Images published in this country of a fresco in the Cave of St. Paul at Ephesus have misled several of us who have used and discussed them.

The proper identification of the figure standing beside Paul is important, not simply for art historical sake, but because this woman is shown to be an equal of Paul. Who is she and what can she tell us about the attitude toward women in the early days of the church?

The Cave or Grotto of St. Paul lies on the northern slopes of the Bülbül Dag, overlooking the ruins of ancient Ephesus. It is a long, narrow, rock-cut cave about 50 feet deep, 6.5 feet wide, and 8 feet high. Jonathan Reed and I first saw photos of the cave in a note on “St. Paul at Ephesus” by the archaeological reporter Özgen Acar of Ankara, Turkey, in Archaeology magazine’s Online News for January 17, 2002.1 The photos showed what appeared to be a diptych containing a male figure to the viewer’s left and a female figure to the viewer’s right. The names of figures appear clearly beside each one’s head. Left of the male’s head is ΠΑΥ ΛΟC (Paul), divided that way over two lines, and to the right of the female’s head is ΘΕΟΚΛΙ[Α] (Theoklia). In the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Theoklia (or Theocleia) is the antagonistic mother of Paul’s faithful female follower Thekla (or Thecla). But Acar’s accompanying report identified the two figures as “St. Paul, and St. Theoklia, a female disciple … who accompanied him on some of his journeys, [and] later died in Antioch, modern Antakya.” Thus, in effect, he identified the mother Theocleia as her daughter, the disciple Thecla.

When Jonathan Reed and I first saw those images, we presumed that Acar was correct and that the mother Theocleia had become confused with the daughter Thecla so that, despite the names, the images were intended to be of Paul and his disciple Thecla.

Why? Because we could not imagine why Theocleia would be given such authoritative status in a diptych. As Ms. Carmody notes, the woman in the painting is depicted as Paul’s equal. Her head is actually slightly higher than Paul’s. According to a private letter from Professor Dr. Renate Pillinger, head of the University of Vienna’s Institute for Classical Archaeology, who has excavated and published the cave’s frescoes, Paul is actually seated, with an open book resting on his just-barely-visible lap.2 Presumably, the woman labeled Theocleia is standing beside him. Both figures have their right hand raised in an authoritative teaching gesture. Their right-hand fingers are divided into a twosome and a threesome. This gesture, which is quite characteristic for Byzantine images, proclaims the two natures in Christ and the three persons in the Trinity.

In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, however, Theocleia is described as an adversary of both Paul and her own daughter, Thecla. She is, in fact, the only female who turns against Thecla while all others, Christian and pagan, human and animal, support and defend her.

What struck us most forcibly about the painting was that, while the face and hand of Paul were untouched, the eyes of Theocleia (as Thecla, so we thought) had been blinded and her teaching hand was burned and defaced. That seemed to be quite deliberate. If the eyes of both figures had been gouged out, we would have presumed a case of typical iconoclasm by facial disfigurement, a feature quite characteristic of Byzantine anti-art that can usually be distinguished from the randomness of decay (see photo). But this attack on Theocleia-as-Thecla appeared to be some kind of calculated negation of her authoritative apostolic authority. The image seemed to provide a graphic example of the female-male equality becoming female-male inequality that occurred among early followers of Paul. The same shift can be seen by comparing the radical Paul of his authentic letters, such as Romans 16:1–16, where Paul commends several female church leaders, including, for example, the deacon Phoebe, who carries, delivers, reads and interprets the letter to Rome’s Christian communities, and Junia, who is “prominent among the apostles,” to the conservative Paul of his inauthentic ones, such as 1 Timothy 2:11–12, where pseudo-Paul commands that “a woman learn in silence with full submissions.” Pseudo-Paul writes, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent.”

David Cartlidge, in his BR article, showed the same diptych of Paul and Theocleia, which we both had received through the courtesy of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna, the excavators at Ephesus. Cartlidge also saw the problem of showing Theocleia in parallel depiction with Paul but explained it differently from Acar and ourselves. The fresco, he notes, “must originally have been a scene of Thecla listening to Paul’s preaching in Iconium. Still visible are Paul and Theocleia (Thecla’s mother).” The caption attached to the image itself goes further: “The wicked mother Theocleia (right) holds up a reproachful finger while Paul (left) preaches his message of virginity … but the fresco is too badly damaged to identify any figures other than these two, whose names appear in Greek beside their portraits. At some point, an iconoclast gouged out the eyes and hand of Theocleia in the Ephesus fresco—perhaps because of her bad reputation in the stories about her daughter.”

That cave’s fresco was symbolically very significant for Jonathan Reed’s and my interpretation of Paul, and so we tried to get inside the cave and see it for ourselves in the summer of 2003. In June, Jonathan Reed climbed up to the cave by himself but found it securely locked. In September, I was promised access by the Ephesus Museum’s director but he was absent from his office on the designated day. We had to submit our manuscript to the publisher in January of 2004 without ever having seen the fresco in situ.

In September of 2004 Marianne and Marcus Borg, and Sarah Crossan and I led our annual Borg-Crossan pilgrimage to Turkey in order to visit the major sites related directly or indirectly to Paul. Our guide was an Istanbul university professor named Haluk Çetinkaya who was a colleague of Recep Okçu, one of the three Ministry of Culture inspectors overseeing Austrian excavations that year. Sarah and I were allowed to accompany them inside the cave. It was immediately evident that the fresco, which is on the west wall to the right just inside the entrance, was a triptych not a diptych (see photo). To the viewer’s left, on the other side of Paul from Theocleia, was a clearly visible image of Thecla listening to Paul from the window of her house. (That “window” setting is emphasized five times in the Acts of Paul and Thecla 7-9.) The letters ΘΕΚ, the start of her name, appear to the left of her head.

David Cartlidge’s suggestion that the scene must have included Thecla was decisively correct. Thecla and her house are in fact the fullest and best preserved of the three figures, and we are now quite certain that the scene is a triptych, including, from the viewer’s left to right, images of Thecla, Paul and Theocleia.

But that still leaves the problem of Theocleia. Why are her eyes and hand erased whereas neither Thecla nor Paul is touched? David Cartlidge’s solution, as cited above, was that she was originally reproaching Paul with that upraised hand and was punished by those erasures for that impious gesture. That explanation, however, is not persuasive. The reason is that her raised arm is precisely isomorphic with that of Paul and, even more importantly, her five fingers—as best one can still see them—are in the same two-finger and three-finger proclamatory separation as are Paul’s. She is not reproaching Paul. Rather, she was originally depicted on the wall as an authoritative teacher who was in parallel to and in agreement with Paul’s preaching. But that simply rephrases the problem. How was the image (good Theocleia) ever in such disagreement with the text (bad Theocleia)?

In the Acts of Paul and Thecla Theocleia clearly abandons and condemns her daughter with, “Burn the lawless one!” Later, Thecla, having been abandoned by her natural mother, Theocleia, receives in her place a surrogate mother, Tryphaena, who has lost her own daughter, Falconillia, to death. Notice, on the one hand, no father is mentioned in either case. And, on the other, that Theocleia is the only bad female in the entire ultra-feminism (that lioness!) of this story. My guess, and that is all I can offer, is that in at least one version of the Thecla narrative, her mother Theocleia was on Paul’s side helping to persuade Thecla to accept permanent virginity as—maybe—she herself had accepted permanent celibacy within or after her own marriage. In any case, and however we explain it, she is portrayed in the Cave of St. Paul as, first, his teaching equal, and, then, as his blinded and silenced unequal.





Professor Dr. Renate Pillinger saw our book in the library of the University of Vienna and immediately sent us a remedial bibliography on the cave. She did not know about the Archaeology report cited above, and we did not know—and wished we had—about her own publications. We have now seen, for example, the following important article and apologize for not having known about it earlier: Renate Pillinger, “Neue Entdeckungen in der sogenannten Paulusgrotte von Ephesos,” Mitteilungen Zur Christlichen Archäologie 6 (2000), pp. 16-29.