The Mother Of The Apostle Paul
“Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.”—Romans 16:13
By Carl Hagensick
It seems obvious that the Apostle Paul is here not speaking of his biological mother. Rather the thought seems to be as captured by the New International Version of the Bible: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.”
The assumption of spiritual parentage roles was as common in New Testament times as it is today. Paul speaks of my son Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:8 and 2 Timothy 2:1. John speaks of the church as my dear children some nine times in his first epistle alone.
Not only is there a recognition of spiritual maturity, but also of strong influences in starting the Christian way. These spiritual parents were instrumental in bringing about the spiritual begettal of their “children.”
Even Apostles Need Mothers
So often we look at strong leaders as a sort of father figure. This is not at all improper. “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).
But though we look up to an respect these strong leaders in the faith, we sometimes fail to realize that they also need spiritual parents. The role of leadership is one of the loneliest in the world. Frequently there is the need to pour out one’s soul to a listening ear, to seek counsel in the perplexing problems that face an active minister in the gospel. In the mother of Rufus Paul had found just such a confidante.
Who Was Rufus?
The name was not a common one in New Testament times. It is of Latin origin and means red. There is only one other Biblical passage that uses the name. While it is not certain that it is the same Rufus referred to in both passages, most Biblical scholars lean in that direction. The other reference is found in Mark 15:21. “And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.”
The casual manner in which the names Alexander and Rufus are mentioned lend credence to the belief that they were well known among the audience to whom Mark writes. If they are the same individual, the absence of mentioning Alexander or Simon may indicate that Simon and either died or did not become a believer, and that Alexander had not moved on to Rome with his brother and mother.
Cyrene was on the north coast of Africa, north of the modern city of Benghazi, Libya. We first meet Simon the Cyrene in Jerusalem in Asia, carrying the cross of Jesus; and now we find Rufus and Simon’s wife in Rome, a European metropolis.
When Paul writes to the church at Rome he is in anticipation of going there, though he has not yet been to that city. How was Paul so familiar with the church there? What contact did he have with Rufus’ mother so that she had become a “mother” to him? Why had Rufus and his mother moved there in the first place? These and many other questions beg for answers and none of the answers are evident. However we can trace a linkage which is suggestive of a solution to these puzzles
Synagogue of the Cyrenians
Although Cyrene was a popular spot on the trade routes of the Mediterranean, it was not a city with a large Jewish population. Of the small community of Jews in Cyrene a far smaller number migrated back to Palestine.
It was Jewish custom to insist on at least ten members to a congregation before setting up a new synagogue. Evidently there were fewer than ten Jews from Cyrene in Jerusalem in the early part of the first century A.D. for they were forced to combine with others to form a synagogue. “Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9).
It was at this synagogue that the dispute broke out between the Jews and Stephen which led to his martyrdom. And it was as a witness to this dispute and as a consenter to Stephen’s death that we first meet Saul of Tarsus. “And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. . . . And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 7:58; 8:1).
Could it not be that during the emotional heat of the fray, there was a young woman with her two small children, a member of the synagogue, that had been touched with the message of Stephen and whose calm composure was noticed by Saul watching from the sidelines?
Having heard from her husband of the death of Jesus and how Simon had been compelled to carry his cross, she would have been familiar with the composure of the Galilean even in the death throes of crucifixion. What must have been her reaction when Stephen spoke these words: “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:52).
It was some time later when Saul of Tarsus, still breathing out fire and persecution against the Christians, was on his way to Damascus and had his fateful vision of the risen Savior. Then it was he heard those heart-searching words: “And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:4, 5).
We know not what may have been the many pricks which plagued Paul’s conscience. Undoubtedly the Lord laid many experiences in his road to prepare him for his future work. But among these may very well have been the remembrance of a lonely Cyrenian woman who stood out among the crowd as a lone protestor while an angry multitude stoned Stephen.
Whether or not Paul had contact with her since that fateful day we know not, but in some manner she had worked her way close enough to his heart for him to remember her in Rome and affectionately call her my mother.
Little Things Mean a Lot
Speculation can lead to all kinds of conjecture as to the relationship between these two, but one thing is certain—the mighty Apostle Paul, “the Lion of God,” found the tenderness of a mother’s love in the mother of his friend and brother in Christ, Rufus.
Perhaps the greatest witness we can give to others in our life may be in the “body English” of a calm disposition in the midst of a turbulent and angry world. Who knows who may witness such an action and be touched to the heart. Perhaps the angriest of the mob may note and, though unwilling to consciously admit it at the time, carry within their heart a prick of conscience that will some day yield its rich fruitage.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”—Matthew 5:16