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Junias the Apostle

· ​Paul and women ·

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (Rom 16:7). In the last chapter of his Letter to the Romans Paul greets a group of men and women who seem to be in charge of various communities (domestic churches). Among the almost 30 names he mentions feature the names of both women and men, some of whom are introduced as couples.

In verse 7 Paul greets Andronicus and Junias, two names which seem to designate a couple who we may compare with the couple mentioned in verse 3 consisting of Prisca and Aquila. Yet the gender of the name Junias has been at the heart of an intense debate. Even though the current editions in languages spoken today translate it as feminine, there have been times – and some not so long ago – when the Greek name which appears in the manuscripts was translated as masculine, as Junius. It is very interesting to ask ourselves why and on what basis.

The current translations of the New Testament depend on the critical editions of the Greek text which revise and select the readings of the ancient Greek manuscripts available to us. These manuscripts differ in both their quality and their age. Textual criticism is a complex and specialized science but it is not exempt from methodological and sometimes ideological premisses that need to be explained. The case of Junias, turned into Junius, is a good example as we shall subsequently see.

This name in the accusative Iounian in verse 7 was the subject of a certain textual uncertainty: in various manuscripts it in fact appears to have been rendered in various ways. It is sometimes written Ioulían (Julia), but even more curious and significant is the change in the accent (acute or circumflex) placed on this name in certain critical editions which base their decisions on different manuscripts. The placing of one accent rather than another on a name is not without influence: indeed, a circumflex accent on the last syllable indicates that this name must be interpreted as male, whereas an acute accent on the penultimate syllable indicates that this name is very probably female. In the case of Iounian the critical editions have preserved the masculine interpretation (with the circumflex accent) since 1927 (edition of Erwin Nestle), until a few years ago (2001), when the editions most frequently used by exegetes, such as the Nestle-Aland and that of the United Bible Societies, began to write the name with the acute accent, thereby tending to a feminine interpretation, deemed at least more probable. The fact that these critical editions propose one or other option has great importance because their decision determines to a large extent the exegesis of the texts as well as the translations into the spoken languages.

Perhaps the most curious and meaningful aspect of the male interpretation of the name as masculine and its basis is the fact that the textual testimonies on which it is based are manuscripts in capitals which until the seventh century were not accented, as among other things is noted in the critical apparatus. If the testimonies referred to as evidence are earlier and therefore do not show accents, then there is no basis for a masculine interpretation of the name.

However textual evidences of the feminine interpretation exist which are placed between the sixth to the seventh centuries and the ninth century. The accenting and the feminine interpretation of the name became common from the ninth to the 13th centuries, when an author, Egidio Romano, although opting for the variant Ioulian, decided to interpret it as a male name without explaining why he took such a distance from the previous consensus. It was in the 16th century that the masculine interpretation was imposed by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, but above all with the version of the New Testament edited by Luther, even though the feminine interpretation continued to have supporters. In the 20th century, Marie-Joseph Lagrange, a great exegete, a pioneer of the historical and critical method, showed his inclination to interpret Iounian as a female name.

What reasons were given for the masculine interpretation of the name Iounian? People sometimeshad recourse to the Greek and Latin onomastics for the most common forms and uses of the name. The champions of the masculinity of the name suggested that Junius might be the diminutive of Junianus. Nevertheless, while Junia was a very common woman’s name, there is no evidence for Junius as a presumed abbreviation of Junianus. Those who declare that Iounian is the male diminutive of Junianus or Junios are maintaining that Latin names, in their diminutive forms, were shortened like Greek names, whereas in fact they were lengthened. It may thus be said that in addition to the manuscripts, philology and onomastics do not support the masculine interpretation but rather the feminine.

“The Pious Women at the Sepulchre”, detail of the Crucifix of Tereglio

Moreover, the interpretation of the name as feminine was the most common interpretation among the earliest authors. Origen (first half of the third century) opted for the textual variant of Julia, and both he and St Jerome (between the fourth and fifth centuries) as well as John Chrysostom (between the fourth and fifth centuries) interpreted as feminine this name mentioned beside that of Andronicus. For the clarity and precision of his testimony, it is usual to cite a text by Chrysostom (from the beginning of his 31st homily on the Letter to the Romans) which says in this regard: “And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing. But to be even among these of note, just consider what a great encomium this is! But they were of note owing to their works, to their achievements. Oh! How great is the devotion (φιλοσοφία) [literally: “philosophia”] of this woman that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!

Precisely the reading and patristic interpretation of the name as feminine were among the reasons which led Catholic exegetes to be more reluctant to accepting Junia as a diminutive of Junianus. Moreover, already in verse 3 Paul had mentioned another couple, Prisca and Aquila, who were probably husband and wife, missionaries and responsible for a domestic church.

In some ancient and modern comments, in a more or less clear way, another reason is mentioned in favour of the masculine of the name Iounian, in other words the definition of “apostles of note”. The reasoning starts with the premiss that a woman could not be an apostle, which is why the name had to refer to a man.

Once it has been established with sufficient certainty that the name Iounian refers to a woman, who was probably the wife of Andronicus, we must reflect on what the text says about her and her husband. It says that they are kinsmen of Paul, his fellow prisoners, of note among the apostles and in Christ before Paul. Let us examine the scope of these affirmations.

Kinsmen of Paul: the Greek term used here, and which Paul also uses at other points in the Letter (9:3), indicates that this is a woman who belongs to the Jewish people, who has the same ethnic origins as Paul.

Fellow prisoners: bothPrisca and Aquila seem to have shared with Paul a period in prison. We can thus say that Junias suffered imprisonment because of the Gospel. Being in prison in those times was a really tough experience.

Of note among the apostles: This epithet too has given rise to problems of interpretation. Some understand it as denoting exclusion: Andronicus and Junias are well known and esteemed among the apostles but they are not apostles.However the majority of the interpreters (including John Chrysostom in the comment cited above) maintain that it should be understood as inclusive: Andronicus and Junias belong to the group of the Apostles. Junias is thus called an apostle, precisely because she belongs to the group of the so-called “Apostles”.

Instead of denying a priori that a woman could be called an apostle and could belong to the group of those considered as such, we should ask what the meaning of the term was and what the necessary prerequisites were for belonging to the group of the Apostles. The term “apostle” is usually understood on the basis of the Lukan concept of it which limits it to men, witnesses of Jesus’ life until his Ascension (Acts 1:21-22), identifying them too closely with the group of the Twelve. However the Pauline concept of the meaning of being an apostle was different and broader than the Lukan. In fact Paul himself considers himself to be an apostle (1 Cor 15:9). For Paul an apostle is one who has had the experience of the Risen One and has been sent out by him. In Paul’s opinion, the apostles form a different and more numerous group than the Twelve, (1 Cor 15:5,7; 1 Thess 1:1; 2:7), even if they were certainly in a close relationship with Jesus and with the initial moments. This concept of apostle which Paul has, more flexible and broader, better corresponds to the historical reality that we see reflected in other writings ( Didachè 11, 3-6).

In Christ before him: that is, Junias had already become a believer and a follower of Jesus Christ before Paul. This means that she was a follower from the very beginning; because of her name she might have been a Judeo-Hellenic resident in Jerusalem who had converted at the very outset or who might even have listened to Jesus himself. The Hellenists of Jerusalem had left the city because of tensions with the religious authorities of the Temple. With their departure towards the north and to other places they had taken the message to Samaria, to Antioch, to Asia Minor and in all likelihood also to Rome. If their adherence to Christ was earlier than Paul’s, it should be set in the early 30s of the first century.

With what has been said so far, we can sketch a rough portrait of Junias. She was probably a Judeo-Hellenist, converted to faith in Jesus Christ and to following him perhaps in the first years after his death on the Cross in Jerusalem, where she had an experience of the Risen One. By choice, for business, or perhaps urged by the situation and difficulty that had been created in Jerusalem between the Hellenists and the religious authorities of the town because of their criticism of the Temple, she might have left, taking with her the message of the Gospel and becoming one of the first missionary women of Rome, together with her husband Andronicus. This task probably brought with it for her a period in prison and it was precisely in prison that she coincided with Paul and was able to get to know him. All this gave her an eminent place among the apostles of the early days. It is obvious that being a woman did not prevent her from being an apostle, from spreading the Gospel and from suffering imprisonment in its cause. And this was believed by the authors of the early centuries.

Junias is a good example of how women with authority were rendered invisible and how their authority was reduced to the spheres and ways that men of every epoch deemed proper and consonant for women. These patterns had a crucial influence at the moment of remembering and recording the past, an activity which, far from being purely anecdotal, is laden with the future.

Carmen Bernabé

The author

Carmen Bernabé is a lecturer in New Testament at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Deusto, Bilbao. She has been appointed director of the Asociación Bíblica Española. Her work focuses mainly on the origins of Christianity. Among her numerous works stand out María Magdalena: tradiciones en el cristianismo primitivo [Mary Magdalene: traditions in early Christianity](1995) and Mujeres con autoridad en el cristianismo antiguo [women with authority in ancient Christianity] (2007), both published by Editorial Verbo Divina.

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