Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

(3) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

Phoebe’s role in Paul’s Mission to Spain

Paul’s Planned Mission to Spain

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). (We will look at Phoebe as a prostatis in Part 5). But he 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.

Phoebe's Role in Paul's Mission to Spain

Map showing the extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan’s reign, a few decades after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. © Andre Nacu (Source: 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 in the early church state that he did. Whether these statements are based on fact is not known with certainty.

Clement of Rome, writing at the end of the first century, said 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.[2] 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.’[2]

Meinardus then adds that both Chrysostom and Jerome believed Paul to have travelled and ministered in Spain.[2] Yet another early church writer, Cyril of Jerusalem, wrote (c. 348–350) that Paul “carried the earnestness of his preaching as far as Spain”.[3] Several bishops and theologians of the early church state that Paul did minister in Spain, while no source indicates that he did not.

Theodoret’s phrase, “He opened the world to her”, indicates 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”,[4] it is not improbable.

A likely scenario is that the church at Cenchrea had agreed to be a sponsor of 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 deacon of the church at Cenchrea.

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.[5]

Phoebe's Role in Paul's Mission to Spain

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

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

Tradition and scholarship are fairly unanimous in that Paul entrusted Phoebe with his letter to the Romans. 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.[6] Other scholars however,[7] suggest that Phoebe was in Rome for her own business interests.[8]

Stephen Llewelyn notes that individuals in the Roman world frequently relied “on the chance journey of another to carry his or her letter”,[9] and that these letters were usually “carried by persons known to either the writer or addressee (e.g. by servants, friends or acquaintances).”[10] Phoebe is clearly known to Paul, as are Paul’s other letter carriers. It is not clear, however, whether Paul employed Phoebe because she happened to be going to Rome, or if she was employed especially to deliver his letter.

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, along with a clause designed to commend the carrier to the recipients of his letters.[11] Carrying letters appears to have been one role of some deacons. Tychicus was a letter carrier and is referred to as both a “beloved brother” and a “trustworthy deacon” 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 deacon”, and “a fellow servant [or 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.[12]

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.[13]

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 a great trust in Phoebe as his letter carrier. And this may have been one of the roles Paul was thinking about when he referred to Phoebe as a deacon of the church at Cenchrea.

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


Endnotes

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

[2] Otto F.A. Meinardus, “Paul’s Missionary Journey to Spain: Tradition and Folklore”, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jun., 1978), 61-63.

[3] 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. <http://ecmarsh.com/fathers/npnf2/NPNF2-07/Npnf2-07-22.htm#P2364_670434>

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

[5] There is some debate among scholars as to whether Phoebe took Paul’s letter to Rome or to Ephesus. I presume in the essay, that Phoebe took the letter to the 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 endnote 5 in Part 1.)

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.  <http://www.academia.edu/1132713/_Phoebe_as_an_Example_of_Female_Authority_Exercised_in_the_Early_Church_by_VK_McCarty>

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

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

[11] 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, who took the apocryphal letter from the Corinthian elders to Paul, who is in prison in Philippi, are called deacons. “The Acts of Paul”, The Apocryphal New Testament, M.R. James translation and notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)  <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/actspaul.html>

[12] Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) p.136.  Michael Bird suggests that Phoebe was the first person to read, and teach, from Paul’s letter in Rome, in Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Zondervan, 2012-12-25) Kindle Location 210

[13] Peter M. Head, N.T. Wright on Phoebe, on the Letter Carriers and the Pauline Tradition website (27.11.2012) <http://tychichus.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/nt-wright-on-phoebe.html>

This article is adapted from chapter five of a 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


Phoebe: A 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


Related Articles

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

Posted November 14th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

6 comments on “(3) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. […] Correspondence between churches, and between Christians, was vital in the early church, and Deacons and other people travelled and carried letters throughout the Roman empire, maintaining networks of communication between the 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.] […]

  2. […] Part 3: Phoebe and Paul’s mission to Spain, and her role as his letter carrier. […]

  3. […] it seems that Paul was acquitted on this occasion and continued on his missionary travels which may have included Spain, only to be martyred, according to tradition, some time later by […]

  4. […] Furthermore, in the first few decades after Pentecost, both men and women with certain ministry gifts had the freedom to exercise their gifts during meetings, sometimes spontaneously. Men and women could also initiate ministries, or be commissioned by their church for various missions further afield (e.g. Stephanas, Priscilla and Aquila, Phoebe). […]

  5. […] Crocus is not called a deacon by Ignatius, but he seems to have acted as a deacon, and as a letter carrier, sent by the Ephesian church. (Being a letter carrier was a typical duty of a deacon.) If Crocus was not a deacon, he may have been part of the council of elders in Ephesus. […]

  6. […] people in the New Testament, who were called apostles, were usually more than just messengers. (Deacons were often messengers who travelled between churches to deliver messages and encouragement.) […]

Leave a Reply

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

© 2009–2016   Margaret Mowczko | Powered by WordPress

More in Church History, Equality and Gender Issues
(2) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

In Part 2, I look at what Romans 16:1-2 in the ancient Latin texts say about Phoebe. These indicate she was recognised as...

Close