Thursday, July 31, 2014

Apostles, Deacons & The Women of Romans 16


Paul speaks strongly to the Jew/Gentile division in the Church of Rome with a particular emphasis in ch9-11 which culminates with the idea of universal mercy and the mystery of God’s ultimate plan (11:32-36).[1] While these three chapters have over 400 years of sordid and divided history in the post-reformation age, they aren’t the main focus of this paper. We will instead be focusing on the women mentioned in ch16. As we will see, the women listed by the Apostle Paul indicates his inclusion of women in all aspects of church life.


The final chapter of Romans is most pertinent to the contemporary gender debate,[2] beginning with the very first verse, which commends “our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakonos: minister, patron, servant) of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (NRSV).[3] There are numerous indications that this chapter is intended as a letter of recommendation. For one, this was a common way of recommending someone in the Greco-Roman world,[4] the New Testament era (2 Cor. 3:1) as well as in Second Temple Judaism (1 Macc. 12:43; 2 Macc. 9:25).

Second, the honor of being named first indicates (many times) priority,[5] and Paul’s use of the term “adelphe” (sister) is indicative of two things: one, Paul views her in the Body of Christ, implicitly assuming their shared unity in the Gospel of God, and that he views her highly enough to showcase her personal involvement in his life.

Simply, Paul trusts her, and he makes it plain that the Church is to follow in his stead, for she has been a leader (or patron) of many, including Paul. It is most likely that Phoebe is the first recorded “deacon” in the churches of God within the New Testament. “Help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a great help (prostatis) to me” lexically enforces the notion that she was akin to a leader/patron/champion of Paul.[6] Many complementarians concede that Phoebe was a deacon in the church[7] and that this most likely refers to a position of leadership.[8] If Phoebe was indeed a deacon as well as a leader, which would likely require not only financial benefaction, but also spiritual guidance.[9]


“Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the convert [first fruits] in Asia for Christ.” Romans 16:3-5 (NRSV). There is an implicit connection between Luke/Acts and Paul, with Prisca and Aquila being mentioned numerous times already.[11] This wife and husband couple is so close to Paul, that they even risked their lives for him. Four of the six times in the New Testament, Prisca is named before Apollos, which is unheard of in ancient patriarchal culture.[12] In fact, this same culture would’ve largely found fault with this. For example, in Democritus in his Sayings 111, “To be ruled by a woman is the worst insult for a man.” Also Pseudo-Lucian’s (Am. 38 8:210-11) says, “Let women be ciphers and be retained merely for child-bearing; but in all else away with them.”

If we accept the standard belief that ancient women were elevated by their husbands’ status,[13] then the reverse would most likely entail something quite unique.[14] It is entirely plausible that Prisca is the dominant evangelist, and this would showcase the fact that class meant little to Paul in the calling of all people to proclaim the Gospel of God.[15] In Acts 18:2, Aquila is named first in the context of a traveling journey; ministry doesn’t appear to be in the picture. In Acts 18:18, Prisca and Aquila accompany Paul, but the description appears neutral. However, if the three of them were together, it is most unlikely that they would be discussing only the weather. Acts 18:26 shows Prisca and Aquila together explaining the word of God to Apollos “more accurately.” This is active ministry (accompanied by the Way reference in 18:25; 19:9; 19:23 as well as Paul’s inference that he persecuted this “Way” in 22:4, putting both men and women in prison.) Paul’s three references include two priority placements of Prisca, and one of Aquila.

The most convicting aspect of these few verses is the revelation that a church was a home, the place of dwelling. The church that meets in “their” house (plural) (v5) indicates a shared view of property, but also of ministry. Those who would exclude women from ministry fail to account for this data, especially in a time where ‘church’ as we know it often took place under the cover of night, in secret and in tenement houses. For Paul, Prisca and Aquila, ministry wasn’t bound by a location; instead it was a community of called people, born again into the image of God, reflected in the desire to convert the whole world for Him. Ministry in the home and in the ‘church’ was shared mutually, given to us by Paul. An interesting side note: to invite someone into your home then (and to some extent now) is to break bread and fellowship. To eat with one another in the time of Paul was to set aside difference, which is why Paul reacted so strongly against Peter, who withdrew from the table of Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14). Imagine how strongly Paul felt about this, and how little this seems to matter to God’s church. Imagine what is now at stake, especially when we not only refuse to break bread with the “other” but with one another.


Unanimously for the first one thousand years of church history, Junia was a woman[16] and most contemporary scholars echo this fact.[17] Church fathers who confirm these are Origen of Alexandria (185-254), Ambrosiaster (375) who used the variant (and very common female name) Julia; Ambrose (339-397); Jerome (345-419); Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-458); Pseudo-Primasius (who died ca. 567); John Damascene (675-749); and most importantly John Chrysostom (344/345-407) who said what deserves to be quoted in full: “Greet Andronicus and Junia...who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an Apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (Ep. Ad Romanos 31.2). Chrysostom’s argument renders that objection vacuous. He explicitly gives it the name laden with meaning, “title.” This was reserved for the ‘elite’ of the apostles, and he includes her in this range.[18] As we will see in Richard Bauckham’s study, this objection is furthermore not to be taken seriously. Bernadette Brooten notes that, “To date not a single Greek or Latin inscription, not a single reference in ancient literature has been cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis. My own search has also proved fruitless. This means that we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed.”[19]

Richard Bauckham has offered us an enormously attractive reading of this text.[20] His main thesis is that Junia[21] is the same Joanna from Luke 8:3 and 24:10. To be “in Christ” not only indicates church life, but as Bauckham argues, Joanna was a patron of Jesus. The two women are one and the same. He gives several reasons: the practice of [Jews] adopting Greek names was well established before the Roman occupation,[22] and when Jews did adopt these names, they chose sound-equivalent (nearly identical) names.[23] A common example is that the Greek name Simon is a sound equivalent to the Hebrew name Simeon.[24] He gives several examples of this, contrasting Greek with Hebrew, but quoting only two will suffice: Jason – Jesus (Yeshu’a) and Julius/Julianus – Judah.[25] That both Luke and Paul are aware of each other could indicate a shared knowledge of those ‘in Christ.’ Also of note is that this is likely of Paul as well, for he was called Saul in Acts, and that “Luke can call John Mark retrospectively, ‘John whose other name was Mark,’ when in Luke’s narrative he is still in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12, 25) is a valuable clue.”[26] It is clear that it would not have been outside the range of plausibility’s that Joanna could’ve adopted a Greek name for missions work, and that Luke and Paul would’ve known her.[27] This would then make Joanna an eyewitness to Jesus, having served with him in his earthly ministry (Luke 8:3) and having proclaimed his resurrection to the male apostles (Luke 24:10).[28] She would be an Apostle of the Apostles.

This would give Joanna apostolic authority, and would actually place her over Paul, as he never witnessed the earthly Jesus or his resurrection. The fact that Joanna/Junia’s husband isn’t mentioned in Luke indicates that she may have been his source of spiritual conversion and calling.[29] Bauckham’s revelatory and powerful historical sketch deserves careful attention but the concluding paragraph is especially poignant:

“It was because of their apostolic labors in Rome for more than a decade, while Paul was founding churches in Asia Minor and Greece, that Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome in the mid-50s, was able to call Junia and her husband “outstanding among the apostles.” Christians in Rome were often suspected of being politically subversive, and from time to time their leaders were arrested. When Paul wrote his letter, Junia and Andronicus were imprisoned. We know no more of them, but perhaps, some years later, the evangelist Luke spent many hours with Junia, hearing from her the version of the Gospel traditions as she had been long telling them.”[30]

One can only imagine the honor of hearing the stories of one of the most outstanding women God has given to the world, and what a debt we owe to her.[31] Christian history, it seems, is built off the deeds of such women.


For further resources, see Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ; Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church; Christians for Biblical Equality; The Junia Project; Ronald Pierce (a prof of mine), Discovering Biblical Equality.

End notes:

[1] Grant Osborne, Romans, offers a magnificent explanation of these contentious chapters. For something more focused, Brian Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis.
[2] The firestorm for most exegetes involves this chapter, and Paul names many women who seem to be in positions of influence and power.
[3] The primary influences of this section involve the commentaries of Ben Witherington III, James D.G. Dunn and C.E.B. Cranfield. Special attention is paid to Eldon J. Epp wonderful study on Junia in the manuscript tradition, Junia: The First Woman Apostle, as well as the study of Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women.
[4] Pseudo-Demetrius (Epistolary Types 2) is a good example. Certain phrases stand out: “You will do well if you deem him worthy of a welcome both for my sake, and his, and indeed for your own.” Notice the thematic consistency between this type of language and Paul’s letter to Philemon.
[5] Most likely, this would indicate some sense of social standing; however, since Paul is less inclined to elevate one’s societal status, this more probably refers to her level of influence within the Christian communities.
[6] LSJ 1526-27 has numerous examples for the feminine form of “prostatis”: one who stands before... leader, chief, ruler, administrator, patron, guardian, champion.
[7] For example, Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 460-61; Charles C. Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church, 88, 140.
[8] James D.G. Dunn, Romans, 2:885-890; Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women, 310-11; Philip B. Payne, “Libertarian Women in Ephesus: A Response to Douglas J. Moo’s Article, ‘1 Timothy 2:11-15: Meaning and Significance’,” Trinity Journal 2 NS (1981): 169-97, 195.
[9] Ben Witherington III says “Paul calls Phoebe and those with Philologus “saints,” which is probably a code word for Jewish Christians.” Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 380.
[10] Many modern translations usually render her name Priscilla. I have chosen to be as faithful as I can to her original context, thus the name will be rendered Prisca. This diminutive form of her name is supported by p46 as well as other early manuscripts. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, 475.
[11] Paul has already mentioned them 1 Cor. 16:19, using the same language. See especially the greetings to the “church in their house.” The only difference is that Aquila is named first. Paul will also mention Prisca and Aquila in 2 Timothy 4:19. Acts 18 presents Prisca and her husband working together, instructing Apollos.
[12] Witherington also notes that her being mentioned first “has also been explained on the basis of her being of higher social status than her husband or more prominent in the church.” Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 385. While it is not impossible that women in the ancient world would be wealthier than their husbands, the evidence would expect the reverse. When mentioning their active ministry, it appears that Prisca took the initiative.
[13] Plutarch (Advice to the Bride and Groom. 14, Mor. 140a), “The wife ought to have no feelings of her own, but she should join with her husband in seriousness and sportiveness and in soberness and laughter.” (19, Mor. 140d): “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.”
[14] If they shared the same religious belief, cultural custom would demand that she share in his conversion. However, given that Christianity wasn’t a religion of “force,” it may indicate that whoever converted the other, it developed beyond the cultural assumptions of male/leader and female/subordinate; seen in Aristotle, Pol. 1260.a.23- 24 who says, “the courage of command [is male] and the other [woman] is that of subordinate.” What we have here instead is an early Christian witness towards an egalitarian marriage.
[15] Galatians 3:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:5; 14:5, 31.
[16] Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle documents this, citing Linda L. Belleville’s findings as well, 32-33.
[17] Other scholars who confirm this are C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans, 2:788-90; James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 894; Peter Lampe, “Junias,” ABD 3:1127. He identifies over 250 examples of Junia in ancient literature, while finding none of Junias; Richard S. Cervin, “A Note Regarding the Name Junia(s) in Romans 16:7,” NTS 40 (1994): 464-470; Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, 165-186; Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 241-242. Grant R. Osborne, Romans, 406-408, who notes that if “they were among the “apostles” of 1 Cor. 15:7, that would mean they had probably been followers of the Lord himself.”
[18] As does John of Damascus (ca. 675-749), who writes “and to be called “apostles” is a great thing...but to be even amongst these of note, just consider what a great encomium this is.” (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles 95.565).
[19] Bernadette Brooten, “Junia...Outstanding Among the Apostles,” 142.
[20] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, 165-86. His work is cited favorably by Witherington, Payne, and Epps.
[21] He argues forcefully for the now vastly mainstream (in line with patristics, a nice link between tradition and modern exegesis) view that Junia was indeed a woman, and is to be counted as ‘outstanding among the apostles.’
[22] Gospel Women, 182.
[23] Ibid, 182.
[24] Ibid, 182. Bauckham favorably cites N. Lewis, Y. Yadin, and J.C. Greenfield, eds., The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters, nos. 21-22.
[25] Ibid, 182.
[26] Ibid, 185.
[27] Considering that Paul wrote Phoebe a letter of recommendation, it isn’t difficult to imagine he did the same for others.
[28] As well as other women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and others that sadly go unnamed.
[29] Considering that he isn’t mentioned, it is possible that he hadn’t been called into Christ yet. Assuming also, as many scholars do, that Andronicus is indeed her husband. I see no issue either way and haven’t personally decided. If he wasn’t her husband or relative, then the relationship would be best explained as two members of the Body of Christ.
[30] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women of the Gospels, 194-198, 198.
[31] That Paul would include not only her, but the mother of Rufus (who was ‘a mother to me also’) but also Tryphena, Tryphosa as ‘workers in the Lord’ v12, Mary “who worked very hard among you” in v6. TDNT 3:829 notes that the Greek word for “worked hard” means “missionary and pastoral work...of the highest esteem.”


  1. Excellent summary of the early evidence for women in leadership and especially of Junia. Have you read John Dickson's Hearing Her Voice in which he argues women are prohibited from teaching apostolic tradition, but not prohibited from preaching/exhorting via sermons?

  2. Thanks Paul! I haven't read Dickson, but I know people have made that argument. I don't find it compelling, but I'd love your thoughts.


  3. I love these women co-ministers of Paul!

    I have read John's book and I heard him present a paper on didasko as laying down apostolic tradition. I find his arguments un-compelling. :(