06.09.06, Johnson, Life and Miacles of Thekla

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Maud McInerney

The Medieval Review baj9928.0609.006


Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald. The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study. Hellenic Studies vol. 13. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. 288. ISBN: 0-674-01961-X.

Reviewed by:
Maud McInerney
Haverford College

In recent years, the second century Acts of Paul and Thekla has generated a fair amount of scholarly interest; Scott Fitzgerald Johnson's book takes as its subject a lesser known redaction of that text, the fifth century Life and Miracles of Thekla. Johnson's book does an excellent job of situating the Life and Miracles in its particular temporal and geographical context, and makes a strong case for appreciating the later text for its own merits. Johnson's enthusiasm for the text (which he calls the "crowning jewel of Thekla devotion" (5)) is contagious, and even those readers left unconvinced by some of his specific arguments may well find themselves curious enough to look out Dagron's critical edition (1978) and draw their own conclusions.

Johnson's book is divided into four chapters, followed by three appendices. The first chapter, "Paraphrase in Practice: The Life of Thekla and Literary Inheritance in Late Antiquity" consists primarily of an extended comparison between the Life and its second-century precursor, the Acts. Johnson argues convincingly that the Life possesses much more self-consciously "literary" qualities than the Acts: Homeric allusions, figurative language, increased interest in psychology, a certain romanticization of character and situations. He notes too that the Life is increasingly theological. Trinitarian doctrine, for instance, is introduced as a way of updating the text and "creating cultural capital" (10). The Life, according to this argument, employs a particular kind of paraphrase, one that acknowledges the importance of an earlier text, but also expands upon it, correcting perceived "problems" in the original. Thus, the Life edits out the most encratic tendencies of the Acts, tones down the Acts' often acerbic criticism of Paul, and places Thekla much more clearly under the authority of the apostle. That the Life performs these functions is undeniable, but the logic with which Johnson lays out the process is somewhat circular. He argues, in essence, that the Paul of the Acts cannot refute the charge of encratism leveled against him precisely because encratism is a powerful presence in second century religious life, whereas the fifth century Life is able to be less encratic than the Acts because encratism itself is less typical of the fifth century. What this rather descriptive formulation does not admit is that one of the projects of the Life appears to be to domesticate both the theology of the Acts, and its protagonist. The Acts, in other words, was a genuinely radical text; Tertullian, who attacks it as fraudulent in On Baptism, recognizes this when he worries that it might lead women to claim the right to baptize, in imitation of Thekla. The Acts was genuinely threatening to the social order, and especially to the sex/gender system that underlies and preserves that social order. By reducing the encratism of the Acts, by making Paul more sympathetic and by placing Thekla much more firmly under his apostolic authority, the Life tames a potentially radical heroine so that she will fit a period in which Christianity itself is no longer a radical alternative religion but rather a government sponsored institution. Certainly, the Life "irons out perceived difficulties" in the Acts. But is such ironing out necessarily an unqualifiedly good thing?

Johnson's unwillingness to acknowledge the conservatism of the text is surprising, especially in the light of his second chapter, "Biblical Rewriting and the Metaphrastic Habit: The Life of Thekla within the History of Ancient Paraphrase." In this brief but interesting account of the practice of literary paraphrase in the Late Antique period, Johnson works towards a definition of the practice called either metaphrasis or metabole in Greek, and associated by Josephus with methermeneuo, "to interpret." He asks "how is a retelling to be understood that is not merely translation or representation" and suggests paraphrase as a "method of imaginative elaboration" (75). His account of the genre touches upon Biblical paraphrase, such as some of the work of Josephus, or Gregory Thaumaturgus' Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, and also on less obviously periphrastic literary forms, some of which demonstrate greater similarities to the Thekla story, which has been called a "Christian Romance." Joseph and Asenath, for example, is one of a number of Jewish "novels" that rewrites Biblical stories in response to perceived problems in the text (85); this particular tale, one imagines, emerges from the fascination of some first century author with the brief Scriptural reference to Joseph's marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest. A similar interest in psychology and curiosity about interpersonal relations seems to animate many of the Life of Thekla's expansions on the balder narrative of the Acts. Johnson notes a variety of other fascinating variations on the theme of paraphrase as a sort of integrated interpretive reading of a pre-existing text, such as the Empress Eudocia's Homeric cento which is also an account of the Fall and Redemption of Man, and the case of the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, which introduces anti-semitic and anti-feminist notes into a retelling of the Acts of the Apostles. This last example is particularly provocative, since in my opinion the Life of Thekla has a somewhat similar agenda in its revision of the Acts of Paul and Thekla.

The third chapter of the book, "History, Narrative, and Miracle in Late Antique Seleukeia: Thekla's thaemata and their Collector" advances what is, to my mind, the most interesting part of Johnson's discussion. In this section, he deals with the patriographic qualities of the text and demonstrates with genuine originality the degree to which the miracles, as opposed to the life story, of the saint map out a very particular late antique geography. The apparently heterogenous miracles ascribed to Thekla, Johnson argues, may serve a variety of functions, but all operate to help define Seleukeia as a recognizable civic entity, bounded by specific geographic markers, Cape Sarpedon to the south and Mt Kokusion to the north. He discusses in some detail Thekla's victorious encounters with four pagan divinities (Sarpedon, Athena, Aphrodite and Zeus) and the way these victories anchor her claim to function as the tutelary spirit of the place. Similarly, Thekla's willingness to involve herself in the lives of so many Seleukeians, both Christian and pagan, identifies her as a patroness of the place first and foremost, not only of its Christian citizens. One may not entirely accept Johnson's desire to see the historiographic mode of the narration of the miracles as "Herodotean"--indeed, although Herodotus is invoked in the text, Plutarch seems at least as likely a model for the particular method of episodic story telling deployed here--but his argument for the type of cultural work the text is performing is compelling.

In his final chapter, "Greek Wonders: Classical Models for Christian Miracle Collections," Johnson argues persuasively that the classical genre which has most probably influenced the Miracles of Thekla is paradoxography and not, as others have supposed, Asclepian iamata or accounts of healings. As in his discussion of paraphrase in Chapter 2, Johnson here does a good job of outlining what may be to many readers an unfamiliar genre. Paradoxography was a mode of historical writing that concentrated on bringing together remarkable phenomena, whether natural, human or supernatural. Johnson demonstrates the way that the genre, Hellenistic in origin, is taken up by both Christian and pagan authors of late antiquity. Asclepian inscriptions, in contrast are individual votive offerings; they do not occur in book form, nor are they concatenated into longer narratives concerning the healing divinity. And in any case, as Johnson noted in the previous chapter, Thekla is not exclusively or even primarily a saint associated with healing; she also performs revenge miracles and, most importantly to Johnson's argument, miracles of civic protection.

Johnson's conclusion begins with what amounts to an apologia for his decision not to consider issues of gender in the Life and Miracles: "I do not feel that this work is a 'gendered' text in the way that word is used in scholarship on antiquity and the middle ages. Thekla's status as a woman has almost no special role at all for the author of the LM, especially in comparison with the ATh" (221). In my view, such a response betrays a rather undertheorized attitude to the very question of gender. It does not seem to have occurred to Johnson, for instance, that by consistently calling Paul the didaskalos or teacher of Thekla, rather than her companion, as in the Acts, the author of the Life is granting her a certain sort of apostolically limited authority at the expense of a potentially much greater autonomy, and that this is itself a gendered decision. Thekla's gender was of critical importance to other late antique writers, from Tertullian, for whom she was a shocking example of inappropriate feminine behavior, to Methodius of Olympus (d. 311), who grants Thekla the final speech in praise of virginity in his pseudo-Platonic Symposium, to the two late antique homilies Johnson includes in Appendix Two, both of which explicitly highlight Thekla's gender and her importance as role model for women. An alternate ending to the Acts of Thekla, quite possibly contemporary with the Life and Miracles (and included by Johnson as Appendix One) also emphasizes her status as intact virgin and as teacher of local women. Thus the decision of the author of the Life and Miracles to deemphasize Thekla's gender appears as itself both reactionary and gendered by default; for him, it is clearly important not to focus on Thekla's virginity or femininity or her role as mentor and inspiration to other women (such as Egeria, with whose account of her visit to Hagia Thekla Johnson begins his book). The anonymous author's choice to neuter the saint as much as possible may in fact account for the "ad hoc" treatment of gender in the text (221n3). Of course this choice, idiosyncratic as it may be in the larger Thekla tradition, does not in any way diminish the fact that, as Johnson insists, "the LM is, first and foremost, an artful work of late antique writing in Greek" (222).

The last of the three appendices to the book is a useful catalogue of early Byzantine miracle collections. The index of Greek words, in contrast, is rather disappointing; surely one ought to be able to find here such important terms as metaphrasis and methermeneuo, but neither appears. This minor point aside, The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study, has much to offer any reader interested in hagiography or late antique literary culture. One hopes that it will go a long way towards correcting the undeserved neglect into which this fascinating text has fallen.

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Maud McInerney

Haverford College