Paul’s “Mother”

By Wayne Jackson

The last chapter of the book of Romans is highly personal. Therein Paul alludes to no fewer than twenty-nine people in Rome, about a third of whom he knew from earlier associations. Amidst this listing is this curious passage. “Salute Rufus the chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13).

It is widely believed, due to certain circumstantial evidence, that this “Rufus” was one of the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who assisted in carrying the Lord’s cross en route to Golgotha. In the Gospel account recorded by Mark, we find these words: “And they compel one passing by, Simon of Cyrene, coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to go with them, that he might bear his cross” (15:21). While each of the synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) mention this incident regarding Simon, only Mark names his sons, one of whom was Rufus.

It is rather well-established that Mark had ties to the city of Rome. Such is the testimony of both the New Testament (Col. 4:10; Philm. 24; 2 Tim. 4:11), and later history. Irenaeus said that after Paul and Peter “departed” (exodon – cf. 2 Pet. 1:15), “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).

Moreover, it is clear that Mark’s Gospel was primarily directed toward the Roman citizenry. One example of this is seen in the fact that, in describing a poor widow’s temple gift, Mark says that two mites “make a farthing” (12:42). “Farthing” reflects the Greek kondrantes, a transliteration of the Latin quadrans. He deciphers the value of the coins to accommodate the Roman reader.

Since, therefore, Mark was writing for a Roman audience, and inasmuch as Rufus was a prominent Christian in Rome, there was good reason to mention this brother’s name in connection with his father’s role at the crucifixion.

If, therefore, it is the case that this “Rufus,” mentioned in Romans 16, is the same “Rufus” of Mark 15:21, several fairly reasonable conclusions may be drawn.

  1. At least some of Simon’s family had converted to Christianity. Both Rufus and his mother are given high praise by Paul.
  2. Simon probably was dead, since no salutation is extended to him. Alexander may have been deceased as well, or perhaps living elsewhere, or maybe he was not a Christian. We simply do not know these details.
  3. There was a sense in which Paul regarded the mother of Rufus as his mother as well. The meaning quite obviously is this: The literal mother of Rufus had, at some point in time, served as a “mother” figure for the great apostle to the Gentiles. Let us probe this matter a bit.

During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly taught the disciples that there would be painful sacrifices in the wake of choosing to follow him. Sometimes this would involve separation from loved ones; indeed, a man’s foes could be those of his own house (Mt. 10:36). But the Lord promised:

“There is no man that has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel’s sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:29-30).

Observe that in this listing there is the mention of “mother[s].” Was it the case that when Paul became a Christian, his family disowned him? He once referred to himself as a “Hebrew of [out of] Hebrews,” which phrase, at the very least, suggests a pure Hebrew parentage. It was in that context that Paul also mentioned that he had suffered the “loss” of many things for the Lord’s sake (Phil. 3:5-8).

It is entirely possible that from the time of his baptism, his Jewish family viewed him as a dead person, never to be mentioned in the domestic circle again. One interesting thing we do know is this: Paul’s nephew helped to save his life when the Jews laid a plot against him in Jerusalem (Acts 23:16ff). So maybe Paul did at least win some of his kinsmen to the Lord.

At any rate, sometime between the event of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9), c. A.D. 36 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Peabody, ME: Hendrickson, 1998, p. 395), and the composition of the book of Romans, written from Corinth some twenty years later (cf. Acts 20:2-3; Rom. 16:23), this woman, the physical mother of Rufus, had, in some way, “mothered” the apostle Paul.

Where did this happen, and under what circumstances? We do not know. It was not in Rome, for when the apostle penned his epistle to the saints in the imperial city, he had not as yet visited there (Rom. 1:10ff). May we be granted some license to wonder?

Did this spiritual “mother” have a home somewhere along Paul’s missionary route in Asia Minor or in Europe? Was there a special room, “Paul’s room,” ever ready with a warm bed for the weary preacher? Was there a favorite dish her preacher “son” enjoyed?

Did she lovingly apply ointment to his bloody back (2 Cor. 11:24-25; Gal. 6:17)? When his brow was furrowed with anxiety for the churches under his care (2 Cor. 11:28), did she offer words of encouragement as a loving mother would do for a son? When even his own brothers in Christ treated Paul ill, did the apostle’s in-the-faith “mom” remind him that there were many, like her, who loved him and appreciated his sacrifices for the Master’s sake? Surely these thoughts are distinct possibilities.

Personal Reflections

Through the influence of my own dear mother, I became a Christian at the age of seventeen. Two years later, I left home to attend school in another state and to begin my life’s work of preaching. From that time on, my mom’s “mothering” days were well nigh over, because I was far from home.

Over the years though, I, like Paul, was blessed with several good “mothers” who took particular interest in my welfare. When I was a lad in school (in Mississippi) Esther Hinds and Mauveline Fikes nurtured me graciously.

Later, at the age of twenty-two, I labored in western Colorado. Norma Davis, Curtis Reames, and Alyce Bender cared for me as one of their own. When I arrived in Stockton, more than thirty-seven years ago, still single, Ova Potter, Norma Potter, and Ferrell Hinds offered kind friendship and aid.

I could never repay these sweet souls, a number of whom already have gone to their reward. After I married my Betty, she took over, and henceforth has attempted to train me up in the way I should go!

We ought to express gratitude for those who have helped us along life’s way. “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which you showed toward his name, in that you ministered unto the saints…” (Heb. 6:10).

The fact that the Spirit preserved Paul’s expression of “thanks” is, I’m sure, a significant point.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.