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They fought for the Gospel

· ​Paul and women ·

The Pauline Letters, like the Gospels and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, indicate a numerous presence of female figures who enjoy consideration, if one takes into account the scant esteem for women in Mediterranean societies of the first century after Christ. For many scholars this fact is a trace of women’s crucial importance at the very beginning of Christianity. If this had not been the case the first Christian writers would logically have omitted to mention the presence of women, since its effect on the life of the communities and on the evangelizing mission went against cultural norms and merited criticism in the eyes of the most important pagan authors.

In the final greetings and special recommendations of all his Letters Paul usually gives faces and names to this variegated mosaic of believers, who were probably at the service of their respective communities and at the head of their missions. This is the case of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi. A couple of verses are dedicated to them at the end of the Letter: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have laboured side by side with me in the Gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:2-3). The meagre information and few facts do not permit much expatiation or conjecture. Nevertheless, the terms referring to them and related ad intra and ad extra to the Letter to the Philippians can shed light on these enigmatic figures.

A first appellation which they both receive, together with Clement and others not mentioned by name, is that of synergós (“yokefellow”). This is a title given in the Pauline epistle to both men and women without distinction which serves as a guide, because it was not usual to designate believers in general. Thus in the Letter to the Philippians this name is used for Euodia, Syntyche, Clement (4:3) and Epaphroditus (2:25). In other letters it is Priscilla who receives this title (Rom 16:3), as well as Timothy (Rom 16:21, 1 Thess 3:2), Apollos (1 Cor 3:9), Titus (2 Cor 8:23) and Philemon (Philem 1).

Although the Pauline vocabulary attributes other names to them too – for example, to Phoebe “sister”, “helper”, and “deaconess” (Rom 16:2) – the term “yokefellow” rests on the fact of working closely and side by side with Paul both in the mission and in the institution, as well as in the development of a specific ecclesial community. One might say that its Old Testament counterpart is found in the famous words of Genesis, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18). In the opinion of some scholars this expression should not be understood in terms of procreation or of a “better half” found by the man, but rather should extend to the field of work, which is the key to the account in Genesis and is meant, in this working–vocational sense, as a complementarity.

This complementarity is breathed in the air of the Pauline community and shines out in the “mission groups” like the one presented briefly in Phil 3:4: Euodia, Syntyche, Clement and other collaborators. The beautiful and heartfelt thanksgiving of the beginning (Phil 1:3-11) is probably, or at least in part, addressed to them and the inaugural epithet with which the Letter opens probably once again refers to them: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1). Although this is an unprecedented designation in the Letters written by Paul, according to many exegetes the terms “bishops” and “deacons” do not have here the technical significance which they were subsequently to acquire.

As scholars observe, although Paul’s attitude to the role of women appears ambiguous in certain texts (1 Cor 11:2-6), in general in the truly Pauline Letters women take an active part in the dissemination of the Gospel and as community leaders. Light is shed on this by several pairs of missionaries formed of husband and wife couples, such as Priscilla and Aquila (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3-5), or Junias and Andronicos (Rom 16:7) or even by two women, such as Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2) and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12).

However, with the passing of the centuries the tradition after Paul proved to be rather more reluctant in this respect. This is reflected in the very evolution of the “domestic codes”. While the earlier ones, which accepted the patriarchal order, still insisted on the reciprocity of the function between the members of a family (Col 3:18-4, 1; Eph 5:21-6, 9), those of a second (1 Pet 2:18-3, 7) and a third period (1 Tim 2:9-15; Tit 2:3-5) demand of wives silence and submission to their husbands. But this is not all; it is also noted that through disciplinary measures an effort is made to limit women’s autonomy and to reduce their teaching in the community, relegating them to the domestic sphere (1 Tim 5:2-16; 5:13; 2 Tim 3:6; Tit 2:3-5).

In a certain sense, this attempt to restrict women’s functions is a testimony and legacy of other initial ways of proceeding, as is reflected by the Letter to the Philippians and other typically Pauline letters. Thus in the second century factors external and internal to the Early Church converged, little by little leading to the disappearance of female community leaders, whereas in the first century factors external and internal to Christianity had contributed to their affirmation. In this regard scholars emphasize that the first Christian communities were structured and organized around a home (oíkos), a specifically feminine place – given that in civil society the public arena was reserved for men.

The first Christian communities were in fact born as “domestic churches”, structured around a house (domus), which a few believers made available to the missionaries and to the local community (Rom 16:2, 5; 1 Cor 16:19). The New Testament writings mention that rich and noble women or those of a certain importance were the main benefactors of some communities. Such were, in the Acts of the Apostles, Tabitha of Joppa (9:36,42), Mary, mother of John nicknamed Mark (12:12-17), Lydia (16:14; 15:40), Damaris of Athens (17:34) or the leading women of Thessalonica and Berea (17: 4-12), Priscilla and her husband Aquila (18:2-3) in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19) and in Rome (Rom 16:5), and Phoebe in Cenchreae (Rom 16:1-2) who, as well as receiving the title of “sister” and “deaconess” is also called “helper” (prostátis).

This sort of female patronage was not limited to contributing with goods, hospitality or social influence but often including hosting meetings or taking the role of presiding at them, as Paul says of Stephanas’ household, who “have devoted themselves to the service of the saints”(1 Cor 16:15-18). In addition, the social status of these women in all likelihood implied a higher cultural level than that of the average woman and so they could exercise a teaching function in the communities. Their readiness to keep silent at assemblies attests to the existence of this practice (1 Tim 2:12). Pagan authors, such as Celsus, also accused Christianity of transgressing against the public order, precisely because it transformed the “rooms of women” into places for instruction ([Origen’s] Contro Celso 3, 50.55). The criticism of Celsus and of other pagan authors shows that the hospitality of these women was not limited to the private sphere; they were in fact acceding to public spheres which were inappropriate to their female condition.

The first community in Europe was founded in Philippi and the Acts of the Apostles associates its origins precisely with the conversion of a woman. When Paul and Silas arrived there, Lydia, a seller of purple goods from Thyatira, and all her family had themselves baptized (Acts 16:11-15). Furthermore, the texts recount that after their release from prison Paul and Silas returned to her home (Acts 16:40). She was probably a well-to-do woman with a certain degree of autonomy and authority, suggested by the fact that all “her household” was converted. Thus towards the end of the Letter to the Philippians, the mention of Euodia and Syntyche among the members called by name does not come as a surprise. Furthermore, since their names are of Greek origin, some scholars maintain that one of them might have been either Lydia or the mysterious Syzygus [in RSV Bible “yokefellow”] which coupled with the adjective means “true companion”. But these views are not proven and thus remain conjectures.

The exhortation which Paul addresses to them (“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord”, and the memory he evokes (“they have labored side by side with me in the Gospel”) [“they have fought beside me for the Gospel]” upgrade these two women who, as we have already said, come under the title of “yokefellow”. To express the hard work they had done together with Paul, a verb is used that is unique in the Pauline correspondence and in the New Testament, since it is found only here and in Philippians 1:27, as an exhortation. It is a question of “striving side by side”, synathléo. The usual term to indicate “labour” or “working hard” is different, kopiáo. And it is the latter verb which is generally applied to both the men and the women who work side by side and tirelessly for the Gospel. Thus, on many occasions it describes Paul’s efforts and also those of the people who help him and work for the community (1 Cor 16:16; 1 Thess 5:12). In the Letter to the Romans the work of Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis is thus described (Rom 16:6, 12).

The verb used in the Letter to the Philippians to describe the action of Euodia and Syntyche belongs instead to the field of athletics, synathléo. Even though in substance it has the same meaning as that mentioned above, it clarifies the fact that they worked strenuously for the Gospel with Paul like athletes. All this refers to the gratitude expressed at the beginning of the Letter: “It is right for me to feel thus about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel” (Phil 1:7). The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (16:16-38) refers to the imprisonment borne in Philippi and Paul himself recalls in other Letters the shameful treatment suffered in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2), and the suffering and dangers experienced by the Christians of Macedonia (2 Cor 7:5; 8:2). Therefore this “striving side by side” has a missionary horizon and calls to mind a common suffering which, as in other places, may mean putting one’s own life in danger. Thus, for example, it is said that Priscilla and Aquila risked their necks to save Paul (Rom 16:4), and that Andronicus and Junias were companions in prison (Rom 16:7).

If the action of “laboring side by side” with Paul for the Gospel is an action ad extra, the entreaty addressed to Euodia and Syntyche concerns an ad intra behaviour, “to agree” in the Lord. The verb used, phronéo, is a sort of leitmotif in the Letter and its presence here sheds light on the existence of a certain discord or rivalry between these two women. Indeed, although the tone of the Letter to the Philippians is quite familiar and cordial, the only reprimand that is addressed to them in the form of an exhortation is “to agree”, phronéo, in Christ, which entails not acting out of boastfulness but with humility (Phil 2:1-5), and after the example of Jesus who did not count his equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil 2: 6), that is, a treasure to be jealously guarded.

Although it is impossible to explain the reason for this exhortation to Euodia and Syntyche, we can hypothesize that the Pauline invocation may be attributed to the fact that they were two unusual and significant figures in the community and thus that their example might prove to be crucial in building it. They who fought together with Paul for the Gospel must now row in the same direction and contribute with their lives to obtaining unity of hearts in the community of Philippi, “being” in agreement in Christ.

Marta García Fernández

The author

Marta García Fernández is a religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Consolation. After obtaining a degree in Biblical Sciences at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (2004) and a doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University (2008), in 2009 she started teaching in the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University Comillas in Madrid. Her principal publication is: Consolad, consolad a mi pueblo. El tema de la consolación en Deuteroisaías (Analecta Biblica 181, Rome 2010) [Console, console my people. The theme of consolation in Deutero Isaiah] (Analecta Biblica 181, Rome 2010).

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