"Paul’s letter to the Romans is arguably the most significant theological text in Christian history. The longest and most fully developed exposition of Paul’s thought, it examines among other things the nature of God, the origin of sin, the means of salvation, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and matters of ethics and ritual.
Many Christians have read it, in one form or another. But few readers focus on the end of the letter, where Paul greets almost thirty people in the nascent assemblies of Roman Christians. After all, it seems mostly like an ordinary exchange of pleasantries and commendations.
But pay closer attention to whom Paul addresses and a surprise emerges: the status of women in the early church in Rome. Specifically, three women: Junia, Phoebe, and Prisca.
They are not household names. They are not mentioned from pulpits on Sunday morning. But they were undeniably important to Paul—and to the Christian assemblies in Rome and Corinth, where they were authoritative leaders.
If you’ve never heard of Junia, you can be forgiven; very little is known about her. Yet what we do know is remarkable. Paul greets “Andronicus and Junia” in Rome as “my relatives and fellow prisoners,” who are “prominent among the apostles” and were “in Christ before me” (Rom 16:7).
The plain sense of the text suggests that this pair is probably a couple, biologically related to Paul in some way, converts to discipleship in Christ prior to Paul — making them exceedingly early Christians indeed — and also distinguished or outstanding among the “apostles.”
In its etymological and everyday use, the Greek word apostolos meant one “sent out” or “dispatched” for a purpose. It was even used in such a way by Paul, about the messenger Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25).
But outside the context of travel and delivery, the term usually denoted a person who had been sent out by Christ himself. This is why Mary Magdalene in Christian tradition came to be called the apostola apostolorum, the “apostle to the apostles.”
As the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, she was dispatched by him with a message to the rest of his apostles. The very reason that Paul struggled to defend his own authority as an apostle was that he had not met or been commissioned by Jesus on earth, but only through a visionary experience of him as resurrected (e.g., 2 Cor 12:1-12).
Why would so few of us know of a woman called “apostle” in first-century Rome? Junia was a victim of the Bible’s manuscript tradition, in which she was erased from existence by her transition to a man named “Junias.”
That saga of textual transmission has been expertly charted by Eldon Jay Epp in his book, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Epp is among the leading scholars of textual criticism, which is the practice of discerning the when, how, and why of manuscript transmissions and edits.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission defines it in positive terms as the first step of historical-critical method: “Basing itself on the testimony of the oldest and best..."
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