Tuesday, July 05, 2011

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, διάκονον and προστάτις”

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1-2, ESV).

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me (Romans 16:1-2, NIV)

Συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν, οὖσαν [καὶ] διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς, 2 ἵνα αὐτὴν προσδέξησθε ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως τῶν ἁγίων καὶ παραστῆτε αὐτῇ ἐν ᾧ ἂν ὑμῶν χρῄζῃ πράγματι• καὶ γὰρ αὐτὴ προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ (Romans 16:1-2, NA27).

In my last post, I quoted William Lane who cited epigraphic and archaeological evidence that “patronage and leadership went hand in hand” in the ancient world. In the passage above, Paul commends Phoebe as both διάκονον (diakonon or “servant/deacon”) and προστάτις (prostatis or “patron/benefactor”).

I’ll come back to Phoebe in just a minute. Meanwhile, Lane continues:
This was undoubtedly true for the church in Rome as well. In Romans, Paul acknowledges his own dependence upon patronage in Corinth (16:23) and Cenchreae (16:2). G. Theissen has identified four criteria for assessing the degree of wealth of individuals mentioned by Paul: (1) engagement in civil or religious office; (2) possession of a house; (3) service to Paul or the church or both; (4) ability to undertake a journey on behalf of the church. To judge from Paul’s commendation of Aquila and Priscilla in Romans 16:3-5 and incidental references in Acts (18:1-3, 18, 24-27), they, at least, satisfy all four criteria. Wealth and patronage were almost certainly determining factors in the leadership they provided in Rome to those who looked to them as hosts and house church patrons. This would presumably also be true of the leadership of the other house churches acknowledged in Paul’s greetings in Romans 16.

We may conclude that in Rome those who possessed the resources and initiative to invite the church into his or her home assumed major leadership responsibilities deriving from the patronage offered. These included important administrative tasks, such as the provision of the common meals of the community, the extension of hospitality to traveling missionaries and other Christians, the representation of the community outside the domestic setting, in addition to pastoral oversight and governance. In this connection it is important to note Paul’s usage of the term to refer to the person who gives aid to the congregation (ὁ προϊστάμενος) in Romans 12:8, where the context refers to the extension of material help. The term carries connotations both of patronage and leadership. A plausible inference is that those who acted as patrons were in some sense also involved in governance of the community. A position of authority emerged out of the benefits that individuals of relatively higher wealth and social status could confer upon the community.

How did such leaders arise? Certainly in Rome they did not owe their position to apostolic appointment, a point of some significance in the light of the later argument of 1 Clement 42.4 and 44.2, where the first leadership of the church in Corinth is traced to appointment by Paul. In Rome, leadership was almost certainly derivative from patronage and service, as well as from the interaction between willing individuals and recognition by the wider community. That said, it is important to observe the significance of the commendatory greetings in Romans 16. Paul’s formulation amounts to a recommendation of certain individuals as leaders within the several Christian communities of Rome who gain their “legitimacy” from recognition by the apostle. Household leadership had emerged “from below” in the several communities in Rome, but the effect of Romans is to legitimate it “from above” by the apostle. (211-212).
Please do not miss the significance of what Lane is saying. Roman Catholics want to say that the three offices of “bishop, presbyter, and deacon” were given by some kind of “divine institution”. Given that it is “leadership in the church of Rome” that is being talked about, this is a far more accurate picture of how leadership in the church of Rome came about. And it has nothing to do with a magical or “sacramental succession”.

Jewett translates the phrase ὁ προϊστάμενος (ho proistamenos) in Romans 12:8 as a generic “the leader/presider”. He says,
the passive participle describes someone being ‘set over or at the head of’ a group, a usage reflected in the collective leadership that had been put in charge of the Thessalonian congregation [1 Thess 5:12: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” ESV; Ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, εἰδέναι τοὺς κοπιῶντας ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ προϊσταμένους ὑμῶν ἐν κυρίῳ καὶ νουθετοῦντας ὑμᾶς NA27]. This appointed role is different from the cognate term προστάτις (prostatis or “patron/benefactor”), which is an upper-class designation of someone who can provide support and protection. The passive form of the expression “the leader” renders it unlikely that it merely refers to someone financially or societally capable of giving aid to clients….The expression probably implies appointment to a leadership role in an early house or tenement church, whether as presider, administrator of charitable work, or pastoral supervisor (752-753).
Thomas Schreiner, a Souther Baptist commentator, and Douglas Moo, a conservative Lutheran, in their commentaries on Romans both translate this instance of ὁ προϊστάμενος (ho proistamenos) in Romans 12:8 as “one who presides”.

This leads us to the role of Phoebe. The word προστάτις in 16:2, then, which the ESV renders as “patron” and the new NIV renders “benefactor”, very likely includes the idea of leadership.

Schreiner says “Scholars debate” whether Phoebe held an office. “On the one hand, the term διάκονος may be generic denoting various kinds of service and assistance. On the other hand, the term also designates an office (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12; see also Ign Eph. 2.1; Magn. 6.1). Is Paul commending Phoebe because she held the office of deacon, or because she served in [a] variety of unofficial ways in the church en Cenchreae? It is impossible to be sure, but for several reasons it is likely that she held the office of deacon. First, 1 Tim 3:11 probably identifies women as deacons (Schreiner refers to his own earlier analysis). Second, the designation “deacon of the church in Cenchreae” suggests that Phoebe served in this special capacity, for this is the only occasion in which the term διάκονος is linked with a particular local church. Third, the use of the masculine noun διάκονος also suggests that office is intended. Of course, we need to beware of reading into early church offices the full-fledged development that was realized later. But woman deacons were probably appointed early, especially because other women needed assistance from their own sex in visitation, baptism, and other matters” (Thomas Schreiner, Commentary on Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©1998, pgs 786-787).

Jewett discusses the significance of the word προστάτις as applied to Phoebe:
[with respect to the phrase “to provide her with whatever she might need from you in the matter…”], It must have significance, or else it would hardly have been mentioned as the opening request in the final series of personal greetings.

I believe a case can be made that Paul provides a direct hint in the wording of Rom 16:2c, “for she became a patron to many, and also to me”. The explanatory words καὶ γὰρ (“also for”) follow immediately after the vague term πράγμα, thus specifying what is meant by the “matter.” It is the matter of Phoebe’s patronage. The aorist passive verb used here, ἐγενήθη (“she became”), suggests that Phoebe functioned as a patron on a specific occasion for each of the persons named. She provided resources in concrete acts of patronage, implying the employment of substantial resources. The term προστάτις means “protectress, patroness, helper,” and its masculine counterpart took on the technical sense of a legal patron. Although the upper-class connotation of “patroness” runs counter to the subordinate implication traditionally seen in the term “deaconess,” several commentators have pointed to its relevance in this context. Kasemann argued, on the basis of an alleged lack of precise parallels to the legal use of the feminine term, προστάτης, that “women could not take on legal functions,” but this does not stand up under the weight of evidence discovered since 1981. [Kasemann wrote a 1980 commentary on Romans]. E.A. Judge was one of the first to point out the relevance of the papyrus from 142 B.C.E. that was published in 1981, referring to a woman being appointed the legal προστάτις of her fatherless son. Subsequently, the third-century C.E. inscription discovered at Aphrodisias has been published with a reference to a Jewish woman by the name of Jael as the προστάτις of a synagogue, clearly indicating a patronage role.

It is now clear that the patronage role played by Phoebe was not unique. Ramsay MacMullen’s survey showed that women made up “a fifth of all rescript-addresses” in the Roman period and that “perhaps a tenth of the protectors and donors that collegia sought out were women. Honors paid to a patroness ob merita, or some similar hint, indicate how the game was played.” He concludes that “as a general rule, then, women as benefactors should be imagined playing their part personally and visibly, out in the open. Other investigations of the archaeological and cultural evidence confirm this picture. Recent studies by Theissen, Holmberg, Funk, Murphy-O’Connor, Meeks, Kearsley, Tebilco, and Garrison of the leading role played by upper-class benefactors, both male and female, in early Christian communities provide the social background of the description of Phoebe’s status. The host or hostess of house churches was usually a person of high social standing and means, with a residencelarge enough for the church to gather, who presided over the Eucharistic celebarations and was responsible for the ordering of the congregation. The fact that Paul mentions Phoebe as a patroness “to many, and also to me” indicates the level of material resources that would support this kind of leadership role. In light of her high social standing, and Paul’s relatively subordinate social position as her client, it is mistaken to render προστάτις as “helper” or to infer some kind of subordinate role (945-947).


  1. Thanks John for this post. Like all your posts on Church History you add yet another that simply destroys the false pseudo-History Roman apologists foist upon folks to "convert" to the Roman Church. Your studies confirm and parallel my own findings. I like you use a quote by John Henry Newman, the famous Anglican convert to the Roman Church, and turn it against his false saying "To be deep in History is to cease to be Protestant" my phrase goes like this.

    "To be deep in History is to cease to a mega-Church or "pop-Evangelical", to study History carefully and in detail to find the truth is to cease to be Roman Catholic"

  2. Thanks John. I am continually amazed at the depths of the detail we can find in the Scriptures with good exegesis, and how whole dimensions are added to these things as we understand more of what they call "New Testament background" information.

    If we truly understood our "heritage" and our "tradition," we'd be amazed.

    I'd say that one of the reasons our studies are running along a parallel track is because we've hit some bedrock history, information that doesn't require anything at all like an "infallible interpreter," but rather just the intelligence and the good sense that God has given us to understand both his world and his Revelation.

  3. John Bugay,

    it seems to me that some of these historical reconstruction's you quote seem to contradict what scripture itself says about the early church. For example from the Jewett quote:

    The host or hostess of house churches... usually... presided over the Eucharistic celebrations and was responsible for the ordering of the congregation

    What of 1Tim2:12 and 1Cor14:33-36? That is some quite clear information that must be considered when seeking to understand Phoebe's role in the early church.

  4. Hi Halo – In his Commentary on 1 Corinthians (BECNT), David Garland asks that very question (at 1 Cor 14:33ff): “How can Phoebe fulfill her role of deacon if she cannot speak out in the assembly?” (He names about eight other women in this context). And his response is about eight pages long as he considers the various answers that have been put forward. It’s interesting to note that Phoebe was from Cenchreae, essentially a suburb of Corinth, whence Paul wrote the letter to the Romans.

    Similarly, Towner considers these women in his commentary “The Letters to Timothy and Titus” (NICNT). He cites Gal 3:28 and suggests that it cannot be ignored when attempting to reconstruct a Pauline view of Christian existence and ministry” (219). He also notes that “textual and background considerations suggest that the presence and influence of a circle of wealthy women in the church were at issue” (224). He suggests that “a neat reconstruction is beyond our reach”.

    Hoehner here distinguishes between “gift” and “office”.

    I’m willing to let the textual scholars and exegetes earn their pay on this one. I’m not attempting to defend “female overseers”. I think your question illustrates the “messiness” of the situation, and that was the sort of thing I was attempting to illustrate. Clearly we do find wealthy and influential women in the New Testament, at a time when societal roles were in flux. No doubt Paul was treading a fine line.