I was reading some Bible literature and came across a reference book, "Acts of Paul and Thecla". I was wondering if you could enlighten me and provide some clarification of this book and relevance to the Bible. I understand that is was one of the lost books of the Bible and describes Paul and his encounter with a virgin woman named Thecla.
Shortly after the New Testament was written, there were numerous groups who thought to write their own books for the Bible. Some did it to cause harm to Christianity, others to promote some favored false doctrine.
God gave us two major tests to detect false writings. First, is that God never sent prophets to speak without proof that they were speaking on behalf of God. "And if you say in your heart, 'How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?' - when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him" (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Also, "God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will" (Hebrews 2:4). This is the test which Mohammad and Joseph Smith notably fail. History clearly states they did no miracles and prophesies they claimed to have made failed to come true.
The second test is that since God cannot lie, any thing spoken of by a prophet must always match what God has stated before. God doesn't contradict Himself. "If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, 'Let us go after other gods' -which you have not known-'and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice, and you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him" (Deuteronomy 13:1-4). Again, this is a test that Mohammad and Joseph Smith fail completely. They both taught doctrine that is quite different from what is found in the Bible. They covered their errors by claiming the Bible was altered, but historical evidence proves that this claim is false. Besides, there are internal contradictions in their own writings.
The book "The Acts of Paul and Thecla" appeared in the late second century. One early Christian writer mentions it and states that the author claimed to have written it out of his love for Paul. He also mentions that the author was removed from his office in the church because of it as well.
"But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a licence for women’s teaching and baptizing, let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed. from his office. For how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with over-boldness, should give a female the power of teaching and of baptizing! “Let them be silent,” he says, “and at home consult their own husbands.”" (Tertullian, De Baptismo, chapter 17).
Thus in its background we don't find it attributed to a known prophet or apostle, but someone the early church had labeled as a fraud. Therefore, it appears to fail the first test of being a writing of God.
If we examine the text, we find the following problems:
It teaches that married couples should be sexually abstinent. "Blessed are they who have wives, as though they had them not; for they shall be made angels of God" (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1:16). But what we find in the Bible is quite different. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (I Corinthians 7:3-5). God never urged married couples to forego sex in their relationship. It is the opposite actually. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4).
The theme of sexual abstinence is a major theme in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This plays at odds with the story because much is made of Thecla's good looks and the two miracles done to save her are done while she is naked. There are also two attempted rape scenes in this short book.
It has teachings not found in the New Testament. For example, it goes out of its way to state that just before an attempt was made to kill Thecla, "And when they had placed the wood in order, the people commanded her to go upon it; which she did, first making the sign of the cross." (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 5:14). A miracle supposedly then took place saving her from being burnt. But nowhere do you find in the Bible early Christians "making the sign of the cross." This is a later belief that became a part of the Catholic religion.
This first miracle supposedly took place before Thecla even became a Christian, because it isn't until chapter 9 that we find her baptizing herself just before being sent out among hungry animals. Here again we find an element not found in the New Testament. There is never a mention of anyone baptizing themselves. But what is also amazing is that she supposedly spent a good bit of time with Paul prior to this and yet was never baptized.
The belief of physical separation from the world, another belief that Catholicism picked up, also appears in this book. "At length, certain gentlewomen hearing of the virgin Thecla, went to her, and were instructed by her in the oracles of God, and many of them abandoned this world, and led a monastic life with her" (10:15). This is in contrast to what Paul taught. "I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world" (I Corinthians 5:9-10). Christians live among the worldly while not joining them in their sins so as to teach them. Yet throughout the book we find Paul living in caves, a lifestyle completely different from what we see of Paul in the book of Acts.
Though the book is called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul plays a very minor role in the book. It is really a book about Thecla and as Tertullian notes it is obviously a book designed to promote women preaching. "Then Thecla arose, and said to Paul, I am going to Iconium. Paul replied to her: Go, and teach the word of the Lord" (10:4). In contrast Paul stated, "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached?" (I Corinthians 14:34-36).
I also noted that the author did a lot of name dropping to make the story appear more real. Timothy, Onesimus, Demas, Alexander, and Hermogenes are all mentioned, but they are in the wrong places and in the wrong roles for the supposed setting of the story.
This story is so fraudulent that even the Roman Catholic church, which has a tendency to accept writings calls it a fake. It is of historical interest only because it documents some of the false teachings which arose and eventually led to the formation of the Roman Catholic church.