Phoebe (biblical figure)
Roman Catholic Church|
Eastern Orthodox Church
Oriental Orthodox Church
September 3 - Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church|
October 25 - Lutheran Church
Phoebe (Koine Greek Φοίβη) was a first-century Christian woman mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, verses 16:1-2. A notable woman in the church of Cenchreae, she was trusted by Paul to deliver his letter to the Romans. In writing to the church that almost surely met in her home, Paul refers to her both as a deacon (Gk. diakonon masc.) and as a helper or patron of many (Gk. prostatis). This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman is specifically referred to with these two distinctions. Paul introduces Phoebe as his emissary to the church in Rome and, because they are not acquainted with her, Paul provides them with her credentials.
Phoebe's exceptional character, noted[Rom. 16:2] by her status as a deacon and prostatis—one who should be esteemed highly "because of their work"[1 Thes. 5:12]— may be the reason Paul sent her to Rome where she delivered the letter to Rome. By referring to Phoebe as a prostatis, Paul solicits the attention and respect of the leaders in Rome's church, which also included other women, namely Prisca/(Priscilla)[Rom. 16:3], Mary[Rom. 16:6], Junia[Rom. 16:7], and Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis [16:12] .
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[Rom. 16:1-2]
A literal translation
The Source New Testament attempts to offer a literal translation from the Ancient Greek of the Romans passage:
I recommend to you Phoebe our fellow believer, who is a minister of the assembly in Cenchrea, so that you will admit her into your company, the Lord's company, in a manner worthy of the people devoted to God, and stand by her in whatever matters she needs you to help in. For indeed she became a presiding officer over many, and over me also!
The term "presiding officer" and "minister" are highly debated, since they can refer to being a patron and to being a servant, thus not indicating a spiritual leadership role, but rather providing financial or social aid to the church.
Greek terms for her titles
Apostle Paul used the Greek diakonos (διάκονος) to designate Phoebe as a deacon. A transliteration of the original Greek, it is the same word as used elsewhere by Paul to refer to deacons. The word deacon in Paul's writings sometimes refers to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers of the church, while it more often refers to "servants" in a general sense. In the letter to the Romans, apart from the debated case of Phoebe, it always refers to "servants" in the generic sense, as opposed to a church office.
Apostle Paul used the Greek prostatis (προστάτις)—translated as "benefactor" in the NIV. The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon translates it:
- a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources
Overseer, elder, pastor
Some scholars believe Phoebe was responsible for delivering Paul's epistle to the Roman Christian church. According to Dean and professor of theology Denis Fortin, Phoebe served the church at Cenchrea in the same capacity that Paul, Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Onesimus did elsewhere. He writes it is possible that not all churches had women diakonos, but some churches like Cenchrea did. He believes 1 Timothy 3:11 seems to imply that Timothy also had women diakonos in his churches.
Professor Philip Payne points out that Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of “overseer” in a local church. He suggests that Paul, wanting to describe the authority and responsibility Phoebe held in the church at Cenchrea, used the term "deacon" (diakonos [masculine] διάκονος)—the only officially recognized title for a local church leader that existed "at that time and/or place". If by “leader” (prostatis προστάτις) Paul identifies a church office here, Payne believes he was describing Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor.”
Payne concludes that Phoebe is the only person "unambiguously identified by name and given a title for local church leader in the New Testament". Furthermore, she may have been given two such titles, “deacon of the church of Cenchrea” and/or “leader (προστάτις) of many.” Payne´s theory, while not entirely impossible, is speculative in many regards, mainly because both the Greek term diakonos (possible meaning "servant" in a generic sense) and the Greek term prostatis (possible meaning "patroness" in the sense of being someone who provides financial ressources or legal support) may refer to activities, which are not connected to church ministry at all. Translation therefore must be based on context. It has been suggested, that Paul quite unlikely would have referred to somebody as his spiritual leader, since he was leading the mission to the Gentiles. Certain passages in epistles attributed to Paul seem to forbid women's leadership in the church (e.g. 1 Tim 2:10-14, 1 Cor 14:34-36), but scholars debate whether those verses are of genuine Pauline authorship.
"Likewise the Women"
While some scholars believe Paul restricted the office of deacon to men, others dispute that assertion. For example, when describing the qualities that the office holders called "deacons" must possess, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:11 that the gunaikas (Greek for "women") hosautos (Greek for "likewise"), translated "likewise the women". They, likewise, are to be "worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything." The "likewise" indicated that the women deacons were to have similar qualifications to the men deacons (see also the Apostle Paul's use of the term "likewise" in Romans 1:27, 1 Cor. 7:3,4,22, and Titus 2:3,6).
Bible translation gender issues
She may even have been a "minister", according to Denis Fortin who maintains that the KJV, NKJV, NASB and ESV consistently translate diakonos as "minister" when the word is used in connection to a male person, but not so when it comes to Phoebe. He asks if modern negative attitudes toward women in ministry might have been shaped by biased translators of the Bible. In contrast, however, William Tyndale’s New Testament (published in 1534) consistently referred to Phoebe and all of Paul’s co-workers as "ministers" with no distinction between them. The same is true of the Geneva Bible (1560). Fortin suggests that if these translations had been followed for this verse when the King James Version was produced in 1611, perhaps today there would be less resistance toward women in ministry.
The Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates Phoebe with Lydia of Thyatira and Dorcas on January 27, the day after the commemoration of the early male missionaries Silas, Timothy and Titus and two days after the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Episcopal Church does likewise. However, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod remembers her on October 25, while the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church place her feast day as September 3.
- Quient, Allison. "Phoebe: Helper or Leader?" Arise, 14 Mar 2013. Christians for Biblical Equality.
- White, L. Michael. "Paul's Mission and Letters". Website of the Frontline guide to (American) PBS television series From Jesus to Christ - the first Christians
- Haddad, Mimi. "Honoring Deacon Phoebe". Sojourners (God's Politics) Writing the expert lead article before inviting reader comments.
- Nyland, A. The Source New Testament With Extensive Notes On Greek Word Meaning. Smith & Stirling Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0980443004
- NIV footnote
- Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Prostatis". "The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon", 1999.
- "Prostatis - New Testament Greek Lexicon - New American Standard".
- See, for example, Borg, Marcus and John Dominic Crossan (2009) The First Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the church's conservative icon. London: SPCK (51)
- Fortin, Denis. "Was Phoebe A Deacon, A Servant, Or A Minister?" Writing the expert lead article before inviting reader comments.
- Payne, Philip. "Is It True That In The NT No Women, Only Men, Are Identified By Name As Elders, Overseers, Or Pastors, And That Consequently Women Must Not Be Elders, Overseers, Or Pastors?" (where he answers questions about his book Man and Woman, One in Christ. Zondervan, 2009. ISBN 978-0310219880
- Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Deacon, Deaconess'". Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1997.
- "Deacon, Deaconess - Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology Online".