Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.19

Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 0-674-01961-X.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Linda Honey, University of Calgary (
Word count: 1846 words

Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (hereafter J.) presents his study as both a literary analysis and a "literary history" of the Life and Miracles of Thekla (hereafter LM), an experiment which he hopes will stimulate other scholars to consider the literary aspects of the text. J. attempts to place the text within an ongoing literary tradition by tracing a variety of generic characteristics within it, an endeavor he terms a "literary history" (p.xvii). He suggests that neglect of the continuity of classical forms of literature and of the reception of classical literary forms in late antiquity is a serious gap in the scholarship on the literature of this period. In his study, J. applies to the LM the same tools of close analysis and contextualization traditionally employed in the interpretation of "high" Greek literature (p. xvii). The two-part structure of J.'s book reflects that of the LM: the first two chapters concern the Life and the last two, the Miracles. Chapters One and Three are literary analyses and Chapters Two and Four, "literary histories" of the respective portions of the text. The conclusion addresses important questions in regard to the text and to Thekla devotion in general. Three helpful appendices and an up-to-date bibliography conclude J.'s study.

J.'s introduction provides an overview of the literary tradition in regard to Thekla which peaks with what J. identifies as the "crowning jewel" (p. 5) of late antique Thekla devotion: the Life and Miracles of Thekla composed by an anonymous fifth-century Christian cleric (referred to in this review as Ps.-Basil). The Life is a paraphrase of the second-century Acts of Paul and Thekla (hereafter ATh), while the Miracles are a collection of Thekla's post-disappearance, wonder-working activities, which takes up where the Life leaves off. J. notes Ps.-Basil's redactional additions to the Life including his revision of the final chapter of the ATh, where he rewrites Thekla's death into a "living disappearance". While J. regards this revision by Ps.-Basil as a coup d'art in which his "singular vision" of Thekla and the LM "emerges most prominently" (p. 7), he also takes exception to it as will be discussed below.

Chapter One provides a literary and rhetorical analysis of the Life focusing on redactions made to the source text (ATh) and considers "contemporary connotations" of these changes and how they signal authorial intent. J. suggests that by choosing to paraphrase the ATh Ps.-Basil consciously strove to link Thekla with the apostolic past, and that by citing Herodotus, Thucydides, and Luke he deliberately appropriated the rhetoric of history, thereby aligning his work with historiographical tradition. J. perceives Ps.-Basil as styling himself as a specifically Christian historian in the footsteps of Luke and as participating in God's plan "to preserve the storehouse of Christian memory" (p. 21). J. also notes theological changes in Ps.-Basil's redaction of the ATh, which include a de-asceticizing of the earlier text, a commendation of marriage, and the addition of distinctly post-Nicene formulae and Trinitarian theology. J. sees Ps.-Basil's reconstructions, especially those of Paul, as a literary device to link Thekla's apostolic roots with her place in contemporary Christianity while allowing for the propagation and renown of her cult. Ps.-Basil's radical revision of the final chapter - with his categorical denial of Thekla's death and his substitution of her disappearance - is perceived by J. as a masterful stroke, one that transformed the tradition of Thekla into a foundation myth for the community of Seleukia and set the stage for the reception of Ps.-Basil's miracle collection.

Chapter Two presents a short history of paraphrase in which J. situates the Life within what J. identifies as a broad and flourishing tradition of Judeo-Christian paraphrastic literary history. This chapter provides a compelling argument as to why Ps.-Basil felt the license to expand and change various elements of the ATh.

Chapter Three examines in what ways Ps.-Basil may have styled his miracle collection to shape his audience's perception of Seleukia, of Thekla as its tutelary spirit, and of himself as the collector and promulgator of her deeds. J. claims that Ps.-Basil deliberately appropriated a Herodotean model for his miracle collection. This is evident, he argues, for the following reasons: 1) Ps.-Basil chooses to invoke Herodotus in the prefaces both to the Life and to the Miracles; 2) he appropriates the paratactic style and rhetoric common to Herodotus and paradoxography; and 3) like Herodotus in Book 2 of the Histories, he injects his own persona into the narrative. J. perceives Herodotus as being invoked "front and center at the beginning of the Miracles" and considers him to be Ps.-Basil's chief interlocutor (pp. 114d, 120).

In Chapter Four, J. compares the form and rhetoric of the Miracles with those of other pertinent texts including classical Roman and late antique collections, anthologies, and chronographies as well as the Asclepian iamata, Aelius Aristides' diary, and Candace Slater's miracle collection. On the basis of these comparisons, he situates the LM within the "literary historical context of paradoxography" which he classifies as a subgenre of historiography (p. 174). J. argues that by contextualizing the Miracles within paradoxographical tradition, one can better understand Ps.-Basil's authorial intent, which, in J.'s opinion, is to inspire awe for Thekla as a wonder-worker and protectrix of all that was hers and, by extension, to garner respect for himself.

The concluding chapter addresses important ancillary issues such as Thekla's displacement by the rise of Marian devotion and the peculiar absence of specifically fifth-century theological terminology within the text. In light of previous scholarship, J. makes the welcome observation that the LM is not a gendered text. He concludes with some regret that, despite Ps.-Basil's best efforts, the LM met with a seemingly poor reception.

Three helpful appendices are included: 1) a cursory examination of an alternative ending for the ATh written by a contemporary of Ps.-Basil; 2) a brief analysis of two late antique texts which also adapt the tradition of Thekla as presented in the ATh: the Panegyric to Thekla by Ps. Chrysostom and a sixth-century sermon by Severus of Antioch; and 3) a select catalogue of early Byzantine miracle collections from the fifth to eighth centuries.

J.'s 'literary' approach to the LM is stimulating and yields many valuable observations, but there are moments when one wonders whether it has led him to privilege some textual evidence over the rest. In particular, J.'s argument may underestimate the significant presence of healing in the LM, and may overestimate the importance in it of Herodotus in comparison with other authors cited by Ps.-Basil. In identifying Ps.-Basil's place in literary history, J. might also have given greater weight to the presence in the text of elements of authorial originality, uniqueness, and innovation.

Concerning the place of healing in the LM, it can be noted that Ps.-Basil describes Thekla as "the great miracle worker and healer of all" (Mir. 40) giving equal import to both activities, and that, as a beneficiary of Thekla's interventions, Ps.-Basil first presents himself in the Miracles as in need of healing from anthrax (Mir. 12). While advancing the closing passage of the Life as foundational to the Miracles, J. dismisses the lines which present Thekla qua healer by suggesting that the author was "somewhat misleading" in writing them; apart from this authorial faux pas, Ps.-Basil's carefully constructed paraphrase and revision of the Life establishes Thekla as a living tutelary presence in Seleukia, while the Miracles, patterned upon paradoxographical tradition, inspires wonder for Thekla amongst its readership. This may however undervalue Ps.-Basil's explicit description at the end of the Life: "This is where she dispenses fountains of healings for every suffering and every sickness, her virginal grace pouring out healings there, as if from some rushing stream, upon those who ask and pray for them." (Life 28:10-14). The texts included in J.'s appendices also emphasize healing: Severus of Antioch explains that the living Thekla placed her body in the ground "where it does the works which are characteristic of Thekla, that is, healings and prodigies";1 and in the alternative ending (Appendix One) it is specifically the doctors who consider Thekla a rival to be eliminated.2

J. argues also that Ps -Basil's choice of the genre of paradoxography signals his authorial intent -- to inspire wonder for Thekla and her deeds -- and that since paradoxography traditionally does not include physical healing as part of its subject matter, the healing miracles that appear in the text are not included qua healings but as further examples of Thekla's wonder-working activity. To reinforce this point, J. asserts (frequently) that while healing miracles comprise forty-four percent of the total, the majority of the miracles "are not about healing at all" (pp. 7, 8a, 8d, 121). On the other hand, healing miracles are at least twice as numerous as any of the three major categories of non-healing miracles that J. identifies (city-defense, individual vindication, compassion), and this may be thought to provide a significantly different way of looking at the numbers.

While highlighting the presence of Herodotus in the LM, J. tends to subordinate Ps.-Basil's citations, implicit or explicit, of other authors including Thucydides, Euripides, Xenophon, and Homer, and he suggests that Ps.-Basil's citations of Herodotus in the prefaces are intended to invoke him as chief interlocutor. But it might be suggested that in citing Herodotus (and Thucydides) Ps.-Basil, whose express concern lies with validation and verification,3 is likening the passion, purpose, and precision with which he conducts his work to that of classical historians, and that his citation of Herodotus in the preface to the Miracles is intended primarily to present the story of Croesus as additional verification for the subject at hand, Ps.-Basil's diatribe against false oracles.

J.'s insistence that the text displays the formulaic, paratactic structure of paradoxography tends to divert attention from Ps.-Basil's more eclectic stylistic touches, from the unpredictability of his narrative, and from the variety of genres reflected in the text. Should Ps.-Basil be called an epigonus of classical tradition or rather an initiator of a new one? To perceive the LM as the beginning of a new tradition with a new form may better account for some textual phenomena such as the elements of surprise that J. notes (p. 237), for its poor reception (p. 226), and for J.'s observation that the LM differs to some extent from later miracle collections (Appendix Three). It would also accommodate J.'s initial observation that he considers "the LM to have been something of an experiment" (p. xvii).

The LM was a good choice on J.'s part for his purpose of studying a late antique text in terms of both literary analysis and "literary history". It is perhaps inherent in such undertakings that the text tends to be overshadowed by the analyses. But if J.'s discussions of literary history sometimes lose sight of the LM itself, he nevertheless provides a thoughtful and detailed study of the continuity of Herodotean historiography, and in particular of paradoxography, and some of his observations in the literary analysis are worthy of Auerbach. J. will surely achieve his goal of stimulating other scholars to consider the literary aspects of other late antique texts.


1.   Severus of Antioch, Sermo 97 (24 Sept. 516), ed. Brière, PO XXV, Paris (1935) pp. 121-38, as cited by Kate Cooper. (1995) p. 9. "A Saint in Exile: the Early Medieval Thecla at Rome and Meriamlik". Hagiographica 2:1-23.
2.   A Christian epitaph to "Thekla, the physician" discovered in Seleukia further suggests a healing tradition associated with Thekla and, in this case, one that was extended to her namesake. CIG IV. 9209.
3.   See G. Dagron, ed. (1978) pp. 23, 27. Vie et Miracles de Sainte Thècle: Texte grec, traduction, et commentaire.. Subsidia Hagiographica 62. Brussels: Society of Bollandists.

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