Paul’s letter to the Romans is Scripture for us even though we are not the original audience of this epistle. It can be hard to remember this as we make our way through the many personal greetings that the Apostle appends to the book of Romans, as reading a list of names can get tedious when they are people who are unknown to us. Taking the time to go through these names, however, gives us great insight into the earliest history of the church, insight that allows us to draw important theological and practical conclusions for our situation today.
In today’s passage, Paul extends greetings to Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Rufus (Rom. 16:12–13). As is the case with many of the other individuals named in Romans 16, we do not know much—if anything—about most of these people. But we do get clues from their names. Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis were all female names in ancient Roman culture, and they were often given to slaves. Thus, all three of them were likely slaves or former slaves. Tryphaena and Tryphosa may have been sisters, as families in the ancient world often gave their children names that were based on the same root, in this case Tryph-. The name Persis comes from the word translated as “Persia,” and that may mean that Persis was a female slave who was taken from Persia. In any case, the Apostle singles them all out for working “in the Lord” (v. 12). Persis is spoken of as having done this in the past tense, which may indicate that she was elderly at the time Paul wrote the epistle and no longer physically able to serve to the extent that she once did.
We get a bit more information about Rufus, who was “chosen in the Lord” (v. 13). Paul likely does not mean “chosen unto salvation” here, as that designation would presumably apply to everyone he greets and would not set Rufus apart. Instead, the Apostle likely means that Rufus was a “choice servant” of Christ, one who had proven to be particularly valuable in service to the Lord. We do not know what prompted Paul to say this about Rufus, but there is a possible connection between Rufus and Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross on the way to Golgotha. We read in Mark 15:21 that Simon had a son named Rufus. Could this one, who carried the cross of our Lord, have been Rufus’ father? It is possible, and if so, there is little doubt that the firsthand story of Simon would have played a great part in shaping Rufus’ faith.