Phoebe of Cenchreae (fl. 1st c.)

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Phoebe of Cenchreae (fl. 1st c.)

Early Christian patron and leader who delivered St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans to the church at Rome c. 57 ce and is increasingly seen by scholars as having played a crucial role in creating the position of deaconess in the early church. Name variations: Phebe; Phoebe of Cenchrea; Phoebe of Cenchreæ. Flourished in the 1st century; lived in the Greek port city of Cenchreae. Her feast day is September 3.

Phoebe was a Gentile Christian from the Greek port city of Cenchreae. Derived from Greek mythology, her name means "pure" or "radiant as the moon." In view of the little factual data relating to her, scholars will continue to debate the precise details of Phoebe's life and influence. But in recent decades women in the vanguard of reform within the Christian world have adopted her as the patron founder of the modern-day deaconess movement, which is part of their larger struggle for full gender equality.

St. Paul entrusted Phoebe with delivering his Epistle to the Romans. In this letter, which she carried to Rome, he commends her to the church in Rome, requesting that they treat her as a saint: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor [prostasis] of many and of myself as well" (Romans 16: 1–2).

From this passage, and from Paul's selection of her to carry such an important epistle, we can gather that Phoebe was probably a person of distinction to Paul and the church. The use of the term diakonos to describe her position has been controversial, as translations by theologians and historians have been various. Diakonos has been translated as "deacon" (in the sense of 1 Timothy 3:8–13), "messenger," "helper," "servant," or even as "minister." In the New Testament, the term is used to describe five people: Paul, Tychicus, Epaphras, Timothy, and Phoebe. Of these, only Phoebe is described as a diakonos of a specific congregation, the church at Cenchreae, near Corinth on the Saronic Gulf. Many scholars consider Phoebe to be Paul's spiritual sister, in view of the fact that he calls her both prostasis ("benefactor," also translated as "helper," "leader," "champion," "protector," "presider," or even literally as "coach," usually when referring to an Olympic trainer) and diakonos. According to Philippians 1, by the early 60s ce some Christian churches had at least one officer called a "deacon." The fact that Phoebe was entrusted with Paul's letter, which concerned how God justifies (frees from the penalty of sin) believers through faith, not works, and how Christ died for both Jews and Gentiles, makes a compelling case for her serving within the church in a position of high status, as a member of the ministry as a deaconess. In Romans 16, Paul is exploiting his network of clients throughout the Roman Empire on her behalf, introducing Phoebe to his web of connections and thereby reciprocating her benefactions. If she did, in fact, serve the early church as a deaconess, her case provides a persuasive argument, reason many, that women should not now be prevented from so serving the church.

In recent decades, a growing number of scholars have produced significant arguments for the case that Phoebe was a woman of wealth and influence within her community. She may have been a wealthy businesswoman, perhaps owning a fleet of ships, which would explain her trip to Rome. Paul likely met her in Corinth on his second missionary trip, and in some way she had been of special help to him. He was probably entertained at her home, and his vow seems to point to a deliverance from severe danger or illness in which she may have attended him (Acts 18:18). Some authors have even suggested that Phoebe may have been a member of the Greek hetaerae, the class of highly cultivated courtesans. It is more than likely that her home was the headquarters of the Christian church at Cenchreae. Her title indicates that she was an important patron of believers in that city and region. As a patron and benefactor who enjoyed the advantages of wealth, education, and influence, she would have had the ability to defend and advance the interests of clients and of individuals lacking civil rights.

The story that Phoebe was Paul's wife has long been discounted, and the idea that she suffered martyrdom at Rome is also considered highly unlikely by most scholars. Her important role in early Christian history has been retained in the traditions of many Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe in a Troparion (a short hymn celebrating a saint or an important event which is used in the daily office and liturgy):

Enlightened by grace and taught the faith
by the chosen vessel of Christ
thou wast found worthy of the diaconate
and didst bring Paul's words to Rome.
O Deaconess Phoebe, pray to Christ our God
that His Spirit
may enlighten our souls.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia