Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles
Thekla was born in the city of Iconium. The daughter of wealthy and highly respected parents, she was known for her extraordinary beauty. When she was 18 years old, her parents made plans for her to be engaged to a young man named Thamyris.
It just so happened that during this time, Paul the Apostle and his friend and co-worker, Barnabas, arrived in the city of Iconium (Acts 13:49-14:10). They had just left another town nearby – Antioch of Pisidia – where their teaching upset many of the Jews. Thekla’s mother, Theokleia, refused to let Thekla join the crowds which gathered to hear the Apostle Paul preach. But Thekla found that if she sat near her bedroom window she could hear everything the apostle said. She sat there for three days and three nights listening to Paul preach the word of God. When her mother and her fiancé saw that Thekla was becoming interested in the new Faith, they went to the governor of the city and complained about Paul and his preaching. The governor saw that others were upset also and did not want a riot in the town. So, in order to make the angry citizens of Iconium happy, the
governor had Paul put in prison to wait for a trial. When Thekla heard of Paul’s arrest, she secretly went to the prison, used her golden bracelets to bribe the guard, and was able to go to the apostle’s cell. When she saw St. Paul, she knelt before him and kissed the chains which bound his hands and feet. She remained there for three days listening to his message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
During this time, Theokleia and Thamyris realized that they hadn’t seen Thekla lately. They asked Thekla’s servant if she knew where she was. The servant said that Thekla had gone to visit an imprisoned stranger. Theokleia and Thamyris knew at once that she must be with the Apostle Paul. They decided to go again to the governor, and this time they demanded that he do something about the Apostle. After the governor criticized Paul for the disturbances he had caused in the city, he had him stoned and thrown out of Iconium. The governor then admonished Thekla for her foolishness and ordered her to return home with her mother and fiancé. When Thekla announced that she had decided not to marry and to dedicate her life to serving Christ, her mother became very angry and asked the governor to threaten Thekla with severe punishment. The governor agreed and said that Thekla was to be burned at the stake unless she gave up her faith in Christ.
Thekla refused to deny her faith in Christ and was taken to the arena for punishment. As she was tied to the stake, she saw a vision of Jesus Christ which gave her strength to face the fiery flames. Then something amazing happened. As the flames came near Thekla, a thunderstorm formed in the sky. A great torrent of rain and hail came down from heaven and put out all the flames. Embarrassed because his plan had failed, the angry governor released Thekla but commanded that she must leave Iconium at once. As soon as she was released from the arena, Thekla went to the edge of the city where she found the Apostle Paul and his companions hidden in a cave. They had been praying for her. She told him of her trial and the miraculous escape from punishment and asked to be baptized. Paul refused to baptize Thekla at that moment and said that her baptism would be special and would be accomplished in God’s own way and in his own time.
Thekla stayed with the Apostle Paul as they departed from Iconium and traveled to the city Antioch in the country of Syria. As they were entering the city, a young nobleman named Alexander saw Thekla. He was startled by how beautiful she was. He rushed forward and immediately tried to flirt with her, but Thekla tried to ignore him. This embarrassed the young Alexander because his friends saw what was going on. So he went to the governor of Antioch and complained that this girl had disgraced him, a nobleman, in public. He demanded that she be punished by death. The governor agreed and ruled that Thekla would have to face the wild beasts in the arena. Thekla was taken and put into the care of a noblewoman named Tryphaena (who also happened to be a relative of Caesar) until it was time for her to be taken to the arena and killed.
When Thekla was taken to the arena, a female lion (lioness) was set free to attack her. But to the astonishment of the crowd, the lioness approached the girl and sat tamely at her feet. A bear was then released, but as it came close to Thekla, the lioness rose up to defend her and killed the bear. A large lion was then released. The lioness again came to Thekla’s aid, killing the lion, but losing its own life as well. Then all the cages were opened, and a large number of wild animals charged at the defenseless Thekla. She made the sign of the cross and prayed for courage. Then she noticed a large tank of water close by. It contained different kinds of animals from the ocean. She climbed into the water and asked Christ to baptize her as she did so. The young man, Alexander, was frustrated to see that the beasts had not hurt Thekla and asked that she be handed over to him for punishment. He tied her to two large bulls in the hopes that they would pull her apart. But when the bulls charged off in opposite directions, the ropes which held Thekla to them were miraculously loosened and she was spared. Seeing that no harm could be done to Thekla, the authorities let her go. She returned to the home of Tryphaena (the woman who had taken care of her before she was sent into the arena) where she remained for eight days. She told Tryphaena all about the Good News of Jesus Christ, and Tryphaena and her entire household became Christians! When Thekla finally left Antioch, Tryphaena gave her a gift of gold and precious jewels.
Thekla journeyed to the city Myra where she rejoined the Apostle Paul. She told him all that had happened, including her amazing baptism and asked him if she could spend the rest of her life serving Christ. Paul gave her his blessing and she departed, leaving with Paul all the gold and jewels that Tryphaena had given her so that he might give them to the poor and needy.
Thekla then traveled again to the country of Syria where she went up into the mountains for a life of prayer and solitude. Saint Thekla continued to live like this until she peacefully fell asleep in Christ at the age of 90. Shortly after her death, a community of nuns went to live in her mountain cell and built a small chapel in which to place her body. This is the Convent of Saint Thekla which still exists today near the village of Ma‘loula, Syria.
Because of her many sufferings for the Faith, the Church calls her a Protomartyr. And because she converted so many people to Christ-ianity she is also know as Equal-to-the-Apostles.
Below is a Troparion about the Holy Saint Thekla.
You were enlightened by the words of Paul, O Bride of God, Thekla, And your faith was confirmed by Peter, O Chosen One of God. You became the first sufferer and martyr among women, By entering into the flames as into a place of gladness. For when you accepted the Cross of Christ, The demonic powers were frightened away. O all-praised One, Intercede before Christ God that our souls may be saved.
Where: Iconium (Latin) or Ἰκόνιον (Greek) in what is present day Turkey When: A teenager during the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul
We get our information about Saint Thekla from very old manuscripts from Syria and Greece.