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A “Pauline” Defense of Women’s Right to Baptize? Intertextuality and Apostolic Authority in the Acts of Paul

A “Pauline” Defense of Women’s Right to Baptize?
Intertextuality and Apostolic Authority in the Acts of Paul

Stephen J.Davis, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 8.3 (2000), 453-459.

Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.


In early Christian studies, the Acts of Paul has gained attention as an expression of Pauline tradition in the second century. Indeed, in a study now over a decade-and-a-half old, Dennis R. MacDonald argued that the Acts of Paul and the Pastoral Epistles each borrowed from a common stock of oral legends about the apostle Paul, but applied them to very different purposes. The Acts of Paul seems to have been written in the context of ongoing eschatological expectations and a corresponding disruption of social conventions (e.g., rejection of marriage, ministry of women). By contrast, the Pastorals oppose such a vision of Paul’s ministry, and instead seek to endorse conservative social values and the Development of an organized ecclesiastical leadership.

The first known external reference to the Acts of Paul appears in Tertullian’s On Baptism (ca. 200 c.E.). In that treatise, Tertullian confirms that the author of The Acts of Paul wrote the work as an attempt to enhance Paul’s legacy, and that he brought together already existing material about the apostle in creating the work: . . it was a presbyter in Asia who put together that book, compiling the work from his own materials in the name of Paul. Having been convicted, he confessed that he had done it out of love for Paul.

MacDonald himself was concerned to show how the author of the Acts of Paul have relied on oral materials in his composition; however, he does not say much at all about how the author utilizied the writings of Paul in putting together the Acts.

Does the author utilize Paul’s writings? If so, what can be said about the author’s role as an “exegete” of Paul? The answers to such questions are complicated by the fact that there are no extended quotations of Paul’s letters in the Acts of Paul. This should not be so surprising: the Acts of Paul was not meant to be a commentary on the letters, but a source of Pauline legend and teaching in its own right. Yet, even in the absence of explicit, extended quotation, it is possible to discern the influence of Paul’s writing on the work. To do so, the reader must tune his or her ear to subtle allusions and echoes—terms, phrases, and cadences drawn from the letters.

The Acts of Paul is, in fact, full of allusions to Paul’s writings. Its author knew and referred to all seven of Paul’s genuine letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), as well as most of his disputed or spurious works (Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy).(3) Among these works, Paul’s Corinthian correspondence (esp. 1 Corinthians) is alluded to quite frequently. The allusions take various forms. Sometimes it may be just the mention of a name: for example, a reference to Stephanas, the man whose household Paul claims to have baptized in 1 Corinthians 1.16.4 In other cases, such allusions involve the borrowing of whole phrases and ideas. Below, I present five examples of how the language of Paul in 1 Corinthians is echoed in the Acts of Paul:

1. “Blessed are those who have kept the flesh pure, for they will become a temple of God (naos theou).” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 5) “Do you not know that you are the temple of God (naos theou) and that the Spirit of God lives in you? . . . For the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor 3.16-17)

2. “Blessed are those who have wives as if they had none.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 5). “Let those who have wives be as if they had none.”(l Cor 7.29)

3. “. . . for they will judge angels . . . .” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 6). “Do you not know that we will judge angels . . . ?” (1 Cor 6.3)

4. “For I handed on to you in the beginning what I also received . . . .” (Acts of Paul: Letter to the Corinthians 4)

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received . . . .” (1 Cor 15.3)

5. “For indeed, you men of Corinth, they do not know about the sowing of the wheat or the other seeds . . . .” (Acts of Paul: Letter to the Corinthians 26)

“As for what you sow . . . (you sow) a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain.” (1 Cor 15.37)

Occasionally, the author of the Acts of Paul even conflates teachings from different letters of Paul:

Blessed are those who have wives as if they had none (cf. 1 Cor 7.29), for they shall be heirs to God (cf. Rom 8.17).(5)

And whoever abides by the rule (cf. Gal 6.16), which he received through the blessed prophets and the holy Gospel, shall receive a reward (cf. 1 Cor 3.14).(6)

Finally, the author of the Acts of Paul also interprets 1 and 2 Corinthians in the context of other scriptural writings. In one instance, he introduces a passage on the Exodus with a verbal allusion to Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 6.7—"Paul taught the word of truth (logos aletheias; cf. 2 Cor 6.7) and said . . . ‘How many times did God rescue Israel from the hand of the lawless? . . . For he saved them from the hand of Pharaoh . . . And after that he provided for them in the desert and in the waterless (country)."(7)

Many of these references to Paul’s writings have been noted by others. However, one of the most important uses of Paul’s letters in the Acts of Paul has heretofore not been recognized—an allusion to 1 Corinthians 10.1-11 in the scene of Thecla’s self-baptism in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. In the rest of this article, I will show how, by means of this allusion, the author of the Acts of Paul implicitly presents Thecla’s self-baptism as the eschatological fulfillment of Paul’s scriptural exegesis and teaching on baptism in 1 Corinthians 10.

An Intertextual Allusion to 1 Corinthians 10

While the Acts of Paul and Thecla (ATh) probably had independent roots in oral legend,(8) it was originally published as a chapter in the Acts of Paul. The events of the ATh are set in the larger context of Paul’s missionary travels in Asia Minor. Thecla is a young woman who hears Paul’s preaching in Iconium and decides to follow him by adopting a life of chastity. In the first half of the story, her rejection of marriage results in her being condemned to the stake, but she is miraculously rescued from the fire. In the second half of the story, she follows Paul to Antioch where a man tries to rape her on the road. Because she resists him, the man has her taken to the arena and thrown to the beasts. There she is befriended by a lioness and survives the attack of lions, bears, and eventually bulls. In the midst of this attack comes one of the most curious scenes in the story. Thecla spies a pool filled with hungry seals, and decides to baptize herself in the water. The text reads as follows:

And she threw herself in, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on the last day.” . . . And she threw herself into the water in the name of Jesus Christ. . . . And there was around her a cloud of fire, so that the beasts could not touch her, and so that she could not be seen naked.’

How does this scene recall 1 Corinthians 10? To answer this question, I will begin with the reference to the “cloud of fire” that surrounds Thecla.

Traditionally, this “cloud of fire” (nefele puros) has been understood as a biblical allusion—namely, an allusion to the “pillar of cloud (nefele)” and “pillar of fire (pur)” that guided the Israelites in the Exodus (Exod 13.21-22). Given such a context, the “cloud of fire” surrounding Thecla is generally interpreted as a sign of God’s presence and deliverance. The “cloud of fire” in the Acts has also been associated with the Transfiguration in Matthew 17.5.’ In that scene from the Gospel, Jesus appears to his disciples in a glorified form alongside Elijah and Moses. The disciples then hear the voice of God from a bright cloud (nefele photeine) that appears above them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In this context, the cloud would again serve as a sign of God’s presence.

Here, I want to suggest a new reading of this cloud that surrounds Thecla—a reading that further emphasizes the intertextual character of this image. “Intertextuality” refers to the way that a text “plays upon other texts”" and thereby creates multivalent fields of reference. How does the scene of Thecla’s baptism function intertextually? I suggest that in the image of the cloud that surrounds Thecla, one finds an allusion not simply to the Exodus itself, but also to Paul’s interpretation of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10.1-11.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul recounts the history of the Exodus in sacramental terms: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud (nefele), and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud (nefele) and the sea” (10.1-2). In this passage, Paul emphasizes the significance of the cloud by means of repetition: the ancestors were all “under the cloud” and were also all “baptized ... in the cloud.” Both of these images are important for understanding the intertextual allusion in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The image of the “cloud” serves as the specific verbal connection between the Acts of Paul and Thecla and its two main subtexts, 1 Corinthians 10 and Exodus 13. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla is surrounded by a “cloud of fire.” In Exodus 13, the people are led by “a pillar of cloud” and a “pillar of fire.” In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul simply refers to “the cloud” that accompanied Moses and the people of Israel—he makes no mention of “fire.” Note that the author of the Acts quotes neither of his two subtexts verbatim. This intertextual “slippage” in quotation reveals how 1 Corinthians and Exodus could both function as subtexts for the Acts. It also reveals how intertextual allusion worked for both the author and the reader. The scene of Thecla’s baptism in the Acts evokes and blends the language from both subtexts. It was then left to the reader—aided by some important thematic connections that I will discuss below—to discern the echoes of each text. The author of the Acts of Paul here presumes his readers’ knowledge of both Exodus 13 and 1 Corinthians 10. Indeed, the other quotations from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and his allusion to the Exodus elsewhere in the Acts of Paul (see above) confirms that the author understood his readers to be familiar with these sources.

This verbal connection between the Acts of Paul and Thecla and 1 Corinthians in and of itself is not persuasive. However, the argument for an intertextual allusion is strengthened by important thematic connections. In both works, the cloud functions as a sign of (1) divine protection and (2) baptism.

Paul’s account of the people being “under the cloud” borrows from a Jewish tradition of interpretation that emphasized the notion of the cloud as a protective covering. The writer of Psalms remembers how in the Exodus God “spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night” (Ps 105.39). Josephus describes how the cloud “settled down over the whole camp of Hebrews.” (12) In the Wisdom of Solomon, the cloud is actually personified as Wisdom: it becomes “a covering for them by day and a blaze of stars by night,” and is always seen “overshadowing the camp.” (13) In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the cloud has the same function. The cloud surrounding her actually protects her from the animals attacking her in the arena: because of the cloud “the beasts could not touch her.” Given the ascetic context of the Acts with its particular emphasis on the virtue of chastity, the cloud also takes on a new protective function: it not only guards Thecla’s body from attack, it also preserves Thecla’s modesty amidst the crowd. Thus, when Thecla baptizes herself in the pool, the cloud makes it “so that she could not be seen naked.”

The thematic connection of baptism with the image of the cloud is an even more compelling reason for understanding Thecla’s baptism as an allusion to 1 Corinthians 10. In Paul’s letter, he uses the Exodus event as a type for the Christian act of baptism: “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (10.2). Paul wants to show how the blessings that God bestowed upon the Israelites had a sacramental character—that they were signs of the sacraments that would later be given to the church. In the Acts, the cloud is also linked with baptism—indeed, it appears right as Thecla throws herself into the water. The importance of Thecla’s act of self-baptism is highlighted by verbal repetition scene is actually narrated twice) (14) but it is also highlighted by the appearance of the cloud, which marks Thecla’s act as specially blessed by God.

While at first glance it may seem generic and insignificant, the specific use pi the Greek verb “to baptize” (baptizein) in the Acts of Paul and Thecla provides a further basis for identifying this passage as an allusion to 1 Corinthians 10. Here, the Acts may in fact shed light on the textual tradition of 1 Corinthians in the second century C.E. When Thecla declares her intent to baptize herself, she| uses the middle present form of the verb to announce her act: “I baptize myself (baptizomai) in the name of Jesus Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 10.2, there is a textual variant where the middle form of the verb baptizein appears as well. The majority reading favored by Nestle-Aland is an aorist passive: “all were baptized (ebaptisthesan) in Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (15) However, a variant reading, attested in two early sources, (16) has the aorist middle (ebaptisthisanto), which can be translated “... all baptized themselves in Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” In the Acts, Thecla’s declaration of baptism follows closely the wording found in this variant reading of 1 Corinthians:

All baptized themselves I baptize myself in Moses in the name of Christ. (1 Corinthians) (Acts of Paul)

Thecla’s statement differs only in the change to the first person (“I”) and the substitution of Christ for Moses in the baptismal formula. Did the author of the Acts of Paul have before him this text of 1 Corinthians, and did he model his account of Thecla’s baptism on its language? Did his community regularly use this version of Paul’s letter in their worship? It is impossible to know for sure. If this were the case, however, it would mean that this variant tradition would have already been circulating in Asia Minor before the end of the second century C.E. In any case, the narration of Thecla’s baptism in connection with a protective cloud strongly supports an intertextual connection with 1 Corinthians.

A final reason to support such an intertextual reading of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is the eschatological emphasis shared by both passages. Paul’s sacramental typology in 1 Corinthians 10 is framed by an eschatological warning: “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come (eis hous ta tele ton aionon)" (10.11). In the Acts, Thecla’s declaration, “I baptize myself on the last day (hustera hemera)," may have been occasioned by the eschatological context of Paul’s own writing. The author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla borrows from Paul’s eschatological teachings on other occasions in order to advocate an ascetic renunciation of the world. This is most plainly seen in the “Pauline Beatitudes” in the Acts of Paul and Thecla 5-6. In two of the Beatitudes, the author alludes to or quotes Paul’s eschatological teachings in 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 in conjunction with other passages from Paul’s letters:

Blessed are they who have wives as if they had them not (1 Cor 7.29), for they shall be heirs to God (Rom 8.17).

Blessed are those who through love of God have departed from the form of this world (schema tou kosmou toutou; 1 Cor 7.31); for they shall judge angels (1 Cor 6.3).

In each case, the eschatological teachings of Paul are used to endorse ascetic withdrawal and a reappraisal of conventional social values. Indeed, it is this eschatological context that validates Thecla’s irregular act of self-baptism: her baptism is ultimately presented in the narrative as an eschatological gesture, an act that subverts the social customs of a world nearing its end.


If the scene of Thecla’s baptism indeed borrows from 1 Corinthians 10, it represents a remarkable attempt to ground that baptism—a baptism performed by a woman—in the apostolic authority of Paul’s teaching. Whether this strategy of intertextual allusion originated with the Asian presbyter who compiled his work “out of love for Paul”—or from an earlier oral or written stratum—is difficult to determine. However, it should be noted that this example of intertextuality and the appeal to apostolic authority in the Acts of Paul and Thecla may very well have had a profound effect upon the history of the text’s reception among early Christian communities. According to Tertullian, the Acts of Paul and the “example of Thecla” were cited early on by groups who strove to “defend the right of women to teach and to baptize.” Is it possible that these communities were appealing to Paul’s eschatological teaching as a warrant for these practices? This intertextual allusion to 1 Corinthians 10 in the Acts of Paul and Thecla may have been just such an appeal: a “Pauline” defense of women’s right to baptize in the early church.


(Unfortunately some references and footnotes have been mislaid from our text)

3. For a footnoted list of references to Paul’s letters in the Acts of Paul, see W. Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2, tr. R. Wilson (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1992), 265-70.

4. Pauli et Corinthorium epistulae 50.1, in P. Bodmer 10 (ed. M. Testuz, Papyrus . Bodmer X [Geneva: Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, 1959]); Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:254.

8. On the arguments for and against the oral background of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, see Stephen J. Davis, The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), chap. 1.

9. Acts of Paul and Thecla 34 (ed. Lipsius and Bonnet, Acta apostolorum apocrypha, 260-61).

10 . Leon Vouaux, Les Actes de Paul et ses lettres Apocryphes (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ane, 1913), 213 n. 3.

11. Nicholas Fox, “Intertextuality and the Writing of Social Research,” Electronic Journal of Sociology 1.2 (1995); www.sociology.org/vol001.002/fox.maintext.html.

12. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 4.79; tr. H. St. J. Thackeray (LCL; London: William Heinemann, 1930), 355.

13. Wisdom of Solomon 10.17, 19.7; tr. David Winston (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday & Co., 1979), 219, 322.

17. De bapt. 17 (CSEL 20:215). There are some textual problems with this passage. In the manuscript tradition of Tertullian’s On Baptism, there are two extant Latin versions and they differ at this point. While Thecla’s name appears in both Latin versions of the text, some editors have questioned whether it was part of the original text (T. MacKay, “Response,” Semeia 38 [1986]: 145-46).

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