Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman? April 6, 2016


How did you come to the conclusion that Junia / Junias in Romans 16:7 is an apostle?


Paul’s weighty New Testament letter to the Romans concludes with chapter 16’s greetings to various friends. Verse 7 applies the exalted label of “apostle” to Andronicus alongside someone named either “Junias” or “Junia.” Was that name, and thus the apostle, male or female?  What did the “apostle” title mean? And what does this tell us about gender roles in Christianity’s founding years?

Paul commends 8 or 9 women in the chapter, which was notably high regard in ancient patriarchal culture. He even listed the wife Prisca before husband Aquila in verse 3. Then verse 7 states this (in the wording of the Revised Standard Version translation):

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners;they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Most agree “kin” means the two prisoners were fellow Jews, not Paul’s blood relatives.)

Translation teams have reworked the RSV into the “ecumenical” New Revised Standard Version and the “evangelical” English Standard Version, and both changed the masculine name “Junias” to the feminine “Junia” while dropping “men.” The evangelicals’ popular New International Version and U.S. Catholicism’s official New American Bible (which never said “men”) originally used “Junias” but likewise switched to “Junia” in later editions.

What’s going on here? Noted U.S. Catholic exegete Joseph Fitzmyer explains that the original Greek name “Iounian” could be either masculine or feminine because the accusative singular form masks gender.  Greek accent marks that would specify this were’t used in the New Testament and early church eras. Thus translators can go either way, and have. At the ever-handy, 37 posted English translations have “Junia” versus 17 with “Junias.”

From ancient times until the 12th Century, Bible commentators consistently said a female Junia was Andronicus’s wife, as with the married couple of Prisca and Aquila. So wrote worthies like Origen, Jerome, Theodoret, and John Damascene. John Chrysostom, something of a 4th Century chauvinist, enthused, “Think how great the devotion of this woman Junia must have been that she should be worthy to be called an apostle.” But, Fitzmyer notes, “most modern commentators” switched to the masculine.

Scholars’ more recent consensus has flipped back to the feminine, partly due to a 1985 article by Germany’s Peter Lampe. He thinks late medieval manuscript copyists “could not imagine a woman being an apostle” and therefore substituted a masculine form of the name. Lampe rejects claims that “Junias” was an abbreviation of the male “Junianus.” Feminist scholar Bernadette Brooten notes there’s not one example of the name “Junias” in antiquity whereas in the Rome region alone 250 ancient Latin inscriptions tell of a “Junia.”

The evangelical website protests that “translators who found a woman apostle unacceptable made up the name ‘Junias’ to substitute their own word for the Word of God. That is how important limiting women’s freedom has been to religious legalists.” Craig Hill of Wesley Theological Seminary charges that “Junias is a scandalous mistranslation.”

Curiously, the important P46 payrus, a collection of Paul’s letters written around A.D. 200, renders the name “Julia” instead of “Junia.” So do certain Ethiopic, Coptic, and Latin manuscripts. In either case this detail tends to reinforce the idea of a female apostle.

Then, how do we interpret the ambiguous RSV phrase “of note among the apostles”? Does that mean the pair were merely “well known to the apostles,” as the conservative ESV says?  Or, on the contrary, were they apostles themselves and notably so? The grammar allows either option but scholars give the second greater weight.

If a female Junia was an apostle, then, what does the title signify? The Greek word means “messenger” or “one sent out” and the New Testament uses it in three senses. First, it identified “the Twelve,” men Jesus chose for his inner circle. Second, it honored pioneer missionaries (see Acts 14:4). Third, Paul said it especially designated the eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, both in his earthly appearances and in the heavenly vision Paul himself received (1 Corinthians 9:1).

So do Junia and Andronicus fit category two or three? Paul says they were “in Christ before me.” Since Paul was converted three to five years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Junia was at least a missionary witness to the faith during the church’s earliest moment.

Or perhaps even earlier, putting her in category three. A couple decades after the crucifixion Paul wrote that after he rose from the dead Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once, “most of whom are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6). There’s no way to know, but some wonder whether Junia could have been an eyewitness at that or another encounter with Jesus after his resurrection.

Then there’s Ben Witherington III, whose idiosyncratic speculation says “Joanna,” one of Jesus’ patrons (Luke 8:3) who witnessed that his tomb was empty (Luke 24:10), could have converted, married second husband Andronicus, and changed her name to “Junia.”

Gender sidelight on Romans 16: In verse 1, Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon” or “deaconess” (some versions use the generic “servant”). Origen said this tells us “there were women ordained in the church’s ministry” in New Testament times. The late Philadelphia conservative James Boice (a friend of the Religion Guy) agreed about deacons but believed 1 Timothy 2:12 bars female pastors and lay elders. When the Presbyterian Church (USA) mandated female elders, Boice’s congregation left to join the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, which required that it stop electing female deacons.

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