For the second instalment in this series on “Women of the Bible”, we will look at a woman mentioned in the New Testament and more specifically in Romans, one of the most important of Paul’s genuine letters. I am referring to Phoebe. As she is mentioned in only 2 verses (1&2) of chapter 16, you might legitimately wonder how we can get any significant information from such a restricted source. Well, surprisingly we can!
Before we concentrate on Phoebe however, let me first say that she was only one of a number of women involved in various forms of leadership within Pauline communities: Some were itinerant leaders, like Prisca, who, along with her husband Aquila, travelled with Paul (1 Cor. 16:19) leading a church in their house in Ephesus as well as another one in Rome (Rom. 16:3). Other women are named as important leaders: Nympha, a house-church leader in the Lycus valley (Col. 4:15), Euodia and Syntyche, from Philippi, Lydia described in Acts 16 as a woman of considerable means as she traded in “imperial purple”, a highly-valued dye in the ancient world and Eunice and Lois, trainers of young converts, including Timothy, Paul’s protégé.
And then there is the famous Junia whose identity and role has been one of the most hotly contested subjects in Pauline scholarship. Junia appears in verse 7 of Rom.16 where Paul writes: “Andronicus and Junia, my relatives (= meaning Jewish, like him) who were in prison with me, prominent among the apostles and in Christ before me.” The debate is centred around those 4 words “prominent among the apostles”. As the patriarchal slant gained increased influence within the early church in the years and decades following Paul’s death, many could not accept that a woman could have been – or could be – a fully-fledged apostle; It was alleged that Junia was actually a man whose name had been mis-spelt and was actually Junias! Others stated that “prominent among the apostles” did not mean that she was an apostle but that she was “remarkable in the judgement of the apostles” … Amazing how a text can be twisted to mean what you want it to mean! In any case, neither of these refutations hold any water because first, the name Junia was a well-known female name in the Roman world, with many attestations, while what would have been the male version, Junias, is not found at all, anywhere! Secondly the words describing Andronicus and Junia as “prominent” or “outstanding” was a common way in Greek to describe someone with honour and therefore status among a group of people. So, let’s be clear once and for all: Junia was a woman and an apostle and there were plenty of other women fulfilling leadership roles in the early church, whatever some commentators continue to recommend about enjoining silence upon women in church. They forget that one of Paul’s greatest teachings was that the spiritual gifts of each and every Christian should be highly valued and nurtured.
That controversy put aside, let’s now turn our attention to Phoebe proper. Paul writes in Romans 16: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon 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”. In spite of their brevity, we can infer quite a lot of information from these two verses: First her commendation by Paul to the recipients of the letter suggests that she is indeed the one who has brought the letter to Rome. This in itself is significant, because, as there was of course no postal system in the ancient world, being entrusted with important letters meant that the bearer was a trustworthy representative of the author. Only a woman of significance would have been given such an important task. It is also further confirmed by Paul’s designation, “our sister” which places her at the heart of the Christian community.
Secondly, Phoebe is called a “diakonos” of the church of Cenchreae, the port-city of Corinth (like Pireus is the port-city of Athens). To translate it by “deaconess” (i.e. a non-ordained female worker, chiefly involved in the instruction of the very young or in charitable relief) is an anachronistic translation belonging to the later church. Paul routinely uses “diakonos” to describe his own ministry of the word (for ex. 1Cor.3:5 or 2Cor.3: 1-11) and as such, can be translated as “minister” or “deacon”, both translations found in modern bibles. In fact, diakonos has a very wide meaning: it designates a person who hands out or facilitates the distribution of a benefit or of a service, so it can range from a simple helper to an officer commissioned by a superior for some particular task. If Phoebe is commended to the Roman converts as a “diakonos” of the church at Cenchreae” and Paul asks them to “help her in whatever she may require from you”;it is quite likely that she was not simply a helper in her local community but more likely a minister or possibly a missionary of that church, in other words some sort of leader.
The third designation of Phoebe as “prostatis” reinforces that idea of a leadership role for Phoebe. Some commentators have dumbed down the importance of the word by translating the sentence as “she has been a good friend to many and to myself.” In fact, prostatis is much more than “a good friend” and should be accurately translated as “patron” or “benefactor”, in other words it probably describes a well-off woman who provided perhaps a household and other resources for the Pauline mission generally, and for the church in Corinth (or Cencheae) in particular.
From what precedes we can safely conclude that Phoebe was a Christian woman of considerable stature, one who shared responsibility for mission with Paul, possibly at times in an itinerant way. Indeed, from these two verses, along with other greetings addressed in other letters to Prisca, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia and others, emerges a picture which, according to Brendan Byrne, “may only be the tip of an iceberg as far as the full extent of women’s ministry in the early period goes… The language of the greetings suggests great warmth, appreciation and even intimacy in the relationship with such female collaborators.” And he adds: “If later generations saw fit to curtail and even forbid the engagement of women in the apostolic mission, these texts suggest that it is not something which can be laid at the feet of Paul.”
In any case, whether or not it is Paul’s personal responsibility, it is clear that the real extent of women’s contributions in the early church has been obliterated. To remedy this, Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams suggest the following: “To tell Phoebe’s story in greater detail from the fragments left to us, would be one further step in the reconstruction of Christian beginnings, which would provide a new memory and a new imagination for contemporary women and men.” Well, I am very pleased to say that their suggestion has been taken up by the reputed English scholar, Paula Gooder who very recently published a novel, simply entitled “Phoebe: A Story.” As I just mentioned, it is a work of fiction, but it is based on her extensive knowledge of the early Christian church and the life, activities and difficulties of these communities in Rome and Corinth come alive. I would highly recommend you to read it!