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Phoebe official deacon deaconess, Romans 16, Latin ministra diaconus, Origen, Pliny

Early Latin Texts in which Phoebe is Regarded as an Official Deacon

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1–2 NRSV

Phoebe is called a diakonos by Paul, a word occasionally translated as “deacon” in English New Testaments. However, there is some debate about whether she was an official deacon in the church or a minister in a more general sense.

The ancient Latin translations of Romans 16:1 (with the exception of the Latin New Testament used by Ambrosiaster) translate the Greek clause ousan kai diakonon (“being also a deacon/ minister”) as quae est in ministerio (“who is in ministry”).[1] In his commentary on Romans, however, Ambrosiaster referred to Phoebe as a ministra.[2]

Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Pontus and Bithynia in 111–113, used the feminine plural of ministra when he wrote to Trajan saying that he had tortured two female slaves “who were being called deacons” (quae ministrae dicebantur) (Letters 10.96.8).[3] Or should ministrae be translated more generally as “ministers,” rather than “deacons,” here?

Elizabeth McCabe notes that the word ministra is synonymous with the Latin word diāconus, and that a diāconus can be defined as a minister of the church, that is, a “deacon.”[4] It seems that Pliny believed that the two tortured women were official ministers of the church. Perhaps the women had identified themselves to Pliny as diakonoi (“deacons”). The Latin translators of Romans 16:1 likewise believed that Phoebe was an official minister, or deacon, of the church. As did Origen.

Origen (185–253) lived at a time when ordained female deacons were active in the church,[5] and he personally benefitted from the patronage of wealthy and intelligent women, some of whom may have been deacons.[6] In around 246, Origen wrote his commentary on Romans (the oldest commentary on Romans that still survives) and it is apparent that he believed Phoebe to have been an appointed official of the church. In reference to Romans 16:1–2 he stated,

“This passage teaches by apostolic authority that women also were appointed (constitiu) in the ministry of the church (in ministerio ecclesiae), in which office Phoebe was placed at the church at Cenchrea . . . And therefore this passage teaches two things equally and is to be interpreted . . . to mean that women are to be considered ministers (haberi . . . feminas minstras) in the church”
(Origen’s Commentary Romans 10.17, on Romans 16:1–2).[7]

Origen states here that women could be appointed for official ministry in the church. Madigan and Osiek, who are more cautious than McCabe, express their ambivalence about Phoebe’s status as an official deacon and suggest that Origen may have meant “ministry” and “minister” in a more general sense. They caution that the original Greek of Origen’s Commentary 10.17 does not survive, and so we cannot be sure which Greek words he used here. Therefore it is “unclear whether ministra should be translated as ‘minister’ or ‘deacon.’ Likewise, the word ministerium could signify either ‘ministry’ or ‘diaconate.’”[8] Whatever the case, Origen speaks of an official recognition and appointment of women ministers.

The only early Christian writers, who clearly state that Phoebe was an official deacon, wrote approximately two hundred years after Origen. Dating from around this time, there is also epigraphic evidence that indicates Phoebe was famous and recognised as a deacon by the early church. For example, a funerary stele from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and dated to the latter half of the fourth century (or possibly even later) reads, “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia the deacon (hē diakonos), the second Phoebe (hē deutera Phoibē), who fell asleep in peace . . .”[9] To be referred to as “the second Phoebe” was clearly meant as an honour for the deacon Sophia who was commemorated on this stele.

While several Post-Nicene Christian writers unequivocally regarded Phoebe as an ordained deacon or deaconess, they seem to have been projecting customs of a later female diaconate back onto the New Testament church. We must take care not to make a similar mistake by projecting modern customs and roles of deacons onto the first-century church.

On the other hand, we must also not make the mistake of thinking that diakonos simply means “servant” in Romans 16:1, which is how the translators of the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, CSB, CEB, etc, have rendered the word here.[10] Phoebe simply cannot have been both “a servant,” in the usual sense of the word, as well as being “a patroness (prostatis) of many,” as patronesses were wealthy and influential women in Greco-Roman society, and would have had servants of their own, rather than being servants themselves.

Newer editions of the NIV, NLT, and NRSV translate diakonos as “deacon” in Romans 16:1, which reflects a growing consensus among scholars that Phoebe was a deacon. Craig Blomberg simply states, “Given that Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos ‘of the church in Cenchrea’ (Rom. 16:1), it is likely she is one of its deacons.”[11] Leon Morris states more surely, “Phoebe is certainly called a deacon . . .”[12]

The Old Latin translations of Romans 16:1 and Latin translation of Origen’s commentary, as well as the Greek New Testament, indicate that Phoebe was recognised as a minister and a leading woman in her community. But what did Phoebe do as minister, or deacon, of the church at Cenchrea? In Part 3 we look at two of Phoebe’s ministry roles.


[1] Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) Originally in French: Les Diaconesses: Essai Historique (Rome: C.L.V. Edizioni Liturgiche, 1982), 19.

[2] The Old Latin manuscripts of biblical books, also known as Vetus Latina, date from 200 to 380 and thus predate Jerome’s Vulgate. (Jerome’s translation of the pertinent phrase is quæ est in ministerio ecclesiæ: “who is in the ministry of the church.”) Ambrosiaster used a regional Latin translation that was used in and around Rome in the fourth century.

[3] Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny the Younger, 10.96–97. Quoted by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (editors and translators) in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 27.
In their translations of Pliny’s letter, Melmoth/ Hutchingson (1915), A.N. Sherwin-White (1985), Betty Radice (1963), Wynne Williams (1990), and P.G. Walsh (2006) translate ministrae as “deaconesses.”  And the Oxford Latin Dictionary has “deaconesses” as a gloss.  Furthermore, Wynne Williams  writes that “The Latin word ministrae is probably used to translate the Greek word diakonoi.” Williams (trans), Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia (Liverpool University Press, 1990), 143. (Source)
In Melmoth/ Bosanquet’s (1905) translation, the phrase quae ministrae dicebantur is translated as “who were said to officiate in their religious rites.”

John Granger Cook has surveyed ancient evidence of the term ministrae in various cults and notes what Pliny’s perspective of the two women may have been.

Frequently in literary and inscriptional usage, various ministrae are mentioned in conjunction with priestly duties, altars, sacrificial tables, restoration of statues, erection of temples, sacred rites (sacri) and various other activities such as banking and even healing … The rich usage of ministra indicates that in Pliny’s perspective the women could have done everything from carrying incense boxes (if such were used in the liturgies of the community) to assisting the Christian priests in their liturgical duties—or even performing priestly functions.
John Granger Cook, “Pliny’s Tortured Ministrae: Female Deacons in the Ancient Church?” in Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 133-148, 147-148.

[4] Elizabeth McCabe, A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations, on the Society of Biblical Literature website (2009)

[5] Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 61.

[6] “After his father’s martyrdom when [Origen] was 16, the family was destitute, its property confiscated. An unnamed rich benefactress, a patroness for Christian philosophers, orthodox and otherwise, took him in (Eusebius, EH 6.2.12-14). Subsequently, both sexes benefitted from his teaching (EH 6.8.2). In the 230s he lodged with Juliana, a woman with an extensive library and with a serious interest in the Scriptures and in teachers outside the mainstream. Supportive, rich and intellectually curious women furthered Origen’s career.” Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80–160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), 19–20 (footnote 76).

[7] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds. and transl.), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 14.

[8] Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 14.

[9] This stele is discussed in G.H.R. Horsley (ed.), New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. 4 (Ryde, NSW: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1987), 239.
In the addenda section in volume 5 of New Documents, Horsely comments on new information that, though the stele was found on the Mount of Olives, its provenance may be Beer Sheba and its date may be later than the fourth century. G.H.R Horsley (ed.), New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. 5 (Ryde, NSW: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1989), 149. Another funerary stele dating from the fourth century honours an otherwise unknown female deacon (hē diakonos) named Maria. New Documents, Vol. 2 (1977), 109.

[10] In the first English translation of the Greek New Testament, published in 1526, William Tyndale called Phoebe “a minister of the congregation at Cenchrea.” (Source: Bible Hub)

[11] Craig L. Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective”, Two Views of Women in Ministry, James Beck (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 249.
Blomberg goes on to say (on the same page), “More and more Complementarian scholars are acknowledging [that Phoebe was a deacon], even though at times it has had little effect on the polity of the denomination to which they belong.”
(Complementarians are Evangelical Christians who exclude women from certain ministry roles that include teaching and leading men, and they hold to an ideology of fixed and prescribed gender roles in marriage.)

[12] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 529.

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This article is adapted from chapter four of a research paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 on “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

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

Explore more

Working Women in the New Testament: Priscilla, Lydia and Phoebe
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders
Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons

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

6 thoughts on “(2) Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Great post. I was always curious about Phoebe and whether she was a deacon or just a servant. Your arguments make it quite clear that women deacons existed in biblical times despite many claim that they are only deaconesses. Thanks for another good article.

  2. This is inspirational teaching that every servant of God needs to have. Keep it up and enlighten the Jesus’ ministry.

    Thanks and let our heavenly Father bless you abundantly.

  3. Thank you Curious Thinker, and thank you Joseph.

  4. My take is that the establishment of church offices represents a falling away from the NT ideal of ministry being the qualification for leaders and that leadership was by a plurality of elders. The contrast between office and ministry is that an office needs to be filled when it becomes vacant, but when one is doing a ministry they need not be replaced when they leave for any reason. The contrast being a single leader and a plurality of elders is also noted. As I see it, these changes were more conforming to the Roman system, but were not authorized.

    Also, Phoebe is not called a deaconess in Scripture, altho that term existed.

  5. Hi Don,

    The Greek word diakonissa (deaconess) did not exist until just before Chrysostom’s time. Diakonos was used for both male and female ministers before the fourth century. (I’ve just edited the article to make that clearer.)

    I think that the concept of permanent, official positions that are filled with professional clergy, rather than recognising authentic ministries within one’s own congregations, is detrimental to churches. As is the idea of a single leader (monoepiscopacy) which seems to have been adopted very early by the church. The New Testament pattern is that churches are led by a group of elders or overseers.

  6. […] In around 394, Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and a native Greek speaker, wrote that the phrase “husbands of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:12 applied to male and female deacons: “This must be understood therefore to relate to deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily 11). (More about deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, here.)
    A decade earlier, Chrysostom wrote an essay against marrying again after the death of a spouse. This essay was not aimed at deacons, or deaconesses, or other clergy, but at a general Christian audience. […]

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