Nympha, women in ministry, New Testament, Nymphas

Colossae and Laodicea are two cities situated in the Lycus River Valley, 200 kilometres east of ancient 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. This connection was via his co-worker Epaphras, who may have been the one who brought the gospel to the valley (Col. 1:7-8); and it was via Onesimus (Col. 4:9), Philemon’s slave who 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 he sends greetings to them. I’ve previously discussed Apphia and her ministry, here. In this article, 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 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 gender was hidden when her name was masculinised in some Greek manuscripts.

“Nymphas” (masculine) and “Nympha” (feminine) are both names that occurred in ancient times and both are spelled “Nymphan” (Νυμφαν) in the accusative (or object) case, the case used in Colossians 4:15.[3] It is only the accents that distinguish the masculine Νυμφᾶν from the feminine Νύμφαν, but accents were not used in early manuscripts that contained Colossians 4:15. In some later manuscripts, when the name was accented, it was incorrectly accented as a masculine name.

But it wasn’t just Nympha’s name that was masculinised. Because it wasn’t clear if Nympha was a man or a woman, variations appeared in some manuscripts concerning the Greek pronoun that occurs in verse 15. Some manuscripts had the masculine pronoun equivalent to “his” instead of the feminine pronoun, “her.”

Furthermore, some scribes apparently took the church as belonging to the brothers and sisters who are mentioned in verse 15, as well as to Nympha, so the plural pronoun, equivalent to “their” (“their house” rather than “her house”) was written into some texts.

Despite past confusion, however, there is now a consensus among modern scholars that Nympha was a woman and that the original pronoun was “her.” The translators of the NET Bible state, “The harder reading is certainly αὐτῆς [“her”], and thus Nympha should be considered a woman.”[4] 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 and make it harder to understand.[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 own house, so they tweaked the text to change its meaning, to make it easier for them to comprehend. Yet it was not uncommon for relatively wealthy women in the first century to host congregations and care for them. Modern English translations of Colossians 4:15 have amended past mistakes and unanimously have the feminine name and the feminine personal pronoun. Nympha’s correct identity has been restored.

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, assumed Nympha was a man and stated, “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 which is in his house” (Col. 4:15 KJV) Barry wrote,

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. Instead, she is typically regarded as Philemon’s wife with no real ministry of her own. This downplaying of Apphia’s ministry reveals a gender bias that is shared by some commentators and by the scribes who altered the text.

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 highlights that, as well as her gender, Nympha’s Phrygian ethnicity, signified by her Phrygian name, was not an impediment to leadership within the church which would have been largely made up of Jewish people.[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 facilitated Eucharist and charity (agapē) meals, and helped to make meetings run smoothly.

Since wealthy householders were likely to be literate, they were probably the ones to read and reread letters written by prominent Christians, as well as portions of Old Testament scripture. Reading letters and scripture was an important part of worship meetings. They may also have offered words of encouragement and reproof.

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, presumably, all gifted and capable people could contribute to worship meetings. Earlier in his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote,

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts (Col. 3:16 NIV).

Furthermore, house church leaders cared for the material and physical wellbeing of church members and probably supported and hosted missionaries such as Paul. 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 epistle 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 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 believes 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 little doubt she hosted a house church. This means she may have been the patron and, most likely, the supervisor of the congregation. That Paul does not greet anyone else connected with the house church, makes the idea fairy certain that Nympha was its leader.[15]

Unfortunately, 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 such as Nympha ran house churches, and a gender bias persists in some interpretations of Nympha’s role. But Paul had no issue with a woman running a house church. 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 leaders

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


Footnotes

[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] Nympha’s name, as well as Junia’s and Euodia’s names, only appear in the accusative case in the Greek New Testament. 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.

[4] Note 21 on Colossians 4 in the NET Bible: 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 Bible] translated “brothers and sisters”) as part of the referent. (Perhaps because accents were not part of the original text, scribes were particularly confused here.) The harder reading is certainly αὐτῆς, and thus Nympha should be considered a woman.
Source: https://netbible.org/bible/Colossians+4
Bruce Metzger, one of the chief editors on the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, writes, “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. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 560.

[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) <https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/colossians/4.htm> Barry is not an especially eminent scholar, but his interpretation of Colossians 4:15 is representative of 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) <https://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/colossians/4.htm>

[8] Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008), 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 was probably Jewish. 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 (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 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.
Junia, Nympha, Euodia, Stephana(s): Men or Women?

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