The Apostle Junia: Christianity Undoing Gender Oppression

The following is a guest blog by Sharon Klingemann.

When I first heard about Junia I was appalled. A woman?! Apostle!? Where has she been all my life? Why have I never heard of her?! The tragedy is that I never heard of her due to the somewhat successful, and somewhat unsuccessful blotting out of her name from history. Open your bible and read Romans 16:7, and if you are ambitious go ahead and read the chapter in its entirety.

The issues surrounding the passage have to do with the meaning of the term apostle, to whom the title might apply, and the gender of Junia. First, we must determine if the proper way to translate the name is Junia (feminine) or Junias (masculine). It is always good to refer back to the Greek, but in the Greek the only difference between Junia and Junias is an accent mark. Here is the catch, the accents were not added to the Greek manuscripts until about the nineteenth century. That is a long time after the life and death of Junia to start throwing around accent marks. The accents themselves hold no authority, but the history of the accents do give slight insight. When the Greek manuscripts with accents were first published they were printed with the accent indicating a feminine reading but since then not all the manuscripts are in agreement.[1] Unfortunately, some have changed to a masculine reading.

With so little to go off of from the Biblical text our next step is to examine extra-biblical considerations. Thankfully, Peter Lampe has done an exhaustive work for us concerning this. He searched through Roman literature of Junia’s day to find the name Junia, and/or Junias. In his reading, there were approximately 250 citing of the name Junia, all of which were referring to a female. The obvious conclusion is that during this time Junia was a popular name for females. While we can find in Roman literature that Junia is indeed a common name, there are no citings of the name Junias. The closest male name to Junia would be Junianus. While it is possible for a Junianus to be called by Junias, there is no evidence of that ever happening. Based on linguistics, the argument for a masculine name cannot stand.[2] The name Junias simply did not exist in the Roman world during this time.

The early Church fathers never question that Junia is a female apostle whom Paul was recommending. John Chrysostem (347-407) wrote in his commentary on Romans a sincere praise of Junia for being a brave apostle, despite his tendency towards misogyny. He broadly condemned women for being untrustworthy, and secondary to men. Nonetheless he never mentioned the idea of Junia actually being Junias.[3] Though he was biased and chauvinistic, his despising women did not go so far as to confuse Junia’s gender.

Rena Pederson traced the first person to give Junia a sex change to Giles of Rome, also known as Aegidus Romanus. In his commentary on Romans, when he arrived at Romans 16:7 he casually referred to Andronicus and Junia as “honorable men.” Giles assumed that Paul was referring to men because he mentions them as noteworthy apostles, which could only be true of men, of course.

Giles, does not have a positive reputation in his regard of women. “The modern presupposition is that Giles was prejudiced against women’s roles in the church by Pope Boniface VIII – a famously corrupt figure. Pope Boniface so opposed female leadership in the church that he ordered that all nuns be confined to their convents, which limited their influence in the church from then on. Giles “politically correct” mistranslation of Junia’s name appeared to flow from the papal prejudice that women were to be kept in their place.”[4] Though Giles gender change was discreet he would set the trend for many to come after him.

Another impact of Junias’ name change is the shift in the education system. In the middle ages, the intellectual life shifted from monasteries to the universities. The university was an exclusive place for males only. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that women would be accepted into academic life. While women’s contributions were certainly limited in the monasteries, with this shift to the university system men dominated completely. “Men, now the professional story tellers, wrote the stories of men. Men made the rules and made rules that benefited men. Men explained the universe. Men interpreted the scripture. Men wrote the philosophy text and enshrined the ideas of male philosophers. Men constructed the theologies that maintained the history of women in the churches.”[5] With this shift culturally, everything was a man’s world.

Aquinas also has a large influence on the disdain for women in Christian thought. Aquinas, being a leading voice in theology during the Middle Ages, has influenced the fusion of Christian thought with Greek thought. His hermeneutical filter was through an Aristotelian lens. In his reading of Paul, the Greek disdain for women seeped through. According to Aquinas women were inferior to men both in nature and in purpose. His view so belittled females that he even claimed that the leader of the bees must be male because the female of the species could not possess leadership quality. His bias towards women hued his understanding (falsely) in a variety of ways. This Greek notion is found throughout the dominant Greek Philosophers such as Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Euripides, and many others. Through this lens, Aquinas interpreted the Scriptures. [6] The cultural influence has had an enormous impact on the view of women. People have been enculturated to be misogynistic and that has seeped into Christianity.

To claim that the idea that Junia is a woman is a new, liberal, feminist, notion is inaccurate to say the least. Were the early church fathers liberal feminists? What about Paul?[7] Referring to Junia in the same way as the early church fathers, as a woman, is a conservative notion. I find it devastating and appalling that people would prefer to change the Holy Scriptures to mention a non-existent male name rather than allow the scriptures to convict an enculturated disdain for half of God’s people.

The next issue to wrestle with is if she is actually referred to as an apostle. The two thoughts are either that she the apostles know her and respect her, or that out of all the apostles, she is noteworthy. The ESV translates this passage, “They are well known to the apostles” while the NASB translates it: “They are outstanding among the apostles.”[8]

According to Paul, there are two qualifications to be an apostle. The first is to witness the risen Christ. Paul tells us that Andronicus and Junia were in Christ before him. It is likely at this point they have been doing ministry for over a decade, since the very beginning of the church. The second requirement is to have received a divine commission to go forth with the gospel message. As apostolic missionaries, Andronicus and Junias would fall into this category. They could have received their commission in a variety of ways. They could have been present for the commissioning of the seventy mentioned in Luke 10. The Greek text doesn’t use the noun, apostolos, but rather the verb apostello. The use of the verb “to send” with the context of rest of the text has the implications that these people were apostles.[9]

The one hundred and twenty at Pentecost were also empowered with the Holy Spirit, who empowered those present to claim “the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:11) In Luke’s account of Pentecost he records that certain women were present in the upper room, and as a result they would also be present when the Spirit fell and empowered sons and daughters to proclaim the good news. Women being given the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost not only implies that they are able to do the work of God, they have a responsibility to do so, as well. Other possibilities for an apostolic commission would include the broader Pentecost audience, the five hundred that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, and the seven in Acts chapter 6.

The fact that the term apostle is used indicates a sense of both leadership and authority. The term itself is a leadership term. Of course, apostles such as Paul and Matthew have authority, but even the apostles that were sent by specific churches and congregations were distinctive members of their congregations and would have influence and be in a place of leadership.

What Christ did in coming into our world as the Word was so powerful and so revolutionary that even women, who were not viewed highly (one could say that they are still viewed as inferior, 2,000 years later) were able to participate. Women, too, are called to be participants in salvation. Keeping women silent, keeping women inactive, keeping women out of leadership forces them to refrain from practicing an embodied salvation. It is a rip-off of the gospel. It is a weakening, perhaps even a perversion, of the powerful work of the life and death of Christ. When we read Romans 16 we can see that Paul never denied women the access to embodied salvation that Christ mediated for all. Women are full participants in the gospel. Junia is just one of the seven women that Paul mentions as distinct in the church at Rome.

When Paul is writing this ‘letter of recommendation’ in Romans chapter 16 he mentions several people, all of which would fall under the category of co-workers with him. He doesn’t mention the men separate from women, to distinguish who had authority and who didn’t, but he identifies each one, and he distinguishes these two from all the rest: Andronicus, and Junia – the noteworthy apostles. Concerning the mention of women in Romans sixteen, N.T. Wright writes in his book Paul for Everyone, “Paul names them as fellow-workers without any sense they hold a secondary position to the men… One of them Junia, in verse seven, is an apostle: The phrase ‘well known among the apostles’ does not mean that the apostles know her and Andronicus (probably wife and husband) but that they are apostles, that is, they were among those who saw the risen Lord. She has the same status as all the other apostles, including Paul himself.”[10]

This is hard to accept, for most, considering the church’s misogynistic history. Culture has always tended towards the oppression of women. The Jesus Movement allowed for women, like Junia, to be freed from this oppressive and hostile system. Since then, men (and women) have tried to silence Junia and many influential women of the church. For the vast majority, their endeavors have been successful. The fact that the gender and apostleship of Junia is even questioned is evidence of success in oppressing women. Unfortunately, the church and the world are missing out. Half of God’s people are silenced, and pushed aside.

It seems as if when dealing with the view of women there are only two options, radical feminism, or patriarchalism. It is my sincere hope that in this brief essay about Junia that you have been able to see that there is an alternative. In both, one is trying to rule over, and oppress the other. In sincere Christianity, there is no oppression of any gender, race, or socio-cultural background. The freedom from oppression is what is so liberating about Christianity. We are no longer under the oppressive dominion of Satan, and we are (supposed to be) able to escape the oppression of society when we come together with our brothers and sisters. Men and women together were created in the image of God. Men’s attempt, and success, in oppressing women, and women’s efforts (often failed) to overthrow men ultimately result in stealing God’s glory. When men and women labor together as partners for the sake of the gospel, we are truly able to carry the image of God and the life-changing message of our Lord Jesus.

[1] Reynolds, Junia(s) in Romans 16:7, online version.
[2] Ibid
[3] Pederson, The Lost Apostle, 113-114
[4] Ibid, 127-128
[5] Joan Chittister, Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.) audio version
[6] Ibid 133-135
[7] Ibid 17-19
[8] It is interesting to note that the ESV affirms the female gender of Junia, but refrains from stating an apostolic position, while the NASB has a masculine translation for the name but gives an apostolic position.
[9] Pederson, The Lost Apostle, 36. “Origin of Alexandria stated that Andronicus and Junia were among the seventy-two sent out. That view also was given credence by other church fathers.”
[10] N.T. Wright. Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two p. 134

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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