University Congregational Church
Feb. 9, 2014
“Bad Girls; Good Stories: Thecla and Eve”
Gen. 3: 6-7
Last week, I spoke about the Gnostic Gospels, books written in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but not chosen for the Biblical canon. I had several people ask me for more details… some people didn’t even know of the existence of outside the Bible manuscripts about Jesus and the early church.
There are countless ancient writings from that time; one scholar guesses that 75% of what was written by the church during that time is lost to us.
And so, I’ve decided to walk backwards into the sermon on today’s bad girl: Eve. To really understand Eve’s story, I think it will be helpful to start with the story of another woman, Thecla. Thecla’s story is one of those recorded on papyrus sometime before 190 CE. Over the centuries:
- she became a saint in both the Roman and Eastern church,
- congregations have been named for her,
- stained glass, statues and images of her are in cathedrals, and
- there is a Catacomb of Saint Thecla in Rome.
This is Thecla’s story, as recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, one of those ancient books not in our Bible. There are many surviving versions of this book in Greek and some in Coptic; references to this book in other writings indicated that it was widely disseminated and translated into Latin and even Ethiopian languages.
Paul is described as “a man of middling size” with scant hair, crooked legs with knobby knees. He had large eyes and a unibrow. His nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy. At times he was said to appear “like a man and at other times, an angel.”
On the other hand, Thecla was known this way: she was young noble virgin who listened to the Apostle Paul’s teaching and became one of his followers. Period.
Thecla’s mother and her fiancé Thamyris became concerned that Thecla would follow Paul’s teaching to “love God and to live in chastity”. They took Paul to the governor, who imprisoned him. But Thecla bribed a guard to get into the prison and sat at Paul’s feet all night listening to his teaching. For this, Paul was sentenced to a whipping and expulsion from the area. But Thecla was to be killed by being burned at the stake. She was stripped naked and put on the fire, but was saved by a miraculous storm which God sent to put out the flames.
Again, Paul and Thecla met up and traveled to Antioch. There, another incident occurred and Thecla was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. To be sure that she died a virgin, she was taken in by the Queen to be protected until her death sentence was carried out. Thecla was tied to a fierce lioness and paraded through the city naked. The lioness herself, along with the Queen and other women in the village, fought to save Thecla from the wild beasts.
Thecla lived in a cave for the next 72 years (who could blame her?) and then traveled to Rome to be buried with Paul. By the way, there are many virgin martyrs over Christendom who took Thecla as their model.
In the Eastern church, she is venerated as “apostle and protomartyr among women” and “equal to the apostles”. Today, she is also the patron saint of computers because her name means “key” on a keyboard in Spanish. Cities are named for her in El Salvador, Wales, Canada, France, Italy, Portugal and Germany. And she is a favorite patron saint in Lebanon, which has 42 churches named for her throughout the country.
A couple of years ago, I participated in a Jesus Seminar meeting where scholar Karen Torgesen spoke about the ideas of gender. Her work was entitled “Male Honor and Female Shame”. She noted that in ancient Roman culture, honor was the highest value, even more than wealth.
But the question of honor was attributed differently for men and women. Females are seen as honorable if they appear to be gentle, obedient, chaste, and modest. Men are seen as honorable if they show courage, self-control, leadership, and domination. We continue to see signs of this idea four or more millennium later.
When women show leadership potential in this system, they are typically challenged – not because of their character – but through their gender and sexuality. Think about the apostles Paul and Thecla. Paul is described in detail physically, all of which adds up to depict a strong male leader. The one thing we know about the physical attributes of the apostle Thecla is that she is a virgin. The gospel is named for both Paul and Thecla and both are venerated as leaders in the early church. But compare them: Paul is a leader because of his preaching; while Thecla is strong because of her virginity. Paul continues to preach and to travel; Thecla escapes death twice and retreats to monastic living. For a woman in the ancient world, honor comes through her shame.
And this sets up a trap for both men and women historically: men challenge strong women in leadership by sexualizing them and showing their shame sexually. Thecla was dragged naked to her near-death twice. Why? Because she dared to want to be a traveling disciple with Paul. Remember Thecla when we talk about Eve. To understand Thecla is to understand Eve.
Adam and Eve are not actual people, of course. They are part of the Hebrew story of creation representing the first humans. The name Adam is meaning red earth creature. The name Eve is Chawwah, meaning “to live” or “to breathe”. Their names are symbolic, just as their personas are symbolic.
In the 2nd creation in Genesis as recorded in Genesis 2 & 3, man is created for domination. Woman, on the other hand, is created for sexuality and for obedience. So far, the roles of honor are established early in the story.
In a great reversal of nature, in Genesis 2, man gives life to woman. The woman is a derivative of man; a secondary creation. Yet, we are told that Eve was made to be a “suitable” partner for Adam – “suitable” could be translated “comparable” or “right for him”. Adam is honorable in the traditional Hebrew way – by domination. God pronounces that he is responsible for naming and keeping the animals. Eve is also honorable in the traditional Hebrew way – she is shamed by her gender.
And so this female creature falls into temptation and her husband is not far behind. No one here is an innocent bystander. From the beginning, men and women have wanted to know, to love, and to flourish. We want the power and the knowledge that we think only God has. So Eve’s story is about the quest for the knowledge. Have you ever wanted to know something so badly that you would do just about anything to find out?
Like Thecla, Eve finds herself embarrassingly naked. By her leadership role in acquiring knowledge, she is sexualized. Although they both are banned from the garden, the man keeps his role of domination over the animals. They both suffer some consequences, but Eve gets blamed for all of eternity for sin entering the world. She is the bad girl of all girls.
And because of her, supposedly, the feminine part of the divine was banned centuries ago in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We don’t put emphasis on the feminine face of God, even in our own Bibles:
- the mother eagle (Deut. 32:11)
- the midwife (Psalm 22:9)
- the womb-endowed Creator (Job 38:29)
- the birthing, nursing, and comforting mother (Isa. 42:14)
God is compared with all of these feminine attributes in our Bible, along with the woman searching for a lost coin in the New Testament. Instead, male images of God as rock, refuge, fortress, shepherd, and king, are repeated again and again. Is that Eve’s fault? Or ours?
Eve is our mother. And like our biological mothers, she was not perfect. By her name, she is a representative of life and breath – the birth mother of us all. When we allow her to become sexualized or the representative for human sin, we do ourselves a great disservice. Eve’s shame becomes our own shame.
Says Joyce Hollyday, “Eve was an original. In that sense, she is all of us. She was there at the dawn of creation, with all her hopes and strengths, frailties and fears. She is womanhood at its best – and at its worst. She reflects back to the Creator the glory of the choice to create humanity male and female, with all its mystery, joy, and pain. Surely, God danced in celebration of this beautiful crown of creation. Today, God dances with us still, bidding us to live in all the glory and giftedness with which we have been bestowed.”
Instead, let us celebrate Eve – the life-giver-and her quest for knowledge.
Buchmann, Christina and Spiegel, Celina. “Out of the Garden”. Fawcett Columbine. 1994.
Curtis Higgs, Liz. “Bad Girls of the Bible and what we can learn from them”. Waterbrook Publishers, 1999.
Hollyday, Joyce. “Clothed with the Sun; Biblical Women Social Justice and Us”. Westminster Press, 1994.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “In Memory of Her”. Crossroad. 1990.