The First Woman Apostle — So-called

A recent book alleges that Junia, a woman, served in the first-century church as an “apostle” — along with Peter, Paul, and the others. But what are the facts in this matter?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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Junia — The First Woman Apostle is the title of a book by Lutheran scholar Eldon Jay Epp. According to a recent edition of Christian News (10/3/05, pp. 1ff), Epp is Harness Professor of Biblical Literature emeritus and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences emeritus at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH). He is also recent Visiting Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School (2002-03; 2004-05). Epp is associated with a very liberal element of the Lutheran fellowship, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a community that promotes “women clergy.”

Epp’s book is alleged to be the “last word” regarding the controversy as to whether “Junia” (feminine, KJV), or “Junias” (masculine, ASV), as mentioned in Romans 16:7, was a female or male. And if a female, whether she was an “apostle” in a sense equivalent to that of Peter and Paul. But Professor Epp’s “last word,” we insist, is not, in fact, the “last word.”

In the first place, in the Greek text the name is Junian (in the accusative case — the gender of the name not being identifiable). It could either be Junia (feminine), or Junias (masculine). Lightfoot contended that the term reflects “probably a man’s name, Junias contracted from Junianus, as it is taken by Origen” (p. 96). Origen was a “Christian” writer who is dated from c. A.D. 185-253. On the other hand, Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347-407) identifies the name as that of a woman.

Even some conservative scholars, however, argue that Junia (English, Julia) is correct, and there are a couple of compelling points in this direction, though they are not decisive.

First, early church history more commonly identified the name with a woman — up to the 13th century. Second, the name Junias (masculine) does not appear in early secular inscriptional evidence. In response, however, it might be noted first that from the 13th century to the mid-20th century, this person was perceived to be a man (ASV, RSV, NASB, NIV). Many scholars could be introduced advancing this idea. While “Junias” apparently does not appear in the ancient inscriptions, Junianos is a very common name. A.T. Robertson contended that Junias could be an abbreviation of Junianos (p. 172). Such would be analogous to Lucas for Lucanus, and Silas, as an abbreviation for Silvanus.

But the fact is, the case that Epp and a few others are attempting to make for feminine leadership in the church really does not turn upon whether or not Junian is masculine or feminine.

Additionally, it is by no means certain that Junias is even identified as an “apostle.” The phrase “of note among the apostles” (ASV) is rendered by Zahn as “famed, mentioned with honor in the circle of the apostles” (p. 418), giving the sense of being well—known by the apostles, rather than actually being identified as an apostle. Moule renders it, “well known to, and honored by the Apostles” (p. 248). Various other scholars argue similarly. Note the English Standard Version, “well known to the apostles.”

Then consider this. The word “apostle” is used occasionally in the Bible in a non-technical sense to denote simply a messenger. Jesus said that “one sent” (apostolos) is not greater than the sender (John 13:16). In a general sense Christ himself was an “apostle” (Hebrews 3:1), i.e., one sent from heaven. Barnabas, Silvanus, and Timothy also were designated as “apostles” (Acts 14:4,14; 1 Thessalonians 2:6), though not in the same authoritative sense as the Twelve and Paul.

Then the following point devastates Epp’s thesis. If the name is “Junia,” (a woman), and this lady was an apostle with authority equivalent to that of Paul himself, then Paul is hopelessly in conflict with his own writings.

An apostle of Christ spoke or wrote with full authority, and numerous examples from Paul’s own writings clearly illustrate this. Note, for example, in the letters to Timothy, the expression, “I charge you.” (1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:1,14). The expression signifies “to exhort with authority in matters of extraordinary importance” (Danker, p. 233).

Yet elsewhere Paul explicitly forbids a woman to “exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). Does the apostle commend in one place what he prohibits in another? No respectable Bible student would dare defend such a proposition.

Epp, however, in a typically modernistic fashion, dismisses this passage as non-Pauline. Allegedly, the text is the work of a later writer who thrust his views relative to the “subordination of women” into the sacred text. This idiosyncratic view was not held in antiquity by those best qualified to know the authorship of the book, and it has been exposed many times by conservative scholars (see Mounce, pp. cxviiiff).

Finally, if “Junia,” a woman, was an official “apostle,” with the prominence and authority comparable to Peter or Paul, why, pray tell, is “she” never mentioned again in the entire New Testament, or at least, if only once, in a text that is non-ambiguous, so that it clearly establishes the case that liberalism so desperately desires? This is telling indeed. And why would Paul need to go to Rome, to impart to the saints there “some spiritual gift” (Romans 1:11), when, allegedly, there already was an apostle there who could handle that chore?

  • Danker, F.W. et al. (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
  • Lightfoot, J.B. (1957 Reprint), The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Moule, H.C.G. (1977 Reprint), Studies in Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel).
  • Mounce, Willian D. (2000), Pastoral Epistles — Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson).
  • Robertson, A.T. (1919), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (London: Hodder & Stoughton).
  • Zahn, Theodor (1909), Introduction to the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), Vol. 1.