Phoebe: A Diakonos

Elizabeth McCabe of Hebrew Union College has a good article on Phoebe, a woman in the early church who appears in the New Testament as a deacon and as a leader of the church. Her article appears on the SBL Forum.

The following is an excerpt from the article:

Phoebe: A Diakonos

Of all New Testament women, Phoebe might be the most hotly debated in terms of her role in the early church. She is described in Romans 16:1 as a diakonos, which is generally masked in English translations as “servant.” However, diakonos is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25), but it is unlikely that this parallel could ever be gleaned from English translations alone.

What is more is that the title of Phoebe as a diakonos accounts for the “first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.” Phoebe is tied to a specific local church, the church at Cenchrea, which makes her appointment a local function. Furthermore, the combination of diakonos with ousa “points more to a recognized ministry” or a “position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard or perhaps more appropriately, “[kai] also a minister,”whereas “servant” would prove inadequate. If Paul were simply aiming to convey a sense of service to her local church, this “would have probably been expressed by use of ‘diakoneō’ (Rom 15:25) or ‘diakonia’ (1 Cor 16:15).”[2]

The alternate definition for diakonos, namely an “intermediary” or “courier,” is also appropriate here. Diakonos in this regard means “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction.”[3] In terms of Phoebe, this distinction would classify her as the letter carrier to the book of Romans. In light of the fact that many letters did not reach their designated locations in antiquity, the appointment of a woman as the carrier of the book of Romans is noteworthy, particularly since Romans is arguably the most significant book in the New Testament.

Phoebe: A Prostatis

In addition to being identified as a diakonos, Phoebe is also identified as a prostatis in Romans 16:2. Because prostatis is a hapax legomenon, translations have often been at odds to define this term, most settling with “helper.” But is “helper” true to the nature of this position in antiquity? In determining the proper definition and connotation of prostatis, I will examine its verb form proistēmi in the New Testament to gain a better understanding of the semantic range of prostatis.

Proistēmi in the New Testament

The verb form of prostatis, proistēmi, occurs eight times in three different contexts in the New Testament. These contexts include church leadership (Rom 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17), household management (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12), and the practice of good deeds (Titus 3:8, 14). For the purposes of this article, the first context, proistēmi in church leadership, will take priority in my analysis.

In 1 Tim 5:17, the term hoi proestōtes is used in describing the presbuteroi. This verse can be translated, “Let the elders who rule [hoi proestōtes] well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and in teaching.” Hoi proestōtes is rendered by different nuances in translations, including “rule” (American Standard Version: ASV, English Standard Version: ESV, King James Version: KJV, New American Standard: NAS, New King James Version: NKJV, New Revised Standard Version: NRSV); “direct the affairs of the church” (New International Version: NIV, Today’s New International Version: TNIV); “do their work” (New Living Translation: NLT); and “well-leading” (Young’s Literal Translation: YLT). In whatever fashion, proistēmi is utilized, however, a leadership capacity is being conveyed. Some type of leadership position is in order, for proistēmi can be defined as “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of),”[10] which are all perfectly appropriate here.

Romans 12:8 writes of ho proistamenos, which is used in describing the different gifts that are bestowed upon members of the body of Christ. It reads, “the one who exhorts, in exhortation, the one who gives, in liberality, the one who leads [ho proistamenos], in diligence, the one who shows mercy, in cheerfulness.” Every English translation surveyed conveys the idea of leadership for ho proistamenos: “he that ruleth” (ASV, KJV), “he who leads” (NAS, NKJV), “the one who leads” (ESV), “the leader” (NRSV), “leadership” (NIV), “to lead” (TNIV), “leadership ability” (NLT), and “he who is leading” (YLT).

Read the article in its entirety by visiting the SBL Forum.

An expanded version of McCabe’s article will appear in vol.1 of Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives (ed. Elizabeth A. McCabe; Lanham: University Press of America, 2009).

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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