What Can We Say about Phoebe? -- By: J. David Miller
PP 25:2 (Spring 2011) p. 16
What Can We Say about Phoebe?
J. David Miller teaches New Testament at Milligan College near Johnson City, Tennessee, where he and his family of four are active at Grandview Christian Church. His research interests include textual criticism and women in Scripture.
The conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome includes his most extensive catalog of coworkers. In addition to Paul himself, the chapter mentions thirty-seven specific individuals, ten of them women. At the head of this list stands Phoebe:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. (Rom 16:1-2 NRSV)
No other page of the Bible mentions Phoebe, leaving us little to go on. What, then, can we say about Phoebe?
We know, of course, her name, which means “bright,” “radiant,” or “pure.”1 Though the name Phoebe occurs only here in the New Testament, it was not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. We also know she was from Cenchreae, situated approximately five miles southeast of its larger neighbor, Corinth. Cenchreae was Corinth’s port on the eastern coast of the Isthmus of Corinth, giving access via the Saronic Gulf and the Aegean Sea to Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. It seems likely she was a Gentile, for another Phoebe was one of the twelve Titans of Greek mythology and became grandmother of the twins Apollo and Artemis. Moving beyond these basics, the remainder of our knowledge about Phoebe can be organized under four titles—patron, deacon, preacher, and apostle.
Phoebe the patron
The first of four titles we can attribute to Phoebe is patron. One of the imbedded social and economic realities of the Greco-Roman world was the symbiotic system of patronage. Society was a complex web of patrons and clients. Patrons were benefactors of the arts and of various organizations. Patrons also recruited individual clients. Patrons courted clients, opening social opportunities to those below them. In return, clients sang the praises of their patrons; that is, clients “patronized” them and thereby increased the honor of those above them. The accumulation of clients could bring significant honor; thus, it is important to note that Paul not only calls Phoebe a patron, but a “patron of many.”2
Paul’s word in Romans 16:2 is prostatis, which h...
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