The New Testament shows Paul’s affirmation of women. He mentions that Eudia and Syntche labored side by side with him in the gospel together (Philip 4:2-3). He mentions that Mary worked hard for those at the Roman church (Ro 16:6). He calls Tryphaena and Tryphosa “workers in the Lord” (Ro 16:12) and writes two verses about Phoebe, a “servant of the church” and a “patron of many and of myself” (Ro 16:1-2). As Craig S. Keener notes, “the percentage of women colleagues Paul acknowledges is amazing by any ancient standards.” (1)
And we’re not even done yet! We have to make special mention of the married couple Aquila and Priscilla. Their names come up six times throughout Paul’s ministry (Ac 18:2, 18, 26; Ro 16:3-4; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19) and interestingly, four out of those six times Priscilla’s name is mentioned first—a very strange thing to do in Paul’s culture. Some have concluded therefore that “the reason may be, that her personal character and acts gave her a more prominent position; she may have possibly labored in the Christian cause with more intelligence and with greater zeal than her husband” (2). In fact, Paul seemed so close with Priscilla that three of the times he mentions her, he calls her by the nickname, Prisca.
And then there’s Junia, Paul’s kinsmen and fellow prisoner who was well known to the apostles (Ro 16:7). Yes, it very much appears here that Paul is referring to a female apostle well known in the early church. But if so, why haven’t we heard more about her today? Partially because measures have been taken by some to make Junia out to be a man by opting to translate her name as Junias. The misogyny shines brightly here when we look at the fact that, as scholar Bernadette Brooten noted towards the end of the twentieth century,
To date not a single Greek or Latin inscription, not a single reference in ancient literature has been cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis. My own search for an attestation has also proved fruitless. This means that we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed. (3)
James Dunn calls this gender swap, “a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity” (4). This sexism especially becomes clear when we look at the fact that Junia was presumed to be a woman for at least the first 13 centuries of the church, and is recorded as such in the early writings of Origen, John Chrysostom and many others (5).
The big reason some try so hard to masculinize Junia in this passage, is because Paul seems to note her as an apostle. While the English Standard Version of the Bible says she is “well known to the apostles” (Ro 16:7), many translations opt to have this phrase say that she was “among” the apostles. “Either translation is possible within the scope of Greek grammar,” Heiser notes (6).
But I think Eldon Jay Epp is right in assuming Junia to be an apostolic woman, since, “Paul, in his letters, feels compelled to defend his apostleship (especially in 2 Cor 12:11-12), which he does vigorously, making it highly unlikely that he would employ the term ‘apostle’ loosely when applying it to others” (7).
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we would have absolutely no problem opting for Junia to be “among the apostles,” if we concluded she was a man. This simple statement should speak volumes to us, for it means that we are partially translating this phrase based on how we culturally want to see it.
But in the end, even if you’re unwilling to see Junia as an apostle, she was still clearly an outstanding Christian woman who was close to Paul and the other apostles and was so engaged in ministry that she went to prison for it. That’s the kind of woman any Christian should be willing to follow, and no man should make himself to be greater than her simply because he is a man.
Art by my sister-in-law, Alyssa Bradley of Whimsy Design and Illustration.
This is an excerpt from my chapter “Women in Ministry” in my book, The Rush and the Rest. A series on women and the church will continue every day this week here on my blog to help us cover many of the confusing passages that often oppress women.
1. Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2004, Kindle Locations 2142-2143.
2. Lange, John Peter et al. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Acts. Bellingham, Logos Bible Software, 2008, p. 341.
3. Brooten, Bernadette. “Junia … Outstanding among the Apostles (Romans 16:7).” Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration. Editor L. and A. Swidler. New York, Paulist, 1977, p. 142.
4. Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16. Vol. 38. Dallas, Word, 1988, p. 894. Word Bible Commentary.
5. For more information, see, Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 33. New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 737-738. Anchor Yale Bible.
6. Heiser, Michael S. I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible. p. 160.
7. Epp, Eldon Jay. Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2005, Kindle Locations 868-869. Much of the research and quotes about Junia referenced here come from Eldon’s Jay Epp’s own research.