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Women in Paul: Friends, Family, and Perhaps Co-Workers

July 1, 2014

Paul greets a lot of people in his epistles. Some of them he greets at the beginning of letters but most of them are greeted in an end section devoted to final words and personal notes. To be more specific Paul greets five people at the beginning of his letters: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (in their eponymous Epistles) and Apphia and Archippus along with Philemon. He greets another thirty-two people at the end of his letters[1]. Paul’s letters also hold greetings from people who are with him. Sosthenes, Timothy, and Silas are all included in introductory material in one or more letters. Another twenty-one individuals send personal greetings at the end of letters. (Priscilla and Aquila manage to be on both the giving and receiving end of greetings in different letters.) Finally, Paul mentions people who are of interest to the church he writes to – people who they may know, people who may be coming to see them, or people otherwise involved in the life of the global church in a way that impinges upon the particular community Paul is writing to. Twenty-one people are mentioned this way in the final greetings section of various letters and another three (Chloe, Crispus, and Gaius) are mentioned in the beginning of 1 Corinthians (along with Stephanas who is already counted in this list for other mentions).

In total, seventy-six individuals are mentioned in the opening or closing sections of Paul’s letters. At least fifteen of these individuals are women. In one case the gender of the individual (Junia/Junias) is contested but if we exclude this person from the count one in five of these individuals are women. The breakdown is more interesting than this, though. One-third of all the women Paul greets in his lengthy end greetings are women. Women “lose out” mostly in the “people mentioned in passing” category which includes only one women, Phoebe. However, some of the people mentioned in passing are not mentioned for good reasons. Demas is mentioned a lot but in one case it is because he has deserted Paul. Similarly, Alexander the metalworker is mentioned to warn people about him. Many of the people Paul mentions in this category appear to be his own traveling companions who we might expect to be men for any number of reasons.

Unfortunately, simply breaking down the categories doesn’t get us much further. One might expect that frequent mentions and greetings sent from a person indicate good things about them but Demas fits both of these categories and yet is last mentioned as deserting Paul. Frequent mentions do tell us something: that these people were active in the early church. However, that is sometimes literally what it tells us: they were physically active and traveled a lot, allowing them to send greetings from several locations and be greeted at (or mentioned to) several other locations. Some more data can be mined from the rather more obvious instances: Timothy is clearly a very important person given how frequently he is mentioned in all ways in Pauline Epistles. Priscilla and Aquila are probably important as well as they show up sending and receiving greetings. Most of the other people who get mentioned are already known to be important from other sources (like Luke).

Thankfully, Paul often introduces people with short descriptions. (I will be skipping the contended description of Phoebe here because I will treat it separately later.) Several women do not get useful descriptions: Apphia our sister, Julia, the sister of Nereus (which is her entire description), and Claudia. Others don’t get described usefully deliberately but things that are said about them tell us important details. Apparently some people from Chloe’s household alerted Paul to the trouble in Corinth which tells us that Chloe is either the head of a household (perhaps like Lydia in Acts) or that she is the person with the most pull as far as Paul’s ministry is concerned (e.g., her husband might be the real head of household but a non-believer). Nympha has a church meeting at her house. It’s unclear what her role within this church is but it is important that she supports the church in this way. (The options range from her running a church in her house to simply providing space because she has the largest house.)

Other descriptions are not particularly noteworthy for a first-century woman. Rufus’ mother has been like a mother to Paul. This is very kind (and perhaps risky given the sort of trouble Paul got himself into) but completely inside the norms of both Jewish and Roman culture.

A few descriptions are more noteworthy. (A reminder that I am skipping the two most hotly-debated women of Romans 16 so that I can give them more room in a later article.) These are Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis, all of whom “worked hard”. Whatever they are doing it is rather obviously related to the church and important enough that they are publicly commended for it. Moreover, their commendations are mixed in with those of the men. Perhaps Paul assumed that no one would really think these women were doing the same sort of thing as men for other reasons (much as if I thanked the firefighters and the doctors for their help in a disaster – you would not assume that the firefighters were doing surgery alongside the doctors). Maybe Paul knew that everyone already knew these people and wouldn’t hear him wrong. However, Paul doesn’t seem to be on guard against egalitarian readings of his words in the way that some of his later interpreters are.

Finally, there is the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche.   Paul addresses someone (his “true companion”) and asks them to help resolve this dispute. Given only this we might assume that Euodia and Syntyche were having a dispute about worldly matters that was producing nuclear levels of fallout in the community but Paul goes on to describe these women. They are, he says, people who have contended at his side for the cause of the gospel. He then compares their work to that of Clement and “the rest of my co-workers”. Any sort of plain reading of this text would indicate that Euodia and Syntyche were doing work like that of Silas, Titus, Timothy, and Paul himself (although presumably on a smaller scale since they are only mentioned once).

Indeed, if one were merely to read Paul’s comments to and about specific women in his Epistles one would almost certainly conclude that Paul saw no barriers to women participating in the life of the church in all ways. The impression gathered from this evidence is of a church with a number of important females figures including evangelists, heads of households, and possibly church leaders. Now, of course there are other texts as well and it is important to read them all. But the point of this “backwards reading” is to confront the texts in a different order and see if they line up the same way when we do. In this case it seems that if Paul did not mean for women to hold positions of authority in the church that was either rather low on his priority list (he makes little effort when addressing these women to denote their roles as specifically feminine) or that there was some other iron-clad understanding in the churches sufficient to block any misunderstanding. (This despite the fact that the Pauline corpus attests to misunderstandings in the churches about absolutely everything.)

[1] To be technical only thirty of these people are named. I have counted Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister as personally greeted since Paul refers to them specifically enough to single them out. I have also counted as “greeted” anyone who was given a message. This included some instructions to be handed on apparently through intermediaries.

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