The next primary passage to be examined in this series is Romans 16:1-2ff, in particular, the references to the women mentioned by Paul in this chapter.
Historical and Literary Context
Romans was written by Paul sometime after 54 A.D., probably from Corinth—in the context of the missionary journeys described in the book of Acts, this presumably would have taken place during the third journey (cf. Acts 20:1-3). This situation of the letter is unique in that Paul had not yet visited Rome (though he was eager to do so, Rom 1:10-15; 15:22-29), and played no direct role in the establishment of Christianity there. He did know, it would seem, a number of believers in the Roman churches, as indicated by the greetings in chapter 16. By all accounts, churches or groups of believers had been present in Rome from nearly the beginning (cf. below on 16:7, and note Acts 2:10; 18:2), from both Jewish and Gentile (Greco-Roman) backgrounds. This is the catalyst for the framework of the letter—addressed to both Jewish and Gentile Christians—expressing a great hope for unity, especially in light of his pending journey to Jerusalem with the collection taken up (in Greece and Macedonia, etc) for the suffering believers there. A good many of the themes from Galatians are picked up and developed in Romans.
It has often been suggested that chapter 16 is part of a separate letter, and was not addressed to the churches in Rome, but rather to those in another location (such as Ephesus). Moreover, there is evidence that Romans circulated in a form which lacked either chapters 15-16 or 16:1-23 (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 47-67). However, this is far from conclusive, and the weight of the (textual) evidence suggests that chap. 16 is part of the original letter (except for verse 24, which is almost certainly a subsequent addition). If so, then 16:1-23 serves as the conclusion to the letter (Epistolary Postscript), with vv. 25-27 as the concluding doxology. It may be divided as follows:
- Recommendation of Phoebe to the Roman congregations (vv. 1-2)
- Greetings to believers in Rome (vv. 3-16)
- Final exhortation (and warning) (vv. 17-20)
- Further greetings from Paul and his secretary/scribe (vv. 21-23)
In the notes on this chapter, I will be focusing on the references to women—the female friends and colleagues of Paul to whom he sends greeting.
16:1-2—Phoebe (Foi/bh, lit. “Bright/Shining [One]”). These verses serve as an official introduction (recommendation) of Phoebe to the Christians of Rome; in all likelihood, she would have been the one carrying the letter. This is the technical sense of the verb suni/sthmi (“set/stand with”) which begins the chapter: “I cause her to stand (together) with you”, an idiom meaning “I introduce her to you”, i.e. “I (re)commend her to you”. She is called “our sister [i.e. in Christ]”, as a term of affection and respect, beyond simply identifying her as a believer. Phoebe is also described here by two specific words (or titles):
1. dia/kono$ (diákonos), “servant”. This word in Greek has a wide range of specific meaning, from a waiter at tables (Xenophon, Mem. 1.5.2, cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds a public (religious) office (cf. Rom 13:4). In early Christianity, it corresponds roughly to the English word “minister”. Paul uses it to refer to himself (an apostle), along with fellow missionaries and church leaders such as Apollos, Epaphras, and Tychicus—cf. 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; also Eph 3:7; 6:21, and 1 Tim 4:6. It does not appear to be used in the sense of a specific office within an organized Church structure, as would have developed by the early 2nd-century (Ignatius Ephesians 2:1; Magnesians 6:1), and which may be indicated in 1 Tim 3:8, 11-12; Tit 1:9 (cf. also Phil 1:1). The technical use of the word for the developed office is typically transliterated in English as deacon. Phoebe is sometimes referred to as a deaconess, but this is anachronistic, and the gender-specific term (diakonissa) is not used in the New Testament (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 729).
2. prosta/ti$ (prostátis), from the verb proi+/sthmi (“stand before”). It literally means “one who stands before”, i.e. as a leader or one who gives help and assistance to others. It can be used in the technical sense of a patron (Lat. patronus) or protector, implying one who possesses a higher socio-economic status. Generally, it should be understood as someone in a leadership role (cf. the use of the related verb in 1 Thess 5:12; Rom 12:8), but here it could also mean that Phoebe provided financial assistance, etc, to Paul when he was in Corinth (Cenchreae being a key port/harbor for Corinth). Phoebe thus appears to have been a prominent woman (perhaps a well-to-do business woman), who also served a leading role as minister in the congregations of Cenchreae (and Corinth).
16:3-5a Prisca (Pri/ska, of Latin origin), cf. also 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19. In the book of Acts, she is called Priscilla (Pri/skilla, “Little Prisca“). She is always mentioned together with her husband Aquila ( )Aku/la$), and typically her name comes before his, which may indicate that she was the better-known figure in Christian circles. From Acts (18:2), we know that she and her husband were Jews (probably already Jewish Christians) who had been living in Rome prior to the expulsion ordered by Claudius c. 49 A.D., after which they lived and worked in Corinth and Ephesus (traveling there together with Paul, 18:18). Now it would seem that they have returned to Rome, where they lead/host a congregation in their house, as they did in Corinth (1 Cor 16:19). Prisca (with her husband) was prominent and gifted enough as a minister to instruct Apollos “more precisely in the Way [of God]” (Acts 18:26), which indicates that she was capable of exercising a teaching role in the Church. The couple was known and respected by many congregations (Rom 16:4b).
Paul refers to them as sunergoi/ (v. 3), meaning that Prisca was a sunergo/$ (sunergós), literally one who “works (together) with” him [i.e. with Paul]. This term (or title) is used by Paul numerous times in his letters, in reference to friends and fellow-missionaries (or Church leaders) who work closely with him in proclaiming the Gospel and establishing/strengthening the churches—cf. Rom 16:21; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 1:24; 8:23; Phil 2:25; 4:3; Col 4:11; 1 Thess 3:2; Philem 1, 24. The reference here and in Phil 4:3 (cf. below) indicates that Paul uses the word for fellow ministers—men and women—without distinction.
16:6 Maryam (Mari/a, i.e. Mary), of whom it is simply said that she “did much labor/work [e)kopi/asen] unto us [i.e. on our behalf]”.
16:7 Junia ( )Iouni/a). It is also possible to read )Iounia=n instead of )Iouni/an, which would make it the shortened form of a man’s name (Junian[us]) ; however, this is highly unlikely (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 737-8, and UBS/Metzger, p. 475). It is sometimes thought that she was the wife of Andronicus, with whom she is mentioned together here. Paul indicates that Andronicus and Junia share the same ethnic/religious origin (suggenei=$) with him, meaning they are Jewish Christians, and that they have also suffered imprisonment just as he has. They “(have) a mark upon [e)pi/shmo$]” them, i.e. are remarkable/noteworthy “among the apostles”. This phrase could mean (a) they are highly regarded by the apostles, or (b) they are apostles, and prominent among them. Some commentators are reluctant to grant the latter, as it would mean than Junia is an “apostle”; this difficulty almost certainly explains the attempts to read Junia as a man’s name. Otherwise, it would be the only time in the New Testament that the word a)po/stolo$ was applied to a woman. However, this may the result of a basic misconception. The noun a)po/stolo$ (apóstolos), from a)poste/llw (“set/send forth”) in the early Church (perhaps influenced by Jesus’ own use of it) came to have a distinct semi-technical meaning—someone who has been commissioned (sent forth) by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples/converts (in his name). If Andronicus and Junia are counted among the apostles, this may simply mean that they are of the first generation of believers—Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (such as Barnabas, etc)—who either saw the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 15:6), or were part of the earliest events (Acts 2ff). Paul states that “they have come to be in Christ before me”, i.e. “they had been Christians before I was”.
16:12-13—Four women are mentioned: Tryphaina and Tryphosa (Tru/faina & Trufw=sa, both lit. “Luxurious [One]” or the like), who may have been sisters, and Persis (Persi/$) who may have been a slave. Of all three, Paul says that they “did much labor/work [e)kopi/asen] in the Lord” (cf. v. 6 above). He also mentions the mother (of Rufus), a woman Paul considers to be like his own mother (“…his mother and mine”).
Of the persons whom Paul specifically mentions in verses 3-16 (including Phoebe in vv. 1-2), there are eight women compared with five men (Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus, Apelles, Rufus). Moreover, the terms and language he uses to describe them shows little or no distinction whatever, i.e. whether they are male or female. This follows what we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters, e.g., in Philippians 4:2-3, where the women Euodia and Syntyche are considered to be close “co-workers” (sunergoi/) of Paul, alongside Clement, etc. In Romans 16, Paul uses terms such as “servant [i.e. minister]”, “co-worker”, perhaps even “apostle”, equally of men and women without distinction; only in the case of the term “apostle” [a)po/stolo$] (v. 7) is there some uncertainly that it is applied to a woman (Junia). Certainly women such as Phoebe and Prisca were ministers in their own right and prominent/leading figures in the churches, alongside Paul and Apollos, et al. While we do not necessarily have specific detail on what they did in their position of ministry on a regular/daily basis, there is nothing in the Scriptural account itself—that is, in the passages where they are mentioned—to warrant our limiting or restricting their role in any way.
References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 33, 1995.
“UBS/Metzger” refers to the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition) 1994-2002.