Joanna apostle Junia woman prison missionary

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me.
They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Romans 16:7 NIV

A Female Missionary

Junia, mentioned by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, is a woman whose identity and whose ministry has been much discussed in the past few decades. It was first debated whether she was a woman or a man. But the overwhelming evidence from inscriptions and other ancient sources indicates that “Junia” was a common name for a woman, whereas the masculine equivalent, “Junias”, is non-existent. Practically all early Christian writers took Junia to be a woman, and the consensus among present scholars is the same: Junia was a woman. So this debate has been resolved.

The debate then shifted as to whether Junia was an apostle or not. The word “apostle” is translated from the Greek word apostolos and refers to a person sent on a mission.[1] In the first century of the Christian movement, and in more recent centuries, women have served as missionaries without causing too much controversy. Yet there is controversy over Junia’s ministry.

The debate about whether Junia was “outstanding among the apostles” or, as some argue, that she was “well-known to the apostles” and not an apostle herself, has not been resolved.[2] But either way, Junia was a prominent figure in the apostolic church. Junia and her partner Andronicus were not part of the Twelve, but they were, most likely, well-known and respected Christian missionaries.

A Jewess and Jesus’ Follower

What hasn’t been discussed as much is Paul’s description of Andronicus and Junia as suggeneis.[3] This Greek word can mean “relative/relation” or “compatriot” and it is translated with either meaning in various English translations of Roman 16:7. But which meaning is correct?

The couple were among the first people to become Jesus followers, and all the first Christians were Jewish. So it is safe to assume that Andronicus and Junia were Jews, as Paul was. If they were family relations of Paul (and we don’t know if they were) this would also make them Jewish. All in all, “fellow Jews”, or “compatriots”, is the safest rendering of suggeneis in Romans 16:7.

Paul states that Andronicus and Junia were “in Christ” before him, and Paul was converted sometime during the years 33-36 AD. I wonder if the couple had travelled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost that is the setting of Acts 2. Did they hear Peter preach at that time? Did they accept Jesus as Messiah, and then return to Rome?[4] Or did Junia become a follower of Jesus even earlier?

Are Junia and Joanna the same person?

Some scholars, notably Richard Bauckham and Ben Witherington III, argue that Junia may be one and the same as Joanna, a female disciple of Jesus who is mentioned in Luke 8:3 and Luke 24:10.[5] Luke tells us that Joanna was the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod Antipas.

As part of Herod’s court, Joanna would have known Latin and been familiar with Roman customs, making her a suitable missionary, or founding apostle, of the church at Rome. And she may have changed her Hebrew/Aramaic name to the Latin “Junia” to suit her new surroundings in Rome.

Another part of this Joanna/Junia scenario is the understanding that her husband Chuza died at some point, and that Andronicus became her new husband and ministry partner. This is a possibility considering the length of time from when Joanna was a disciple who followed Jesus on his earthly mission (circa 30 AD) to the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans (circa 57 AD), some 27 years later. Nevertheless, the idea that Joanna is Junia cannot be substantiated.

Persecuted and Imprisoned

What we do know is that Junia was a Jewish woman who, with her partner Andronicus, had become a Jesus’ follower very early on, and that she had been persecuted for her faith; at some point, the couple had been imprisoned with Paul.[6]

From the very beginning of Christianity, women, as well as men, were imprisoned, beaten, tortured and even killed for their faith. Before his conversion, Paul himself murdered and imprisoned Christians. He admitted, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4 NIV; cf. Acts 9:1ff).

Prisons in ancient times were often dark, cramped, putrid, and generally miserable places. Prisoners could be chained or placed in stocks. And women, such as Junia, could be sexually mistreated and raped by male prison guards. This was not an uncommon experience of female prisoners. Furthermore, if Andronicus and Junia were freedmen, their imprisonment would most likely have involved torture.

Rather than being Joanna, an aristocratic member of Herod’s court, there is a real possibility that Junia and Andronicus had once been slaves. Amy Peeler notes that “Andronikos is a male Greek name, often given to slaves or freedmen (manumitted slaves). [While Junia’s name is] . . .  related to the esteemed Roman family the gens Junia, which could be taken by their slaves or the descendants of their slaves.”[7] If Junia was a freedwoman, it is likely she suffered a great deal when she was in prison.

Conclusion

Junia was one of the first Christians and, if she was Joanna, she would have even known Jesus personally. She suffered for her faith, but it did not seem to have hindered her ministry. So much so that when Paul wrote to the Roman Church in around 57 AD, he was able to describe her and Andronicus as “outstanding” (NIV, NASB), “esteemed” (CEB), “highly respected” (NLT), “well known” (GNT) among the apostles. Paul, who was himself an outstanding apostle, was well-qualified to use this phrase to describe Andronicus and Junia.


Endnotes

[1] The word “apostle”, from the Greek word apostolos, has a similar range of meanings as the word “missionary”, from the Latin word missionis.

[2] The more straightforward reading of Romans 16:7 is that Andronicus and Junia were “outstanding among the apostles”.

[3] The lexical form of suggeneis is suggenēs. Paul uses this word in Romans 9:3 where it clearly refers to fellow Jews. He uses it three times in Romans 16, in verses 7, 11 & 21, probably each time with the sense of fellow Jew(s).

[4] Amy Peeler suggests that “it is possible that Andronicus was a member of the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians mentioned in Acts 6:1 who were scattered out of Jerusalem because of persecution, went to Antioch, and began preaching to the Greeks about Jesus (Acts 11:19–20). If this is the case, then Andronicus and Junia could be among the Jewish Christians who would have supported Paul’s controversial mission to the Gentiles, and that would make them important allies indeed.” Amy Peeler, “Junia/Joanna: Herald of the Good News”, in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, edited by Sandra Glahn (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017), 273-285, 278.

[5] See Richard J. Bauckham., Gospel Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002),109–202; and Ben Witherington III, “Joanna: Apostle of the Lord—or Jailbait?”, Bible Review (Spring 2005): 12–14.

[6] Paul refers to Andronicus and Junia literally as his “fellow prisoners” (synaichmalōtoi). He uses the same word in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 1:23 for other fellow prisoners of his.

[7] Peeler, “Junia/Joanna”, 278.


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