God’s People, part 291: Nympha

Read Colossians 4:15

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 291: Nympha. We come to another point of mystery and controversy as we approach another important person in the Bible. In verse 15 of the fourth chapter in Colossians, Paul wrote: “Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house” (NLT). Clearly, Laodicea is a community known to Paul and so is this person named Nympha. So, you might be questioning, where’s the testimony? For that, I need to point to a different translation of the Bible.

In the King James Version of the Bible, here’s what Paul wrote in Colossians 4:15: “ Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house”. Read it closely. Do you see the subtle, but IMPORTANT difference. The interpreters of the King James Version states that Nympha is actually Nymphas and is a guy. So, how can this be? Clearly, both translations can’t be accurate in the context of the first century. Either it is Nympha (feminine) or it is Nymphas (masculine).

So, who is right? Was Nympha a man or a woman? Before we answer that, let us peel back so more layers regarding this verse. First, it is important to recognize that this person was an important figure in the Laodicean church. How do we know that, because Paul used the phrase, “and the church which is in her/his home.”

Paul commonly used this phrase in regard to leaders who where holding Christian worship in their homes. He refers to Priscilla, naming the wife first, and Aquilla in the same manner (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:9), as well as to Philemon (Philemon 1-7). In each of the cases just referenced, Paul is writing directly, or sending greetings, to the heads of the specific churches. That is the consistent pattern we see in Paul’s writings and it would be the case for this mystery person in Laodicea.

What’s more, it was not uncommon for wealthy women to lead, support and even protect the church. There are 16 women mentioned in the NT who are directly named by Paul in the New Testament, one who Paul considered himself a benefactor of (Romans 16:1-2). There could be no better way to protect the church then by inviting them into one’s own home so that they can gather and worship safely without notice, and it must be pointed out that both women and men are named by Paul as hosting and leading worship.

Finally, let’s look at how there could possibly be gender confusion in regard to our Laodicean church leader. Many of the earlier manuscripts use the word Nympha, but they write it in the accusative or object case Nymphan. In order for for Nymphan to be masculine, it would have to be written as Νυμφᾶν as opposed to Νύμφαν. It is the accents, as you can see, that describes the gender; however, the earliest manuscripts did noto include the accents.

In later manuscripts, scribes who were copying them onto new parchment, added the masculine accent, probably because because they could not fathom women being leaders of the church. It is ironic, because we tend to look at societal views progressing; however, the earliest church was more progressive in terms of how it viewed gender equality under Christ.

Don’t mistake my use of the word progressive to mean today’s understanding of socio-political progressivism. I am merely using it in the traditional way, meaning that the earliest church was further along in gender equality that the times that followed. As the church advanced through the centuries, its views became more and more restrictive toward women in a way the earliest church was not. Also, do noot read into what I wrote about the scribes. They were not adding accents in order to pull of a Dan Brown-esque DaVinci Cod cover up. Rather, the accents were not their and as they transcribed, they added them in believing that Paul must have been referring to a man. This assumption was due to their own understanding of social norms. It was an honest mistake, but a costly one for women in the church throughout the two millennia, and women in denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention are still being restricted and oppressed as a result.

The vast majority of Biblical scholars affirm that Nympha was a woman and a prominent leader in the Laodicean church. What we ought to reflect on is just how our societal norms can negatively affect our interpretation of Scripture. How do we allow our worldview to take over the Bible; rather than letting the Bible overtake our worldview. This is a fine line to walk, because we can go too far in either direction. There have been great advances in understanding socially and scientifically that need to be weighed when it comes to interpretation; however, there are also things that should not change even if it means we stand out in society. Let us continue to study our Bibles and allow God to guide us in our quest to live it out in our lives.

“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” – Galileo Galilei

Lord, place the desire in me to study the Bible and to understand it in a way that truly reflects your will and your love. Amen.

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