One famous woman who requires explanation from those who do not believe women should occupy the highest levels of leadership is Junia, “outstanding among the apostles.” Since Joanna is a Hebrew version of the name Junia, some believe Junia may even be the Joanna Luke mentions in his gospel (Richard Bauckham in Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels). Having been healed by Jesus, she accompanied him on his travels and supported him financially in furthering the proclamation of the kingdom of God. After Jesus’ death, she met him again (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:1, 15–17). After Jesus’ resurrection, Paul recognizes Junia as an apostle just as he does himself, Silvanus, Timothy, Barnabas, and those among the twelve. Later, Junia—and possibly her husband—were thrown into prison with the apostle Paul for their work furthering the kingdom. As an apostle, Junia was set apart for gospel ministry to those outside and within the church (Rom. 1:1–6), and her apostolic authority would have been evidenced by signs, wonders, and mighty works among the churches (2 Cor. 12:12).
Over the years Junia’s identity and leadership have been the cause for heated discussion. Through poor translation, she has been turned into a “he” and her status as an apostle has been revoked. Instead she is said to be merely “well known to the apostles” (ESV). How did this happen? At first there was no wide controversy over Junia’s identity or service as an apostle. The early church understood Junia to be a woman who was of note among the apostles. A great example of this early thought is John Chrysostom (347–407AD), who praised Junia’s apostolic leadership with these words:
“And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing. But to be even amongst 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 of this woman, that she should even be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle! But even here he does not stop…For after glory such as his in kind and degree, he sets others before himself, and does not hide from us the fact of his coming after them, nor ashamed of confessing this” (Chrysostom, The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans).
In the first millennium of the church, Junia was widely acknowledged to be a woman. It was not until the Middle Ages that Junia was made out to be a man’s name: Junias. The change appears to be arbitrary, but the idea that Junia was a man became even more prevalent with Martin Luther’s translation, eventually becoming the assumed norm. Junia’s masculine identity was unquestioned until an abbreviated name theory came out that tried to justify why the name was not Junia (feminine), but Junias (masculine). The assumption that Junia was not a woman—because women could not be apostles—prevailed. Only later was it rationalized by a theory.
The Greek word in the text is actually Junian. Either name (Junia or Junias), because of Greek grammar, would be written asJunian in this sentence. Until the middle ages, it was always assumed to be feminine because Junia was a common female name in the ancient world, whereas there is no record of a masculine name Junias. Some suggest that Junias was a shortened form of the known male name Junianus. Though Junianus was sometimes shortened, there is no evidence that it was ever shortened to Junias. The overwhelming evidence supports understanding Junian to be a form of the common female name Junia.
After some time, many started to acknowledge once again that Junia was a woman. But, rather than admit she was an apostle, translations now claimed she was merely “well known to the apostles” or in the “eyes of the apostles.” The one study that supports this view does not supply adequate evidence to support its claim, and omits significant evidence to the contrary. Further, it fails to respond to the fact that the early church fathers, all of whom knew Greek far better than we do, understood Junia to be an apostle. Despite not having a high view of women, they nevertheless understood this passage as referring to a female apostle!
The Church Fathers had to face what the Bible said when it was at odds with their culture. Chrysostom concluded,
“the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the Apostles their labours for the Gospel’s sake. In this way they went traveling with them, and also performed all other ministries.”
Unfortunately, even though he acknowledged what the Bible said, his own church culture prevented him allowing women to be leaders in the church. To the men he said,
“We are put to shame, in that we men are left so far behind them. But if we come to know whence it comes, that they are so adorned, we too shall speedily overtake them.”
The Holy Spirit chooses and empowers whomever he desires, whether or not we utilize or honor them. May we honor and empower those God elects!