Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon 1:1-3 (NRSV)

The letters of the apostle Paul give glimpses of some of the men and women involved in first-century church life. In a short letter sent to Colossae—a letter which we know as the Letter to Philemon—Paul writes primarily about his friendship with two men, Philemon and Onesimus,[1] but a woman, Apphia, is also addressed in the letter. Who was Apphia, and what was her role, or position, in the church at Colossae?

Sister Apphia

Fayum mummy, Roman Egyptian, C2nd, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main, Inv. 891It has been thought that Apphia was Philemon’s wife. This seems unlikely, however, when we compare how Paul speaks about Apphia and Philemon with how he speaks about people who we know were couples. When Paul mentions a couple—such as Prisca and Aquila (who were married) or Andronicus and Junia (who may have been married)—he refers to them as a couple.[2] They are not addressed individually or referred to separately. (See Rom. 16:3-5a; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19; Rom. 16:7.) Apphia, however, is addressed and described individually, as are Philemon and Archippus. (The NRSV translates the Greek of Philemon 1:1-2 faithfully showing that each person is addressed individually.)

The three individuals addressed by Paul are described with different ministry or ecclesial descriptions. Philemon is called “our dear friend and co-worker”, while Apphia is called “sister”.[3] Paul used the description of “sister/brother” for certain individuals who were his ministry colleagues. (Note that Timothy is called “brother” in Philemon 1:1).[4] As well as Apphia, Paul refers to another woman as “sister” in one of his letters. That woman is Phoebe, deacon and patron of the church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1-2).

Archippus, the third individual to be greeted in the Letter to Philemon, is called “our fellow soldier”. It was to this Archippus that Paul sent the message, “See to it that you complete the ministry (diakonia) you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17 CEB). Archippus may have been a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Colossae, even though he is not identified as such in the Letter to Philemon.

As well as the three individuals, Paul greets a house church, presumably the congregation that all three belong to. However, a singular pronoun is used in the greeting: “to the church [that meets] in your (singular) house” (Philem. 1:2). Whose house did the church meet in? In Philemon’s or Archippus’ home?[5] And how or where does Apphia fit in?

Apphia’s Ministry

Rather than being the wife of Philemon, Apphia may have been his ministry partner. Writing about Apphia, Ross Kraemer suggests that “sister” “may designate the female partner of a male-female missionary team.”[6] In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul speaks about the right of taking a “sister-woman” on missions.[7] Philemon and Apphia (or was it Apphia and Archippus?) may have been missionaries, ministering in Colossae as Paul’s emissaries.

A few women involved in Pauline missions are mentioned in ministry partnerships with men, but many more are mentioned without any reference to a male relative: Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Mary of Rome, Persis, Nympha, etc. It is not clear if these women were widows, single, or married. Nevertheless, they were active in ministry and prominent in their churches without, or despite, a husband. Apphia is likewise prominent and identified as an individual. She was certainly known well enough by Paul to be mentioned by him in his letter.

I suspect Apphia was one of a number of high-status women who were attracted to early Christianity, and she may have been the patron of the congregation that met in Philemon’s or Archippus’s home, or patron of a network of house churches in Colossae. Perhaps she was like Phoebe who was patron and deacon of the church at Cenchrea. Was Apphia another Phoebe? If so, this makes Apphia a woman of considerable influence. [More about patronage here.]

Ross Kraemer suggests that Paul explicitly names Apphia because he sought her consent to his request concerning Philemon and Onesimus.[8] That is, Paul “carbon-copied” Apphia into his letter to Philemon so that she would be aware of the situation Paul was writing about. However, the house church is also greeted in the letter. The letter would have been read aloud in a church gathering, and everyone would have been made aware of Paul’s wishes concerning Onesimus.

It seems Paul’s greeting to Apphia is some kind of respectful “hat tip” to her. Just like Philemon and Archippus, who are acknowledged alongside her, she was a minister in the church at Colossae, and quite possibly its patron.[9]

Conclusion

Like many of the men and women involved in churches founded by Paul, it is difficult to know exactly what Apphia’s participation in ministry involved. Yet, “it is fair to assume that Apphia had her share in the church and in its missionary activities, though we do not know in which function and to what extent.”[10] Moreover, like most ministers in the early decades of the church, she probably adapted her ministry as needs and circumstances changed.

At least eighteen women are mentioned in the Pauline letters, which indicates that women were valued for their participation in church life.[11] In fact, almost as many women as men ministered in churches founded by Paul.[12] Apphia, who Paul regarded as “sister”, was one of them.


Endnotes

[1] Throughout the body of the letter, Paul addresses Philemon directly and uses second person, singular language. Nevertheless, the opening and closing greetings are sent to everyone in the church (Philem. 1:2-3, 25).

[2] Philologus and Julia are another couple, possibly a married couple, addressed jointly in Romans 16:15.

[3] Most of the major Greek texts have the Greek word for “sister” (e.g., codices A, D*, E*, F, G, and א (Sinaiticus)), but some, including the Textus Receptus, have the Greek word for “beloved” instead of “sister”. The Vulgate combines “sister” and “beloved”: Appiæ sorori caris-simæ. The Vulgate also gives the Latin name Appiæ, but Apphia’s name is a common Phrygian name and not related to the Latin name. (A woman called Apphia, identified as the wife of Chrysippus, is mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Acts of Titus. If this woman is real, and not fictitious, it is unlikely she is the same Apphia mentioned in Philem. 1:2.) 

[4] E.E. Ellis has observed that “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Apphia and Phoebe], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).” E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers”, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.

[5] The NIV uses punctuation which gives the sense that Philemon is the owner of the house. (Ancient Greek, including the Greek of the early texts of the New Testament books and letters, did not have punctuation marks.)
“To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home” (Philem. 1:1b-2 NIV) If Philemon was the householder, he may also have been the leader of the congregation, as seems to have been the case in some of the first churches.

[6] Ross S. Kraemer, “Apphia”, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, Carol Meyers et al (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 53.

[7] A “sister-woman” may not necessarily have been a wife. It may also refer to a female co-worker. More on this here.

[8] Kraemer, “Apphia”,  53.

[9] The practice of patronage was a fundamental and vital part of Roman society and it was vital for the church: “Christianity was a movement sponsored by local patrons . . .” Edwin A. Judge, The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community (London: Tyndale Press, 1960), 8.

[10] Christoph Stenschke, “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity”, Neotestamentica 43.1 (2009), 145-194, 155.

[11] The early church was attractive to women, including women of high status. Moreover, “Within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 95.

Image

Fayum mummy portrait of a Roman Egyptian woman, 120-150 AD, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main, inv. 891. (Source:Wikimedia)


Further Reading

Nicholas R. Quient, “Was Apphia an Early Christian Leader? An Investigation and Proposal Regarding the Identity of the Woman in Philemon 1:2,” Priscilla Papers 31.2 (Spring 2017) here.

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