Sexual Assault and Women’s Agency, or, Desire and the Disrupted Mob: The Story of Thecla and Trifina

We have this story in a document called the Acts of Paul and Thecla: but it is really the story of Thecla, and of the women around her, especially Trifina.

Thecla was a young woman from a wealthy, high-status family in the city of Iconium, and was betrothed to a suitably high-class fellow, when Paul and his companions came to the city and began to preach in the house across the street. From her window, she could hear him preaching through that window, and was so taken by his message that she desired to leave everything and follow the way of Christ.

This scandalized her family and infuriated her betrothed, who conspired to denounce Paul to the governor, who put him in prison. Thecla slipped away from her family and bribed the door guard with her earrings, and the jailer with her mirror, and was admitted to Paul’s cell, where he preached to her and she was amazed by his courage. When her family found her missing the next day, and tracked her down to the prison, they were further scandalized, gathered a mob, and went to the governor, denouncing Paul again, this time as a magician who must have bespelled Thecla. Thecla, meanwhile, lay on the ground where Paul had sat in his cell; whereupon the governor ordered her to be brought before him as well. When he asked her why she refused to marry her betrothed, according to the laws of the city, she refused to answer, or even meet his eyes: she kept her eyes on Paul.

At which point, her mother — her mother!! — cried out, saying

Let the unjust creature be burnt; let her be burnt in the midst of the theatre, for refusing Thamyris, that all women may learn from her to avoid such practices.

Here is the accusing gesture; and the governor agrees, having Paul whipped out of the city but ordering Thecla to be burned. The whole city gets in on the act, piling up wood and tinder, and marching her out to the stake.

Then the people set fire to the pile; though the flame was exceeding large, it did not touch her, for God took compassion on her, and caused a great eruption from the earth beneath, and a cloud from above to pour down great quantities of rain and hail; Insomuch that by the rupture of the earth, very many were in great danger, and some were killed, the fire was extinguished, and Thecla was preserved.

In the confusion, Thecla gets away, and meets up with a child from Paul’s party who had slipped back to the city to buy food, who brings her back with him to where the party is sheltering off the road, in a cave, while Paul has been praying for her safety. She asks to accompany him and share in his work; after some concern over her beauty and consequent susceptibility to temptation to sexual sin (though it’s not quite clear whether he fears that she will succumb to temptation herself, or to those who would be tempted by her), he agrees.

When they arrive in Antioch, Alexander, a city magistrate, sees Thecla and desires her. He tries to procure her from Paul, to no avail. Then,

But he being a person of great power in Antioch, seized her in the street and kissed her; which Thecla would not bear, but looking about for Paul, cried out in a distressed loud tone, Force me not, who am a stranger; force me not, who am a servant of God; I am one of the principal persons of Iconium, and was obliged to leave that city because I would not be married to Thamyris.

Then she laid hold on Alexander, tore his coat, and took his crown off his head, and made him appear ridiculous before all the people.

He sexually assaults her in the middle of the street. She says no, she screams, she makes a scene, and she fights back.

But Alexander, partly as he loved her, and partly being ashamed of what had been done, led her to the governor, and upon her confession of what she had done, he condemned her to be thrown among the beasts.

Man, what is it with these people who supposedly love Thecla but decide she’s too uppity and deserves to be lynched?

Which when the people saw, they said: The judgments passed in this city are unjust.

But this time, the mob is not on the side of the accuser.

Well, nobody gets thrown to the beasts right away: it’s a civic ceremony, it takes some time. Thecla asks that she be allowed to stay with someone who will keep her safe — sexually safe, specifically, so that she can “preserve her chastity” — until the time comes. A wealthy widow, Trifina, whose daughter had recently died, agrees to take her in; and when the time comes, accompanies her to the amphitheater for a sort of preliminary ceremony, in which both the beasts and the prisoners are exhibited.

Thecla was brought to the amphitheatre, and put into a den in which was an exceeding fierce she-lion, in the presence of a multitude of spectators. Trifina, without any surprise, accompanied Thecla, and the she-lion licked the feet of Thecla. The title written which denotes her crime was: Sacrilege. Then the woman cried out, O God, the judgments of this city are unrighteous.

They go back to Trifina’s house for the night, and Trifina’s deceased daughter, Falconilla, appears to her, telling her mother to treat Thecla as her own daughter and to ask Thecla to pray for her (Falconilla), that she might be “translated to a state of happiness.” Trifina goes to Thecla, tells her the story, and is deeply moved when Thecla immediately prays that the Lord might grant Falconilla eternal life.

The next morning, at dawn,

Alexander came to Trifina’s house, and said: The governor and the people are waiting; bring the criminal forth.

But Trifina ran in so violently upon him, that he was affrighted, and ran away. Trifina was one of the royal family; and she thus expressed her sorrow, and said; Alas! I have trouble in my house on two accounts, and there is no one who will relieve me, either under the loss of my daughter, or my being able to save Thecla. But now, O Lord God, be thou the helper of Thecla thy servant.

Alexander having run away, the governor sends an officer to bring Thecla. Trifina accompanies them. Thecla prayed,

O Lord God, whom I have made my confidence and refuge, reward Trifina for her compassion to me, and preserving my chastity.

Upon this there was a great noise in the amphitheatre; the beasts roared, and the people cried out, Bring in the criminal.

But the woman cried out, and said: Let the whole city suffer for such crimes; and order all of us, O governor, to the same punishment. O unjust judgment! O cruel sight!

Others said, Let the whole city be destroyed for this vile action. Kill us all, O governor. O cruel sight! O unrighteous judgment!

What’s this? The mob is falling apart!

Not just falling apart, but standing with the victim.

Then Thecla was taken out of the hand of Trifina, stripped naked, had a girdle put on, and thrown into the place appointed for fighting with the beasts: and the lions and the bears were let loose upon her. But a she-lion, which was of all the most fierce, ran to Thecla, and fell down at her feet. Upon which the multitude of women shouted aloud.

A lioness protects her, and the women in the crowd shout for her.

Then a she-bear ran fiercely towards her; but the she-lion met the bear, and tore it to pieces. Again, a he-lion, who had been wont to devour men, and which belonged to Alexander, ran towards her; but the she-lion encountered the he-lion, and they killed each other.

Isn’t that a charming touch? Having failed to buy her, and failed to rape her, he now sends in his very own lion to rip her to pieces for him. What a creep!

Then the women were under a greater concern, because the she-lion, which had helped Thecla, was dead.

The woman are still on Thecla’s side. (Makes you wonder who else Alexander had tried to have his way with.)

They send in more beasts, but Thecla prays, sees a pool of water there in the amphitheater, and throws herself into the pool to baptise herself. The crowd is aghast: that pool is stocked with wild seals. But there was fire, and lightning: the seals are killed and their bodies float on the water, and a cloud of fire surrounds Thecla, to protect her from the beasts and to protect her nakedness from the people’s gaze. They send in more beasts, but (some of?) the people threw herbs into the fire, and it put the beasts to sleep.

But Alexander is not done yet. He tells the governor, hey, I’ve got some bulls…:

Then they put a cord round Thecla’s waist, which bound also her feet, and with it tied her to the bulls, to whose privy-parts they applied red-hot irons, that so they being the more tormented, might more violently drag Thecla about, till they had killed her.

“To whose privy-parts” they did what?!?! This is some real sexual nastiness here: apparently, being killed by bulls who’ve had red-hot pokers applied to their balls is seen as a fitting end for an uppity emasculating bitch.

The bulls accordingly tore about, making a most hideous noise, but the flame which was about Thecla, burnt off the cords which were fastened to the members of the bulls, and she stood in the middle of the stage, as unconcerned as if she had not been bound.

Ha! So much for that plan.

But in the mean time Trifina, who sat upon one of the benches, fainted away and died; upon which the whole city was under a very great concern.

At which point Alexander loses it: what is Caesar going to say when he finds out that his relation has died during all this???

And Alexander himself was afraid, and desired the governor, saying: I entreat you, take compassion on me and the city, and release this woman, who has fought with the beasts; lest, both you and I, and the whole city be destroyed.

So the governor calls Thecla forward, and asks who is she? and why won’t the beasts hurt her? She identifies herself as “a servant of the living God” and preaches to him of Christ. He orders her clothes to be brought.

Thecla replied: May that God who clothed me when I was naked among the beasts, in the day of judgment clothe your soul with the robe of salvation. Then she took her clothes, and put them on; and the governor immediately published an order in these words; I release to you Thecla the servant of God.

Upon which the women cried out together with a loud voice, and with one accord gave praise unto God, and said: There is but one God, who is the God of Thecla; the one God who hath delivered Thecla.

So loud were their voices that the whole city seemed to be shaken; and Trifina herself heard the glad tidings, and arose again, and ran with the multitude to meet Thecla; and embracing her, said: Now I believe there shall be a resurrection of the dead; now I am persuaded that my daughter is alive.

This is an astonishing disruption of the scapegoat mechanism. Instead of the whole crowd uniting around the accusing gesture, becoming a mob whose eyes are joined thereto as witnesses to the slaughter, the mechanism is disrupted right from the beginning, as voices are raised that not only object to the lynching, but do so by standing with the victim. They don’t turn on the governor: instead, they say, kill us all! Order us all to die!

Can you imagine?

Even Alexander the Creep doesn’t get lynched in Thecla’s place. Nobody dies in this story!

…oh, wait. That’s not quite true, is it.

Trifina dies.

Trifina dies of fright, or at least seems to: dies not because she was mauled by beasts, but because Thecla, the daughter of her heart, seemed about to be. Trifina’s body was not in the stadium, but her heart was.

Trifina dies instead of the designated scapegoat: Trifina, the wealthy, local, widowed, bereaved, royally-connected, Very Important Person dies instead of the uppity foreign atheist slut who made a scene and assaulted the magistrate just because he tried to kiss her.

(Christians were generally considered to be atheists at this time and place because they didn’t believe in any of the traditional gods.)

Trifina dies, and that’s what finally undoes the magistrate and the governor, who have been forcing the crowd towards the scripted ending despite the fact that the ritual isn’t working, the crowd isn’t a mob, the unifying mechanism is falling apart because right from the beginning there were voices speaking up for the victim and by this time all the women are speaking up and shouting out for her too. The point of the ritual is to unify the crowd by directing the dangerous currents of rivalrous desire through sacred violence onto a safely expendable victim, so that the social disturbance will subside and stop threatening the existing power structures. Instead, Trifina’s death threatens those very structures because of who she is: the local authorities are terrified that the wrath of Caesar will fall on them and on the whole city, and probably that the whole city is going to explode into violence because the ritual wasn’t working.

Usually, in the myths, the culmination of the ritual happens when the mob goes into a frenzy, and there’s an earthquake or fire or lightning and thunder that the myths describe as the hand of God but (in a mimetic reading) is actually the hand and voice of the murderous mob, and when the dust settles there’s nothing much left of the victim.

In this story, the culmination happens when Thecla is released, clothed once again in respectability and having forgiven the governor. There’s the voice of the crowd, raised in so loud a shout that the whole city shakes…. but instead of someone being dead at the end of it, someone is raised: Trifina is raised from the dead, raised both in her body and in her heart, to faith in Christ and in the resurrection of the dead, both for herself and for her deceased daughter.

I can’t get over how much is going on in this story. There’s this extremely strong and fantastically inverted mimetic theme. There’s this extremely strong feminist theme of women’s agency and sexual violence. There’s the relationship between Thecla and Trifina, which on the feminist side, feels like it’s riffing on the relationship between Ruth and Naomi; and on the mimetic side, is really fascinating because as Thecla points out when the magistrate assaults her, Thecla only looks like a prime scapegoat candidate because she’s not from around here: in her home town, she was the one who was wealthy and high-status and well connected: so they’re almost mirror images of each other.

(Not that that saved Thecla from the conspiracy, though, once she threw her lot in with Paul. Maybe that’s what did it… Paul was arrested first, after all, and Thecla literally stood in his place in the prison cell until they hauled her off too. There’s so much to think about here!)

It’s so frustrating that Thecla’s story, like that of most of the Christian women saints, gets read as if it is all about virginity as a woman’s greatest (only) treasure, and sexual purity as a woman’s greatest (only) virtue. This story is about so much more than that! I’d read before that “virginity” in these ancient and medieval stories was a concept that functioned for the women in question more like agency and autonomy does for modern Western women today, because of the way that marriage worked in those days. But this is the first story I’ve read that made me really get it.

There’s more to Thecla’s story that I didn’t summarize here: there’s basically a happy ending, as she preaches both on her own, and with Paul, in various places. Then there’s an epilogue that has her going off to live as the local holy woman and monastic in the latter years of her life; until the devil stirs up another sexually-tinged plot against her among the doctors of the town (who are losing business because she’s a healer, too), and there’s a miraculously happy ending to that story too, as she is translated to heaven.

Her feast day is September 23rd (in the West, 24th in the East), and the Orthodox church reveres her as St. Thecla the Proto-Martyr, Equal to the Apostles. Although I don’t find these on any official lists, I think of her as the patron saint of women clergy, preachers, and missionaries; persons who suffer from sexual assault and all forms of sexual violence; and uppity women.

Trifina is not officially considered a saint, but she too shines as a figure of faith in this story. I think of her as a patron saint of those who protect and speak up for the vulnerable and the stranger, especially those vulnerable to sexual violence; of widows; of bereaved mothers; of adoptive mothers; and of converts.

Trifina, pray for us!
St. Thecla, pray for us!

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13 Responses to Sexual Assault and Women’s Agency, or, Desire and the Disrupted Mob: The Story of Thecla and Trifina

  1. Andrew says:

    This is the kind of Bible story that doesn’t get told often enough – thanks. And now I know where Gene Wolfe got the name “Thecla” for his “Book of the New Sun” series…

    • Thanks, Andy.
      To be clear, this is not a Bible story: the Acts of Paul and Thecla did not make it into the canon, as very many Christian writings from the first few centuries did not. Its provenance is later than the events it describes – it seems to have been written in the second century, and parts of it show a very strong gnostic influence, notably the parts that describe Paul’s teaching as praising refraining from sexual activity, even within marriage, as an important Christian virtue.
      But the scholarly consensus is that it is probably based on a real tradition about Thecla, whose cult is ancient and widespread in the eastern church. (Its unflattering description of Paul is also considered to be accurate.)

      One of the fascinating finds of recent years is a sixth century fresco of Paul and Thecla near ancient Ephesus that depicts them in the iconographic style of authoritative teaching: the same size, the same posture, the same teaching gesture. In later years, the image of Thecla was defaced to obliterate her right hand, originally raised in the same teaching gesture as Paul’s, and her eyes.

      • Andrew says:

        “To be clear, this is not a Bible story: the Acts of Paul and Thecla did not make it into the canon, as very many Christian writings from the first few centuries did not.”


  2. I have only glanced at the story, but it is Just What I Need. I need to ponder more in my heart about this, but , as I identify with Suzannah and the Elders ^,Ch 13 of the Greek Catholic bible Daniel 13, so I Identify with Thecla, because I am an uppity Wicked Witch Elpheba who is filing complaints and speaking my voice about the Wonderful Wizard Manager of Spiritual Care at the Emerald Bus Health Care Region…. where I volunteer.
    Thank you Virginia for sending me this gmail….through Tony and Pat. I am doing the Online Virtual Course on Violence against Women with Catherine of Sienna Virtual College. This story is perfect for me……more to come

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  6. SunlessNick says:

    It’s so frustrating that Thecla’s story, like that of most of the Christian women saints, gets read as if it is all about virginity as a woman’s greatest (only) treasure, and sexual purity as a woman’s greatest (only) virtue.

    It’s especially frustrating with Thecla, because she shared Paul’s brand of asceticism – chastity was only one part of not dwelling on the body’s apetites, and was a virtue for both sexes.

    Thecla prays, sees a pool of water there in the amphitheater, and throws herself into the pool to baptise herself.

    From a spiritual rather than political perspective, this moment is also a huge deal. Because Thecla accomplishes the one thing that Jesus himself says he couldn’t do – baptise herself – and the subsequent miracle implies that the baptism was valid God approved. That’s kinda badass.

    • Because Thecla accomplishes the one thing that Jesus himself says he couldn’t do – baptise herself – and the subsequent miracle implies that the baptism was valid God approved. That’s kinda badass.

      Heh! That bit bothered me, actually, because there’s absolutely no tradition of self-baptism. I finally concluded that this was a variant of baptism by blood, on the grounds that she must have known there were beasts in the pool; that she threw herself into the pool with every expectation of being killed by them; and that she chose the pool and said the words in order to make it explicit.

      But yes, that’s quite something. Somebody commented in class tonight that he saw in this scene Thecla declaring herself as having been baptized in the same way that Paul declared himself as an apostle: by the direct action of God.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  9. Attention fans of Thecla! She has made it into the Elate Eight in Lent Madness this year, and on Tuesday, March 24 (probably “today” by the time you read this) she is facing an uphill battle against St Francis of Assisi.

    Voting starts at 8am EST and polls close at 8am the following day. So head on over to cast your ballot, and help get out the vote amongst your friends, relations, and fellow church history enthusiasts. 🙂

    Plus, this is the “Saintly Kitsch” round. Given all the drama in Thecla’s story, there is the potential for some seriously excellent kitsch! 🙂

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