Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Women of the Bible – Phoebe

Phoebe was a first-century Christian in Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth. We read about her only in Romans 16.1-2, where Paul gives her a comparatively lengthy introduction and accommodation. He goes on to greet 27 people in the chapter, 10 of which are women. Many of the terms he uses to describe the women are significant. He describes men and women as fellow-worker, apostle, first-fruit, fellow-countrymen, fellow-prisoner and beloved, but only women are called deacon, patron, hard-worker, sister and mother. Comparatively, only men are called genuine and chosen. Contrary to some perspectives, Paul highly values the women leaders in the early church.

But Paul’s comments about Phoebe are different from the rest of the chapter. First off, he is not greeting her, but recommending her. Some hypothesize that the reason for Phoebe’s special recommendation is that she was the deliverer of this letter to the Romans. This is supported by the fact that Paul says she is coming to Rome and he wants them to greet her well. While it seems likely that this is the case, we do not know for sure.

What we do know for sure is that Paul uses two words to describe Phoebe that are not used of any other men or women on this list. The first word is διάκονος (deacon) and Phoebe is the only deacon we know by name in the New Testament. This word is generally the center of the discuss about Phoebe. Was she a “deacon” or a “servant”? The second, and probably more informative, word is προστάτις (patron; masc. προστάτης) and its use here to describe Phoebe is the only occurrence of this word in the New Testament. If you look for the word “patron” in your English translation though, you will not find it. Previously, most translators have considered that the typical role of a patron in the first century was outside the scope of women due to their social position. (An exception is the NRSV, which translates this word “benefactor.”) Recent scholarship demonstrates that women could and did fill this role in first century Greek and Roman societies.

Phoebe the Deacon

Some consider that Phoebe was a servant, but did not hold the office of deacon. They cite the following passage to demonstrate the “servant” translation: 1 Cor. 3.5, 2 Cor. 3.6; 6.4; 11.15 & 23, Gal. 2.17. It seems more likely that the word should be translated “deacon” (but not “office of deacon”) as it is in 1 Tim. 3.8-13. In addition, the phrase “of the church in Cenchrea” reads more like a title more than a generic description. James Walters (Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Vol 1: 181) argues that the form of διάκονος also indicates “a recognized ministry or position of responsibility, if not an office.” Another point in favor of this more technical translation is that early church tradition demonstrates that there were, in fact, female deacons.

While many debaters go round-and-round on how to translate the word διάκονος it is not an argument that would yield much fruit even if it were settled once and for all. Why? Because we have no idea what a deacon, whether male or female, actually did in the first century. There is no biblical explanation of the duties and responsibilities of deacons and early Christian writings do not help much either. We do have some second and third century writings referring to women deacons, but they are not very informative. Some referred to female deacons baptizing the women, which makes very good sense because some groups baptized people in the nude. But our verses in Romans 16 say that Phoebe was a “deacon/servant of the church in Cenchrea” not that she was the servant only of the women in the church there. In addition, she served Paul, who was, in fact, not a woman. Finally, translating the word “deaconess” is also incorrect. Phoebe is called διάκονος (masc.) just as those in 1 Tim 3 are called διάκονος.

When we start focusing on the office/non-office issue we loose sight of the Pauline teaching of personal responsibility and action-based giftedness. Paul repeatedly demands Christians to use whatever gifts they have in the service of the Lord. The issue is how to translate διάκονος to give us today the same idea that first century Christians had when they read this part of Paul’s letter. To translate this word “deacon” would lead to English readers seeing Phoebe as “clergy”, holding an official position or office in the church. To translate this word “servant” would be to lessen the role Phoebe actually played. Phoebe was a responsible and effective leader in the church in Cenchrea, but she likely did not hold an office. Whatever it was that deacons in the first century did, that is what Phoebe did at Cenchrea.

Phoebe the Patron

What seems to be left out of many discussions about Phoebe is that she was a patron. This seems to be a more important discussion, because we actually know what a patron is and what patrons did in the first century. Furthermore, we know that there were many female patrons at this time. So what does it mean to be a patron? Richard Saller (Personal Patronage under the Early Empire, Cambridge: 1982:1) describes patronage as:

First, it involves the reciprocal exchange of goods and services. Secondly, to distinguish it from a commercial transaction in the marketplace, the relationship must be a personal one of some duration. Thirdly, it must be asymmetrical, in the sense that the two parties are of unequal status and offer different kinds of goods and services in the exchange – a quality which sets patronage off from friendship between equals.

A good example of this is found in Luke 7.2-5 where the centurion sent the Jewish Elders to Jesus on his behalf. The centurion had no authority to send Jewish elders to Jesus, but he and the Elders had a patron-client relationship. (He provided a synagogue for them. They petitioned Jesus for him.)

There are many Graeco-Roman inscriptions referring to women as patrons and even more inscriptions recounting the activities of patronage performed by women. This is especially common in Greek cities. Consider the inscriptions about Junia Theodora. This is not the Junia of Romans 16.7, but rather an influential patron in the city of Corinth. She was a benefactor (patron) of the Lycians there. Inscriptions about here were found on a stele by a French archaeological team in 1954. The script dates to the 1st Century AD and one of the decrees on the stele dates to AD 43 or AD 57. All five inscriptions on the stele honor Junia. Here is the first:

In the fourth year, under the priest Dionysphanes, …the council and people of Telemessos decreed…since Iunia Theodora, a Roman, a benefactress of the greatest loyalty to the Lycian federation and our city has accomplished numerous benefits for the federation and our city … welcomes in her own house Lycian travelers and our citizens…supplying them with everything; displaying her patronage (prostasian) of those who are present…her own love of fame and assiduousness: it is decreed that our city in its turn testify to her according to her deserts; by good fortune it pleases the demos of Telmessos to give honour and praise for all the above reasons to the above-mentioned Iunia Theodora and to invite her, living with the same intentions, to always be the author of some benefit towards us, well knowing that in return our city recognizes and will acknowledge the evidence of her goodwill.
(The inscription is published in Pallas, Bulletin de correspondence hellenique (1959):496-508.)

Another inscription from the same stele shows her in the more wide-spread role of international diplomat:

[She] hasn’t ceased to show her zeal and generosity towards the nation and is full of goodwill to all travelers whether private individuals or ambassadors sent by the nation or by various cities; and has procured the gratitude of all of us by assuring the friendship of the authorities which she seeks to win by every means.

Junia Theodora was a success citizen of Corinth and acted independently of any male leadership. No where is there any indication that Junia Theodora acted as a patron under the authority of a male (father or husband). While Junia Theodora did not hold an “office,” she doubtlessly wielded power and authority and did so in a socially and politically acceptable way.

While we don’t get such a detailed description of Phoebe’s patronage, we can assume it to be very similar to Junia’s. They lived in the same place at the same time! Again, Cenchrea is the eastern port of Corinth. It is very likely that Phoebe and Junia knew each other, or at least knew of each other.

We must also consider that patron could have an even wider meaning. Patron could also mean “rules over” or “governs” or, in more general terms, the “leader” of a group. Could Paul have intended by his use of προστάτις that she was the “leader” or “governor” of the church at Cenchrea? It is possible.


Paul wanted to send a strong message to the Roman church about the quality of Phoebe. He did this by recommending her with two words that first century Christians equated with leadership, respect and trust. These two short verses leave us with many questions, but we see clearly that Phoebe was an important leader to Paul and to the church in Cenchrea. She would likely become so in Rome as well in the very near future.


yvonnchan said...

I would like to know was Phoebe and Junia Theodorae are single woman? Can strong faithful woman of God with backslidded husband serve in leadership?

yvonnchan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BEA said...

I am a woman of 52 years that was just ordained this past October. I was called... no doubt about that because He is still guiding me alone my ministry. I have however come to the belief (it may change) that woman do not belong in the pulpit of a church home UNLESS no man is available. My ministry is based out of our home just like the first century ministries of many Christian women. My husband is eyewitness to how the Lord walks with me. Christ is my Priest, Savior and King and my husband is my earthly head and supports our household. My husband gives me honor in supporting my (our) call. I wear a clergy blouse with tab collar and minister to people who attend our Friday dinner and worship service in our home as well as in hospitals and organizations. Again I must restate: I will not pastor a church home unless an emergency situation left me no choice. I am a member of a local church home and I wear my collar when I am there. I am a woman minister that has been sanctified (separated) unto Christ. The collar lets people see I have chosen to take my call seriously but humbly.

Mira said...

I am a newly ordained woman pastor. I serve anywhere and everywhere in my collar because no man is my master but Christ alone!

Mira said...

and ps, sanctified means to make holy. I think the word you are looking for, the one that means set apart, is consecrated. I learned these terms at seminary. Of course there wasn't a man around to tell me I couldn't go to seminary because I was only a woman.

Lord sometimes I wonder what century this is...

temitope ojo said...

I'm really blessed from this article