Paul’s final greetings to the Roman church seem typical. We might just skim over the list of names without a second thought. But one name within that list has become the focus of controversy and heated debate:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me (Rom 16:7).
Junia is most likely the name of a woman. When you read the phrase “among the apostles,” you understand how a simple salutation has become a prooftext in the debate over the role of women in ministry.
The evidence that Junia is a woman is compelling. Its Greek spelling (Iounian) could point to either a man or a woman. However, the addition of an accent mark would specify gender—depending on what mark was chosen (Greek has several) and on which syllable the accent mark was placed.
The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were written in an uppercase Greek script (uncial) that did not include accents. But copies of the Greek New Testament from later periods in a cursive script (minuscule) accent the name as female.
In ancient Greek literature, outside the New Testament, the masculine form of the name has only surfaced once. Ancient Latin texts have also been searched, with some theorizing that Junia might be a shortened form of the male Junianus. Of the 250 or more citations of the name Junia, where a shortening of the name is possible, all have referred to women.
The phrase “among the apostles” can also be translated as “to the apostles,” placing Junia within or outside this ministry category. Either translation is possible within the scope of Greek grammar. External examples, though, statistically favor the first option.
However, there are other issues that are rarely raised in this debate. New Testament apostles, for instance, are not all described on equal terms. The original 12 disciples, along with Paul, were a special group. They were firsthand pupils of Christ, some of whom God endowed with supernatural spiritual gifts (Acts 5:12) and divine revelation in the form of the New Testament.
Not all apostles had such gifts, however. Aside from the 12 disciples and Paul, it is not clear that the term “apostle” spoke of high authority or even expectations of the role. The Greek word apostolos simply means “messenger” or “sent one”—someone sent out for a specific task, akin to our concept of a missionary. Although the apostle Barnabas did preach and teach (Acts 15:35), Epaphroditus is not described in such terms. “Apostles” were also sent out to represent churches, but we are not told in what capacity (2 Cor 8:23). Paul did not appoint apostles for local church leadership. As a result, the precise relationship of “apostle” to modern church leadership ministry is evasive.
Although there are all these uncertainties, the issue of Junia as a female apostle teaches us that paying attention to the details in the Bible matters. Things can get complicated, but they’re certainly interesting. And we also learn from this example that women played a strategic role in the early church.
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Adapted from I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible by Michael S. Heiser.