Who was Phoebe?

The portrayal of women in the Bible is a fascinating subject to me. This is especially true when women are cast in a positive light, which is something that doesn’t really happen that often in literature from a time where women were viewed as either property or untrustworthy. One particular woman mentioned in Romans chapter 16, Phoebe, really caught my attention this week. In the closing of his epistle to the Roman church, Paul begins:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever way she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2) 

It’s apparent that Paul thinks very highly of this woman. But who was this mystery woman who had the respect of Paul? 

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Most people seem to agree that Phoebe hailed from the seaport town of Cenchreae, a major trade center just east of Corinth (Cenchreae). This would put her in close proximity to Paul at what most people believe to be the time that he wrote his epistle to the Romans. Many sources also agree that Phoebe was a businesswoman, and one source takes this idea further and states, “Phoebe used both her financial means and her own person to minister to the sick and distressed of her city. She was a useful worker and co-laborer with the Apostle Paul” (Women in History). So not only was she a seemingly successful businesswoman, she was also a generous woman who helped those who needed it, including Paul during his many journeys. This explains why Paul described her as being “a patron of many and of myself as well.”

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The most interesting thing that I found concerned the word servant mentioned in the first verse of our text. In the original manuscript, the Greek word “diakonos” is used, which could have several different meanings, one of which is in fact “servant”; this word is also the one that Paul uses to describe his own ministry  (Society of Biblical Literature). However, when “diakonos” is combined with “ousa,” as it is in the original manuscript, a more appropriate translation would be “minister,” as the phrase “points to a more recognized ministry” (SBL). This leads many people to believe that Phoebe was in fact a deaconess of the church in Cenchreae, and maybe even the “first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity” (SBL). Personally, I think this is a very plausible explanation, as it is often hard to translate words exactly, and it would help to explain why Paul held Phoebe in such high esteem. Plus, it’s really awesome that not only did a woman hold a position of power in the early church, but also she may have been the first deacon, even before a man.

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With Phoebe’s position of power in the church and her status as a businesswoman, it is generally believed that Paul charged Phoebe with delivering his epistle to Rome. It is also believed that she was trustworthy, dependable, and dedicated to service, which would have made her a perfect choice for completing this task for Paul (Phoebe the Helper of Many). To add to this, it is very possible that Phoebe herself would also have business to tend to in Rome, which could be why Paul asks the Roman church to help her out in any way possible (Women in History). But Paul’s request for Phoebe to transport his epistle to the Romans goes beyond simply handing the Roman church the epistle. Along with this, Phoebe was also expected to answer any questions that the Romans had concerning what Paul wrote and to make sure that they understood the message correctly (Phoebe the Letter Carrier). Since whoever brought the letter to the Romans would have to have a deep understanding of Paul’s intent, it makes perfect sense for him to send Phoebe on this mission.

 

It’s amazing to see how some women were portrayed as important people in literature, especially a work that has such a huge impact on our society. Not only was Phoebe a successful businesswoman, she also held a position of power in the early church and she was greatly respected by Paul. 

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