Hidden in plain sight: Nympha and the other women leaders in the early church

Hidden in plain sight: women leaders in the early church include Nympha mentioned in Colossians.(Photo: Unsplash/Tatum Bergen)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this new monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events over the past 2,000 years that have helped make up this "cloud" - people and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

Hidden in plain sight are the first-century women leaders who can be found in the letters of Paul. Often placed within a general set of greetings, in one of Paul's letters in the New Testament, there appear women whose role was clearly larger than the brief mention of their name might imply. A classic example is a verse in Paul's letter to the Colossians.

In Colossians 4:15 he writes: "Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house." (NRSV)

Who is Nympha? This is a very interesting question, for Nympha is sometimes transformed into a man. Older Bible versions, such as the 1611 King James Version, refer to "Nymphas" and the church meeting in "his" house. The American Standard Version and the Weymouth New Testament have "Nymphas" and the church meeting in "their" house, which leaves the personal-name masculine but the ownership of the house, as expressed in the pronoun, gender-neutral.

The reason for the gender confusion is because the early Greek manuscripts differ. Some contain a male name and a male pronoun. This may simply have been a copying error, which confused Greek "her" and "his". This may then have led to the name being revised to its masculine form to be in keeping with this gender-shift in the pronoun. However, it is perhaps more likely that some copyists simply did not think that a church would be led by a woman and made the change accordingly. In this scenario, Nympha quietly changed into a man (Nymphas).

Today, though, the weight of the textual evidence means that most modern translations have both the feminine name and the feminine personal pronoun. It's Nympha and the church meeting in her house! Clearly, Nympha was a woman of importance. The phrase "the church in their/your house" is only used elsewhere of the community meeting in the house of Prisca/Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3–5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), and that of Philemon (Philemon 1–2). In both these cases these were leading local Christians. And in one of these cases yet another woman (Prisca/Priscilla) was the co-leader of the church. In the example from Romans, Prisca/Priscilla is named first. She was clearly not playing second fiddle to her husband in the leadership of this church. In contrast, Nympha seems to have led 'her church' on her own. This is impressive.

Incidentally, where the Greek in Colossians 4:15 actually says "all the brothers at Laodicea", it is likely that Paul meant it in the sense of 'brotherhood' (gender inclusive), since he goes straight on to refer to Nympha.

Nympha was not alone...

Nympha deserves more attention because, as we have seen, she was not alone in having a significant role. Less enigmatic, but equally intriguing, is when a woman's name is simply included in a list of people who were clearly church leaders. 2 Timothy 4:21 records: "Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters."

The Greek, as in the earlier quote from Colossians, actually simply ends: "all the brothers." But, as with that earlier example, it clearly is meant to include the sisters too, as Paul has only just referred to Claudia, who is clearly a woman. As with Nympha, we do not know who Claudia was, but she was clearly important and it is reasonable to assume she occupied a leading role in the local church, even a leadership role.

The same applies in Philemon (verse 2) where Paul simply greets "Apphia our sister", or literally in Greek "the sister." In a similar way, Paul refers to Timothy at the start of this letter as "the brother" (although it is usually translated as "our brother" v.1). This phraseology clearly suggests colleagues in ministry. As such, Apphia is described in the same linguistic formula as the more-famous Timothy. As we are about to see, Paul only referred to one other woman as "sister" and she was, additionally, recorded as having the job title of "deacon." It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that Apphia was also probably a deacon. It is to that other deacon, and other key female church leaders, that we now turn.

A rather explosive set of verses...

A classic example of women in leadership can be found in Romans 16:1-7. In a long set of greetings at the end of this letter, a number of intriguing women appear. Paul writes:

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,

so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her

in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and

of myself as well. Greet Prisca [or Priscilla] and Aquila, who work with me in Christ

Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also

all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my

beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who

has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who

were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in

Christ before I was."

These seven verses are a mine of information regarding women leaders of the early church. First of all is "Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae." She is specifically described using the Greek word diakonos. In English this becomes "deacon." It should not be translated as "deaconess," as occasionally happens, which gives the impression of a specific female (perhaps subservient sub-role). The female form "deaconess" did not appear until three centuries after Paul wrote and Phoebe is described with a title used for men.

This brings us to Prisca [or Priscilla] and Aquila. These two (woman and man) are mentioned no less than six times in the New Testament. The evidence is found in Acts and in no less than three of Paul's letters. They are always named together and are never named individually. They clearly were a power-couple. Regarding these six references: Aquila's name appears first, twice; but Prisca/Priscilla appears first on four occasions. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than equality of status.

Then there is Junia, and the status of this woman has caused no end of debate. She was a relative of Paul's, became a Christian before he did, and was in prison with him. The reference to her reads as "prominent among the apostles." Despite some attempts to make Junia into a man (as with Nympha) – via a postulated, very rare, male personal-name Junias – the weight of evidence is heavily in favour of it being a female name. Some manuscripts name her as "Julia," which underscores this point. Early church tradition thought she was a woman. We might suspect that some translators and commentators have been inclined (unconsciously perhaps) to assume a male identity for Junia/Julia because this resolves the apparent conundrum of a female apostle. But a female apostle, we must conclude, is exactly what she was. Whatever does that mean?

This is such a revolutionary thought that it has led some commentators to assume that this phrase meant either "in the eyes of the apostles" (since it seems impossible to believe that a woman and an unknown man could have been promoted to this elite inner group), or that it meant 'apostles' in its rarer sense of church pioneers/missionaries breaking new ground. It must at least mean this, since it does not do justice to the Greek construction to translate it as "the apostles held them in high esteem" or "in the eyes of the apostles." So, she was probably one of this wider circle of 'other apostles.' But, from a strict reading of the Greek, it could mean that she was an apostle as this term is usually understood. This is not likely, but still is rather astonishing. It's safest to assume she was in the second tier of 'apostles' but that is radical enough! She may have seen the Risen Christ, since she was a believer before Paul was. She had clearly become a believer in the earliest days of the church, perhaps even in the final period of Jesus' ministry, if she was a Jew from Galilee or Judea.

Nympha, Prisca, Phoebe, Junia – and female leadership in the early church

So, how can this be reconciled with the more-famous examples of Paul's view on women in leadership? The following suggestion may help us make sense of this complex situation. Many of Paul's doctrinal letters were written in response to specific pastoral situations. Consequently, it can be argued that the varied responses regarding women occurred because the particular issues and problems kept changing: a group of impressive female leaders here, versus a group of radical (perhaps poorly self-disciplined?) women there; women leading house churches in these places, versus some women succumbing to spiritual conmen in another place. Life is complex.

However we explain it, the women leaders are definitely there; hidden in plain sight. Nympha and her sisters force us to think again about how we view the New Testament church. We might ask why we hear so little about them in our churches today?

Hopefully, the case of Nympha will challenge us to reflect on this, because (clearly) Paul's relationship with women leaders was more complex than is often stated. Among that "cloud of witnesses" are some female ones in places where we might not expect them to be!

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. He taught history for thirty-five years in comprehensive schools and is now a writer and columnist. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-two books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. Recent work exploring the roots and the development of Christian beliefs are: Christ The First 2000 Years (2016) and Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021). The lives of Nympha and other women of faith are explored in more detail in Daughters of Eve (2021).