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Phoebe a woman of luminous charity

· ​Paul and women ·

Paul concludes his Letter to the Romans, the best-seller that communicates the theological core of his preaching, by offering his greetings to various members of the Christian community of Rome. These greetings are presented as the testimony of the surprising synergy between the Apostle and his collaborators, and of the presence, within this multiform circle of missionaries, of numerous female figures. Chapter 16 of his Letter is a sort of tribute which the Apostle to the Gentiles pays to all those, men and women, who have made an energetic contribution to the dissemination of that Gospel which is dýnamis theoú (Rom 1:16).

If the Gospel “runs its course” and is disseminated (cf. Ps 19:5) it is because there is someone who proclaims it both with his lips and with his heart (cf. Rom 10:9-10; 14-15), making his own life a sacrifice “holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). With his itinerant preaching Paul did not succeed in intercepting everyone and in reaching every place. For this reason he devised an expedient that functioned as an extension of his proclamation: letters. The Apostle could not build the community on his own: the community needed the synergy of gifts and charisms which would be guaranteed by the presence of collaborators (synergoí). Evangelization is not a private event which affects solely the life of an individual but rather is the dynamism of a Church reaching out which bears witness first and foremost to the quality of her relationship with the Risen Lord and then also to the quality of relationships among believers, imbued with closeness and brotherhood. This is why Paul dreamed of the Church as a house of brothers and sisters who were already evangelizing, starting from the beauty and power of fraternal love. He dreamed of her in this way and, making himself father and mother of the community (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 1 Thess 2:7), he strove to ensure that she be truly such.

Romans 16 thus sheds an interesting light on the life of the early Church and in particular on the function of lay people and couples or families with regard to missionary proclamation. The greetings that run through the entire Chapter 16 of the Letter to the Romans open to be precise with a recommendation. The first person whom Paul mentions and whom he shows that he has particularly at heart is precisely a woman whose name is Phoebe. Therefore, before concluding the Letter, written with the keen wish to devote himself to the evangelization of Spain and to find believers in Rome to support him in this work, the Apostle asks the community to give Phoebe a warm welcome because of her total investment in the Gospel cause.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles and then various passages of the Pauline opus testify on several occasions to the presence of women who play an active role in the life of the early communities, collaborating with the Apostles and investing their material possessions and charisms in their service to the edification of believers. In fact, the early Church was not born in a cultural space but in homes, as a domus ecclesia. Indeed she was consolidated and built within the domestic walls where a family lived, a community characterized by bonds of kinship, ties of affection and dynamics of reciprocal collaboration, and where women worked actively as guarantors of welcome and hospitality.

Paul, contrary to the widespread prejudice which made him a misogynist in the imagination of many, follows the same path as Jesus, counting on the participation of a great many women for his work of evangelization. Among the women of the Pauline mission some, such as Lydia in Philippi (cf. Acts 16:14-15), acquired their faith after hearing the Apostle’s preaching, while others devoted themselves to proclaiming the Gospel, together with him or even before him (cf. the case of Priscilla or Prisca who, with her husband Aquila, gave Paul hospitality Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:1-3).

When we read Romans 16 we are surprised by the fact that more than a third of the people mentioned are women. In the list of nine women the verb kopiáo, “to toil”, occurs three times: Mary (Rom 16:6), Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis (Rom 16:12), are women dear to Paul who spare no efforts in their missionary activity. This verb, in fact, refers to commitment to the Gospel and to the investment of oneself in missionary work. In 2 Cor 11:22-28, for example, where Paul speaks of his investment in the Gospel and of the “cost” of this expenditure of effort and energy, he uses the noun kópos “toil” twice (11:23-27).

The first to appear in his greetings is a woman, Phoebe, whose name means “pure”, “luminous”, “bright”. Paul composes a “recommendation” for her which is an epistolary passage in itself and which Pseudo Demetrius places among the 21 kinds of epistle which he identifies by qualifying them as systatikòs týpos (a “recommendatory type”): “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2). In only two verses Paul sketches the figure of this woman who, without a doubt, occupies a special place in his heart and at the same time in the community. Phoebe comes from Cenchreae, the port of the Isthmus of Corinth, located 11 km south-east in the Saronic Gulf, and receives from Paul very marked credentials, expressed in a triple characterization: Paul describes Phoebe first of all as “sister”, (adelphéḗ), then as “deacon” (diákonos), and lastly as the protectress (prostátis) of many people, including himself.

In order to sum up her role in the Church of Rome Paul uses the noun adelphéḗ, which speaks of the quality of the relationship that is current among all believers in Christ by virtue of Baptism. Grafted on Christ and reborn in him, believers are children of God. Since they are children of God they are brothers and sisters to each other. In Gal 3:26-28 Paul shows clearly that it is “in Christ” that the promise of a new creation is fulfilled which inaugurates a new architecture of relations: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Putting on Christ through Baptism expresses a transformation which records the abolition of all discrimination, a process of Christification which abolishes all ethnic, religious, socio-economic and gender barriers, which makes “one”. Thus, by virtue of Baptism, the unity of believers in the multiplicity of gifts received from the Spirit is experienced. Therefore every member in the community, whether man or woman, contributes “for his or her part” to the edification of the Church. The primacy of baptismal dignity and conformation to Christ lies in the heart of Pauline ecclesiology. Thus, in speaking of charisms, Paul dwells more on the agapic style of their practice (cf. the praise of love in 1 Cor 13) than on their specificity. The experience of an apostolate and of a mission which see the active participation of both men and women and the collaboration of both sexes springs from this foundation.

Phoebe is “sister”, just as Apphia is in Philem 2, because grafted on Christ she had entered the family of God with full rights. Made a daughter of God and henceforth dwelling “in the Lord”, she is thus a sister of her brothers and sisters, the “saints” (that is, those sanctified in Baptism). In the Church this relationship of sister was to become “a specific manifestation of the spiritual beauty of women…, a revelation that they are in a certain sense ‘set apart’” (John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, 1995, n. 5).

In the second place, Phoebe is a “deacon of the Church of Cenchreae” or, as we read in the translation of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (2008), “at the service of the Church of Cenchreae”. Diákonos is a word applied to Jesus who is “a servant to the circumcised” in Rom 15:8; it is applied to Paul (cf. 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3, 6; 6:4), while in Philem 1,1 it appears as a precise ecclesial status. Already in Aristophanes the term could also apply to women but the word diakoníssa in the ecclesial context is late: it appears for the first time in canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea (325) to designate, according to Epiphanus’ Panarion,the woman who helps the priest in the Baptism of women.

According to the testimony in the Acts of the Apostles, deacons were not solely concerned with carrying out tasks of social work. Stephen the deacon, the first martyr, was stoned to death because of his fiery preaching (chapter 7), and we do not find Philip the deacon serving at table but rather preaching and manifesting signs of power (chapter 8). He went to Samaria and on the lonely road that leads to Gaza in order to evangelize the schismatics among his people and a eunuch who came from Ethiopia. The use of the term diákonos therefore makes us think that Phoebe’s ministry did not only concern the area of charity but also included preaching and the work of evangelization.

Prostátis, by contrast, is a hapax legomenon in the New Testament, a technical term which makes us think of the magistrate in Athens who defended the interests of foreigners, or of the person who presides over a community and guarantees the interests of the others. It might mean that this woman, as a “patronness” and guarantor, helped many believers, including Paul, in their dealings with the civil authorities. She must have been a rich, prosperous woman who made her house available to enable the community of believers in Corinth to meet, along the lines of the thiasoi or collegia, which were the religious associations of the time. Thus the presence of a woman appears in Chencreae who has various responsibilities and for whom Paul asks a welcome and help as a sign of his gratitude to her for having collaborated dynamically with the Apostle’s ministry. For this reason she is even considered herself to have been the bearer of the letter.

The fact that Phoebe had protected many makes us think that this woman must have been comfortably-off, but also that the community had suffered the threat of persecution which drove believers to conceal themselves and sometimes to act clandestinely. Thus Phoebe emerges even more luminous as a courageous figure who was capable of putting put her life at risk to save her brothers and sisters. It is for this reason that Paul, with deep gratitude, asks his collaborators to offer her generous hospitality and to meet all her needs.

From the concise investigation of the three nouns with which Phoebe is described, we understand that there was room in the context of Pauline evangelization for an incisive mission by a woman in the early community. There are two elements of Phoebe’s character on which the text of the Letter to the Romans sheds particular light: a special love for the Church, manifested by her readiness to serve and, in all likelihood, for evangelization and dissemination of the word; and the totalizing nature of her commitment (characterized by acceptance, care and protection). These are two elements which often characterize the investment of women in the Church and which make their generative femininity shine out, showing their full and dynamic participation in the management of the ecclesial body and giving rise to that process of creative intelligence which unfolds new paths and makes it possible to make the most of this priveleged time of germination of the Gospel seed which the universal Church is living.

 Rosalba Manes

The author

Rosalba Manes, a consecrated religious of the ordo virginum teaches biblical theology at the faculty of missiology of the Pontifical Gregorian University. She is specifically concerned with the Pauline Letters. The following are her publications: Tra la grazia e la gloria. L’epifania divina nella lettera a Tito (Cittadella 2010) [Between grace and glory. The divine epiphany in the Letter to Titus]; Nel grembo di Paolo. La Chiesa degli affetti nella lettera a Filemone (Ancora 2016); [In Paul’s womb. The Church of the affections in the Letter to Philemon; Il cielo si aprì. Il Dio misericordioso e tenero di Luca (Cittadella 2016). May the heavens open. The merciful and tender God of Luke]. 

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