Stuart Seaton revisits the latest woman apostle theory

‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me’. Rom 16.7 NRSV

his verse is perhaps unique in apparently offering direct evidence for the view that women in the early church shared equally in the apostolic ministry. In support of this reading of the evidence, the Rochester Report directs the reader to a book called Gospel Women – Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels by Richard Bauckham. It is my purpose to show that those who seek to build a case for women’s ordained ministry on Bauckham’s work are building on decidedly uncertain foundations.

In demonstrating that Rom 16.7 declares a woman to be an apostle, Bauckham’s initial difficulty is one of translation. The problem is the meaning of ‘episemoi ev tois apostolois’ in this verse. It can either be translated:

‘Andronicus and Junia … prominent among the apostles’, an inclusive reading, implying Junia was an apostle. or

‘Andronicus and Junia … well-known to the apostles’1, an exclusive meaning, providing no evidence that Junia was an apostle but rather implying she was not.


Readers of New Directions will already be familiar with the defence of the latter translation by Burer and Wallace. However, Bauckham attacks Burer and Wallace on a number of grounds. The argument is too complex to be discussed here, yet even without hearing back from Burer and Wallace, the most Bauckham claims is that ‘the sense in Rom 16.7 is more likely to be inclusive’. But he then offers an argument which will probably appeal to traditionalists:

‘It is a major error when Burer and Wallace dismiss the evidence of patristic interpreters of Rom 16.7, who understood Paul to be including Andronicus and Junia among the apostles … Writers such as Origen and John Chrysostom were educated native speakers of Greek’2. With this remark Bauckham claims victory.

Yet appealing to the fathers may not be as helpful to Bauckham’s cause as it first appears. Leaving aside the question of whether patristic readings are usually regarded as conclusive in biblical exegesis (or whether a special case is being made here), it seems difficult to reconcile the view that the NT proclaims a woman apostle with patristic testimony. For example, in On the Priesthood, St John Chrysostom says,

‘The divine law excluded women from the ministry, but they forcibly push themselves in …They are women, the very ones who are not even allowed to teach. Do I say ‘teach’? St Paul did not allow them even to speak in church’3. If Chrysostom really believed Paul said Junia was an apostle, it is strange that he would use Paul as an authority against women priests. The obvious solution is to conclude Chrysostom understands the word ‘apostle’ in Rom 16.7 in a different sense from how we would usually use it. It would seem difficult in the same verse to use Chrysostom as the trump card on the meaning of episemoi but not apostolois!


When the NT use of the word apostolos is examined, it becomes clear that there are in fact a number of uses of the word. Consequently, even if the Greek should read ‘Junia, prominent among the apostles’, it does not follow that Junia was an apostle like Peter and Paul. Other uses of the word apostolos are sometimes so weak that it is often not even translated as ‘apostle’, but rather as ‘messenger’ or as Bauckham does, ‘official messengers of the churches’4. For simplicity’s sake, I will use the term ‘apostle’ to indicate the usage that properly applied to people like Paul and the Twelve and ‘messenger’ to denote a weaker meaning. Clearly, if Romans 16.7 speaks of a woman only as a messenger of a church it offers no direct evidence of women’s apostolic ministry.

Bauckham says ‘apostolos’ cannot simply mean ‘messenger’ in Rom 16.7. He offers two arguments why not:

1. Messengers ‘are clearly designated ‘apostles of the churches’ (2 Cor 8.23) and ‘your [i.e. the Philippian Christians’] apostle’ (Phil 2.25)’.

2. ‘It is hard to see how they [official messengers of the churches] could form a known body of people among whom Andronicus and Junia could be said to be outstanding’.

Therefore, Bauckham concludes ‘The unqualified ‘the apostles’ of Rom 16.7 must refer to the apostles of Christ, whom Paul generally refers to simply as ‘apostles’.5 Yet these arguments are hardly conclusive. In answer to the first we must note that it is unreasonable to argue for universal usage from only two (differing) examples6 (consider an opinion poll that canvassed only two voters!). Moreover, Bauckham’s point appears to be that where the meaning is ‘messenger’, some kind of formal connection with a local church will be made. Yet the fact that Bauckham needs to interpolate square brackets to crowbar the Philippians example into this service seems to undermine this point. ‘Your’ in this sentence seems to be required by the context (unlike Rom 16.7): Paul had ‘borrowed’ the individual in question from the Philippian Church and so would have to use the word ‘your’ regardless of the meaning of ‘apostolon’. 2 Cor 8.23 also has problems. Paul is commending the messengers to the Corinthian Church and so may simply add ‘of the churches’ in order to emphasise their authority. Therefore neither passage provides the certain evidence about the use of the word ‘apostolos’ that Bauckham’s argument requires. In any case, the argument fails because it relies on the assumption that ministerial language had become fixed by the time Romans was written. There is no evidence to support this assumption, and plenty to refute it – not least the fact that the ministry it describes was itself still fluid! So no firm conclusion can be drawn about how the word ‘apostle’ would be used in Romans 16 if Paul meant ‘messenger’.


Bauckham’s second argument is also hard to follow. A sentence like ‘Billy Graham, prominent among all the evangelists’ seems to be perfectly meaningful, even though modern evangelists do not constitute a known body of people among whom Billy Graham could be outstanding. Therefore, Bauckham’s remark that ‘It is hard to see how they [official messengers of the churches] could form a known body of people among whom Andronicus and Junia could be said to be outstanding’ is demonstrably false.

Bauckham in fact offers no other positive evidence to support his view that in Rom 16.7 the word ‘apostle’ must be taken in the strict sense. Yet it can hardly be said on this basis that Bauckham has established his point. From here on he is on the defensive. How does he fare?

The initial problem he faces is that if Andronicus and Junia were prominent apostles then it is surely very odd that they are mentioned nowhere else. Bauckham disagrees: ‘We know next to nothing about the spread of the Christian movement outside Palestine and outside the limited area of Paul’s missionary work. Andronicus and Junia could have spent two or three decades as extremely important Christian missionaries in Rome and neighbouring areas: if that were the case, there is no early Christian literature other than Romans in which we could expect to hear about it’7.

It is puzzling that Bauckham uses such an argument, for he knows full well both that Andronicus and Junia ministered outside Rome and that they ministered in the area of Paul’s missionary work. The clue comes in Paul’s remark that Andronicus and Junia were ‘my fellow prisoners’. Later in the book, Bauckham explains that this means ‘They had at some point been in jail with Paul’, which in turn indicates ‘they were traveling [sic] missionaries, like Paul’8. This being so, Bauckham has raised serious doubts about the premise on which his argument rests, thereby making his conclusion unsafe. So the more likely conclusion remains: if Andronicus and Junia were prominent among the apostles, it is surprising that we haven’t heard of them. If however, they were only messengers then there is no real reason why we should expect to have heard of them.

Pauline priority

Further problems emerge when we consider that Andronicus and Junia only appear mid way through a long list of non-apostolic Roman worthies greeted in Romans 16. Had they been apostles we would surely expect Paul to address the letter to the Roman Church through them (compare the beginning of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians), especially as Paul was reticent about building on the work of other apostles (Rom 15.20). In the very least, we would expect the ‘prominent apostles’ Andronicus and Junia to be mentioned before all the others in Roman 16. It is a weak defence to answer that we have no similar list to see if this intuition is correct. Paul was explicit about the importance of apostolic authority (e.g. Gal 1 & 2) and taught a clear order in the church ‘First apostles, then prophets etc.’ (1 Cor 12.28) so we would expect any apostles mentioned to be greeted first. The fact that they only pop up midway through a list of other people counts heavily against the possibility that Andronicus and Junia were anything more than messengers.

Bauckham explains the order of the list by saying Paul first mentions those of ‘special personal significance to himself owing to their role in his Aegean mission’9 before mentioning the others. If this is an attempt to get around the present problem, it would seem to be multiply flawed. First, it seems doubtful that such considerations would count for priority over two prominent apostles, secondly, Andronicus and Junia were also of ‘special personal significance to Paul’ owing to their early ministry with Paul and imprisonment with him, and finally because the two ‘prominent apostles’ are still only second on the list of non-Aegean missionaries, after an otherwise unknown Mary (v.6) who seems to hold no official office in the Roman Church. In the light of all these considerations we must accept that the conclusion of Consecrated Women is correct but understated: ‘The context suggests that St Paul, feeling justifiably uncertain about the quality of the reception he is likely to receive from the Christian groups in Rome, is attempting to put together a list of Roman Christians who might be prepared to vouch for him. To hide a couple of ‘prominent’ apostles in the middle of such a list is curious’10.

The likelihood of Junia and Andronicus being apostles diminishes even further when Paul says: ‘they were in Christ before me’. The problem here is that, in Bauckham’s words ‘they could not have been apostles in Paul’s eyes unless they had been Christians before him, and so [the information] might seem redundant after they had been called apostles’11. Bauckham’s solution is hardly adequate: ‘probably Paul wishes to underscore the special status of these two’12. If Andronicus and Junia really were apostles there would be no need to underscore their special status unless division in Rome had led to their apostolate being disputed – but the evidence would seem to suggest that there was no such disagreement. An apostle has special status solely because of his commissioning from Christ. If this does not underscore an apostle’s special status then their special status will hardly be underscored by saying they were in Christ before someone else whose special status also rests purely on having been commissioned by the risen Christ! This is particularly problematic here, since Paul was himself ‘the least of the apostles’ (1 Cor.15.9). Consequently, Bauckham’s answer to the objection seems no less redundant than the problem he identifies. If Paul really was underscoring the special status of the ‘apostles’ Andronicus and Junia he would probably have done so by saying something like, ‘Hold fast to their teaching – they received it from the Lord’ (compare Paul’s own defence of his apostolate in Gal.1.1, 11-12). ‘They were in Christ before me’ is superfluous and incongruous if Andronicus and Junia were apostles. It is a fitting compliment and encouragement if they were messengers.


But supposing, for the sake of argument, we assume Bauckham has established both that the proper translation of Romans 16.7 applies the word ‘apostle’ to a woman and that the word ‘apostle’ was being used here in the strict sense. Would it follow that Junia really was an apostle? Even in this case there are grounds to prefer other interpretations.

There may be yet another relevant use of the word ‘apostle’ in the NT. It seems the word can also apply to those who work alongside an apostle, but who otherwise would seem not to be apostles themselves13. Moreover, in 1 Cor.9 Paul implies he is unusual among the apostles in not taking a wife with him on his travels14. Therefore, if Andronicus was an apostle, we would expect him to bring his wife with him and that the couple together might be called apostles even though the word applied to his wife Junia only by association. This reading would be consistent with the general teaching of the NT that women could not take ‘headship’ roles, and is therefore to be preferred to those accounts that make Junia an apostle.

I have taken Romans 16.7 as a test case of the ‘hidden tradition’ of women’s apostolic ministry in the NT. According to these arguments Bauckham has failed to demonstrate beyond doubt that the correct translation of this verse links a woman with the word ‘apostle’ at all. Even if it does, he has produced little evidence to back up the suggestion that the word ‘apostle’ is being used here in the strict sense. Bauckham’s solutions to the problems of such a reading are weak. Even if these problems find adequate answers, we have grounds for believing that the word ‘apostle’ may apply to Junia only by association with her apostle husband. In this article, we have not even discussed the possibility that the person in question is not a woman (the Greek could refer to a man, ‘Junias’ – which is the interpretation of much of the tradition). Yet this discussion still leads to the conclusion that it is far from established that Rom 16.7 reveals a woman apostle. That such an obscure and problematic passage is the best biblical evidence supporters of women’s ordination can find tells its own story. Perhaps the reason this tradition of women’s apostolic ministry has been hidden for so long is because it isn’t really there.

Stuart Seaton is parish priest of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath

M. H. Burer and D.B. Wallace, ‘Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7’, NTS 47 (2001)

Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women – Studies of the Named Women of the Gospels, T&T Clark, (2002) p.179

Chrysostom, Book 3.9. Origen similarly would not countenance women speaking in church, see Montanism pp.174-5, by Christine Trevett.

Barrett says, of the word apostolos that the ‘ordinary meaning was agent’. Significantly, given the contributions of the fathers to this debate, the word ‘apostle’ continued to be used in a much broader or weaker sense beyond the New Testament. See for example, Didache 11.3-6.

All these quotations may be found in Bauckham on p.180

One of Bauckham’s complaints against Burer and Wallace is that the evidence they adduce is ‘too sparse’ to support their conclusions (p.179).

p. 180. I will ignore Bauckham’s suggestion that Junia is really Joanna mentioned in Luke ch 8. The idea is highly speculative and only creates more problems for Bauckham in establishing Junia was an apostle in the strict sense.

p.215. In an earlier note (263, p.172), Bauckham attempts to account for this silence by suggesting they were in prison with Paul early on in Paul’s ministry. In which case, Bauckham’s response appears to rest on us accepting either that two ‘prominent apostles’ were over-looked when recounting one of Paul’s known early missions and imprisonments (the same problem again), or that we assume that all three ‘prominent apostles’ ministered together (for which we have no evidence) and were then imprisoned together on an occasion for which we have no evidence. We would then have to accept that Andronicus and Junia went to Rome, which they did not leave for two or three decades, despite being ‘travelling missionaries, like Paul’. We would also have to accept that although two ‘prominent apostles’ joined Paul in ministering to the Gentiles in this early period, neither Paul nor Luke thought to mention it in Paul’s defence. Isn’t the NT’s silence on Andronicus and Junia better accounted for by accepting they were simply messengers not apostles?


Consecrated Women, p. 65

Bauckham is alluding to Paul’s comment that the risen Christ appeared to ‘all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me’ (1.Cor.15.7-8).


1 Thess.2.7 in which Silvanus and Timothy seem to be designated ‘apostles’ with Paul. Something similar may be the case in 1 Cor.4.9. See Francis Martin, The Feminist Question, p.98.

It is interesting to note that although Paul explains provision for male apostles, he makes no reference to similar provision for female apostles. Perhaps this is because there weren’t any!