Janelle Peters


In writing to the Romans, Paul concludes by naming ten women among twenty-eight individuals prominent in the church: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister.[1] When he mentions the mother of Rufus (Rom 16:13), he considers her also to be his own. Commentators have noticed both the lower social status of those with the name Rufus and also the possibility that Paul actually thinks of Rufus’s mother as his own surrogate mother and not simply as an excellent provider of hospitality.[2] Rufus’s mother acts within the list as a means to give her status above many of those in Paul’s list of people in his house-churches. As a matriarch of sorts, she lends Paul’s mentions elsewhere of his own maternal identity with greater authority. Rufus’s mother is not the mother of all the baptised; she is mother to Paul in particular, and thus she differs somewhat in Paul’s positioning of himself as a wet nurse to his communities.[3] Commentators have not been certain as to whether her mothering Paul attended to the physical or spiritual needs of Paul.[4] I will argue that Rufus’s mother is accorded status and influence within the Pauline house-churches.

Marital Status, Money, and Women Leaders

Romans 16 begins by referencing Phoebe as a minister of Cenchrae and then proceeds to go through a list of names in order to prove Paul’s thoroughgoing ecclesial connections.[5] Some of the names receive additional praise, including Rufus and his mother. Rufus is called “chosen in the Lord” in a fashion similar but not identical to the “workers” in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and an individual without a listed mother but who has “worked” by the name “beloved” Persis.[6] Rufus’s mother is not listed a worker in the Lord, but she is called both the mother of Rufus and of Paul. While the former designation may be a fact of upbringing, the latter designation is most probably an honorific—Rufus’s mother has supported Paul with good advice and excellent example. Although Rufus’s mother is listed without a name of her own, had she been listed with merely a name and not a family relationship, she would have been presumed to have been Rufus’s wife and thus akin to other known Pauline married couples such as Aquila and Prisca.

The name given to Rufus by his mother is of possibly lower-class origins, and it could belong to someone of Latin, Greek, or Jewish background.[7] Although Paul writes to the Romans, there is a Rufus who is a son of Simon of Cyrene in the Gospels.[8] This Rufus is probably a different Rufus, but his name somehow might have enough recognition among the Romans to demarcate his mother, who possibly shares a name with other recognised women or is somehow strongly associated with her son.

Although we do not know the exact social position of Rufus and his mother, we do know that Phoebe has the designation prostatis. It is therefore Phoebe who is forefronted as a benefactor.[9] Rufus’s mother receives her honour for being Paul’s mother and Rufus’s mother. She is not described like the Phoebe of the Pauline house-churches or Junia Theodora of Corinth, but she is in the same list of greetings. Rufus’s mother’s honour derives not explicitly from her euergetism but from her generous maternity.

Rufus’s Mother as a Roman Mother in the Broader Mediterranean

Rufus’s mother’s commendation as a mother to Paul solidifies the possibility for honour outside of ecclesial euergetism for women. Yet, we do not have her name because she is simply labelled as the maternal force behind Rufus. Although the lack of the name traditionally has been construed as denoting lesser status, recent scholarship on Roman mothers and mothers in the New Testament suggests that there could be a possibility she could have increased status.

First of all, Rufus’s mother is associated with her son in a list that does not let us know that Aquila and Prisca are married as does Acts 18. As Ross Kraemer observes, Paul does not share Luke’s concern for Roman respectability.[10] If Rufus’s mother is listed as a mother when Paul is not interested in letting us know married couples or families, it could indicate her importance to the church.[11] We do not know if Prisca and Aquila have children or if Prisca and Aquila have mothers who are alive and in the church. We do not know that they are married. It does not seem necessary to use Rufus’s mother as an opportunity to pay homage to Roman respectability with which Paul seems unconcerned, and a single son would not suffice to extricate her from male guardianship from her natal line.

Second, Paul’s definition of motherhood as ignoring known kinship lines departs markedly from Roman legal practice. As Suzanne Dixon notes, in “Rome, as in most societies, motherhood enhanced a woman’s status.”[12] Nonetheless, the paterfamilias retained the legal power to exile and expose children (Suetonius, Divus Augustus 65).[13] While Paul calls Andronicus and Junia his relatives, he calls Rufus’s mother his mother, a closer familial designation. Paul is not directly taking on the role of a paterfamilias, because he is not the ultimate broker of power in this proverbial cloud of witnesses just as later Tertius inserts his own greeting from the perspective of the letter’s scribe. Romans envisions Rufus’s mother as adopting Paul in a way commensurate with his relation to Andronicus and Junia, placing all in mutual interest that is not strictly defined by a hierarchical chain of command. This is consistent with his approach to motherhood elsewhere, as in 1 Corinthians where he positions himself as the mother of the Corinthians in a way Beverly Gaventa has shown endorses the idea of motherhood.[14]

Third, the idea of a mother such as Rufus’s mother being in charge of her son happens elsewhere in early Christian communities and their literature. Rufus’s mother could very well have had authority over Rufus. There was a possibility for women to be guardians in classical and imperial times.[15] Dixon observes that women were not meant to be tender like the nineteenth-century Cult of True Womanhood, but that they could be disciplinarians like the men.[16] Such an ethic is seen in the New Testament in places such as Mary at the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of John (2:1–12), where Mary contradicts Jesus’s understanding of his “hour” and public ministry in the face of a wedding’s lack of hospitality that was about to shame its sponsoring families.

Women as Letter Senders and Ecclesial Network

If Rufus’s mother had joined Paul’s family, then one wonders what that means for her perceived influence in the composition of Romans, which already has some slippage away from Paul’s voice when Tertius inserts his own greeting as writer (Rom 16:22). As seen in other early Christian letters such as 1 Clement, Pauline letter carriers played an important role in framing a letter’s reception.[17] The list of names in Romans 16 could have played a role in shaping Pauline communication just as Onesimus might have carried Philemon (Phlm 19), Silvanus might have carried 1 Peter (1 Pet 5:12), Titus and brothers might have carried 2 Corinthians (2 Cor 8:16–24), Burrhus might have carried Ignatius’s To the Philadelphians, and Crescens and sister might have carried Polycarp’s To the Philippians.

Yet, the notion of corporate composition goes beyond letter carrying and sending. Ian Elmer notes that an ethic of collaboration probably permeated all Pauline letters: “The network of communities and communications between these churches and Paul were maintained by travelling emissaries. Hence, the composition of all the Pauline letters was probably also the product of a collaborative enterprise.”[18] Although Rufus’s mother is not in charge of the physical carrying of the letter and its spoken interpretation, her perceived authority is undergirding that of Paul along with the other individuals in a list that almost has gender parity (and thus is certainly an improvement on modern biblical studies). While we often think of Pauline studies as an exercise in single author versus house-gathering audience,[19] it should be remembered that this host of co-workers would have been operating in these communities and were invoked specifically for the lens that their personalities might bring to the conversation. Just as Phoebe’s ecclesial function overlaps with that of Paul (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 6:4), Rufus’s mother might have some level of involvement with the shape of Paul’s ministry. Although her name is not preserved, her status and influence exceed that of other members of the house-churches, who are unnamed and less involved in the organisation of the house-churches.


The unnamed mother of Rufus is just one name in a list of almost thirty people. Yet, Paul calls her his own mother and expects his audience to respect her both for being someone else’s mother and for being his own mother. It is a prosopographical moment when Paul’s hierarchies soften slightly. Rufus’s mother is not simply there on account of her son. She has made her own way onto the list, and she holds authority outside her own household despite not having the same financial benefaction credit as Phoebe and other leaders. Considering Rufus’s mother puts into counterpoint some of the maternal language we find Paul applying to himself in places such as 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, suggesting Paul values nurturing within the early house-churches for male and female and the baptismal “no male and female.”


Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Mother. London: Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Elmer, Ian J. “I, Tertius: Secretary or Co-Author of Romans.” Australian Biblical Review 56 (2008): 45–60.

Emmett, Grace. “The Apostle Paul’s Maternal Masculinity.” Journal of Early Christian History 11 (2021): 15–37. doi:10.1080/2222582X.2020.1850205.

Gagliardi, Lorenzo. “La madre tutrice e la madre epakolouthetria: osservazioni sul rapporto tra diritto romano e diritti delle province orientali.” Index 40 (2012): 423–446. tinyurl.com/LaMadreTutrice.

Gaventa, Beverly. Our Mother Saint Paul. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

Hylen, Susan. Women in the New Testament World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World. New York, NY: Oxford, 1994.

Kruse, Colin. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Lewis, Robert Brian. Paul’s ‘Spirit of Adoption’ in Its Roman Imperial Context. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Miller, Susan. Women in Mark’s Gospel. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Samuelsson, Gunnar. Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Schenk, Christine. Crispina and Her Sisters. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017.

Stiefel, Jennifer. “Women Deacons in 1 Timothy: A Linguistic and Literary Look at ‘Women Likewise…’ (1 Tim 3.11).” New Testament Studies 41 (2009): 442–457, doi:10.1017/S0028688500021585.

Theophilos, Michael P. “The Roman Connection: Paul and Mark.” Pages 45–71 in Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays, Part I: Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity. Edited by Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim, and Ian J. Elmer. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014.

Tite, Philip L. “How to Begin, and Why? Diverse Functions of the Pauline Prescript within a Greco-Roman Context.” Pages 57–99 in Paul and the Ancient Letter Form. Edited by Stanley Porter and Sean Adams. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Toit, Andrie du. Focusing on Paul: Persuasion and Theological Design in Romans and Galatians. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012.

[1] Christine Schenk, Crispina and Her Sisters (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017), 51.

[2] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 969.

[3] Grace Emmett, “The Apostle Paul’s Maternal Masculinity,” Journal of Early Christian History 11 (2021): 15–37, doi:10.1080/2222582X.2020.1850205.

[4] Colin Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 570.

[5] Schenk, Crispina and Her Sisters, 52.

[6] Andrie du Toit, Focusing on Paul: Persuasion and Theological Design in Romans and Galatians (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012), 206.

[7] Michael P. Theophilos, “The Roman Connection: Paul and Mark,” in Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays, Part I: Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity, eds. Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim, and Ian J. Elmer (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 61.

[8] Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 243.

[9] Susan Hylen, Women in the New Testament World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 110.

[10] Ross Shepard Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), 136.

[11] Jennifer Stiefel sees this trend continuing in later letters such as 1 Timothy. Jennifer Stiefel, “Women Deacons in 1 Timothy: A Linguistic and Literary Look at ‘Women Likewise…’ (1 Tim 3.11),” New Testament Studies 41 (2009): 442–457, doi:10.1017/S0028688500021585.

[12] Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Mother (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 6.

[13] Dixon, Roman Mother, 21.

[14] Beverly Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 45.

[15] Lorenzo Gagliardi, “La madre tutrice e la madre epakolouthetria: osservazioni sul rapporto tra diritto romano e diritti delle province orientali,” Index 40 (2012): 423–446, tinyurl.com/LaMadreTutrice.

[16] Dixon, Roman Mother, 233.

[17] Philip L. Tite, “How to Begin, and Why? Diverse Functions of the Pauline Prescript within a Greco-Roman Context,” in Paul and the Ancient Letter Form, eds. Stanley Porter and Sean Adams (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 70.

[18] Ian J. Elmer, “I, Tertius: Secretary or Co-Author of Romans,” Australian Biblical Review 56 (2008): 57.

[19] Robert Brian Lewis, Paul’s ‘Spirit of Adoption’ in Its Roman Imperial Context (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 103–104.