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Junia was a Prominent Female Apostle of the First Century Church
Did you know there is a woman who is named an apostle in the New Testament? To be accurate, she is actually commended as prominent or noteworthy among the first century apostles.
NIV Romans 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Rom. 16:7 NIV)
Perhaps you didn’t fully catch how important this little verse is. But why has it escaped the notice of most Christians? In the medieval period, translators and commentators on the Bible shifted this female name “Junia” to a made-up male name “Junias.” Why? Christian scholars and leaders simply could not believe that Paul could call a woman an apostle. So for more than 500 years, Andronicus and Junias were both believed to be men (see RSV)—until more investigation was done on Junia and her female identity restored. All of this is well-documented in Eldon Epp’s now classic work, Junia, the First Woman Apostle (2005).
Now, virtually all translations recognize her female identity (NIV, NRSV, NET, CSB), but there is ongoing debate about whether or not Paul was calling her an “apostle.” I believe the weight of evidence balances strongly in favor of “apostle Junia.” But let’s take our time to get to know Junia.
Junia Was A Prisoner Because of Her Ministry
Paul mentions in his commendation of Andronicus and Junia that they shared imprisonment with him. This implies incarceration for the sake of the Gospel. NT scholar Christoph Stenschke offers these considerations:
Paul presumes “the imprisonment of Rom 16:7 was the consequence of rejected missionary activities which involved Andronicus, Junia, and Paul…Junia must have been involved or at least perceived to have participated in these activities to an extent that she was imprisoned together with the men.” (157; Bibliography below)
That means she was a “front-lines” ministry leader; she was treated by the state as enough of a threat to merit imprisonment. Paul goes out of his way to mention this to commend their risk-taking in ministry, courage, and resilience.
Prominent to the Apostles, or Prominent among the Apostles?
Virtually all English translations now agree “Junia” is a woman. Where there is much ongoing disagreement is on whether or not Paul was calling her an apostle. Based on the Greek text, Paul’s words could be read either way; so:
“They are well known to the apostles” (ESV, HCSB)
“They are outstanding among the apostles” (NIV; see NRSV)
[See bibliography for two views on evidence for these translations]
Can anything break the deadlock of this translation conundrum? One of the tools in the toolbelt of the biblical scholar is listening to the commentaries of the early church Fathers who (1) were much closer in time and culture to the NT writers than we are today and (2) [if they were Greek-speaking] knew better how to interpret Paul’s Greek words.
The early Church Fathers testify clear to Junia’s status as “apostle.”
Let the Greek Church Fathers Testify
Just read the following; I find it deeply inspiring.
“He might have called them [Andronicus and Junia] prominent among the apostles and among the apostles who preceded him because they were among the seventy-two who were also called apostles (Luke 10:1).” [Commentary on Romans 10.17; FotC 104.294-295];later he writes they were “fellow-captives in this world and noble among the apostles” (295).
John Chrysostom (348-407AD)
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles —just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle” (In ep. ad Romanos 31.2). [It is troubling to me that those who argue that Junia was not as apostle fail to account for Chysostom’s confident statement]
Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457AD)
“He says they were not among the disciples but among the teachers—not any sort of teachers but the apostles!” (Interpret. 82.200; see Epp, 33)
Keep in mind, these are Greek Fathers, meaning Greek was their native language. Yet, none of these ever wondered whether this verse might be translated differently. Put simply, these Greek Fathers believed Junia was a female apostle.
What Does This Mean for Christian Woman Today?
This means women did ministry commended by Paul, and they did it on equal footing as men. If they were gifted to proclaim the gospel publicly as “apostles,” then they were authorized with the highest responsibilities including the authority of evangelizing and planting churches. If Junia was an apostle, this establishes a sterling precedent for women as church planters, preachers, teachers, missionaries, and elders. And they can aim high because she was prominent among the people called “apostles.”
L. Belleville, “Ἰουνιαν…ἐπισημοι ἐν τοις ἀποστολοις: A Re-examination of Romans 16.7 in Light of Primary Source Materials” NTS 51 (2017): 231-249. [Prominent among the apostles]
S. McKnight, Junia is Not Alone. [Argument for Junia as apostle that is non-technical]
C. Stenschke, “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity” Neotestamentica 43.1 (2009): 145-194.