Lesson 17: The World of Christian Romance

The ascetic tendencies of early Christianity were not driven by a hatred of the body, but rather by an entirely different view of the human being’s place in nature and relation to the patterns of this world. Those tendencies found colorful expression in the Christian answer to the burgeoning genre of romance — the apocryphal acts.






Apocryphal, encratite, gnostic, romance, Thekla



Paul’s letter to the Corinthians would come to define the boundaries of orthodox sexual morality in the early church, but this letter still left unsettled whether marriage was simply a lesser evil than porneia and a lesser good than celibacy, and why celibacy was the true ideal for the Christian. These questions would be worked out over the course of the first three centuries, and one of the enduring responses was reflected in a new genre of early Christian literature: the Apocryphal Acts.

As a genre, the group of texts known as the Apocryphal Acts is a product of the popular culture of early Christianity. The word “apocryphal” here simply means “non-canonical” (it does not necessarily mean that these texts are somehow dubious in origin). These texts were written much later the texts that would come to be called canonical. Nearly all of them were written anonymously. Since there is not a single, stable textual history behind each of the Apocryphal Acts, they more closely resemble legends than literary texts in nature. In this sense, they were clearly meant to be a kind of entertainment that formed an important legend, or memory, of the early church’s chief heroes: the apostles. Five principle Apocryphal Acts were the Acts of Peter, John, Thomas, Andrew, and Paul and the related Acts of Paul and Thekla.

Each of the Apocryphal Acts focuses on one apostle, the hero of the story. Each is an adventure story – a tale of trial, separation, miracles, and wonders. These texts are clearly conscious of the romances preceding them, such as Daphnis and Chloe. They are a kind of romance because of their adventurous spirit; however, they would be better classified as “anti-romances” because their message about the purpose of human life is diametrically opposed to the message of the Greek romances. Whereas the romance emphasizes human physicality – “this-worldliness,” so to speak – the Apocryphal Acts reflect a belief that true human nature transcends their physical embodiment and particularly their sexual nature. It is also interesting to consider the historical time and place that frame the meaning of these stories. Whereas romances like Daphnis and Chloe are set in “adventure-time,” the anti-romances are set in the Roman Empire – with the Romans as the villains, of course. These texts, born from the persecuted church, are staunchly anti-Roman.

The single most important generic convention of the anti-romance is its ending. While romances like Daphnis and Chloe end in marriage and celebration, the anti-romances end with the rejection of marriage, the embrace of celibacy, and the martyrdom of the apostle.  The Apocryphal Acts are so intentionally, self-consciously opposed to sex and marriage that they remind the reader of the Encratite position against which Paul had warned. These texts represent many early Christians’ strong preference for celibacy.

Romances Apocryphal Acts
· End with marriage and procreation

· Celebrate nature and Eros

· Connect humans within the cycle of nature

· Claim that the true nature of humans is bound to the physical world

· Assume that the cosmos is generally good

· Are set within adventure-time, outside of real time

· End with martyrdom and divorce

· Celebrate celibacy

· Connect humans to a purpose that transcends the cosmos

· Claim that human nature transcends the physical world

· Assume that the physical world is corrupted

· Are set within the Roman Empire


Acts of Andrew

Maximilla, the wife of a Roman governor, has fallen ill, plagued by a demon. The pagan priests of her town make countless attempts to ward off the demon, but all their attempts come to nothing. The Apostle Andrew arrives and performs a miracle, finally healing Maximilla and casting the demon away. Amazed by the miracle, Maximilla converts to Christianity. During her conversion, Maximilla vows to remain chaste henceforth. Unaware of her conversion, her Roman husband finds Maximilla praying and is touched at the display of piety. Little did he know that Maximilla had been praying to not be defiled by intercourse with him. Maximilla is able to avoid her filthy husband’s advances only for a while. To preserve her celibacy, Maximilla tricks her husband each night by having one of the slave women take her place in bed. The trick works for a while, but eventually the keen governor realizes that the woman he has been sleeping with is not his wife. He is furious at her deceit. To force her to submit, he threatens the life of Apostle Andrew, who is responsible for Maximilla’s conversion. The narrative ends with the martyrdom of Andrew and divorce of Maximilla.

Acts of Thomas

The story begins in Jerusalem as each corner of the world is divided amongst the Apostles to spread the gospel of Christ. Thomas has been sent to India, which he sells himself into slavery to reach. Once in India he begins to perform miracles like healing wounds and casting out demons. While establishing the church in India, Thomas converts a royal woman to Christianity. In an outrage, her husband sentences Thomas to death. Like the Acts of Andrew, this narrative ends with a martyrdom and a divorce, but after Thomas is martyred, he appears to his followers at his tomb to proclaim that he is with God.

Acts of Peter
The most important legends of early Christianity are those that surround its two most important apostles, Peter and Paul. In the Acts of Peter, Jesus entreats Peter to go to Rome to deal with Simon, who is Peter’s arch-enemy in the story. Peter begins to convert people, particularly women, and performs other miracles. The ultimate showdown between Peter and Simon occurs when Peter resurrects a young boy and thus is victorious over Simon.

The most enduring element of this text, however, is Peter’s martyrdom. After Peter had converted the four concubines of the Roman mayor, along with all the beautiful wives of senators and other powerful Romans, he knew that these men would be unhappy with him, and so he decided to sneak out of the city. But as he is leaving Rome, he encounters Jesus coming in. Peter asks where Jesus is going, and Jesus responds that he is going to Rome to be crucified. In this moment Peter realizes that he is running away, denying Christ once again. Ashamed, he returns to accept his crucifixion. A common element in the Petrine legends is Peter’s request to be crucified upside-down since he believed himself unworthy to die in the same way as Christ. His request is granted, and he preaches from the cross and dies. The martyr texts of Peter preserve some of the earliest memories that Peter was martyred in Rome, a widespread belief in early Christian tradition. From at least the mid-second century, Christians were observing communion at the tomb of St. Peter, and later the Roman Emperor Constantine would build an enormous church, St. Peter’s Basilica, upon the site.

Acts of Paul and Thekla

Many legends about Paul include stories of a remarkable woman named Thekla. In this story Paul preaches in Asia Minor while Thekla, then a young girl, listens from across the street. Thekla had recently been engaged to a wealthy, high-status, attractive man named Thamyris. When Thamyris finds out that his fiancée is taken with Paul, who preaches celibacy, he leads a crowd to the Roman governor and has Paul arrested. Thekla soon sneaks away to visit Paul in prison. Paul is tried before the governor, whipped, and exiled from the city. Thekla, meanwhile, is tried and sentenced to death on a burning cross, but when the time comes for the execution, the flames will not burn her. She escapes and travels with Paul to Syria, where another powerful man falls in love with her. She refuses his advances, so he too has her arrested and tried. This time, she is sentenced to be consumed by the beasts in the arena. Yet again, she emerges unscathed. The governor releases her, and she follows Paul again, preaching the gospel. Thekla’s tomb and shrine in southern Asia Minor was an important center of early Christian worship.  Other stories continue Paul’s adventures. He goes to Rome and converts many, but when Nero begins to persecute the Christians, Paul is arrested and ordered to be beheaded.

The legends of Paul’s martyrdom are essential for the continuation of Paul’s story beyond where the book of canonical Acts left off. As with Peter, there is a very strong memory of Paul being martyred under Nero, and of his relics existing in the city of Rome. Paul’s tomb is also later incorporated into a large church, the Basilica of St. Paul.

The Apocryphal Acts are popular legends that tell us about the mentality of the persecuted church and its reverence for its first generation of martyrs. These anti-romances reflect the belief that our physical existence is a mere part of our ultimate existence and that living in this world is not our ultimate destiny.

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