Women in the Earliest Church, Part 3

The next woman of the early church that we will now meet doesn’t appear in the New Testament at all. She was said to have been made a disciple in Iconium after hearing Paul preach. Acts (though not Paul’s letters) says that Paul was in Iconium (IK-oh-NEE-um, modern Konya, Turkey) with Barnabas during their joint missionary activity (Acts 14:1-6a), possibly also with Silas and Timothy on the next missionary trip (Iconium was in the ethnic region of the “Phrygians” – Acts 6:1), and again perhaps at the beginning of his third and last mission (within the “interior regions” – Acts 19:1). It remains uncertain at which stop, if any, Paul converted the woman known to us as Thecla (THEK-la). Thecla is not mentioned in Acts or in Paul’s letters but it seems likely that she was a real Christian disciple even if actually converted after the Pauline period.

Thecla’s devotion to the point of martyrdom led to a strong and persistent following especially among Christian women. Eventually awarded sainthood, Thecla is only known to us through an ancient account, now part of the five earliest apocryphal acts, called the Acts of Paul. A portion of this second-century elaboration of Paul’s missionary adventures has been called the Acts of Paul and Thecla in recognition of the story’s leading apostle and its main woman protagonist.

It is difficult to say what, if any of the adventures of Thecla may be historical. Perhaps her persecution in the arena reflects some actual peril brought upon Thecla because of her faith. The earliest accounts do not state that she was martyred but later additions to the legends do. The overall lesson to be learned from the material is that chastity for the Christian should be preserved at all costs. Thecla is portrayed as spurning her fiancée and a would-be lover after her inner conversion (now known in some scholarly circles as “identity formation”) based upon Paul’s supposed preaching. Chastity is a common theme among the early apocryphal acts and women are repeatedly portrayed as forsaking sexual relations with their husbands, lovers (and clients in some cases) once they hear the Christian message.

In a society in which men publicly held the upper hand, the denial of sex in the bedroom was one of the few ways women could exercise power over men. This has led some scholars to suggest that these stories were preserved and retold largely by women. Whether or not the authors of these acts were women is debated but women unquestionably feature most prominently in these stories. Thecla is depicted as doing her share of traveling in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, from Iconium to Antioch (AN-tee-ock) and back, but generally the women of the apocryphal acts remain close to home and deal with domestic issues. Thecla is unique in that regard. She cuts her hair in order to more closely resemble a man and sets out to find Paul. Travel in the first century was dicey at best, even for men, and a woman traveling alone would be risking her life.

Dressing like a man was a sign that Thecla was knowingly entering the world of men, defined in ancient society as the social world outside the home. Women were, at least ideally, considered to have their power base in the interior world of home and hearth. Men, on the other hand, were awarded dominance in the exterior world of politics, commerce, and learning. In actuality, these theoretical lines of demarcation were often blurred but this was the social principle upon which men and women shared authority in antiquity. Generally powerless outside the confines of their homes, women could exercise a degree of control over their men and their domestic property (the physical house, farm, children, servants, slaves, etc.). Even greater control could be exercised by the granting or withholding of sex. These apocryphal stories of Christian women depict just such power plays, supposedly the result of Christian preaching, which led either to the conversion of their men or to the punishment or execution of the women. Either way, the Christian women in these stories were depicted as winning the spiritual battle on behalf of Christ.

The general division of spheres of influence between genders in the ancient world helps us to understand the next woman who plays a significant role in the early church. Paul is described in Acts 16:11-15 as converting a Gentile woman from Lydia (unlikely to have been her real name).  The story of “Lydia” is told within those sections of Acts known by commentators as the “we” passages in which the text switches to the first person. This has led some scholars to suggest that these stories are based on eyewitness testimony.

According to Acts, Paul meets Lydia in Philippi (phil-LIP-ee) in Macedonia. Since she is described as “worshipping God” we can infer that she was a “god-fearer”, or “god-worshipper”, that is, a Gentile who has become spiritually attached to the local synagogue perhaps without being fully converted to Judaism. It is the Sabbath when they meet. Lydia is by a stream which had become a designated place of prayer. Was this a structural synagogue or simply a prayer meeting? In any case, a gathering of like-minded women were meeting there, perhaps god-fearers like Lydia. However, she seems to be the only one of the group to respond positively to Paul’s message.

Lydia is described as a “dealer in purple cloth” (NRSV). Purple dye was used to color the clothes of aristocrats and royalty. Red, too, was a dye used for clothing of the wealthy. Scholars debate which is actually meant here. The reddish purple dye came from the Murex snails that thrived off the coast of Phoenicia. A crimson dye known as “Turkey red” came from an insect called Kermes vermilio that lived in the Mediterranean area or was derived from the madder root grown in Thyatira (thee-AH-tir-uh) in the Roman province called Lydia. This fact has led some scholars to suggest that the woman in question was known as “the woman from Lydia” although this was not her formal name. Nevertheless, it was a common name perhaps indicating she was once a slave in the province. Others suggest that there may have been an imperial monopoly on the sale of purple cloth. Perhaps business matters relating to its production and distribution were conducted by freedmen and freewomen in the service of their royal patrons.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, Lydia likely made a decent living perhaps as a distributor or wholesaler of the dyed material. She was financially secure enough to bring the preachers of the “new religion” to her own home and their converted her “household.” That term in ancient times included everyone in the living quarters including servants, extended family, etc. That she brought Paul into her home likely meant that he preached there. Lydia may have been responsible for opening the first house church in Philippi and was thereafter remembered for her contribution. Once Paul left to spread the message further south in Greece he received on several occasions a collection of funds from Philippi to help him continue the work. We are probably safe in assuming that Lydia’s contribution was included.


Next: In Corinth with Priscilla and in Cenchreae with Chloe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s