Phoebe the Letter Carrier?

Phoebe the Letter Carrier? May 12, 2013

We know from Rom 16:1-2 that a deaconess named Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to the Roman churches. However, what was her role in undertaking such a task? Did she just hand on the letter like a FedEx delivery lady, did she read the letter to them, did she answer questions about the letter, or did she even expound the letter (see my earlier thoughts here).

Peter Head of Tyndale House is doing some research on letter carriers in the ancient world (see an interview with him here about it) and Ian Paul has a good summary on his blog about Peter’s take on the issue. After laying out the options, Ian Paul states:

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.

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  • I also add some other insights to Peter’s from other data in the NT…

  • I’m glad to see someone taking this further. I have an unpublished article on this very subject from 2003 or 2004 that I read at ETS. Though I am persuaded, still not everybody is convinced that Phoebe was the letter-carrier. But given that diakonos can mean letter-carrier/courier, plus Paul’s recommendation of her to the church at Rome gives clear indication that she was the letter-carrier.

  • Sean du Toit

    An expanded superscription for Romans is found in the majority text which reads: “…. προς Πωμαιους εγραφη απο Κορίνθου δια Φοιβης…” This indicates that at least some early Christian interpreters viewed Phoebe as the letter carrier. In fact, I can’t find anyone who seriously doubts that she carried the letter to Rome, unless of course one doubts the authenticity of Romans 16. Craig Keener allows for the possibility that Phoebe read Romans, and cites the work of William David Shiell, Reading Acts: The Lector and the Early Christian Audience (Leiden:Brill, 2004), 102-36. I’d love to one day focus on the letter of recommendation to Phoebe, and compare that with the letter of recommendation concerning Stephanus in 1 Corinthians. That could be fruitful.

  • rfellows

    Women rarely travelled in the ancient world so it is likely that the primary purpose of Phoebe’s journey to Rome was to settle there. My assumption is that, along with Prisca and Aquila, she had been expelled from Rome and that she was returning there. In all probability Paul gave her the letter to carry because she was going to Rome anyway. Her role as letter carrier therefore (unfortunately) tells us nothing about Paul’s relationship with her. We cannot assume that he considered her to be a particularly qualified interpreter of his letter. He may have had no other choice of letter carrier and her only qualification may have been that she was a Christian who was going to Rome.

  • Pete

    Come on Terry, get that article published!

  • Not to mention that she may have been the scribe of the letter, since she no doubt had better handwriting. Paul couldn’t write it himself (chains) and certainly would not ask Luke to do it – as a physician, his handwriting would have been the worst of all!