Nympha, women in ministry, New Testament, Nymphas

Colossae and Laodicea are two cities situated in the Lycus River Valley, 200 kilometres east of Ephesus and within the Roman province of Asia Minor. It seems Paul did not visit the area (Col. 2:1). Nevertheless, he had a close connection with the church there through his co-worker Epaphras, who probably brought the gospel to the valley (Col. 1:7-8), and through Onesimus (Col. 4:9). Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, may have been sent to help Paul when the apostle was imprisoned in Ephesus or possibly Rome (cf. the ministry of Epaphroditus in Phil 2:25-30). (The tradition that Onesimus was a runaway slave may be incorrect.)

Paul was acquainted with two women in the Lycus Valley, Apphia and Nympha, and sends greetings to them. I’ve previously discussed Apphia and her ministry, here. In this post, I look at Nympha who Paul mentions at the end of his Letter to the Colossians.[1]

Nymphas or Nympha: Man or Woman? 

Say hello to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, along with Nympha and the church that meets in her house. After this letter [Colossians] has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea. Colossians 4:15-16 CEB

Nympha is one of sixteen women who Paul mentions by name in his letters.[2] Unfortunately, like Junia and Euodia, her name was masculinised in some Greek manuscripts.[3] Not only was her name changed, the feminine pronoun, equivalent to “her,” was altered to “his” or “their.” So some older English translations of Colossians 4:15, such as the KJV, read, “. . . Nymphas and the church which is in his house.” The ASV, RSV and Weymouth NT have “Nymphas . . . their house.”

Bruce Metzger, one of the chief editors on the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (UBSGNT), writes,

 The uncertainty of the gender of the name led to variation in the following possessive pronoun αὐτῆς (“her”) and αὐτοῦ (“his”). On the basis chiefly of the weight of [Greek manuscripts] B 6 424c 1739 1877 1881 syrh. palms copsa Origen, the [editorial] committee preferred [the feminine] Νυμφαν . . . αὐτῆς. The reading αὐτῶν (“their”) arose when copyists included ἀδελφούς in the reference.[4]

The UBSGNT editorial committee had some difficulty in deciding which variant to use in their text of the Greek New Testament. The translators of the NET Bible are more certain and write, “The harder reading is certainly αὐτῆς [“her”], and thus Nympha should be considered a woman.” The reasoning here is that scribes occasionally made slight alterations when copying manuscripts to make them easier to understand; they did not make changes to obscure meaning.[5]

It seems that a few scribes had difficulty with the idea that Paul was greeting a woman who was holding church meetings in her home. Yet it was not uncommon for relatively wealthy women in the first century to host congregations and care for them. The consensus among scholars today, based on strong textual evidence, is that Nympha was a woman; and modern English translations of Colossians 4:15 unanimously have the feminine name and the feminine personal pronoun.

The Ministry of Nympha 

So what can we know about Nympha and the church she hosted? Reverend Alfred Barry, writing approximately one hundred years ago, assumes Nympha is a man and states, “He is obviously a man of importance, a centre of church life, in the Christian community at Laodicea.”[6] Commenting on the phrase “the church that meets in his house,” Barry writes,

This phrase is found elsewhere only as applied to Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), and to Philemon (Phm. 1:2). Of these Aquila and Priscilla are notable Christian teachers (as of apostles, Acts 18:26) and confessors (Rom. 16:4); and Philemon is spoken of as a “beloved fellow-labourer,” and one in whom “the saints are refreshed” (Phm. 1:1, 7). Hence this “church in the house” is seen to have gathered only round persons of some mark and leadership.

According to Rev. Barry, Nympha was a person of importance and leadership in the church at Laodicea, even if he was mistaken about her gender. Other commentators who thought Nympha was a man also seem confident in assuming that Nympha was the leader of the church at Laodicea and perhaps also a ministry co-worker of Paul.[7]

This confidence, however, is not always seen in commentators who believe that Nympha was a woman, and they sometimes downplay her ministry. It seems some commentators hold to a similar gender bias to that of the scribes who altered the text. The CEB Study Bible, on the other hand, includes this short note about Colossians 4:15: “As host to the church, this Christian woman was a leader and authority in the church.”

From the very beginning of the church, wealthy women were attracted to Christianity and they were among the church’s patrons and protectors. Nympha appears to be one such woman who opened her home as a place for Christians to meet for worship and fellowship. Margaret MacDonald writes, “Leadership in Pauline Christianity has been linked with the ability to provide services. Perhaps the most important service that a first-century believer could provide for a church group was to offer a house for meetings. Thus Nympha no doubt played a key leadership role in the churches of the Lycus valley.”[8] MacDonald also mentions that, as well as her gender, Nympha’s Phrygian ethnicity was not an impediment to leadership within the church.[9]

It’s difficult to determine exactly what leaders of local churches did in the first century, even those men and women who had ministry descriptions such as supervisor (episkopos) or minister (diakonos). The first ministers probably did what was necessary, what they were capable of, what they were gifted for. Men and women who hosted house churches may have facilitated Eucharist and agape (charity) meals, and helped to make meetings run smoothly. Since wealthy householders were likely to be literate, they were also likely to be the ones to read and reread letters written by prominent Christians, as well as portions of Old Testament scripture. (Reading aloud letters and scripture was an important part of worship meetings.) They may also have offered words of encouragement and guidance. House church leaders would have welcomed, or shunned, visiting teachers, prophets, and apostles, but other members were involved in welcoming or shunning too (cf. 2 John 1:10-11). And hopefully, all gifted people could participate in ministry during times of worship (cf. Cor 14:26). Furthermore, house church leaders cared for the material and physical wellbeing of church members as well as supporting and hosting missionaries such as Paul (cf. Rom. 16:1-2). Some may also have baptised new converts.

Nympha Colossians 4.15

Map showing the location of the Lycus Valley and Laodicea (Laodikea) (Wikimedia)

Where was Nympha’s House Church? 

Nympha’s home was in the Lycus Valley but it is unclear what city she lived in. She may have lived in Laodicea, the largest city in the Lycus valley, about fifteen kilometres west of Colossae. But there are other possibilities.

Colossians 4:15 refers to Nympha and the church in her house. Because of the reference to Laodicea in the same verse it seems most likely that Nympha’s church was located there, but Hierapolis [Col. 2:1; 4:14-16] and Colossae itself cannot be ruled out as possible locations for the church in her house.[10]

David Pao explains three options suggested by the grammar of Colossians 4:15:

The function of “and” (kai) after the reference to Laodicea has been variably understood. (1) If it is taken as a coordinating conjunction, Nympha and her church are not part of the Laodicean community of believers: “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house” (NASB). (2) If it is understood to identify a particular member within the class, Nympha and her church becomes the particular focus of Paul’s greetings among the several churches in Laodicea: “Give my greetings to the followers at Laodicea, especially to Nympha and the church that meet in her home” (CEV). (3) If it is taken in an epexegetical sense, the church in Nympha’s house represents all the brothers and sisters in Laodicea: “Send my greetings to the brothers in Laodicea, that is, to Nympha and the church in her house.”[11]

Pao prefers the second interpretation: “Because of the reference to an entire community with a geographic marker followed by the note of an individual, option (2) seems to provide the best interpretation.”[12]

Some suggest that the letter we know as the Letter to the Ephesians is really the Letter to the Laodiceans that Paul mentions in Colossians 4:16.[13] (There are strong similarities between Ephesians and Colossians.) If this is the case, it indicates the congregation at Laodicea was not small and probably consisted of several house churches. MacDonald suggests there were other house churches and writes about Nympha: “Paul knows her and picks her out from among the house-churches in Laodicea to greet, which suggests that she was a well-known church leader . . .”[14]

Conclusion

Whether Nympha lived in Laodicea or Colossae, or even Hierapolis, there is no question that she hosted a house church, and this means that she was the patron and, most likely, the overseer of the congregation. That Paul does not greet anyone else connected with the house church, makes the idea that Nympha was its leader fairly certain.[15]

It appears that Paul had no issue with a woman running a house church. However, as well as gender bias, one verse in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 2:12, casts a very long shadow and makes it difficult for some to see and realise that women ran house churches. Gifted women were also missionaries and prophets and teachers in the first century. And Paul approved.

This article is dedicated to Stacey B.W.

Nympha house church leader

Part of the ruins of Laodicea. Photo by Klaus Walter (Wikimedia)


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[1] Scholars are divided over whether the Letter to the Colossians was written by the apostle Paul or if it was written by a later author writing in Paul’s name. With this issue in mind, Ben Witherington III makes these observations about the ending of Colossians:

Colossians has all the features of the end of a normal Pauline letter including  mention  of travel plans (4:7-9; cf. Rom 14:22-32; 1 Cor 16:1-18), final greetings (4:10-15: cf. Rom. 16:3-16; 1 Cor 16:19-20), final instructions (4. 16_17; cf, 1 Cor. 16:15-18; 1 Thess. 5:27), a personal note (4:18; cf. Rom: 16:17-20; 1 Cor: 16:21-24), and a final benediction (4:18; cf. Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor: 16:23). It is this section in particular which makes it difficult to imagine this letter coming from a post-Pauline situation, for it has a very personal Pauline character to it.
Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 201.

[2] As well as Apphia, other women I have written about, who are in some way associated with the apostle Paul, include Chloe, Euodia, Junia, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Syntyche, and Thecla.

[3] Both “Nymphas” (masc.) and “Nympha” (fem.), in the accusative (or object) case, are spelled “Nymphan” (Νυμφαν). And Nympha’s name, as well as Junia’s and Euodia’s names, only appear in the accusative case in the Greek New Testament. Accents distinguish the masculine Νυμφᾶν from the feminine Νύμφαν in the accusative case, but accents were not used in early manuscripts of Colossians 4:15.
Unlike Junia’s name, which only exists in antiquity as a feminine name, both Nymphas and Nympha “are well attested in Greek literature and the papyri, though Nympha is a bit more common.” Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008), 205. Ross Kraemer, however, states that “the masculine  Nymphas is not found among Roman inscriptions from this period, whereas the feminine Nympha is attested more than sixty times (mostly for slaves and freedwomen).” Ross S. Kraemer, “Nympha,” 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) online source.
More about the masculinisation of Junia’s, Euodia’s and Nympha’s names, here.

[4] A note on Colossians 4:15 in the NET Bible has: Scribes that considered Nympha to be a man’s name had the corresponding masculine pronoun αὐτοῦ here (autou, “his”; so D [F G] Ψ Ï), while those who saw Nympha as a woman read the feminine αὐτῆς here (autēs, “her”; B 0278 6 1739[*] 1881 sa). Several manuscripts (אA C P 075 33 81 104 326 1175 2464 bo) have αὐτῶν (autōn, “their”), perhaps because of indecisiveness on the gender of Nympha, perhaps because they included ἀδελφούς (adelphous, here [in the NET] translated “brothers and sisters”) as part of the referent.

[5] This line of reasoning is a general principle in textual criticism and has been given the Latin term Lectio difficilior (“the more difficult reading”) or Lectio difficilior potior (“the more difficult reading is the stronger”).

[6] Alfred Barry, Colossians, A Bible Commentary for English Readers, Charles John Ellicot (ed.) (London: Cassel and Company, 1905) (Online ource) Barry is not an especially eminent scholar, but his interpretation of Colossians 4:15 represents how other scholars of his generation interpreted this verse.

[7] For example “Colossians,” The Pulpit Commentary, H. D. M. Spence, Joseph S. Exell (eds)(1890) (Online Source)

[8] MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 188.

[9] MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 8. There was a small Jewish population in the Lycus Valley and, as in most other cities, the majority of church members were probably Jewish. Nympha’s name indicates she was not Jewish and most likely a native of Phrygia. MacDonald writes, “Given the presence of Jewish elements in the false teaching described in 2:16-23 it is important to note the evidence for a significant Jewish minority in the cities of the Lycus valley.” Colossians and Ephesians, 9. The false teaching was a mix of Jewish and pagan elements. F.F. Bruce describes it as an “incipient gnosticism,” though not necessarily related, or easily connected, to the forms of Gnosticism that developed in the second century. F.F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems Part 3: The Colossian Heresy,” BibSac 141 (1984): 195-208, 199.

[10] MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 8.

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

[12] Pao, Colossians and Philemon, online source.

[13] G.B. Caird notes, “It is odd that Paul is sending greetings via Colossae to Laodicea when he was also writing to Laodicea. The problem is resolved if the letter from Laodicea was Ephesians, a circular letter without personal greetings.” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 212. H.M. Carson, as one example, writes that the most likely theory is that the letter to the Laodicea is “our canonical Epistle ‘to the Ephesians.’” Colossians and Philemon (TNTC; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1984), 101.

[14] MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 205.

[15] Paul’s greeting to Nympha is actually an instruction given to the Colossians for them to greet Nympha and her church. It is like many of the greetings given in Romans 16. Paul wrote these greetings to foster communication and unity between different house churches and their leaders in the one city or region.

Images

(1) Close up of a statue of Aphrodite (Unknown source)
(2) Map showing the location of the Lycus Valley and Laodicea (Laodikea) (Wikimedia)
(3) Part of the ruins of Laodicea. Photo by Klaus Walter (Wikimedia)


Related Articles

Apphia: Philemon’s Wife or Another Phoebe?
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Authority in the Church
Articles about patronage, here.
Articles on 1 Timothy 2:12, here.

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