“On this, my last day, I baptize myself in the name of Jesus Christ,” uttered the beautiful first-century C.E. virgin Thecla as she was about to be devoured by beasts, according to the second-century C.E. Acts of Paul and Thecla.

Legend has it that Thecla (shown in this limestone plaque, which is 25 inches in diameter), who was from the city of Iconium, in southeast Anatolia, had been condemned for refusing to marry and for embracing the cult of Christ. She then became a missionary and followed the apostle Paul in his peregrinations in the mid-first century C.E. When she reached Antioch, the region’s highest-ranking official, the Syriarch, mistook her for a prostitute and pursued her. Since Thecla claimed to be a Christian, the Syriarch decided to have her killed by wild beasts. In the amphitheater, women sympathetic to Thecla put the lions to sleep with perfumes. When Thecla leapt into beast-infested waters, lightning electrocuted the creatures.

Eventually, Thecla settled down a few miles from Seleucia Pieria, Antioch’s port-city. There she lived in the mountains above the city for 70 years, curing the sick and exorcising demons. But her trials were not over: After pagan men from a nearby town tried to rape her, she mysteriously vanished into the wall of her cave.

In the centuries that followed Thecla’s cave became a pilgrimage destination where people sought oracles and cures for diseases. In the fifth century, several churches and monasteries were built on the site, which then was called Hagia (Saint) Thecla (modern Miramlik, in Turkey). An archaeological survey conducted in the early part of the 20th century discovered a cave, fifth-century remains of three churches and several buildings, and a strong defensive wall built around the site to protect it against marauders and pirates.

The cult of Thecla at Miramlik is a fact, supported by archaeological and literary evidence. The story of her life, on the other hand, was either fabricated or extravagantly embellished according to Greek literary conventions. To Tertullian (c. 160–240 C.E.) and other defenders of the Christian patriarchal system, the most outrageous aspect of the Acts of Paul and Thecla was not its miracles or the ambiguous beauty of its heroine; rather, they were enraged by the book’s claim that a woman followed Paul as a Christian missionary and, upon the threat of martyrdom, baptized herself.

Recent scholarship suggests that in the original version of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla suffered through her amphitheater trial at Pisidian Antioch, in southern Anatolia, rather than at Antioch-on-the-Orontes. Apparently, after her cult at Miramlik had taken off, the legend was rewritten to justify the Syrian sanctuary’s claim that Thecla had lived there.

This later, fifth-century Life of Thecla is a little defensive about Pisidian Antioch, suggesting that its author was took pains to revise an already well-known story. After describing Paul and Thecla’s arrival in Antioch, for instance, the author feels the need to explain just which city it was: “I mean Antioch of the Syrians, the beautiful and great city where for the first time the beautiful and blessed name of Christians was coined, not Antioch of the Pisidians, the one that is close to Lycaonia, in spite of what the Pisidians have to say.”