Let’s look at Romans 16:7.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Two questions about this passage have been debated for many years:
- Was Junia a man or a woman?
- Was Junia an apostle?
Some would ask, “Who cares?” Well, the reason this is debated – even among non-scholars – is that the passage may show that women could be apostles in the early church. This would undermine those who believe that women shouldn’t teach men, or be in authority over men. If the Bible says that a woman was an apostle, as the argument goes, there’s no reason that a woman can’t be a pastor today.
My conclusions about Junia are entirely unrelated to the question of Christian women in leadership. My conclusions are – as they should be – based on the evidence, and not on some more modern argument about the implications of the text. If the text tells of a woman apostle, so be it. If not, so be it. Our doctrine and practice should come from the Scriptures. So what does the evidence show?
Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t clear.
What is an apostle? Would Junia qualify as an apostle?
If the Bible specifically said that only men could be apostles, that would settle the issue. The Bible doesn’t say that. The Greek word translated “apostle” is apostolos. It only appears in the New Testament, and it means a delegate, or a messenger, sent forth with orders. That could be anybody: a man or woman, a child, or even an angel (though the word used for an angel would more likely be angelos, which means “messenger”). Apostolos is usually applied to Jesus’ twelve disciples, but is also applied to others. For an example of how the word simply means “messenger,” see John 13:16: Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. The word translated “messenger” is apostolos. Here are more examples of apostolos in the New Testament:
- After Judas betrayed Jesus and killed himself, the eleven remaining disciples chose a replacement. As we see in Acts 1:21-22, they had specific criteria in mind: Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. There were apparently a number of people who witnessed Jesus’ entire ministry. Junia may have been among them. They chose Matthias.
- Paul was an apostle as well. He referred to himself as an apostle because Jesus appeared to him personally, and commissioned him personally. This is considered a unique situation in Scripture. Paul also wrote that he demonstrated “the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles” in 2 Corinthians 12:12. This suggests that apostles exhibited certain supernatural actions or abilities that could be identified by those who witnessed them.
- Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14:4.
- Titus and a number of others are called apostles in 2 Corinthians 8:23.
- Apollos is called an apostle in 1 Corinthians 4:9.
- Epaphroditus is called an apostle in Philippians 2:25.
- Jesus is called an apostle in Hebrews 3:1. Some find this odd, as they believe an apostle must be a follower of Jesus…but the word simply describes a person who has been sent with a message. This obviously describes Jesus (as in John 12:49).
These people are variously interpreted, in English, to have been “messengers” and “representatives” and “emissaries.” Could a woman, based on the above information, be considered an apostle? It appears so. There’s no passage that limits this to men, and nobody seems troubled by the idea that a number of women witnessed Jesus’ ministry from His baptism to his resurrection. If Junia was a woman, it seems reasonable to conclude that she might have been an apostle.
Was Junia a woman?
Ideally, we could just look up other biblical references to Junia and find out. Romans 16:7 is the only biblical reference to Junia, so we get no help there. The Greek construction of the name could be useful…if it was written after the ninth century. Because the accent marks that would tell us Junia’s sex don’t appear in ancient manuscripts, we get no help there, either. The consensus among the early church fathers appears to be that Junia was a woman. Later writers say that Junia is a man’s name, but by “later” we mean those writing in the twelfth century. We should, of course, prefer the earlier references to the later ones…so it’s preferable to consider the early consensus more reliable. Being diligent, we can also look for the name Junia in extrabiblical texts from that time period. If Junia was a common woman’s name and was never used in the literature for a man, we could say with some confidence that Paul’s friend Junia was a woman. Unfortunately, we simply don’t have much information from other documents. There are no instances of Junias (a masculine spelling of the same name) as a man’s name in Greek literature, while there are three of Junia as a woman.
While it seems safe to say that Junia was probably a woman, we can’t say it with the kind of certainty we’d prefer.
Was Junia an apostle?
Based on the definition of an apostle, there’s no textual basis for saying that a woman, including Junia, could not have been an apostle.
Why the debate?
Because so many consider the idea of women in (or not in) ministry so important, and because our information about Junia is inconclusive, this information hasn’t settled the issue. We need to go back to the text. The Greek phrase translated “outstanding among the apostles” is episemos en apostolos. This can be understood in two different ways:
- The apostles knew Andronicus and Junia well, or
- Of all of the apostles in the early church, Andronicus and Junia were prominent apostles.
The text itself isn’t conclusive. I studied Greek in college, and have used Greek language tools in the decades since, but I’m no Greek scholar. It’s difficult for a layperson to draw conclusions about which translation most accurately reflects Paul’s intent, because most (including myself) lack sufficient experience with ancient Greek. Scholars differ, so we don’t really know whether Paul meant that Junia was an outstanding apostle (when compared with other apostles) or that Junia was simply well-known among those who were apostles. Apparently, this is an issue that we may never settle.
I think I should mention Daniel Wallace here. He is currently a professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His Greek grammar is a standard college and seminary textbook. He’s the senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible (which appears to be a very good translation), and he is also the Executive Director for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. In other words, he is a very well-known and respected scholar. Wallace believes that Junia was probably a woman, but that she and Andronicus were simply well-known by those who were apostles. I respect his opinion on the matter, as I know nobody better able to address the question of Greek grammar. Some will disagree, and – according to Wallace himself – maybe they should. We simply can’t make a final determination at this point.
Implications: what if Junia was an apostle?
Let’s say that Junia was an apostle. What would that mean? Well, it would mean that Junia (based on the definition of apostolos) was sent, by someone in authority, to deliver a message. This could be as simple as being a witness of Jesus’ ministry (sharing the gospel with others) or it could mean being a traveling evangelist, or it could mean that Junia was a local church leader as in 2 Corinthians 8:23.
Some believe the admission that Junia was probably a woman and likely an apostle is problematic, because Paul told Timothy that he doesn’t allow a woman to teach or assume authority over a man. They consider this a universal statement of the way God wants things to be. Others believe that Paul’s instructions to Timothy were prescriptive and not universal. As evidence that God uses women in positions of spiritual and political authority over men, they cite the many women of the Bible who taught men, and ruled over them…including some women that Paul mentions specifically. Having studied the issue broadly, I can’t conclude that Paul was speaking of all women, in all situations. Judah didn’t only have kings, for example. Athaliah ruled for six years. Deborah was a prophet, and Judge over the nation of Israel. Huldah was a prophet. Anna worked in the Temple, and taught people, both men and women, about the Messiah. You may read a bit more about that here: Does God Use Women in Ministry?.
Hat tip to David, who sent in this question.