Life and Conduct of the Holy Women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca

Acta Xanthippae et Polyxenae

Standard abbreviation: Xanth.

Other titles: Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena

Clavis number: BHG 1877

Category: Apocryphal Acts

Related literature: Acts of Paul

Compiled by: David L. Eastman, Ohio Wesleyan University (

Citing this resource (using Chicago Manual of Style): Eastman, David L. “Life and Conduct of the Holy Women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca.” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha. Accessed DAY MONTH YEAR.

Posted August 2017.


This work recounts the conversions and adventures of three fictional women: Xanthippe, a matron in Spain; Polyxena, her younger sister; and Rebecca, a Jewish slave girl who meets Polyxena in Greece. The text is categorized as an apocryphon because Paul is featured prominently and there are cameo appearances by several other apostles; nevertheless, the apostles are only background players in this drama about the main female characters. The focus of the text, like other apocryphal acts, is the glorification of sexual abstinence.

An unnamed servant of a Spanish aristocrat is in Rome and hears Paul’s preaching, but he is forced by duty to return to Spain before he can hear the entire message. There he falls deathly ill, leading his master, Probus, to ask how he might be cured. The servant speaks of a physician in Rome who alone can restore him (1). Xanthippe, Probus’s wife, overhears this conversation and is herself overcome by sickness and longing for this mysterious doctor and teacher. She embraces extreme asceticism and sexual abstinence and calls out to a god whose name she does not know. Some time later, Paul comes to Spain and Xanthippe immediately identifies him as the doctor from Rome. Probus compels Paul to stay with them, hoping that the apostle can heal his wife (nothing more is said of the sick servant), but soon those desiring to hear Paul overrun the house (7–10). Realizing that Probus is about to expel Paul, Xanthippe begs for baptism, but the devil prompts Probus to throw out Paul and lock away Xanthippe before this can occur (11). While Probus sleeps, Xanthippe sneaks away to visit Paul by bribing the gatekeeper. Demons assail her on the way, but she is saved by a vision of Paul and Christ and is then baptized by Paul (12–16). Once awake, Probus summons two wise men to explain a disturbing dream, and they warn Probus that they must all seek baptism from Paul. Probus finally acquiesces, and Xanthippe is overjoyed (17–21).

Meanwhile, Xanthippe’s younger sister, Polyxena, has a disturbing dream in which she is devoured by a serpent, and that very night a powerful enemy of her suitor kidnaps her (22–23). She is smuggled to the dock and put on board a ship headed for “Babylonia” (possibly the fortress in Egypt, not the city in Mesopotamia). In her travels, she nearly meets Peter on a ship bound to Rome (24), is freed from her kidnappers by Philip in Greece (25), and then meets Andrew (26–28). Andrew and Polyxena journey on and encounter Rebecca, a Jewish slave girl and, like Xanthippe and Polyxena, is said to be a virgin. She begs them to free her from slavery. Andrew baptizes both women and then departs (29–30). A kindly mule-driver takes the women to the coast to find a ship. Polyxena is kidnapped again, this time by a prefect (31–35). But the prefect’s son, who had heard Paul’s preaching in Antioch, befriends Polyxena and attempts to smuggle her to safety. Unfortunately, they are caught and condemned to death. The lioness in the arena refuses to attack them, and the prefect and everyone in the city come to believe (36–37).

At this point Onesimus, speaking in the first person, is introduced into the narrative. He stops in Greece on his way to carry letters to Paul in Spain. Obeying a direct command from God, he brings Polyxena, Rebecca, and the prefect’s son to Spain, where they are welcomed by Paul (38–39). Xanthippe rejoices at the safe return of her sister, whose virginity is intact. Polyxena’s original kidnapper is present at this reunion, and he becomes a believer and is baptized. Everyone praises God, and thereafter Polyxena remains with Paul (40–42).

Named historical figures and characters: Andrew (apostle), Barandus, devil, Gnosteas, Jesse (patriarch), Jesus Christ, Judah (patriarch), Lucius (disciple of Paul: Luke?), Mary (Virgin), Nero, Onesimus, Paul (apostle), Peter (apostle), Philip (apostle), Philotheus, Polyxena, Probus, Rebecca (slave girl), Satan, Simon (Magus), Xanthippe.

Geographical locations: Antioch, Greece, Hades, Rome, Spain.


Entry for Xanthippe and Polyxena (commemorated September 23) in the Upper Egypt Coptic Synaxarium published by the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Chicago.

“Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca.” Wikipedia.


3.1 Manuscripts and Editions

3.1.1 Greek

Moscow, Russian State Library, gr. 68 [521], fols. 86v–101v (15th cent.)

Moscow, State Historical Museum, gr. 161, fols. 259–272 (11th cent.)

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, gr. 1458, fols. 5–17 (11th cent.)

Vatican, Biblioteca apostolica, gr. 803, fols. 66–79v (11th cent.)

Bonnet, Maximilian. “Sur les actes de Xanthippe et Polyxène.” Classical Review 8.8 (1894): 336–41 (corrections to James’s standard edition).

James, Montague Rhodes. Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments. TS 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893 (standard edition based on Paris gr. 1458, pp. 58–85).

James, Montague Rhodes. Apocrypha Anecdota 2. TS 5.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897 (corrections to James’s earlier edition, pp. 139–40).

Vesselovskij, Alexander N. “The Christian Transformation of the Greek Romance: The Life of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca.” (in Russian). Anthology of the Department of Russian Music and Literatures of the Imperial Academy of Sciences 40.2 (1886): 29–64 (includes excerpts from Moscow gr. 161 and summaries of other Xanth. manuscripts, but no substantive updates to the James edition).

3.2. Modern Translations

3.2.1 English

Craigie, William A., trans. “The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena.” Pages 205–17 in vol. 9 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Philip Schaff. 14 vols. 3rd ed. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1899.

Eastman, David L. “Life and Conduct of the Holy Women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca.” Pages 416–52 in vol. 1 of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.

3.3 General Works

Bennett, E. N. “James’ Apocrypha Anecdota.” Classical Review 8.3 (1894): 101–103.

Burrus, Virginia. “Desiring Women: Xanthippe, Polyxena, Rebecca.” Unpublished manuscript.

Davies, Stevan L. The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

Gorman, Jill. “Reading and Theorizing Women’s Sexualities: The Representation of Women in the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena.” (PhD diss., Temple University, 2003). From chapters in this dissertation Gorman published two articles: “Thinking with and about ‘Same-Sex Desire’: Producing and Policing Female Sexuality in the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3–4 (2001): 416–41; “Sexual Defense by Proxy: Interpreting Women’s Fasting in the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena.” Pages 206–15 in A Feminist Companion to the New Testament Apocrypha. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine. London: T&T Clark, 2006.

Hadas, Moses. Three Greek Romances. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Junod, Eric. “Vie et conduit des saintes femmes Xanthippe, Polyxène et Rébecca.” Pages 83–106 in Oecumenica et patristica: Festschrift für Wilhelm Schneemelcher zum 75. Geburtstag. Edited by Damaskinos Papandreou, Wolfgang A. Bienert, and Knut Schäferdiek. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1989.

Lipsius, Richard A. Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden. Ein Beitrag zur altchristlichen Literaturgeschichte. 2 vols. Braunschweig: Schwetschke, 1883–1887 (see vol. 1, pp. 217–27).

Pervo, Richard I. “Dare and Back: The Stories of Xanthippe and Polyxena.” Pages 161–204 in Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: The Role of Religion in Shaping Narrative Forms. Edited by Ilaria Ramelli and Judith Perkins. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

Peterson, Erik. “Die Acta Xanthippe et Polyxenae und die Paulusakten.” AnBoll 65 (1947): 57–60.

Szepessy, Tibor. “The Narrative Model of the Acta Xanthippae et Polyxenae.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 44 (2004): 317–40.