The woman who was Paul’s envoy
The enormous statue of Poseidon, god of the sea, welcomed us to the harbour of Cenchreae, just five miles from Corinth. Waiting on the jetty were men with a wagon who, as soon as the ship came to a smooth stop, jumped on board to unload the cargo. A smart house slave introduced himself with a bow. He took my bag and asked me to follow him. Proud of the family he worked for, he told me of their many interests in shipping and the warehouses which lined the harbour. He pointed out places of interest as we passed the temples and marketplace. After several minutes, the road led us up a slight rise, where the houses became more opulent and expensive. He stopped by a closed door and rang the bell.
A few minutes later, I was shown into a bedroom where my bag was already on the bed. A girl entered with a tray of refreshments. After she unpacked, she took my travelling clothes away to wash. She suggested I rest after my voyage and the mistress would see me later. I enjoy sailing but am always pleased to lie in a bed that is not moving and soon fell asleep.
A gentle knock at the door woke me and the same girl entered without being asked. Once dressed to her satisfaction, I followed her through endless corridors and hoped she would take me back to my room later, or I might never find it again. I had wanted to meet Phoebe for a long time. As a friend of Paul, she is a well-travelled and much-admired woman who I knew would give me a fascinating interview.
The sound of bird calls reached me from an aviary in the atrium, where a table was set for dinner. Torches added light to the growing darkness and sparkled off the tableware. A woman in a plain white dress entered and greeted me. The name Phoebe means radiant, and her appearance certainly fitted her name. She motioned for me to sit, and I joined her at the table.
“Aemilia,” she said. “Shall we eat first and then we can do the interview? Is that all right with you? We have all evening.”
Realising how hungry I was, I readily agreed. In between mouthfuls of the delicious food, Phoebe told me of her life in Cenchreae. I listened, mesmerised by her voice, which was as soft as the honey cakes she served, and clear as the glass jug filled with wine.
“My grandfather was the captain of a ship, plying the Greek islands for trade. When my father took over, he had five ships. Now we have fifteen sailing all around the Mediterranean Sea, from the east to the west and back again. He built warehouses at the harbour to store the produce of many countries. Both my brothers died before they reached adulthood and wanting to keep the business in the family, my father left it to me.”
“Are you married?”
Phoebe pulled a face and smiled. “I was, but he left me before I took over the business. When he heard I had access to all the money, he tried to come back. He did not get very far!”
Looking at Phoebe, I imagined he never got through the door before being thrown out.
“Now my two sons have the day to day running of the business and under my direction are doing a fine job. This leaves me free to pursue my many interests.”
“What are those interests?”
She thought for a moment. “Paul calls me a patron to himself and many others.”
“What does that mean?”
“I give of my finance, time, and energy to support many projects.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“I support Paul’s journey’s financially and provide a home for him here whenever he and his team need it. Two years ago, I financed the building of an aqueduct to transport water from a spring in the hills to the town cistern. Now everyone has free access to clean water.”
“A business like ours needs an educated workforce, so we take the sons of our workers and give them an education.”
“What about the girls?”
Phoebe laughed. “I knew an educated woman like yourself would ask that question. Don’t worry, the girls are not forgotten. We educate them to the same standard as the boys. Few women are employed in our business, so we train them to work as servants or to run their own businesses and trade in the markets.”
By this time, we had finished dinner and Phoebe suggested we move inside the house.
Phoebe leaned on a couch. “Ask whatever you want to know, and I try to answer them as fully as I am able.”
“When did you first meet Paul?”
“There is a small Jewish synagogue in Cenchreae, near to the harbour, where Paul was visiting. One afternoon, I noticed our employees had stopped work and congregated outside one of the warehouses. I went to tell them to get back to work and saw they were listening to a man talk. Soon I became as transfixed with him as they were. After he finished, they returned to work, but I stayed to talk to him further because I had many questions. Over the next few days, Paul and I spent time together until I decided to become a Christian.”
“I’ve heard the word, Christian, before. Can you tell me what it means?”
“What started out as a derogatory joke in Antioch several years ago has now been adopted to describe ourselves as followers of Jesus. It’s a pun on the Greek word Christ, which, as you know, means anointed one and refers to Jesus. But it sounds like Chrestos, a common name for a slave, which means useful or good. So, it describes a person who has become a slave of Jesus to be used by him for good. Very apt, isn’t it?”
“I hear you became one of Paul’s co-workers. How did that happen?”
“At the beginning, a small group of us Christians met in this home or a warehouse, and it gradually grew into a larger congregation. As one of the original believers, I run the group and have help from my friends, Pricilla and Aquila, who lead the group in Corinth. Paul pops into Corinth or stops at Cenchreae from time to time and I aid him in any way I can.”
“Paul entrusted you to take an important letter to Rome, is that correct?”
“Yes, he gave me a letter to take to the Christians who live in Rome.”
“Were you just the courier of the letter?”
“I carried it with me, yes.”
“Why did he choose you?”
“I have several ships which can take me to Rome.”
The light from the torches lit up the mischief in Phoebe’s eyes, and I felt she was toying with me. Leaning her chin on her hand, she stared at me and waited for another question.
“Paul could have asked anyone, so why you?”
She laughed. “I was very honoured to say yes to him. The letter is not a short one, simply asking you how your health is and the state of the children. It’s a rather lengthy and quite complicated spiritual discussion on the nature of faith. He needed someone who could not only read the letter but explain the contents. But I get ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
“Delivering a letter is more than passing it over into someone else’s hand. I met with Paul and the other leaders for several days, reading and re-reading what he had written. He read aloud each passage and I had to repeat it with the same emphasis, even making sure I used the right gestures and tone of voice. This went on until I know the contents almost by heart.
“If there was a passage I did not understand, I would ask him. Sometimes I had to work out what it meant for myself. That way, I would remember the answer if someone in Rome asked me. We discussed further questions we thought might arise from the letter. After nearly two weeks, Paul said I was ready, and after prayer for safety on the voyage and wisdom to teach the Romans, I left with four companions.”
“Did you travel on one of your boats?”
“Of course, I would trust no one else to get me there safely, except one of my captains. After two weeks, we sailed into Ostia, and we took a smaller boat up the River Tiber into the city of Rome. My father once took me there, but I had forgotten the opulence and sheer magnificence of the city buildings and temples. Few of the Christians live in the splendour of such surroundings and most are common working folk or slaves. Despite the riches you see around you, I have not forgotten my family’s humble beginnings and good fortune. I am more than happy to meet with slaves and have learned that God has no favourites.
“I was nervous at first, standing up in front of so many people, but Paul had trained me well, and I was soon into the delivery of the letter. Remembering how he wanted me to present it, I spoke with confidence, as I had in front of him. Afterwards, there was quiet as those assembled took in the words and their meaning. Then the questions started. ˋWhat did Paul mean by this? ˊ ˋWhat about that? ˊ ˋCan you explain more about such and such? ˊ I was pleased that I had spent so long discussing these questions because I was ready with the answers. It was as if Paul himself stood among them.”
“How long were you in Rome?”
“We stayed for a month, meeting with small groups from around the city, reading the letter out again in each place. Every day, scribes came to copy the original letter, so that they had duplicates in each congregation to continue to read once we left.”
“Did you get bored with it?”
Phoebe laughed. “Have you read it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Once you read it, you will see it has such depths that one can study it all your life and not become bored. When I returned, two months after we left, Paul was keen to hear about our adventures in Rome and to receive the letters sent back to him. It is late, Aemilia Metella. I shall let you retire to bed, and we can talk more in the morning.”
“Thank you for talking with me, Phoebe. My readers enjoy articles about women like yourself, who have the courage to move outside the confines of what is expected of a woman. I can see why Paul trusted you with his important letter. Goodnight.”
I turned to leave before being called back. “Take this,” she said.
Phoebe handed me a scroll, and I retired to my room. I intended to go to sleep, but once I opened it, I read on until the oil in the lamp sputtered and died.
Paul calls me a patron to himself and many others.
I went to tell them to get back to work and saw they were listening to a man talk. Soon I became as transfixed with him as they were.
Delivering a letter is more than passing it over into someone else’s hand.
“For everyone has sinned; we fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from for the penalty for our sins.”
Paul in the letter to the Romans
“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.”
Paul in the letter to the Romans
This latest interview by Roman journalist, Aemilia Metella, is with a truly remarkable woman. Paul’s letter, which Phoebe carried with her to Rome, now appears in our Bibles and is called the Letter to the Romans. In the letter, Paul sets out the nature of faith. Our salvation does not come through what we do, but from whom we put our faith in. In the first two verses of chapter 16, Paul introduces Phoebe to them. The next two blogs will unpack these two verses and examine Phoebe’s role in more depth.
Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany which was published in November 2020. She is currently working on a sequel.