This is the second post of a two-part post on Phoebe, mentioned in Paul’s closing in the letter to the Romans. In my last post I focused mainly on verse one, speaking about translations and how non-objective they can be. I also broke down a bit of the word deacon, or its Greek transliteration, diakonos. For this post I want to focus on verse two, particularly patron/client relationships and letter writing in the first century.
This discussion is special for Taylor and I, as it is the very first thing we came across that made us start asking questions (and having conversations) concerning women’s role as leaders in the New Testament. The topic of conversation began one night after Taylor came home from his Greek exegesis class on Romans.
“Hey, you know Phoebe mentioned in Romans 16?” He said to me.
“Yea, the deacon?”
“Yea…there are some really interesting things about her role concerning the letter to the church in Rome.” Taylor continued… adding a whole lot of new and fascinating info I had never been taught at church.
From then on, I was hooked…and on a hunt for more.
“Welcome her [Phoebe] in the Lord in a way that is worthy of God’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a prostatis of many people, myself included.” (Romans 16:2)
The first thing I want to focus on in this passage is the word prostatis, which means patron, sponsor or benefactor. “Patrons,” and their relationships with “clients” were an integral part of first century culture. Patrons were typically the wealthy and powerful in society, who would collect “clients” in lower social statuses and help them financially… or with other benefits, like opening up social opportunities for them, etc. In return, clients would increase the honor of their patrons by speaking well of them and praising them to society. The more clients a patron had, the more honor they received. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain in their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels that clients related to patrons as superior and more powerful kinsman, while patrons saw their clients as dependents.
As we begin the conversation on who Phoebe was, it’s important to start with this in mind, because when Paul calls Phoebe a “patron,” this is what he is referring to. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t just say Phoebe is his patron, but “a patron of many.” Meaning, Phoebe had pretty high status…and probably a lot of money.
As James Dunn notes in his commentary, some versions of Scripture translate the Greek, technical term, prostatis as “helper,” which give modern readers a false idea of what’s being said (for more on this, check my last post).
Going further, Arland Hultgren explains in his commentary on Romans that in this context (with Phoebe already addressed as a deacon and a patron) we can expect that she welcomed people into her home, which would have been the house church in Cenchreae. This is not only consistent with the fact that she was a woman of means, as patrons were in society, but also suggests that she would have very well played a pastor-type role in her house church. Other commentators also explain that in 1st century literature, prostatis had the connotation of “leading officer,” “president,” “ruler,” “governor,” or “superintendent.” (Philip Payne offers some great insight on this here.)
Just to put this in even more perspective… Phoebe as patron very well included the financial support of the letter itself, as writing and delivering this kind of correspondence was no cheap task. We’re looking at about a $10,000 investment (there weren’t inexpensive paper and pens back then), which Phoebe would have been the benefactor of.
Okay, so we see that Paul begins the closing remarks of his robust and densely theological treatise by referencing Phoebe’s credentials (sister, deacon, patron)…but then he continues with his hopes of the Roman church welcoming her.
This is certainly interesting, and any modern reader should stop for a moment and ask…why? Why would Phoebe be heading to Rome on behalf of Paul? We now understand that part of it could’ve been because she was his patron/sponsor. But why is it necessary for him to mention her credentials to the Roman church? Well, the other part of it has to do with understanding the details of first-century letters. Paul’s mentioning Phoebe here is of utmost importance and signifies a few different things.
For one, we’ll start with delivery. As we know, letters in the first century had to be physically delivered. Typically, when sending a correspondence (which would take weeks to months to arrive), senders would let the receivers know who would be the one delivering…mainly for trust purposes, and also so that the receivers would welcome deliverers at their arrival. The senders specifically chose these letter carriers, thus Phoebe being chosen bears no light weight. I’ll get more into why soon, but for now, I want to reassure you that scholarly consensus affirms that Phoebe is indeed among Paul’s letter carriers. (Based on his other letters, some of his other carriers include Timothy, Titus, Tychicus, and Epaphroditus). But concerning Phoebe, even (THE) Martin Luther (himself) states explicitly in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans that this particular letter was sent through her. Still earlier, Pseudo Constantius’s early-fifth-century commentary on Romans states: “Here the apostle demonstrates that no discrimination or preference between male and female is to be tolerated, because he sends his letter to Rome by the hand of a woman and sends greetings to other women in the same epistle.” (Miller, 17)
As I mentioned previously, Phoebe as letter carrier bears more weight than just delivery. Letter carriers didn’t merely take the letter physically, but they were involved closely with the writing process. Why? Well, once a group received a treatise like this, there would naturally be questions that would arise because of it. Think about the back-and-forth between Paul and the church in Corinth (scholars agree that there were four letters total—only two of which we have). Since a letter carrier (i.e. Phoebe) had to be involved with the writing process, it means she (specifically) was with Paul (and Timothy) as he directed his amanuensis, Tertius. I know some of us imagine Paul sitting solo handwriting this letter himself, but producing a letter like this was in fact a group effort. Paul needed Phoebe there to advise her about how to handle certain questions once the Romans got a hold of the correspondence and started wanting some clarification on things.
Going even further… besides carrying the letter, Phoebe’s job was to present it to the house church(es) in Rome. The presentation of a letter addressed to a group would involve reading the letter out loud to the recipients, most of which would have been illiterate. This reading has been described as “oral performance” because it involved the rhetorical skills of the reader: skills such as voice inflection, facial expression, and gesticulation. As I mentioned, this well-prepared reader served as interpreter of the letter, having the authority to speak for the author in order to communicate clearly both the letter’s content and the author’s tone. Oral performance was the job of the letter deliverer, who may have been chosen precisely for this reason. This oral performance has roots in both of Paul’s overlapping literary settings: Jewish and Greco-Roman. (This book is a phenomenal resource on first-century letter writing)
M. Luther Stirewalt in his book Paul the Letter Writer explains that Paul chose a “surrogate” or personal representative whom he trusted as an envoy who was informed and responsible to interpret, speak for, and report back to him. Stirewalt explains the importance of oral delivery for these letters, “[Paul] must have known that presenters would inevitably color the message with their own personal aspects and speech habits. Separated from the people, confronted by the necessary temporal delays, Paul depended on a third party to complete and update communications and to return messages from the correspondents—to expand and interpret his written word, and to translate his thought and intention when the messages were presented orally before an assembly.”
As David Miller so perfectly puts it: “In the modern church, we have a title for a person who stands before a gathered congregation and with rhetorical skill delivers a prepared message based on Scripture. That title is preacher.”
So in conclusion, Phoebe was a patron—a woman of high status, with money—who took on clients and supported them. In this case, she supported Paul in the financial expenses of the letter, writing the letter, physically delivering the letter, and then preaching and interpreting (both in theological and rhetorical skill) the letter to the church in Rome.
In other words, Phoebe was a. major. boss. and we truly do ourselves a disservice in not appreciating her as such.
For more resources (besides the ones mentioned above), see:
F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, rev. ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985);
Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2004);
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988);
Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009);
Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979);
On “patrons” in the first-century see:
John K. Chow, Patronage and Power: A Study of Social Networks in Corinth, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 75 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1992);
Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (St. Louis, MO: Clayton, 1982);
Esther Yue L. Ng, “Phoebe as Prostatis,” Trinity Journal NS 25, no. 1 (2004);
Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005);