Thecla's Devotion

Narrative and Emotion in the Acts of Paul and Thecla

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J.D. McLarty
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke & Co.
    , August
     2018.
     265 pages.
     $85.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780227176092.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There would seem to be no more appropriate object for emulation for modern readers of ancient Christian texts than Thecla, the woman who followed Paul, became an itinerant preacher like him, and eventually baptized herself. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, as part of the larger Acts of Paul collection, now have an established and long-standing interest among not just scholars of early Christianity but among laypeople. Thecla serves as an example of a woman who, rather like Junia, seems to have risen to the levels of the apostles, even that of Paul himself. Without foreclosing the devotional possibilities of the reading the Thecla material in the 21st century, however, there is still room to question how exactly the character of Thecla was intended to function for Christians of the second century. According to the narrative logic of the text itself, and the emotional resonance of the central characters, how are we best to understand how Thecla was intended to be seen, understood, and emulated (or not)?

These are the central questions of J.D. McLarty’s 2018 monograph, Thecla’s Devotion: Narrative, Emotion, and Identity in The Acts of Paul and Thecla. While the overall comparative approach taken by McLarty’s project is unsurprising—she reads the Thecla episodes of The Acts of Paul and Thecla against the Greek romance Callirihoe—her particular reading strategy introduces new theoretical considerations. It has long been commonplace to read the Apocryphal Acts alongside the romances, but McLarty’s approach pairs a close narrative reading of her texts with a consideration of characterization that elevates the role of emotion, both in the narrative and its expected affective impact on the reader.

Being an only “lightly revised” edition of McLarty’s 2011 PhD thesis from King’s College London (Foreword), the work is unsurprisingly highly technical in presentation, though thankfully the author does not seem to have sacrificed readability or organization in producing a highly academic work. There are, however, a few extended sections that may be of interest primarily to scholars of the particular texts (the Thecla episodes and Callirhoe): chapter 3, “The Reader’s Journey,” which breaks down the narrative progression of both stories in detail; and chapters 7 and 8, which focus on the characterization of Callirhoe and the Thecla story, respectively. This is not to say that these portions are devoid of interest or insight for scholars with other interests or for lay people, but just that they may be more inclined to skim these portions thanks to the level of detail.   

Several chapters, however, are deserving of closer inspection, especially McLarty’s clear and well-organized first chapter (“Contexts”). In addition, chapter 5, “Space and Place,” achieves a synthesis of close reading and theoretical insight that still escapes many scholars of New Testament and early Christianity. Her reading of the fictional spaces of both texts and their impact on their characters is supplemented by the judicious integration of details from the social history of Greek and Roman cities. Altogether, she reveals insights both into the texts’ internal logic and their historical witness to the social conditions of both the Greek elite and early Christianity in the second century.

Ultimately, McLarty locates the affective components of Thecla’s story within the larger contexts of social structure, class identity, and gender identity (222-226). The common theme in all of these contexts is “dislocation,” where Thecla, and to a lesser degree Paul, function as “the other” for audiences thanks to their unconventional identities (229). While the struggle with the passions runs throughout the Callirhoe romance, Paul and his acolyte Thecla are presented as being exemplars of restraint, and not just in regard to their chastity. Thecla greets her trials and punishments “without expressing either fear or joy,” with the result that “ it is as though Thecla’s indifference actually neutralises the sufferings” (228). But even their stoic mastery of emotions is not enough to totally endear either to the settled Christians they encounter in the world of the story or, as McLarty suggests, those they encounter in the real world of Christian reading communities. As dislocated, wandering Christians, Paul and Thecla provide provocative examples of independence and celibacy, but the text itself gives no hint about how such people can be incorporated into Christian community, or even whether they should (230). McLarty concludes that “Thecla has become a focus for female self-definition, albeit in a way probably unintended by the author” (232). For this author, the text remains “a mixture of conventional and subversive elements” (226).

Thecla’s Devotion is a significant contribution to our understanding of The Acts of Paul and Thecla specifically, and the relationships of the Apocryphal Acts and Greek romances. Those with interests in 2nd-century Christianity more generally will certainly find plenty here to grapple with. McLarty has done an impressive amount of original work on narrative structure and characterization in her main texts; the downside of this effort is that those concerned with larger debates about the Thecla story or affect in early Christian texts may be disappointed that there is less wider engagement with scholarship. In any case, this monograph remains valuable for the study of Thecla as well as a potential jumping off point, for McLarty herself or others, for further discussion of affect, emotion, and identity in second-century Christianity.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Sheppard is a doctoral student in Ancient Mediterranean Religions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J.D. McLarty is Senior Tutor of Wolfson College and Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. Her first degree was in Classics at Girton College, Cambridge. After a five year stint in the City she returned to Cambridge where she has taught New Testament Greek for the Faculty of Divinity for a number of years.

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