PHOEBE part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
A Few Facts
Birthplace: Kechries, Greece
Death place: Rome, Italy
Romance: Cronos · Hyperion · Coeus . · Cronos · Phoebe · Hyperion
Children: Asteria (Daughter) · Melinoe (Daughter) · Eos Titan (Daughter) · Leto - - Latona (Daughter)
Parents: Armin van Buuren (Father) · Ouranos - - Uranos Caelus (Father)
Phoebe was one of the first women leaders in the early church. In fact, she may have been the first woman deacon. The term “ diakonos ” used here to describe Phoebe is the same term given to Paul, Apollos, Timothy, and many others.
Who was Phoebe in the Bible?
ANSWER: Phoebe is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Romans 16:1–2, where Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
Letters of introduction to strangers were common in Bible times. The mention of Phoebe in this way means that she was probably either the bearer of the letter or accompanied those who took it to Rome. Phoebe means “bright and radiant.” From Paul’s comments about her, those words seemed to characterize her personality and Christian life.
Paul’s reference to Phoebe as “our sister” indicates that she was a Christian church member and his sister in Christ. Her designation as “deacon” (or “servant” in the ESV) could mean that she held an official position within the church as a deaconess or simply that she was someone who was known to serve the church faithfully (the Greek diakonos means “servant”), which most Bible’s translate as “deacon.” However, this term, at least during the first century C.E, most probably referred to a “minister” or leader of a congregation. Whether or not Phoebe had the title “deaconess,” it is clear that she was a trusted member of the body of believers in Cenchreae, a seaport about eight or nine miles from Corinth.
Paul commends Phoebe to the Roman believers and asks that they receive her in a gracious and friendly manner into their homes and hearts with love and affection. She was to be welcome in their church fellowship. Asking for her to be received “in a way worthy of God’s people” means that the church should treat Phoebe with the particular respect and Christian love that should characterize all believers’ interactions. Even those believers we have never met before should be welcomed with love, for we share a bond in the Lord (John 13:35). Phoebe was to be aided in whatever business she would be conducting in Rome.
Paul adds that Phoebe was a helper of many. Phoebe may have shown great kindness in various ways to other Christians, perhaps receiving them into her house like Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38–40). Perhaps she ministered to the sick, helped the poor, and aided widows and orphans like Tabitha (Acts 9:36). Maybe she ministered to strangers and travelers like John’s “elect lady” (2 John 1). Paul himself was a beneficiary of Phoebe’s kind servant’s heart. Whatever Phoebe’s precise role in the church, including her name in Romans 16, is a testimony to her character and ensures that she will never be forgotten.
A closer look at Paul’s trusted patron and emissary
This first-century leader of the early Christian community makes a cameo appearance in Romans 16:1–2. Paul graciously introduces her to fellow believers in Rome. Paul’s words establish Phoebe’s high standing in Cenchrea, her home city near Corinth. They assure a ready welcome among like-minded followers of Jesus. Warm, personalized greetings to more than two dozen men and women follow, ending his epistle.
A study of Romans 16:1–2 reveals a fantastic woman; one Paul treats as a fellow minister, one he forthrightly and with humor acknowledges as having money.
Paul describes Phoebe by employing three accolades, nouns translated in the King James Version (K.J.V.) as “sister,” “servant,” and “succorer.” The New International Version (N.I.V.) changes the last two to “deacon” and “benefactor.”
However, Phoebe seems under-recognized today as a full minister. Paul’s introduction equates her with other leaders in the early movement, men who traveled, evangelized and planted, and led churches. However, translations indicate a gender bias and diminish this woman’s influence.
First, the K.J.V.: “I commend to you Phebe, our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succorer of many, and myself also.”
Now, the more contemporary N.I.V.: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a church deacon in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
Paul’s appositives1 show Phoebe probably led the Cenchrean congregation that probably met in her home (Finger 1988:5). She served as a minister like Paul (Ephesians 3:7), Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21), Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), and Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6). She freely gave her wealth to finance and spread the new faith.
1. Appositive - An appositive is a noun or a noun phrase that sits next to another noun to rename it or describe it in another way.
Cenchrea, a port five miles east of Corinth, faces the eastern Mediterranean; perhaps Phoebe’s business involved trade with Asia. Corinth, the site of another early church, faces west to the Ionian Sea and Rome. Perhaps Phoebe’s Roman trip involved plans for westward expansion.
In typical fashion, the Bible shares nothing of Phoebe’s age, ethnicity, or marital status; it omits how she became a believer and made her money. Instead, another (in this case, Paul) describes her. Others praise them. Like Tabitha in Acts 9:36–43, Phoebe remains silent.
Her Saint’s Day is September 3. The art throughout the ages depicts Phoebe, robed in red or purple, as a woman of peaceful face, direct gaze, and graceful hands.
The First Accolade: Adelphe—sister
Endearingly calling her “our sister,” Paul claims Phoebe as family. Church Father John Chrysostom (347–407 C.E.), Bishop of Constantinople, observed that honoring Phoebe like this was “no slight thing.”
In some New Testament translations, Paul similarly names only Apphia (Philemon 2) as “sister.” Paul calls Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:2), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), and Philemon (Philemon 7, 20) “brother.”
The Second Accolade: Diakonos—servant, deacon, minister
Diakonos is translated as “deacon” by the N.I.V. and carries the textual note, “servant.” The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) similarly uses “deacon” but gives an alternative, “minister.”
However, deacon, as it evolved and is now recognized, became part of ecclesiastical governance only in the fourth century (Jankiewicz 2013:11).
Jewish insights aid in understanding diakonos in Phoebe’s day. The Complete Jewish Bible calls Phoebe “the shamash of the congregation at Cenchreae.” A shamash directs and leads public worship.
Since diakonos also designates Jesus and Paul but calls them “ministers” (Romans 15:8, 16 K.J.V.), it seems odd that when associated with Phoebe, it becomes “servant” and “deacon.”
A proper reading indicates Phoebe was a minister to the whole church at Cenchrea and not one who served in an office limited only to women (Schussler Fiorenza 1986:425).
The term also refers to a letter carrier (Wilder 2013:44, 46). If Phoebe carried the letter in her luggage or on her person to Rome, she probably delivered it to the house churches in Rome.
To insure against transit loss, she probably memorized it. Phoebe could step aside during her delivery, explain its tricky parts, answer questions, and then resume recitation (Chapple 2011:212–213).
Phoebe undoubtedly updated the Roman believers on the news from the Corinth and Cenchrea congregations. If she understood Paul’s thinking, she likely participated in the letter’s formation. Perhaps Tertius, the one penning the epistle (Romans 16:22), was her paid scribe.