Phoebe As Prostatis -- By: Esther Yue L. Ng

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 25:1 (Spring 2004)
Article: Phoebe As Prostatis
Author: Esther Yue L. Ng

Phoebe As Prostatis

Esther Yue L. Ng

Esther Yue L. Ng is Professor and Registrar at the Christian Witness Theological Seminary in Concord, California.

In the on-going debate among scholars on the role of women in churches established by Paul, much of the discussion has centered on the women he mentioned by name in Romans 16 and Philippians 4. Of these women, Phoebe especially has pride of place. This article is a modest attempt to understand what Paul is probably referring to when he says of her in Rom 16:2c that προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ (“she has been a helper of many and of myself as well,” RSV). Up to now, the word προστάτις has generally been taken in one of three ways: 1) as a helper; 2) as a leader/president of the church; or 3) as a patroness/protectress/benefactress.1 We shall examine each in turn and in the end suggest what role she probably played as the προστάτις of many, and of Paul himself.

I. Phoebe as a Helper

In a number of English versions, the word προστάτις has been taken to mean one who gives help, with the following renderings: “succourer” (KJV), “helper” (RSV, NAS, NKJV), “a great help” (NIV), and “has come to the help of” (NJB). Similarly, some commentators on Romans have taken the same line.2 There is much to be said for such an interpretation. First, the cognate verb προΐστημι can carry the meaning of “to have an interest in, show concern for, care for, give aid.”3 Second, there is certainly an inner connection and even word play between her past role as προστάτις of many people (including Paul) and what help the Roman Christians,4 Paul hopes, would give

(παρίστημι) to her.5 Nevertheless, scholars (especially feminist ones) have rightly pointed out that such renderings may be misleading and do not do full justice to the high position enjoyed by one described as a προστάτις as shown in the following discussion.

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