Romans 16 – Women in the Bible: Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

The importance of the messenger

Paul greets a number of women in this chapter in addition to presenting Phoebe, the messenger delivering his letter.  In fact, Paul is reported (and reports himself) working closely with many women in the early church.  Phoebe caught my attention because, having read about how these letters were distributed and presented, I knew Paul must have held her in very high esteem for such an important task.

You see, these letters were not merely handed over by an impartial messenger.  The messengers, including Phoebe, read the letter to its recipients, and expounded upon it aloud, answering questions from the recipients and clarifying Paul’s words when needed.  The reading was often dramatic.  I think it was N.T. Wright who theorized Paul and his messengers standing in view of a crucified body for dramatic effect when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.  If not that extreme, they certainly were impassioned public speakers who would have to know scripture inside and out – perhaps almost as well as Paul did – in order to fully deliver the message of the letter.  I’ve also seen it said that the spoken word was, in fact, the primary message.  The letter was a secondary or supporting document.  So whoever is doing the speaking has a very important role.

Phoebe’s background

So who was Phoebe?  The only concrete thing we know about her is that she comes from Cenchreae.  Cenchreae was a small but prosperous port town not far from the larger Corinth.  It had a deep, protected harbor that made it important for trade.  It was thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and is still inhabited today.  If lifestyle magazines had existed in ancient Rome, Cenchreae might have been included in a list “Top ten small towns in the Empire” for it’s array of temples, historic attractions, strong economy, and proximity to Corinth.

We can assume that Phoebe was wealthy, and probably single (widowed or never married is harder to guess).  The Greek word, sometimes translated “servant” or “helper” can also be translated as “benefactor” or “protector,” which the NIV translation above uses. She was in a role similar to Lydia, the wealthy female dye merchant of Thyatira we meet in Acts, then.  Given her freedom to move about society, I think she was also Roman, or at least part of a very Roman-ized social class, as many contemporary cultures, particularly Greek and Jewish, were a little more restrictive for women.

The Roman Empire was not a bad place for a woman of means.  Rich Roman women could often keep their finances, particularly their inheritance, out of their husband’s hands.  A Roman woman who had borne a certain number of children could also legally request that her finances be her own affair (in payment for producing so many little Roman citizens).  Aside from politics, Roman women were visible and active participants in society: attending functions with their husbands, hosting mixed company in their own homes, donating to social, theological, and civic groups. As we’ve seen in the example of Lydia, they could even run their own business ventures.

A woman with a ready heart

The picture we develop of Phoebe is this: a wealthy, independent woman with a bright, creative mind (I doubt Paul would have entrusted her with this important letter otherwise) who is not afraid of adventure (traveling to Rome was no small undertaking).  Most importantly, she is a shining example of an open heart.  I don’t know what may have troubled Phoebe in her lifetime – because we all have troubles.  But overall, it sounds like she was doing just fine before finding Jesus.  She had enough money. She lived in a lovely little town.  She probably had friends and family – community – before joining the early church.  Honestly, she could have picked anything to attach herself or put effort (and money) into.  But Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation with the one true God was the one that caught her attention, the one she wanted to help bring to the world.

Perhaps she saw the plight of women with less means than her, and saw Jesus as a way to uplift them.  Or, perhaps it was the other way around, and Jesus opened her eyes to the plight of her sisters.  It’s just a suggestion, but speaking more broadly, I think concern for others led her to a love for Jesus, or, through the love she developed for Jesus a concern for others developed, also. Either way, caring and love went (and continue to go) hand in hand.  Phoebe, in short, is a woman who used what privilege she had – status and money to be sure, but also time and intellect – in service to  this fledgling movement of Jesus-followers.  Remember what I said last post, about how it’s the responsibility of the strong to bring justice and love to the weak?  Phoebe did that when she became a benefactress, helper, servant, or whatever other translation you want to use.

Listen, if being a churchy-church person isn’t for you, that’s fine. I think donating money to a worthwhile church and volunteering for church-based events that you believe in is great, but we can see Phoebe’s service to the young church as an example of service in the broader sense of the word.  I think God sees and approves of any work being done to fight inequality and hate, whether it is led by a church group or not.  The important thing is that Phoebe had an open heart, was willing to listen to this strange new message of Jesus dying and being resurrected, and hear God at work in it.  She let that message of love and reconciliation guide her to service and to action.  God bless Pheobe, and may she be an example to the rest of us.

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