What Jesus Learned from Junia

What Jesus Learned from Junia November 21, 2019

I confess that my initial reaction was to dismiss the idea that Joanna and Junia might be references to the same person. But as I resisted the temptation to merely dismiss, and pulled on the thread, I found it led me to discover a number of intriguing intertwined threads that are woven together so tightly that it seems unlikely to be a coincidence. For instance, the tribe of Benjamin (to which Paul belonged) was historically located in and around Jericho, where interaction with other desert dwellers such as the Idumaeans and Nabataeans interacted with the Jewish population. Joanna was the wife of Chuza (a Nabataean name), the property manager of Herod (who was of both Jewish and Idumaean extraction). Paul was a tentmaker by trade, and the Nabataeans historically dwelt in tents, a trade that might naturally have become a focus for a family of the tribe of Benjamin, living as they did at the natural meeting point between Judaea and the Transjordanian wilderness. Junia later married a man named Andronicus, a popular name among those whom the Syrian king Antiochus settled in Cilicia, where Tarsus was located, and Antiochus IV conquered Cilicia and settled a significant Jewish population there from elsewhere in his territorial holdings. Paul had a sister whose family was prominent enough in local civic life that her son could overhear access about a plot against Paul’s life, and be granted access to Roman officials when he showed up with news.

None of this proves anything, obviously. But for Junia to be prominent among the apostles, and Joanna to be among those who were essentially apostles from the description of them in the Gospels, this all seems like more than a coincidence. For Saul’s relative Junia to have been prominent among the apostles and yet unmentioned in early Christian sources other than Romans, and for Joanna to have been prominent among the apostles and yet unmentioned outside of the Gospel of Luke, both seem less likely than that we are dealing with the common phenomenon of Jews using a Jewish name in an Aramaic setting and a similar Greek or Latin one in a Greco-Roman setting. And of those who might opt for Latin, those connected with Herod’s court were among the likely candidates in Palestine, and for Junia to have been a Christian before Paul, that’s the most likely location. Paul’s zeal for his national identity may have been solidified by having a cousin (or other relative) who married a foreigner, and then later it may have been seeing the prospect that his relatives might be killed as a result of his kind of zealous opposition to the Christian movement that created the psychological state that led to his turnaround. As I said, this isn’t “proof” but a striking fitting together of pieces that makes good historical sense.

Once I finish writing the chapter, a lot of this may be even more persuasive – or otherwise, I may have some of the same questions that you do now after reading this brief summary of some thoughts that have occurred to me…

The question of Saul persecuting his own relatives came up in the comments on this post:

Paul APB 5

Also on this topic: Junia is not alone

Junia, the Female Apostle

Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

And a post of mine from years ago, mostly linking to something important elsewhere:

Junia and the Importance of Greek Accents

Connecting Junia and Joanna makes this new entry on the Bible Odyssey website from Helen Bond about the Herodians relevant.

Although we have no evidence that Junia/Joanna visited Corinth, I’ll share this here anyway…

Veils, Hair, and Women at Corinth

Mike Kok will be giving a paper at SBL about another tangled set of traditions and stories that are included in my book:

The Synoptic Gospel Session at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego

From a while back, about the woman who is the focus of another chapter in the book: The Truth about Mary Magdalene

The chapters about Mary Magdalene and Joanna are the chapters that seem the hardest to write – ironically, one because there is so little to say with certainty, and the other because there is so much that people at least think they know about her! But I’m excited at the prospect of having a rough draft completed in the not too distant future, and getting feedback with a view to submitting it by next summer.

Finally, let me share the review of To Cast the First Stone that just appeared in Reading Religion recently.


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  • John MacDonald

    I wonder if Junia’s standing as an apostle of note in the early Christian movement partially inspired a new mindset and Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”?

    • John MacDonald

      Maybe this too was a partial reason for persecution of the early Christians: that the original Jesus movement had a radically liberal view of women’s rights and station in society, one that offended the traditional Jewish views?

    • Gary

      “I wonder if Junia’s standing as an apostle of note in the early Christian movement partially…”
      All the more reason to see a bifurcation of the classic Paul and the Valentinian Paul (i.e. the Gnostic Paul) as early as the 2nd century. And note that the Gnostic Paul is gaining strength in the 21st century, both with women in ministry, as well as an almost random draw of who can, and can’t (almost no one), be both clergy, Bishop, prophet, deacon. By random draw, anyone can set their own doctrine, based upon their “feelings”.

      • John MacDonald

        I’m thinking about connecting Galatians 3:28 with Mark 12:25, because
        – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”
        seems to be implied, or at least suggested, in Jesus’ words
        -“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

        • Gary

          That also fits the Gnostic scenario.

        • Gary

          A slight twist…
          “The Gnostic Paul”, Elaine Pagel, “Those who still identify themselves in terms of racial or social distinctions, however (as Jews, Greeks, slaves, or free; cf. 3:28) are not yet truly Christian.”
          Of course, the marriage thing is obvious – in terms of Gnostics. AND Paul!

  • gloriamarie

    One thought occurs tome is that it would be a lot easier to know who is whom in the Christian Scriptures if all the names were in the original language instead of being Hellenized or Latinized.

    • Mark

      They are in the original languages. As McGrath points out, people often had an Aramaic/Hebrew name and also a Greek/Latin name as in Hong Kong and indeed much of China today. It is usually said that names like Simon/Shimon were popular because they were sort of the same either way – this too has parallels in Hong Kong.

      • gloriamarie

        Joanna is a Latin Name??? Reference? Because it appears that Joanna is entirely an English name . Joanna is a feminine given name deriving from Koinē Greek: Ἰωάννα, romanized: Iōanna from Hebrew: יוֹחָנָה‎, romanized: Yôḥānnāh, lit. ‘God is gracious’. Variants in English include Joan, Joann, Joanne, and Johanna.

        • Mark

          Junia is a Latin name, no? And Johanna is a perfectly good transliteration, no? There is no sense in which it is a Greek name, even if Luke spelled it in Greek. I’m baffled what the objection could be.

          • gloriamarie

            …sigh… I guess I am doing a terrible job here. Mary, for example, was never called Mary in her lifetime, she was, I think, called Miriam and I happoen to think we would benefit from the names remaining in their original languages rather than Hellenizing, Latinizing, or Anglicizing them. It is merely a personal preference.

            For instance I would never on my own connect Joanna with Junia, the woman called an apostle by Paul in Romans. Somewhere along the line her name was changed. I find that confusing.

            I find myself wondering if it is possible the anti-semitism of the early church’s influence lingering. Possibly names were changed to disconnect people from their Jewish origins. zi don’t know, but i do wonder about it.

          • Mark

            There are cases where, by the time we get to English, things have gotten out of hand, like James = Iakōbos. We only have a name for him in Greek, which we assume derives from Hebrew Yakov / Jacob. which itself admits many transliterations. Mary for ‘Miriam’ is a bit like this. The movement of popular names from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek – corresponding to dominant empires – isn’t a simple matter. I don’t see the trouble with Joanna/Johanna/etc.

  • Chris

    This is an incredibly large stretch to connect these two. Even “prominent among the apostles” is not an speculative translation.

    • Mark

      It preserves the ambiguity of the text. People resist the reading that places her ‘among the apostles’ because they over-read ‘apostolos’ which basically comes down to ’emissary’ i.e. ‘missionary’ in this context. Of course people get excited about the reading that includes her among the apostles by the same over-reading.

      • Gary

        “Greet Andronicus and Junia,[a] my relatives[b] who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
        Since you said, “It preserves the ambiguity of the text”, and “they over-read ‘apostolos’“,

        Since Romans was written before any church was established, ‘apostolos’ could just as easily been used at the time to make the reading non-ambiguous, by connecting the first statement with the second. That is:
        “they are prominent among the ‘followers of Christ’, for they were in Christ before I was”.

        And maybe the point is that they instructed/introduced/led Paul into his current beliefs (and into prison as well – since they were all in the same pickle, so to speak).

        So the controversy comes about from reading a 2nd century meaning into a first century text?

        Does that sound reasonable? So actually today’s controversy from the left (instead of from the right), of reading more into apostle than what Paul actually meant, is just as invalid as the right’s reading of “got to be male”.

        • You seem to be mistaking “apostles” for “disciples.” The latter means students, apprentices, followers. The former means emissary or agent.

          • Gary

            I would propose 1st century Paul’s definition of apostle, by his own words, means “they were in Christ”. Perhaps you could expound upon what “in Christ” means, in relation to “apostle”? I think context explains more than simple Greek definition. Using modern conjecture, I’d say since they were all in prison together, they were “blood brothers” in misery and glory, regardless of male or female. “Apostle” before Paul, and before the gospels and Acts were written, have different meanings than after, I think, regardless of the Greek. Emissary doesn’t cut it. Agent might, which might explain why they were all in prison. But apostolic succession, and such, wasn’t defined at that early time. So “apostle” being agent really has no meaning then. And can’t use Acts as agents called for apostles pre Paul, unless you assume Acts, written much later, really describes Paul’s true activities. Which I think is highly suspect. So the real question, is “what does “apostle” really mean at such an early time, in relation to Christianity?” I don’t think anyone knows.

          • I take it you have never looked this up? Apostolos is not a word made up by the New Testament authors. You cannot simply take words that have a clear meaning in an ancient language and decide to attribute arbitrary meanings to them of your choosing.

          • Gary

            You can’t simply take context and throw it out. I suppose you can also take the title of your post literally, per the dictionary, and assume Jesus actually met Junia, and learned something from her 🙂

            Not worth a debate, I would assume you agree.