Romans 16

Bridget Jack Jeffries (“Ms. Jack”) is a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church. She blogs at ClobberBlog.

Romans 16 has often been overlooked and underappreciated when compared to the rest of Romans. It’s far lower in theological content and subsequently tends to warrant less space in commentaries and fewer mentions in sermons so that many end their reading of Romans without taking a careful look at this chapter. I find this unfortunate, because I consider Romans 16 to be the “cool-down” at the end of a high-energy theological cardio work-out. And as anyone who works out can testify, while it may be tempting to turn off your television and step away from your exercise video once the trainer initiates the cool-down phase, you’ll only be cheating your body if you do. Likewise, Romans 16 does have important lessons to teach us, even if they’re of a much different tone and nature than the heavy theological treatises of the preceding 15 chapters, and we cheat ourselves out of a portion of God’s “revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past” (v. 25) when we skip over this chapter and call it a day.

Elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and earlier in the timeline of his ministry relative to the writing of Romans, Paul reminded the church that every believer is a member of the same body, and every part of that body is important no matter how small and trivial its role may seem (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Most of Romans 16 is an object lesson of this principle, for here we catch a rare glimpse of the believers who made up Paul’s support team. Paul we know plenty about because he may have written as much as a third of the New Testament, but most of these believers are only mentioned here in Romans 16. Yet Paul could not have been the great missionary and evangelist he was without the support of people like these. Furthermore, this section gives us some tantalizing, rare glimpses into how the earliest Christian churches actually functioned.

Romans 16 is a significant passage for the study of women in the Bible, with two of its sections having provided fuel for significant controversy in the debate over women in ministry in recent years. Verses 1-2 designate a woman named Phoebe a “diakonos,” which carries the technical meaning of “servant” but is used colloquially elsewhere in the Pauline corpus to refer to the office of deacon. Phoebe is also a “prostatis,” which carries the literal meaning of “woman who presides” and colloquially means “benefactor” or “patron.” The clarity of this evidence has caused a number of Protestant churches to re-evaluate their positions on women in ministry and admit women to their diaconates. Less certain but still worthy of consideration is Romans 16:7, where a woman named Junia is said to be “distinguished among the apostles” or “esteemed by the apostles.” I have extensively summarized the details of these debates in my PDF below. (Note: Latter-day Saints remain largely untouched by these controversies due to their dependence on the KJV, which archaically renders Phoebe as a “servant” and “succourer” and implies that Junia is male.)

However, even if one completely ignores the question of whether Romans 16:1-2 or Romans 16:7 can be used to make a case for the ordination of women, the passage is still an extremely significant one for women in ministry. Of the 29 believers whom Paul mentions in verses 1-16, 10 (35%) are women. Paul calls them his co-workers and commends their hard work in the Gospel. He speaks of them tenderly, saying that one of them has been a mother to him, and he commends them for risking their lives for the Gospel and doing prison time because of their faith. I discovered Romans 16 at a time when I was seriously questioning whether Christianity was really a friendly place for women, and the parity shown here between men and women in their labors for the Gospel was part of what convinced me that it was.

Paul spends a few verses exhorting the believers in Rome against “those who cause divisions” and warns them against things that are “contrary to the teaching you have [previously] learned” (v. 17). He reminds them of his joy that they as Gentiles are learning the Gospel and the glory their obedience brings to the church (v. 19). He urges them to be “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (v. 19), the latter being a likely allusion to Adam and Eve’s decision to know evil through experience when they ate from the tree and transgressed for the first time.

After a shorter set of greetings (v. 21-23) from the believers in Corinth (all men this time, but that’s okay; I’m actually pretty fond of men ;)), Paul issues his final doxology wherein he re-iterates a number of the themes that he covered throughout the epistle (v. 25-27). See Keener’s table on page 9 of my PDF if you’re interested in a careful breakdown of those themes. The epistle closes appropriately by hailing God’s glory forever through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Extended Commentary on Romans 16 – PDF

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33 thoughts on “Romans 16

  1. Pingback: ClobberBlog » Romans 16

  2. I’ve long been fascinated by language issues such as those involving problems in translation, and this chapter certainly poses some interesting problems along that line. I’ve done a bit more reading about Phoebe this morning, and I actually find the reference to her as prostatis more persuasive in seeing her in a leadership role of some sort than the reference to her as diakonos. But that’s certainly obscured in nearly every English translation!

    In any case, I enjoyed reading the paper and finding out more about all the people listed in this chapter. It helped me understand more about whom Paul was writing to and about. I appreciate the considerable effort that went into it.

  3. Thanks Eric. Glad you enjoyed it.

    For the record, I just re-read the paper this morning and noticed a few typos, so I fixed them and re-uploaded the PDF. (In case anyone had saved a copy of the PDF or something.)

  4. I highly recommend that everyone read the pdf.

    BFF: I appreciate your scholarly restraint when analyzing the possible roles of the women mentioned in this chapter. I know what you want to believe, but you’re careful not to let that determine your conclusions.

  5. Romans 16 is a great ending. I like the “cool-down” imagery, Jack.

    Cheers everyone.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    And thanks, Tim, for letting me chat on your blog during this series.

    To God be glory and thanks and our love.

  6. As I’ve thought about the implications of 16:7, I am coming to realise more and more my lack of understanding of Greek, as well as a wish that we had more information from Paul about what he meant.

    I can see one reading that interprets to passage as saying that Andronicus and Junia were greatly esteemed and commended to others by the apostles. I am sure that my current understanding of the role of an apostle in the LDS church is affecting this interpretation, but I think of how many men and women work with the apostles and are surely well-thought of by them. I am certain that there are quite a few who are distinguished among the apostles as being excellent at whatever they do.

    I guess another way to put it would be to take a different vocation. I know many teachers who highly value me as a substitute. I am distinguished among the teachers in Champaign Unit 4 as an excellent substitute. I think the problem with Paul’s statement is that he doesn’t give any real indication as to why Andronicus and Junia are distinguished among them. Are they distinguished because of their work as apostles? Are they distinguished because, just as I am distinguished among the teachers in my district as a valuable substitute, they were valuable in the services they rendered?

    Of course, if the passage says, as the NIV translates it, that they are outstanding among the apostles, none of the above commentary would really work. But, working with Jack’s translation in her paper and the translations that seem to be prevalent among many other English translations, I find that Andronicus and Junia are described as being either esteemed or distinguished, both of which are descriptors that beg further explanation: why are the esteemed or distinguished?

  7. Alex: you bring up a good point. The problem is that Paul wasn’t trying to make any point other than to commend Junia and Andronicus to the Romans; i.e., “Take good care of these two ’cause they’re with me.”

    Thus we’re trying to squeeze way more out of his comment than he ever intended—it’s almost a Seinfeldian analysis: Did he say “hi” or “hello”?

  8. Alex ~ In my PDF, I acknowledged both that this passage could mean “esteemed by the apostles” or that “apostle” could mean something more like “missionary” or “church planter” here. I just checked out the NIV 2010 (it’s going to be finalized and released in 2011), and I’m very pleased with how they’ve rendered this passage:

    Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among[a] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

    a. Or are esteemed by

    They’ve completely dropped man-Junia from both the main text and the footnotes and preserved the traditional translation of the passage while acknowledging the new “esteemed by” argument in the footnotes.

    As to which it is, we really just don’t know. I agree with my BFF that people are reading far more into the passage than Paul ever intended, but that’s because we’re trying to get back to doing things the way the early Christians did it. We know that women did have sacerdotal ministry taken away from them by later generations of Christians; there’s no question of that. The only question is, how far it went. A passing reference to a female apostle could be incredibly significant for that reason.

  9. Jack – I forgot to mention that I did read your article, and I definitely found it very interesting! I’d never been aware of the idea that Junia was actually Junias, and found that very odd. I also find it interesting that women were apparently much more involved in the early church that was made apparent by later church leaders, and I find that significant as I look for signs that the LDS church is making women’s roles in the church more involved. (I see the small but important change in having the RS president attend and participate in PEC as a great example.)

  10. Jack,

    Thanks for the summary of Romans 16. The more I read Paul, the more radical he becomes. His position on women is no different. With the exception of 1 Cor 14:33-36, he seems much more positive and egalitarian with women than anyone else at the time. Indeed, I think this is one of the reasons that the deutero-Paulines and the Pastorals are not from Paul, because the treatment/doctrine about women gets progressively worse.

    What’s your position on 1 Cor 14:33-26. There is some speculation that it’s a later insertion. I don’t know if that has much merit, though I would like for it to be true:).

    Alex,

    If you lack understanding in Greek, you can always teach yourself.

  11. David Clark: I wonder about how much more egalitarian Paul was for his time. The answer largely hinges on what we make of Junia and Phoebe. As Jack explains, there are different interpretations that range from “these women are really helpful” to “these women are ecclesiastic leaders.” The former isn’t all that revolutionary….

  12. I should add (for clarity) that I’m not sure what Paul is saying, nor am I aware of other statements from Paul that could be taken as particularly progressive. But I certainly may be overlooking something.

  13. BrianJ,

    Once you understand the mindset of 1st century Greeks and Jews it becomes very obvious that his desire to bring them together in a common worship and faith was utterly revolutionary.

    The idea that slaves and masters could be “beloved brethren” was completely revolutionary. In the Roman world slaves were property, end of story. While manumission was common in Roman times, the status of the slave as a slave was never in doubt, he/she was property.

    His teachings on marriage also flouted the social norms of the day.

    There are others, but you get the idea.

  14. I’m not questioning his progressiveness on Greeks and Jews, masters and slaves, etc. Rather, I’m asking specifically about egalitarianism toward women.

  15. Alex,

    If you lack understanding in Greek, you can always teach yourself.

    And if I had $1,000,000 I’d buy a K-car (nice reliant automobile).

    Alas, there are only so many hours in the day, and there are only so many things I can accomplish in my life. As much as I am interested in languages and linguistics, I need to learn American Sign Language before I pick up ancient Greek. And I’d probably rather learn more about my own native tongue before I do that.

    I’ll just continue to rely on others’ translations and (hopefully) corrections when I misinterpret something.

  16. Alex,

    For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    Brian,

    My whole point was that he was radical on any number of issues. Since I wasn’t making a specific point on egalitarianism, I’m moving on now, having made my point.

  17. David: I apologize if my question was read as a rebuttal of your point. That was not my intent. Rather, I was hoping you (or someone else) might have additional information regarding Paul’s egalitarianism toward women. I can see that that was not your whole point, but it was part of your point, thus I thought you might be able to answer my question. Specifically, you wrote, “he seems much more positive and egalitarian with women than anyone else at the time.” Since I don’t see that (at least not unambiguously), I wondered what I had missed. Thank you anyway for considering my question.

  18. BrianJ,

    I did write that. I think I am confusing myself with the terminology. Egalitarianism in an evangelical context is a specific theological stance. I was using it in a much more general sense, as in more equality towards women outside of a church context. My apologies for being confusing and for misunderstanding.

    I’m not at home right now, or else I would get out my copy of The Paul Quest by Ben Witherington. Witherington is kind of a specialist in women in the New Testament and also in using sociological analyses. Hence he uses those tools and emphases to look at Paul. I would recommend it as a good resource to investigate Paul’s radicalness.

  19. Thanks David and Tim. Tim, that’s a good reference (if we overlook that Ephesians was probably not written by Paul—then again, since it was probably written by someone heavily influenced by Paul, it’s perhaps close enough to reflecting Paul’s own sentiments….)

  20. David – That is quite precisely my point. When it comes to languages, my treasure is in communicating more effectively with family, friends, colleagues, and students, which will be done much more easily when I can sign to my brother-in-law (who is deaf) and can speak my native tongue to other native speakers without throwing out confusing neologisms without being able to explain them or misusing words. 🙂

  21. When the subject of husbands and wives comes up I always think of the saying that if husbands were truly willing to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ laid his life down for the church (Eph 5:25-28), wives would love submitting to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24). Do you think that’s true, Ms. Jack?

  22. So, David Clark, Alex, Brian, and Cal, you are all asking excellent questions which I wanted to offer a detailed response to.

    I was in the midst of typing this response complete with citations, links, etc. and then . . . my computer suddenly shut down and re-started, for no reason that I can see, and my work was lost.

    I suppose I should have worked on the comment in Open Office where it would have auto-saved and given me the option of restoration, but alas, I didn’t.

    I will get back to you all tomorrow.

  23. Pingback: A Study of Romans 16 | Προστάτις

  24. Alex ~ Thanks for reading my PDF and pondering these things. It really makes me happy to hear that.

    I remember feeling pretty frustrated with Greek readers when I didn’t read Greek. I had a youth pastor who used to say, “I don’t have to know everything about something. I just have to know more than you do, and then you have to trust me.” That was how I felt about Greek readers. For all I knew, their arguments could be full of crap (and, I later found out, often were full of crap), but I wouldn’t know any better because I didn’t know Greek.

    I’m sympathetic to this. I tried very hard to break down the Greek as much as I could so that non-Greek readers would understand what’s being argued, and I tried to fairly represent what the other side says about these passages. But I do have my biases, and we all know where they lie.

    David ~ 1 Cor. 14:33-35 has generally evoked one of three responses from egalitarians:

    (1) Paul is quoting someone in Corinth who was teaching that women were to remain silent in the churches, with v. 36 functioning as a rebuke of this person. For example, see Neal Flanagan and Edwina Snyder, “Did Paul Put Down Women in First Corinthians 14:34-36?” Foundations 24 (1981): 216-20. For some brief online examples of this argument, see Glenn Miller and J. P. Holding. This is probably the most common argument among egalitarians on a popular level, but personally I do not find it persuasive.

    (2) 1 Cor. 14:34-36 is a later addition to the text. This is the position of F. F. Bruce, Wayne Meeks, and Gordon D. Fee. For Fee, see God’s Empowering Presence (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 272-81. It’s an intriguing possibility, but personally, I don’t think the evidence is strong enough for me to feel confident with dismissing this passage from the text.

    (3) It’s directed at new female converts in Corinth who were disrupting the service with naïve, unlearned questions. This is what I believe. It fits what we know about first century preaching, where students were allowed to ask the speaker knowledgeable questions and were otherwise expected to be silent and submissive, and it explains Paul’s instructions in v. 35 telling these women to instead ask their husbands at home. This is argued by Craig S. Keener, “Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy edited by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004): 161-71 [Google Books Preview here] and Carroll D. Osburn, “The Interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity: Vol. 1 edited by Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1993): 219-42. Here’s the main point from Osburn (233-34):

    It may be suggested that the present infinitive λαλεῖν (to be speaking), which occurs twice in vv. 34-35, provides the crucial insight into the “speaking” which so annoys Paul. This verb λαλέω always takes its precise meaning from the context. In v. 28, it refers to “silent meditation.” In vv. 23 and 27, it refers to “speaking in tongues.” In v. 19 it refers to “cognitive prayer.” Here in vv. 34-35, however, there is no clear contextual indication of what is meant, but there is a significant grammatical indication. In moods other than the indicative, the present does not necessarily refer to the present, nor does the aorist necessarily refer to past time, the distinction being rather in the manner in which the action is viewed. Thus, the aorist infinitive refers to the action without indicating anything about its continuance or repetition; the present infinitive, on the other hand, specifically refers to the action as continuing or being repeated in some way. Indeed, Robertson says in this regard, “the force of the pres. inf. is so normal as to call for little comment.” Here, the to present infinitives make it clear that the “ongoingness” of the “speaking” is in focus. It seems improbable that they were merely “chatting,” paying no attention to the speaker and thus disturbing the learners, for Paul’s admonition concerns their interest in learning. There is nothing in the text prohibiting normal pursuit of learning by women in the assembly, including asking appropriate questions. Rather, λαλεῖν should be taken here to mean that they were “piping up,” giving free rein to “irresistible impulses” to ask question after question either of the speaker or of their husbands, creating chaos in the assembly by interfering with communication.

    I hope that’s helpful if you want further study of what to make of 1 Cor. 14:33-36.

    Was Paul’s Attitude Towards Women Progressive for Its Time? ~ I accept Paul as the author of the epistles that bear his name, but I’m going to try to answer this with concessions to those who don’t believe he wrote Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy.

    And my answer to the question is, yes. The idea that Paul was misogynist is one of the most disgusting and unfair smears that presentism ever devised.

    Here’s why:

    (1) The possibility of his acknowledgment of a female apostle (Romans 16:7).

    (2) The strong probability of his acknowledgment of women deacons (Romans 16:1 [& 1 Tim. 3:11?])

    (3) The high praise that he heaps out on the women he worked with and his obvious respect for them: the women from Romans 16, Euodia and Synteche, his numerous references to Priscilla, etc. I don’t think people understand how uncommon this was in the ancient world. I learned pretty early on as a classics major that if you pointed out the abject lack of references to women in a text or how harsh they were with women, everyone would look at you like you were a total dumbass. I can’t even think of anything else I ever studied that had a similar list of praises for women as the Romans 16 list. On top of that, some Jewish rabbis taught against even speaking to women in public. Given his kind words about the women he worked with, it seems unlikely that Paul would have had such an aversion.

    (4) There’s some evidence that, when Paul cited the Septuagint, he would often edit it to change masculine singulars to plurals and add “and daughters” to “sons.” There was a post on this at MormonMatters.org: Feminist Paul. This doesn’t necessarily mean Paul was a proto-feminist (as the title suggests), but it is ironic that Paul appears to have been more liberal and inclusive on this point that many modern translators who insist that a masculine singular must be translated as a masculine singular or the translation is unfaithful to the text.

    (5) Rabbis commonly taught that only men could initiate divorce. Jesus changed this, giving women grounds for initiating divorce as well. Paul assumes a woman’s right to divorce in 1 Cor. 7:13.

    (6) In both Roman law and Jewish teaching, women were thought of as their husbands’ possessions. They had more rights than slaves and children in this hierarchy, but they still belonged to their husbands and their husbands had liberties that they didn’t. This was why women were guilty of adultery if they slept with another man, but men weren’t guilty of the same if they slept with another woman: because the wife was yielding her husband’s right to sleep with her to another man, but the wife did not have a similar claim on the husband. This was why Jesus’s teachings on divorce and adultery evoked such a strong reaction from the disciples. Paul continues the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching, affirming that a woman has possession over her husband’s body just as a husband has possession over his wife’s body (1 Cor. 7:3-4). That was incredibly progressive.

    (7) Paul gave us Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Contrast that to the prayer of Rabbi Judah: “Blessed be Thou for not having made me a Gentile, a woman, or an ignoramus.”

    (8) [Assuming Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians] – People like to cite Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19 as evidence of Paul’s misogyny. Again, it could be my classics background, but I just find this absurd. Roman law affirmed the authority of the paterfamilias over his slaves, children and wife. Paul is only affirming this hierarchy—however, he adds the requirement that fathers be loving and considerate in these relationships as Christ loves the church, to treat them like he would his own body. I would also argue that the distinction between the commandment for wives to “ὑποτάσσω” (submit) and slaves and children to “ὑπακούω” (obey) was intentional and Paul is giving wives a softer obligation here, but I know some intelligent Greek-readers who would disagree. All in all, I see these passages as relatively progressive, that Paul is preaching a soft patriarchy here instead of a hard one.

    Even if passages like 1 Cor. 14:33-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16 are all authentically Pauline and taken at their absolute worst, and Paul didn’t really acknowledge any women as deacons or apostles, I still think Paul was relatively progressive for his time.

    Cal ~ Regarding your question on Ephesians 5, I do and I don’t. To some extent I think that true love is submissive and true submission is loving, so there’s room for overlap in those roles. However, as I touched on above, I think that the roles laid out in Ephesians 5-6 assumed a society where the the husband was in authority over his wife, children and slaves, and I don’t think it’s wise to literally apply those verses to our society today. That isn’t to say that I ignore those verses altogether, because I don’t; they certainly inspire my relationships with my husband, my children, and my employers. But I wouldn’t say that I submit to my husband in return for his love for me.

    I remember Ephesians 6 causing me a lot of grief as a teenager, because my father was verbally and sometimes physically abusive and he loved firing that “children obey your parents” line at me. I knew that the passage also taught fathers to be loving and gentle with their children, and I knew that my father wasn’t doing that, but I didn’t know what my obligation as the child was supposed to be in that situation. I didn’t understand that passage was written for another time and culture and was never meant to address a situation like mine. I can only imagine the nightmare dilemma that wives go through when they believe in a literal application of Ephesians 5, but their husbands are abusive.

    So, I think that the “submission-love” dynamic was meant for a culture where husbands being in power was the norm, and that imposing that hierarchy on societies that are otherwise egalitarian is a bad idea. I do believe in being submissive and loving to my husband; I just expect the same from him.

  25. Jack,

    Thanks for covering so many of the reasons why Paul was radical in his context. I started re-reading The Paul Quest yesterday and you hit on a number of the points that Witherington makes there. I didn’t want to go into all of the details about the Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts that Paul lived in, mainly because I’m too lazy to type that much. You deserve a big thanks for covering all of that. However, once you see Paul in context, he was a real radical concerning so many things, women included.

    As for the argument that the continuous aspect of the infinitive (λαλεῖν) is the key to figuring out what was going on, I have to admit I am dubious. I’ll defer to you for now since your knowledge of Greek is better than mine. My problem is that I have noticed a lot of people trying to make exegetical arguments from aspect in my Greek books and I’m starting to get a little suspicious of the whole enterprise. But I will need to get a little further educated on the subject. I just started on Daniel Wallace’s book/door stop. When I finish it I will revisit the issue.

  26. Jack — I pretty much agree with your comments on the Pauline passages. It’s really hard to read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 in particular without realizing that Paul was incredibly ahead of his time.

  27. Pingback: Paul’s Epistle To The Romans | Songs From The Wood

  28. Wow, Jack, thanks for that comment above, your write-up, and the PDF. Just wonderful stuff.

    I do believe in being submissive and loving to my husband; I just expect the same from him.

    LOVE THIS.

  29. Pingback: A Study of Romans 16 – Weighted Glory

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