Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Sometime during the summer of AD 48 Paul sailed from Troas. This would have been his first journey by sea. Like all his contemporaries he would have faced it with trepidation. This time, however, he was lucky. They made the crossing to Neapolis, the port of Philippi, in two days, having overnighted on the island of Samothrace. On other occasions it was a different story. Paul tells us laconically, “Three times I have been shipwrecked; once I spent a night and a day adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:25).

Philippi was Paul’s first foundation in Europe. As he walked the 10 miles from Neapolis the milestones would have reminded him that he was returning to the familiar territory of a Roman colony. The bi-lingual milestones near the port gave way to exclusively Latin ones as he approached the city. Retired Roman legionaries had been settled there by both Marc Antony and Augustus. Presumably the propaganda of ‘the man from Macedonia’ had led Paul to expect something similar to Troas. If so, he would have been disappointed. Philippi was so small that one could walk across it in 10 minutes.

It was Paul’s custom when he entered virgin territory to look first for the Jewish synagogue. His message of salvation was open to Jews, but he knew that some pagans tended to cluster around the synagogue. They were drawn by its austere monotheism, which contrasted vividly with the often disgusting behaviour of the gods and godesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Paul sought them out because they were formed in the Jewish scriptures, and could understand his arguments from prophecy regarding the Messiah.

Curiously there was no synagogue in Philippi. Paul found only a group of Jewish women (presumably married to pagans), who met to pray on Saturdays down by the river. They had attracted a pagan woman, Lydia of Thyatira, who was in Philippi on business. Her hometown in Asia Minor was famous in the wool trade, and she specialized in purple dyed textiles, which were luxury items. It is not known whether she travelled on her own account or was the agent for a firm in Thyatira. In any case she was a vigorous, independent woman running an important business.

Lydia became a convert, but the masterful side of her character remained unchanged. She decided Paul’s mission in the city would be much more efficient if he had a businesswoman to run things for him. She insisted he and his companions, Timothy and Silas, should live in her house. This meant that they did not have to look for accomodation or jobs. They could preach full time. Then she used her contacts to guarantee an audience.

Women put an indelible stamp on the church of Philippi. When Paul looked back on his days in Philippi what he remembered above all was “your partnership in the gospel from the first day [in Europe] until now” (Philippians 1:5). No other church is given such a compliment.

Later in the letter Paul underlines the prominence of women in the evangelization of Philippi, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you Syzygus really to be a ‘partner’and help them. These women have struggled hard at my side for the gospel with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (Philippians 4:2-3).

The verb used by Paul to describe the activity of the two ladies has given us ‘athlete’ and ‘athletics’. It highlights the energy and committment that they invested in the spread of the gospel. They preached it in precisely the same way that Paul, Clement, and others did. No distinction is made between the contributions of men and those of women. They were all ‘co-workers’.

There was much to be corrected in all Paul’s churches but only here does he name individuals. This is correctly interpreted to mean that it was not a private matter. These women were powerful heads of house churches, whose disagreement was likely to infect their followers and so endanger the unity of the community.

Another feature makes Philippi unique, and I attribute it to the role played by women in the running of the church. They had the sensitivity to realize that other cities might not offer Paul such favourable circumstances for ministry. The harder he had to work to earn a living, the less time he would have to preach. Thus Philippi resolved to send him financial support on a regular basis. They certainly subsidized his ministry in Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus.