The Church

Was Junia an Apostle?

When dealing with the question of women’s roles in the church, many cite Romans 16:7 to demonstrate that women could and did serve as apostles in the early church. In the ESV, the verse reads “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles.” Some have pointed to the ESV as a thumb-on-the-scale translation, in rendering the verse “They are well known to the apostles” instead of “who are of note among the apostles” as the KJV translates it.  Which translation more accurately portrays the meaning? The preposition ἐν is one of the most frequently used words in the NT, occurring over 2700 times. With so many occurrences, it should not be surprising that BDAG. (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature) has twelve major headings, and underneath these, they are further subdivided into eighteen more nuanced distinctions. There are many ways the preposition is used, and as one textbook on Greek states it, “prepositions are fluid in meaning and consideration of context is always important for proper translation.”[1]

The question of usage plays a key role in any determination of meaning. In other words, what patterns and constructions do we find in the literature, not only of the New Testament, but the extra-biblical literature of the time? Michael Burer and Daniel Wallace have written on this question and done the research, surveying biblical evidence, patristic Greek, and other papyri for how the word ἐπίσημοι (“well-known”) is used.[2] They aim to answer the question of whether one must take this entire phrase ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις (“well-known among the apostles) to be inclusive (Junia and Adronicus were included in the group) or exclusive – they were not.

To cite one example from their research, in the Psalms of Solomon, they locate a construction very similar to Rom 16:7. “In Pss. Sol. 2.6, where the Jewish captives are in view, the writer indicates that ‘they were a spectacle among the gentiles’ (ἐπίσήμῳ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν). This construction comes as close to Rom 16:7 as any we have yet seen.”[3]  The point is that these Jews were a spectacle among the gentiles, but clearly they are not included as gentiles.  Burer and Wallace demonstrate that when an inclusive usage is meant, it is most common that the genitive case is used, but in Romans 16:7, it is the dative case. “To sum up the evidence of biblical and patristic Greek: although the inclusive view is aided in some impersonal constructions that involve ἐν plus the dative, every instance of personal inclusiveness used a genitive rather than ἐν.”[4]

Another example that I don’t find Burer and Wallace citing in either article is from Isaiah 61:9, where we read “Their offspring shall be known among the nations.” The prior verses indicate it is Israel the prophet refers to, at a time of future blessing. The Septuagint rendering of this is “καὶ γνωσθήσεται ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσι τὸ σπέρμα αὐτῶν.” Here we have the construction Burer and Wallace refer to—the preposition ἐν followed by a dative plural; but the Jews are not counted as Gentiles, they are known to or among the Gentiles. These examples show that it’s possible—indeed reasonable—to translate Romans 16:7 as “well-known to the apostles” indicating that Paul is not necessarily naming these two as apostles themselves.

This research by Burer and Wallace received a good bit of criticism, with several scholars publishing rebuttals. So much so that Burer published a second article in 2015 answering these critics.[5] In the intervening years, more papyri and manuscript evidence had been collected, allowing Burer to redo his search of the extant literature. “A thorough re-examination of the occurrences of ἐπίσημος in ancient Greek literature has brought 107 more passages to light that support our thesis, thirty-six of which are parallel to Rom 16:7. In short, I believe that our original thesis is still sound, and even more so in light of this new evidence. Thus the exegesis of Rom 16:7 which identifies Andronicus and Junia as “well known to the apostles” is stronger than before.”[6]

Both the 2001 and 2015 articles are available online, and I encourage interested readers to search these. The point in both is not necessarily that it must be read as they propose. Rather, they present evidence of why such a reading is indeed not only possible, but more likely, but also to call attention to the way the research around this question has been received. One of the things the first article notes is that esteem for one scholar can often sway later research inordinately. “There is a broader implication to this study than simply Junia’s relation to the apostles: one has to wonder how there could be such a great chasm between the scholarly opinion about Rom 16:7 and what the data actually reveal. Our sense is that the unfounded opinions of a few great scholars of yesteryear have been, frankly, canonized. Bishop Lightfoot especially has influenced the present climate – from a brief note in his commentary on Galatians.”[7]

In other words, J. B. Lightfoot has been regarded as a lion among Greek scholars, so much so that if he says Junia was an apostle, that settles the matter, no actual research of the papyri and usage is required. But research methods have changed, and the access to source materials has greatly increased since the days of Lightfoot. Scholars of all viewpoints acknowledge this.

Some have countered Burer by affirming that grammar alone does not solve the question. But Burer hasn’t made his claims on grammar only, but argued for context as well. The expanded evidence for Burer’s critics includes the idea that Paul’s own status as an apostle was strengthened by his identification with others who are well-known. “That they are ‘prominent among the apostles,’ as his relatives and his fellow prisoners, subtly points to Paul’s own prominence.”[8] But it may be too subtle. Such sociological and rhetorical evidence is, by its very nature, more difficult to rely on. It is inferred, arrived at by reading between the lines, and sometimes brings in cultural customs of the day, external evidence which not everyone agrees on. As another scholar has said with regard to papal infallibility, “The texts are convincing, it would seem, only to those who are disposed to accept the doctrine.”[9]

If such things as the greeting in Romans 16 must include the wider social and rhetorical evidence, then it is surely true that Paul’s other epistolary evidence should also come into play. The other texts that speak to male headship, eldership, creation and the fall all militate against considering Junia as an apostle in the sense of the Twelve or of Paul. That sort of evidence is often dismissed. Thus Eldon Jay Epp in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle “views 1 Cor 14:34–35 (‘women should be silent’) as a non-Pauline interpolation, thereby removing the contradiction between the ‘ban’ and female apostleship.”[10]

Ruling various texts as spurious is convenient for those arguing for Junia’s apostleship, but Daniel Wallace presents evidence for why he believes the text of 1 Cor 14 to be genuine.[11] The 1 Cor 14 text is not the only place that speaks to this issue. 1 Cor 11, 1 Tim 2 and 3, and 1 Pet 3 must also be considered. Taking all of these into account, it is by no means unreasonable, nor forced to conclude that Junia was not counted as an apostle, as an apostle is commonly thought of. That conclusion is not a judgment on Junia’s ministry, her value, her worth. In short, while it is common to ascribe worth to office, and to suggest that if women did not hold office in the church, it equates to lesser value. That is never Paul’s conclusion.

 

[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L Merkle, Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, Revised Edition: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2020), 147

[2] Michael H. Burer and Daniel B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7,” NTS 47 (2001) 76–91.

[3] Burer and Wallace, 86.

[4] Burer and Wallace, 87.

[5] Michael Burer, ἘΠΙΣΗΜΟΙ ἘΝ ΤΟΙΣ ἈΠΟΣΤΟΛΟΙΣ In Rom 16:7 As “Well Known To The Apostles”: Further Defense And New Evidence. JETS 58 (2015): 731–55.

[6] Burer, 755.

[7] Burer and Wallace, 91.

[8] Lin, Yii-Jan. “Junia: An Apostle before Paul.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 139, no. 1, 2020, pp. 191–209.

[9] Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., Magesterium: The Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, (Ramsey, NJ, Paulist Press, 1983), p. 82-83.

[10] Cited in Lin, “Junia: An Apostle before Paul.”

[11] Daniel B. Wallace, “The Textual Problem of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 “ https://bible.org/article/textual-problem-1-corinthians-1434-35, retrieved June 10, 2021.

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