Phoebe, Junia, and the women of Romans 16

adult, child with bibleI’m still going to be in and out a bit the next week or so, but let’s move ahead a bit in our discussion of gender. It might help a bit to look at some of the women mentioned in the New Testament.

Romans 16 is an important passage; about one third of the people mentioned in this chapter are women. Phoebe is the first; she was probably the bearer of this letter. She is called a servant or deaconess. It helps to remember that “deacon” and “deaconess” really don’t exist in Greek; the word is servant. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether Paul uses this term in a technical way. The most likely is yes, that Phoebe was recognized as one of the official church workers. Early church writings show women who served as deaconesses, fulfilling roles that the men found difficult, such as helping with the baptisms of women.

Several of the women in the list are said to have worked hard. We’d like to know exactly what that work involved, but we aren’t told.

One of the most interesting comments in Romans 16 is made about a woman named Junia. Paul says:

“Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” (Romans 16:7, KJV)
“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7, NIV)
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.” (Romans 16:7–8, ESV)

Those three translations give a pretty good idea of the different ways of reading this passage. The KJV shows the ambiguous nature of the Greek, while the NIV and ESV show the different ways that phrase can be understood. Outside of the New Testament, there’s good evidence of the grammatical use reflected in the ESV, though context would tend to favor the NIV’s view.

Either way, it helps a lot to remember that Paul doesn’t use the word “apostle” in the same way that Luke does. That is, Luke uses the word “apostle” almost exclusively to refer to the Twelve, while Paul often uses it in a broader sense. He uses the term for people other than the Twelve, and even contrasts the terms in this passage from 1 Corinthians 15:

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

In my view, Junia was one of the sent, probably along with her husband (Andronicus). Like Priscilla and Aquila, they were probably active in evangelism and the establishment of new churches. That would help explain their imprisonment at this early date.

Women were active in the life of the early church, as they are today, so none of this should be threatening to anyone. We need Phoebes and Junias today as much as ever.

23 thoughts on “Phoebe, Junia, and the women of Romans 16

  1. Dan Knight

    I find it interesting that in the KJV of the NT, whenever the word διάκονος is used in conjunction with a proper noun, there is an almost consistent pattern of translation. Timothy is called a minister (1 Tim 4:6; 1 Thes 3:2); Tychicus is called a minister (Col 4:7; Eph 6:21); Paul is called a minister (Col 1:23 & 25; Eph 3:7); Epaphras is called a minister (Col 1:7); Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 15:8); Apollos (1 Cor 3:5). There is only one exception. Phoebe, although it is the exact same word, is called a servant (Rom 16:1). Apparently Paul, who authored all of the other texts mentioned, thought of Phoebe as a minister, but by the 17th Century, there was a problem for the KJV translation committee when it came to using the word to so designate a woman.

  2. guy


    Your point about the difference between Paul and Luke was something that jarred me when i came into Orthodoxy. Their use of “apostle” is closer to Paul’s use. The 12 hold a distinct place, however, everyone of the first Christian generation is referred to as an “apostle” in Orthodoxy. (This was the response i got when i brought up Acts 8 about needing the laying on of apostolic hands in a discussion with a priest.) So, yes, even the women of that generation are still referred to as “apostles.”

  3. Tim Archer Post author


    I will confess that I had not realized that “diakonos” is sometimes translated minister. That seems ridiculous to me. Seems that its much more like Paul’s use of the word “doulos” to describe himself.

    The translators of the KJV were defenders of a church hierarchy. I guess they felt that the word “servant” would be demeaning for the “clergy.”

  4. gal328cofc

    I know that Keith has made a similar point in a previous discussion on an earlier post, but it seems to me that we often read these passages naming women as somehow exceptions to the rule–or we seek ways to bring them into a more manageable schema (Priscilla works with Aquila, Junia with Andronicus, thus no ‘authority’ issues). But if we do question the starting assumption of a principle of male spiritual headship–if we actually tried to encounter the biblical text without that prior interpretive lens–would we find it so odd that women are named and praised for the same sorts of work and service that male leaders of the church are praised for? Would it be something we had to “explain?” Or would it just be a picture of how stuff got done, and by whom, in the early church as recorded in the text we have?

    I’m also intrigued by the disconnect I think Paul Smith was feeling (? feel free to verify or dissent!) between the defense of gender essentialism in some posts, and posts like this one that seem to implicitly work toward a non-gendered gift-based model of service in the church. I’d like to understand the bigger picture of how these things hang together when you get a moment…

  5. guy


    Again with respect to the use of “apostle” by Luke and Paul, what do you make of Acts 14:14 in which Luke calls Barnabas an “apostle” along with Paul?

  6. Tim Archer Post author


    The suggestion about Andronicus was merely based on the structure of the passage. Note that I said “probably”; it really doesn’t affect her work one way or the other.

    The bit about apostle would be something I would investigate either way. If only Andronicus were named, I would want to understand the meaning of that phrase. It’s a funny habit I have… trying to study the text, rather than setting out to prove a certain agenda.

    I don’t believe I’ve used the term “gender essentialist.” I’m not big into labels. I’m just a non-labelist that way.


  7. gal328cofc

    hi Tim,

    Apologies: I’m not trying to label for the sake of labels–what I mean by “gender essentialist” I’ve unpacked in other comments. Really all I mean by that is a way of referencing what I understand you to be saying about men and women being essentially different in some way. If that’s not what you’re claiming, then please do set me straight!

    What I was trying to say in the above comment, perhaps clumsily, is that I think “male spiritual headship” is an interpretive lens we bring to the text rather than a principle which arises out of some sort of unbiased “plain sense” reading of scripture (you will be right here if you anticipate that I think there is no such thing as a “plain sense” reading of scripture). Without that interpretive lens, the females named and praised in the NT might be interpreted as something other than minority exceptions.

    With appreciation, as always, for the amount of time and thought you’ve set aside on your corner of the internet for this conversation,

    Jen (and please do call me Jen!)

  8. Dan Knight

    My point, in part, about singling out Phoebe as the only non-minister, does coincide with your comment about the “translators of the KJV defending church hierarchy” but not in the way you apply it. It is clear that they were defenders of the maleness of the hierarchy.
    The same thing happens in the history of the transmission of the text of Romans regarding Junia. (I assume you are familiar with Eldon Epp’s excellent book on Junia.) Whether Paul is calling her an apostle or a missionary, scribes feared the perceived threat to the male hierarchy and changed the name to Junius.
    On headship, I strongly recommend “What Paul Really Said about Women” by John T. Bristow. We tend to say that man is the head of the house without taking into account the biblical difference between arche and kephalos.
    Back to Phoebe’s role, the Apostle Paul calls her a prostatis (an ironically male word today) which properly understood implies a leadership role.
    Until we take off our “men are in charge glasses” reading the equality of the NT is difficult.

  9. Tim Archer Post author


    I do believe that men and women are different in many ways. I don’t affirm that men are superior or are even inherently better at “leadership.” Throughout the Bible, God uses the least likely for his work. I do believe that men and women were called to different areas of service within the church, which may be where your label is pointing. I’ll confess that even terms like “complementarian” are fairly new to me. Can I plead the fact that I lived a large part of my adult life outside of the U.S.? I missed a lot of the ecclesiastical wrangling of the 90s.

    I definitely agree that we all have to fight against the lens through which we read Scripture. Part of our job as interpreters is to become aware of our own lens. Cultural studies are my area of expertise. There’s a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I use when teaching about culture; it has a parallel to our discussions:

    ‘The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.’

    Let’s try and look at this another way. Let’s try and drop all of our lenses. How important would Romans 16:7 be in the overall scheme of the New Testament if Junia were in fact a man named Junius? Why is it that many can name Junia and few can name Andronicus… and both receive the exact same praise? Mightn’t the opposite affirmation hold true, that unless one is seeking out the women lauded and praised in the New Testament, they aren’t going to be obvious?

    I plan to keep the conversation going. I hope that we are all growing and learning.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim ARcher

  10. Tim Archer Post author


    I meant to comment on the verse you mentioned in Acts 14:14. It does seem that Luke is using “apostle” in the broad sense of the word in this passage. Good reminder that the ancients were as flexible in their language use as we are.

    Grace and peace,

  11. Nick Gill

    How important would Romans 16:7 be in the overall scheme of the New Testament if Junia were in fact a man named Junius? Why is it that many can name Junia and few can name Andronicus… and both receive the exact same praise?

    I disagree that this has a ton to do with lenses, Tim, unless the particular lens in question is “why is one of these things not like the others?”

    Lots of people can’t name all the judges, but they can name Deborah because she’s *different*. Things that are different stand out.

    By the same token, one doesn’t have to wear feminist lenses to be intrigued by Junia as the sole inclusion of a female name among all the New Testament’s apostles. If the person is a man named Junias, he’s just another fellow whose presence in the list creates no questions or doctrinal difficulties.

    A woman’s name listed in a role traditionally assumed to be a male-only role sticks out like a sore thumb to any honest reader of the text, regardless of their worldview lenses.

  12. Tim Archer Post author


    That would be true if there were long lists of men’s names being dubbed “apostles.” Fact is, the few who receive that designation outside of the Twelve should and do stand out. Try this. Go to church and ask people who in the New Testament is called an apostle. Most can name the Twelve. Probably Paul as well. Maybe Matthias or Barnabas. That’s it.

    Any other name should jump out, not just a female name. Unless you’re reading with a certain lens. One lens might be the one that says only men can be apostles. That’s true. Another lens is looking for ANY female name in the Bible. (unless it’s a bad leader like Jezebel or a woman who led in an unpopular way, like Tabitha)

    A “blank page” reading would say: “Huh! Look at that. Two people here in Romans 16 are called apostles. And one of them is a woman.”

  13. gal328cofc

    hi Tim,

    Thanks for the reply. Would you be willing to unpack more of what you mean by believing that men and women are called to different areas of service within the church? What are these different areas of service? Is this difference based solely on gendered embodiment, or is it that men and women are by virtue of gendered embodiment uniquely fitted to some roles within the church and not others?

    I realize that often internet communication comes off as brusque and also that I have an atypically “masculine” interlocutorial style (I took an internet quiz! it told me I’m a dude!), so I want to be sure that you know these are genuine questions because I want to understand how you’re putting these things together. :)


  14. Nick Gill

    A blank page reading really wouldn’t find the only female mentioned as an apostle more memorable than the sixteenth male so described in the New Testament?

    Seems unrealistic. If you walk up to a tree with twenty apples and one orange growing on it, what’s going to be most memorable?

  15. Tim Archer Post author


    I think we naturally leave out the Twelve. And Paul. And probably Matthias. And surely the mention of Barnabas is less surprising than Andronicus.

    So yes, Andronicus should stand out. Maybe not as much as Junia, but since they are both mentioned in the same verse, noting one and not the other definitely reflects a bias.

  16. Nick Gill

    No one tried to turn Andronicus into a girl. Just sayin’.

    In a related question, have you created a straw man, Tim? I’ve honestly never met anyone (much less “many”) who both knew Junia as a person in the NT AND who didn’t also know her next-door neighbor in Romans 16. Are you sure that “many can name Junias and few can name Andronicus?”

    But on to my bigger concern — about the pejorative attachment of “lenses” to one view and the assumption that the other view is the “plain sense” view — I think there’s a difference between the IS and the OUGHT. I don’t think anyone would deny that in the early church, male spiritual leadership was typical. What’s in question is whether or not that was God’s intent for spiritual leadership from Pentecost to Parousia, or whether God desired the church to mature towards a place where gender was not a deciding factor in spiritual leadership (in the same way that it is argued that God intended the church to mature towards a place where the practice of racism and slavery are unacceptable between siblings in Christ).

    One phenomenon that occurs when people read stories is that they notice (and sometimes even look for) characters like themselves. Why is Eowyn such a popular and intriguing character for female Tolkien readers? Because we often read stories looking for honorable examples to emulate, and we can’t be elves. When a woman reads the Scriptures looking for worthy spiritual models/mentors, chances are high that she will notice such characters as Phoebe and Junia (much like a man notices characters like Barnabas and Timothy).

    But when someone asks why a boy can strive to lead like Barnabas or Timothy, but a girl must strive to lead like Tabitha rather than Junia, they’re told that they wouldn’t even think of the question if they weren’t rejecting the plain sense of the Bible.

    Maybe the “plain sense” view is plain precisely because it is shaped by the patriarchal culture the reader sees outside of the text, rather than the douriarchal, chariarchal, agaparchal culture that is the kingdom dream.

    What does life “in heaven” look like if “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” includes male spiritual leadership and female spiritual submission?

  17. Tim Archer Post author


    Let me clarify… I certainly don’t see my view as the “plain sense” view while others are using lenses. I was responding to the accusation that the way I read the New Testament only occurs when one assumes male leadership to begin with.

    And with your question about what is versus what ought we’ve come full circle. Does the Bible merely reflect the culture it was written in or did it play a part in shaping that culture? That seems to me to be the key question in all of this. The answers fall along a continuum. Where we find ourselves on that continuum deeply affects how we interpret these issues.

    Grace and peace,

  18. Nick Gill

    Does the Bible merely reflect the culture it was written in or did it play a part in shaping that culture?

    Until one becomes more familiar with the surrounding cultures, it is difficult to appreciate the ways in which the Bible at times makes accommodation for surrounding culture and at times challenges that culture. I’ve tried to present an example of that already, with the differences on divorce between God’s ideal, the cultural status quo, and the differing ways the concept is handled by the Law, the Prophets, and the New Testament.

    So, as the Scriptures reflect and make accommodation for and challenge the surrounding culture — especially in the kingdom age where Jesus expressly states “Your will be done on earth just as it is in heaven” — the question seems to be, “What are we aiming for? As this pilgrim community journeys towards the city whose builder is God, what does God want the relationships in that community to look like?”

    Right now, I’m reminded of Animal Farm — where the first line of the manifesto is changed to “All animals are created equal — but some animals are more equal than others.” In our traditional church culture today, the line seems to be, “All Christians submit to each other, but some must submit more than others,” and I’m not sure that’s the target we’re supposed to be shooting for.

  19. gal328cofc

    hi Tim,

    I am really sad to get the sense, from your comment above, that you have heard any comment I’ve made on your blog in a tone that could be described as “accusation.” I’d like to clarify that I am trying to ask questions in order to gain some understanding of the point of view you are gradually setting forth. I have no interest in making accusations–nor was my comment about the interpretive lens of male spiritual headship bundled with a bunch of moral judgment.

    My apologies for having put you on the defensive, if I have. This has not been my intent.


  20. Joh Archer

    Why would you say Junia was female ? Romans 16 says he and Andronicas were in prison together with Paul. I`m sorry, but the article appears agenda driven to suit feminists.

  21. Tim Archer Post author

    Hi Joh,

    It’s a bit like seeing the name Susan in a list and wondering if it’s male or female. Junia is a feminine name. That’s why some ancient texts changed it to Junius.

    Thanks for visiting.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

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