Dr Ian Elmer is being deliberately provocative with his headline — but for good reason as you'll discover as you follow his reasoning in this commentary which will be heartening to many. Like a biblical detective he's on the trail of endeavouring to understand who were the earliest founders of the Christian communities in Rome.
Did a Woman Found Roman Christianity?
Tradition holds that the Church in Rome was founded by the Apostle Peter; however, most historians and biblical scholars believe that there is very little evidence to support Peter's role in the foundation of the Roman communities. As we have noted in past commentaries (Elmer, 2007a), the story of Peter's mission is Rome is late and questionable.
The first indication we have that Peter made it to Rome is found in later apocryphal texts, especially the Pseudo-Clementine literature (which includes the so-called "Acts of Peter"). All other references to Peter in Rome seem dependent upon this apocryphal text.
Nothing in the New Testament testifies to Peter going to Rome. There are a few clues from Paul's letters that suggest that Peter did travel (Gal 2:11; 1 Cor 9:5); but, most significantly, Paul makes no reference to Peter in his letter to Rome. The only "apostles" associated with Rome greeted by Paul in his letter are Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7). Paul greets this couple as "kinspersons and fellow prisoners"; but more puzzling is his statement that "they are outstanding amongst the apostles".
The name Andronicus, although unknown to us, might conceivably have been one of the lesser known "apostles"; but the name Junia is that of a woman and, therefore, is the only female apostle so named in the New Testament. Moreover, the titles Paul grants her suggest that she is both Jewish (Paul's kin) and one recognised as a leading "apostle". How is it that a woman like Junia could be an apostle?
Paul tells us that she was a convert to Christianity even before him and, thus, may likely owe her apostolic status to Jesus himself. But one might wonder if that connection would have meant much to Paul, who was more inclined to recognise apostles as those who had planted new communities of faith. So we must ask: What was her role with regard to the Roman churches? Could she have been one of the founders of Roman Christianity?
We have become accustomed to thinking of "Apostles" as a reference to Peter and the Twelve; but this was not how the early Church understood the designation. There was disagreement. Paul adopted the title as his own, which his opponents at places like Galatia and Corinth claimed to be illegitimate. The issue for these opponents was Paul was not one of the original followers of Jesus. Even Luke is shy about applying the title "apostle" to Paul, reserving it for those who had been witnesses to the whole mission, death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21-22; cf. Lk 6:13).
Paul may have met and tangled with some of this wider circle of Jesus' apostles at Corinth. He called them "false apostles" (2 Cor 11:13; cf. Rev 2:2) and "super apostles" (2 Cor 11:5; 12:13), because they had overstepped the missionary territories and invaded his communities. For Paul, an apostle was one who was sent by God (e.g., Rom 1:1; Gal 1:1) to found specific communities (1 Cor 9:2; 2 Cor 12:12). Hence, he could distinguish his assignment as the "Apostle to the Gentiles" from that of Peter's "Apostleship to the Circumcised" (Gal 2:8; cf. Rom 11:13).
Paul was willing to concede primacy to Peter and the Twelve as the first bearers and the guardians of the Jesus' traditions; but he is not willing to recognise their primacy over his Gentile mission. Paul consistently distinguishes between the Twelve and a wider group designated simply as "apostles", which includes himself and people like Barnabas and Timothy.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul describes his credentials as an apostle by a correlation with the Christophanies granted to Peter and the Twelve, James, and "all the Apostles" (15:5-7), appending his name to this traditional list of "apostles" and witnesses to the resurrection.
What seems clear from this passage, and others in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10-17; 3:1-4:21; 9:2, 8-27; 15) as well as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus (Gal 1:18-2:14; 2 Cor 6:3-13; 11:23-33), is that Paul adheres to a collegial model of apostleship that can be applied to a large umber of leaders within the earliest communities, all of whom have equal status. And, for him, the "true signs" of an apostle is that he or she will have travelled great distances to spread the Word and plant new communities of faith (2 Cor 12:12; 1 Cor 9:2; 15:10).
In one particularly scathing comment in 1 Corinthians (15:8-11), Paul concedes that while he may be "the least of the apostles", as his opponents most likely suggested, by the grace of God he has worked harder than any of the other apostles, including the Twelve. This line of argument echoes his earlier statement in chapter 9 where he reminds the Corinthians that even if these "others" do not consider him an apostle, the Corinthian community itself is the "seal" of his apostleship (1 Cor 9:2).
Andronicus and Junia...
Given that Andronicus and Junia are named as apostles suggests a priori that they were evangelists and church-planters like Paul. A posteriori, Paul accords them immense respect, going to great lengths to align himself with them.
Paul calls them "kinspersons", which most scholars believe to be a reference to their ethnicity as fellow Jews; but it may be an early Christian designation for fellow Church members, who were seen to be part of the new family of God (Roetzel, 1999: 99-100).
Like Paul, Andronicus and Junia have suffered for the sake of the Gospel. Paul calls them "fellow-prisoners", which reminds us of Paul's defence of his own apostleship in the Corinthian correspondence, where he details the many trials he has faced in order to spread the Gospel (2 Cor 6:3-13; 11:23-33). In other words, Andronicus and Junia bear the "true signs" of apostles (cf. 2 Cor 12:12), having "toiled hard" (1 Cor 15:10) and suffered imprisonment (2 Cor 11:23). Accordingly, Paul singles them out as being "outstanding among the apostles" (Rom 16:7).
These unusual accolades raise our suspicions: why is Paul laying it on so thick? For who were Andronicus and Junia considered apostles? Surely it must have been Rome itself. Paul admits that Andronicus and Junia were "in Christ before me" (Rom 16:7). This statement is reminiscent of Galatians (1:17) regarding his recognition of Peter and the Twelve as having been "apostles before me" — which might suggest a particularly intriguing possibilities with regard to Junia.
Biblical scholar, Francis Watson (2007), has argued that that Junia was an influential and eminent apostle linked with early Christianity and possibly even one of the founders of the Roman Christian movement. Only that possibility would support Paul's use of the title for Junia and Andronicus. Watson suggests that Paul, by greeting Junia, is essentially petitioning her to recognise and welcome his forthcoming mission in Rome.
Paul is careful not to suggest that he is imposing his apostolic authority on someone else's territory. In Romans, Paul explicitly states that he has no intention to "build on someone else's foundation" (15:20) and that his reason for coming to Rome is merely seek "mutual encouragement" (1:12).
At the time of writing to Rome, Paul was concerned about his future missionary schemes (Rom 1:11-13; 15:23-24, 28-30) and, more immediately, his impending plan to visit Jerusalem to deliver the collection (Rom 15:25-28, 31). In both cases, Paul was seeking to win the financial and moral support of the Roman Christians, which effectively meant that he had to win over the most influential people at Rome — among whom we must number the Andronicus and Junia who are explicitly called apostles.
Whatever the value of that speculation, Junia is highly respected within Roman Christianity and probably one of its leading patrons — which would not make her completely remarkable as far as women in Roman Christianity go (Hammer, 2009). In his final good wishes to members of the Roman communities (Rom 16:1-16), Paul greets many women who were leaders of the communities of Rome; some of whom he had known from elsewhere — such as Prisca (Rom 16:3), Persis (Rom 16:12), and Rufus' mother (Rom 16:13). The letter to Rome is even carried by a woman, Phoebe, whom Paul commends as a "minister", patron and sister (Rom 16:1-2).
There are also a number of woman whom Paul knows only by reputation; such as Mary who Paul has heard "worked hard" for the Roman church (Rom 16:6, 13), Tryphena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12), as well as Julia and Nereus' sister (Rom 16:15). Some of these are named alongside male partners, as is the case with Junia and Andronicus (Rom 16:7). But this does not seem to have lessened their leadership role. Prisca is named ahead of her husband. Phoebe is a "minister" in her own right. Julia and Nereus' sister appear to be a female couple who are team leaders of a house church sans any male counterpart.
Given the prevalence of women in Paul's greetings, it seems that in the Roman communities women played a central role. They were not relegated to the periphery; but were respected as patrons, church leaders and, even, in the case of Junia, apostles (Hammer, 2009).
Women Leaders in Rome...
We do not know the circumstances in which the Jesus movement first came to Rome. This is a subject about which I have written in the past (Elmer, 2007a; 2007b); so I will merely summarise what we know and why it is relevant to Junia's apostleship.
We know that the Christian movement appears to have been well-established in the city at the time Paul wrote (Rom 15:23; cf. 1:8-13) around 58 CE. It seems, however, that Roman Christianity was a fractured, if not a fractious, phenomena.
Significant here is the fact that contrary to his usual practice (1 Thess 1:1; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 4:15), Paul never addresses the Roman devotees as a single church. This suggests, not only that the movement was probably too large to gather in a single house, but also that the house churches in Rome had grown up as manifold institutions, most likely from the various Jewish synagogues that dotted the Roman landscape.
For the most part, these communities would have been centred on house-churches, which might partly explain the prominence of women in the Roman communities. The Feminist biblical scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1983: 176) notes that it was not uncommon for women in Greco-Roman society had often opened their houses for worship by particular religious movements or practices such as Oriental cults. So it would seem that when Christianity first came to Rome, it would find a ready acceptance amongst Rome's female population.
The Pauline scholar Wayne Meeks in his First Urban Christians (1983) has made a plausible argument that Paul consciously targeted wealthy widows as his first converts in any new city to which he went. Such women in Greco-Roman society suffered what Meeks calls "status inconsistence" — having the wealth and estates commensurate with a high social status which was denied them by virtue of their gender. In granting them leadership within the house-churches (which met in their houses), such women could experience the relative authority, political power, social status, and renewed dignity that was denied to them in wider society.
Similarly, Schüssler Fiorenza (1993) suggests that Christianity differed from other Oriental cults that had proved attractive to women, not simply by honouring its rich patrons, but by offering leadership roles, influence, dignity, and status in return for their patronage.
The patronage of women was a common facet of early Christianity. We know the names of a number of wealthy women who financially supported the Jesus movement. Was Junia amongst this group? Paul did note that she was converted to the Christian movement before him, which clearly attests that her status as an apostle predates his own and may be equal to that of those, like Peter and the Twelve, who were "apostles" before him (Gal 1:17).
Scripture scholar Ben Witherington (2005) notes that the name Junia may be a Latin transliteration of the Hebrew name Joanna. There is a Joanna mentioned by Luke (8:3) as one of a close circle of female followers of Jesus who "provided for [Jesus and his disciples] out of their resources". Joanna was part of the household of Herod, wife to Herod's steward Chuza, and Luke tells us that she was a wealthy patron of the Jesus movement from its earliest beginnings in Galilee.
It is unfortunate that we know very little about Junia, leaving us to speculate. Paul's passing remark in Romans 16:7 suggest a woman of considerable authority within the Roman communities, if not the early Christian movement as a whole. Is it possible that she was commissioned as an apostle by Jesus himself? Was she one of the founders of Roman Christianity, as Paul's use of the title with reference to her and Andronicus suggest? If so, what does that tell us about the women and the exercise of priestly or even Episcopal office in the modern Church? Fodder for further discussion, I'm sure!
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2009Dr Ian Elmer