What’s Up with Phebe?

October 11, 2006 | 32 comments
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Kaimi wanted the rest of the story.

Phebe is mentioned twice in the New Testament. The second time isn’t in the text proper but rather in the colophon to the letter to the Romans, which is printed as part of Romans 16:27 in our bibles:

Written to the Romans from Corinthus, and sent by Phebe servant of the church at Cenchrea.

So apparently Phebe is the person who physically transported the letter from Paul to the Romans. Note that she is described as the servant (in Greek, diakonos) in this verse. The same is the case in the other reference to Phebe, which is in Romans 16:1:

I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.

This verse implies that Phebe was not known to the Romans, so Paul is providing a sort of note of introduction to establish her legitimacy and/or credentials. And, of course, the word diakonos is used again. The KJV translates this word as ‘servant.’ Is that what it really meant? That’s a tough question to answer and I am not sure myself. Let me sketch out the data points.

The standard New Testament lexicon defines diakonos thus:

1. masculine
a. servant of someone
b. helper
c. deacon as an official of the church
2. feminine
a. helper
b. deaconess

It also takes the position that the usage in Romans 16:1 fits under 2b. The tricky thing here is that the meaning isn’t static but rather changed under the influence of Christianity: a word that generally used to mean ‘servant’ gets morphed by Christian thought to mean ‘leader.’ (Not a bad idea, that.) Of course, we can’t timestamp the change, so it is difficult to determine in any given instance what the word would have meant to the person using it.

Further complication: Is a ‘deaconess’ different from a deacon who happens to be female? In other words, would the section in an ancient General Handbook of Instructions have listed different duties for deacons and deaconesses, or would the list have been the same regardless of gender? We don’t know. We do know that later in Christian tradition, the office of deaconess was different from that of deacon, but we can’t determine if that is a later innovation and, if so, when it happened.

To sum, I don’t think we can conclusively say what role Phebe had in the Church. We could make a good case for translating diakonos as either servant, deacon, or deaconess. And then we’d need to decide what exactly it meant to be a deacon or deaconess. So I think the feminists and traditionalists have to end this one with a draw.

There’s one piece of the puzzle that I haven’t mentioned: diakonos is used in the previous chapter:

Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister [diakonos] of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.

So whatever else we think the word means, it seems noteworthy to me that Paul, just a few verses previously, applies the same term to Jesus. (The only other usage in Romans is 13:4–this appears to fit the lexicon’s 1b meaning.) It seems to me that it is very hard to make the case that the word should be translated as “minister” when it applies to Jesus but “servant” when it applies to Phebe. Either word would be appropriate for both, but the KJV hides something important by translating them differently. (Other uses of the word can be found here–just click on the name of the book in the right column.) I do think that the KJV translators are guilty of gender bias in their choice of how to translate this word–they only translate the word as ‘servant’ if it (1) applies to a woman or (2) is used more than once in the same verse (the other of the two occurences in the verse is translated as ‘minister’).

This issue is a big deal to some feminist interpreters; I think the irresolvability makes it less interesting than it might otherwise be, but it is interesting as a reminder that we can’t always completely pin down the meaning of words in the NT.

32 Responses to What’s Up with Phebe?

  1. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    “We do know that later in Christian tradition, the office of deaconess was different from that of deacon, but we can’t determine if that is a later innovation and, if so, when it happened.”

    This is more or less correct, but I wanted to expand on it.

    The Pauline passages are tricky because it is not clear what kind of “offices” existed at all in the churches at this time.

    Other relevant passages about female deacons are in 1 Tim 3:8-11 (c. 145 CE), which ancient interpreters beleived referred to women deacons. There is also mention in a non-christian source, Pliny’s Letter to Trajan (c. 110 CE), which says that he tortured two female deaconesses. Are the jobs for male and female deacons different? There is no evidence that such is the necessarily the case, though Hermas speaks of a woman named Grapte who is supposed to admonish to the widows and orphans. However, she is not called a deacon. I would argue that the lack of discussion about this topic is evidence that there is no difference at this early stage.

    Aside from this evidence, we don’t have any discussion of female deacons until the 4th c., when we have an explosion. This is not to say that women were invisible in early christianity during this time. Indeed, we have an abundance of evidence that women were powerful spiritual leaders in the 2nd-4th c., though these texts often reject implicitly an ecclesiology of offices. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, there is silence about female deacons for about 300 years (with the exception of the 3rd c. Didascalia which prohibits women deacons, but this is not definitive evidence that there were any at that time). Most of the evidence we have comes from the eastern churches, where there is an evident struggle over the legitimacy of such a practice.

  2. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    TrailerTrash,

    Thanks for bringing up the 1 Tim reference.

    You write, “with the exception of the 3rd c. Didascalia which prohibits women deacons, but this is not definitive evidence that there were any at that time.” Some people would say that that is evidence that there WERE women deacons at that time. :)

  3. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Aack! Take that back about what I said about the Didascalia. It actually does describe the office of female deacons, which is evidence that they existed in the 3rd c. In the liturgy, they represent the Holy Spirit, the male deacons are as Christ, and the bishop represents the Father. As for special jobs, they accompany female congregants who want to speak with the male leadership in private.

    There is also further evidence from the 2nd and 3rd centuries (I should have looked this up BEFORE my previous comment!). Clement of Alexandria also mentions the practice of female deacons, which he interprets 1 Cor 9 to refer to.

    Incidentally, Madigan and Oseik’s, _Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History_ provides all of the relevant texts on this subject with commentary.

  4. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    That’s 1 Cor 9:5

  5. Rosalynde Welch on October 11, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    I’m sort of surprised that it would have been acceptable for a woman to travel abroad alone in the capacity of a messenger, whatever the meaning of “diakonos” in her case. During the early modern period there was a LOT of anxiety about women moving around alone in public; would the same have been true anciently?

  6. HP on October 11, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    There wouldn’t have been a stigma against a woman travelling alone. Most wouldn’t have done it as it was a good way to get enslaved, but if one was rich enough to offord sufficient protection, I don’t know why one couldn’t.

  7. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    Rosalynde,
    I agree with HP that rich women could travel without much problem because they traveled with protection. I am not aware of any texts that express anxiety about this, though I can’t think of any that prominently feature traveling women either. It should be added that the fact that Phoebe is mentioned first in Rom 16 and that she is entrusted with the letter indicates that she was of high status in the church, possibly the leader of a house church in Cenchreae, which means that she likely had slaves.

  8. Rosalynde Welch on October 11, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Okay, so I’m showing my embarrassing ignorance of all things biblical here. But if Phoebe were wealthy enough to travel with a retinue (and this would have been fairly unremarkable in the early modern period, as well, just so I don’t leave the wrong impression), then can’t we rule out the possibility that “diakonos” is used here to mean “servant”? Or is it taken as a given that the “servant” is figurative?

  9. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I agree with TrailerTrash. Another possibility is that she is married and travelling with her “non member” husband or still in her father’s house and travelling with her family. We just don’t know. As far as “servant,” I don’t think anyone thinks it takes an economic sense but rather ‘servant of the Church.’

  10. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    Rosalynde,
    Diakonos does mean ‘servant’ and sometimes ‘messenger’, but is definitely more along the lines of ‘helper’ than slave. To call someone a “diakonos” wouldn’t necessarily have any reference to socio-economic status that I am aware of. You are correct that the issue is whether this term refers to an official position, or whether it is just a nice thing to say about her. We have the same problem with the title “elder” in many passages as well.
    There is no question that it is an office in the church by the turn of the 1st c., but since Paul is so early we have no other data for letting us know about ecclessial formation to tell us anything definitive either way. Even if it is an office of the church at this period, what does it mean? Since we don’t know any other official positions, we don’t know if a “deacon” is a high calling or not, or anything that it might entail about responsibility.

  11. HP on October 11, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    While we’re on the topic of titles, does anyone want to tackle whether or not Paul is an apostle in the big A sense?

  12. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    HP,

    I vote no on that. That’s partly personal opinion (I just don’t care for Paul’s writings), but also based on his tussles with Peter, his personal history, and his role (i.e., lack thereof) in the Restoration and in the temple. Interestingly, the uber-conservative LDS Bible Dictionary hints that he might be an apostle with a small a as opposed to an Apostle.

  13. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    Sure! Paul is an apostle, but there are no “big A” apostles at this time either. Junia is an apostle in Rom 16:8 too. Paul explicitly distinguishes “the apostles” from “the twelve” in 1 Cor 15:1-8. The conflation of “the twelve” with a set of authorized “apostles” is only found in Acts.

  14. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    TrailerTrash, I think the Junia issue is debatable: the preposition in 16:7 has too many meanings to make it do any definitive work (i.e., I could be “of note among the apostles” if several different apostles take note of me–without implying that I am one of them). Whether there are big-A apostles at this time, whether any given author thinks they are or are not identical to The Twelve, all very complicated.

  15. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Julie,
    You’re right that there is some dispute about the Junia passage. Haven’t you posted on this once before? However, I am not convinced that there is really any ambiguity. I don’t think that one can really read the “among” in 16:7 as refering to being “well-known by” the apostles. The reason is that comparable uses of the Greek phrase “notable among” seem to only refer to those who are members of the class. The LSJ refers to an instance in Herodotus, “notable among mortals”. I also suspect that the use of “among” to mean “by” is only possible in English, not in Greek.
    As for there not being any “big A” apostles at this time, why do you think it is complicated?

  16. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    TrailerTrash, I honestly can’t remember if I have posted on it or not! I agree with you in general here (I’m not saying that Junia was _not_ an apostle, just that we need to acknowledge some ambiguity), but when you write, “I also suspect that the use of “amongâ€? to mean “byâ€? is only possible in English, not in Greek,” I think it is important to realize that “among” is a decision of translation for the word en, which can support an almost limitless number of translations. BAGD takes eight columns to define it.

    “As for there not being any “big Aâ€? apostles at this time, why do you think it is complicated?”

    Well, you have to make judgment calls on authorship (how can we determine what Paul meant by it unless we know if he wrote a certain letter in which it appears?), interpolations and textual variants (is the usage original to the letter?), and also (for me at least) make room for modern revelation, esp. A of F 6 and what it superimposes on the texts. Because modern revelation requires the (very limited) texts on priesthood in the NT to do so much work, I find it very hard to then analyze those texts at face value.

    BTW, I have no idea who the heck you are but I enjoy discussing these things with you. :)

  17. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 9:15 pm

    I think this is as close as I have come to posting on Junia:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2391#more-2391

  18. Tatiana on October 11, 2006 at 10:19 pm

    Is it the position of the church that Paul is a true prophet of God? I am curious because of a strong impression I had once while reading one of his epistles, that I felt as though it were a revelation. I’ve never heard anyone else before this thread express the view that he might not be an Apostle, though I’m far from being a biblical scholar. I’m quite curious what is the official view of the Pauline letters. Am I free to interpret them as the opinions of a man? Much of what he says is problematic to me.

  19. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Tatiana, I noticed that you use the word “prophet” in your first sentence. No one thinks that Paul was The Prophet (i.e., leader of the church). If you mean: Did Paul have the gift of prophecy? It seems that it would be fairly easy to answer that based on one’s personal experience in reading his letters and, for all my kvetching about Paul, there is no doubt in my mind that he did.

    “I’ve never heard anyone else before this thread express the view that he might not be an Apostle, though I’m far from being a biblical scholar.”

    Here’s the entry on ‘apostle’ from the Bible dictionary, a source that I would be the first note is not ‘official’:

    “The title was also applied to others who, though not of the number of the original twelve, yet were called to serve as special witnesses of the Lord. Paul repeatedly spoke of himself as an apostle (Rom. 1: 1; 1 Cor. 1: 1; 1 Cor. 9: 1; Gal. 1: 1). He applied the titles to James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1: 19), and also to Barnabas (1 Cor. 9: 5-6; cf. Acts 14: 4, 14). The New Testament does not inform us whether these three brethren also served in the council of the Twelve as vacancies occurred therein, or whether they were apostles strictly in the sense of being special witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

    The word apostle in Greek means “one sent out,” almost like a messenger.

    In other words, it was probably possible to be called an apostle in the New Testament without being a member of the Q12, and this may have been the case for Paul.

    “I’m quite curious what is the official view of the Pauline letters. ”

    Well, they are part of the canon. But I think that even the most conservative LDS sources acknowledge that parts of them are advice intended for a particular historical moment and not eternal principles. So you can tell yourself that whenever you find anything in them you don’t like. :)

    More seriously: thank God for modern prophets–and I mean that literally. So many issues makes Paul’s letters extremely difficult to interpret (text corruptions, translation, additions, disputed authorship, the phenomenon of what amounts to listening to one side of a telephone conversation, etc.) that I feel terrible for non-LDS Christians who have to try to develop a theology and run a Church with no one to arbitrate Paul’s letters for them.

  20. Alison Moore Smith on October 11, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    Fascinating. Thanks, Julie et. al.

  21. TrailerTrash on October 11, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    I asked: “As for there not being any “big A� apostles at this time, why do you think it is complicated?�

    Julie wrote: “Well, you have to make judgment calls on authorship (how can we determine what Paul meant by it unless we know if he wrote a certain letter in which it appears?), interpolations and textual variants (is the usage original to the letter?), and also (for me at least) make room for modern revelation, esp. A of F 6 and what it superimposes on the texts. Because modern revelation requires the (very limited) texts on priesthood in the NT to do so much work, I find it very hard to then analyze those texts at face value.”

    Yes, text criticism and authorship are important to consider, but I am not sure how you see them coming into play on this issue. Since 1 Cor is undisputedly Pauline, and he very clearly makes a distinction between “the apostles” and “the twelve”, it seems like this is a clear issue. It is only in Acts that the apostles are limited to the twelve. Since Paul predates this by probably 40 years, it seems like he retains an earlier view. I certainly want to take modern revelation into account as well. Even if one accords the status of “revelation” to the AoF, it just says that there were apostles in antiquity, which no one disputes.

    Julie, I enjoy discussing these things with you too!

    Tatiana,
    I am glad that you had a powerful experience reading Paul. I actually think that Paul is an incredibly powerful figure and have gained a great deal from reading his works. I also think that he has been ignored by Mormons for too long, to our loss. I plan to post on this topic on my blog in the next few days.

  22. Julie M. Smith on October 12, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    TrailerTrash,

    I didn’t mean with Paul per se, but determining the meaning across authors and then trying to triangulate what was historical reality when and where from that. You wrote, “Since Paul predates this by probably 40 years, it seems like he retains an earlier view.” but, as you know, it may be a heck of a lot more complicated than that, and what with Paul being (or, better: seeming to be) such an iconoclast on so many other issues, who is to say if this was an innovation, a countermove, etc., etc.?

    “Even if one accords the status of “revelationâ€? to the AoF, it just says that there were apostles in antiquity, which no one disputes.”

    Thanks for saying this: for some reason, I had been assuming that the AoF referred to big-a apostles, but now that you mention it, I realize there is no solid reason to assume that. (Interesting that that AoF doesn’t mention the twelve, by the way.)

  23. Rosalynde Welch on October 12, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks, Julie and TT and HP, for your answers. I’m always interested in the ways that the overlap of particular subject positions embedded in particular structural conditions can produce moments of freedom for particular women, or particular classes of women. In my period, early modern England, the patronage system that shaped the Elizabethan court and other regional noble courts allowed some women a great deal of independence and opportunity. Middling and serving class Crypto-Catholic women also enjoyed a certain amount of religions freedom and autonomy, mostly because they had so little to lose: when you don’t enjoy any of the benefits of public identity anyway, the threats of house arrest and losing title aren’t especially frightening!

    It sounds like we simply don’t know enough about Phebe in particular and conditions generally in early Christian communities to figure out if and how similar pockets of freedom might have been produced.

  24. Julie M. Smith on October 12, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    Rosalynde, I like your concept of “pockets of freedom.” In the canon, for early Christianity, we have:

    (1) Phebe, for whatever reason
    (2) Lydia, apparently wealthy as a seller of purple dye
    (3) Prisca/Priscilla, who worked with her husband as a tent maker
    (4) the whore of Babylon, drunk on the wealth of . . . oh, wait, scratch that

    Anyway, I’m not sure what kind of conclusions we could draw from what is likely an unrepresentative sample, except for the usual boring one that wealth buys freedom. (Luke 8:1-3 and, of course, the anointing women are interesting data points from Jesus life).

  25. TrailerTrash on October 12, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Rosalynde,
    If I may be so bold, based on your description it appears that Greco-Roman antiquity was much less patriarchal than early modern England. I don’t mean to minimize the oppresive discourse of ancient patriarchy, and many groups of Christians do appear to be more forward thinking on the issue of gender roles than thier typical neighbors, but I would suggest that at this early period Lydia, Prisca, Phebe and others were typical women. We know that women joined social clubs, the same ones as men. Inscriptions show them active in commerce. Many of the philosophical schools admitted women. Additionally, women were active in many of the religious cults, and some were restricted to women alone. All this is to say that women were not invisible or confined to the household in antiquity.

  26. Matt W. on October 12, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    When I was taking my New Testement Class at Indiana University, there was mentioned a man who was addressed by Paul in one of the letters, but my professor said he was actually a woman. I don’t have my bible in front of me, otherwise, I would look it up. I think it has since been debunked, but am not sure…

  27. HP on October 12, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    That is, of course, dependent on the society in question. I don’t think that we can universally expect women in the ancient world enjoying Greco-Roman freedom.

  28. TrailerTrash on October 13, 2006 at 12:03 am

    HP,
    What do you mean?

  29. TrailerTrash on October 13, 2006 at 11:20 am

    Just a follow up on comment 21. I have completed the promised post on Paul at http://urbanmormonism.blogspot.com

  30. HP on October 13, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    I meant that I am not sure that the freedom you describe women enjoying in the Greco-Roman world extended to, say, Hannah in Yavnah or someone similar. In areas where Greek education wasn’t highly regarded, I don’t know that you would find those attitudes.

  31. bookslinger on October 13, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    I don’t know the source, but I’ve heard several times from LDS scholards that Joseph Smith received at least one visit from Paul, and others that are not mentioned in modern canon. JS described Paul’s appearance and his voice. I don’t believe that resurrected beings visit prophets just for social visits. Therefore, I would say that Paul did play some kind of role in the restoration as a teacher or messenger to Joseph Smith. Just not as big a role as those mentioned in canonized scripture.

  32. Ross Geddes on October 13, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Concerning Paul’s role, I read something by George Q. Cannon not long ago that sort of surprised me. So, for the opinion of at least one big-A apostle, here it is:

    “There is an amount of deference paid to the writings of Paul at the present time which he possibly never anticipated would be when he penned them, or he might have written differently on some points; that is, if we accept the present version of his writings as not very, very incorrect. With his contemporaries they did not weigh so very much. Even among his brethren and the Saints–though they, doubtless, attached far more value to them than anybody else–they did not receive the consideration which the writings of others obtained, who are considered now-a-days his inferiors. He either wrote more than many of his brethren, or what he did write was much better preserved than their writings, and posterity have therefore assigned him a preeminence among his brethren which, when alive, he did not possess.” (6 August 1863; in Gospel Truth, ed. Newquist, p. 446)

    On another occasion he wrote that Paul was “himself an Apostle, though not one of the Twelve” (12 July 1856; ibid., p. 195)

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