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—stories that give us insight into the religious thoughts and aspirations of past generations—stories that 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 and 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.

2. Thecla of Iconium in Asia Minor

The account of Thecla is recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla which was written, like many 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 the tradition, Catherine was born into an aristocratic family and was well educated. It is speculated that her story was inspired by the 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 a century earlier 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 also converted.

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 then 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, becomes 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.


Notes

[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.

[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 for #WomensHistoryMonth on the blog of Christians for Biblical Equality International here.


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