Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Apphia in Philemon Margaret Mowczko

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 Apphia is also addressed. Who was Apphia, and what was her role or position in the church at Colossae?

Apphia the Sister

It 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, or Andronicus and Junia—he refers to them as a couple; the husband and wife are not addressed individually or referred to separately.[2] Apphia, however, is addressed and described individually, as is Philemon and another man named Archippus. The NRSV and CSB translate the Greek of Philemon 1:1-2 faithfully showing that each of the three people is addressed individually.

Furthermore, the three are each described by Paul with different ministry or ecclesial descriptions. Philemon is called “our dear friend and co-worker.” Apphia is called “the sister.”[3] Paul used the description of “sister” or “brother” for certain believers who were his ministry colleagues. David Pao writes that Apphia as “sister” is “a title comparable to ‘our brother’ as applied to Timothy in v.1 and thus highlights her independent standing as a Christian and possibly as a leader of the church.”[4] Apart from Apphia, Paul refers to one other woman in his letters as “sister.”[5] That woman is Phoebe, minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea (Rom 16:1-2).

Archippus, the third person to be greeted, 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 NIV). Archippus may have been a diakonos of the church at Colossae, even though he is not specifically identified as such. Still, he is clearly some kind of minister since he has a ministry to fulfil.

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 Greek text with the sense, “to the church in your (singular) house” (Phm 1:2). Whose house did the church meet in? In Philemon’s or Archippus’s home?[6] And how does Apphia fit in?

Apphia the Missionary?

Rather than being the wife of Philemon, Apphia may have been his ministry partner. Writing about Apphia, Ross Kraemer proposes that “sister” “may designate the female partner of a male-female missionary team.”[7] In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul poses a rhetorical question concerning his apostleship; he asks whether he has the right to take an adelphē gunē (literally, “sister-woman”) with him on his missionary travels. He was unmarried, so he was not asking whether he could bring a wife along on his journeys (cf. 1 Cor 7:8).

Paul did not have a wife, but he did have sisters, such as Apphia and Phoebe, and he had female co-workers, such as Euodia and Syntyche, as well as Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, travelled and ministered with Paul (Acts 18:18; cf. Rom 16:3-4). Paul may have had these “sister-women,” or female co-workers, in mind when he asked his rhetorical question to the Corinthians.

Clement of Alexandria understood that Paul was speaking about “sisters” rather than wives in 1 Corinthians 9:5.

But the [apostles], in accordance with their ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took women with them, not as wives, but as sisters, that they might be their co-ministers (sundiakonoi) in dealing with women in their homes. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused (Stromata 3.6.53).[8]

Clement refers to the women not merely as companions but as co-ministers of the apostles. These “sisters” played an often crucial, and sometimes difficult and dangerous, role in taking the gospel into new territory. In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, “sisters” were needed to minister to other women, such as widows, who lived relatively secluded lives.

Philemon and Apphia 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. It is not clear if these women were widows, single, divorced, or married. Nevertheless, they were active in ministry and prominent in their churches without, or despite, a husband. Apphia is likewise prominent and seems to be identified as an individual rather than a missionary partner. She was known well enough by Paul to be mentioned by name in his letter to Philemon.

Apphia the Patron?

Apphia may have been a high-status woman and the patron of the congregation that met in Philemon’s or Archippus’s home, or she may have been the patron of a network of house churches in Colossae.[9] Perhaps she was like Phoebe who was both patron and diakonos of the church at Cenchrea. Was Apphia another Phoebe? If so, this makes Apphia a woman of considerable influence.[10]

Ross Kraemer suggests that Paul explicitly names Apphia because he sought her consent to his request concerning Philemon’s attitude towards Onesimus.[11] That is, Paul “carbon-copied” Apphia into his letter so she would be aware of the situation he was writing about. He may have hoped that Apphia would influence Philemon according to his wishes. However, the house church is also greeted in the letter. The letter would have been read aloud in a church gathering so that everyone would have been made aware of Paul’s wishes concerning Onesimus. It seems Paul’s greeting to Apphia is some kind of respectful acknowledgement of her position.

Apphia is mentioned with, and between, two ministers: Philemon, “our coworker,” and Archippus, “our fellow soldier.” And she is referred to as “the sister” (hē adelphē), the feminine form of “the brother” (ho adelphos) which is how Paul referred to Timothy. She was a Christian woman with some significance.

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 church life 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.” [12]  Moreover, like most ministers in the early decades of the church, she probably adapted her ministry as needs arose 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. Apphia, who Paul regarded as a sister, was one of them.


Footnotes

[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 (Phm 1:2-3, 25).

[2] Note how the couples are mentioned together in Romans 16:3-5a, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19, and Romans 16:7. Philologus and Julia are another couple, possibly husband and wife, mentioned 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 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 named Apphia, identified as the wife of Chrysippus, is mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and the Acts of Titus. If this woman is real, and not fictitious, it is unlikely she is the same Apphia mentioned in Phm. 1:2.)
Also, Paul includes the Greek pronoun that means “our” for both Philemon and Archippus (“our coworker” and “our fellow soldier), but doesn’t for Apphia; she is simply “the sister.” Nevertheless, depending on context, the sense of “our” can be implicit in the Greek definite article.

[4] David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 365.

[5] 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.
Not all brothers and sisters mentioned in Paul’s letters are ministers. Nevertheless, when referring to a specific individual, “brother/ sister” is what Paul calls a considerable number of people who were involved in significant Christian ministry of some kind. Paul refers to the following men as “brother”: Quartus (Rom 16:23); Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1);  Apollos (1 Cor 16:12); Titus (2 Cor 2:13); an unnamed but trusted and praised brother (2 Cor 8:18, 22; 12:8); Timothy (2 Cor 1:1; 1 Thess 3:2; Phlm 1:1; Col 1:1); Tychicus (Eph 6:21); Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25); Onesimus (Col 4:9).

[6] The NIV uses punctuation that gives the sense Philemon is the owner of the house: “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” (Phm 1:1b-2 NIV).

[7] 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.

[8] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.6.53 as quoted by John Wijngaards in The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s First Millennium (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002, 2011), 15.

[9] 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. (More about wealthy women in the first-century church here.)
If Apphia was the patron of a house church that did not meet in her own home, this might indicate that she was a married woman and independently wealthy, but whose husband was not a believer and did not allow church meetings in their home.

[10] 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.

[11] Kraemer, “Apphia,” 53.

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

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Image

Fayum mummy portrait of a Roman Egyptian woman, 120-150 AD, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main, inv. 891. (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.
D.F. Tolmie, “The reception of Apphia in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.,” Acta Theologica 36.23 (Bloemfontein 2016) here.

Related Articles

Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Believing Wives or Female Coworkers (1 Cor. 9:5)?
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Nympha: A House Church Leader in the Lycus Valley (Col. 4:15)
The Church at Smyrna and her Women
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

7 thoughts on “Apphia of Colossae: Philemon’s wife or another Phoebe?

  1. Following on to the ideas in your article, I think the 2 others mentioned after Philemon were significant influencers in the church; that is, Paul is lining up a group of people to get Philemon to free Onesimus, which I see as the subtext of the letter. He generally wants others in the church to hear/read it, but specifically the other 2 besides Philemon. In other words, even if they were not in attendance when it was first officially read to the congregation, these other 2 are especially to read/hear it.

    The basic cultural background is that Onesimus is a runaway slave; as such under Roman law, any punishment up to crucifixion would have been allowed to be done by the master to him. This is not to say that as a follower of Jesus Philemon would have given a thought to the more extreme forms, but what about the potential fears of Onesimus? Onesimus is taking a big risk in going back and I think Paul wants to give him as much hope as possible in a good outcome. Today, think of a soldier going AWOL or an employee simply not showing up to work one day, what will happen to them when they are persuaded to return?

    Rather than put all of his eggs into Philemon’s basket and hoping he “gets it” all by himself, Paul ensures his appeal has a better chance of his desired outcome.

    Once it is seen that the other 2 are “significant influencers” then it becomes more plausible that they are actually in ministry as leaders in the congregation, since that is what leaders are.

    1. I think it’s likely that Philemon, as the probable householder, was a leader of the congregation that met in his home, that Apphia was a patron/leader, and Archippus was a deacon.

      By the way, some scholars do not see Onesimus as a runaway slave, but as slave sent by Philemon’s church to help Paul. Churches frequently sent people to help Paul when he was in prison (e.g. the Philippian church sending Epaphroditus).

      Your idea about eggs sounds right.

      It is possible that the Onesimus who became bishop of Ephesus, is the same person who had been Philemon’s slave. No doubt, Paul had coached Onesimus in theology and ministry during the time they spent together.

  2. The truth that Paul exposes in this letter to Philemon (and Appia) is that faith in Jesus results in an equalizing, relational status change between believers. In verse 16, Paul bluntly tells Philemon that Onesimus is no longer a slave to him, but a brother. And Paul clears up any chance of spiritualizing this family connection by saying Onesimus is a brother in the flesh and in the Lord, and juxtaposes himself and Onesimus in verse 17.

    Receiving Onesimus back as a brother is also an act that affects the welfare of not just the slave, but those around him. Paul continues to emphasize relationship over duty by employing familial terms, calling Onesimus his child, tying the slave to himself as father and the others he names as his family in the introduction. Onesimus has Paul for “father,” an “uncle” in Timothy, and a local “aunt” in Appia, as well as the others listed in the closing. Paul is adjusting the identity of this slave, connecting him to freemen and freewomen as relational equals. And as a result of this identity shift, he asserts there are familial responsibilities that result. The whole company of saints listed in this letter are called as witnesses and silent reinforcement.

    Familial love between believers compels equality and personal sacrifice. This is a subtle truth reinforced to all genders and social statuses by “carbon copying” the letter to a woman as well as men.

    Thank you for taking the time to point that out in this article!

    1. This is beautiful, K.

      There is a lot of love in Paul’s letter. How lovely that the slave Onesimus had Paul for a “father”! (Philm 1:10).

  3. Thanks for another meanningful lesson, Marg. You continually broaden our understanding! Blessings.

  4. Really only a very minor thought among all these rich teachings and comments…..but could the 3 have been 2 brothers and a sister and, thus with 3 occupants, the house may have been large enough for the church meeting? Love all of this interesting background and the historicity! 🙂

    1. Traditional interpretations say that Philemon and Apphia were married and that Archippus was their son. However, the Greek grammar indicates that the three are greeted individually. The grammar seems to rule out that Philemon and Apphia were husband and wife. Moreover, I think the grammar of the greeting as well as the contents of the letter (with the focus on Philemon) makes it unlikely the three were siblings living in the same household, but it is not an impossible scenario. 🙂

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