Junia, Junias and women’s ordination (Romans 16:7)

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans concludes with a long list of greetings to Christian friends in the great metropolis (Rom 16:3-16). Hand in hand with the world-wide women’s ordination movement, one verse has sprung to prominence in recent times. Verse 7 is variously translated. I have used bold font to highlight the words in controversy:

Greet Andronicus and Junia*, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles (*footnote: ‘or Junias’ – New Revised Standard Version).

Greet Andronicus and Junia*, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles (*footnote: ‘or Junias’ – English Standard Version).

Many of those who oppose the ordination of men only point to Rom 16:7 and say that here we have an example of a woman apostle. How are we to read the evidence?

First, we should bear in mind that it is impossible from the original Greek to determine whether Paul means Junias (a man) or Junia (a woman). It is wrong therefore on grammatical grounds to insist that it is one or the other. In Greek and Latin the case of a noun is determined by the ending. In Paul’s sentence the ending is accusative. However, the accusative for both Junias and Junia is the same, Juni – AN.  That means, on the grounds of grammar, there is ambiguity. It could be either. This ambiguity is also reflected in the writings of the church fathers: one will favour Junia, and another Junias.

Second, we need to be aware that there is an additional important point concerning the Greek phrase episēmos en.  Advocates of women’s ordination translate that as ‘outstanding in the number’ of the apostles. They then insist that this refers to Junia (refusing to accept Junias as a possibility). From this they deduce that Junia must have been a female apostle.

However, there is another meaning of episēmos en which is common and can be proved from a Greek dictionary. It means ‘outstanding to’ in the sense that the apostles had a high regard for Junia/as. This meaning is made clear in E H Gifford’s reference to a phrase in Euripides’ play, Hippolytus, line 103 (also listed in the Greek-English Lexicon edited by Liddell and Scott). Euripides says that the goddess Aphrodite (he calls her the Cyprian because of her origin in the foam of the sea off Cyprus) was episēmos en mortal human beings (brōtois). That cannot mean ‘outstanding among (in the number of) mortal human beings’, because according to Greek religion Aphrodite was not a mortal being but an immortal goddess. That means episēmos en must mean ‘outstanding (of high regard) to mortals’, ‘held in high esteem by mortals’. This is true, because the cult of Aphrodite was highly popular in the Greek world.

To sum up, it really does not matter if Junia/as is female or male. What Paul is saying is that he/she was held in high regard by the apostles.

There is a doctrinal point here that should not be ignored. It is a fundamental principle in establishing Christian teaching that we follow ‘the analogy of faith’. That means the clear passages of Scripture must be used to establish doctrine, and we must not establish doctrine by proceeding from obscure or ambiguous passages.  But this is exactly what the proponents of women’s ordination are doing repeatedly. Romans 16:7 is not entirely clear. Moreover, it is merely a greeting. Therefore it must not be used to establish a basis for women’s ordination, and overrule the clear passages in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14.

Rev Peter Koehne