The four prophetic sister of Phyrgia, better known today as Philip’s daughters, are prime examples of a rich history of female leadership that has been hidden in the shadows of history. Women’s roles of leadership in the early Christian church have all too often been obscured and require a diligent searching through available sources to reconstruct their roles.
From Acts of the Apostles 21.8-9, one of the more historically descriptive accounts in the Bible, we first learn of these remarkable women ’s travels. “And we came to Caesarea,” the apostle Paul recounts, “and went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. Philip had four daughters, virgins, who had the gift of prophecy.”
Today we tend to think of a prophetic gift as the ability to predict the future. In the Biblical times, it had a wider definition of teaching and proclaiming difficult truths to the people.
Scholars date Paul’s visit to Caesarea around 58 CE. The Philip he refers to is not one of the original twelve disciples but rather one of several men in the early church chosen because of their reputations as men “full of spirit and of wisdom” to be deacons seeing to the distribution of food and other resources to the widows in the community. (Acts 6. 1, 5). His compassion and wisdom doubtlessly influenced how Philip raised his four daughters, though nothing more is said of them in the Bible. Luckily more information is available in the non-Biblical historical record.
The Names of Philip’s Daughters
If you do a superficial search of the internet about Philip’s daughters, you often find statements that the names of these women were never given. That isn’t the case, though the names given in historical accounts are not always consistent. One source names three of them: Hermione, Eutychis, and Mariamne (a version of the name Mary). But Mariamne is elsewhere identified as the disciple Philip’s sister, which may be part of a continuing historical confusion between the disciple Philip and the deacon Philip described in Acts of the Apostles. Then again, Mariamne was a very common name for women. A hagiography of Hermione only identifies the name of one of her sisters: Eukhidia.
Another source lists the names of the other sisters as Chariline, Irais and Eutychiane. It is interesting to note that in the extra-Biblical Acts of Philip, the disciple Philip encounters a young pagan woman named Chariline, who accepts the Christian faith and adopted the dress of a man thereafter. Her name may have come to be included as one of the daughters of Philip with the passage of time.
To summarize this scanty information: one of Philip’s daughters is clearly named Hermione. Another is variously identified as Eutychis, Eutychiane or Eukhidia, all derivations of the Greek root word for “happy” or “fortunate.” Eukhidia is the most commonly used today, as that name is the one used in the biography of Hermione, which is described in the next section. It is also the easiest to pronounce. A third sister is named Irais, and the fourth may be Chariline, Mariamne, or another name entirely. Since the name Mariamne is already all too commonly found in early church accounts, I opt to refer to the fourth sister as Chariline. As such, I would suggest that the names of Philip’s daughters be given as Hermione, Eukhidia, Irias, and Chariline.
The Life of Saint Hermione
Of Philip’s Daughters, only Hermione has been featured in her own separate hagiography, that is, the life story of a saint. Many stories of the early saints can be quite fanciful, but Hermione’s biography is presented in a very down-to-earth fashion with a number of specific details that lends confidence in its reliability as reflecting a real life and accurate details of that life.
In Hermione’s hagiography it is said that she studied the philosophy of medicine while living with her father in Caesarea. Her father’s concern for those in need may have inspired her to do so. But soon after Paul’s visit, Philip’s family and other faithful were driven out of Caesarea by anti-Christian Roman forces. Many, including Philip, settled in Hierapolis, an inland city in what is now central Turkey, known for its healing mineral waters. Hermione may have stayed for a time there, or, as her legend suggests, she may have continued on to Ephesus to see the much respected and revered disciple, John. If so, Hermione was disappointed, for John had already died.
Whatever the case, Hermione’s biography states that she ultimately made her home in Ephesus, a bustling Greek city on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. With the Christian community there, Hermione bought a house and founded a medical clinic devoted to the treatment of the poor and homeless. As such, Hermione was said to be one of the first “unmercenary physicians.” According to traditional accounts, physicians who wouldn’t accept fees for their services were almost always women in those times. Zenaida and Philonella, for example, cousins of the Apostle Paul, were said to have built a small chapel and medical clinic in Thessaly, with small adjoining cells for each sister to sleep in.
Hermione soon received help of her own. Eukhidia joined Hermione at some unspecified time. This may explain why Philip is sometimes described as having two daughters and sometimes four, as two of his children now lived independently of him in Ephesus. It may be that Eukhidia fell ill in her efforts to help the sick, or perhaps she moved back to Hieropolis to be with her father and other two sisters. In any case, Eukhidia was not as central a figure in this early movement of medical charity. Later accounts will only mention three sisters, two in Hieropolis and one in Ephesus.
Hermione soon added rooms at her clinic for the homeless and travelers who had fallen ill. These hospital-hostels, called xenodokia, would become a central part of the Orthodox Christian tradition of charity and hospitality. Hermione ministered to both the body and the spirit of those under her care. Hermione’s hagiography also noted that, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Hermione also had the gift of prophecy.
Irais and Chariline Recall the Early Church
Less is known of the two daughters who remained with Philip in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis. These two daughters were likely Irais and Chariline as Hermione and Eukhidia are accounted for in Ephesus. But there are more details about Irais and Chariline than is widely thought. The historian Eusebius quotes a contemporary of theirs, Papias (70-163 CE), who was the Bishop of Hierapolis during Irais and Chariline’s elder years, presumably after their father had died.
Papias is known to have written one of the earliest histories of the Christian church’s beginnings. Among the authorities Papias relied upon were Philip’s two daughters, who he knew personally. According to Eusebius, Papias described how people would travel long distances to hear the two sisters tell their stories of the early church.
And while Eusebius also confuses the two Philips, he offers this tantalizing tidbit: “That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated. But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead.” (Eusebius, History, 3.39.9)
How is it that these marvelous details are so little known? Apparently left unnoticed by most writers on the subject, Papias’ account creates an evocative image of Irais and Chariline, two female elders of the early Christian church, highly respected by their male bishop and sought after by Christians far and wide. Unfortunately, of the unnamed person who rose from the dead, and the specific prophetic abilities and activities of the two sisters, the existing record is silent.
Like their sister, Hermione, and their father, Irais and Charilene may have devoted themselves to acts of healing and charity. Many travelers came to the springs of Hierapolis for their healing properties and the two sisters may have included attention to physical as well as spiritual matters. It also seems likely that their prophetic gifts led them to do more than just share captivating stories of the past but also offer spiritual insights and teaching for the present. Whatever the case, the historical shadow cast by Irais and Chariline has just grown considerably longer.
A Long Line of Female Prophets
That the four daughters of Philip did prophesise is in my view beyond question. If the Acts account is not enough, there is the reality that a later Christian movement that celebrated women as prophets, explicitly named these women as part of an unbroken tradition of female prophecy. According to the fourth century bishop Epiphanius, the New Prophecy movement, better known as Montanism, identified a long line of prophetesses that included Moses’ sister Miriam and the four daughters of Philip. Interestingly, Eve was also mentioned in this tradition. Having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Eve was seen as the first to ever discern the difference between good and evil. The followers of the New Prophecy clearly considered this a key ability for any prophet. There were two prominent female leaders of the New Prophecy: Prisca and Maximilla. Those who considered the New Prophesy a heresy did so in part because of their embrace of female leadership. Others saw the New Prophecy as a legitimate Christian group.
We know nothing of what the prophetic aspects of Hermione and her sisters’ ministry might have looked like. Some have argued that they didn’t likely teach, given Paul’s injunction against this, but rather delivered a musical ministry. In any case, the thought of the four young women in Caesaria, all displaying a gift of prophecy, is a warming one.
Philip’s Daughters: Their Final Fate
Particulars as to the deaths of Irais and Chariline are not known, though some suggest they were martyred along with their father. A second century quotation from Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus, sheds doubt on that detail. His account, in which he describes the four sisters as among the “great lights” of the early church in Asia, is worth quoting in full in this regard, even if he seems confused about which Philip he’s writing about: “Philip, also one of the twelve apostles, died in Hierapolis, and so did two of his daughters, who had grown old in virginity. And another of his daughters after having passed her life under the influence of the Holy Spirit, was buried in Ephesus.” Polycrates, who lived in Ephesus himself, would have been well aware of local oral history.
More oral traditions have survived regarding the possible fate of Hermione. It was said that during the reign of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Hermione was arrested despite her great old age and reputation for works of charity. She was subjected to torture, but would not renounce her Christian faith. At this point existing accounts diverge. One version has frustrated Roman officials having her beheaded. Another has her saved by miraculous events and living out the rest of her life in peace in Ephesus. Her feast day, for those who keep track of such things, is on September 4th.
As mentioned earlier, in the first few centuries after the time of the 12 disciples, confusion grew over which Philip sired these famous women. An understandable error in conflating accounts of two notable church leaders named Philip led some later church historians to claim that the four sisters were daughters of Philip, Jesus’ disciple. But the historical timeline for Hermione, of whom we have the most detailed and reliable information, doesn’t jibe with that time frame.
On a purely personal note, I understand why later historians would find it more appealing to consider these female prophets the children of Philip, the disciple. If that was the case, I could easily imagine them as some of the children whom the disciples chastised for bothering Jesus. What if Jesus had touched each of them in turn, granting them the divine gift of prophecy directly? It is a warming thought not supported by what few reliable details we have.
For a modern reader it seems strange that nothing is ever said of the mother of these four women. Given the times, though, that should come as little surprise. It seems as though she must have been a most interesting woman, faced with challenges raising four spirited daughters who were ready to defy all of the social conventions she had been taught to respect.
It is just one more lost detail of the lives of the four prophetic sisters of Phyrgia. It feels like their story is just waiting to be fleshed out in fiction in a way a historical account simply won’t allow.
If you enjoyed learning more about Philip’s Daughters, you might enjoy reading my retelling of The Secret of Job’s Daughter. While lacking the historical basis of Philip’s Daughters, I found the extra-Biblical story of their gifts moving.
You may also want to check out Thecla: The Saint who Even Lionesses Loved, which tells a more fanciful tale of a popular early female saint whose actions provided justification for some in the early church to support women in leadership roles.
Eusebius, History of the Church Fathers, retrieved from http://www.ccel.0rg/fathers2/NPNF2-01/footnote/fn20.htm , footnotes by Philip Schaff on 3/25/2001, or http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm on 9/2/2106.
Kirsch, J. P. (1911/1999). St. Philip the Apostle. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11799a.htm on 2/27/2000.
Plampin, Carolyn Goodwin (2005). The four daughters of Philip who were preachers. Baptist Women in Ministry retrieved from http://theotrek.org/resources/Plampli/Lessons-on-Christian-Women/4daughters.htm on 8/30/2016.
Torjesen, Karen Jo (1993). When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church & the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, pp. 43-44.
Trevett, Christine (1996). Montanism: Gender, authority and the New Prophecy.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 16, 33-34, 94, 110, 153, 174-75, 185.