Junia - Well Known Among The Apostles
I recently became aware that a very obscure verse in Romans 16 has become the epicenter of a fresh round of conflict between Evangelical Bible readers. The verse in question hardly seems to warrant all the fuss, but the reality is that it is has been caught up into much larger forces pushing a much broader agenda and therefore this little text is being asked to bear a load it cannot possibly hope to manage. The text itself does not present itself as the sort of passage over which great battles should be fought:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7 ESV)
If you struggle to understand how this verse could spawn a significant controversy, you are not alone. The issue has to do with that little phrase “they are well known to the apostles”. The phrase could also be translated “they are well known among the apostles”. In fact, that is the more literal translation as the preposition en plus the dative case generally does mean “in, on or among”. (See “The Handmaiden Of Theology”) What does it mean then that Junia (a female name; female names generally end in the ‘a’ sound) is well known “among the apostles”? There are two logical possibilities. It could mean that Junia is well known to all those who are apostles. Peter knows her. James knows her. Andrew knows her. The Apostles know her and approve of her. That is obviously the interpretation of the ESV translators who communicated that meaning by switching “among” to “to”. However, it could also mean that Junia is well known AS AN APOSTLE. It could mean that. Grammatically speaking, that is a possible translation option. Hence the controversy.
Recently some folks within the Evangelical community who are pushing a radical egalitarian agenda have seized upon this verse as “proof” that women occupied all levels of leadership in the early church and that therefore, withholding ordination from women is nothing more than a holdover from an abusive and patriarchal western history. Junia was a woman. Junia was an apostle. Therefore women should be preachers in the church. So runs the argument. To read an example of this argument click here.
While this is not the place for a full scale defense of the traditional evangelical view on gender – namely that men and women are equal in dignity and value but different with respect to role and responsibility – it would be appropriate to at least make a few comments on the general rules of biblical hermeneutics before the enthusiasm for this new interpretation gets completely out of control. The first rule of hermeneutics is sometimes cheekily stated as being “context, context, context”. If you hang around seminary geeks you will often hear that rule followed by this silly maxim: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text”. We think that sort of thing is quite hilarious which may explain why we get invited to very few parties. More on that later.
The point is that when you take a text (like Romans 16:7) that either comes without much of a supporting context, or that you remove, "Daily Bread style" from its supporting context, you are well positioned to make a spurious and irrational interpretation of the text in support of a previously held bias or position. That certainly seems to be what is happening presently with Romans 16:7. Let’s apply the first rule of hermeneutics to this passage.
The first thing we notice is that the verse comes to us without much of an immediate supporting context. This verse is in a chapter where Paul is closing off his correspondence with a variety of greetings and acknowledgments. There is no argument being developed and no narrative being interpreted. Just shout outs to his friends in Rome. That means that we are robbed of our most important tool in textual interpretation. If there had been a narrative preceding this verse about a time when Junia visited Jerusalem and met with James and Peter we could be almost certain that the verse meant “she was well known TO the apostles”. If on the other hand, we had a short story about her delivering a message or letter from Paul to the church in Antioch then we might actually come to the conclusion that she was well known AS an apostle – if by apostle we meant “authorized messenger” – which is the meaning the word had outside of the New Testament context. The word is used that way in the New Testament in several places but is often co-opted into our New Testament understanding of THE APOSTLES as persons commissioned by Christ and given extraordinary authority. However, if there was a story about Junia functioning as an authorized letter carrier for THE APOSTLES that context would dictate that we understand the phrase as “Junia was well known as a small a-apostle”. Of course, if we had a story about Junia preaching the Gospel after raising someone from the dead and healing a man born blind and then writing a letter to the church of Philippi we would have to conclude that Junia was well known as a capital A Apostle. We don’t have that. We don’t have any of those stories in the immediate context that would help us decide what this text means. Therefore, we have to admit that this is an obscure text. It is a text without an interpreting context. (Which means that in the hands of the dishonest or reckless, it is a pretext for a proof text!)
The reason the first rule of hermeneutics is “context, context, context” is because there is more than one type of context. There is the immediate context, which as we have just discussed, is not very helpful here, but then there is the larger context. In this case, there is the larger context of the Pauline corpus. Assuming that Paul was not schizophrenic or unbalanced, we would expect a high degree of internal consistency within his body of writings. We don’t imagine that he had one doctrine in Rome and another in Ephesus for example. We expect that he said much the same thing, wherever he happened to be. He had a Gospel, not Gospels. Therefore when we can’t be sure what he meant in Romans 16:7 we test our various interpretations against other, clearer, writings elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. When we do that we discover that there really is no basis for controversy on this issue. Consider what Paul said in 1 Timothy 2 when writing to the young pastor of a church in Ephesus:
12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Timothy 2:12–14 ESV)
Here Paul says that men and women have different roles in the church, rooted in the creation order and that the man is supposed to be the teacher in the gathered assembly. He says something similar (and just as clear) to the church in Corinth:
33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. (1 Corinthians 14:33–34 ESV)
If we apply the rules of context to 1 Corinthians 14 and remember that Paul said that a woman could pray or prophesy in the gathered services in chapter 11 then we understand “keep silent” to mean “stand down during the public teaching of the word” – an interpretation further strengthened by the immediate context of this verse which is a passage dealing with order during the public services and specifically, the delivery and discernment of the preaching. When the doctrine is being delivered and discerned in the services, the women should stand down and let the male officers function according to the role and responsibility assigned to them.
Those texts are very clear and therefore they must guide our interpretation of an obscure passage like Romans 16:7. Romans 16:7 is an obscure greeting to some people that Paul knew that are never again mentioned in the New Testament. We don’t know who they were or what they did and the grammar is not clear enough to give us any certainty. What we know is that unless Paul is wildly unstable, he could not have meant that Junia is an authoritative, capital A apostle who is to have doctrinal authority and proclamation priority in the churches. If he meant that, then the Bible is inscrutable and Paul is unreliable. That is why no one ever thought he meant that – until very recently. I think it is fair to say that Romans 16:7 is being asked to bear a load it cannot manage. I think the damage done to the way regular Christians look at their Bible would be worse than the supposed gains this new reading would afford. I think the ESV has it right:
They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7 ESV)
 ‘Egalitarian’ means understanding men and women as equal in every way in Christ. It means “equal without difference of any kind or with respect to any role”. Practically speaking it means getting rid of any notion of male headship in the home and ordaining women preachers in the church. Increasingly this is becoming the dominant viewpoint among Evangelicals, despite that the Bible seems to teach the precise opposite. The traditional position is known as the “complementarian” position which roughly defined means believing that men and women are “equal but different with respect to responsibility”.