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Digging Deeper: Phebe

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that Paul may have entrusted a female Christian to transport his epistle to a church he had never yet visited?

He asked Christians in Rome to warmly welcome her when she arrived. In the last chapter of his epistle to them, Paul commends a woman who was on her way there who had served the brethren of Cenchrae, in modern Greece, and him personally. This Digging Deeper discovers who this outstanding female Christian was, why Paul praised her, and the assignment he gave her.

In this study we focus on: “I commend unto you Phebe [or, Phoebe] our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also (Romans 16:1-2 KJV throughout). This is the only mention of her in our New Testament and nothing further is known about her. Nonetheless, what an impression she made on Paul, as we will discover. She was one of those women who labored with Paul in the Gospel (Philippians 4:3), not in preaching (1 Corinthians 14:34), but in serving.

Bearer of an epistle

M.R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament explains Phebe’s circumstance: “Conybeare (‘Life and Epistles of St. Paul’) assumes that Phoebe was a widow, on the ground that she could not, according to Greek manners, have been mentioned as acting in the independent manner described, either if her husband had been living or she had been unmarried” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul probably wrote his Epistle to the Romans from Corinth during his third evangelistic journey. Phebe likely was the one who either transported Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or traveled with those who did. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Apostolic Church explains why it was transported by a friend instead of the official postal service: “The Imperial post was not available for private correspondence, and such a letter could be sent only by special messenger or by a trusted friend who happened to be travelling” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul commends Phebe unto the Roman brethren. Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary, in its second definition, defines this word and illustrates it from Romans 16:1: “To recommend as worthy of confidence or regard; to present as worthy of notice or favorable attention” (Bible Analyzer Paul provided her a letter of commendation, as explained by the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: “People of high status wrote letters of recommendation to peers on behalf of those of somewhat lower status. Often such a letter introduced the letter’s bearer, praising them and showing why they merited the help requested. The bearer of a document might also be called on to explain the sense of the document, making Phoebe’s qualifications important here” (Tecarta Bible App). At that time, supposed emissaries for Paul could turn up in a city purporting to bring word from Paul yet deceive brethren (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Signed letters from the apostles authenticated their true representatives.

In Romans 16, Paul greets several brethren in this capital city. Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible makes this key point: “Phebe is the first of thirty-five personal names mentioned in this last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, most of whom are mentioned nowhere else in Scripture. The reason why so much apparently personal information was included in the Scriptures by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is probably to illustrate the Spirit’s concern with individuals” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul greets these brethren from his location in southern Greece today. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible explains how he knew them: “Paul had been engaged in missionary work for 25 years when he wrote Romans. He had developed relationships with believers scattered all across the eastern Mediterranean world” (Tecarta Bible App). Evidently, these folks now lived in Rome. This source continues: “Phoebe was a prominent Christian who was planning to travel to Rome. Paul probably took the opportunity of her planned trip to entrust her with the delivery of his letter to the Roman Christians” (Ibid.).

Who was Phebe?

The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable declares Paul gave special mention of several women in this chapter: “Notice that the ministry of women in the Roman church is quite evident in this chapter. Paul referred to nine prominent women: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Tryphena, Thyphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, and Nereus’ sister” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Lange’s Commentary on the OT and NT explains that Phebe’s name: “…is derived from Φοῖβος, Phœbus (Apollo) [the sun god], but there is nothing remarkable in this, since the etymology would be as little recalled then, as now, in the case of proper names.—R.] See 2 Corinthians 5:12” (e-Sword 13.0.0). One may wonder why she retained a pagan name after her conversion. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges clarifies: “The early Christian converts seem to have had no scruple in retaining a pre-baptismal name even when the name (as in this case) was that of a heathen deity. Cp. Hermes, (Romans 16:14); Nereus, (Romans 16:15); and such derivative names as Demetrius (3 John 1:12)” (Ibid.).

Paul first refers to Phebe as our sister – i.e., a fellow believer. Then he calls her a servant. This has aroused much scholarly discussion on just how Paul used this term so early in the history of the Church of God. The ESV Study Bible explains: “Scholars debate whether Phoebe is a servant in a general sense, or whether she served as a deacon [deaconess], since the Greek word diakonos can mean either ‘servant’ (13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor. 3:5; 1 Tim. 4:6) or ‘deacon’ (referring to a church office; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12)” (Tecarta Bible App). Later the office of deaconess became an ordained position in the church. However, it is unclear here whether Paul intended this meaning.

Paul writes that Phebe had served the church at Cenchrea. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible reports that this location was: “A port about six miles (nine kilometers) from Corinth, where Paul is apparently located as he writes this letter (Acts 20:2-3)” (Tecarta Bible App). M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament describes Cenchrea further: “It was a thriving town, commanding a large trade with Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and the other cities of the Aegean. It contained temples of Venus, Aesculapius, and Isis. The church there was perhaps a branch of that at Corinth” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

A patron and benefactress

In Romans 16:2, Paul asks the Roman brethren to receive Phebe in the Lord – i.e., as a fellow believer. Then he calls her a succourer (i.e., benefactor or patron). The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible defines this word as: “The ‘patron,’ an important figure in the Greco-Roman world who used their money and influence to support various causes. Phoebe used her worldly advantages to help many believers, including Paul himself” (Tecarta Bible App).

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes benefactors further: “Wealthy benefactors helped their cities or other people, who in turn owed them honor. Most benefactors were male, but a number (some estimate 10 percent) were women. Benefactors of religious associations often allowed the latter to meet in the benefactors’ homes. Letters were normally carried by travelers. Phoebe is probably a well-to-do businesswoman traveling on business; Corinth and Rome had close trade ties” (Tecarta Bible App).

When Paul declares in Romans 16:2 that she had been a succourer of himself also, he may have meant that she had been instrumental in his recovery from an illness, as explained by Hasting’s Dictionary of the Apostolic Church: “Gifford (op. cit. p. 231) conjectures that the personal reference (‘and of mine own self’) may be to an illness in which Phoebe ministered to St. Paul at Cenchreae, and that his recovery was the occasion of his vow [Acts 18:18]. Certainly we may assume that she received him into her home when he visited or passed through Cenchreae (cf. Lydia at Philippi, Acts 16:15; 40), and that she ‘mothered’ him as did the mother of Rufus (Romans 16:13)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Barclay’s Daily Study Bible notes the importance of women to the early New Testament church: “There can have been no time in the Christian Church when the work of women was not of infinite value. It must have been specially so in the days of the early Church. In the case of baptism by total immersion, as it then was, in the visitation of the sick, in the distribution of food to the poor, women must have played a big part in the life and work of the Church, but they did not at that time hold any official position” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Phebe must have been an outstanding female servant of God’s church in the first century to whom Paul likely entrusted this treasured epistle. Paul’s description of her, though in only two verses, stands as a testament to his appreciation for the many women who backed him in his difficult circumstances of preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA, and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.