What we know of Nympha as a person springs primarily from two small verses written by Paul about AD 58 to 60: “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:15–16).
The quotation still leaves questions. We do not have a letter written at this stage either to or from Laodicea, though we do have John’s letter to Laodicean believers in his Revelation more than twenty years later (Rev 3:14–22). Today, Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (then a bustling Roman spa town because of its natural hot water springs and white silica terraces) are uninhabited ruins not far from one another in a broad valley. Tourists stay at modern Pamukkale down the slope from Hierapolis, where excavations reveal the Roman town. The modern museum in Hierapolis has many exhibits from Roman times, and modern tourists have stepped barefoot across the beautiful white silica terraces. Earthquakes have damaged the terraces, too. There was an earthquake in AD 60, perhaps shortly after the mention of Nympha in the letter to Colossae.
Nympha as a householder had a large enough home for family and probably resident staff, perhaps a steward like Deniz and his wife Almas, and other workers. Almas could tell about Laodicea and the possible household workings of their patron, Nympha.
A view from Laodicea
I am pleased to tell you about Laodicea, for it is a grand place with a wonderful view. Our city was founded by Antiochus II more than two hundred years ago and named after his wife Laodicea. I stand here on the flagstone slabs of the road between the houses where our town perches atop a broad spur between two streams flowing down to the wide valley when we look across to the south. To the east, seven miles away, the surprising splash of white on the dark hillside marks the white terraces of Hierapolis. Up the hill behind us to the north, ample common land and trees slope to the valley floor. The Roman road running through here and down the wide valley to Ephesus on the coast is a necessity for our small city’s trade. With it, Laodicea grew prosperous, a center for commerce and trade, for the road runs from the Euphrates River far to the east, through Antioch in Pisidia, through Hierapolis, then west along the Lycus valley and the winding Meander River, to Ephesus on the coast a hundred miles away. If I shade my eyes, I see a mule train, porters straining under backloads, and a military roadwork party. We are on a crossroads where our houses and businesses group around the intersection with the road from Sardis to Perga. Our wealth funded two theaters on the northeast slope, one Greek and one Roman, and a stadium where we hold Olympic-type games.
Wealthy families here live in separate two-story stone houses with courtyards inside, but Nympha’s is one of the several conjoined houses on the main street. They are built for business or trade downstairs with artisan and street-front rooms, household rooms upstairs, and more rooms farther back. We have church in a large room upstairs. Nympha’s father gave this house to her as her dowry, so it never belonged to her husband. She ran her business here even before he died, and Deniz and I are her trusted retainers.
I look after the food for my mistress and her workers. In this valley, most people have enough to eat. You should see our orchards in late summer: peaches, apples, cherries, nuts, and especially figs. We dry and export figs; we have so many. With a young woman to help, I keep a garden for the household outside the town. We grow lentils, beans, chickpeas, lettuce, onions, radishes, and cucumbers. Then we intermingle spices—mustard, caraway, rue, and sage. Nympha employs a farm manager, too, as we need grains. In most households, we reckon on nearly a pound of wheat or barley per person per day through the year. That means time-consuming plowing, planting, harvesting, and winnowing. Some days are hazy, with women on the slope below, throwing the wheat in the air to let the chaff blow away in the breeze. We half-grind some of the wheat for porridge, but we also need flour. Two of our maidservants work at the large grindstone. Excuse me a minute.
“How are you, Dilara? Is your mother better from that fever? And Elif, your baby is due in a month, is it? Don’t take your turn at the wheel. You could hurt yourself. You just pour the grain in the hole at the top and collect the flour from the chute at the side. Don’t carry water from the stream, either. Those earthen pots are heavy. Don’t even carry it from the stone tap on the aqueduct from Hierapolis.”
Here is the pottery oven, like a monster jar, over a fire behind the house. Every day, Dilara and Elif grind whole-grain flour for flatbread or raised bread. For a festival, we cook sheep meat or goat meat. Often, we buy charcoal from the charcoal burners who go farther afield and set up camps to burn wood. Dilara and Elif regularly bring down backloads of firewood, too.
Here is Deniz coming from checking the flock with the shepherd. Mistress Nympha has 120 sheep, nearly all black, as that is the special business of the area. Meet Hakan and his daughter Ceren. Ceren is brilliant at caring for sickly lambs and helps the shearers clip the wool before the summer. We have such a number of people in the household, because there are so many tasks for us to work on and with which we support one another.
All of us spin in our spare time. Often, our shepherds stand on the hills twirling a spindle with a long, weighted wooden stem to make a ball of wool from carded fleece. There is a fuller’s wool-washing trough outside, and the loom is in the lower floor of the house. We weave the wool to make and sell cloaks and other clothing. Our city’s textile trading is famous for black wool, organized under a powerful business association called the Most August Guild of Wool Washers. Specialized sheep-breeding produces soft, black, glossy wool that can make plain tunics with purple borders and fine cloaks that are almost rain repellent.
Sometimes, we provide lodging for travelers, especially people who come to the city for its celebrated eye salve. Laodicea boasts a school of medicine with specialty ointments for eyes and ears. The names of two doctors are stamped on the city’s coins, and patients who come for treatment can find board as paying guests in the homes along the main road.
Nympha, church host and leader
I must tell you about Mistress Nympha. As a higher-class person, she wears a long-sleeved dark wool tunic, sandals, and a cloak across her shoulders if it is cool. She keeps her work and living room scented with a potpourri of rose petals to counter the earthy smells outside. She is wonderfully welcoming. I have heard her say, “Welcome, strangers. You are not strangers if you are Christ-followers. You are brothers and sisters.”
Mistress Nympha has held church in the home here for a few years now, since Epaphras journeyed to the Lycus Valley from Ephesus and brought the gospel news to Colossae. After the church started in Philemon and Apphia’s house, some from there hiked across to here, about eleven miles, and told the gospel first to the Jewish community. Epaphras has visited us, too. He knows us well and prays for the churches in our three cities. He still sends all of us greetings when he can.
Most people live in households like ours with a core family, extended family, slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, hired workers, and sometimes tenants. At times, trading partners in the wool business stay a night or two as well. In the past, people usually got on together well, since we all knew our place. Nobody tried to be an actual friend of Nympha. She made the decisions, and we all knew from whom we took orders in every detail of life. When Nympha and a few of us believed and accepted baptism, the atmosphere changed. We still know who is the leader for work areas and who is higher on the social scale, but we listen to each other more, we eat food together, and we help each other in our tasks more.
The initiative for that came from Nympha, of course. What did she do? She listened to us. She called Deniz, Hakan, and Ceren and said, “Now, tell me how the sheep are this season. How many ewes had twins? Is the wool dark and glossy?”
Hakan said, “The ewes are healthy, madam, but no twins. And some bore lambs too early, and they died in the cold weather.” We talked through the questions together, and then she asked us for suggestions. Hakan added that there were more twins across the valley and suggested, “Shall I buy some ewe lambs from over there? There will be more chance of twinning.”
“Yes, that seems good. Ceren, you go, too, to help bring them back.”
Ceren, too, would speak. She could suggest, “Ma’am, I would not let the rams run with the flock until November. Then, the lambs will not be born until April.” In discussions like this, Nympha listened to her staff. She discussed with me and Deniz the carding, the work of the fuller, the spinning, and the preparation of loads for the traders. I planned with her the vegetables and spices the workers would grow. Deniz talked over the rotation of the field crops.
Nympha told us, “I feel different about my staff these days. You are my brothers and sisters as believers. I have learned we are all made in the image of God, and so we all must respect one another and hear from one another. I want to do this with all our workers. I’m hoping you will do it for one another, too.” She set such an example that we did learn to do that. We cooked for one another and often ate together.
Then, Nympha pointed us to the shared meal as Christians. “The way we remember what Jesus did for us is with Communion,” she said. “During our prayer and worship in this home, we will be like brothers and sisters in sharing the bread and wine that remind us of Christ’s death for us.” We did that, too, and it felt special that the old social barriers had gone. “We are not brothers and sisters by birth,” Nympha said, “but we are certainly that by new birth.”
We heard about Brother Paul, the apostle. He was the one who sent Epaphras to our valley. Travel like that is easier now than it was years ago because of the roads the Romans built and maintain across our region, Anatolia. Paul traveled easily to Pisidian Antioch and went from place to place in Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening the believers. News travels fast with traders. We in the Lycus Valley knew that Paul was in Ephesus at the time of the riot over the goddess Artemis. There was a great deal of talk about that here. Religion is a popular subject in Anatolia. On the surface, community life revolves around worshiping the emperor in Rome, though, in fact, people also worship Greek gods and many still adhere to earlier local gods. One of their favorites is called Men Karou. Some worship and build statues for their god, like the one of Isis in the monumental fountain. They even mix older with newer gods. Still, the public calendar and daily life and trading days for a household in our small city are shaped to observe days, months, and years in honor of the Caesar.
Chief citizens aiming for social and political prestige build temples and stage festivals and gladiator shows in the name of the emperor. Some benefactors give donations toward worship of other deities and distribute grain and oil to the poor, all so their own power grows, and the people of the city often become loyal to them.
The views of people here about gods and about emperor worship easily deter people from turning to Christ. On the birthday of Caesar Augustus, there is a holiday with games in honor of the emperor and of Roma or of another pagan god. Sacrifices provide meat and festive food and entertainment for the whole neighborhood, so everyone’s neighbors are wrapped up in celebrations. If Christians stay away from games and feasts, they are labeled antisocial, and, in some places, mobs attack them. The persecution for failing to worship the emperor does not always come from the emperor’s edict, but often from local people who want status from their public activities. So, religious persecution is often not really about religion, but about politics.
We in Nympha’s household are all Anatolians, and some are educated in Greek, or at least have a listening understanding. More than three hundred years ago, Alexander conquered many territories and introduced Greek, and now, although we have distant control from Rome, Greek is the language of education and writing. That is how Nympha comes to have a Greek-sounding name.
A few wealthy, educated women have become influential, like some in Pisidia who were against Christ and some in Macedonia and Greece who have encouraged the way of Christ. Nympha is influential, too, as a householder, although she was one of the first to follow Christ when the friends came over from Colossae. She has property and education, so people listen. She allowed us in the household to listen to the teaching from the Colossae friends and Epaphras. This was only about twenty-five years after Jesus died and rose. Some of us believed quite soon. Others hesitated. Changing one’s faith is always going to bring divisions in families. Nympha understood and simply invited us to join the singing and praying and teaching in the upstairs room at the end of the week of work.
For me personally, it was a question. Women often do not step out ahead of their husbands or parents in religious matters. But Deniz was willing to listen to the teaching, too, and in a while we agreed. So did shepherd Hakan and shepherdess Ceren. Hakan’s wife died years ago in childbirth. Dilara and Elif are both married, and we are praying for their husbands. We heard that Christians are baptized in water, and, when Nympha was to be baptized, we all, full of joy, accepted her invitation and were baptized along with her. We walked down to the Lycus River together, and Philemon from Colossae baptized us. We grouped together and sang songs as we came up the hill again.
That made us even more united. We welcome neighbors to join our time of worship. We hold household prayer for the day as soon as the sun rises, and once a week a longer spell, by daylight on Sunday afternoon, leaving before sunset so people reach home before it is fully dark. We invite other shepherds and shepherdesses, graziers who spend long days in the hills above the city. We invite wool washers, spinners, weavers, and tailors. If we have paying guests, we invite them, too. A few of the bankers and shop owners attend at times. They are more self-contained, though, as their money helps them feel secure without Christ.
Christians have a habit of giving great welcomes to one another. Paul teaches this in his letters. He said a Christian woman should be “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble, and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” Paul even said not to view men or women as spiritual leaders unless they are hospitable. Peter, too, asks Christians to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” Another of our Christian leaders said, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Can you imagine that?
Christians have become known for their hospitality and good deeds. Nympha and all of us care for the sick and help the poor or persecuted or imprisoned. We welcome Jews and non-Jews and dine together in a way that was previously unheard of. Here in Laodicea, we try to live by the new concept koinonia, fellowship. It means the warm communication between members of a house church with one another and with others, and the warm communication these people have with God.
Nympha is a remarkable leader for us. If you judged by her name, which means water fairy, you might think she is lightweight and easily influenced. That is not our Nympha. She has courage. She could not lead a church in her house without that—not in this unsympathetic environment. She also has initiative and faith. Even starting the group needed a sense of vision, a devotion to worship the one true God, and an ability to encourage others. She runs a church in a city that sees Christians as a disruptive minority worshiping a God it does not want. That takes courage. She needed to feel God was leading her to do this, and the task called for the ability to stand firm when, as the householder, she would be responsible to any civil authorities or even to neighbors who might not like her worshiping or calling together a religious gathering that did not concern the emperor or even the local gods. Nympha also uses her personal resources for God, starting with her house. That is another characteristic we admire.
We have learned to like the way Nympha remains in cooperation and community with other churches, too. We often send messengers back and forth between us and Hierapolis and Colossae.
Nympha also provides a sense of family. We find Jesus taught this, too, in a different way from most Jews. The Jewish view of family has a tendency to turn inward. Members tend to think, “We’re in a hostile environment. Let’s make sure we stick together and help each other.” They value their stance as inheritors of status before God, traced back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a status that is inherited from parent to child. They may not think of offering God’s benefits to others.
In contrast, Jesus taught a whole new view of family. He demonstrated welcome at table to both Jews and non-Jews. Eating together indicates friendship, appreciation, and the disappearance of considerations like “one up, one down” status. Jews used to say “brother” only to a person who was a blood relative, but Jesus welcomed all his followers as if they were members of his family. He described them with the names of family relationships, such as when his mother and his brothers came. Standing outside, they sent for him. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus took the idea of blood relationship, applied it to anybody committed to serve God, and made it even more important than one’s flesh-and-blood family. This was shocking to the people around us.
One day, we heard pounding on the door shortly after dark. Deniz went downstairs to call through the latch hole.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Karamat and Asil from Colossae. We’ve just come on horseback and have our horses at the hitching post,” they called.
Deniz welcomed them and called as he undid the chain, “What brings you here so late? Do come in and eat. We’ll take your horses around to the stable.”
“It’s something very special. A letter from Brother Paul. He wrote to our fellowship and to Philemon and asked for the letter to be read to your church, too.”
“That’s exciting. A real letter from Paul, even though he has never visited our churches here in the Lycus valley? How did it come?”
“You know Paul’s assistant Tychicus? Paul sent him to Ephesus with a letter for the churches there, and letters for us in the Lycus. He and another man who was with Paul have just walked all the way up the valley.”
“Excellent. Do come in. We’ll prepare a bed-place for the night for you.”
Deniz brought the two men up, and they all talked with Nympha, who immediately started to plan to send for everyone to be sure to come the next afternoon. So, the following day after prayers and hymns, we all sat ready for the letter addressed to Colossae to be read to us, too. Paul must have felt the needs were similar. There is so much movement up and down the valley that, even from Ephesus and then in Rome, Paul was hearing news of us and was keen to pass on his wisdom.
Paul wanted our churches to know Christ more keenly as the one who was “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Some people were attempting to impose restrictions such as keeping the Jewish Sabbath, worship of angels, self-denying rules about food and sex, and Jewish circumcision. Paul did not want us falling into those traps. He also taught us not to be superstitious or tied to food rituals. He wrote that, as new creatures in Christ, we should respect Jews, Gentiles, circumcised or uncircumcised, Barbarians, Scythians, slaves, and free people as equal and worthy of equal dignity. He knew it worked.
“That’s what Nympha taught us, isn’t it?” Elif commented. “No divisions of race or status, free or slave.”
No division! Love and kindness for all! We faced working that out even more clearly a few months later. There was an earthquake. Many houses and shops fell, and, because the buildings were stone, many people were trapped under rubble. Our “Christian family” group helped everyone they could.
“Let me pry this stone off with my crowbar,” Hakan said, endeavoring to lever aside big stones of our neighbors’ house.
“We’ll help,” rushed in Elif, while Dilara ran for blankets and drinking water.
Hakan and some of his friends carried two injured men and three children by stretcher to Nympha’s house where Ceren set up a care room with sheepskins on the floor, fresh cold water, soup, and warm covers for those who may have suffered from shock.
That was only the start. Something amazing happened in Laodicea that year. Christians set such an example that the whole community pulled together, serving one another. They were already an independent lot and wealthy. Now, they added outstanding community spirit. After the earthquake, the citizens of Laodicea refused offers of help from Rome. They rebuilt their city themselves.
Twenty years later
I told about our city Laodicea and patron Nympha as we were years ago. It was an exciting start to our church, and what happened after the earthquake turned out to demonstrate how much Christ had changed us. We have had good and not-so-good times in the years since. I am glad to say Jesus knew all about it. It is better to be rebuked than ignored. Brother John’s revelation from God included letters to seven churches here in Asia, and ours was one. The letter drew on local knowledge. God showed him how to write a message that could point right at us.
He wrote that our thinking here is: “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” Some of our members are bankers on the highway in the middle of the commercial traffic. It is true. We too easily rely on ourselves, not God. God knew we were in fact “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” He told us not to buy fake gold of wealth and possessions, but the true gold of faith in him.
Jesus knew we took pride in our fashionable clothes, so he told us to buy from him white clothes to hide the nakedness of our failures. Jesus also knew about our doctors and told us to buy from him salve to put on our eyes so we can truly see how wrong we are. Jesus even used our lukewarm aqueduct water as a picture of us—all our energy and enthusiasm tempered down until Jesus was ready to vomit. What an insult! But, it was justified. Well, as I said, rebuke is better than being ignored. Jesus told us, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Then he said something that reminded me of the long years of hospitality in our church, when Nympha was alive and leading us. He said it was as if he stood knocking at our door, and he painted a wonderful picture of how we could return to feeling fully warmed in his love: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them and they with me.” The Lord Jesus wants to dine with us in a lingering conversational meal, not a quick breakfast snack. This is deep fellowship in a rich atmosphere of hospitality. Oh, I would like that again.