I recently read the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.
I think it was in an introductory New Testament class that I first heard the idea that the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament (I-II Timothy and Titus) were a response to the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
The idea makes sense, at first. In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” the apostle Paul’s preaching persuades Thecla, a woman, to become a Christian. Thecla embraces the Christian path of celibacy that Paul preaches, so she refuses to marry Thamyris, the man to whom she is betrothed. According to Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” God wants people to be celibate. Thecla’s decision is controversial and places her life at risk. Thecla also teaches people the Christian faith.
In the Pastoral Epistles, we see a different perspective. The Pastoral Epistles are attributed to the apostle Paul, but many scholars doubt that Paul was the one who wrote them; there are conservative scholars, however, who think that he did. When I mention Paul in discussing the Pastoral Epistles, I will mean Paul as he is depicted in those epistles, whether he was the person who wrote them or not.
Whereas Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” is very pro-celibacy, Paul in I Timothy believes that women should marry and have children (I Timothy 2:15; 5:14). In I Timothy 4:3, Paul criticizes false teachers who forbid people to marry. Whereas Thecla in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” teaches the Christian faith, Paul in I Timothy 2:12 forbids women to teach. II Timothy 3:6 criticizes false teachers who “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts” (KJV). Some scholars think that sounds like what Paul did in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
In short, the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” depicts Thecla converting to Christianity and rejecting society’s expectations that she become a wife and mother. I Timothy, by contrast, maintains that Christian women should marry and raise children rather than alienating society with bizarre behavior. And II Timothy 3:6 seems to advocate that women stay at home rather than leaving the household to follow a teacher.
In reading the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” however, I developed doubts that the Pastoral Epistles were a response to it. Rather, the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” seemed to me to be using the Pastoral Epistles, or at least II Timothy.
The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” mention Demas and Hermogenes as companions of Paul, and they are depicted negatively. Where have we seen those names? In II Timothy. In II Timothy 4:10, Paul says that Demas forsook him because Demas loved the present world. Similarly, Demas in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” forsakes and betrays Paul when Demas is bribed. II Timothy 1:15 mentions Hermogenes as a companion of Paul. Moreover, II Timothy 1:16 says that Onesiphorus refreshed Paul, and Onesiphorus was a supporter of Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Vridar has a chart here that lists these and other parallels between the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” and II Timothy.
The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” also seemed to me to be interpreting II Timothy in light of its pro-celibacy ideology. II Timothy 2:18 attacks a heresy that says that the resurrection from the dead is past. In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” 3:4, Demas and Hermogenes want to teach Thecla “that the resurrection which [Paul] speaks of is already come, and consists in our having children” (translation in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden). In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Paul is teaching people to be celibate and to live in light of the future resurrection from the dead, but there is a heresy going around that the resurrection from the dead occurs when women have children. According to this heresy, childbirth is a sort of resurrection.
I did some research to see what scholarship has said about the relationship between the Pastoral Epistles and the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” My impression is that, in the 1980’s, scholars like Dennis MacDonald and others argued that I Timothy was a response to the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Later, scholars were saying that these two works are independent of each other but reflected different views on what the roles of women should be in the Christian church. Richard Bauckham argued that the author of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” drew from II Timothy. And, in the article “I Permit No Woman to Teach Except for Thecla: The Curious Case of the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul Reconsidered” (Novum Testamentum 54 (2012): 176-203), Matthijs den Dulk argues that the author of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” rejected I Timothy and its ideas, while drawing from II Timothy. Matthijs den Dulk even rejects the idea that II Timothy 3:16 relates to what Paul did in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” arguing that there are differences between the two.