Women Paul wrote to in Rome

Persis (Romans 16:12)

The name ‘Persis’ simply means “a woman from Persia.” It’s possible her name indicated her ethnicity. When I lived in a small German hamlet years ago, there was a French expat there whose name I don’t even remember, because we always called him “Franzose,” which means “Frenchman” in German. He’d been living in the village of Waldkappel for a good twenty years! But, to us, he would always be the French outlander who spoke a charming German with French flair. That said, the name ‘Persis’ was also, evidently, a very common first century name, showing up on many papyri and inscriptions.

‘Persis’ was also a name used by freed women, especially female slaves, throughout the Roman empire. One site I checked out said, “Ancient Roman society had a high proportion of slave population. Some have estimated that 90 percent of the free population living in Italy by the end of the first century BC had ancestors who had been slaves.” Anyone could own a slave in ancient Rome, even the poorest free people, so owning slaves was a widespread practice. There were probably about two million slaves, all told; about one slave per every three free persons.

Slaves, at least during Paul’s day, came as war captives, victims of pirate raids, by trade, or by birth. The largest source of slaves came through Cilicia, part of the Persian empire, via the international slave trade hub, on a Greek island in the Cyclades archipelago. Apparently as many as 10,000 slaves could be traded in a day, through Persia.

Though slaves who found themselves consigned to agriculture or mining lived a brutal life, many slaves ended up becoming household servants. As such, they sometimes had opportunities to receive and save money, material goods, even property. The slave’s assets were called “peculium” and, legally, were owned by the slave’s master, but in real life, the slave was permitted to use those assets for their own purposes.

Eventually, if the slave was able to save up enough, they could seek to purchase their freedom. In ancient Roman society, a freed person was somewhere between a slave and a free person; still legally part of their master’s household, but no longer owned by the master. They could now marry, start their own families, work in trade, and follow any number of life's pursuits.

Slaves could also gain their freedom through “manumission,” where the slave owner would free their slave, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it was in reward for faithful and loyal service. Sometimes a slave owner needed to give someone their power of attorney to sign contracts and other official papers, and represent them. 

Paul’s letter to Philemon suggested he free his slave out of a love for God, and Paul instructed slaves who became believers,

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23)

Paul told all believers,“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

So, it is entirely possible Persis was a Persian slave who had been trafficked through the Greek island of Delos, and purchased by a Roman family who either freed Persis of their own volition—possibly because they were believers, and did so for the Lord’s sake, in faith—or she was able to earn her way to freed status. Since Rufus is named in the next verse, some theologians think she may have been his wife.

That tie-in is pretty intriguing. Rufus and his brother Alexander were in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, with their father, Simon, when they saw Jesus staggering under the weight of His cross, as He dragged it through the streets to Skull Hill (Golgatha), where He would be crucified. One of the nearby Roman soldiers conscripted Simon to carry Jesus' cross, just as the Lord collapsed.

That experience must have worked a profound change in Simon and his sons, for later they not only became believers, but also befriended Paul, as Paul wrote in Romans 16:13, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.”

Paul commended Persis, “Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.”  Note, she was Paul’s “dear friend,” a phrase he reserved for those who had worked side-by-side with him, risked their lives for the Gospel with Him, aided and supported him at great sacrifice to themselves. It is not unlikely Persis became a believer through Paul’s ministry.

Paul said Tryphena and Tryphosa “worked hard” for the Lord (‘in’ the Lord may mean ‘in the Lord’s strength, in the Lord’s will, for the Lord’s sake, furthering the Lord’s purposes.’) But Persis “worked very hard.” The word used here, in Greek, is ‘kupaio,’ and it means, “to be wearied or spent with labor; faint from weariness; to toil hard.” Kopiao comes from the root word meaning “beating,” so the sense of this word is “weariness as though one had been beaten.”

This is the kind of word Paul would use for himself, in his mission and pastoral labors. Persis, at great personal sacrifice, exhausted herself in the work of the church, proclaiming the gospel, establishing and building up the Body of Christ, discipling, mentoring, encouraging, helping.

The Lord uses everything in a believer’s life for good, even something as traumatic and devastating as slavery. What Persis learned as a slave, she applied to her service of God. Persis gave everything she had in her to give, and when she was exhausted of all resources, she looked to the Lord for more and He gave it—so she kept on working. Interestingly, Paul honored only women in Romans 16 with this accolade, this word ‘kupiao.’

One last tidbit—in the Greek, Paul indicated the sisters Tryphena and Tryphosa were still at work, but Persis’ labors were in the past. It could be, the church in Rome knew of something really significant Persis had done, and Paul was referring to that particular work. Or, it’s possible Persis was no longer involved in the hard work of the past, she had ‘retired,’ if you will, for certain reasons.

My guess is, either she was an older women who had reached a retirement age, where she was no longer capable of the exhausting labor she had previously been engaged in, OR, if she was indeed Rufus' wife, then she and Rufus were now starting a family, and she could no longer devote herself to that kind of work. Either way, her spirit was still very much vibrantly for the Lord and His people, but she was no longer physically able to pursue missions.

All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.