Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

were-priscilla-phoebe-and-junia-friends

Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia are three women mentioned in the New Testament who were associated with the apostle Paul. Their ministries sometimes involved travel which enabled the women to meet. Did these women become friends?

Priscilla and Phoebe in Corinth and Cenchrea

Priscilla was a close friend of Paul. According to Acts 18, Priscilla and her husband Aquila had travelled from Rome to Corinth when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome.[1] Soon after, in around 50 AD, Paul met the couple in Corinth, and he stayed and worked with them. After some time, Paul left Corinth for Syria via Ephesus, and Priscilla and Aquila went with him. The three set sail from the Corinthian harbour of Cenchrea (Acts 18:18).

There was a church in the port town of Cenchrea. And a woman named Phoebe was patron and deacon (or minister) of that church.[2] Cenchrea was roughly ten kilometres east from the centre of ancient Corinth. Because of this relatively short distance, Priscilla and Phoebe may have met several times.

If Phoebe was at Cenchrea when Paul, Priscilla and Aquila were there, I can’t imagine she would have missed the opportunity to meet and farewell the three as they set off for Ephesus. She may have even hosted the three in her home in her role as patron.[3]

Priscilla, Junia, and Phoebe in Rome

A few years later, Paul entrusted a letter to Phoebe. There was no state-run postal service available to the average person in those days, so people often relied on trusted friends to carry their letters. Letter-carriers did not simply hand over letters to their recipients. Even if the recipient(s) could read, the carrier might read the letter aloud. What is more certain is that the carrier often passed on additional information and personal messages from the letter-writer.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is regarded as his magnum opus, and it was Phoebe who brought this letter to Rome. Phoebe may have been the first to read it aloud to a congregation. And she, most likely, fielded questions from the Roman recipients about Paul and his letter. Among the recipients were Priscilla and Junia.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans (in around 56-58 AD), Priscilla and her husband had returned to Rome, and Paul sent greetings to them.

Say hello to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life. I’m not the only one who thanks God for them, but all the churches of the Gentiles do the same. Also say hello to the church that meets in their house. Romans 16:3-5a CEB

Paul also sent greetings to Andronicus and Junia, another couple in the Roman church:

Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Romans 16:7 CEB.

As apostles (i.e. missionaries), Andronicus and Junia would have travelled.[4] Had they previously crossed paths with Phoebe?

Priscilla and Junia definitely knew each other. The two women were prominent in congregations in Rome and beyond and they may have had much in common. For instance, we know they had both jeopardised their safety because of their ministries.

Priscilla and Junia were probably in the group who assembled to hear Paul’s letter being read for the first time, and to hear Phoebe’s commentary and personal messages from Paul.

Kindred Spirits?

When Phoebe arrived in Rome she may have stayed with Priscilla and her husband Aquila; the couple were known for their hospitality.[5] And she may have found in both Priscilla and Junia kindred spirits. All three women, Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia, were already part of Paul’s network. Did they form their own network too?

Did the women keep in touch? Did they send their own letters to each other? Did they become firm friends? I hope so.

I’m grateful that it is easier than ever to keep in touch with fellow Christian ministers all over Australia and all over the world. I’m especially grateful for certain women in my network who are kindred spirits. I don’t see these women often enough, but they are never far away, thanks to the internet.


Footnotes

[1] The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in 49 AD: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Life of Claudius 25.4). Is “Chrestus” a misspelling of “Christ”? (More on this here.)

[2] In his letters, Paul typically uses the Greek word diakonos (“deacon”) for an agent or minister with a sacred commission. Deacons in the New Testament church had a different range of ministries to many deacons today. More information on the role of deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic church is here.

[3] This scenario assumes that Phoebe was already a believer in the early-mid 50s and that there was already a church in Cenchrea. Or perhaps Phoebe became a believer during Paul’s visit to Cenchrea recorded in Acts 18:18. Paul later described Phoebe as his patron (Rom. 16:2). Hospitality was one way of exercising patronage.

[4] The word “apostle” is translated from the Greek word apostolos which has a similar range of meanings as “missionary” which is derived from a Latin word missionis.

[5] Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned immediately after Paul asks the Christians in Rome to help Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-3). This help would have included offering Phoebe a place to stay. Priscilla and Aquila seem to have been hospitable people. Paul stayed with them for a while in Corinth (Acts 18:3, 18). Eusebius tells us that Paul stayed with them in Asia Minor, too, presumably in Ephesus (Church History 2.18.9). Apollos may also have stayed with them in Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Furthermore, the couple hosted and led congregations in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19; cf. 2 Tim. 4:19) and in Rome (Rom. 16:5).

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!

Image Credit

Statue of a Roman woman, c. 100–110 AD. Source: Wikimedia.


Related Articles

A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
Did Priscilla teach Apollos?
Junia the Jewish woman who was imprisoned with Paul
Junia in Romans 16:7
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Paul’s Greeting to Women Ministers
1 Corinthians 16:16: Another submission verse that applies to women

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

19 thoughts on “Were Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia friends?

  1. Thank you Marg! I’m very much blessed by your friendship, and I look forward to meeting in person!

    1. The conference is getting closer. I sure hope you can make it.

  2. And you, my scholarly friend. I read what you write and it helps me see so much more clearly. I wish we could meet more often, but like you, I feel so aware of you because I can read your thoughts so often. Bless you…

    And Wow… fantastic thought for me that those three faith filled, empowering leaders very likely knew each other, and it was highly likely they were friends. That really does something good to my heart.

    1. When I’ve read and written about these women in the past, I’ve seen them and treated them as individuals. But if they followed Paul’s example, they would have realised the importance of forming networks and not doing ministry alone, or just with their husbands.

      I wish we knew much more about the women and men in Paul’s network.

      Hope to see you soon!

  3. Thanks for posting this! It’s a good thing to remember the connection of the ones who blazed the trail- to see them as a community working together, rather than individuals.

    1. Even someone as gifted and uniquely called as Paul never worked alone. We all, men and women, need each other. 🙂

  4. Very interesting article. While the article is “speculative” it highlights two realities. First, the 1st Century Churches was a network of organic house churches. Itinerant ministry would combine with growing persecution to force them to network and rely on one another. In short, it is very likely that leaders knew one another. Second, in his letter to the Emperor Trajan concerning the persecution of Christians, Pliny, Governor of Bythinia, tells of arresting and torturing two female slaves called “deacons”. Apparently, women were leaders who suffered persecution and torture for their faith. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Hi Maurice,

      I think we are on the same page. The small and scattered Christian communities were very dependent on each other for moral and spiritual support, and even material support (often provided by wealthy women). And many letters were sent between churches via networks facilitated by deacons. I wish more of these letters survived.

      Christian women, as well as men, were being persecuted from day one (Acts 8:3), and it seems Junia was not immune (Rom. 16:7). Women martyrs and confessors were highly esteemed by the early church. The female deacons (ministrae) which Pliny the Younger mentions certainly adds to the discussion of women in ministry.

  5. Marg,

    What an insightful article. I learned of it from Felicity through FB. Thx. Would like to repost on our site (walkworthy.org) with full credit to you. I assume you’ve seen the articles of how the translators changed Junia to a masculine tense. Do you publish to an ongoing email list? If so, where does one opt-in? Blessings – one day closer to Home and Him!

    1. Hi Marc,

      ~ Give me a couple of days to think about your request. Let me know if you have a statement about “women” on your website that I can take a look at?

      ~ Yes, I have articles which say something about the masculinising of Junia’s name here and here.

      ~ You can subscribe (opt-in) to my blog by entering your email address in a field in the “Subscribe” panel on the right. Or by ticking the box that says, “Notify me of new posts by email” which is at the bottom of the page, past the comments section.

      Glad you like the article. 🙂
      I’ll be in touch by email, if that’s OK.

      1. Marg,

        Thx much – the 2nd link above is broken. can you repost? No statement about women on our site. We are egalitarian in spiritual gifts, but adamant about a wife submitting in all things legal, moral, and non-abusive. 1 Peter 2-3, etc. Much on the marriage relationship is listed on our site. hope this helps. blessings…

        Marc

        1. I don’t disagree about wives being submissive, but I’m dismayed by the choice of the word “adamant”.

          I believe voluntary and mutual submission is the ideal in Christian marriage, without any sense of adamance.

          Submission isn’t just for wives (Eph. 5:21). Christ-like, self-giving, sacrificial love isn’t just for husbands (Eph. 5:1-2).

          Paul and Peter also instruct husbands to be submissive to their wives, but they use different words such as “give himself up”.

          I’ve written about 1 Peter 3 here: and here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/submission-respect-1-peter-3_7-8/

          1. Marg,

            I’m very familiar with these arguments. Very. As westerners we are at a significant disadvantage to understand submission and patronage. I am also very familiar with the egalitarian movement and many of its spokespersons, and have correspond with them over to years to understand their position and rationale. I have learned much from them and thank God for some of their work!

            Questions for you. On a scale of 1-10 (10 highest), how willing are you to consider the fact that your position is terribly wrong in the heart of God and His doctrine of submission? And how willing are you to put aside your current view temporarily to fully discover with complete openness how God’s heart on this may be in direct conflict with your current stance?

          2. I spend quite a bit of time every week reading ancient literature, so I have a better than average handle on patronage, honour-shame, and other dynamics of the collectivist culture of the first-century Greco-Roman world.

            I can’t see what patronage has to do with our current discussion, though.

            I will happily engage in an honest conversation with Christians who are as adamant about enforcing Ephesians 6:1 and Ephesians 6:5 (according to the original intention) as they are about enforcing Ephesians 5:22.And I’d love to see Christians being adamant about Ephesians 5:1-2 and 21 too. These verses are all part of the same letter. It all flows together.

            I am always asking God to guide me, and show me errors in my understanding. I think the wording of your question regarding this is unfortunate. 

            I think God’s heart is best expressed in Jesus’ teaching about his kingdom. In Jesus’ kingdom the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, and the last are first. These are the dynamics that I want to promote.

            Please note that I do not say that wives are not to be submissive to their husbands.

  6. Thanks for this. I sure wish there was some evidence somewhere for “carriers usually read letters aloud. Sometimes the letter-writer would coach the carrier in how to read (or “perform”) the contents of the letter with rhetorical affectations”. I’ve heard these many times, but haven’t found much evidence for either.

    1. Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. I quote you in a paper I wrote about Phoebe:

      “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.” However, 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.”

      My paper is adapted and posted in sections here.

      I hope I’ve represented your views correctly. And thanks for reminding us that the evidence for reading letter carriers reading letters aloud is slim.

  7. Thanks Margaret.

  8. Thanks for a wonderfully enriching reflection on these three great women of God! Love your application of the imagination, that image-creating part of us, imaged and created as a part of our makeup by the Great Creator-Imaginator himself, as so beautifully illustrated in CS Lewis’s imaginative fictional writing.
    Blessings from Norway!

    1. Thanks, Bill!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Loading

Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?

Archives