Theology Thursday: Is It Greek to You? Interpreting Romans 16:7
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me (Rom. 16:7, NKJV).
I am willing to guess that you probably have not spent a lot of time pouring over Romans 16:7. In fact, much like the genealogies with lists of unfamiliar names in portions of the Old and New Testaments, a person could find herself racing through the “greetings” section in Romans 16 without spending a lot of thought on its significance.
In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to specific people in the church in Rome, and several of the people found in the list are women. However, this chapter where Paul is essentially just giving “shout outs” to noteworthy believers laboring in the Roman church has become a virtual battleground between complementarian and egalitarian biblical interpreters. One particular disagreement occurs over Romans 16:7 and a person named Junia (or Junias, as some biblical scholars have argued). Why the controversy over this short verse and little-known person? There are three reasons:
- Is the person named Junia (feminine name) or Junias (masculine name)?
- Is the phrase following the names best translated “outstanding among the apostles” or “well-known to the apostles”?
- What is the meaning of the Greek word translated “apostles”?
What is at stake with the answers to these questions?
If, indeed, Junia is a woman and Paul calls her a capital “A” Apostle as egalitarians believe, then it would mean that a woman held the highest leadership position in the early church. However, in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, Paul gives some boundaries for women in exercising leadership roles within the church (i.e., women are allowed to pray and prophesy in the church as long as they do so in a way that demonstrates an attitude of submission and women are not to teach or exercise authority over men in the church). So, if the egalitarian understanding of Junia is correct, then either Paul contradicts himself or you must find a different understanding of the passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.
Scot McKnight, an egalitarian professor at North Park University, criticized complementarians’ treatment of Romans 16:7. In his conclusion he pleads with complementarians to “let the Bible say what it says.” However, a quick glance at some of the common English translations like the ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV, and HCSB will show you that the translators have struggled over how to accurately translate the Greek of Romans 16:7; the case for this verse will not be made without serious examination of the Greek text.
Before we go through the three issues, let me tell you my conclusion up front. I think Junia was a woman, though, if it turns out that she was a man, it doesn’t wreak my faith. It is possible that she was married to Andronicus and that they served as missionaries—forerunners to the likes of Jim and Elisabeth Elliott or Adoniram and Ann Judson. The fact that I disagree with an egalitarian understanding that says that Junia was an Apostle does not mean that I am diminishing the real significance of Junia’s ministry. I am simply trying to “let the Bible say what it says” like McKnight urged after giving serious consideration to the evidence of the Greek text.
Junia or Junias?
The name in the Greek text is Iounian, and because of the case of the word in the Greek text, it is possible that the normal (lexical) form of the word could be either Junia or Junias. So, at this point, translators have been forced to make a judgment call. The NIV and NASB translate the name as Junias. The NKJV, ESV, and HCSB translate the name as Junia. In addition, several of those translations (NASB, HCSB, ESV) include footnotes letting the readers know of the alternate, possible translation for the name. So, if the name is Junias, meaning that this person was a man, then it really doesn’t matter how you resolve the other two questions. But let’s go with the understanding that the person was a woman at this point. Junia was a common woman’s name in Latin, and since Paul was writing to the church at Rome, Latin names would have been common.
“Outstanding among the apostles” or “Well-known to the apostles”?
The “who” phrase after Andronicus and Junia, Paul’s fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners, has been translated as “outstanding among the apostles” (NASB, NIV) or “of note among the apostles” (NKJV) or “well-known to the apostles” (ESV) or “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles” (HCSB). The issue is whether or not the prepositional phrase en tois apostolois should be translated as “among the apostles” or “by/to the apostles.”
The question is whether or not this pair was counted as apostles or whether they were just known by the apostles.
Wayne Grudem in his book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth makes the case that the most recent research in Greek grammar would lead one to understand the verse as “well-known to the apostles.” It is why more recent English translations like the ESV and HCSB render the phrase with the nuance of meaning that this pair was known by the apostles and not counted among them as apostles. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter how you resolve the final question of the meaning of the word apostle, but for the sake of teasing this argument out, let’s say that the phrase should be rendered “well-known among the apostles.” Is it possible that Paul, who clearly gives boundaries for women in exercising church leadership in some of his other letters (see 1 Tim. 2 and 3; 1 Cor. 11), is saying that Junia was an apostle?
Significance of Word “Apostles”?
The word apostolos is used the New Testament as a technical title when referring to Apostles, like the twelve or Paul. However, the word also means “messenger” or “one who is sent.” It is similar to the word diakonos which can be translated as the title Deacon, when referring to a specific office of the church, or as “servant or slave” in other cases when the text is not talking about the church position.
For instance, the word apostolos is used in John 13:16, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” Jesus uses the word here to refer to a messenger and not the technical title of Apostle (see Phil 2:25 and 2 Cor. 8:23 for similar uses of this word). In addition, many Greek scholars have concluded that the term apostolos could have the nuance of meaning a “travelling missionary” since a missionary is “one who is sent.” Given the fact that the New Testament does not use the official title apostolos to refer to anyone other than Paul and the Twelve, the word in Romans 16:7 is best understood as “messengers” or “travelling missionaries.”
The conclusion one should draw from this little trip through Greek grammar and definitions is that the case for Junia as an Apostle is not so cut and dry as egalitarians would claim. In fact, the evidence is thin at best and built upon a very speculative argument. A discussion like this should encourage you in your own Bible study to learn how to be a person “who correctly handles the truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Our job in studying the Bible is to allow the text to determine the meaning and not read into the text what we may want it to say.
Scot McKnight, “Shifting Footings,” Arise (Christians for Biblical Equality E-Newsletter), February 2, 2012.