Although St. Paul has often been indicted for misogynism, many of his best friends and most valuable collaborators were in fact women. Their names appear scattered in the Book of Acts and in the genuine Pauline epistles. Generally they are overlooked. But one passage cannot be easily ignored, Romans 16:1-15. Here Paul himself mentions an interesting group of ten women: Phoebe, Prisca better known as Priscilla, Mariam, Jounia, Tryphaina, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia and the sister of Nereus. Of these only two are nameless, being identified by their relationships to males. This remarkable chapter in the history of church women documents not only that Eve's daughters were numerous in the Christian communities, but more importantly that they held offices in the primitive churches known to that much-traveled apostle, St. Paul. Paul makes it clear that women were neither silent nor submissive and subordinate members of the body of Christ.
The strong and resilient character of Christian women had been known to the apostle from the time before his dramatic conversion from Saul the persecutor of Christians to Paul the missionary-founder of churches. By his own admission, Paul had earlier arrested and jailed Christian women. Later he came to know them as his teachers, friends and co-workers. Several times he publicly acknowledged his debt to faithful apostolic women.
Phoebe is the first woman to be named in Romans 16. It is a letter of introduction for her to carry to the church in Ephesus, written by Paul in Corinth in 57 A.D. The writer identified Phoebe as "deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrae" and as the "ruler (prostates) of many people, including myself" (vv. 1-2). Clearly Phoebe exercised leadership and authority in the important church located in the seaport town near Corinth. Otherwise she would not have been traveling officially to meet the church leaders of the Ephesian church.
Among the leaders whom the traveling deacon would meet in Ephesus Paul mentions first Prisca (vv. 3-4), an old friend whom he had first met in Corinth five years earlier. Recalling how she and her husband had saved his life in Ephesus, Paul identifies Prisca as his "co-worker" (synergos). This word implies equality between Paul the male missionary and Prisca the female missionary. Moreover, not only Paul but also "all the churches of the Gentiles owe gratitude to Prisca and Aquila." In three out of the four mentions of this missionary pair the name of Prisca precedes that of her husband. The reversal of the usual patriarchal order, naming the man first, suggests that Prisca was the more prominent of the two. Taking notice that her name comes first, St. John Chrysostom praised Prisca as a brilliant leader. True to scriptural history and tradition, the Orthodox Church celebrates Prisca as saint and apostolos (February 13).
Having spent several years with the church in Ephesus, Paul knew well the local women who "had worked very hard for the Lord" in the city famous for its veneration of and its great temple to the pagan goddess Artemis. He applies to four Ephesian women the word kopiao, his favorite verb to describe the work of teaching and preaching the gospel.
With Phoebe he sends greetings to four hard workers: Mariam, Tryphaina, Tryphosa, and "beloved Persis" (vv. 6, 12). Mention of Mariam inspired Chrysostom to exclaim what an honor it is for men that "there are such women among us. But we are put to shame that we men are left so far behind them… For the women of those days were more spirited than lions."
Paul also sends greetings to a second missionary couple in Ephesus, Andronikos and Jounia who are "distinguished (episemoi) among the apostles, my compatriots and fellow prisoners who became Christians before me" (v.7). These words testify to a close association of Jounia and Andronikos with the apostle Paul. In his commentary on Romans 16 St. John Chrysostom added to Paul's praise of Jounia: "To be an apostle is something great. But to be distinguished among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is…how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle" (Patrologia Graeca 60, 669).
Indeed, apostolos was the highest title of authority and honor in the early church. According to I Corinthians 12:28 the apostles ranked first in the ministries of leadership and teaching, followed by prophets and teachers. Thus in Romans 16:7 we learn from Paul's own words verify that women like Jounia were not excluded from the most significant ministry of the apostolic church. Called by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the apostolate along with men, women also had leadership and authority roles in the church at its beginnings.
Through the ages Orthodox tradition has preserved the memory of women apostles, those peripatetic missionaries, founders and nurturers of the churches in the Mediterranean world. Some of them are enrolled among our saints. In addition to the apostles Prisca (February 13) and Jounia (May 17), Saints Mary Magdalene and Horaiozele (July 22, 26); Mariamne and Photeine the Samaritan Woman (February 17, 26); Hermione; Xanthippe and her sister Polyxene; Thekla (September 4, 23, 24); Apphia (November 22) all wear the bright halos of the apostle.
Historically then, credit for the success achieved by the primitive church does not belong only to the sons of Adam. The daughters of Eve have a rightful claim to an equal share of recognition.
St. Paul's tribute to women in Romans 16 makes us wish we knew more about our apostle-foremothers. But what little we do know constitutes a precious legacy for Orthodox Eve.
St. Phoebe the Deacon
St. Paul the Apostle
St. Junia the Apostle
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