Women Paul wrote to in Rome

Tryphena and Tryphosa (Romans 16:12)

Name Meaning— From the Greek name Τρυφαινα (Tryphaina), derived from Greek τρυφη (tryphe) meaning "softness, delicacy." Tryphosa comes from the same Greek root word, and can also mean delicate or dainty one, or, alternately, “thrice shining one,” or, more probably, “luxuriant.”

Probably they were twin sisters, and belonged in some way to a noble Roman family. Some theologians have theorized these sisters were themselves nobility, and their names reflected either the life of luxury their parents intended for them, or their soft and delicate femininity.

Early Christian inscriptions in cemeteries used mostly for the servants of the emperor have both the name of Tryphena and of Tryphosa. So, it’s possible these sisters could be identified as being among “the saints of Caesar’s household” Paul greeted in his letter to the believers in Philippi. (Philippians 4:22).

It’s also possible, because of Paul’s placement of these sisters right after the households of Aristobulus, and Narcissus, both of which are groups of slaves, that Tryphena and Tryphosa were connected to them in some way as well. Aristobulus was a grandson of Herod the Great, and Narcissus was a well-known freedman, whose slaves at his death would probably have become the property of the Emperor.

The live birth of wins in antiquity was a rare occurrence. Even today, multiple birth is considered a high enough risk that the pregnancy is closely monitored, and the birth usually carefully planned and induced. And the views surrounding twins or triplets (or more) varied widely.

Some in the medical field (such as Hippocrates) felt twins represented the ideal conception, and, though rare, reflected very favorable circumstances. Others (such as Aristotle) felt twins were ‘monstrosities’ because it was abnormal for people to have more than one child at a time. He also felt twins were always the result of adultery, as each child must have only one father—therefore two children must have two fathers.

The ideal size of the ancient Graeco-Roman family was considered one to two children. Twins not only put the mother, and the infants, at high risk of death (rarely did all three survive the birth[1]), they could grow the typical family beyond a sustainable size—unless, as in Tryphena and Tryphosa’s case, the family commanded considerable wealth.

Nevertheless, in real life, twins were most often welcomed. During Paul’s lifetime, first century Rome promoted marriage and family with laws that helped families both financially and with inheritance, if they had three or more children. The elite were even more delighted with twins, for their rarity. In 40 B.C., for example, Mark Antony and Cleopatra had twins as a result of their extra-marital affair, resulting in their marriage in 36 B.C.

That Tryphena and Tryphosa lived points to a compassionate and warm-hearted father, who loved his children. In the patriarchal Graeco-Roman society of antiquity, the husband, or male head of household, literally had the power of life or death over those born into his home. If he declared a newborn as of no value. The infant would be left abandoned, presumably to die of exposure, or, less often, sold or given away into slavery.

Any number of reasons would go into this decision. One ancient medical professional, Soranus of Euphesus, said the mother had to be healthy, and the newborn should be perfect in all its parts, to keep the infant. Aristotle stated emphatically no deformed child should be allowed to survive. Often, if the father was looking for an heir, a girl child would be left to die in the hopes the next infant would be a boy.

A quick internet search brought me to Wikipedia, “To notify the neighbors of a birth of a child, a woolen strip was hung over the front door to indicate a female baby and an olive branch to indicate a boy had been born. Families did not always keep their new child. After a woman had a baby, she would show it to her husband. If the husband accepted it, it would live, but if he refused it, it would die.

Babies would often be rejected if they were:

  • illegitimate
  • unhealthy
  • deformed
  • the wrong sex
  • too great a burden on the family

These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

Infanticide of this kind was not considered killing. The thought was, the gods could save the child (or children, as in the case of the famous twins Romulus and Remus) or some passerby might take pity and rescue the abandoned infant. In fact, the latter became a part of society, and a couple of locations would become the habitual place to leave an unwanted infant, such as the steps of an official building. Often the newborns would be wrapped in a cloth, sometimes left with some token, like a baby rattle, or some other toy. Most of the time, these babies would be scooped up for the slave trade.

According to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, Christians would often try to save these abandoned and exposed infants, sometimes to raise them, but far more often to bury them. Many inscriptions in ancient burial catacombs attest to this. If the infant survived, they were often raised by a believing family who had enough wealth to take in another child, or women who had consecrated themselves completely to God, and lived in community (called ‘holy virgins,’ and the precursor to nuns in convents).

Tryphena and Tryphosa were notable to Paul, however, not because their birth and station in life, but because of who they were in the Lord, “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.” I wonder, since no husbands were mentioned, whether they were both unmarried, and had themselves devoted their lives utterly to God for His glory, to the praise of His grace, and for the good of His people.

[1] “in eighteenth-century western Europe more than half of the twins born died in their first year, and that maternal mortality was three times higher than for a single birth.” VERONIQUE DASEN, MULTIPLE BIRTHS IN GRAECO-ROMAN ANTIQUITYOXFORD JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGY ß Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997

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.