Blame Martin Luther for People Thinking the Bible’s Female Apostle Was Male

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Public Domain
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Public Domain

When we think of the ‘apostles’ we usually think of the main twelve followers of Jesus who accompanied him during his ministry in the Holy Land. You might also mention St. Paul, who became a follower of Jesus after a vision on the road to Damascus and is known as an ‘apostle’ or, more specifically, ‘the apostle to the Gentiles.’

What all of these people have in common is that they were men. The gender selectivity of Jesus’s chief followers is, to this day, the basis for all-male clergy in many Christian denominations. And yet the Bible does call one woman—Junia—not just an “apostle” but “highly esteemed among [them].”

If you’re thinking, "I don’t remember Jesus meeting a Junia," then you’re correct; she is never mentioned in the Gospels. But the status of Paul in the history of Christianity shows that you didn’t actually have to know Jesus when he was alive to hold the rank of apostle in the early church. It’s an open secret that Paul calls Junia an apostle and yet she is rarely mentioned in histories of Christianity. A new article by Yii-Jan Lin, a professor at Yale Divinity School, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, sets out to examine the ways in which people have tried to push Junia out of the spotlight by claiming either than she was male or that she wasn’t really an apostle.

These debates are comparatively recent. For the first millennium of the Common Era nobody doubted that Junia was a woman and an apostle. As Lin told me, “Junia was understood—without debate—to be female.” There are even some ancient manuscripts that mistakenly changed her name to “Julia” an indisputably female name. The argument that she might have been male first appeared in the writings of 13th century scholar Giles of Rome, who read her name as the masculine ‘Junias.’ As Eldon Epp argued in his brief book on Junia, the controversy began with a change of accent: if you replace the acute accent over the ‘i’ (´) with a circumflex (˜) over the ‘a’, you change Junia’s name from female to male. Giles was followed by the widely influential protestant reformer Martin Luther, who used a masculine form of her name in his German translation of the Bible. Luther’s actions, Lin told The Daily Beast, “really set the stage for the next few centuries, in which scholars and church leaders increasingly interpreted the person to be a man. By the 20th century, ‘Junias’ was the predominant translation used, with the assumption that the person was a man.”

We don’t know much about the historical Junia. She is mentioned only once in the section of greetings that conclude Paul’s famous Letter to the Romans. In Romans 16:7 Paul sends his regards to “Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” We learn here that Junia was imprisoned with Paul (presumably for being a Jesus follower/agitator); she and Andronicus were followers of Jesus before Paul was; and that she was highly regarded “among the apostles.”

Despite the now widespread recognition that the name Junia is female, the controversy about her status continues to rage. The recent debate focuses on the precise meaning of the Greek phrase that underlies “among the apostles” does it mean that ‘of the many apostles she was prominent’? Or does it mean that she was ‘highly regarded by the apostles’? If it’s the latter, some scholars have argued, then she wasn’t actually an apostle.

If this seems like a strange debate for academics to be having, then your instincts aren’t wrong. Lin told me “I doubt there would be arguments about what this phrase means if Junia was understood to be male. But since it's virtually impossible for Junia to be male, some interpreters have then focused on the Greek of the phrase ‘esteemed among/by the apostles’ to argue that she was not an apostle.”

When scholars (who are all, you won’t be surprised to learn, male) try to make this argument they appeal to the use of this language and grammatical form elsewhere in ancient Greek. There are two problems with these arguments, Lin told me. In the first place, the ancient examples cited by other scholars do not definitively prove anything and, thus, cannot be used to “exclude Junia from apostolicity.” The second problem is that grammar is ambiguous while logic is not. Lin used famous athletes as an example of how this ambiguity works: “[The statement that]‘Michael Jordan is esteemed by basketball players’ does not necessarily exclude or include Jordan from the category ‘basketball player’ - the grammar tells us nothing here, and we can only deduce that Jordan IS a basketball player because we already know who Jordan is.”

In other words, the context of the statement and other knowledge we might have about the person under discussion is central. This is why, for Lin, the opinions of early Christian readers of this passage are so valuable. Everyone who comments on Junia in the early church assumes that she is female and an apostle. Lin cites the fourth century bishop and famed orator John Chrysosotom, who wrote of Junia: “How great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” If male authority figures viewed her as female and an apostle, why would later readers go to such lengths to try to prove otherwise?

One of the most interesting details in the scant information Paul provides about Junia is his reference to her as being “in Christ” before he was. In her article, Lin persuasively argues that this detail is linked to Paul’s sense of his own mission and the rapidly approaching end of the world. Paul saw himself as the last apostle before the cataclysmic events that would bring the world to an end. His missionary activity is a frenetic blur of evangelism that is hurried precisely because he believed that time was limited. But he’s deeply invested in being the ‘last apostle’; for Paul “there is…a connection between Paul’s status as last apostle and [the] apocalyptic, last events” that Paul discusses in the Letter to the Romans.

What this gives us is additional evidence about women in the early church. The rank of apostle appears to have been the highest rank among early followers of Jesus. It included not only the twelve and Paul, but also key missionary leaders like Timothy and Silas. Apostolic authority is something that some Christian denominations utilize to this day. The pope, for example, derives much of his authority from the notion that he is the spiritual descendant of Peter. Acknowledging Junia’s role as an apostle reconfigures what we can say about women in the early years of the Jesus movement. Lin told me, that reinstating Junia as apostle could enable us to “broaden our understanding of who had apostolic authority in the early church and so perhaps who founded churches, went on missionary journeys, were trusted transmitters of Jesus's words, and preachers of the gospel.” They weren’t just followers of Jesus or low-level organizers, they were among the most elevated and elite group of leaders.

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