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Paul's Spanish Mission, Letter to the Romans

Paul’s Planned Spanish Mission

We have only two lines about Phoebe in the Bible, but Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–460) has more information on her. He wrote a commentary on Romans and his notes on 16:1-2 may shed light on some of Phoebe’s roles as deacon of the church at Cenchrea. Here is a translation of Theodoret’s commentary on Romans 16:1-2 in full.

On Romans 16:1-2a:

Cenchreae is a large village of Corinth. It is worth admiring the strength of the preaching. In a short time not only the cities, but also the villages were filled with piety. Such was the significance of the church at Cenchreae that it had a female deacon, honorable and well known. Such was the wealth of her accomplishments that she was praised by the apostolic tongue.

On Romans 16:2b:

I think what [Paul] calls patronage (prostasia) is hospitality (philoxenia) and protection (kēdemonia). Praise is heaped upon her. It seems that she received him in her house for a little time, for it is clear that he stayed in Corinth. He opened the world to her and in every land and sea she is celebrated.  For not only do the Romans and Greeks know her, but even all the barbarians.[1]

Theodoret suggests that Phoebe provided hospitality and protection in her role as a prostatis (patron). However, during the time he was writing his letter to the Romans, Paul was staying with Gaius in Corinth (Rom. 16:23 cf. 1 Cor. 1:14), and he had previously stayed with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3). (We will look at Phoebe as a prostatis in Part 5). Theodoret also mentions that Phoebe is celebrated and well known by “even all the barbarians.” Barbarians were people who spoke neither Latin nor Greek. In some parts of Spain at that time, people spoke neither language. Theodoret may have had these Spanish people in mind.

Map of Roman Empire, ancient world, Phoebe Romans Paul Spain

Map showing the extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan’s reign,
roughly fifty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.
© Andrei Nacu (Wikimedia)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul expressed his intention to take the Christian mission to Spain (Rom. 15:23-29). The biblical writers do not indicate whether Paul ever made it to Spain, but several bishops and theologians of the early church state that Paul did minister there.[2] Whether these statements are based on fact is not known with certainty.

Theodoret’s phrase, “He opened the world to her”, may indicate that he has knowledge that Phoebe travelled with Paul, or on behalf of Paul. His remarkable assertion that Phoebe is celebrated “in every land and sea” may mean that Phoebe travelled widely. Perhaps Phoebe even went to Spain with Paul. While Phoebe’s connection with Paul’s planned trip to Spain is “among the most tangential theories about her identity,”[3] it is not improbable.

What is more probable is that the church at Cenchrea had agreed to sponsor Paul’s mission to Spain, and had chosen Phoebe to be their emissary in Rome, to act on their behalf, and to see Paul’s project funded and fulfilled. If so, this may have been one of her roles as diakonos of the church at Cenchrea. Or perhaps, Phoebe herself was Paul’s main sponsor.

The idea that Phoebe was involved in a Spanish mission is speculative. What is more certain is that Phoebe delivered a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans.[4]

Papyrus 46, Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe Paul Spain

Papyrus 46 showing Romans 16:1-2 which begins at the white star that I’ve added.
Papyrus 46 is the oldest surviving manuscript of Paul’s letters, including his letter to the Romans, and is dated circa 175-225.

Phoebe as the Carrier of Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Tradition and scholarship are unanimous in that Paul entrusted Phoebe with his letter to the Romans. She may have travelled to Rome ahead of Paul, much like Timothy and Erastus, described as duo tōn diakonountōn autō (“two of those ministering with/ to him”), went ahead of Paul to Macedonia (Acts 19:22). Robert Jewett suggests that Phoebe travelled to Rome especially to make preparations for the mission to Spain by making contacts and organising financial support, and to deliver Paul’s letter.[5] Other scholars, however,[6] suggest Phoebe was in Rome for her own business interests.[7]

Stephen Llewelyn notes that individuals in the Roman world frequently relied “on the chance journey of another to carry his or her letter”,[8] and that these letters were usually “carried by persons known to either the writer or addressee (e.g. by servants, friends or acquaintances).”[9] Phoebe was personally known to Paul, as are Paul’s other letter carriers. It is not clear if Paul employed Phoebe because she happened to be going to Rome, or if she was employed especially to deliver his letter.

Phoebe, however, may have invested deeply in Paul’s letter and so personally wanted to see it delivered. As a patron (prostatis) of Paul, she may have been one of the principal sponsors of the letter. Moreover, Candida Moss suggests Tertius, the scribe who penned Paul’s words to the Romans (Rom. 16:22), was a slave of Phoebe.[10]

Letter writing was an expensive process in the ancient world, and Romans isn’t a short letter. E. Randolph Richards writes that the process of writing Romans “probably cost over $2,000, including the cost of several drafts, the preparation of a nice copy for dispatch, and a copy for Paul to retain.”[11] And that figure doesn’t include the costs involved with delivering the letter. Someone, or a group of Christians, financed this letter, the longest surviving letter from Paul. Phoebe is a likely candidate.

It is apparent in his letters that Paul regarded all his letter carriers as ministry colleagues and, like Phoebe, they are usually described in his letters using two or more ministry titles or terms, along with a clause designed to commend the carrier to the recipients of his letters.[12] Carrying letters appears to have been one role of some diakonoi. Tychicus was a letter carrier and is referred to as both a “beloved brother” and a “trustworthy diakonos” in Ephesians 6:21 (cf. 2 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 3:12). In Colossians 4:7, Tychicus is given even more ministry titles and is described as “a beloved brother”, “a trustworthy diakonos”, and “a fellow slave in the Lord.” The church in Colossae is told that Tychicus, along with Onesimus, “will tell you all the news about me,” and, “I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts . . . They will tell you about everything here” (Col. 4:7-9). These verses about Tychicus are a good indication of both the role and the qualities of Paul’s letter carriers.

The custom of letter carriers in the first-century Roman Empire time meant that Phoebe would have passed on news and personal messages from Paul, as well as providing explanations and commentary concerning his letter. Patrick Gray explains,

Paul’s coworkers who delivered his letters did not drop them in the mailbox and then go on their way but, rather, would likely have read them aloud to the recipients and been available to explain the significance of the references they contained.[13]

Peter Head, a scholar with a particular interest in Paul’s letter carriers, states, however, “There is no evidence for [letter carriers reading the letters aloud] in antiquity and there is a load of evidence against it.”[14] He has examined forty Oxyrhynchus papyri where the letter-carrier is named, and observes that, on occasion, letter carriers functioned “in some way or other to ‘represent’ the sender, to expand on details within the letter, and even to expound and reinforce the primary message of the letter in oral communication. . . . [But Head] did not find any evidence that any particular letter-carrier was also expected to read the letter aloud to the recipient . . .”[15]

Nevertheless, Head does believe that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome which “shows an exceptional level of trust on Paul’s part (both practically and pastorally),” and he agrees that she would have had a role in explaining the contents of Romans.[16]

Clement of Rome highlights the issue of the trustworthiness of letter carriers in his description of those who delivered his letter to Corinth: “trustworthy and prudent men who from youth to old age have lived blameless lives among us, who will be trustworthy witnesses between you and me” (1 Clem. 63:3). It seems that Paul had great trust in Phoebe as his letter carrier and as someone who could faithfully exchange information between the Roman Christians and Paul. This may have been one of the roles Paul was thinking about when he referred to Phoebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

Are any other female diakonoi mentioned in the New Testament? We will look at the answer to this question in Part 4.


[1] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds. and transl.), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 16.

[2] In First Clement (circa 96) it says that Paul “won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west (to terma tēs duseōs)” (1 Clem. 5:6-7). Otto Meinardus claims that the phrase “the limits of the west” was often used by Roman writers to refer to Hispania, now known as Spain. He continues with,

. . . the Acts of Peter, written in the late 2nd century, informs us in some detail about the departure of the Apostle Paul from the Roman harbor of Ostia to Spain. And lastly, the Muratori Canon, compiled by an anonymous Christian about A.D. 170, refers to his Spanish mission. This document, originally written in Greek and translated into somewhat barbarous Latin, includes the following in its account of the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Luke puts it shortly to the most excellent Theophilus that several things were done in his own presence, as he also plainly shows by leaving out the passion of Peter and also the departure of Paul from town on his journey to Spain.’
Otto F.A. Meinardus, “Paul’s Missionary Journey to Spain: Tradition and Folklore,” The Biblical Archaeologist, 41.2 (June 1978): 61-63.

Meinardus then adds that both Chrysostom and Jerome believed Paul to have travelled and ministered in Spain. Yet another early church writer, Cyril of Jerusalem, wrote (c. 348–350) that Paul “carried the earnestness of his preaching as far as Spain”.
Cyril of Jerusalem, “Catechetical Lecture XVII,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds) (T. & T. Clark: Edinburgh) paragraph 26.

[3] Madigan/ Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 228.

[4] There is some debate among scholars as to whether Romans 16 was originally part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, or part of a letter to the Ephesians. I presume in the essay, that Phoebe took the letter to Rome. Either way, Phoebe is acknowledged as being the letter carrier. See the following for discussions on whether Romans 16 was meant for Rome or Ephesus: Günther Bornkamn, Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 80; Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary, 13-14; Jewett “Paul, Phoebe, and the Spanish Mission”, 153-154; and especially Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Rom 16:1-16, 4-19. (See also footnote in Part 1.)

[5] Robert Jewett, “Paul, Phoebe, and the Spanish Mission” in The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism: In Tribute to Howard Clark Kee (Philadelphia: FortressPress, 1988), 149.

[6] For example, Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 60, citing Edwin A. Judge, “The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community,” Journal of Religious History (1960), 4-15, 125-137.

[7] Some have argued that women did not travel independently in antiquity. No doubt women rarely travelled unaccompanied, indeed few people travelled alone, but we do have evidence that ancient women travelled for their own interests and reasons, including ministry reasons. V.K. McCarty notes that we have extant papyri letters from the fourth century which are letters of recommendation written to churches, introducing women travellers. For example, P.Oxy. 36.2785 recommends a Christian woman named Taion leading a small band of travellers in Egypt. <http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;36;2785>  P.Oxy. 56.3857 introduces a woman traveller named Germania.  <http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;56;3857>
V.K. McCarty, Phoebe as an Example of Female Authority Exercised in the Early Church, presented at The Sofia Institute, Third Annual Conference, Union Theological Seminary Campus, New York City, 2010.

[8] Stephen Llewelyn, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. 7 (Ryde, NSW: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1994),  51.

[9] Llewelyn, New Documents, Vol. 7, 29.

[10] Candida Moss also notes, “Tertius is traditionally associated with the deacon and community leader Phoebe, a wealthy member of the group of Christ followers in Corinth.” Moss, God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible (Little, Brown and Company, 2024). Christianity Today mentions the speculation about Tertius in their review of Moss’s book here. Dr Moss’s article “The Secretary: Enslaved Workers, Stenography, and the Production of Early Christian Literature,” The Journal of Theological Studies, 74.1 (April 2023), 20–56, is freely available here.
Other scholars, such as Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe “Tertius was more a friend and collaborator than an employee,” let alone a slave. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer: His World, His Options, His Skills (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 6.

[11] E. Randolph Richards, “Ancient Letter Writing,” The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays (eds) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2020), 716-717.
In modern Western society, a poorer person might be able to obtain $2000 USD if needed. This would have been impossible for most poor people in the ancient world.

[12] As well as Phoebe, we know that Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11), Titus (2 Cor. 8:16-24), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30), Onesimus (Phlm. 1:12-13; Col. 4:8-9) and Tychicus carried letters from, and sometimes to, Paul. The emissaries Threptus and Eutyches, it is said, took the apocryphal letter from the Corinthian elders to Paul, and are called deacons (i.e. diakonoi). “The Acts of Paul”, The Apocryphal New Testament, M.R. James translation and notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)
Similar language is used for Phoebe in Romans 16:1 and Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21: adelphē/ adelphos (“sister/ brother”) and diakonos. And the two were involved in the same ministry: carrying a letter from Paul. Nevertheless, the ESV translates diakonos as “servant” in Romans 16:1 (with the anachronistic term “deaconess” in a footnote) and uses the less lowly term “minister” in Ephesians 6:21 (with no footnote). I’ve written more about gender bias in the ESV here.

[13] Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 136.
Richard N. Longenecker writes, “Probably Phoebe should be viewed as the first commentator to others on Paul’s letter to Rome. And without a doubt, every commentator, teacher, or preacher on Romans would profit immensely from a transcript of Phoebe’s explanations of what Paul wrote in this letter before actually having to write or speak on it themselves.” Longenecker,  The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 1064-1065.
Robert Jewett remarks, “Given the diversity of the several house churches alluded to in  Rom. 16,  [providing commentary on Paul’s letter] would have required formidable political skills on Phoebe’s part. In view of the complexity of the argument of the letter,  it  would  also  have  required  interpretive skills.” Jewett, “Paul, Phoebe, and the Spanish Mission,” 152.

[14] Peter M. Head, N.T. Wright on Phoebe, on the Letter Carriers and the Pauline Tradition website (27.11.2012)

[15] Peter M. Head, “Named Letter Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” JSNT 31.3 (2009): 279-300, 297.

[16] Head, N.T. Wright on Phoebe.

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This article is adapted from chapter five of a research paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40–120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea.”

The bibliography is here.

Some of the information in this series has been included in my newer essay, “What did Phoebe’s position and ministry as διάκονος of the church at Cenchrea involve?” in Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 91-102. (Mohr Siebeck; Google Books)

Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women
Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s Role in Paul’s Mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and women in the Apostolic Fathers as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Further Reading

Phoebe, Carrier of Paul’s Letter to the Roman Christians by Ian Paul (Psephizo)
Letter Writing in the Time of Paul by E. Randolph Richards (Olive Tree Blog)

Explore more

Working Women in the New Testament: Priscilla, Lydia & Phoebe
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons
Eusebius and Letter Writing in the Early Church

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

3 thoughts on “(3) Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Let’s think this through. It had to have taken Paul a long time and an extraordinary amount of effort to write his letter to the Romans. He then hands it to someone and trusts them to not only safeguard and successfully deliver it to its intended audience, but then to be on hand to answer questions and to (accurately) TEACH both men and women what the letter meant! This speaks volumes about the level of trust Paul had in Phoebe and her knowledge of God’s Word. This is really no different than Bible Study teachers today who teach us what the same letter means! Thank you for this insight, Marg, I had never thought about the reception of the letter like this before. The comment about not just dropping it in a mailbox struck me. Of course she had to help them understand the letter by teaching them. Amazing!

    1. Thanks, Jill. Phoebe must have been a competent person who Paul trusted completely. And as I say in the article, I also suspect she funded the letter. If so, she was heavily invested (literally) in the production and delivery of Paul’s letter.

  2. […] Correspondence between churches and between Christians was vital to the early church. Deacons, and other church agents, carried letters throughout the Roman empire, maintaining networks of communication between churches (e.g. Tychicus in Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 3:12). [More about deacons and letter carriers, including Phoebe, here.] […]

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