An interpretation of Romans 16:1–16
Over the next four posts I am going to be exploring one of those chapters that we are in danger of skipping over in our Bible reading, but which, with a bit of effort, can give us vital information on the life and practice of the early church. We’ll start with a bit of an overview today and move onto the text proper tomorrow. As the title suggests, I’ll be giving an interpretation that (hopefully) takes particular account of the perspectives offered by a range of feminist approaches to the passage…
Brunner describes this chapter as “one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament”1 because it provides a window into the early church in Rome. It reveals Roman Christians to be diverse in race, social status and gender and is a “gold mine…” for those “interested in the socioeconomic composition of the early church.”2 However, as we shall see, there is significant disagreement amongst interpreters over the meaning of the greetings, especially to the women he mentions, as to their role and function within the early Christian church.
… one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament
Through my interpretation of this passage I will be looking to demonstrate that these verses show the 50’s of the first century to have included the significant involvement of women in the pastoral and missionary work of the Roman church. However, by the end of the first century this influence had been reduced to a minimum, later surviving only in marginal Christian groups that soon were viewed as having “the taint of heresy.”3
There is considerable debate over whether chapter 16 was originally found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is surprisingly to read the longest list of greetings found in Pauline texts written to a church Paul had not yet visited, and has led some to question, from the list of names given, whether this actually constituted a shorter letter to the Ephesian church. However, it is worth noting that the letter with the second longest list of greetings is found in Colossians, a church Paul had also not, at the stage of writing, visited himself.
The manuscripts disagree over the accuracy of the order of the text as it now appears in Romans. For example, should the benediction in vv. 25–27 occur at the end of chapter fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or be omitted altogether? Manuscript evidence can be given in support of each of these alternatives. However, textual criticism does teach us that “no Romans manuscript ever ends with chapter 15.”4 Lampe argues convincingly that Romans 16 is an original and integral part of Paul’s letter epigraphically, theologically and sociologically and this author finds no reason to disagree with his conclusion.5
In the passage Paul commends Phoebe to the Roman Christians (vv. 1–2), urges them to greet several of their number,6 (vv. 3–15) and to greet one another with a ‘holy kiss’ (v. 16). Seeking their support for his coming missionary work in Spain,7 Paul is aware that he is personally unknown to many in the church. Paul therefore first has to gain their confidence. Paul is indirectly displaying his authority by sending his greetings from ‘all churches’. This also makes sense of why Paul asks the Roman church to greet some of his personal friends rather than simply greeting them directly himself; highlighting that he is known by some within their communities and thereby gaining the trust of those he does not yet know.8
Brunner (1959), p. 126 ↩
Moo (1996), p. 918 ↩
Lampe (1991), p. 224 ↩
Lampe (1991), p. 217 ↩
Lampe (1991), p. 219 ↩
“Verses 3–15 is really a connected whole; but perhaps a minor transition can be discerned at v. 8, where Paul moves away from greetings to people that he knows well (vv. 3–7) to greetings of people that he may know only casually or perhaps even only by reputation (vv. 8–15).”, Moo (1996), p. 918 ↩
See Romans 15:24, 30 ↩
Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 66 ↩