This is the third of my three blogs about an amazing church leader called Phoebe. It’s easy to get tied up in thoughts that Paul and the early church were against women leaders, speakers and missionaries. This is blatantly not true, and a close reading of Paul’s letters and the book of Acts in the New Testament clearly shows this.
In the December 2021 blog, my fictitious Roman Journalist, Aemilia Metella, interviewed Phoebe. Her interview gave us a chance to hear her voice in this fictional interview. https://leavingbethany.com/category/an-interview-with/
To recap, in part 1, I looked at the verses in the Letter to the Romans which mention Phoebe by name. Emphasising her role as a deacon, or church leader, and a patron or benefactor. You can read about it here. https://leavingbethany.com/2022/01/11/phoebe-a-friend-of-paul-part-1/
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)
This blog post will look at her role as Paul’s envoy in delivering his important letter to the church in Rome.
Phoebe is chosen
It was not so simple for Paul to pop down to the local post office and have his scroll weighed, for his letter to be taken to Rome. The Roman mail was reserved for military and government use, so he needed a courier. Sometimes, someone like Phoebe was chosen to deliver a letter, or the writer took the opportunity to send one with someone travelling in that direction.
From earliest times, it was taught that Phoebe was Paul’s letter carrier, and in the fifth century, she was named as the person who delivered the letter to Rome. But somewhere along the way, we have forgotten her. I have studied the letter for many years. It has been preached and written about copiously, and only recently have I discovered her role in its history.
We will never know Paul’s reason for choosing Phoebe. But from the warm way he writes, we see he had a huge regard for her and her abilities. Overall, he placed great trust in her. Take a look at part 1 to unpack her role as Paul’s patron and deacon of her local church.
Phoebe is prepared
Once chosen, Phoebe would have gone through a lengthy preparation period. Paul’s envoys were surrogates for himself. They stood in his place when delivering the letter. She may have been present when Paul dedicated it to his scribe. She would have certainly read it out in front of him and heard him reading it aloud. Carriers of important letters like this one would have learned to read it as Paul would. Using his tone and inflexion to emphasise the important parts. He would have gone through the difficult passages and explained the teachings to her. Even showing her how to handle certain questions which would arise from the hearers.
Phoebe is sent
Once she was ready, Paul sent her with his blessings and most probably his prayers. She would not have gone alone, but with a small group of men and women who would accompany her on the journey. Overland, it may have taken six to eight weeks or two weeks by sail.
Finally, she arrived in Rome, and with Paul’s glowing reference, she would deliver the letter.
Phoebe would not have handed over the scroll, had a quick cup of wine and been on the next boat down the Tiber. No, this was a lengthy and the most important part of the delivery. There was no church building to go to or no one group of Christians. They met in small groups in people’s houses or warehouses.
She would visit these small house churches for what has been called an “oral performance”, that is to deliver the letter as Paul would have done. Using all her rhetorical skills, such as voice inflexion, gesticulation, and facial expressions. There would inevitably be questions after the readings. I know, I have many regarding the book of Romans, and it is likely that she was called upon to answer questions. So, we could say that Phoebe was one of the first commentators on the book of Romans.
Visiting these house churches all over the city may have lasted several days or even weeks. The important letter would be copied, to read in each small congregation after she left. She would then return to Paul, perhaps with letters for him, and deliver news of the church in Rome and their reception to his letter.
My aim with the interviews and discussions about Phoebe is to bring her back into the consciousness of Christians today. To recognise her God-given calling to stand beside Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas and the many unnamed men and women who laid the foundations of the church. Regardless of how little we know of her life, her love of God and zeal for the Gospel is an example for all of us to follow.
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.
“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
It was not so simple for Paul to pop down to the local post office
Paul’s envoys were surrogates for himself. They stood in his place.
We could say that Phoebe was one of the first commentators on the book of Romans.
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/
Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.
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