general, and with Judith’s virtue intact. The assassination of Holofernes marks a turning point in the siege and the people of Judea triumph over their enemy.

Throughout the story, Judith is portrayed as a formidable and pious woman who knows her own mind. The people around her, including the high priest and elders of Judea, respect her, listen to her, and do what she says. The Book of Judith also contains several of Judith’s prayers and her song of praise and victory. It’s a worthwhile read and can be read here. An article that looks at the historical inaccuracies in Judith is here.

2. Thecla of Iconium in Asia Minor

The account of Thecla is recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla which was written, like some of the other Apocryphal Acts, roughly around 150 CE.[1] Several early church fathers refer to Thecla, signifying the widespread influence and popularity of her tale of adventures.

The story goes that Thecla, a virgin belonging to a wealthy family in Iconium, is engaged to be married. One day the apostle Paul comes to town, supposedly as part of his first missionary journey (cf. Acts 13:51). From her window, Thecla overhears Paul teaching and she is mesmerised. Paul’s words recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla focus heavily on virginity and celibacy; they don’t sound anything like Paul’s teaching in his canonical letters.

Thecla decides to remain a virgin, so she breaks off her engagement. Her rejection of family expectations and respectable social norms deeply angers both her widowed mother and her fiancé, and Thecla is condemned to burn at the stake. On the day, however, a large rain cloud puts out the fire and Thecla survives.

Later, in Pisidian Antioch, Thecla rejects the advances of a nobleman and humiliates him. As punishment, she is tied to a lioness who, surprisingly, licks her feet. The next day, Thecla is thrown to wild animals in the arena, but the same lioness fiercely protects her. Also in the arena is a water tank containing killer seals. Thecla throws herself into the tank and baptizes herself. Mercifully, a lightning strike kills the seals before they can maul her. Other animals are then brought in to torture Thecla, but she remains unscathed.

When a noblewoman, who Thecla has helped, faints from the suspense of the spectacle, Thecla is released. Her bravery wins the support of the women in the audience and of the governor who frees her.

Thecla remains resolute in her decision to remain a virgin and, newly baptized, she begins preaching and teaching with a group of male and female disciples in tow. She catches up with Paul in Myra who endorses her plan to return to Iconium; he tells her, “Go and teach the word of the Lord.” Thecla returns to Iconium, and she sits and teaches in the same spot where Paul had sat and taught.

The strong emphasis on life-long virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which seems excessive to modern Christians, resonated with early Christians, both men and women. And Thecla became a role model for many who chose an ascetic life as an expression of devotion and service to Jesus Christ.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla can be read here. More about virginity and celibacy in early Christianity here.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria Hypatia Thecla Judith

 Line engraving of Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1850) (Wellcome via Wikimedia)

3. Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt

Unlike the stories of Judith and Thecla, there is no ancient literary source that features our third legendary lady. Tradition, rather than literature, tells us that Catherine lived 287–305.[2] According to tradition, Catherine was born into an aristocratic family and was well educated. It is thought her story was inspired by the true story of Hypatia because of a few similarities between the two women: both lived in Alexandria, both were extremely intelligent, and both were killed by religious adversaries. Hypatia was murdered by an angry mob of Christians in 415.[3]

Catherine’s story is set when Maximian was emperor.[4] Catherine, then aged eighteen, confronts Maximian about his brutality towards Christians. He responds by organising fifty of the finest philosophers and orators to debate with her against her Christian ideas. She wins the debate, however, and converts some, or all, of the scholars in the process. These scholars are promptly killed by the emperor, and Catherine is imprisoned for several years. During her imprisonment, she receives hundreds of visitors, including the emperor’s wife, and they are converted to Christianity.

Maximian is succeeded by his son Maxentius who offers to marry Catherine and set her free. She refuses because, in her mind, she is mystically married to Jesus Christ. Offended and furious, Maxentius orders Catherine to be executed on a breaking wheel, a cruel and barbaric instrument of execution. When Catherine touches the wheel, it shatters into pieces. She is beheaded instead and, according to the legend, milk instead of blood oozes from her severed neck.

Catherine, as defender of the faith and as an example of piety and courage, became a hugely popular figure in the late middle ages. She is ascribed with miraculous abilities and, in Roman Catholic tradition, is one of the fourteen holy helpers: sainted intercessors who are especially effective against certain diseases and afflictions. Catherine is also regarded as the patron saint of scholars, young women, wheelwrights, etc.

Our Heritage

Judith, Thecla, and Catherine of Alexandria are portrayed as virtuous women. But more than that, they are portrayed as courageous women with strong religious convictions. They break with social conventions, act on their own initiatives, and risk their lives in order to help God’s people and to follow his calling. The accounts of these legendary figures have served as inspiration for countless men and women throughout the centuries.

These stories are not in Protestant Scripture, and some ideas in Thecla’s and Catherine’s stories, in particular, sound fanciful and far-fetched; they reveal expressions of faith that are foreign and even distasteful to many of us today.[5] Nevertheless, the stories of all three women are part of our history and our Christian heritage. It would be a shame if they faded from memory.


Footnotes

[1] I’m intrigued by the various Apocryphal Acts, about who wrote them and why. At least one scholar, Stevan L. Davies, has suggested these works were written by a community of women. Many women in the Apocryphal Acts are portrayed as strong, devout, and prominent in their communities. Sometimes their piety and prominence even eclipse that of the male apostle supposedly at the centre of the story. The purpose or agenda of these Acts is difficult to discern except for the obvious point that women make exemplary Christian disciples. Apart from providing some insight into the thinking of some second-century Christians, however, the Apocryphal Acts are, as F.F. Bruce has said, “historically worthless.” Bruce, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1979), 140.

[2] Some believe Catherine of Alexandria was a real person, even though the first recorded mention of her dates to around 800. Furthermore, some believe that her body has (miraculously) not decayed and is kept in a monastery on Mt Sinai in Egypt. The monastery was built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian I but was named after Catherine from around the 800s onward.

[3] Hypatia, a real woman, was a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer and, in around 400, became the principal of the renowned Neoplatonist school in Alexandria. Hypatia was well-liked and, though a pagan, she had friends and students who were Christians. When Cyril became archbishop of Alexandria he attempted to ruin her reputation. Christians began to distrust her, which led to her savage murder.

[4] Maximian was co-emperor with Diocletian who is infamous for his persecution of Christians.

[5] Expressions of Christianity have changed and evolved over the past two millennia, and they continue to change.

A version of this article was first published in March 2018 for #WomensHistoryMonth on the blog of Christians for Biblical Equality International here.

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5 thoughts on “3 Legendary Ladies: Judith, Thecla, and Catherine of Alexandria

  1. I thank you, Marg, for your research and the information you share.

    At the present time, I am doing some research on how women are represented and understood in the writing of St.Paul and in the deuteropauline epistles. I am a Roman Catholic by birth but am a member of the Episcopal Church where I live. I do this for several reasons but the main one is that the Roman Church does not give women their rightful place in the priesthood, etc. My membership in the Episcopal Church is my protest stand and the reason I’m doing the research that I am. One day I might write about it but I have a good bit of research to do before I can.

    Thank you for sharing what you read and study. You write well and clearly and I really value receiving your articles. May the Holy Spirit continue to fill you with wisdom, strength and courage. Margaret Gloger (a.k.a. Meg)

    1. Hi Meg,

      I hope you enjoy your research as much as I do. It’s a fascinating study. There’s wonderful stuff in the Pauline letters!

      Thanks for your kind and encouraging words.

      Marg

  2. Are you really so desperate for evidence of female “equality” in the early church that you would embrace heretical works? The acts of Paul and Thecla is certainly not an orthodox work, and there is good reason the church rejected it. Indeed, the text (along with the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, Andrew, Thomas, and John) upholds the encratite doctrine that all sexual activity, even in marriage, is immoral.

    While the orthodox church rejected it, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, along with the other aforementioned Apocryphal Acts, were accepted as a canonical set by the gnostic Manichees as a substitute for the biblical book of Acts. Indeed the 4th century Manichean Faustus of Milevis appeals to the Acts of Paul and Thecla as justification for the Manichean rejection of marriage. See Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha vol 2 p 90.

    Current scholarship does not believe that the document now known as the Acts of Paul was originally a unity (hence why you’ll see some referring to the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Paul and Thecla separately). It is notable that the few orthodox sources that have anything positive to say about the Acts of Paul only reference the events relating to Paul’s martyrdom, which probably circulated independently. see Origen, commentary in John 22, 12. The only explicit citation among the church father’s to the Thecla portion of the Acts of Paul is a negative one from Tertullian who states that it was forged by a presbyter who was defrocked for his forgery. See De Baptismo 17. Tertullian for his part makes it clear that the church at large disapproved of women teaching and baptizing in the same section.

    Moreover, according to Wilhelm Schneemelcher in New Testament Apocrypha vol 2, the question of whether Thecla’s portrayal in the text represents memories of real historical individual must be answered “with an unambiguous negative.” see page 222. Thus it is unlikely that Thecla was a real individual and those who celebrated her were primarily heretics who rejected marriage itself as evil.

    1. Allen, I agree with almost everything you say in your comment about the Acts of Paul and Thecla, but what’s with your tone? Sheesh!

      As I say in the article, none of these three women were, most likely, real people. They are “legendary” in every sense of the word and their stories are fiction. Nevertheless, as I also say in the article, their stories “give us insight into the religious thoughts and aspirations of past generations.”

      Here’s another quotation from my article, “the Apocryphal Acts are, as F.F. Bruce has said, ‘historically worthless.’” Bruce, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1979), 140.

      Despite all this, Thecla was a hugely influential figure in the early church. Tertullian disapproved of the story, but Thecla is mentioned positively as an examplar of virginity and of suffering by several Church Fathers, including Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. Ambrose’s cathedral in Milan was dedicated to Thecla as were other church buildings in other places. Interestingly, after the biblical name “Mary,” the most common female name in ancient papyri, inscriptions, and ostraka, etc, of real Christian women is “Thecla.”

      It is obvious from the manuscript evidence that the Acts of Paul and Thecla was not part of a unified Acts of Paul. I briefly discuss the composition of the Acts of Paul, including the apocryphal Corinthian correspondence here.

      The emphasis and approbation of virginity and celibacy in the Acts of Paul and Thecla is disturbing, even heretical. The beatitudes are quite shocking. I discuss some of the theology in Thecla’s story here.

      Your scolding and condescension are unwarranted, Allen. You’ve not read my article carefully and you’ve completely misunderstood its point. I do not “embrace” Thecla’s story. I’m disturbed by the sentiments and theology in the story, they are alien to me, but I do acknowledge in this article that the story is part of our Christian heritage. And it’s heartening, to me at least, that these three women are portrayed as strong, determined, and courageous.

    2. Hey Allen,

      You do realize Tertullian inserted his heretical Roman mores into his vision of the church and yet, you quote him with approval. It’s kind of like the pot calling the kettle black, wouldn’t you say?

      “But if Genesis 3:16 does not describe what should be, why did Luther connect the verse with 1 Corinthians 14:34 to affirm that women were excluded from the common priesthood? Because he followed tradition and not all traditions follow the Bible.
      Luther’s exclusion of women has it’s origin in a tradition begun by Tertullian (145-220). Karen Jo Torjesen describes Tertullian’s vision of the church as an essentially Roman institution.

      “Tertullian’s description of the Christian community dramatically marks the transition of the model of the church from the household or private association to the body politic. With him the church became a legal body (corpus or societas, the term the Romans used for the body politic) unified by a common law (lex fidei, “the law of faith”) and a common discipline (disciplina, Christian morality). For Tertullian the church, like Roman society, united a diversity of ethic groups into one body under the rule of one law… Tertullian conceived the society of the church as analogous to Roman society, divided into distinct classes or ranks, which were distinguished from one another in terms of honor and authority.”

      Only those who were full members of the political body could possess ius docendi (the legal right to teach) and ius baptizandi (legal right to baptize). Women could not be full members and therefore they were excluded from the clergy. But Tertullian excluded women also from the laity, for although the laity could perform the legal functions in the absence of the clergy, women could not.

      “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office.”

      Weinrich considers Tertullian “a representative voice” of the universal church of the second century, but he cannot do so without excluding women from the church altogether.” (From “When Dogmas Die: The Return of Biblical Equality”)

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