We’ve mentioned Phoebe of Kenchreai here at Corinthian Matters as an individual who was not simply a “helper” to St. Paul — one translation of the Greek diakonos) — but also a prostasis, an influential member of some wealth and authority in the earliest Christian community of the region.
Michael Peppard has recently published an article in Commonweal (“Household Names: Junia, Phoebe, & Prisca in Early Christian Rome“) about Phoebe and two other significant women named in the final chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Peppard’s piece discusses the high status of these women and their importance in the mission of Paul. It’s a thoughtful piece of which I include a few snippets below.
But pay closer attention to whom Paul addresses and a surprise emerges: the status of women in the early church in Rome. Specifically, three women: Junia, Phoebe, and Prisca. They are not household names. They are not mentioned from pulpits on Sunday morning. But they were undeniably important to Paul—and to the Christian assemblies in Rome and Corinth, where they were authoritative leaders….
…Back to the first-century Phoebe: a more powerful translation than “benefactor” for prostatis would also be more faithful to the Greek term in its social context. When used in the masculine form prostatês, its semantic range covers “leader,” “ruler,” “presiding officer,” “administrator,” “protector,” “guardian,” or “patron.” Certainly the possession of wealth and the concomitant powers of benefaction could be related to one’s role as a leader, presider, or protector. But generosity alone does not capture the meaning of the term that Paul uses for Phoebe…
…As an honored and trusted courier, Phoebe could have had the sender’s blessing to explain her letter and its author’s intention as well. The social context thus suggests that, in addition to being a diakonos, a prostatis, and the courier of the most important theological text in Christian history, Phoebe may also have been its first authorized interpreter….
Thus when Phoebe arrived in Rome with Paul’s letter, it was into Prisca’s hand she most likely placed the scroll. Prisca had known Paul for years, and she was one of his most trusted partners, just as Phoebe was a trusted courier. So when we envision the very first discussion of the letter to the Romans, both scriptural and historical evidence suggest the same thing: it was women who were doing the talking.