Romans (Part 52) – Commendation and Greetings (16:1–7)
With the topical discussion of the letter over, Paul turns in chapter 16 to final greetings. In the first two verses, however, he commends a woman named Phoebe to them. Why? Phoebe is designated in verse 2 a prostatis. This Greek word appears in the New Testament only once. However, it appears in its verb form a few other times. In the KJV, the noun of 16:2 is translated succourer, a word not used much anymore meaning one who brings relief. In its verb form the word is used in describing the activity of pastors (1 Tim 3:4, 5), deacons (1 Tim 3:12), and elders (1 Tim 5:17). In all three of those times, the KJV translates the verb as some form of ruleth/rule/ruling. It does seem strange that the word when applied to roles traditionally thought of as male (pastor, deacon, elder) the translators give it a more authoritative translation (rule) than when applied to a female (succourer). The New KJV decided succourerwas too old-fashioned. They changed the translation for this female prostatisto helper.
The NASB also calls Phoebe a helper, but translates the verb for the traditional male roles as manages/managers/rule, respectively for the passages listed above. The NET goes a step beyond helpfor Phoebe, calling her a great help. However, the traditional male roles are manage/managers/leadership.
We see a change, however, with the ESV, HCSB, and NIV. The traditional male roles have manage/managing describing the role of pastor and deacon. They vary for describing the elder (rule/leaders/who direct). But Phoebe’s designation as prostatisis translated patron(for ESV) and benefactor(for HCSB and NIV).
Of all these words, the verb form is probably best translated as manage or managing. The root of the word describes establishing, fixing, setting something up. And therefore, managing(or organizing) is the best word for the activity of this prostatis, which is used elsewhere in the Greek of the time to identify a female patron or benefactor. (Patron is probably better than benefactor because, while both imply financial support, the patron is more involved in management of affairs rather than only monetary support.
My point in recounting the varying translations is that people tend not only to put their own understanding in the translations, but by doing so they also influence the thinking of countless readers afterward who don’t know the Greek meanings. And the incorrect influence can, as in this case, travel two ways. First, the downplaying of responsibility for a female by translating with the generic helperis just plain wrong. A helper can be one who officially or unofficially may supply some service of any type whatsoever. Paul’s intent here seems to be to point out an official capacity in which Phoebe is noted for providing a specific type of managing help. By not saying so, the English reader of the KJV, NET, or NASB would never come to that conclusion.
On the other hand, the desire by translators to offer male counterparts more authority also shows up in translating the verb proistemimore strongly than it should be. The idea of a ruler ruling should not be the idea carried away from this word. Pastors, deacons, and elders do not rule. They all serve, and in the specific verses mentioned above in which the word is used, they manage.
The juggling of words and leaning toward impressions hurts the overall emphasis for the NT church. We should not lift up certain servant positions in the church to view those positions or the people who serve in them as authority figures. Men have not been given certain power and authority. And women, in wanting to be equal, should not be demanding that same consideration for power and authority. Jesus told us in Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given to me.” We, on the other hand, as Paul insists in Ephesians 5:21, are to submit ourselvesone to another. We, as Paul tells us in Phil 2:5–8, are to have the mind of Jesus, who humbled himself to become a servant. We, as Jesus showed us in John 13, are to become servants to each other in love.
So Phoebe is a patron, probably well-off from perhaps business interests that she runs. That ability that has led her to success in her secular life seems to have spilled over into her Christian life in helping manage the church in Cenchraea. Obviously, being a patron and financially capable, her house would probably be larger than others and more suitable for a gathering/meeting place for the church in Cenchraea. All that seems to fit, but it is also all conjecture. What we do have stated is that she is an organizer/manager of the church, having provided for it and for Paul financially.
Backing up to verse 1 of the chapter, we find another noun description of Phoebe. She is a diakonos. Again some translations may suffer from gender prejudice. The KJV, NKJV, NET, NASB, ESV, and HCSB all translate this word as servantin 16:1. And that is not necessarily a bad translation (though it is not as helpful as it could be). The Greek doulosis also used by Paul and usually translated in most modern translations as servant. So why did Paul choose diakonoshere? Further, when referring to men (for example, Paul in Eph 3:7 and Tychicus in Eph 6:21 and Col 4:7), most translations usually translate the word as minister.(Exceptions are the NET and HCSB in Eph 3:7 and 6:21 and the NIV in those two passages and Col 4:7, they translate the word as servant.)
Again, the change in most translations from calling Phoebe a servant and Paul and Tychicus ministers when the same Greek word is translated smacks translators trying to manipulate the thinking of their readers toward significance and insignificance in regard to the men and women who serve.
Interestingly, all major translations translate the word as deaconsin 1 Timothy 3:8, where it appears that a specific office of the church is being designated. And in presuming Paul is speaking of Phoebe in that office in the church in Cenchraea, translates the word in Romans 16:1 also as deacon.
But is that the intent behind Paul’s use of the word for Phoebe? I think maybe not (although she may well have been a church deacon). This word diakonosalso is used specifically for designating another function in period writings besides the New Testament. The word is used to designate messengers. And apparently, that is Paul’s point here. Whether Phoebe had already planned a trip to Rome (possibly for her business concerns), we don’t know. But apparently she will be delivering Paul’s letter to the Roman church.
Now, imagine the first century Mediterranean world. A letter is to be sent from Corinth to Rome. If all goes well, the sailing trip would take about two weeks. Therefore, from the time Paul is ready to send the letter through finding a ship sailing to Rome to carry the letter, through the sailing and arrival, and then to the delivery to the church and assembly of everyone for it to be read could take three to four weeks. What would happen if they had a question about something written? They may send a message back, having it arrive back to Paul in another two to four weeks. Of course, then Paul could write a response and send it back, taking another two to four weeks. And when they get his response, of course, considering a worst case, they’d think, “No, that’s not what we were asking. We meant this.” and another round trip of one to two months would ensue. In other words, without the ability to text or call, literally months and months could go by before meaning could be understood.
Well, back then, living in that world, they made plans to ensure understanding. The diakonoswas not merely a postal worker charged only with transport. The messenger would be someone who went through the letter with the author so that the author could explain what he was saying. The messenger would ask questions and get answers from the author to ensure the letter carrier understood the author’s mind in what was written. Then the messenger would deliver the letter, possibly being the reader of it to the church or merely there when it was read. If questions came up or clarity was needed, the messenger, knowing the mind of the author, could answer those questions and explain the message, essentially (as in this case) teaching the book of Romans to the Roman church.
In other writings, when identifying a messenger as the diakonos, there would usually be a commendation in the letter from the author giving the letter’s recipients the assurance that the messenger did, in fact, know the author’s mind about what was written. And that commendation looked very similar to the commendation Paul gives in 16:1–2 for Phoebe. So in these two verses, Paul is commending Phoebe, the letter carrier and patron of the church in Cenchraea, to the Roman church so that they may have confidence in her explanations of the letter as they read it.
After the commendation of the messenger, Paul begins greeting several of the people he knows at the church. He starts with Prisca and Aquila because they are very good friends of Paul. Remember, he lived with them in Corinth for about a year during his second missionary journey. (They were possibly saved under his ministry there.) And they appear fervent and able in their Christian work as they decided to travel with Paul over to Ephesus. When Paul leaves Ephesus to return to Antioch, Prisca and Aquila remain serving and teaching in the church. (It was at that time that they taught Apollos about Christ—Acts 18:26.) They had only left Ephesians to go to Rome shortly before Paul writes the book of Romans, yet already they have a church meeting in their home. They seemed to be no slouches when it came to Christian service—just the kind of people it would seem that the passionate and always working Paul would love.
Notice also that Prisca (or Priscilla as in Acts) and Aquila are always mentioned together. Obviously, many of the men mentioned in the NT letters had wives, but apparently Prisca took an active role in the work so that she is mentioned along with Aquila at every opportunity.
Paul mentions Epaenetus next. He is the first convert in Asia. In 1 Cor 16:15, Stephanas is mentioned as the first convert in Achaia. How can Paul be sure? Maybe he just remembered. Or maybe he remembered better because these were the first he baptized in those places. We know Paul baptized Stephanas (1 Cor 1:14–16), so he may have baptized Epaenetus first in Asia.
Paul greets Mary whom he says “worked hard.” Perhaps the working hard has to do with being a prayer warrior as it was in his Col 4:12–13 mention of Epaphras.
Next, Paul greets Andronicus and Junia. They are kinsmen of Paul’s. The word could mean actual relatives, but it is more likely Paul is using the word to explain that they are countrymen or compatriots of his—and that could mean either Jews or Cilicians. (Cilicia was the area in which lay the city of Tarsus where Paul was from). They at one time had been prisoners with Paul in some city; of course, Paul had been in prison a lot (2 Cor 11:23). And they were noteworthy, as the HCSB says, “in the eyes of the apostles.” There seems to be some controversy as to what this phrase exactly means. Actually we have some differences in how it is stated among major translators. The Holman, NET, and ESV all imply that they were well known or noteworthy tothe apostles. The KJV, NASB, and NIV change the preposition saying they were notable amongthe apostles. Using to means that the apostles knew about Andronicus and Julia; using among means that Andronicus and Junia were themselves considered apostles. The Greek there is en, a positional preposition, and so better translated among. Paul would probably have used eisif he had wanted to say they were known tothe apostles.
Why would translators have then used to? Perhaps they shied away from calling Junia—a woman—an apostle. But that should really not be a problem. Apostlemeans an appointed messenger. The original 11 (plus Paul) were apostles because Jesus had directly appointed them as witnesses of his teaching and resurrection. Others were appointed by churches to deliver the gospel message in other areas. That’s the difference between an apostle and an evangelist or pastor as mentioned in Paul’s list in Eph 4:11–16. We can, therefore, think of the designation as a missionary of sorts, those appointed to take the gospel message to those who have not heard. There should be no worry (for those who worry about such things) that the position some kind of authority so that we have to manipulate our translations from the Greek in order to ensure women don’t receive authority. As mentioned before, Jesus is the only one with authority, and in this case, an appointed missionary should not threaten anyone anyway.