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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations

 Elizabeth A. McCabe

Despite the vast number of English translations to choose from in today’s age, no substitute exists for reading the biblical text in its original language.[1] While English translations generally provide a satisfactory reading, some passages are more accurate than others. In particular, verses detailing women’s roles may not provide an accurate description of the nature of their status in antiquity, often slighting women of their function in the early church. This paper will critically examine Phoebe as a diakonos and a prostatis in Rom 16:1-2 to illuminate her status in the first century.

Phoebe: A Diakonos

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.            

What is more is that the title of Phoebe as a diakonos accounts for the “first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.” Phoebe is tied to a specific local church, the church at Cenchrea, which makes her appointment a local function. Furthermore, the combination of diakonos with ousa “points more to a recognized ministry” or a “position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard or perhaps more appropriately, “[kai] also a minister,”whereas “servant” would prove inadequate. If Paul were simply aiming to convey a sense of service to her local church, this “would have probably been expressed by use of ‘diakoneō’ (Rom 15:25) or ‘diakonia’ (1 Cor 16:15).”[2]

The alternate definition for diakonos, namely an “intermediary” or “courier,” is also appropriate here. Diakonos in this regard means “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction.”[3] In terms of Phoebe, this distinction would classify her as the letter carrier to the book of Romans. In light of the fact that many letters did not reach their designated locations in antiquity, the appointment of a woman as the carrier of the book of Romans is noteworthy, particularly since Romans is arguably the most significant book in the New Testament.

Historical Evidence Supporting Women Diakonoi

Besides Romans 16:1, women are credited as being diakonoi in epigraphical evidence. A few examples will suffice for my purposes. The first evidence for this occurrence originates during the reign of Trajan (98-117 C.E.), as recounted by Pliny. Pliny documents that “in Bithynia under Trajan there were female deacons.”[4] In Epistuale 10.96.8, Pliny has two “maidservants” or “slaves” (ancillae) tortured “who were being called ministers” (quae ministrae dicebantur). The word minister (ministra) is synonymous with the Latin word diāconus, for a diāconus can be defined as a “minister of the church, a deacon.”

Another piece of epigraphical evidence comes from Jerusalem (Mount of Olives); it dates from the latter half of the fourth century. What is fascinating about this writing, found on a stele, are the following words:

Sophia, hē diakonos, hē deutera Phoibē [5]

In this inscription, clearly a woman (evident by the feminine definite article) is being coined with the masculine term diakonos. If the Didascalia of the Apostles is utilized as the earliest known date for women deaconesses, one could logically conclude that deaconesses came into existence in written accounts from the “first half of the third century.”[6] What is more noteworthy is that women are still being designated as deacons (using masculine terms) even over approximately 150 years later.

However, what is especially notable about Sophia is the description of being the “second Phoebe.” Ute E. Eisen comments,

Horsley has shown that in non-Christian inscriptions the description “a second Homer” or the like is applied to individuals who gave outstanding service to their city. For Sophia this could mean that her title “the second Phoebe” reflects aspects of Phoebe’s activity beyond her work as a deacon (Rom 16:1-2), such as her title of prostatis.[7]

To be called the “second” was an honor bestowed upon an individual. Just as grateful citizens gave this title to their leaders, this notable woman won this acclaim, which may be attributed to “benefactions provided” possibly to “her church.”[8]

In addition to Sophia being named a deacon, a woman named Maria also merits the same honor. In evidence from the fourth century, the title is given to Maria of diakonos in a “stele of grey marble” erected for her tombstone. The exact inscription reads: “ . . . diakonos Maria.” G. H. R. Horsley interprets this inscription as “evidence for a widow who exercised the function of deacon in the Byzantine church.”[9]

Phoebe: A Prostatis     

In addition to being identified as a diakonos, Phoebe is also identified as a prostatis in Romans 16:2. Because prostatis is a hapax legomenon, translations have often been at odds to define this term, most settling with “helper.” But is “helper” true to the nature of this position in antiquity? In determining the proper definition and connotation of prostatis, I will examine its verb form proistēmi in the New Testament to gain a better understanding of the semantic range of prostatis.

Proistēmi in the New Testament

The verb form of prostatis, proistēmi, occurs eight times in three different contexts in the New Testament. These contexts include church leadership (Rom 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17), household management (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12), and the practice of good deeds (Titus 3:8, 14). For the purposes of this article, the first context, proistēmi in church leadership, will take priority in my analysis.

 In 1 Tim 5:17, the term hoi proestōtes is used in describing the presbuteroi. This verse can be translated, “Let the elders who rule [hoi proestōtes] well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and in teaching.” Hoi proestōtes is rendered by different nuances in translations, including “rule” (American Standard Version: ASV, English Standard Version: ESV, King James Version: KJV, New American Standard: NAS, New King James Version: NKJV, New Revised Standard Version: NRSV); “direct the affairs of the church” (New International Version: NIV, Today’s New International Version: TNIV); “do their work” (New Living Translation: NLT); and “well-leading” (Young’s Literal Translation: YLT). In whatever fashion, proistēmi is utilized, however, a leadership capacity is being conveyed. Some type of leadership position is in order, for proistēmi can be defined as “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of),”[10] which are all perfectly appropriate here.

 Romans 12:8 writes of ho proistamenos, which is used in describing the different gifts that are bestowed upon members of the body of Christ. It reads, “the one who exhorts, in exhortation, the one who gives, in liberality, the one who leads [ho proistamenos], in diligence, the one who shows mercy, in cheerfulness.” Every English translation surveyed conveys the idea of leadership for ho proistamenos: “he that ruleth” (ASV, KJV), “he who leads” (NAS, NKJV), “the one who leads” (ESV), “the leader” (NRSV), “leadership” (NIV), “to lead” (TNIV), “leadership ability” (NLT), and “he who is leading” (YLT).

 In a similar fashion, 1 Thess 5:12 communicates the idea of one in some type of position of authority with the words tous proistamenous. English translations have recognized tous proistamenous humōn as some sort of leadership function, as is evident from their translations: “are over you” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NIV, NKJV), “have charge over you” (NAS), “have charge of you” (NRSV), “care for you” (TNIV), “your leaders” (NLT), and “leading you” (YLT).

 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.”[11] 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.”[12] 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.”[13]

 To what degree the difference of gender influenced translation committees is essentially evident in their renderings, choosing a word like “helper” when cognate terms of the same root are translated in verb forms with “rule,” “lead,” “leadership,” or “leaders” in other passages. If Paul wanted to describe Phoebe strictly as a helper, he likely would have chosen another Greek word that addresses this nuance, such as boēthos (“helper”) or hupēretēn (“one who functions as a helper”).

Possible Origins for Prostatis as “Helper”

Where then did the word ‘helper” originate? One possible origin for “helper” for prostatis is from the “far inferior reading” in F and G.[14] F and G are ninth century manuscripts, penned centuries after the original reading. Horsley reasons that these readings might have originated “presumably in recognition of the discomfort which prostatis caused.”[15]

The Vulgate is another possibility, particularly the word adstitit in the reading “ipsa quoque adstitit multis et mihi ipsi” or “she herself has assisted many, and myself.” Obviously, those who translated the Greek into the Latin of the Vulgate chose an inaccurate rendering of the Greek prostatis (literally “to stand before or stand at the head of”) as adstitit (lit. “to stand near or at one’s side”), thus confusing a leadership role with one of proximity.

Another possible origin for “helper” might have occurred when Walter Bauer’s Greek-German Dictionary of the Writings of the New Testament and Remaining Christian Literature was “translated” into English. In his lexicon, the word “helper” did not appear as a definition for prostatis, but only “Beschützerin” (defender or protector) and “Patronin” (patron).” When his work was translated into the English by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich in the BAG, the word “helper” as a translation for prostatis came into existence. A similar occurrence took place in Gingrich’s Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament: while the word “protector” and “patron” appear as suitable meanings for prostatis, Phoebe can be described only as a “helper,” with the supporting evidence limited to Rom 16:2.

 Another possibility as to why “helper” was chosen in English translation is the outdated information provided in The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (1930), which states that “we can supply no instance of the fem. prostatis” as given in Rom 16:2 “from our sources” as “protectress” or “patroness.”[16] Because this work has not been updated, one must look at other avenues to reconcile the definition of prostatis. However, the consequences of Moulton’s and Miligan’s work has been felt for years, likely giving way to the fallacy that the masculine term prostatēs is not equivalent in meaning to prostatis, despite the fact it can be argued that the feminine form prostatis is “to be equated with the masculine form [prostatēs]” through epigraphical evidence.[17]


While English translations definitely have their place, they serve as no substitute for reading the original text. As evident from the above research, the roles of Phoebe as a diakonos and a prostatis in Rom 16:1-2 have often been slighted in English translations, being rendered as “servant” and “helper” respectively.

This article has served as a preliminary investigatory launch into the role of Phoebe in antiquity. Historical evidence has served as a means to bridge the gap from today’s modern era to the life of the early church. While this quest is by no means complete, it will hopefully serve as a catalyst to open the door to further discussion concerning leading New Testament women and their rightful roles in antiquity.

Elizabeth A. McCabe, Hebrew Union College


[1] An expanded version of this article will be featured in vol.1 of Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives (ed. Elizabeth A. McCabe; Lanham: University Press of America, 2009). 

[2] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Word Biblical Commentary 38; Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 887.

[3] “diakonos,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago, 2000), 230.

[4] G. H. R. Horsley, ed., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979 (North Hyde, N.S.W.: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987), 122.

[5] Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 239.

[6] Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (trans. K. D. Whitehead; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 36.

[7] Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (trans. Linda M. Maloney; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000), 160.

[8] New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 241.

[9] Ibid., 109.

[10] “proistēmi,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 870.

[11] B. Reicke, “proistēmi,” TDNT 6:701.

[12] Joseph Henry Thayer, “proistēmi,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 539.

[13] See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 916.

[14] The majority of ideas in this section can be credited to Ray R. Schulz, “A Case for ‘President’ Phoebe in Romans 16:2,” Lutheran Theological Journal 24 (1990): 124-27.

[15] Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 241

[16] “prostatis,” J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London, 1930; reprint, Peabody, Mass., 1997), 551.

[17] Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 243.


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