Women Paul wrote to in Rome

Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)

Paul may have met Phoebe soon after a time when he had been at a very low point, emotionally. Acts chapter 18 describes this time in Paul’s life, all alone, concerned about the converts he had left behind, out of money, and continuing to experience resistance and opposition to the gospel, from his own people, the Jews.  

During this time period, God encouraged Paul in some specific ways:

1) Acts 18:2-3 Priscilla and Aquila would become lifelong, intimate friends, who right now gave Paul a job and a place to stay.

2) Acts 18:5 When Silas and Timothy arrived, they brought some money with them from the Philippian church, and then Paul could concentrate full-time on preaching again.

3) Acts 18:6 Just when he needed it, a new friend, Titius Justus, opened his home, right next door to the synagogue, for Paul to teach in.

4) Acts 18:8 Another vote of support came when Crispus, the ruler of that synagogue, when he and his entire household came to saving faith.

5) Acts 18:9 The Lord Jesus came personally to Paul to encourage and strengthen him.

6) Acts 18:12-17 Finally, when the opposition tried to have Paul arrested on the grounds that he was preaching an illegal religion, their plot rebounded on them. The proconsul Gallio said it was no business of Roman courts to adjudicate theological disputes – he dismissed the case and had the Jews ejected from the court. Consequently, the precedent was set, and Christians were protected for a time from religious persecution. Enraged, the angry crowd turned on the Jews and beat up Sosthenes, their new synagogue ruler.

Luke went on to relate how Paul sojourned in Corinth for some time, until he determined to set sale for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he left, Paul stayed in Cenchreae, where he evidently spent some time in deep prayer, ending with cutting off all his hair because of a vow he had taken, before the Lord.

Most likely, Paul’s vow was to become, temporarily, a Nazarite (Numbers 6:1-21), implying a separation from the world and common life. In a way, Paul was already living this lifestyle. However, while officially under this vow, Paul would not drink any alcohol, not even wine, and he would not shave, or cut his hair, once it started to grow back in.

Surely, Paul’s motivation came from a strong feeling of thankfulness to God that he had been rescued in so many ways, while in Corinth.

He also wanted to be "all things to all people," and, therefore, as a Jew to Jews (1 Corinthians 9:20). A Nazarite vow would testify to all Jews that he did not despise the law himself, nor did he teach other Jews to despise the law. Paul’s vow, involving, as it did for a time, greater discipline, and fasting, also added strength and reality to his teaching in such passages as 1 Corinthians 9:22-25, and Romans 14:1-15:3.

When his vow was completed, Paul would shave his head at the door of the temple in Jerusalem, and burn his hair in the fire of the altar. This is just what was happening in Acts 21:20-26, Nazirites were completing their vow, shaving their heads, and Paul was eager to go with them, since he, too, was publicly completing his vow.

While Paul prayed and made his vow in Cencreae, he must have met Phoebe, and there entrusted her with his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 16:2, Paul urged the believers to

“…receive [Phoebe] in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

The word “benefactor,” here, is actually “prostatis” in Greek. It means “presiding officer,” “leader, protector.” People who were named Prostatis were at the front rank, the chief of a body of people. In general, this word meant “ruler,” someone who stands in the front of the people and protects them. It was also a term used to refer to those who gave protection to people who did not otherwise have any civil rights.

Paul’s use of the word Prostatis, when he could have used any of a number of other words (why not stick with deacon? Why not even patron?), has caused consternation to theologians, translators, and commentators over the centuries. However, there is evidence of women as Prostatis throughout antiquity. One such example was the 4th century woman Tullia, Chief City Official, who apparently generously spent her wealth on her city. (Thoughts taken from "The Source, by Dr. A Nyland)

Evidently, Phoebe was either Prostatis of the church in Cenchreae, or, possibly more likely, the Prostatis of Cenchreae itself.

Since there was no postal service in those days, letters were brought by couriers. Phoebe alone was entrusted with this priceless document. We can garner from Paul’s high honorific, that she held real power and rule, that Phoebe was a person of significance in the church.

She must have been a single woman, since Paul mentions no husband, or anyone else, in her company to deliver his letter to the Roman church. Her independence and resources to pull together a traveling party, especially for that distance, imply she commanded a great deal of wealth and influence, possibly as a successful and prosperous business woman, or inherited affluence as Corinthian nobility. Like Paul, she had surrendered herself to full service of the Lord, and gave what she had, her independence and her fortune, to serve the body of Christ.

All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.