Fretting Over Phoebe (Mike Bird)

Fretting Over Phoebe (Mike Bird) December 9, 2011

From Mike Bird, who does for Phoebe a bit of what I do for Junia in Junia is Not Alone. Dr. Michael Bird (PhD, University of Queensland) is Lecturer in Theology at Crossway College in Queensland, Australia. His research interests include the Gospel of Mark, Pauline theology, New Testament theology, and evangelical ecclesiology.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2 TNIV).

I love messing with my students. Yes, I know it catches them off guard, but exposing their assumptions and ignorance is both enjoyable and actually educational too. When I get to my Romans class, I ask the students four questions:

So who actually wrote Romans?

“Paul,” they immediately reply in chorus.

“No,” I retort, “Who physically sat down and penned the letter to Paul’s dictation?”

Blank faces, deep thoughts, then some bright spark will blurt out, “Oh, oh, that guy, what’s his name, um, Tertius.”

“Correct-a-mundo” comes the teacher’s approving reply who points students to Romans 16:22 which says, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22 TNIV).

Moving on…

So who delivered the letter to the Romans then? Who was Paul’s envoy?

Confused faces, odd looks: how can they be expected to know that?

“Turn with me to Romans 16 then” and together we read the text.

Then we have a cool discussion about the meaning of “deacon,” “benefactor,” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity. It gives a good starting point to talk about Christian ministry and patron-client relationships in the context of the Greco-Roman world.

“So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and he trusted her to take this very important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?”

Heads nod in agreement.

And if the Romans had any questions about the letter like ‘what is the righteousness of God?’ or ‘who is this wretched man about half-way through?’ who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?

Eyes wide opened, some mouths gaping, others looking a bit irritated.

Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”

The end result is an “Aha” moment for some students, confusion and frustration for others.

Then comes the big question…

Think about it people. This is Romans—Paul’s letter to unify the Roman churches and to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of ethnically mixed house churches from ending up like Galatia where there were painful divisions over Law and Halakhah—the oral interpretation on how exactlyto obey the Law. This is Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with all of the Gentile churches behind him. This is Paul’s one chance to raise support from the Roman churches for a mission to Spain. This is Paul’s gambit to answer rumors about his ministry that he’s either anti-Law or anti-Israel. This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?

Some students nod in agreement, others flick through to 1 Timothy 2:12, others sit back and just think.

I’m careful to make the point that this is not the be all and end all of debates about women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we have to deal with. This text won’t answer questions for us about who to ordain either, they have to be answered elsewhere. But I point out that taken at face value, Paul evidently had no problem with women having some kind of speaking and teaching role in the churches. I think Paul’s commendation of Phoebe and her role as letter-carrier to the Romans shows that much. What is more, we should also commend women like Phoebe today!

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  • This is great. I sent this post to a few people right away!

  • love, love, love it! wonderful!

  • Wow. New glasses being ordered and delivered here. (New lens, new view….)

    Wonderful stuff. Thanks. 🙂

  • LOL!! Love it!!!

    I had never thought about this or anything…but wow does it pack a punch!! Thanks for sharing! =D

  • Jeremy

    To play devil’s advocate (I feel so dirty using that phrase when it comes to theology!)…

    ‘Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”’

    Could it be? Uh, maybe. Maybe not. It was at this point that much of the wind went out of the sails of his argument. The same goes for the matter of sending Phoebe with the letter. Maybe she wasn’t alone. Maybe she was alone and the recipients didn’t automatically assume she could answer their questions. I certainly don’t know. Neither does anyone else. It seems like the force of his argument depends on pure speculation.

    I’m not necessarily arguing the larger issue of women in ministry, but this particular presentation just doesn’t seem that powerful to me…

  • Dan

    Jeremy @5, you put it well. This is just what I was thinking when I was reading the post. It’s fun to play these sorts of games but an argument from silence, no matter how creatively framed, is still an argument from silence.

    Unfortunately this reads more like manipulation of a freshman theology class rather than showing the students how to deal with presuppositions and the text. No doubt there must be more substantive hermeneutics discussed later.

  • I like Mike Bird, but this one doesn’t fly very far for me. I missed the part where the benefactor or letter carrier was assumed to be able to exposit the letter they were carrying. Not to down on Phoebe by any means but just to say the argument from silence Mike’s using could prove a whole bunch of things.

  • MatthewS

    I like this so I filed it away in the “hope to read more about it” category.

    It’s an intriguing argument from silence. Something I wondered is how we would know the difference between Paul paying particular honor to one member of the team vs. this member being the team captain, so to speak. It’s rare to hear someone draw out the implications of this mention of Phoebe. I wish we knew more!

  • It’s not really an argument from silence, folks. True, it isn’t based on an explicit Scriptural statement (i.e., Paul doesn’t say, “And when Phoebe reads my letter, she will explain it to you . . .”). But like many biblical arguments, it is based on external historical evidence. There is some pretty solid historical evidence that just what he describes about letter carriers would have happened in the ancient world and pretty good textual evidence that Phoebe is indeed the letter carrier. Sure, it’s a bit speculative in the sense of needing to connect a few dots; but that doesn’t mean it’s an argument from silence. See, e.g., Doug Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, where he cites plenty of evidence regarding this matter.

  • Scot McKnight

    I was thinking Mike might respond; D.C. Cramer is dead-on.

    This is not an argument from silence nor is it speculation, but the language used of Phoebe (“receive her”) is often enough used of the courier, and once that connection is made, and it is neither absolutely certain nor flimsy, the whole courier context comes into play, which involved carrying, reading and interpreting. Beware those who have no evidence but to counter an argument without contrary evidence. What such counters prove is presupposition, not logical finesse.

    Check Jewett for a good citation of scholars and evidence. Before you bark and bite, make sure you are on sure ground.

  • Mike Bird

    I think the idea that Phoebe was the first to publicly read and even exposit Romans is plausible given what we know about the role of letter-carriers in antiquity. See Peter Head’s fine article on the subject if you can get it!

  • Sue

    Here is an interesting bit of trivia. In this passage Christ as high priest is called boethos and prostates, that is Eve and Phoebe.

    Αυτη η οδος, αγαπητοι, εν η ευρομεν το σωτεριον ημων, Ιησουν Χρστον, τον αρχιερεα των προσφορων ημων, τον προστατην και βοηθον της ασθενειας ημων.

    This is the way, beloved, in which we found our salvation; even Jesus Christ, the high priest of our oblations, the champion and defender of our weakness. tr. Charles Hoole 1885
    This is the way, dearly beloved, wherein we found our salvation, even Jesus Christ the High priest of our offerings, the Guardian and Helper of our weakness. tr. J. B. Lightfoot.

  • Sue

    Actually prostates and boethos, in that order.

  • It would have been nice to see Mike provide the evidence for the cultural tasks assigned to letter carriers. So as his article stands, it is an argument from silence. But thanks for the warning; well-taken.

  • RobS

    I’d also think it’s possible the letter carrier wouldn’t necessarily be solo. If Paul sends three men and a woman (for example), he might have included specific remarks to make sure that Phoebe was given respect and describe her qualification to be a deaconess and her involvement with him and the church. Would sending solo female messengers in the 1st century be common? I don’t know. A small group? Certainly a possibility.

    But to whatever extent, it’s extremely likely she was an educated and committed believer to be going to Rome to deliver the message (either solo or as a team). Her ability to shape thought (of women’s roles) and be involved in direct ministry with women and men is certainly a powerful thought.

  • ken campbell

    Would it be churlish to point out that the text says nothing whatever about Phoebe “having a speaking and teaching role in the churches” ? The text describes her as a deacon or servant, and she functioned in this case as a mail-carrier. The rest of your comments are pure speculation. What Paul forbids elsewhere is women “teaching or exercising authority over men” in the churches, that means the role of pastor or elder. Here we are talking about delivering mail!

  • Fish

    Monday, I’m going to call a couple of deacons at my church “mail carriers” and see what they say.

    There will never be enough evidence to convince some men that God did not grant them authority over women. We live in a patriarchal society; men love power and they do not give up that power without a fight.

    Yet anyone who has placed themselves under the pastoral authority of a woman knows through the Holy Spirit that they are, in full and without reservation, the equal of any male pastor or elder.


    So many thoughtful comments! I merely want to add that I’ve never doubted that there were women deacons long ago. I’m glad, too. I believe there were women deacons where baptisms were done by immersion. Women deacons may not have been needed where baptisms were done by pouring or sprinkling of water. Why do I not doubt? Could it be that I want to believe? Could it be that it simply makes sense to me? So many thoughtful comments! Do they tell us we truly want to worship God as God wants to be worshipped? Oh, I do hope so. Let us pray.

  • Besh N.

    YES! Thank you for writing this!