John Hunwicke returns to that favourite New Testament character the Apostle Junia, but comes to a different conclusion to most people and explains it all with great care to his bemused questioner

So what’s all this about Junia? Isn’t it a disaster for us? Modern scholarship has revealed that the apostle Junias of Romans 16.7 is really a woman called Junia, so there was a woman apostle. Therefore, since bishops are successors of the apostles, women bishops are OK. Two of the greatest theologians of the third millennium, Tom Wright and David Stancliffe have said so!

No. Modern scholarship has revealed nothing of the sort.

So he’s still a bloke and everything’s all right?

No. She’s definitely female. But that’s no thanks to modern scholarship. And don’t worry: everything is all right.

Now I really am lost!

Take your time. The point is that the great tradition of East and West, of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, has always held that Junia was female. Check in your King James Bible, or – if you’re into Greek – your Textus Receptus (the standard text used for centuries among the Orthodox). Read the Fathers. Almost nobody thought she was a male called Junias, until Martin Tuther muddied the waters. Even then not many people took much notice of his view. In almost every Bible version, she stayed female until the twentieth century.

Then who on earth spread around the idea that she was a man?

‘Modern Biblical Scholarship,’ believe it or not! The Revised Version, probably influenced by the great J.B. Lightfoot, seems to have started the trend in 1881, and in 1927 the Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament – the version which was supposed to be the modern, cutting-edge edition of the New Testament – established her sex-change. This was carried over into the United Bible Society Greek Testament of 1966, produced so that vernacular translators would have a ‘reliable’ Greek text to work from.

You mean they actually changed the Greek?

Not quite. Whether the Greek Iounian is the accusative of a masculine Iounias or of a feminine Iounia depends, not on the letters, but solely on the sort of accent the word has. The early Greek manuscripts did not have accents at all. As soon as accents became fashionable, without exception the scribes put the feminine accent on this name, and nearly all the Fathers who mention Junia(s) assumed she was feminine.

Gosh, Lightfoot, Nestle and chums must have had really watertight evidence for changing her gender!

Quite the opposite. They had absolutely no scholarly basis whatsoever for doing so. Remember that ‘modern biblical scholars’ of those days (present-day ones aren’t always much better) were rarely more cheerful than when rubbishing ancient traditions, and presuming, at the drop of a hat, that they knew better than the Christians of eighteen hundred years.

So you’re saying there was a woman apostle?

Hang on. That’s a question which is still up for grabs. Junia (together with Andronicus) was ‘of note among the apostles’. Does this mean ‘well-known as one of the apostles’ or ‘somebody the apostles knew well’? The closest example in ancient Greek to the words and idiom in Romans 16.7 is in a play by Euripides, which was still famous in St Paul’s time, where the goddess Aphrodite is described as ‘of note among mortals’. Goddesses are not mortals. So this is an exclusive use: Aphrodite was well-known among the members of a group (mortals) that she (as a goddess) did not belong to.

So that lets us off the hook, then?

Well, it was not my view that we were ever on a hook, as I’ll explain in a moment. But our opponents point out that some patristic writers took the phrase as inclusive, meaning that Junia was well-known as a member of the apostolic group. In any language, there’s often a risk of ambiguity about this sort of phrase. ‘Tony Blair is well-known among politicians’ could mean either that fellow politicians know him well, or that he is a politician whom non-politicians know well, or both. But a historian in two thousand years’ time, with no other contextual information about Blair, would be ill-placed to judge what it meant. Ditto with Junia.

What do you think? Can we find some context?

Look at the whole of Romans chapter 16. It’s a list of people St Paul knows in Rome and to whom he is sending greetings. If Junia really were a senior member of the apostolic group, verse 7 reads oddly.

It would be as peculiar as if Condoleezza Rice emailed some MP in London and concluded, ‘Give my love to Tom, Dick and Harry; to Tony Blair (he’s a very well-known politician); to Mildred and Molly…’ She probably wouldn’t tuck such an important person away in the middle of such a list and she certainly wouldn’t need to explain Blair’s status.

But if it’s possible Junia was an apostle, we’re not out of the woods, are we?

The point is that nearly two Christian millennia knew she was a female and it never occurred to anybody to be worried about any implications this might have. Bishops and priests were exclusively male; the episcopate was indeed regarded as succeeding to the place of the apostles; and no known reader of Romans 16.7 ever wondered why it didn’t mean women could be bishops. And it won’t do to explain this away by assuming that they were all just stupid. No worried scribe ever censored Junia’s ‘apostleship’ out of St Paul’s text. So I don’t think you need worry.

I can see the force of this; but I’d still like an explanation of where we stand if Junia is being called an apostle in Romans 16.

In the New Testament, apostolos is a more flexible and less precisely univocal term than people often think. This is a big subject, but if you want to do some homework, browse through your New Testament and linger on I Corinthians 15.7, Acts 14.14, and especially Philippians 2.25 (where the Greek apostolos is usually not even translated as ‘apostle’). After all, we find it natural enough to describe St Francis Xavier as the Apostle of the Indies, or Fr Kirk the Apostle of Lewi-sham, or even Christina Rees the Apostle of Equality.

Hmm. I think your argument’s getting as forced as it is facetious. Can you put your finger on any single early writer who did think Romans described Junia as an apostle and yet saw the word as meaning something different from what it means when we apply it to St Peter or St Paul?

Let me introduce you to St John Chrysostom. He wrote a lot about Romans 16. Here is what he said about Andronicus and Junia: ‘Even to be an apostle is great, but to be of note among them – consider how wonderful a song of honour that is. For they were of note because of their works, because of their successes. How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the title of the apostles.’

Good heavens! That seems to me to scupper your entire argument.

I’m sorry, I don’t think you’re listening to what Chrysostom actually says. When he singles out Junia for praise, his point is that she is ‘deemed worthy of the title’. Contrast that with how St Paul, in Galatians, asserts that he is an apostle appointed directly by Jesus without human intervention. Paul’s apostleship is not an honorific title given him by other Christians because of his work or wisdom. According to Chrysostom, Junia’s is.

Clever, but are you sure you aren’t splitting hairs to avoid Chrysostom’s point?

No, I’m not, because in nearby passages, dealing with the other women who get such a splendid press in Romans 16, he talks about their wisdom and their hard work, but explicitly (and twice) rules out the possibility that women could occupy the presidential chair in the ekklesia or sit in the (episcopal) throne in the midst of the (presbyteral) bench. Good enough?

Burgundy or claret, Father?