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Junia, We Hardly Knew Ye

October 17, 2006

There may still be time for me to get in on the fun (and profit) by putting out a book with “Da Vinci” in the title. If all the good titles turn out to be taken (Rats! I just googled it and found out someone has already published The Da Vinci Diet.), the second best choice is something with “Lost” in the title. Rena Pederson has gotten hers in with The Lost Apostle, in which she rehabilitates a musty old exegetical problem as yet another conspiracy theory. Just who this Junia or Junias is who appears in the greetings list on the last page of Romans has been an identity puzzle ever since the Rome church directory went out of print. Ms. Pederson, however, was not told about this issue until just recently, and so was able to tackle the mystery as if she had just stumbled on the suggestively postured corpse of a French museum curator. Fortunately, her painstaking retracing of previous research has yielded a conclusion serendipitously consistent with her feminist presuppositions.

Here is a statement of the facts: Romans 16 contains a long list of people Paul wishes to greet by name as he closes his letter. In verse 7 he mentions a name that appears something like this in the Greek: IOYNIAN. This name is a first declension noun in the accusative case, but it so happens that in this declension masculine nouns and feminine nouns share a common form in the accusative, except for the type and placement of the accent. Only no accent marks would have appeared on the original or any copies for centuries, so in fact we are left with the inability to parse the gender of this noun based on its form. The two options are feminine Iounia (Junia) and masculine Iounias (Junias). If we are to determine the gender of this name it will require data other than the declension pattern of this noun.

A second exegetical problem exists in this verse: the precise meaning of the phrase episemoi en tois apostolois. The specific issue in focus is whether this phrase identifies the individual as an apostle. If so, is the term apostolos being used in a technical or non-technical sense? In the New Testament the word is used commonly for the top rank of leadership in the church, such as the apostle Peter or the apostle Paul. It is also used on a number of occasions non-technically for a missionary or an envoy of some kind.

The argument has been made for some time by evangelical feminists that the text identifies a woman named Junia and that she is called an apostle. Whether Ms. Pederson identifies herself as an evangelical feminist I do not know. Her website bio identifies her as a member of Highland Park United Methodist Church (where George W. Bush is also a member), so I suppose she is at least in the penumbra of evangelicalism. She does, however, also reach the conclusion that there was a woman Junia, an early apostle, commended by Paul, but whose very existence was suppressed in later centuries by disguising her name as a masculine sounding Junias. Her rediscovery allows modern Christians to “make a stronger church today, one that truly and fully calls upon the gifts and abilities of women and men.” (promotional blurb).

The problem is we really do not have sufficient basis for making an identification in either direction with this degree of certainty. The fact that there might have been a woman who might have been called an apostle is about as far as the evidence will truly take us. To the extent that this possibility can encourage those who aspire for a fuller role for women in church life, so be it. Ms. Pederson’s hyperbolic claim is, however, at best disingenuous. There really is no possible conclusion that can be reached but that ideological goals have played at least as strong a role in her analysis as the available evidence.

The passage presents a problem for translation, as exemplified by the ESV, which indicates Junia is a woman, though not an apostle:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

By contrast, the NIV, identifies Junias as a man, who is called an apostle:

Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

I will briefly touch on the state of the evidence, but for an in-depth and on-target treatment, see Daniel Wallace’s article, Junia Among the Apostles: The Double Identification Problem in Romans 16:7 , from which I draw the information presented below.

a. The evidence does lean toward Iounian being a feminine noun, not by anything in the text, but due to the fact that in Greek no examples of masculine Iounia have been found, though feminine Iounias appears in at least three places. In the Latin context feminine Junia is a well attested name, though Wallace indicates that on the masculine side Junias exists as a diminutive of Junianas. If Junia is in fact a woman, the Andronicus mentioned (which is a Greek name) may represent her husband. The pairing of these two names might be mildly suggestive that a married couple is in view by comparison with “Prisca and Aquila” in v. 3.

b. The identification of this individual as an apostle is much less certain. In the first place the meaning of the word episemoi can range from “outstanding” to “well known” as the two translations cited above indicate. The relation of this word to the apostles is signalled by en, here with the meaning “among.” If the adjective is taken as “outstanding” i.e. a prominent member of a set, then “among” would place both Andronicus and Junia(s) within that set. If it the adjective indicates “well known,” then within the circle of the apostles the two people have a significant reputation. Either way, it is a commendation for both individuals.

c. As indicated earlier, apostolos is not always the technical term for apostles like Paul and Peter. So even if Junia(s) is identified as an apostolos, a reasonable doubt remains whether this represents a position of authority. The fact that someone identified as an outstanding apostle by Paul would be otherwise unknown in the Bible is also cause for hesitation in giving Junia(s) full apostleship. d. Much more information is available in Wallace’s article regarding the extant references to this individual in the Greek and Latin fathers. The Dan Brown-esque suggestion that the existence of a female apostle was known in the first century, but later covered up by slipping a final -s on Junia’s name is preposterous. Calling the situation “identity theft” as in Linda Ellerbee’s endorsement is extremely wide of the mark.

To quantify the issue (in a highly unscientific way) I would put the identification of Junia as a woman at about 80% certainty. As for this person being in any way an “apostle,” I am afraid it stands at no more than 50%. If we do reach this conclusion, I would estimate in the range of 60% for it being the technical use. As subjective as these numbers may be, my math-challenged brain arrives at the combined likelihood of 24% that Ms. Pederson is onto something. This, of course is high enough for a book tour and enthusiastic reviews in this gullible world itching to buy what she is selling.

I have come to the conclusion by years of observation that to be an “evangelical feminist” or “egalitarian” one must have a pre-existing bias toward this position (conscious or unconscious). The Scriptural texts, such as the one in question here simply do not take us where the egalitarians take us without a good dose of wishful thinking. Of course, one can have a pre-existing bias toward the so-called “complementarian” position as well; I just do not think it is necessary. A sober and straightforward reading of the relevant texts (in my opinion of course) will lead an objective interpreter to the conclusion that what the Bible teaches is complementarianism. I know enough tricks of the trade to engage in a little sophistry in the other direction, if I should ever wish to. Frankly, it is not a problem to me if there was a female apostle Junia. I really do not think it is likely given the remoter context in the rest of the New Testament, but this is beside the point. What is clear to me is that in the preponderance of the evidence Ms. Pederson’s premise steps far beyond the bounds of scholarly integrity. But hey, if all that stands between me and and gender equality is a little intellectual dishonesty, who am I to stand in the way?

P.S. I think I have the idea for my book. Has anyone noticed that Junia is married to a man whose name means “male domination”?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jake permalink
    October 18, 2006 12:41 pm

    Interesting, solid post. Not to mention your title struck me as absolutely hilarious.

    I think your final paragraph illuminates what this book and countless other modern doctrines boil down to: intellectual dishonesty. “Sober and straightforward reading” seems to be a rarity, as the vast majority of “popular” writers come to the scriptures with a popular agenda.

    This whole thing seems pretty easy to figure out. If this woman (or man) had been an apostle, we’d have heard a lot more about them. Not only that, but – with all feminist presuppositions out of the way – church leadership and its qualifications are through-and-through male.

    Finally, even the English translations are ambiguous enough that a case for female apostleship is an incredible stretch. In my opinion, even the NIV rendering could be understood to mean that, among the apostles, the consensus was that Junia was outstanding.

    It baffles me that books with such obvious (and hardly supportable) agendas gain any headway in this world. I guess a sober reading of 1 Timothy 4 says I shouldn’t be surprised.

  2. Peter Kirk permalink
    November 4, 2006 3:55 am

    Yes, Jake, ““Sober and straightforward reading” seems to be a rarity“. For those who do such reading would never come to the conclusion that, at least in the Bible, “church leadership and its qualifications are through-and-through male“. You conclude this because you come to the text with “a pre-existing bias toward the so-called “complementarian” position“, as, it seems to me, does Marvin.

    Or is the point simply that we all think that anyone we disagree with is coming to the text with a pre-existing bias, but anyone we agree with is unbiased?

    For some more on Junia, see the series at the Better Bibles Blog, starting on 26th October and, as of 4th November, still ongoing. In the latest posting, Suzanne McCarthy shows that Wallace’s arguments about episemoi are seriously flawed. Enjoy!

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