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Who in the World Is Junia?

September 22, 2015
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Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Romans 16:7 NIV 2011)

Since the days of the earliest church writings, this passage has been a puzzle to readers who came to it with a conviction that apostles must be men. From medieval times until fairly recently you could hardly find a Bible translation containing the name Junia. Translators through this period resolved their dilemma by rendering the name Junias, a male name (as in, “Those earlier manuscripts couldn’t have been right, so let’s just fix that little typo”). I still own an NIV Bible from 1984 that uses Junias.

Most modern translators now agree that the evidence supports a female name here, so disputes have transferred to that sticky phrase “outstanding among the apostles.” Some alternative renderings include “esteemed by the apostles” (see note in the 2011 NIV) or “well known to the apostles” (ESV).

I am more interested in the identity of this woman of such significance to Paul and the other apostles—regardless of what her distinction was. Is she really mentioned nowhere else in New Testament literature?

Let’s look at the clues Paul left us. He said she was Jewish, meaning she was most likely from Palestine (or less likely, she was a Diaspora Jew who became a follower at Pentecost in Acts 2 or upon some other pilgrimage to Jerusalem soon afterwards).  She was “in Christ” before Paul was, so very possibly was a literal disciple of Jesus, especially if perchance she was considered an apostle (by Paul’s looser definition).

Also, as a Jewish missionary to Rome, she would certainly have been more effective if she had some prior familiarity with the Roman culture and Latin language, don’t you think?

Hmm. Do we know any women from elsewhere in scripture who might fit this description? Perhaps a Galilean woman connected with Herod’s pro-Roman household who traveled with Jesus through most of his ministry and was a well-attested witness of his death, burial, and resurrection?

“But there are no women in the Gospels with Latin names,” you say, “especially none named Junia.”

Yes, but there was a common practice of adopting Latin (or Greek) names among Jews who had dual citizenship (think Saul, called Paul) or who interacted with Romans or Greeks (think Simeon, called Simon; John, called Mark; Joseph called Justus; and Silas called Silvanus—to name only a few mentioned in the New Testament). These Jews used similar sounding Latin or Greek names because they were more culturally appropriate “when in Rome” and user friendly for non-Semitic speakers.

Who might be the Jewish woman behind the Latin name Junia? Do we know of any Jewish woman who was familiar with Roman culture and language, who was an early disciple of Jesus, and whose name started with a J?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Could it be that Luke calls Joanna out twice in his Gospel as a disciple and eye witness primarily because she was so well known to the church community he was writing for? Could this woman whose life began with wealth and social prominence have been so transformed by her time with Jesus that she too—like the Twelve and many of the male disciples—devoted the rest of her life to spreading the good news of the Kingdom and making disciples beyond Palestine?

It’s fascinating speculation, with some convincing arguments in its favor. Although I would never base a doctrinal stance on it, Junia was clearly a woman of significance in the church. It is entirely fitting that she be someone who had been all in from the very beginning of the church—a woman with a history of giving up the comforts of a very comfortable home and literally following Jesus wherever he called her to go.

 

(The case for this Junia-Joanna connection is not original to me, of course. I owe all the credit for these points to Richard Baukham. See Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, 2002, Eerdmans).

(Oh, and yes, Andronicus—a male—might have been Chuza’s Roman name, or Joanna may have been remarried at this point.)

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