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Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Fortress Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Minus the preface, end notes, bibliography, etc., this book is only 81 pages long, but they are a long 81 pages! Basically it seems to me that Epp has restated the case already made definitively back in 1977 by Bernadette Brooten in four concise pages, and then he has added enough padding to make a slim book out of it. Frankly, I am surprised he came up with enough to make it that long. But the case Brooten made remains irrefutable: Romans 16:7 does number a female, Junia, among the apostles. There is absolutely no basis for hypothesizing an unattested male name “Junias,” and furthermore, translations and lexicons only ever suggested a male “Junias” because their authors just could not imagine that a woman could have been considered an apostle. And this despite the fact that all patristic writers understood a female Junia to have been a renowned apostle, though they seem to have known no more about her than her mention in this single verse. Case closed.

But what are the implications of the fact that this text gives us a woman and calls her especially renowned among the apostolic ranks?  Everyone who agrees on Brooten’s and Epp’s reading of the evidence seems to go on to assume that we have a fleeting but clear glimpse of the “discipleship of equals” or maybe “apostolate of equals” characteristic of dawn-age Christianity. Our evidence is admittedly fragmentary; there is no particular reason to think it is not representative. In other words, there may have been more female apostles though only one is mentioned, just as the discussion of the eucharist in 1 Corinthians implies the rite was common, though nowhere else attested explicitly. But this interpretation takes the text as what it pretends to be: a spontaneous statement in a genuine letter, an unselfconscious bit of attestation of a fact that is not even explicitly under discussion.

Suppose, first, that this reading is correct: Paul drops a reference to this female apostle in a letter to the church at Rome. Does it tell us anything else about Paul? Indeed it does. Remember, Paul hails Andronicus and Junia, noteworthy among the apostles, members of his family, and his predecessors in Christ. As Anthony J. Blasi (Making Charisma: The Social Construction of Paul’s Public Image, p. 26) suggests, the brief comment implies something quite important about Paul’s biography. The fact that Paul came from a family that had produced Christian apostles before him tends rather drastically to undermine the story (occurring only in interpolations and pseudepigrapha anyway) of his miraculous conversion from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians.

Second, suppose the letter is pseudepigraphical, whether originally part of Romans or a separate piece added later. What would the point of any of the greetings be? Just window-dressing? That is not out of the question. We find the same thing in the 13th chapter of Hebrews, where someone sought to make a sermon sound all of a sudden like a letter, at least on the hind end. But I think there is more to it than that. As anyone can see, Romans 16 is intended as a letter of recommendation for the deacon Phoebe. But the trick is, that is just the pretext. The real apostolic vouchers follow in the form of the greetings. Each individual church leader/gospel worker is there connected (spuriously) with the great Apostle Paul, just as the priestly genealogies of Chronicles attempt to secure a pedigree for the priests by fictively tracing them back to Zadok and Levi. There is also the pair of irreconcilable genealogies of Jesus which presuppose the necessity of connecting him with King David for theological reasons. Well, the set of names in Romans 16 is meant to claim apostolic succession for those individuals named, even though they were probably dead by the time the letter was forged. The credit is actually being sought for the successors of Andronicus, Junia, Aquila and Priscilla and the rest.

If this should be true, what does it imply about Epp’s claim that the historical Junia was “the first woman apostle” who flourished “in the earliest generation of Christianity” (p. 81)? It implies that Junia might instead have been one of the female leaders of “heretical” Christianity of the late first, early second century, who found deserved leadership roles in Montanism, Gnosticism, Encratism, etc. Junia may have been another Thecla, linked with Paul fictively in order to create apostolic sanction, as Tertullian saw, for ministering women in non-Catholic contexts. It is interesting that “Paul” greets, side by side with Junia, “Apelles,” the name of the pre-Marcionite advocate of two gods; “Hermas,” homonymous with the Roman prophet visited by the Angel of Repentance in the Shepherd of Hermas; and “Tryphena,” who shares a name with Thecla’s aged patroness. Maybe they are supposed to be the same individuals, all linked thusly, fictively, with Paul. (In fact, when I read of “Andronicus” in a Pauline context, I can’t resist thinking of Androcles who befriended a lion who later saved him, exactly what Paul does with a lion in the Acts of Paul.)

Indeed, Romans 16:7 would seem to go farther than having Paul legitimize Junia and her successors. It would seem to subordinate Paul’s apostolic authority to that of Junia and Andronicus. After all, they would be pictured as enjoying an esteem among “the apostles,” presumably including or even referring to the twelve (as in 1 Corinthians 15:7), that Paul himself clearly lacked. Not only that, but Andronicus and Junia have seniority over Paul as his predecessors, just like the Jerusalem Pillars in Galatians 1:17, whose “being apostles before me” indicated a superior authority at which Paul chafed but which he could hardly deny. Did Junia possess such an authority? Or is Romans 16:7 a retroactive attempt to claim it for her, the same sort of claim made for Paul himself in Galatians 1:1, 11-12, that he took a back seat to no human being in the calling of Christ.

By now we are used to the idea that various factions of sub-apostolic Christianity invoked Paul in favor of their own views (see the Acts of Paul as well as the Pastoral Epistles, a la Dennis MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle) or of their own status (as Valentinus claimed to have been taught by Paul’s disciple Theodas). I suspect Romans 16 is another game piece in that contest. It does not after all tell us anything about women apostles or disciples in the earliest church.   


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