WHEN LIGHTNING TICKLED HISTORY: “LIONS AND TIGERS AND SHARKS, OH MY!”
“LIONS AND TIGERS AND SHARKS, OH MY!”
One of the most difficult labor of teaching history is getting students to understand that most of what that they think they know is incorrect. This is primarily because so many teachers, particularly in the lower grades, find it is much easier to give students half-baked, simple truths than the real story. It is also more convenient. If you can get the “bad stuff” out of history and only talk about the “good stuff” then every student will believe we as humans — and Americans — are on the path to a better future. In biology this was known as orthogenesis, the belief that evolution had a pre-ordained path to make all of species of life better and, if you are religious, possibly perfect. In politics it is known as vote-for-me-because-my-opponent-will-take-us-down-the-road-to-ruin.
A good example of a simple, half-baked truth that is easier to swallow than the true story is a chant from the 1960s: “Power to the People.” In reality, the people in the United States already have the power. It’s called the ballot box. At least once every two years the “people” have the “power” to elect someone to represent them on the city assembly, in the state house and senate, the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. Once every four years we choose who lives in the White House.
Basically, the people who are demanding “Power to the People” are actually saying that because the people who were running for office or are in office at that moment are not doing things the way they want them done. So there should be a Plan B to get those people out and my people in. In reality, we don’t need a Plan B. If you don’t like what is going on, change it. Run for public office. Or get those friends of yours who should be voting off their collected couches and to the polls on Election Day.
When it comes to teaching history, the hardest subject is what is known in most schools as Western Civilizations I, the era from the cave man to Martin Luther, all 5,500 years of it. And the most difficult 300 years of that era stretches from the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, a man, to his deification at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C. E.
For most students — in both regular school and Sunday School — the general belief is that Jesus died on the cross and thereafter the Apostles got together, wrote down their memories of the life of Jesus — known as the books of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John — and tossed in some other stuff, stuck it all at the end of the Old Testament, called it the New Testament and that’s the way its been ever since.
Actually this is not even a bare bones, watered-down, simplified version of what actually happened.
The actual fact of the matter was that the Christian Church did not start with Jesus. What we now call “Christians” were a small but growing sect of Jews which splintered rather badly and rather early. For the next three centuries there were riots, massacres and out-and-out wars between these sects, each of which had their own set of Holy texts and every one of those Holy texts was supposedly written by God. Well, if there were a myriad of sects each claiming to be the One and Only True Christians and every one of these sects had their own alleged-to-be-the-word-of-God books, letters and memoirs, who were the true Christians and which books, letters and memoirs were actually inspired by God?
That was a good question.
It was such a good question that it took until the Council of Nicaea 325 C. E. to declare that Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus Christ and it took another 6 years before there was what we today call a Bible.
Ah, the Bible.
In reality, the only reason we have a Bible is because the Emperor Constantine, tired of the infighting among the Christian sects, commissioned the writing of 50 Bibles to unify the Christians in the Roman Empire. That was quite an undertaking, not to mention a walloping expense. You could not just run down to the local Kinko’s in those days and run off 50 copies of a book that had already been written.
Even if there had been a Kinko’s there wasn’t a book that everyone agreed was the one-and-only true word of God.
Copying wasn’t even the tip of the problem.
Remember all those competing sects each with their own books, letters and memoirs. Which ones should be included in the Bible? Which should be left out?
Both of these were very good questions and the answer is so complicated that I am going to dodge it completely. Let’s just say that groups of learned Christians convened and communicated over a period of time and came up with a list of books, letters and memoirs that were incorporated into what we now call the Bible.
Well, what happened to those other books, letters and memoirs? You know, the ones that were the word of God but just not good enough to make the A team. What happened to them? Are they still around?
Actually they are. They are called the Biblical Apocrypha and you can find them in most libraries. Jesus is in some of these books as are some stories of the apostles. Why were some books put into what we call the Bible and others left out? Some of them were left out for very good reason. With others we’re not so sure. It’s a good question but unless you have a Time Machine we’ll never know. But one of the stories that was left out for very good reason was the story of Thecla.
Another good question but one that even you can answer.
From the beginning of the Christian Church until this very day, women have been treated as less than the equal of men. They cannot become Pope in the Catholic Church, are not eligible for ordination in many Protestant churches and in some evangelical churches the woman are specifically instructed to be subservient to their husbands on all matters. All matters. And that includes sex and money, the two main causes of divorce.
In the early days of the Christian Church, women in the church were treated the same as women outside of the church. They were under the thumb of their fathers until they got married and then they were under the authority of their husbands. If their husbands died, they and all the communal property belonged to their husband’s brother. Or some other male in the husband’s family. The women had no rights. None.
This did not mean that the women were happy with being second class citizens of the church or the state. They just didn’t have much choice. Actually, they had no choice.
Enter now Thecla. She was a young, good-looking aristocratic woman of Iconium, a Roman city in what is now south-central Turkey, who was engaged to marry a powerful political figure. This was not a marriage of her choosing; it had been arranged by her father. That was the way things were done then. She was 18 and, considering the era, it was safe to say that her husband-to-be was, shall we say, somewhat older. Thecla then fell under the spell of the apostle Paul and his call for celibacy.
You don’t have to be Biblical scholar to see where this story was going. If there is any one thing all societies have in common it has been the importance of marriage. Marriage means sharing of property, uniting of families and the production of children. Children that will grow up and buy things, get jobs to make money they spend in the local market, who will contribute to the local church, who will themselves marry and produce more children who will work, spend money, contribute to the economy and produce children ad nausea. Families, tribes, cities and nations cannot survive a downturn in the birth rate.
So here we have Paul preaching abstinence and Thecla, a good-looking young girl/woman who does not want to marry the older man, is converted. That ends her nuptials which upsets her husband-to-be to no end. He uses his political influence to have Thecla and Paul sentenced to death. Paul is able to escape with a whipping and expulsion. But Thecla must die. She is stripped naked, tied to a stake and set on fire. Now comes miracle Number One: a sudden storm drenches the pyre and extinguishes the fire.
Thecla is released and she chases after Paul, catches up with him and they flee to Antioch where — wouldn’t you know it? — another older, rich politically powerful man falls in love with Thecla.
See if you can guess what happens next.
This time her sentence is to be tossed into the arena with ravenous lions.
Now comes Miracle Number Two.
A lioness protects Thecla from being devoured by the male lions. This saves her for the moment and the next day she is, again, tossed into the arena with ravenous beasts and the same thing happens again. But she was not, as we say in these days, “out of the woods yet.” Assuming she is about to die, she sees a large vat of water in the arena filled with — take your pick — seals, sea cows, piranha or sharks. Whatever they were they were man-eating. Or, in this case, woman-eating. Thecla leapt into the vat of water proclaiming, in her words, “Now is the proper time for me to be baptized.”
Thecla 9:7 Accordingly she threw herself into the water, and said, “In thy name, O my Lord Jesus Christ, I am this last day baptized.” The women and the people seeing this, cried out, and said, “Do not throw yourself into the water.” And the governor himself cried out, to think that the fish (sea-calves) were like to devour so much beauty. 8 Not withstanding all this, Thecla threw herself into the water, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But the fish (sea-calves) when they saw the lighting and fire, were killed, and swam dead upon the surface of the water, and a cloud of fire surrounded Thecla, so that as the beasts could not come near here, so the people could not see her nakedness.
Thus, with Miracle Number Three, Thecla is saved by a lightning bolt.
Enough is enough and the women of Antioch demand that Thecla be set free. She catches up with Paul again with whom she traveled for the rest of her life. Or she returns to Iconium where she converts her mother to Christianity. Or she lives in a cave for the next 72 years and then travels to Rome to be buried with Paul. Take you pick; Thecla is not in any other Biblical source.
Paul, incidentally, gets off easy. Even though he eventually is executed he is not crucified. That was because he was a Roman citizen so he was given a more merciful death. He was beheaded in about 67 C. E. This would have been during the reign of Nero. Nero would commit suicide the next year and many Biblical scholars believe that “The Sign of the Beast,” 666, specifically referred to Nero.
It is easy to see why the story of Techla was rejected from inclusion in the Bible. Even if it were allegorical, it is the story of the triumph of woman over the laws and practices of men. That was a no-no then. In many churches it’s a no-no today. Women are not supposed to be running things; they are supposed to be following the lead of the men. It will take until 1920 in the United States for women to become the equal of men — on paper.
The tale of Techla is as valid then and it is today. Women still feel as though they are second class citizens and females who stand up for their rights are “uppity,” “bitches” or “feminazis,” the last term coined by the leading male chauvinist pig of the last century, Rush Limbaugh. But the fact of the matter is that Techla was only demanding what men already had: the right to determine her own destiny. It was a quest for equality. But the men then, to use a modern expression, “just didn’t get it.” Thus the bottom line for women then, and now, is that sometimes, to get a man to listen, it takes a lightning bolt.
[This chapter is from Steven Levi’s book WHEN LIGHTNING TICKLED HISTORY available on Kindle.]