POSTED 08 DECEMBER, 2008
It is doubtful that many of you have read Romans 16 recently. The content of Romans 16 is fresh in my mind as I had to deliver a class presentation on this text Thursday morning. Most people who just read Paul’s letter to the Romans do not consider that ch. 16 to be significant, when it is very significant. This is not just an idle part of Paul’s letter where he greets random people. Romans 16 tells us important things about the social makeup of the assemblies (yes, assemblies in the plural) of Roman Believers, who they were, who their presumed leaders were, and could even give us clues as to the kinds of divisions they were experiencing:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the [assembly] which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Messiah Yeshua, who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the [assemblies] of the Gentiles; also greet the [assembly] that is in their house. Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Messiah from Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Messiah before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Messiah, and Stachys my beloved. Greet Apelles, the approved in Messiah. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord. Greet Persis the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the [assemblies] of Messiah greet you. Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Messiah but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Yeshua be with you. Timothy my fellow worker greets you, and so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, host to me and to the whole [assembly], greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother” (Romans 16:1-23, NASU).
Immediately upon reviewing Romans 16, names from ancient classicism jump right out. Have you ever wondered why Paul refers to Jews and Greeks in the Epistle to the Romans (i.e., 1:16; 2:9; 3:9; 10:12)—and not Jews and Romans? The most probable explanation is that the non-Jewish Believers to whom Paul was writing composed members of an immigrant class, as the city of Rome was ethnically diverse being the hub of the empire. The names we see in ch. 16 made up Jews, Greeks, rich, poor, aristocratic, and slaves. And yes, native Romans were included as well. Worthy studies have been conducted by consulting ancient letters, inscriptions, and burial grounds to determine the specific social makeup of the Roman Believers.
The most significant of all the people listed in Romans 16, as it concerns us, are the women who made up the leadership of the Roman congregations. Their placement within this chapter informs us as to how important a role women actually played in the early ekklēsia.
Phoebe of Cenchrea was commissioned by Paul to take his letter to Rome (v. 1). She was much more than just a courier or mail-woman; she was “a deacon” (NRSV). She was not only responsible for transporting Paul’s letter to Rome, but would have also been responsible to see that the letter was read to the various assemblies in the city. It is most probable that she would have been able to answer any questions regarding the letter that people had as well. Wouldn’t we all like to get our hands on her notes explaining Romans!
- Prisca or Priscilla, and her husband Acquila, are extended greetings (v. 3).
- Mary is extended greetings (v. 6).
- Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis are extended greetings (v. 12).
- Julia and the sister of Nereus are extended greetings (v. 15).
Most of you probably have overlooked this in the past, not even knowing that it is an issue, but the most significant debate as it concerns Romans 16 is the reference to Andronicas and Junias in v. 7. Or is it really Junias? If you have a Bible in which the rendering Junias appears, you will probably also see a footnote that says “or, Junia.”
What makes the rendering Junias or Junia significant is that Paul says, eisin episēmoi en tois apostolois, or they “are outstanding among the apostles” (NASU, NIV). This does not just mean that they have a good reputation among the apostles, but that both of them are apostles themselves. And if the second person is not Junias, but is instead Junia, then this means that there was indeed a female apostle in the ancient ekklēsia.
Bibles that render v. 7 with Junias mainly include the RSV, NASB, and the NIV. Translations produced in the past twenty years or so render v. 7 with Junia, including the NRSV, ESV, and TNIV. Surprisingly, the KJV and NKJV have Junia. David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible also has Junia.
As one traces Bible scholarship from the 1960s to the present, older scholars considered this apostle to be Junias, a male:
- “Grammatically it might be a feminine…though this seems inherently less probable, partly because the person is referred to as an apostle” (IDB).
- “The name may be masculine, ‘Junias,’ a contraction of Junianus, or feminine, ‘Junia’…In all probability this is the masculine” (ISBE).
At first, the possibility that this individual may be a female is disregarded because it would mean that there is actually a female apostle in the Scriptures. The second quotation seems to moderate just a bit as there are no sexist editorial remarks. Bible scholarship over the past twenty years stands in contrast to this:
- “The only woman who is called an ‘apostle’ in the NT…Without exception the Church fathers in late antiquity identified Andronicus’ partner in Rom 16:7 as a woman…Only later medieval copyists of Rom 16:7 could not imagine a woman being an apostle and wrote the masculine name ‘Junias.’ This latter name did not exist in antiquity…” (ABD).
- “Probably the wife of Andronicus; member of a husband-wife team who, like Paul, were Jews…The only woman called ‘apostle’ in the NT, Junia may have accompanied Jesus’ ministry, had a vision of the risen Lord…Paul approved of her role, calling her ‘outstanding’ among apostles” (EDB).
Consulting some of the major Romans commentaries in my library, spanning about the same time period, we see that Junia is indeed recognized as a female (C.E.B. Cranfield, F.F. Bruce, James D.G. Dunn, Douglas J. Moo, Ben Witherington III). Messianic author Tim Hegg remarks, “Many commentators have opted for the masculine purely on contextual grounds, reasoning that ‘apostle’ could not be applied to a woman. But this is to apply a prejudice to the text of which it knows nothing.” Each one of these commentators might have a slightly different view of the role the female “apostle” Junia plays in interpreting Romans 16:7, and not all agree that women can serve in leadership positions today, but they all agree that this person was female. The significant majority of New Testament scholars accept the fact that Junia was a woman.
Today, because of circumstances thrust upon the Messianic movement, evaluating passages like Romans 16:7 have been finally forced out into the light. You do not have to tell me the position that many Messianic men of the current generation will take regarding whether the second person listed is masculine or feminine; I already know their answer. Many squirm when they see women in positions of leadership in the Scriptures, because it threatens their (presumed) position as men. So what do they do with the indisputable fact that the most influential letter ever written in human history, Romans, was entrusted to the care of a female, Phoebe?
Messianic Chapter 2 is nearing on the horizon. Realizing the stark fact that there is a female apostle in the Scriptures, and other women who were in leadership, should cause us all to pause for a moment. The Messianic movement does need to reconsider the role that women currently play in the teaching and leadership of our assemblies. Romans 16 depicts that women did play a significant leadership role in the early ekklēsia, and I do not believe that we need to fear it any longer. Changes are going to come.
 F.W. Gingrich, “Junias,” in IDB, 2:1026-1027.
 S.F. Hunter, “Junias,” in ISBE, 2:1165.
 Peter Lampe, “Junias,” in ABD, 3:1127.
 Bonnie Thurston, “Junia,” in EDB, pp 756-757.
 C.E.B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary: Romans 9-16 (London: T&T Clark, 1979), 788; F.F. Bruce, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 258; James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans, Vol. 38b. (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 894; Douglas J. Moo, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp 921-924; Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp 387-390.
 Tim Hegg, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: Chapters 9-16 (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2007), 449.