“A Note on Romans 16:7”Categories: Meditations
During my sermon last week on women exercising authority in the church, I noted in passing that some brethren try to argue for the existence of female apostles from Romans 16:7, but that I did not find the argument convincing. I had assumed that most were familiar with the argument, but after services, my wife told me that my offhand comment generated a flurry of page-flipping in some quarters. I guess I’d better explain!
The textual question in 16:7 is not obvious in most translations. The ESV says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” Standard Pauline greeting, right? What’s the big deal?
The argument that this is a text about a female apostle is twofold. First, it identifies the person the ESV calls “Junia” as female. Second, it asserts that the ESV rendering “well known to the apostles” should instead be translated as, “prominent in the apostles.” Thus, Junia would be a prominent female apostle, which would have all kinds of implications for our understanding of the role of women in the church.
The problem is that this conclusion rests on shaky foundations. First, it is by no means certain that “Junia” is female. The ESV thinks so, but the NASB thinks “Junias” is a better translation. “Junias” would be a contraction of “Junianus”, and thus male. Most translations opt for “Junia” here, but reasonable doubt on the issue exists.
Second, it is unclear what relationship Junia/Junias has to the apostles. Are they merely well known to the apostles, or are they a prominent member of the class of the apostles? The Greek here is ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις, which is literally translated as “of note in/among the apostles”.
The text does not straightforwardly say that Junia/Junias was a remarkable apostle, as Barabbas is described as “a notorious prisoner” in Matthew 27:16 (“notorious” being the only other use of this word in the NT). Instead, it allows for either interpretation. Additionally, if Junia/Junias is a prominent, famous apostle, how come Romans 16:7 is the only place where they appear?
On balance, I think that “Junia” is probably correct, but I also think that she is well-known to the apostles rather than being a well-known apostle. However, that conclusion is not necessary to settle the issue. It’s enough to observe that the gender and position of Junia are uncertain.
In such cases, the principles of Scriptural interpretation call us to a) prefer harmonious to contradictory readings of the Bible and b) read unclear passages in the light of clear passages. 1 Timothy 2:12 is clear (except to those who are engaged in eisgesis rather than exegesis), and it forecloses the possibility of women taking on authoritative roles (like the role of an apostle) in the church.
Thus, we are compelled to adopt a harmonious rather than contradictory reading of Romans 16:7. Sorry, Junia! You’re not an apostle, because if you were, you’d be violating 1 Timothy 2:12.
All of this probably strikes many brethren as a finicky, fussy sort of argument, which is why I did not spend much time exploring it during the sermon. There’s a reason, though, why the subject of women in authority generates these kinds of arguments. If you stick to the obvious stuff in Scripture, you’ll never find reason to believe that women should lead in the church.
However, if you believe that women ought to be leaders, and you’re searching for Scriptural justification for your beliefs, that will drive you into the weeds. Here, as elsewhere, we must be suspicious of subtle arguments that contradict the plain meaning of the text. Their presence is usually a sign that somebody is trying to serve not God, but themselves.