This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Epaphras was Epaphroditus

This is the second post in a series that will (eventually) identify the author of Acts. We saw in the first post that Paul uses informal name forms in Philemon 23-24. This is supported by the observation that "Epaphras", which appears there is a short form of the name "Epaphroditus", which was the name of Paul's associate in Phil 2:25-30. But most commentators conclude that Epaphras and Epaphroditus were different people. I think there are three reasons why they come to this conclusion.

1. They fail to notice that there is a pattern of abbreviated name forms in Philemon 23-24 and therefore assume that Paul would use the same name-form for the same individual in this text as in Philippians.

2. They suppose that Epaphroditus was a native of Philippi and that Epaphras was a native of Colossae, and they see little connection between the 'two' men.

Was Epaphras from Colossae? This is assumed on the basis of Col 4:12-13. This may well be true, but we cannot be sure since, as I will argue in my next post in this series, the author of Colossians was not a careful historian.

Was Ephroditus really from Phillipi? Phil 2:25-29 reads,
Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus - my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.
Paul here stresses the close relationship between Epaphroditus and the Philippians: "your messenger", "he has been longing for all of you", "has been distressed because you heard that he was ill". This, I assume, is what makes people assume that Epaphroditus was from Philippi, but Paul uses similar language when commending himself to the Roman church, and when commending Titus to the Corinthians. See Rom 1:9-11 and 2 Cor 8:16-17. It is sometimes assumed from Phil 2:26 ("he has been longing for all of you") that Epaphroditus was homesick, but why would Paul mention that? It seems more likely that Paul is here promoting good relations between Epaphroditus and the Philippians by emphasizing Ephaphroditus's loyalty to them. Paul's request that the Philippians welcome Epaphras with joy seems strange. Some have felt compelled to assume from this that there had been some rift between Epaphroditus and the church of Philippi, but this become unnecessary if we take him to be a non-Philippian. So, we cannot be confident that Epaphroditus was from Philippi.

Is there reason to connect Epaphroditus to Epaphras? Epaphroditus is described as a "co-worker" of Paul. This places him in a select group of companions. The named individuals with this designation are Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3), who are named first of the ~26 people greeted in Rom 16; Urbanus (Rom 16:9), who is named 8th; Timothy (Rom 16:21), who is named first of the greeters and was Paul's closest companion; Titus (2 Cor 8:23); Philemon (whom Paul wants to Paul encourages to be a fellow-worker by calling him one); and finally, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Philemon 24). The term is therefore reserved for close co-workers. Now, Epaphras, while not explicitly described as a co-worker, could not have been much further from Paul's inner circle since in Philemon 23-24 he is mentioned before the others, who are designated "co-workers". So, Ephaphroditus and Epaphras belong to a small group of close associates of Paul.

But there is more. Both were with Paul for at least part of his time in prison. Furthermore, Epaphras was Paul's "fellow prisoner", and Epaphroditus is described in similar terms as "fellow soldier". Many commentators infer that Epaphras had voluntarily chosen to share Paul's confinement to be able to minister to his needs. This would fit Epaphroditus very well. It would explain how Epaphroditus had been a "minister to my need", and how he had become ill, and how he had been "risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me". Both Epaphras and Epaphroditus therefore seem to have ministered to Paul's needs in prison.

3. Finally, the commentators believe that Epaphroditus was a "common" name. This is invariably asserted without evidence. The term "common" here is very vague. What constitutes "common"? This kind of sloppy imprecision would not be tolerated in other disciplines, so why must we put up with it in biblical studies? There is no excuse now that we have the "Lexicon of Greek Personal Names", which provides the basic statistics through free on-line searches. Here are some data:

As you can see, there are 300584 people in the database, of which 515 (0.17%) are called Epaphroditus, and just 123 (0.04%) are called Epaphras. I estimate that in the five published volumes about ten thousand references can be dated with confidence to the first century, and of these, 22 (0.23%) are called Epaphroditus, and just 6 (0.06%) are called Epaphras. Most believe that our Epaphroditus was from Philippi, but there is no evidence that the name was common there in the first century. Of the 16 cases of the name "Epaphroditus" in Macedonia, none can be dated with certainty before 150 AD, and none can possibly pre-date the imperial period. It should also be remembered that the database does not include most Latin names, so many of Paul's associates would be excluded. This reduces the probabilities further.

In conclusion, then, the probability of an associate of Paul in the Aegean region being called Epaphroditus is about 0.2%. For "Epaphras" the probability is about 0.05%. Now, Epaphras and Epaphroditus were both among Paul's close associates during his imprisonment(s). How many such people were there? 10? 20? 50? Let's be generous and assume that there were 100! The probability that Epaphras and Epaphroditus were different people would then be just 100*(0.2%+0.05%)/(1+100*(0.2%+0.05%) = 20%, and that's being generous. So, Epaphras was almost certainly Epaphroditus. And even if, by some fluke, Epaphras was not the Epaphroditus of Philippians, we would still conclude that his full name was probably Epaphroditus.


  1. I don't buy it Richard.
    a) Colossians does suggest that Epaphras was "from" Colossae (1.7f; 4.12) - in the sense that he spent time in Colossae teaching the faith (1.7)
    b) Philippians does suggest that Epaphroditus was "from" Philippi ('your apostle and minister': 2.26 - this goes beyond the parallels you mention)
    c) "fellow worker" is not the same as "fellow prisoner" - you are reaching here

    1. But still Paul some different way of introducing them as 'co-worker' to Epaphroditus and 'co-slave' to Epaphras which may not be a huge different but has a deep meaning in it...

  2. Richard,
    I'm a newcomer to your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have been interested in similar suggestions about Timothy and Titus being the same individual. In a search, I even noticed something like it in one of your earlier posts (a "lesser-known" name), but in this post, you treat them as separate individuals even though it would help your argument by narrowing down Paul's inner circle even further. Was that because you were being as generous to the other side as possible, or do you see there being a Titus proper and a Titus=Timothy?

    Any chance of writing on this later? (Maybe that's who you think wrote Acts...) ;)

    a) In order to accept evidence from Colossians, Richard would have to make certain assumptions about the reliability of Colossians. Pauline authorship of Colossians is doubted by most scholars in biblical studies, and Richard even said in the post that he agrees with the common assessment that "the author of Colossians was not a careful historian."

    b) Saying that Ephaphroditus was their apostle ("sent/commissioned") need not nothing more than that he was someone assigned to them in times past, which is clear he was ("send back to you Ephaphroditus"). Similarly, Paul could be said to be the Gentiles' apostle, not because he was a Gentile, but because he was assigned to them via commission.

    c) He did not equate them, but given the rest of the evidence (what did you think of the statistics he presented?), it's not surprising that "fellow-X" and "fellow-Y" might be attached to the same individual.

  3. I prefer theories that account for the textual evidence in more natural ways. No big deal, I just don't find it a persuasive theory.

  4. Hi Pete,
    much depends on how we understand "apostle" in Phil 2:25.
    1. If it simply means messenger, then it need not imply that Epaphroditus was a Philippian: he could have been a two-way enjoy between Paul and the Philippians, in much the same way as Titus was a two-way envoy between Paul and the Corinthians.
    2. If "apostle" is to be understood in the more technical sense of evangelist, then he could have spent time in Colossae teaching the faith.
    3. Steve raises the intriguing possibility that he was assigned by Paul to Philippi.

    In all cases, he could be Epaphras, couldn't he?

    I did not understand your point c. Perhaps you refer to συναιχμάλωτός (fellow prisoner of war) (Philemon 23), and συστρατιώτην (Phil 2:25) (fellow soldier). Both terms have a military aspect, and seem compatible. Paul's "fellow prisoner of war", after leaving prison could well be referred to as "fellow soldier" and "fellow worker". Why not?

    Yes, I equate Titus with Timothy. You can take a look at the material on my web site here. And, yes, I included "Titus" in the list of co-workers simply because most people do not yet know that Titus was Timothy. How did you come across the Titus-Timothy hypothesis?

    I do not believe that Titus-Timothy wrote Acts, though the late Udo Borse was working on that theory in his final years.

    Steve and Pete, I appreciate your comments.

  5. Ha! You ask how I came across that hypothesis. I went Googling for it a few weeks ago because I'd heard someone mention it in passing on an unremembered Biblioblog somewhere, without any explication. Funny thing is, what I stumbled upon was the very site you just linked to! In a strange case of irony, I didn't realize that "TItus-Timothy Hypothesizer" and "Epaphras-Epaphroditus Hypothesizer" were the same person. ;)

  6. Richard,
    I think the view that they are the same person and accounting for all the NT evidence (i.e. the same person was in Colossae and Philippi at different times), would be a stronger theory than the one you proposed in the original post (although I am not sure that it could be made to work very naturally given the way he/they is/are spoken about).
    You are right, I made a mistake in my point c; although I still think the claimed similarity is a bit of a reach.

  7. Pete,
    I am certainly open to all ways of equating Epaphras with Epaphroditus. He may well have been to Colossae as well as Philippi, as you suggest, and I would not wish to make any firm decision about where he was from.

  8. Pete, I found your comments intrigueing. I was preparing for my adult sunday school class. As soon as a read the name Epraphrus, I immediately wondered if that was not an shortened version of Epaphroditus. Then my mind went to Phillipians, ad I wonder if they were not one and the same person. Anyway, it certainly is something to ponder.

  9. sorry. I meant Richard not Pete on my previous post.

  10. I find your blog interesting and I like to think outside the box so to speak and try to walk in the shoes of the 'day' the Word was written, along with the studying of the original text as much as possible in understanding the Scriptures. I read in wikipedia that Nero, who was ruling when Paul was in prison in Rome, had a courier named Epaphroditus. I find this interesting as in Phil it states Epaphriditus 'risked his life' but if you dig deeper into the word 'risk', it is more accurately described as 'exposing' his life. Could it be he was not ill as many scholars believe but was a type of double agent. Also know that Paul mentions Ceasar's household greets you.....could it be that when Epaphroditus was a courier for Nero, he was also carrying out Paul's letters. I agree that perhaps Epaphras was short for Epaphroditus.

  11. The Epaphroditus of Philippians was available to travel at Paul's request and I think this makes it unlikely that the was Nero's courier. Also, I think Philippians was written from Ephesus, not Rome.

    However, you may be right to suspect that the Roman authorities lie in the background in Phil 2:25-29. It may well be that Epaphroditus-Epaphras become ill while sharing Paul's imprisonment because of unhygienic conditions and/or mistreatment by jailers.

  12. Epaphroditus-Epaphras seems right, to me and Epaphroditus is a chamberlain of the imperial court, present at the death of Nero, for which Domitian had him executed (and in turn, Domitian was assassinated). This begins to put Saul/Paul in his proper perspective.
    I should also mention a witness report during the Great Fire which identified such imperial chamberlains as the arsonists. The House of Clemens was built above the burned remains.

  13. That chamberlain would be a different Epaphroditus, I suppose, unless I am missing something.

  14. Here is my question, gentle folk and fellowlabourers in Christ. Does this type of debate strengthen our resolve to work more and/or more effectively to win souls by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have not heard, so that they might be saved, and/or do these doubtful disputational investments of the excellence that He has given to us help us in our apologetics, when doubters, or those not well developed in the faith, ask these sorts of questions of us? I think not. What would happen if we focussed His zeal, that He has put into us, for increasing the size of His inheritance, back onto doing Acts 1:8? Of course, the meaning of the name(s) is relevant to discipleship, since it tells us what God thinks of His children who perform the duties ascribed to the two (one) E ('s).
    Col 1:3-5+8-12 for you and yours, in our Lord Jesus Christ's name, amen.
    Pastor E H Botting

  15. 1Ti 6:4 "He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions....

  16. at the end of Paul's letter to the Romans he writes 'Greet' many of his associates (group A) and then writes that several of his associates (group B)send their 'greetings'.
    Since 'Greet' is defined address with expression of kind wishes upon meeting or arrival
    and 'greetings'is defined as......a message that says you hope someone is well, happy, etc.:
    Surely it is reasonable to assume that (group A) are on their way to Rome and that (group B) are staying with Paul.

  17. Interesting idea. It is possible that many of those who are to be greeted were returning home to Rome after the death of Claudius, having been expelled from Rome by Claudius. I take "the church in their house" (Rom 16:5) to refer merely to their household so I don't see a problem here. However, Andronicus and Junia were in the faith before Paul, so it is unlikely that they had been expelled from Rome.