One of the most important women in the history of the early church you probably have never heard of.
Not so long ago, a friend mentioned Phoebe and her importance to Paul’s ministry. I was shocked that having studied the Bible for many years (and I should add decades); I knew so little of her. It was then that I knew Aemilia Metella, my fictional Roman journalist, just had to interview her. (See my November Blog, An Interview with Phoebe https://leavingbethany.com/2021/12/03/an-interview-with-phoebe/)
Why is she is not as well-known as others of Paul’s team of evangelists and supporters? Maybe because she is not mentioned in Acts and only has two verses at the end of the letter to the Romans. Or perhaps because for many centuries, poor translations of the original Greek of Paul’s writing, has reduced her influence.
There is so much to write about Phoebe that I’m going to take two blog posts. This post examines Phoebe’s role as a leader within her church and as a patron of Paul’s ministry. Part 2 will look at how instrumental she was in the delivery of Paul’s letter he sent to the church in Rome.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honour among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me. (Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 16, verses 1-2, New International Version)
If you look up these verses in other translations, you will find the words I’ve highlighted translated into various English words.
Phoebe the church leader
Let’s look at the first word, translated above as deacon, sometimes as servant or deaconess. Jesus demonstrated the life of a true servant, and following his example, Paul emphasised that leaders of the Christian community were to be servants, not masters or rulers. He used the Greek words diakonos and diakonia, sometimes translated as servants and service respectively, to describe what genuine leadership should look like.
I apologise if you don’t like too many Greek words in a sermon or writing. But please stay with me because it’s important to our understanding of who Phoebe was.
Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and Acts, often used diakonia, meaning service. However, Paul is the only writer in the Bible to use diakonos. The English word deacon is a transliteration of the word diakonos, and Paul is consistent in its use, and he never used the word daikon, which means an ordinary servant. He used the word to describe people who worked alongside him, as a servant of Christ, within a specific church or community of believers.
The view of whether Phoebe held the office of deacon, church leader or minister, is often clouded by our understanding of the office of a deacon or minister in a modern context. Many churches have such titles for leaders and others do not. Church offices, as we would understand them today, did not exist in the first century.
Looking at the translations of diakonos in Paul’s letters shows an inconsistency in how texts are treated. Paul describes Timothy as a diakonos in 1 Timothy 4:6 and it is often translated as “minister”. As is a reference to Epaphras in Colossians 1:7. Resistance to calling Phoebe a minister may arise, not because of the word diakonos but because of the modern connotation of the word “minister”.
Whatever word is used to describe her, Phoebe was undoubtedly a leader of the community in Cenchrea. I wonder whether the reticence to use minister is because she is a woman with no such problems when translating diakonos in relation to Timothy.
Luke, in his gospel, describes Martha’s service as diakonia, showing she performed acts of service, but he never described her as a diakonos. I go into more detail into this point in my blog, “A tale of two sisters”. https://leavingbethany.com/2021/02/02/a-tale-of-two-sisters/
There were plenty of women in the first few centuries AD who served as leaders or deacons within their church. When Pliny the Younger was a governor of Bithynia, he wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 110. To discover whether Christians were seditious, he tortured two women who he described as ministrae, that is ministers or leaders. He shows that the designation as ministrae was one regularly given to women. (To see where else women were reported as leaders, read Marg Mowczko’s blog. Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea)
Phoebe the patron
We now come to the second word highlighted in Romans 16:1-2. In the above translation, Phoebe is described as a helper, and sometimes as a good friend or helpful. The original Greek word (oh no, not another one!) is prostatis, a word which can be translated as patron or benefactor. This noun only occurs once in the New Testament and that is in regard to Phoebe. The masculine form, prostatēs, does not occur at all. The related verb proistēmi is used in relation to church leadership, see Romans 12:8 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12. Perhaps here, Paul is combining the idea of Phoebe being both a patron and leading a church.
How does your usual Bible translate the word prostatis? Again, there has been a reluctance or an unwillingness to associate Phoebe with being a leader, or influential person. Using such words as “good friend” or “helpful” does not tell the full story and downplays her role.
A patron was an influential person in Roman society. They acted as benefactors of the arts or social organisations, with one female patron building an aqueduct for residents of a town. An enterprise I have given Phoebe in Aemilia’s interview. As a patron of Paul, Phoebe would have helped him financially, given hospitality, used her influence and perhaps travelled with him.
Thanks for sticking with me. I hope I haven’t tied you up in knots by using very similar-sounding Greek words. In fact, I’m about to call the chiropractor to come and untie me. It’s quite simple, really. We are all called to provide acts of service for the sake of the gospel, but few are called to be a servant or leader of a local community of Christians. Similar words in English, but easier to understand.
Phoebe is such an interesting character that I have loved getting to know more about her. I have enjoyed bringing her back to people’s conscience as an important and influential leader within the early church.
Next month, I will go into more detail about Phoebe’s extraordinary role in delivering the letter Paul wrote to the Roman Christians.
My thanks to the following two papers for the background to this blog. Longer than mine but worth a read if you want to find out more.
What Can We Say About Phoebe? Jeff Miller https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/what-can-we-say-about-phoebe
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea, Marg Mowczko https://margmowczko.com/
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Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical and Biblical fiction written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany. She is currently working on the sequel, Return to Caesarea, due out winter 2022.
Why is she is not as well-known as others of Paul’s team of evangelists and supporters?
Resistance to calling Phoebe a minister may arise, not because of the word diakonos but because of the modern connotation of the word “minister”.
diakonos: a servant, minister
Original Word: διάκονος, οῦ, ὁ, ἡ
Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine; Noun, Masculine
Phonetic Spelling: (dee-ak’-on-os)
Definition: a servant, minister
Usage: a waiter, servant; then of any one who performs any service, an administrator.
As a patron of Paul, Phoebe would have helped him financially, given hospitality, used her influence and perhaps travelled with him.
prostatis: a patroness, protectress
Original Word: προστάτις, ιδος, ἡ
Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
Phonetic Spelling: (pros-tat’-is)
Definition: a patroness, protectress
Usage: a female guardian, protector, patroness.