Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Neglected Passage #1: Romans 16:1-23

My first genuine leather-bound Bible goes back to 1981 or 1982, high school in my case. I read it all the way through a couple of times, highlighter in hand. It's not hard to see where my devotional energy clustered in those days: the Gospel of John is pretty much Technicolor, as is Romans. It's no coincidence that these two New Testament books have influenced Protestant theology -- and piety -- more than any others.

Working from my office now, I can't pull down that old Bible, but I bet Romans 16 didn't get much highlighter ink. It includes a list of greetings and commendations to the church in Rome and from the churches around Corinth. Biblical scholars had tended to overlook the passage too. Indeed, it used to be "common knowledge" that Romans originally ended at 15:33, with chapter 16 tacked on. You can still buy introductions to the book of Romans that fail to discuss chapter 16 in any level of detail.

However, Wayne Meek's classic book, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, marked a sea change. Attempting to sketch a portrait of those first urban communities, Meeks revealed that "throwaway" passages like the beginnings and endings of Paul's letters provide a gold mine of information concerning Christian origins. Feminist theologians have also turned to these passages for fascinating data.

Just three items here.

Women. Contrary to what used to be common knowledge, women figured as leaders and equals in Paul's ministry. While Paul mentions more men than women, his references to women simply assume their authority and contribution to the movement. Phoebe is a deacon, the only deacon mentioned by name in the New Testament. It appears that Phoebe is carrying the letter to Rome, and that Paul authorizes her to request whatever she needs from the church there. Junia is an apostle -- well, she became an apostle in 1989, when translators acknowledged the overwhelming evidence that this apostle was the woman Junia and not the man Junias! With the famous missionary pair Prisca and Aquila, Paul mentions the woman first, which strongly suggests that she was the more prominent of the two (see a similar pattern in Acts). Paul never argues for the authority of these women, as if they needed his permission; he simply assumes it.

Status. Meeks' study extends well beyond Romans, but the references to Gaius and Erastus suggest that the churches included persons of fairly high status. Gaius owns a house big enough for the "whole church" to gather in, while Erastus is the city treasurer. Then we note how Phoebe has been a benefactor (sponsor or patron) to Paul's ministry, while Prisca and Aquila, now resettled in Rome, host a church in their home. (Perhaps Rome had enough Christians to require several congregations.)

Priority. Sometimes people credit (or blame) Paul for "inventing" Christianity. Frankly, that's a stupid notion, which can be easily disproved, but smart people still say it. But notice the reference to Andronicus and Junia, who "were in Christ before I was." Paul did not found the church in Rome. In fact, he'd never visited it. He knew quite a few believers who had preceded him in the faith. We might do better to think of Paul as a partner in ministry rather than as the founder of it.

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