I am in the process of finishing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 (or more likely, 32) pages, due out in the next week or so. I am aiming to cover Gen 1, 2 and 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 14, Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2.
Here are my comments on Romans 16, which is important since we see here Paul offering direct comment on and evaluation of the ministry of women he knew.
Paul’s list of personal greetings in Romans 16 is exceptional in its length; perhaps in writing to a church he has neither founded nor visited, he needs to demonstrate his strong connections with it (France, p 10). Apart from general greetings to the households of Aristobulus and of Narcissus, he sends to greetings to twenty-seven individuals. Surprisingly, ten of the named people are women. A number of features here are worth noting:
- Four of the women are said to have ‘worked hard’, either ‘in the Lord’ or ‘among you.’ The word Paul uses (kopiao) is the one he uses of his own apostolic ministry in evangelism and church building (1 Cor 15.10, Gal 4.11 and Phil 2.16) or of others’ (1 Cor 16.16, 1 Thess 5.12).
- As noted above, he calls Prisca and Aquila ‘fellow workers’ (synergoi, v. 3), a term Paul uses elsewhere for others who were his chief associates in his apostolic mission, such as Timothy, Titus, Mark, Luke and Philemon. This supports the observation from Acts 18 that Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila founded the congregation in Ephesus.
- Phoebe (vv 1–2) is described as a ‘deacon’, and there is no reason to think this is not the same role as that mentioned in Phil 1.1 and 1 Tim 3.8 (Cranfield p 781). She is also described as a prostatis, which France (p 11) suggests is best translated as ‘benefactor’ or ‘patron’, though it also has strong connections with terms of leadership (see Romans 12.8; Cranfield p 782, 625–627). Payne (pp 62–3) argues for its meaning as ‘leader’, because (1) it is closely related to the cognate proistamenos in Rom 12.8, (2) ‘leader’ is listed ahead of ‘benefactor’ in some important lexicons (3) the NT uses another word for ‘benefactor’, euergetes, in Luke 22.25. We should certainly not rule out this meaning on the grounds that Paul could not conceive of a woman being a ‘leader to many, and to me’ (as some have done) since this would be a circular argument.
- Junia (v 7) is described as ‘prominent amongst the apostles.’ Although some translations suggest this means ‘in the eyes of’ (that is, Andronicus and Junia are not part of the group of apostles), Cranfield comments that it is ‘virtually certain’ that the phrase means they are outstanding members of the group known as apostles (p 789; Dunn p 894). A number of translations use the masculine name ‘Junias’; the difference is in the Greek accenting. But this name is unattested, whereas the female ‘Junia’ is common; all the fathers and commentators up until the Middle Ages read it as feminine (Cranfield p 788, France p 11, Dunn p 894). Eldon J Epp’s book-length study of Junia confirms that the most natural way of reading this verse is that Junia was a woman and an apostle of some standing.
France concludes his discussion:
The cumulative impression from Romans 16.1–16 is that Paul numbered women amongst his closest fellow-workers in his apostolic mission, that they held positions of recognized authority in his churches, and that they were engaged in teaching and indeed ‘apostleship.’ … All this seems to be in a different world from 1 Tim 2.11–12, and to be hard to square with the belief that Paul’s principle of female ‘submission’ extends outside of the marriage relationship to include also the prohibition of authoritative ministry in the church. (France, pp 11–12)