Paul describes Phoebe at the beginning of his greetings, but she was not a native of the community in Rome. Rather, he “commends” her as a “minister” (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, the eastern harbor city of Corinth in Greece. She had been a “benefactor” (prostatis) to many, and to Paul as well. He urges the Romans “to receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones” (Romans 16:1-2).
As in the case of Junia, interpreters of these facts about Phoebe have often downplayed their significance. One could minimize her status as “deacon/minister” by noting that these were incipient church offices, not the fully developed “deacons” of later centuries (see also “Will the Church Get Women Deacons?”, Commonweal, July 8, 2016). One could minimize the term prostatis by restricting it to only monetary support, as in the translation “benefactor.” And one might minimize Paul’s “letter of recommendation” for her by assuming that he would say this about any Christian sister traveling on dangerous Roman roads.
But concerning all three of her attributes, a fuller reading of the evidence is warranted. Though it is probably true that she was not a “deacon” in the sense of later church offices, that is not a strike against her authoritative leadership. None of the church offices, including those ascribed to men, were clearly established and defined by the mid-first century. (In any case, the most important term of authority at that time was not bishop, presbyter, or deacon, but “apostle,” the title for which Paul fought so hard—and the one which he presumed everyone in Rome knew Junia already had.)
Archaeological evidence shows that some Christians of later centuries certainly viewed Phoebe as a forerunner of women deacons, in the official sense of the term. In their admirable Ordained Women in the Early Church, Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, and Kevin Madigan catalog sixty-five ancient inscriptions about women deacons. The vast majority come from eastern Christian communities (Greece, Asia Minor, the Holy Land, Syria), while only a few come from Rome, Gaul, or North Africa. Yet the geographical breadth of the “find spots” (from modern-day France all the way to Syria) suggests that the diaconate of women was, while concentrated in the Christian East, not merely a regional peculiarity.
Persuasive evidence is a stone found by workers at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on December 8, 1903 (see also “Women Deacons, Set in Stone,” posted online at Commonweal, September 8, 2016). Probably dating from the fourth century, the Greek inscription translates as “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, the deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in peace on March 21 during the eleventh indiction….” The inscription’s subsequent lines are broken or missing, which is unfortunate because one of them likely contains the name of a presbyter, which may have helped to date and situate the artifact.
Inscriptions can be ambiguous in their meaning, just like texts transmitted through tradition can be. But we should not ignore that inscriptions were the primary public texts of the ancient Mediterranean world. They communicated values and priorities of communities. The prevalence of these inscriptions demonstrates that women’s ordained leadership was not secretive or embarrassing. To the contrary—and this may be the most important point—many of the inscriptions display reverence for the female deacon named therein; after all, giving honor was the primary function of inscriptions. This particular example tells us that in the Holy Land of the fourth century—certainly a significant time and place for the Christian tradition—a real deacon named Sophia was acclaimed precisely by connection to her predecessor Phoebe. For the Christians who commissioned this public monument, the honorable status of women as deacons was set in stone.
Back to the first-century Phoebe: a more powerful translation than “benefactor” for prostatis would also be more faithful to the Greek term in its social context. When used in the masculine form prostatês, its semantic range covers “leader,” “ruler,” “presiding officer,” “administrator,” “protector,” “guardian,” or “patron.” Certainly the possession of wealth and the concomitant powers of benefaction could be related to one’s role as a leader, presider, or protector. But generosity alone does not capture the meaning of the term that Paul uses for Phoebe.
What will be most revealing to casual readers of Romans is the historical meaning of Phoebe’s third attribute: that Paul “commends” the Romans “to receive her.” There are only two interpretive options for this commendation, which is, lest we forget, the very reason that Paul mentions Phoebe in the first place. Either Phoebe has already left for Rome and Paul expects his letter to arrive before she does, or Phoebe herself is carrying the letter as its courier.
As a historian of Christianity in the Roman Empire and a papyrologist of Greek letters, I think it is virtually certain that the second scenario is correct. Since no one but Roman military officials and other political administrators had access to the Roman mail system, regular folks like Paul had to rely on personal couriers. When ancient writers followed the conclusion of a letter with a commendation for a person, that person—in this case, Phoebe—was the courier. Paul trusted her, presumably accompanied by an entourage, to carry his most weighty theological letter from Greece to Rome. And since she was not yet known to the Roman Christian assemblies, Paul offers this note of commendation to vouch for her status.
I am not alone in this assessment. In his 2005 essay, “Phoebe, a Letter Courier,” New Testament scholar Antti Marjanen refers to Phoebe’s role as “a scholarly consensus,” summarizing the argument persuasively and spinning out some of its impact as well. To his treatment I would add one further piece of evidence from biblical manuscripts. In ancient writings, the title usually appeared at the end of a manuscript, not the beginning. Thus early manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew conclude with “according to Matthew,” and early manuscripts of Romans end with simply “to the Romans.” These short texts (each of which we call a subscriptio) are rarely printed in our modern Bibles and even omitted from many scholarly versions of the Greek New Testament. For the letters of the New Testament, we can observe a scribal tendency to fill in more details over time, with later manuscripts expanding beyond the letter’s destination to include also the letter’s origin, scribe, or courier. In the case of Romans, some manuscripts note that the letter was sent “from Corinth” and “through Phoebe the deacon,” while others say it was written “through Tertius” (the scribe, Romans 16:22) and “sent through Phoebe.”
The subscriptio is important not because it adds external evidence from someone who knew more than we do about Paul’s circumstances in the mid-first century. Rather, the copyists who filled out the subscriptio were themselves deducing details about letter production and delivery from the internal evidence of the text of Romans, just as we are. They do the same thing with other letters, such as Philippians, where Epaphroditus is introduced as the courier in 2:25-30 and so noted in the subscriptio. Why is the inclusion of Phoebe in the subscriptio so compelling? Because the copyists would have little reason to elevate an otherwise unknown woman if it were not clear to them what the letter implied. Indeed, we know that just verses later, some copyists—intentionally or not—eliminated Junia’s authoritative status. Feminists they were not.
Communication was haphazard in antiquity, with senders of letters tending to use whatever courier they could find. (This explains the common forthright opening of ancient papyrus letters: “Having found someone heading your direction, I did not hesitate to write to you.”) But when the courier was a real confidant of the sender, he or she could be trusted not only to deliver the letter, but also to comment on its contents, clarify its background, and relay the intentions of the author. In other words, trusted couriers sometimes had authority to interpret.
We see glimpses of this in the letters of Cicero, as analyzed by Timothy Luckritz Marquis in his 2013 book, Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire. The clearest example appears in a letter from Cicero to Appius Pulcher (Letters to Friends 3.1), which affirms that a previous courier he had sent will expand on his letter, and which also describes the expansions on Appius’s letter provided by the new courier. As an honored and trusted courier, Phoebe could have had the sender’s blessing to explain her letter and its author’s intention as well. The social context thus suggests that, in addition to being a diakonos, a prostatis, and the courier of the most important theological text in Christian history, Phoebe may also have been its first authorized interpreter.