Monday, November 15, 2010

Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia

This is from chapter 5 of the second Paul book, in process.
Romans 16 is, first of all, a letter of recommendation for a woman named Phoebe. Phoebe was a “deacon” (diakonos) at the port village of Cenchrea, about five miles southeast of Corinth. It was a common practice to take a letter of recommendation such as this one when going to a location where they did not know you. In this case, the church at Ephesus (or Rome) would know that they could trust Phoebe because of Paul’s letter. They would know that she was who she said she was and that they could incorporate her into the ministry of the city.

Those who do not believe women ministered in Paul’s churches are keen to reinterpret the word diakonos in 16:1. They want to translate it merely as “servant” (NIV) or perhaps even as “deaconess” (Philipps). But this is the very same word Paul uses in Philippians 1:1 of certain ministry leaders at Philippi. It is the word that 1 Timothy 4:6 uses of Timothy himself as a servant of Christ.

Therefore, we can be certain above all that the word does not mean deaconess. It is the same masculine word used in 1 Timothy 4:6 of Timothy and elsewhere to refer to the official role of a deacon. It is the same form of the word used in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 where the qualifications for such a position are given. Further, since Phoebe is the diakonos of a specific house church in 16:1, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to argue she does not hold a formal leadership role in the church there...

Almost a third of those greeted in Romans 16 are women, perhaps implying that about a third of the leadership in the church at Ephesus (or Rome) were women. Not all of these women are in husband-wife teams (e.g., Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis), as if Paul only mentions women attached to a man. Indeed, he does not mention the wives of most of the men, as if he is only greeting these women on a social level. His criterion is that these women have “worked very hard” (e.g., 16:6, 12).

Indeed, in the most significant wife-husband ministry team of all, Paul mentions the woman first, Priscilla. In Acts, her husband’s name only appears before Priscilla’s in relation to their move from Rome to Corinth (18:2). In the passage where they are actually engaged in ministry, Priscilla’s name appears first, namely, when she and her husband instruct Apollos the way of Christ more accurately (18:24-28). Similarly, the only instance where Paul puts her husband Aquila’s name first is in his greeting in 1 Corinthians 16:19—addressed to a church apparently having problems with some of its wives.

Perhaps most startling of all in this chapter is Paul’s greeting to a husband and wife by the names of Andronicus and Junia. Our interest in them would be piqued if for no other reason than that they are said to be “prominent among the apostles” (16:7, CEB). What does this statement mean? Does it mean the apostles were well acquainted with them or that they were notable apostles themselves?

First, what was an apostle? In Paul’s understanding, an apostle is someone to whom the risen Lord appeared and sent out to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1). Paul thought of himself as the last of such apostles, the last to whom the risen Lord appeared, some three years after Jesus’ resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:8). Paul thus did not in any way restrict apostleship to the eleven original disciples. For example, he refers to Barnabas as an apostle such as he is (cf. 1 Cor. 9:6).

Could Andronicus and Junia qualify? Paul tells us that “they were in Christ before I was” (Rom. 16:7), so they fit the time frame of an apostle. The fact that they are at the very least known by the original apostles implies that they were from Palestine. They are Paul’s “kinsmen” (e.g., NASB), by which Paul probably means that they are Jews. They have been imprisoned with Paul, which implies that they were Christian leaders. Perhaps we might more appropriately ask what would keep us from understanding them to be apostles! Would not interpreters across the board strongly agree that these two were apostles if it were not for the name of a woman?

Indeed, some manuscripts of Romans have “Junias,” a man’s name, instead of “Junia” here. The best explanation is that some copyists were increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a female apostle and so added the s to make her male. One of the most basic rules of figuring out the original wording of a text is to ask how the wording might have changed over time. We know that Christianity, if anything, became less supportive of women in leadership over time rather than more supportive. So it is easy to imagine that someone changed the name from feminine to masculine—difficult to imagine it going the other way around.

1 comment:

Richard Fellows said...

Yes, Aquila is mentioned first only at Acts 18:2 and 1 Cor 16:19. Some have suggested that the reason for these exceptions is that the couple's benefaction is in view in both cases. Aquila was the head of the household and therefore the benefactor, whereas Prisca was the teacher. There may be other explanations, of course.