Augustine of Hippo. Martin Luther. Billy Graham. Three giants of the Christian faith, and they each have this in common: God chose to hinge their salvation experiences upon the courage of a woman named Phoebe. This is because each of these men had salvation experiences through reading or hearing the book of Romans, which Phoebe faithfully and courageously delivered from Paul to Rome in the first century AD.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
Phoebe is mentioned in only two verses, Romans 16:1-2, out of the 7,957 verses in the New Testament. However, these two little verses pack a big punch, revealing the magnitude of a Christian woman’s influence in the early church. What we can learn about Phoebe through these verses can also inform us about the kind of respect and responsibilities women were given in the newly blossoming first century church.
“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)
Letters of commendation were common during the Graeco-Roman period. The goal of these letters was to appeal for full acceptance on behalf of a person to a friend as if the friend were receiving the author himself. This is the case Paul makes for Phoebe to the Roman Christians, who would have known about him as the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul makes his case for Phoebe from the outside in: where she was from, her position in the church, and her position to individuals.
From Rome to Cenchreae
Phoebe was from Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth that received many sailors and merchants from all over the Mediterranean and Rome. Since she was travelling and is not mentioned as being tied to anyone socially, such as a master, a mentor, or even a husband, then we know that she was most likely a wealthy Greek woman who had the finances to travel independently. Travelling from Cenchreae to Rome, however, is no small feat. This trip would have taken around two weeks even in the best of conditions, and much of it would have taken place at sea. Phoebe would have had some kind of travelling companion or host of companions to protect her, so she had to have the resources to finance buying enough food and wine both for herself and her companions. Furthermore, sea travel had the potential to be extremely dangerous with unpredictable weather conditions as well as diseases and viruses that could travel between animals and humans alike. Not only that, but once a Phoebe arrived at her destination, she had to find the local Christians…without a cell phone.
Roles in the Church: Deacon and Benefactor
Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon,” the only woman with that title in all of the New Testament. First-century deacons were usually tasked with assisting elders in meeting the needs of their local church, which usually had less than thirty people per community. When Romans was written the term “deacon” did not yet refer to an office in the church as it is used now. However, a deacon did serve as a leader. Phoebe probably would have served both men and women in her church since women “deaconesses” (who only served women) did not exist until later in the second century.
Paul also refers to Phoebe as “benefactor.” This is the only time the term is used in the New Testament, so it's true meaning can be tricky to narrow down. Outside of Scripture the term is used generally to refer to the exchange wherein a wealthy person financially and socially supports an individual with the purpose of seeing that person succeed in his or her endeavors. Paul makes it explicit that Phoebe is not only the benefactor to many people, but also to himself! This is a woman who uses her resources to further the mission of the Gospel not only in her own community as a deacon, but also in other communities where people shared the message of Jesus Christ.
As a woman of relative status, who could have sent someone to Rome in her stead, and who also had responsibilities in her own church, why was Phoebe so determined to travel to Rome? Based upon other similar letters of commendation from the first century, it is most likely that Phoebe was actually delivering the Roman letter to the Roman Christians. As an educated woman, Phoebe would have conversed with Paul in order to understand the message and theology of Romans. Reaching Rome, Phoebe probably would have read Paul’s letter aloud to the Roman church(es) and even answered questions. Due to Phoebe’s courage and faithfulness, the letter of Romans successfully reached Rome and was taught to early first-century Christians. Phoebe’s teaching on behalf of Paul was likely the foundation of the theological understanding of Romans, passed along from generation to generation, reaching Augustine, Luther, Graham…and you.
Lindsay Ann Nickens will graduate from DTS with a ThM focused on the New Testament in a few weeks. She hopes to begin a PhD program in Old Testament studies in order to better synthesize the Bible as one unit. She's also a stellar Bible teacher and writer. Along with studying the Bible, its languages, and historical context, Lindsay Ann also enjoys finding new music and spending time in nature.