Phoebe was a patron of the early Church and Paul’s emissary to the church at Rome. Her name means “radiant” or “pure.” She is identified as living in Cenchrea, a port city off the Saronic Gulf, not far from Corinth. Paul called Phoebe “a sister in the Christian faith.” He asked the Roman church to welcome her and provide her with anything she needed.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon [diakonos] in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful [prostasis] to many, and especially to me. (Rom 16:1-2, NLT)
She functioned as Paul’s apostolic ambassador to Rome and carried the letter to the Romans. In doing so, she delivered what is arguably one of the most important theological books in the Bible. Paul would not have chosen just anybody to represent him and deliver this letter.
At the time the letter to the Romans was written, Paul had not yet been to Rome. Although he had often planned to, he was unable to visit them[i] and would not until his imprisonment and appeal to Ceasar took him there.[ii] It is quite possible that it was Paul’s intention to build an apostolic base in Rome from which he could take the gospel to Spain.
For this reason, Paul would have certainly chosen someone who would represent him well and who was qualified to interpret the letter as well as answer questions about it. Historians believe that as few as five percent of the people at that time were literate.[iii] So, it is probable that Phoebe read the letter as well.
What is a Deacon?
Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea. Other people referred to as deacons are Tychicus,[iv] Epaphras,[v] Philip[vi] and Steven.[vii] According to these passages, others who were referred to as deacons (diakanos) functioned as members of apostolic teams to preach the gospel as well as plant and establish churches and teach. They ran ministries, performed miracles, healed the sick, facilitated deliverance, baptized converts, had angelic visitations, were “translated” and were martyred for the gospel. Since scripture records male deacons serving the church by engaging in these kinds of activities, and Paul uses the same term when referring to Phoebe, it can be assumed that the same level of ministry was open to her.
In his groundbreaking book Diakonia, John Collins analyzed over a thousand years of ancient Greek literature including early Christian literature to get an accurate picture of what the early church meant when they used terms relating to the word deacon (diakonia and its cognates). Collins suggests that the word diakonia and its cognates have little to do with works of service or caring for the poor and are more directly connected with the carrying out of a mission. The diakonia word group is more often directly connected with the work of spreading of the Gospel and teaching than serving.[viii]
In the early church those who held the office of a deacon were commissioned for a specific task by the episkopos or overseers.[ix] Deacons often functioned as delegates or representatives. The linguistic evidence surrounding the term deacon along with the contextual evidence of Romans 16:1-2 suggests Phoebe was a strong leader who engaged in the spreading of the gospel and teaching.
Bias in Translation?
It should be noted that many translations are biased in how they translate the word diakonos in connection with Phoebe. In similar passages referring to men as diakonos, the word “minister” is used, but in Rom 16:1, the same word is often translate as “servant.”[x]
In verse 2 Paul says that Phoebe had been “helpful to many, and especially to me.” The Greek word translated as “helpful” is prostasis. Thayer’s Greek Dictionary defines prostasis as a woman set over others or a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources. The masculine form of this word was used by Justin Matyter to describe a person serving Communion.[xi]
By using the word prostasis Paul is not saying here that Phoebe has been placed as a leader over him. But, the word obviously carries connotations of leadership for Paul used the verb form proistemi in 1Thessalonians 5:12 to mean people set over others in leadership and in Romans 12:8 to mean the gift of leadership or ruling.
This is an excerpt from chapter three of the book UNSilenced.
© 2016 Alan Garrett, alsgarrett.net
[i] Romans 1:7-15. [ii] Acts 28:14-31. [iii] Campbell, Joan C., Phoebe: Patron and Emissary, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 4. [iv] Acts 20:4; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7; 2Timothy 4:12; Titus 3:12. [v] Colossians 1:7; 4:12-13, Philemon 1:23. [vi] Acts 6:1-6; 8:1-40. [vii] Acts chapters 6 & 7. [viii] Collins, John N., Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 52-54 and Collins, John N., Diakonia, Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), 63. [ix] Collins, Deacons and the Church, 129-130. [x] Cf. Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7, 23; 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 3:6. [xi] Cohick, Lynn H., “Romans,” The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, (ED, Kroeger, Catherine C., & Evans, Mary J.,) 644.