Eldon Epp is the author of a little book entitled Junia: The First Woman Apostle. It’s a book about a single verse in the bible, Romans 16:7 which reads wildly differently, depending on your translation, because it’s fraught (unnecessarily) with controversy. Since this is a blog post and not a book, I’ll summarize Epps conclusions, also offered in Scott McKnights marvelous e-book, Junia is not Alone (about the censure of females voices in Christendom).
First the verse, translated without equivocation or footnote in the CEB version of the Bible as: Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
You go to McKnight’s e-book to see the massive alterations to this seemingly inn0cuous verse, but here’s what Epp and McKnight both offer:
1. Junia was a woman. That’s the name in literally all the best ancient manuscripts.
2. There is no evidence that any man had the name Junias
3. Junia is not, as some have argued, a contracted name of Junianus
4. “Among the apostles” means Junia herself was an apostle not simply that she was well liked by the apostles.
The office or title of apostle, though, carries a certain weight with it, implying spiritual authority, church planting initiative, and of course, preaching and teaching.
To quote McKnight further, “Junia was a woman in the Old Latin, the Vulgate, Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic and Syriac (as well as in) English to the last quarter of the 19th century.
However, history is also peppered with incidents where the Junia name is retranslated as Junias, which would have the affect of producing an immediate sex change. Luther did it. And, significantly, the prominent creators of the New Testament Greek Bibles that we pastors like to have on our shelves changed Junia to Junias for the first time in 1927, when Junias became the name of the apostle and Junia became a footnote. Junia remained a footnote until 1979, when she disappeared from the footnotes completely.
Why is this? I assure you it has nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with patriarchal bias. As one author writes, “Because a woman could not have been an apostle, the woman who is here called an apostle could not have been a woman”… ergo, lexical sex change, ergo, problem solved.
By 1998 things had changed (yes, not a typo – 1998) and Junia reappeared, with the non-existent Junias dead and buried, as he should have been all along.
Again, quoting McKnight, There was no evidence in ancient manuscripts that anyone understood Junia as a male, no evidence in translations she was a male, and there was no ancient evidence that Junias was a man’s name. But, still, the church got into a rut and rode it out until some courageous folks said, ‘o yes, Junia was a woman and she was an apostle, and we’ve been wrong, and we’re going to do something about it.
McKnight tells the stories of three women in his book, Marie Dentiere, Phoebe Palmer, and Mary McLeod Bethume, to remind us that the silencing of women’s voices has a long and tragic history in the church. That this history has happened is reality. At stake is whether we’ll have the humility to learn from it as we move forward. What is there to learn?
1. Cultural biases are embedded in faith movements. The patriarchy of Rome was carried by Luther into the reformation as something left unreformed, even to the extent of altering the overwhelmingly clear reading of a certain text in order to accommodate his bias. If you think we don’t all still to do this, wittingly and unwittingly, you’re living in a self-righteous fantasy land.
2. We don’t like disruption. This extends well beyond the common notion that the only acceptable women in the Bible lives in Proverbs 31, even though warriors, and judges, and beauty queens, and wealthy patrons, and yes, even apostles, were all making their mark. They didn’t make the cut when it came to Sunday school curriculum, at least not as role models, other than to speak of Deborah in terms like, “do you see what happens boys and girls, when men don’t step up to lead? God is forced to use a woman!”
I’m here to say that Jesus made his disciple’s heads explode all the time, not just the day they decided to follow him. He ate with the wrong people, touched the wrong people, got violently mad in church, and conquered the world in a way nobody thought the world could be conquered – by dying. Now here we are, some two thousand years later, running the risk that his explosive endeavor has become nothing more than our own personal comfort zone. If we’ll open our eyes and ears though, we’ll see and hear things will make heads explode as well – and its high time they did, because we still get it mighty wrong too much of the time.
3. Scholarship matters. What’s needed, in the end, is a willingness to allow revelation to change our view on things. Yes, we need discernment. We can’t allow ourselves to be persuaded by just any old internet article (or blog). But when overwhelming evidence points us in a certain direction, we need to be willing to go there. Tampering with evidence is, in many parts of life, a crime. In the fundamentalist fringes of both left and right however, such tampering is business as usual. Christ’s followers would do well to see such behavior as the moral quicksand that it is, and stay far, far away.