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Defending the Faith: Exploring what Paul meant by 'apostle'

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 4:40 p.m. MDT

Some, arguing for the ordination of women, point to Paul's mention of "Junia" at the end of his epistle to the Romans as an example of a female apostle in the early Christian church. Are they correct?

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Some who question the idea of an all-male priesthood cite Romans 16:7 as scriptural precedent from the ancient church for the ordination of women.

In the last chapter of his letter to the Christians at Rome, the apostle Paul greets his friends there. The seventh verse, specifically, reads: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.”

Junia, the argument runs, was a woman, a very early Christian convert, and an ordained apostle.

Several questions need examination, though. Who were Andronicus and Junia? And were they actually ordained as apostles? What does the term “apostle” mean in this context? And what does Paul intend when he writes that Andronicus and Junia were “of note among the apostles”?

The name “Andronicus” is unambiguously masculine. Moreover, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions both identify him as one of the Seventy, and say that he was eventually named bishop of the Roman province of Pannonia (covering parts of modern Austria, Hungary and the Balkans).

However, the case of Junia is less clear.

Although Andronicus appears in traditional lists of the Seventy, Junia doesn’t. In addition, while the name in Romans 16:7 is probably the feminine “Junia,” it might also, for technical Greek reasons, be read as the masculine “Junias.”

All of the nouns and pronouns in the verse are masculine, but, because of the occurrence of the masculine “Andronicus,” that would be the case under Greek grammatical rules whether “Junia” were a man or a woman. Ancient tradition usually makes “Junia” the wife of Andronicus, or his sister, or simply a female fellow missionary.

On the other hand, Origen of Alexandria, a third-century writer who ranks among the greatest scholars and thinkers of ancient Christianity, seems to have believed that the person named by Paul along with Andronicus was a man. Moreover, the fourth-century Christian scholar and bishop Epiphanius records that “Junias” eventually served as the indisputably male bishop of Syrian Apamea. (Unfortunately though, just previously, Epiphanius plainly misidentifies “Prisca” as a man.)

In other words, the evidence is ambiguous. Most scholars today, though, believe that Romans 16:7 does indeed refer to a woman named Junia.

But who were the “apostles” among whom, according to Paul, Andronicus and Junia were “of note”? The term may well refer to the Twelve. But it need not.

“Apostolos” was a fairly common Greek term in antiquity, denoting somebody who has been “sent,” and who is, therefore, a “messenger” or an “emissary.” It hadn’t yet assumed the more restrictive definition of later Christian and particularly Latter-day Saint usage.

Furthermore, it was often used quite broadly in ancient Christianity to refer to missionaries (a term that, like “emissary,” comes from the Latin “missio,” which also means “sending”). It’s in this sense, probably, that it’s used to refer to Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:6-9), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), and Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:6; compare 1:1), who (unlike Matthias, at Acts 1:15-26) never seem to be included among the Twelve. Eastern Christian tradition calls all of the Seventy “apostles.”

So Paul may simply be saying that Andronicus and Junia were well-regarded among Christian missionaries.

But what, exactly, does Paul mean when he identifies Junia and Andronicus as “of note among the apostles”? Is he actually calling them apostles? (No ancient tradition identifies them as members of the Twelve.) Or is he simply explaining that the apostles think highly of them or, at least, know them well?

On this last point, a helpful discussion is “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7” published in 2001 by Michael Burer and Daniel Wallace in the Cambridge University Press journal “New Testament Studies.” Carefully analyzing the Greek of the passage, this article concludes that it “is more naturally taken with an exclusive force rather than an inclusive one.”

In other words, Paul’s words should be understood as saying that Junia was “well known to the apostles rather than outstanding among them.”

Thus, Romans 16:7 seems to provide little if any solid support for the ordination of women.

If women are ever to be ordained to priesthood office—something that, I wish it clearly understood, I am not advocating here — the direction to do so will, Latter-day Saints believe, need to come from the Lord through revelation to the duly constituted leaders of his church. There seems, at best, no clear scriptural precedent for it.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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