Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians

Romans 16 has been the subject of growing attention in scholarship for the last few years. Where an earlier generation might have thought it an addition, or an aside, commentators increasingly now see it as exemplifying a number of Paul’s concerns expressed earlier in the letter, and giving a vital window into Paul’s understanding and practice as an apostle, leader and church planter. I have commented briefly on this elsewhere and in my Grove booklet, noting the long list of people greeted and the prominence of women amongst those mentioned.

One of the focusses of attention has been the role of these individuals, and in particular Phoebe, described as diakonos of the ekklesia in Cenchreae and prostatis to many and to Paul himself. Philip Payne looks at these terms in detail and others have commented. There is an emerging consensus that by this time the word diakonos has acquired some sort of more formal sense of leadership, and she is not merely a ‘servant’ (contra the NET translation and its unpersuasive explanation), nor a ‘deaconess’ (as in older translations), since the term is the same masculine form used elsewhere in the NT.

But Phoebe has also received attention because of Paul’s ‘commendation’ of her, indicating that she was the letter carrier, and therefore responsible in some way for authoritative interpretation of the letter to its recipients. So Tom Wright comments in relation to the decision about women bishops:

[Paul] entrusted that letter [Romans] to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

Peter Head, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, takes issue with some of the claims Wright makes here. Peter is something of the ‘go to’ man on the question of letter carriers, and his critique arises from the paper he gave at the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference two weeks ago in Chicago. (Peter is also a very entertaining conference room-mate, but that is another story.)

Peter makes a number of important points in his paper, a copy of which he kindly sent me. Firstly, he points out that it is now assumed that the language of commendation means Phoebe was both carrier and lector (reader) of Romans, and therefore a key interpreter of it (he cites Wagner and Campbell)—but without real evidence to back this up. So, secondly, he looks at the role of letter-carriers in the ancient world, drawing on 836 letters of Cicero, around 400 letters from Oxyrhynchus, and a collection of around 90 Jewish letters. These collections are diverse, controlled (in that they have not been selected out for this purpose), and yield a consistent picture.

Around 10% of the letters name a letter carrier, and the language used parallels Paul’s language about Phoebe. It is also clear that the letter carrier has some sort of key role in communication of the letter contents, and this is often in a situation where there has been or is some danger of miscommunication. But there is no evidence that the carrier was the lector, which is surprising. Peter does, however, emphasise that the carrier did have an important role in communication, in that they had been in the presence of the writer, and understood the context, thought the exact details of this are not specified.

I would like to offer three other possible insights from the NT on this:

  1. When Judas and Silas deliver the letter from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 15.30f), it is clear that, although they are the carriers, they are not the lectors. Verse 31 says ‘Reading it, the people rejoiced’; if Judas and Silas had read it to the people, the sentence construction would be different.
  2. Revelation 1.3 pronounces a blessing on ‘the one reading [aloud] the words of this prophecy and the ones hearing…’ It is striking that the reader is singular and the listening is plural, which makes it clear it is referring hear to a lector reading to the congregations to whom this letter is addressed. Assuming that this was, in the first instance, carried round the seven ekklesiae listed (they sit in order on a clockwise road route), it would be odd to think of the carrier also being lector, and receiving a blessing at each reading, and make much more sense to imagine a lector local to each context.
  3. There is reference to the reading of Pauline letters at Eph 3.4, Col 4.16 and 1 Thess 5.27, and in the latter two it appears clear that Paul sees the reading of his letters as the responsibility of the recipients, and not of an agent sent by him. This is useful insight into the social situation, regardless of whether you think these letters were actually written by Paul.

Where does that leave Phoebe? It appears as though she was not in fact the lector of Romans, and so Wright’s statement that she was ‘it’s first expositor’ is perhaps an overstatement. However, it remains the case that Phoebe was known to Paul, had a role of church leadership, and was entrusted by Paul with a key letter on which the next phase of his ministry depended. The phrasing of Romans 16.1–3 makes it clear she fulfilled the usual role of letter carrier, and as such she would have had an important role in answering questions and ensuring that the letter was understood correctly—so a better phrase might be ‘authoritative interpreter.’ In both his paper and his blog comments, Peter Head confirms his support of this perspective. Given the challenge of public reading from a text which likely would have had very little ‘help’ for readers (such as space between words, paragraphs and so on), the letter carrier would probably have functioned as coach to the lector.

Peter also makes some other facscinating obsservations about Phoebe’s role. The language of Rom 16.1–2 has the ‘clearest cluster of recommendatory language in any of Paul’s letters.’ In turn, we can see that the ‘welcome’ and ‘reception’ of Phoebe resonates with a key theme in the body of the letter—the need for the Christians in Rome to welcome one another. So Phoebe, by her presence, in effect embodies the message of the letter. In addressing the Christians in Rome as one, Paul is by a speech act constituting them as church, and in their response to Phoebe giving them the chance to act out his invitation to live in unity in Christ.

To my mind, all this makes it difficult—if not impossible—to imagine this same Paul as someone who did not allow women to teach or exercise authority, which in turn makes it all the more important to pay attention to what Paul was actually saying in 1 Tim 2.12.

6 thoughts on “Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians

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  2. Thank you for your fascinating summary. As a Christian who has not studied to the depth that this debate is being conducted, it’s nice to read your side of the story and it’s helpful for a “lay-christian” like myself to be able to defend my convictions with some sound arguments, not gross simplification of complex verses. I appreciate your research and insights!

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