She was probably single. She was evidently a woman of independent means living in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth in the first century, able to travel more than 600 miles, a servant leader recognized by her church as a deacon, and a financial supporter of many—including the apostle Paul. She was apparently tasked with an errand which, when completed, resulted in the spreading of the most important document of systematic Christian doctrine ever written, which continues to influence us today. She definitely used her influence to make a positive impact! Who was she? Why don’t we hear more about her?
As with so many other hidden figures, a single mention of a name in a long list of names tucked into a single verse in the last chapter of a treatise known for its deep theological truths can easily be overshadowed by the overall historical impact of that document’s teachings. Yet, the two verses describing this woman speak volumes about the influence and recognition of the leadership of women in the early church.
If you don’t know her yet, allow me to introduce you to Phoebe about whom Paul wrote: “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” (Romans 16:1-2 NIV). These two sentences begin Paul’s longest list of greetings in any of his letters and includes the mention of more than 10 women Paul recognized for their ministries and roles for the sake of the gospel.
Here are a few details we can surmise about Phoebe from the wording in these verses:
1. I commend to you our sister, Phoebe. This phrase indicates that Phoebe was probably the courier for the letter from Paul to the Christians in Rome, which means she had traveled 600+ miles by land and/or by sea from her home in the port city near Corinth to Rome. This phrase introduces her to the Christians in Rome with Paul’s approval. Her name is derived from Greek mythology, which could be an indication she was a gentile Christian (See Bassler’s article on Phoebe in Women in Scripture, edited by Meyers, 2000, Eerdmans Publishing, pp. 134-136). Since Paul does not mention a husband or father, she was probably single and a woman of independent means. As the one who physically delivered the letter, she would also be the one who verbally delivered and interpreted its message to those first recipients. And if so, then that means she was probably involved in Paul’s writing process and had thoroughly discussed with him the topics covered. Have you ever imagined the book of Romans being read aloud and explained by a woman when it was first received by the Roman Christians? What would a reenactment of that event look like in your mind?
2. A deacon of the church in Cenchreae. The word deacon here is often translated “servant” or “minister,” yet is the same word (with no gender distinctions) Paul used to refer to himself or to others involved in ministries of preaching and teaching, such as in 1 Corinthians 3:5 (re: Apollos and Paul); 2 Corinthians 6:4 (re: Paul’s missionary team); and Philippians 1:1 (re: Paul and Timothy) (See Bassler’s article on Phoebe mentioned above and Payne’s book, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 2009, Zondervan, pp. 61-63). As the only woman named in scripture as a deacon, Phoebe joins the ranks of all such servants who were called out by their churches for particular duties and leadership roles and were often the representatives of their churches to other groups.
3. A benefactor of many people, including me. Paul is letting the Roman Christians know that Phoebe has been a faithful Christ-follower who has risked everything for the sake of the gospel. She has financially and prayerfully supported others in a time when Christians were persecuted for their faith. Since we know the kinds of trials Paul endured, we can assume that she is one who helped him during challenging times. This would be another indicator of her singleness and personal wealth, since no husband or father is mentioned. This word translated “benefactor” carries with it a connotation of “leader” and “presiding officer,” which shows that Paul has even been under her leadership (See Payne’s book mentioned above.)
Phoebe, a single woman of independent means, a church leader, a trustworthy courier to faraway places, and interpreter of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is a hidden biblical figure that needs to be revealed to a generation of women (and men) ready to be called to use their gifts in the often risky service required in God’s Kingdom.
How can you help more people know of these hidden biblical figures such as the three I’ve described in this series: Jehosheba, Huldah and Phoebe?
How can you dispel the myths (still perpetuating!) that women don’t/can’t/shouldn’t teach the Bible or do dangerous things for God or be called into ministry?
How can you encourage the bright young women you know to pursue theology and ministry as their vocation? Are you prompting women to seek seminary and graduate theological education?
How to Use Your Influence to Make a Positive Impact
Study the lives and accomplishments of biblical women and tell others about them. Don’t assume people know their stories. (I’d be thrilled if you’d share this blog with them! Just click on the Facebook or email icons at the top of the article.)
- Seek out Bible study resources written by women scholars and theologians:
- Read them, talk about them, and quote from them.
- Purchase them to add to your church, school, and public libraries.
- Give them to your pastor and Bible teachers.
- Invite women theology and Bible teachers/professors from seminaries and universities to be speakers for your church and community events. This helps others see and learn from women in theological vocations.
Resources to get you started
Some of my favorite go-to resources:
- Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. Carol Meyers (Gen. Ed.), 2000, Eerdmans.
- Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, edited by Marion Ann Taylor, 2012, Baker Academic Books. A historical and biographical guide to 180 women who have left some form of written or verbal legacy of their scriptural interpretations.
- Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (3rd ed). Lindsey Hardin Freeman, 2014, Forward Movement.
- Every Woman in the Bible. Sue and Larry Richards, 1999, Thomas Nelson. Great resource describing the lives and times of women in the Bible with comparisons of biblical characters and comparisons of interpretations of the roles of women. (I actually prefer this edition over the 2003 reprint that was titled Women in the Bible: The Life and Times of Every Woman in the Bible.)
- The CEB Women’s Bible, 2016, Common English Bible. Only Bible with a list of every named and unnamed woman included. Also features commentary only by women authors from multiple denominations.
If you’re looking for a speaker on this topic of Hidden Biblical Figures, I am available! Please go to my Speaking Page and fill out the form and submit it and I will get in touch within a couple days. I am passionate about the stories of biblical women and how they inspire us!
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