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Tryphaena and Tryphosa:
not too dainty to work hard in the Lord

· Paul and women ·

It is typical of the Apostle Paul to include greetings in the closing section of his letters, yet the list in Romans 16 is unusually long. Since Paul was writing to a community which he had not founded, and was only planning to visit (see Rom 15:23), it has sometimes been questioned whether he mighthave indeed known so many individuals in Rome. As a result, there are scholars who think that chapter 16 was originally part of a lost letter addressed to the Ephesians; we know that Paul spent several years in Ephesus, and thus must have known members of the Ephesian community very well. Others have suggested that the list in Romans 16 includes also people whom Paul did not know personally. Yet this underestimates the mobility of early Christian missionaries. 

Most contemporary Christians are aware of Saint Paul’s travels, and even in the 21st century, when travelling has become far easier thanks to modern means of transportation, the map of his journeys remains impressive. But he was not the only first century Christ believer who travelled extensively. According to Acts 18:2, Paul met Prisca and Aquila in Corinth, where they had come from Rome. They were in Corinth because of a decree by Claudius, ordering the Jews to leave Rome, but later in the same chapter Luke informs us that the couple travelled together with Paul to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19). They most likely subsequently returned to Rome, which is why Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 begin with Prisca and Aquila, to whom he is especially grateful (Rom 16:3-4). However, it is conceivable that a few other individuals listed in this chapter were similarly Jews who had left Rome due to Claudius’ decree, and whom Paul met in the course of his travels. Others may have originally proclaimed the Gospel in the East, like Paul, but may have relocated to the capital earlier than he did, either of their own will, or by being brought there by their masters or slave dealers in the case of slaves. While in the pre-social media era communication was not as instant as it is nowadays, Paul was part of an extensive network of early Christian missionaries who retained a close relationship with each other, knowing how much the success of their endeavour may depend on teamwork, rather than individual effort.

The series of greetings in Romans 16 is by no means a mere appendix to the letter. It is integral to the purpose of the letter sent to a city which Paul was intending to visit, and passing greetings to individuals with whom he was acquainted was a means of establishing a connection with the community. In addition, at least some of those whom Paul greets must have been persons of real consequence in the local community to ensure the desired effect. Greetings in Romans 16 are worthy of attention not only because of the sheer number of individuals named there. If we include Phoebe, who is recommended by the author in verses 1-2, Romans 16:1-16 includes nineteen men and ten women. Yet remarkably, only three of the men are referred to as having a role in the service of the gospel, and of these three, two, Aquila and Andronicus, are mentioned alongside women partners, Prisca and Junia, respectively; only Urbanus is described as Paul’s co-worker (synergos) “in Christ,” just like Prisca and Aquila, but without the naming of a missionary partner.. Of the ten women, seven appear to have been actively involved in the service of the gospel: Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, Maria, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. Of these four, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis are explicitly referred to as “working hard in the Lord” (cf. Maria, who “worked hard among you” in v. 6). The Greek verb kopiaō occurs fifty-one times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and twenty-three times in the New Testament, and is as a rule employed in a similar way as in non-biblical Greek. It is used either in the sense “to be tired, grow weary,” or “to work hard, toil.” In John 4:6 it refers to Jesus, wearied, tired out by his journey, and sitting by Jacob’s well, where the Samaritan woman encounters him. Yet in the New Testament it is especially frequent in Saint Paul’s letters, who several times refers to his own apostolic work as “toil,” expressing fear lest this toil be in vain (Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16). The context implies that this apostolic toil pertains to the Apostle’s missionary work, and thus the proclamation of the gospel. Interestingly enough, in 1 Thess 5:12 Paul appeals to his addressees: “respect those who toil [kopiōntas] among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you.” In this case those who “toil” in the community apparently have a leadership role and are in a position to admonish other members. It would be farfetched to say that kopiaō became a technical term for early Christian missionary activity, yet against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that the verb appears three times in Romans 16 in reference to women who “work hard, who toil.” Notably, none of the men are characterised in this way in this chapter.

The names “Tryphaena” and “Tryphosa” are of Greek origin. Both are very well attested in first century epigraphic sources (inscriptions), and the former occurs also in a number of papyri. Tryphē in Greek means “softness, delicacy, daintiness, luxuriousness,” and the cognate verb tryphaō is rendered as “to live softly, luxuriously, fare sumptuously.” There is thus a contrast between the meaning of their names and the fact of their toiling “in the Lord.” The name “Tryphaena,” or to be more precise, “Tryphaina” (“Tryphaena” is a latinised spelling), was in the earlier period associated with the queens and princesses of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which may have contributed to its popularity in the East. One sometimes finds in commentaries an assertion that the names “Tryphaena” and “Tryphosa” are typical slaves’ or freedwomen’s names, and thus the women greeted by Paul in Rom 16:12 are likely to have been in this category, too. This is rather misleading; while names of some other individuals referred to in Romans 16 may have been typical of slaves (Ampliatus, Hermes, Persis, or Nereus), Tryphaena and Tryphosa are attested for women of various social status, and especially in the East they include women of high social rank. At the same time, in a significant number of inscriptions from Rome, these names do indeed refer to individuals of slave origin. In view of this, and based on what we know about the social make up of the early Christian movement, it is indeed possible that Tryphaena and Tryphosa were slaves or freedwomen.

We are unable to state with any certainty what Tryphaena’s and Tryphosa’s ethnic identity was. While their names are of Greek origin, in the first century it was not unusual for Jews to have Greek names, but also Romans often gave such names to slaves. In the case of slaves, names, instead of one’s origin, may reflect the personal taste of the owner (or perhaps the slave dealer). In Romans 16, Paul refers to three individuals, namely Andronicus and Junia (v. 7), as well as Herodion (v. 11), as his kinspeople (syngeneis), which could suggest that others are of Gentile origin. And yet according to Acts, Aquila was a “Jew from Pontus,” and if so, we cannot be sure that other than Andronicus, Junia and Herodion, individuals mentioned in this text are all Gentiles. The letter to the Romans, as all the other letters of Paul, was written in Greek, and we know that the language of Roman Christianity remained chiefly Greek in the first two centuries. This was partly related to the fact that a significant proportion of Christ followers in Rome in that period consisted of nonindigenous residents. The majority of individuals listed in Romans 16 are likely to have come from the East, and this also pertains to Tryphaena and Tryphosa.

What was the relationship between these two women? Some commentators regard Tryphaena and Tryphosa as sisters, given that their names come from the same root. Others think that there was no actual connection between them, but the similarity between their names is the reason why Paul mentions them together. The latter is rather unlikely, given that in all the other cases when two people are named together in Romans 16, they are either a missionary couple (a wife and a husband, according to Acts 18:2), as Prisca and Aquila, or relatives, as Rufus and his mother, or Nereus and his sister (who may have also worked together in an early Christian community, but we may at most speculate about this). Since Tryphaena and Tryphosa are characterised as those who “laboured in the Lord” (kopiōsai en kyriō), the most plausible explanation as to why Paul names them together is their joint toil “in the Lord.”

Whether they were sisters, fellow slaves, perhaps manumitted together, or whether they met each other in some other way, will remain a matter of speculation. More importantly, at the time when Paul was writing the letter to the Romans, which was some time between the years 55 and 57, Tryphaena and Tryphosa were together in Rome as partners in the service of the gospel. Paul in 1 Cor 9:5 takes it for granted that male missionaries have a right to be accompanied by believing wives (“sister as wife”). While he himself was not married, he had very close co-workers, some of whom, like Timothy, were also named as co-authors of some of his letters. We may be familiar with missionary couples such as Prisca and Aquila, yet partnerships in proclaiming the Gospel included also all male or all female tandems. According to the evangelists, Jesus, when sending out his disciples, did so in two by two (see Mk 6:6-7; Lk 10:1). But it is also possible that behind the stories of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:1-12:19) there is a tradition about an early Christian missionary couple. In the communities founded by Paul, Euodia and Syntyche are an example of a similar partnership in the service of the gospel (Phil 4:2-3). We do not know anything of most of these women’s marital status, just as we do not have this information for the majority of other men and women mentioned by Paul in Romans 16 or elsewhere in his letters. If some of them, following Paul’s example, remained celibate, having a reliable partner in missionary work would have provided the necessary emotional and practical support, and helped build the relationship of trust.

Tryphaena and Tryphosa are not mentioned anywhere else in the canonical New Testament. In the second century apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, a certain queen Tryphaena, supposedly residing in Pisidian Antioch, appears as Thecla’s patron and protectress. She is also said to be Caesar’s kinswoman (APTh 36). The existence of a first century queen Antonia Tryphaena (d. 55), whose children were according to ancient sources brought up together with Caligula, is indeed attested in the writings of ancient historians and in inscriptions. However, she resided in Cyzicus, not Pisidian Antioch, and she was known as Queen of Thrace and Princess of the Bosporan, Pontus, Cilicia, Cappadocia. There is no evidence that she ever became a Christ believer, and it is unlikely that there is a historical basis to the episodes involving Tryphaena in APTh, even though the character may have been inspired by an awareness of the existence of the actual historical figure.

The above tradition is clearly much later, and as we have seen, there is little that we can say about Tryphaena’s and Tryphosa’s origin and identity. Yet Paul’s greetings tell us the essential: they were part of the early generation of Christ believers, not at all too dainty to work tirelessly at the service of the gospel. It is thanks to people like they that the community in the capital of the Roman Empire could develop dynamically long before Paul reached Rome. Tryphaena and Tryphosa, as well as other individuals whom Paul greets in Romans 16, show us how countless women and men contributed to the growth of this community, even if based on the earlier parts of the letter, we know that its development was not devoid of painful and controversial issues. What is more, the series of greetings offers us a glimpse into how blurred the boundaries between itinerant missionaries and those involved in organising local communities were in the middle of the first century. Finally, the brief reference to Tryphaena and Tryphosa in Rom 16:12 reminds us of the bonds of affection and friendship which must have tied individuals with each other at this early stage of the spread of the Christian movement. In this way, they could provide mutual support and encouragement in the joint effort to bring the Good News to all the corners of the Roman Empire, and remain actively involved in the building of local church communities once they had been established. This was not a job for the faint-hearted. 

Dominika Kurek-Chomycz

The author

A lecturer in New Testament Studies at Liverpool Hope University in Great Britain, Dominika Kurek-Chomyczobtained doctorates in philosophy and in Sacred Theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. She has published books and numerous articles in authoritative international academic journals. She is a member of the editorial committee of the “Journal for the Study of the New Testament” and as Executive Officer directs the European Association of Biblical Studies.




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 22, 2018