Updated: Aug 2
Our girls need New Testament heroes. Let me introduce Phoebe.
I commend [synistemi] to you our sister Phoebe, being [ousan] a servant [diakonon] of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help [prostatis] to many people, including me.
Paul, as recorded in his letter to the Romans 16: 1-2
As Paul stayed in Corinth around A.D. 57, over 740 miles by land and by sea from Rome, he realized the early church in that city was riven with dissension between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. The newly installed 20 year old Roman Emperor, Nero, had recently readmitted Jews after having been expelled by the previous Emperor, Claudius. This is the same Nero who would later enthusiastically torture the Christians spread throughout his empire, even lighting his garden parties with the burning carcasses of Christian human torches.
With the Jewish Christians out of Rome, the Gentile Christians had flourished, effectively organizing and growing many of the house churches around the city. Now with their return, many of the Jews were trying to force their customs and traditions onto the Gentile Christians. Even though he had never been to Rome himself, Paul recognized the importance of the church in that city and wanted to extinguish any chance of a split. He also dearly needed the support from the churches in Rome for his long-planned sojourn to Spain. And so, the apostle Paul, with the assistance of Tiberius, transcribed his magnus opus, his letter to the Romans.
But Paul would not be able to deliver this letter himself. He needed someone who would both carry and convey his letter at great personal risk to the house churches spread throughout the City of Iron. In that time, the one who delivered an important message was much more than a simple courier. The one who delivered the message often both read the message as well as explained the meaning and intent of the author.
Imagine. The papyri scroll containing Paul’s letter to Rome would have extended to more than 15 feet in length. The Greek writings of that day had neither capitalization, punctuation, nor even spacing between words. At that time, barely ten percent of the population were literate, and we can fairly state that even from this select group very few would have been able to comprehend the layers of depth in Paul’s letter. Even today, with paragraphs, punctuation, section headings, and organization through verse, Paul’s letter remains one of the most challenging passages of the Bible.
It is simply inconceivable that Paul would have spent so much time and effort on a letter he clearly viewed as extremely important to be left to an unguided interpretation from those to whom he was sending it. He needed the person delivering his message to be of high intelligence, greatly respected, persuasive, a presence. Someone who would understand every word and be able to convey Paul’s message with authority. Someone willing to stand for unity within a church facing deep internal divisions as well as existential peril from the governing authority. Into this snake pit, Paul sent Phoebe, his prostatis, the ousan diakonon from Cenchrea, a city about five miles separated from Corinth.
Pauls’ reference to Phoebe as his prostatis is quite interesting. Many justifiably question the translation of the term as a mere “helper”.
The Greek term, prostates, is literally translated as “the one who stands before”.
In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), the term is used to describe “officials in charge of the King’s work”. (I Chronicles 29: 6)
The term is used to describe King Solomon’s chief officials. (2 Chronicles 8: 10)
The term is used by Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.) to describe “protector of the people” or “democratic leader”.
Prostates was also known to be a common term among the Greeks for presidents of various secular or religious associations.
At times, entire cities were considered prostates of other cities or regions (e.g. between the 6th and 4th century B.C., Athens and Sparta competed for the position of prostates to be protector of the peace.
Evidence from ancient inscriptions indicates that in Egypt and, eventually, in Rome the word prostates had already become a word of choice for synagogue leadership among Diaspora Jewry prior to the birth of Christ.
Paul, himself, uses various forms of the term, and clearly understands its nuances.
The first time a form of prostatis appears in the New Testament is in Romans 12: 8 in Paul’s list of gifts from the Holy Spirit: “if it is to lead (proistamenos), do it diligently.”
Speaking of elders, Paul encourages the Thessalonians “to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who are over you (proistamenous) in the Lord” (I Thess. 5:12)
Most importantly, in 1 Timothy 5: 17, Paul uses the verb form of prostatis when he writes, “The elders [proestotes presbuteroi, i.e. “those elders who stand before”] who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor . . .”
The term may also mean “protectress or patroness / benefactor”.
Now, let’s consider what we know of Phoebe.
She was a Christian (“our sister”).
She was a Gentile convert. After all, she is named after one of the Greek titans. A Jewish family would not have named their daughter after a Greek goddess.
She was at least of middle age, likely widowed.
She was a person of some means. Paul addresses her as “his prostatis” which can be translated as both a “leader” as well as a “benefactor”.
Obviously, Phoebe would have been a person of some intellect, able to read and explain Paul’s meaning with authority.
She received direct coaching from Paul on the exact meaning of each part of his letter to the churches spread throughout Rome.
At one point, no one aside from Paul himself would have had a deeper understanding of the exact meaning of the letter to the churches in Rome.
She was highly respected and recognized as an important leader with the Church in Cenchrea. Since Phoebe was also addressed by Paul as “ousan diakonon” which is roughly translated to be a formalized role of servant with the Church in Cenchrea, we know that Paul held her in very high regard. It is highly likely that the house church in Cenchrea met in her home and that she personally hosted Paul when he passed through the city.
She likely already knew at least some of the house Church leaders in Rome. In Acts 18: 18, we read that Paul, along with Priscilla and Aquila, stopped in Cenchrea as they were passing from Corinth to Syria. In Romans 16: 3, Paul specifically mentions the Church meeting in Priscilla and Aquila’s Roman residence as Phoebe’s most likely first stop. It is likely that not only would Priscilla and Aquila have recognized Phoebe, but would also have helped guide her to the other house churches meeting throughout Rome.
We know from Acts 18: 2 that both Priscilla and Aquila were Jewish. We can infer that Phoebe was a Gentile Christian. We also know that they probably knew each other already. Since Paul’s letter was written specifically to address dissension between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Jewish support backing Phoebe would have been crucial as she went from house church to house church conveying Paul’s message of unity.
We do not require great imagination to consider the many nights that Paul and Phoebe worked together as Phoebe practiced reading Paul’s letter and received direct instruction on the meaning of each section. We can see Paul grow visibly frustrated and impatient with Phoebe when she did not understand the point he was trying to make. We can watch Paul and Phoebe working out the best approach to visit the house churches spread throughout Rome, and the most likely manner for his message to meet with acceptance. Given the hostility of many Romans to the returning Jews, Paul’s choice was quite sensible to send a Gentile woman to carry his message into the city. A Gentile woman of some means and wealth, involved in trade and transport, would have received deferential treatment and would have been the least likely to arouse suspicion.
Phoebe would have traveled very lightly to avoid attention as well as not to be a burden to the houses she would visit inside Rome. Being an older woman, she most likely traveled with one servant to assist with her belongings, but not more. Even though she had the means, Phoebe would not have traveled with an entourage. At every instance, she would have comported herself in such a manner so as to receive respect from those she met.
Paul almost certainly accompanied Phoebe to her ship in Cenchrea and watched as she sailed away with his letter – perhaps the only copy. He would have stood and watched her ship disappear into the horizon, turning away only when he could see her no more. The trip would take between five to ten days, and from Paul’s own experience when he would be shipwrecked on a similar journey to Rome (Romans 27) we know the journey would be perilous. Paul, as well as his close associates, certainly prayed fervently for her safety as well as success.
We know Phoebe discreetly entered Rome (a city of one million at that time) and made her way directly to the house of Priscilla and Aquila. They would not have been expecting her but would have enthusiastically invited her inside. Once she had settled, Phoebe would have conveyed Paul’s greetings as well as the purpose for her visit. She would read and explain Paul’s letter to Priscilla and Aquila alone, over several nights by torchlight in the private courtyard of their moderately wealthy Roman residence. The Jewish Christians would never accept a message from a Gentile woman, so Priscilla and Aquila, recognizing the significance of Paul’s letter, would have taken the lead in disseminating as well as communicating the message to the other house churches spread throughout the city of Rome.
We do not know what ultimately befell Phoebe. When Priscilla and Aquila were strongly challenged as they read Paul’s message in the various house churches, perhaps Phoebe could not have helped but to speak up, forcefully stating exactly what Paul meant; her voice rising from a well of accumulated emotion only she could tap. No one else could speak with equivalent authority. Phoebe would have made enemies. We do not know if she returned safely to Cenchrea or if she was the victim of some malfeasance – either by Jewish Christians unsettled and threatened by her message, or by Roman officials who would later be informed of the true reason for her visit to the city.
We must wonder how Phoebe, a Gentile woman of means, intellect, wealth, and position originally became a Christian. This is when we must unfortunately veer into pure speculation. Perhaps she was married young to an older man of some means involved in shipping or trade. (Cenchrea was a wealthy port city.) Perhaps her husband had died early, and Phoebe was forced to take control of her deceased husband’s business interests. Perhaps she had a child who became quite ill. Perhaps it was her only child. We read in Acts 19: 12 that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick and their illnesses were cured . . .” Perhaps one of these miracles had benefited Phoebe’s household, and she had become a convert with means, motivation, mixed with fire. Perhaps the unknowing bargain she made on the day of her conversion is that her child’s life would carry the price of her own. That she would be called to be extraordinary.
What we do know is that God granted Phoebe success in her trip. That He protected her on her initial journey, and that Paul’s inspired message of grace, love, and unity has been studied and conveyed for more than two millennia due to the journey of a single woman mentioned in only two sentences at the end of Paul’s letter to Rome. Perhaps the most appropriate translation of the term prostatis is not helper, not patroness, not protectress, not benefactor, not leader.
Perhaps the most appropriate translation is more basic, devoid of any controversy. Perhaps, in this case, we should simply translate prostatis as “champion”. For a brief moment with barely a mention, Phoebe, sent by God, was Paul's champion.