(Not) Baptizing Thecla: Early Interpretive Efforts on 1 Cor 1:17

Paul’s reticence to baptize Thecla is a perennial crucx interpretum within the Acts of Paul. If one takes the Acts of Thecla as a self-standing piece, then the problem can perhaps be somewhat contained to a peculiarly passive presentation of Paul, though it would still stand out among other ancient portrayals of the apostle. Within the ‘final form’ of the Acta Pauli, the problem becomes even more acute: why did Paul not baptize Thecla if he was happy to baptize others, including women? While not excluding the contributions of themes such as self-control or interpretive overtones between Acta Pauli and, say, Gal 3:28 (so Glenn Snyder; cf. Peter-Ben Smit), I argue that Paul’s ambivalence toward baptism – refusing to baptize Thecla while baptizing others – is the author’s attempt to narrate the ambivalence suggested by Paul in 1 Cor 1:17 – ‘For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel’. As this famous phrase follows Paul’s own vacillation regarding the number of Corinthians he had baptized (1 Cor 1:14–16), the tension within Acta Pauli, reflects the tension within Paul’s own letter. This explanation is strengthened by comparisons with other early interpretations of this passage by, e.g., Origen and John Chrysostom. These readings emphasize the importance of Paul’s role as a teacher while down playing the importance of the role of the one who baptizes someone who has already been instructed. In doing this, they appropriate Paul as the archetypal teacher of the church, the catechist, whose teaching enthralls the nations with the gospel, just as it enthralls Thecla. The argument here, then, is that Paul's putting off Thecla's baptism, her theological/moral infatuation with Paul and her own auto-immersion all function within the framework of interpreting Paul's curious disowning of baptism as part of his calling within a larger project of appropriating Paul as the arch-teacher.