Who was Phoebe?

In this post I would like to bring some attention to a Christian that is little known to us today, but one who nevertheless played a vital role in spreading the Gospel. Her name was Phoebe. Therefore the title for this post naturally enough: Who was Phoebe?

There is but one mention of Phoebe in the entire New Testament, but nonetheless it is quite an important one upon further reflection. The passage in question is found at the end of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans (the Christian Churches at Rome).

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess (servant) of the church in Cenchrea. 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) TNIV

In these two verses Paul commends this single individual, Phoebe, described as a deaconess (or servant) and member of the church at Cenchrea. For some background: Cenchrea was a port city neighboring the city of Corinth, from which Paul wrote this letter. The church at Cenchrea was no doubt either a sister church or daughter church to the one at Corinth. It was from Cenchrea that Paul, Priscilla and Aquila set out to sea for Syria at the end of Paul’s first ministry at Corinth (Acts 18:18). Therefore, we can conclude that Phoebe was most likely an integral part to the Apostle Paul’s ministry in that area.

What else can we infer about Phoebe? Her name alone provides us some additional clues concerning her background. Phoebe was a very common Greek name for (gentile) women during this period, which means “bright” or “radiant” one. Thus, we can conclude Phoebe was most likely a Gentile convert to Christianity. Given Paul’s title as Apostle to the Gentiles, this makes perfect sense. There is also no identification linking Phoebe to a husband or son, thus we can infer she was likely either single, or a widow with no sons of note. Once more, given her reputation as a “benefactor” to many, we can infer she was likely a woman of some means and thus came from a prominent family.

Now here is where things start to get interesting. Most experts hold that such an introduction and commendation provided by Paul can only mean that Phoebe was in fact, the carrier of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. So read the passage again, then contemplate the meaning of “deaconess,” and “benefactor,” along with the role of letter carriers in antiquity. It provides us a great starting point to discuss Christian ministry and patron-client relationships.

Let us start with the term “deaconess”. I should note the term “servant” also comes from “diakonos”, the same term from which we get “deacon” or “deaconess”. Many point to Paul’s comments in his pastoral letters (Timothy) as evidence for preferring the “servant” title for Phoebe as opposed to “deaconess”. Meanwhile others believe such comments were directed to particular circumstances/churches, and point to his comments elsewhere in support of the “deacon” title. However, whether Phoebe actually held the official title or not, Paul commended her as a highly-proven servant of Christ and implored the church(s) at Rome to receive her warmly.

Next let us consider the term “benefactor” that Paul used to describe Phoebe. Typically in the context of ministries, a benefactor is generally understood to be one who supports or enables ones work. Thus, as touched on earlier, many conclude Phoebe to have been a woman of some means, i.e. one who provided financial support, rooming or other valuable resources. Given the Apostle Paul’s significance to the spread of Christianity, the fact he calls Phoebe “a benefactor of many people, including me” is high praise, and makes her importance to early Christianity that much more significant.

So then, if Phoebe is a deacon/servant, Paul’s benefactor, and someone that he entrusted to take this very important letter to the Romans; then to Paul’s mind Phoebe must have been a woman of both great abilities and remarkable character. Moreover, think about the role of letter carriers from antiquity, then consider the following. If the Romans had any questions at all about his letter: Who do you suppose would be the first person they would turn to and ask? Contemplate the significance of this. Could it possibly be that the first person to actually publicly read and teach from Romans was none other than Phoebe?

Think about this people! This is Romans — Paul’s letter to unify the churches of Rome in efforts to prevent the cluster of house churches from ending up like those at Galatia, where numerous divisions over how to obey the Jewish Law fractured the Church there. Once more, by most accounts, this Letter to Rome represents Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with ALL of the Gentile churches behind him. Additionally, this is also his big chance to raise support from the Roman churches for a future mission to Spain. Therefore this letter is of vital importance to Paul’s plans, along with his best chance to address any rumors they may have heard concerning his ministry. I’ll say again, this is Romans, widely regarded by many as the greatest Epistle (Letter) of the New Testament, as well as the most influential and greatest piece of Christian theology. And to those out there who malign Paul’s character as a male chauvinist, consider this: If Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send Phoebe as his personnel representative to deliver such a vitally important letter? Why not Timothy, Titus, Luke or someone else? Why Phoebe?

Of course, when contemplating such questions, we must also be careful to remember that this passage is not the end all be all of debates concerning the role of women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we must all deal with, i.e. this text does not answer questions about who to ordain as Pastor, those questions have to be answered elsewhere. However, contrary to the view of some, these texts do point out that Paul apparently had no problem with women having some kind of speaking and teaching roles in the Church. Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, coupled with her role as letter-carrier to the Romans shows us that much.

As for whatever happened to Phoebe? Sadly like so many other early Christians, we simply do not know. Obviously we know the Letter made it to the Christians at Rome, and the Church there survived many persecutions, continuing to flourish and thrive. Additionally, we know from early Church tradition that the Apostle Paul never made it to Spain, but he did make it to Rome, where he was beheaded during the reign of Nero amidst the Christian persecutions following the Great Fire. Did Phoebe also parish during this persecution? Did she survive to continue spreading the Gospel and Christian faith? We simply cannot say. But what we can say: Phoebe was a Christian of remarkable faith. She was one willing to utilize her resources and efforts in spreading the Gospel during a very difficult and important time for Christianity. Simply stated, she is a model of faith for any age.

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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