Lesser-Known Women: Phoebe

Mummy Portrait of a Roman Woman
Mummy Portrait of an early 2nd-Century CE Woman

Where do we find her in the Bible?

Romans 16:1-2
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” ((The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.))

Who was she? ((Most of the commentary is adapted from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X (Nashville, TN:Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 761-762.))

  • A diakonos (Gk. for “deacon” or “servant”) in the Church at Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth
  • A prostatis (Gk. for “benefactor” or “patron”) of many people, Saint Paul included
  • Given where she is named in the list of greetings and Roman Christians, it has been widely assumed that she is the one who carried St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Rome.

What lessons do we learn from her story?

  • The word diakonos, in reference to Phoebe, has long been translated as
    • Deaconess (an order in the Church which didn’t exist until the late 3rd/ early 4th Century)
    • Minister (a non-specific title, often used in English to translate many Greek words to refer to all manner of workers in the Church)
    • Servant (a literal translation of the word)
  • Elsewhere, diakonos is always translated as “deacon.” The Greek New Testament does not use a specifically feminine form of the word (i.e., “deaconess”), so most modern scholars reject this usage.
  • At this point in Church History, the other ministerial titles (presbyteros [elder] and episcopos [bishop]) were not in use. The only other title in use was apostolos (apostle). This leads us to the conclusion that Phoebe was a respected leader in the Church.
  • In ancient cultures, “benefaction and patronage were a vital part of the culture, and this makes Phoebe someone to be reckoned with socially and financially”. ((NIB, vol. X, p. 762))
  • Given this, we might speculate that Phoebe was a woman of means. Women of the First-Century Roman Empire could be very independent of the men in their lives (fathers or husbands). They could own, manage, and dispose of property or other wealth. They could engage in business and commerce. They could travel, alone or accompanied by others.
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