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Phoebe in English Translations and Philological Realities

In the latest SBL Forum, Elizabeth A. McCabe calls attention to the deficiencies of English Bible translations in terms of Phoebe’s description in Romans 16:1-2 as a διακονός and a προστατίς. Regarding διακονός (diakonos), commonly translated as “minister” or “deacon” (in other contexts) she writes,

Of all New Testament women, Phoebe might be the most hotly debated in terms of her role in the early church. She is described in Romans 16:1 as a diakonos, which is generally masked in English translations as “servant.” However, diakonos is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25), but it is unlikely that this parallel could ever be gleaned from English translations alone.

McCabe also surveys the early evidence for women deacons in the church. Moving on to the word προστατίς (prostatis), which in most other contexts is rendered “leader,” “patron,” “presiding officer,” or the like, we find that

In surveying the semantic domain of prostatis in regard to church leadership positions, one can see that the semantic range of meanings for proistēmi differs from the rendering of prostatis in English translations in Rom 16:2. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in surveying the eight occurrences of proistēmi (as noted above), the majority of these instances have the sense of “to lead.” However, English translations do not take this factor into account in their rendering of Rom 16:2 or the fact that prostatis in its proper sense means “a woman set over others.” Instead of seeing Phoebe in a leadership capacity, English translations account for Phoebe as a “helper” (ASV, NAS, NKJV), a “succourer” (KJV), a “great help” (NIV), or as “helpful” (NLT). The YLT, however, adhering to the most literal rendering of prostatis, renders this term as “leader.” Douglas Moo argues that if the cognate verb proistēmi is considered in determining the meaning for prostatis, Paul might be characterizing “Phoebe as a ‘leader’ of the church.”

This is a very brief and fairly accessible article worthy of wide distribution.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this, the original article was very well written.

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  2. Erlend says:

    I actually thought it was an altogether inadequate article. The problem with suggesting that prostatis in Romans 16:2 has connotations of leadership is that Phoebe is said to be a prostatis of an individual- Paul. That is not the parlance of leadership- you lead a community, not a person. Exegetically it is problematic as well. Paul tells them to help Phoebe as she has been a prostatis towards him. ‘Help Phoebe as she has been a leader, or ‘Help Phoebe as she has helped to me’. The construct completely breaks down if you read leadership into the word.

    McCabe also only presented the philological evidence of prostatis/prostates indication leadership, when it is was also used widely, primarily in the epigraphical evidence granted, to describe generous benefactors. The verbal form is also used in a papyrus to describe the help a son gave his father.

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