Women in the Earliest Church, Part 5

This is the final part of our survey of the contributions of women to the growth of Christianity in the early-to-mid first century. To this point in the discussion, all of the women (save one) were identified in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles. Having exhausted that source, we now move on to Paul’s letters in which he acknowledges and praises many women with which he worked or came into contact during his missionary journeys.

Toward the end of Paul’s letter to the members of the church he had founded in Philippi, he addresses a disagreement involving two of its women members: Euodia (yoo-OH-dee-uh) and Syntyche (sin-TICK-ee). What the argument was about is left unstated. Paul wrote, “I entreat Eudoia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2-3). Paul certainly knows the issues at hand. He even entreats a fellow Christian convert for assistance: “And I ask you also, Syzyngus, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel.” The women in question were not just members of the little congregation in this mining town made up largely of legionary veterans; they were missionaries and likely church leaders who had worked with Paul to spread his message in Macedonia. Some scholars have speculated that one of the two women may have been the “Lydia” whom Paul first converted in Philippi according to Acts 16:14 (see part 4 in this series). As we saw earlier, Lydia can mean simply “a woman from Lydia.” It is also unclear whether the disagreement is between the two women or between them and Paul. Notice that Paul does not name a male counterpart for either of them. This could mean that these women were widows or unmarried sisters. While the evidence will not allow us to say much more than this, it is yet another reminder that women were prominent, active members of the early Christian missionary movement.

Paul wrote his letter to Philemon (phil-EE-mon) to address the concerns of his runaway slave Onesimus who had come to Paul in Ephesus hoping the apostle would work to reconcile the two. The letter is addressed to “Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house” (Philm 1:2). The relationship between the three addressees is not clear. Were they father, mother, and son? Was Apphia (AFF-ee-uh) even related to Philemon? It is possible that Apphia and Archippus were slaves in the household of Philemon. The text also begs the question: in whose house was the church located? Was it in the house of Archippus or of all three? For our purposes, it is important to note that Apphia is addressed as a Christian sister, a convert likely providing official services in the house church. She was important enough that Paul named her, fully aware that she would hear the contents of the letter as it was read. Was her counsel needed to prod Philemon to accept his runaway slave back into his household and treat him as a Christian brother?

An important businesswoman is named by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church(es) which he at least helped to build up if not found. Her name was Chloe (KLO-ee). At the time Paul wrote, he was living in Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). While there, a group made up of “Chloe’s people” arrived with news of internecine strife in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:11). Almost all scholars deduce from this that Chloe was a businesswoman and her “people” were agents acting on her behalf. They may have been slaves, freedpersons, or even relatives traveling the Mediterranean and looking after her affairs. Whether she was based in Corinth or Ephesus is uncertain from the text. It is not even certain that Chloe was a Christian. For Paul to mention her and her people in his letter indicates that the members of the little Christian community in Corinth surely knew who they were. Her people were believers and were part of Chloe’s extended household making it likely that Chloe, too, was a Christian and may have been the sponsor of a house church prompting her to send word to Paul that there were disputes arising within its congregation.

In what was likely Paul’s final letter, written from Corinth to the little Christian house churches in Rome, he sends greetings to, and praises, quite a number of men and women. We must remember that at the time the letter was written, Paul had never been to Rome. If he seems to have known the women mentioned in the concluding “chapter” of the letter, he must have met them elsewhere after which they relocated to the empire’s capital city.

First to be named is Phoebe (FEE-bee, in Greek FOI-bee) “our sister” identified as “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16: 1). She was doubtless the bearer of the letter which Paul sent from Corinth. He makes certain that the recipients understand that she is to be received as one of the “saints.” Paul commends her as “a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2). Some scholars have speculated that Phoebe was central to Paul’s plans to expand his mission into Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). She may have been wealthy. Her position as deacon at Cenchreae (ken-KREE-uh) likely entailed teaching but might also have included patronizing the church by providing financial resources. Was she Paul’s “sister” by birth? We are told in Acts 23:16 that he had a sister although she is not named in that passage. In any event, Phoebe was unknown in Rome and Paul’s letter would introduce to them with the highest regard this independent, traveling Christian convert.

Mary is the next woman to be named in Paul’s concluding greeting to the Romans. She is described as having “worked hard among you” (Rom.16:6) which implies that she did her missionary outreach work in Rome. This may have been prior to the edict of Claudius, ca. 49 C.E., in which the emperor expelled a number of Jewish-Christians for instigating trouble in the synagogues of Rome. Paul’s letter was likely written in the mid-50s, perhaps after Claudius’s death in 54 C.E., it then becoming possible for these Christians to return to Rome. Mary may have been one of those who was expelled, met Paul in Greece or Asia Minor, and later returned. Other scholars doubt that Mary was Jewish. Her name, they suggest, may be derived from Marius making her a freed Gentile slave of the house of Marius where she was given her name to indicate this fact. More than 100 examples of the Latin “Maria” have been found in the records of ancient Rome while less than 20 occurrences of the Semitic “Miriam” have been discovered. The text leaves the original form of her name uncertain.

Junia (YOO-nee-uh), and her husband Andronicus, are described by Paul as “my relatives and my fellow prisoners” (Rom. 16:7). He adds that “they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” In the past, translators opted to follow the text of a few biblical manuscripts which give this person’s name as Junias rather than the feminine Junia (e.g., ASV, ERV, KJV2000, NAS77, NASB, etc.) but most now accept the latter. For one thing, no evidence has ever been found of the name Junias outside of the New Testament manuscripts that support it. This being the case, Junia is revealed to be the only woman in the entire New Testament to be accorded the title “apostle.” Paul uses the word apostle in a number of ways. The title might indicate someone who preached or performed signs and wonders (2 Cor. 11:4-6, 13; 12:12). He calls certain “brothers” of the church at Ephesus “apostles” (2 Cor. 8:23). But Paul also considers apostles those who witnessed the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 15:7). If this latter definition is meant, intriguing possibilities arise. Junia and Andronicus are said to be Paul’s relatives, possibly actual family members but more likely fellow Jews. Paul says they were Christians before he was. Paul was converted, according to most scholars, around 34 C.E. If the couple were early Jerusalem Christians who had witnessed the resurrected Christ, they may have been among those “Hellenists,” that is, Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who fled Jerusalem after the execution of their most prominent member, Stephen (Acts 6:1, 8:1). Where did they meet Paul? Was it in Jerusalem during one of his early visits? Was it in Antioch or somewhere else where Paul preached? How did they arrive in Rome? Paul says that the couple was imprisoned with him. This is likely an actual, rather than metaphorical, reference and could indicate shared incarceration in Ephesus. However, Paul seems to have been imprisoned on several occasions and in a number of locales so we remain uncertain. What is certain is the continuing impact of this woman apostle whose work may have stretched from Jerusalem to Rome.

Paul identifies Tryphaena (triff-EYE-nuh) and Tryphosa (triff-OH-suh) as “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12). Because both of these names are derived from the same root name, Tryphon, it has been suggested that they were twin sisters. It is possible they were Jewish (a Jewish Tryphaena is mentioned in a 73 C.E. papyrus) but more likely they were Gentile slaves. Both were missionaries who likely met Paul after being exiled from Rome in 49 C.E.

Persis is a name given to women slaves from Persia. In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls her “beloved” and confirms that she “worked hard in the Lord” indicating she was a fellow missionary (Rom. 16:12). She may have been an ethnic Persian, and thus a Gentile, but might also have been a Jew from the Babylonian-Persian region in which many Jews resided. Where she met Paul is an open question.

Paul also lauds the mother of Rufus referring to her as “his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13). Was she actually Paul’s birth mother and was Rufus his brother? Most scholars interpret Paul’s comment as indicating that she acted kindly to him at some point, showing him motherly hospitality. But the name Rufus has intrigued many commentators. During Christ’s passion, according to the Gospel of Mark, Simon of Cyrene (keer-EE-nee) was said to have been assisted with the carrying of the cross. Mark further identifies Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Many scholars locate the origin of Mark’s gospel in Rome as does second-century tradition. Did Rufus and his mother leave Jerusalem for Rome? Is this the same Rufus that Paul refers to? Did the author of Mark’s gospel learn of the incident regarding Simon of Cyrene from Rufus himself? These are all intriguing questions. Nevertheless, Paul says that Rufus was “chosen in the Lord,” certainly a high commendation perhaps linking him and his mother to the historical Jesus.

Paul also recognizes Julia and, more than likely her husband, Philologus (phil-LAW-law-gus), as being among the “saints” (Rom. 16:15). Julia and Philologus could have been brother and sister but they, along with Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, seem to be grouped together as if they were the leaders of a house church (there were undoubtedly several of them in Rome at this time). Perhaps Julia and her husband led the church in tandem with their children Nereus and an unnamed daughter, as well as Olympas, perhaps an extended family member or slave. Julia’s name derives from the Roman family name of Julius which included such emperors as Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula but of course many others carried the name as well. She was likely a freed slave who obtained this name upon her emancipation. Nevertheless, she may have once been an imperial slave and thus helped to bring Christianity close to the most important seat of power in the empire. It is difficult to say much about the sister of Nereus; the fact that she is unnamed indicates that Paul did not know her. What is intriguing is that Nereus was the name of a minor pagan sea god. In fact, among the names of those identified in Paul’s letter to Rome are three Christians with the names of pagan deities: Nereus, Hermes, and Narcissus. Apparently retaining these names caused no problems for early Christians.

Bibliography

For those wishing to pursue the investigation of women in the New Testament and the impact of women in general on early Christianity, I recommend checking out any of the following books.

Virginia Burrus. Chastity as Autonomy: Women in the Stories of Apocryphal Acts. Lewiston, 1987.

Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo. Women & Christian Origins. New York, 1999.

Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore, 2005.

Sarah B. Pomeroy. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1995.

Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis, 2006.

Ivoni Richter Reimer. Trans. Linda M. Maloney. Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective. Minneapolis, 1995.

Carla Ricci. Trans. Paul Burns. Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women who Followed Jesus. Minneapolis, 1994.

Karen Jo Torjesen. When Women were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. San Francisco, 1993.

Ben Witherington III. Women in the Earliest Churches. New York, 1988.

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