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.