Continuing to reflect on the debate surrounding the alleged “masculine feel” of Christianity, my thoughts have several times turned to the role played by Phoebe in the delivery of Paul’s letter to the Romans and, perhaps, in instructing the Romans with regard to the apostle’s most famous epistle. I’ve put off writing on the matter, but this recent post from Mike Bird motivated me to jot down a few thoughts. Bird points to a letter of Cicero, in which the great Roman orator said:
“In these letters, indeed, I am urgently pressed by you to send answers, but what renders me rather dilatory in this respect the difficulty of finding a trustworthy carrier. How few of these gentry are able to convey a letter rather weightier than usual without lightening it by skimming its contents!” (Letter XVIII).
This comment from Cicero suggests that he expected his letter carriers to do more than deliver the mail. He expected them to be able to competently explain and answer questions about the letter on behalf of the author.
This may have implications for the way we understand the role of those charged with delivering Paul’s letters to their recipient churches. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul writes:
“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 way she may require from you, for she has also been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”
It looks like Phoebe was charged with delivering the letter to the Romans. And based on the evidence from Cicero, she may have had much more responsibility than that. She may have been responsible for instructuing the Romans with regard to Paul’s letter, which might include offering exposition and comment on portions of the text, not least the difficult portions. Indeed, Phoebe may very well have been hand-picked by Paul himself to be the first to teach his letter in a local church setting.
This is precisely what Arland J. Hultgren claims in his recent commentary on Romans:
“Phoebe would have had a role to play at Rome that is not mentioned explicitly, but which is implied. As the one person entrusted with the letter to Rome, she was also entrusted by Paul to comment on anything in the letter that would not have been understood, making her the first commentator on and exegete of the letter. In addition, she could supplement the actual contents of the letter, filling in any gaps and informing the Christian house churches in Rome as needed concerning Paul’s views and plans in more detail” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 2011, p. 569).
This strikes me as a significant difficulty for the complementarian position that women were barred from ministries of proclamation and teaching in earliest Christianity, a view which forms part of the basis for the claim that Christianity has a masculine character. If Paul chose women to represent him in his absence for the all-important task of explaining persuasive documents like Romans, which contained essential exposition of his gospel and on which he may have thought the future of his missionary activity to depend, then the claim that women were not allowed to teach in the assemblies seems difficult to sustain, and a part of the evidential basis for the suggestion that Christianity has a masculine feel disappears. In what sense might Christianity have had a masculine character if women were charged with teaching Paul’s letters in the earliest churches? Once again, we have an example of how Paul rejected and subverted the extreme patriarchy of the Romans Empire by choosing a woman for a position of strategic leadership in the church gathered in the imperial capital itself?