Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, June 19, 2022. Scripture: Romans 16:1-7.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.Romans 16:1-7
To consider Junia is to enter into a rather tangled web. There’s what we can gather from the text as it is presented to us. And, then there’s the consideration of how this little part of the New Testament has been handled, shaped, and twisted by translators and scribes.
For a long period of time, Junia found herself in sort of gender switch. Junia is a woman’s name, but here she is—not only an apostle and coworker of Paul’s, but also a fellow prisoner. At some point in history, an assumption was made that Junia couldn’t possibly be a “Junia.” Junia must have been a male. So a handy “s” was added to the end of the name, so the name became Junias. There’s a problem, though. There is no evidence whatsoever that Junia was really a Junias, and still more than that, Junias wasn’t a name. No other person in antiquity was known by the name “Junias.” It simply didn’t exist. But that didn’t stop whoever it was who changed Junia to Junias.
Now, the Junia to Junias happened not so long ago as you might think, having such a situation put in front of you.
At the risk of getting a little too far into the weeds, you should know that the ancient church recognized Junia as a woman. The first commentator on the passage, Origen of Alexandria (2nd century), assumed the name was feminine. And, through the years, Junia was Junia. She was female to Jerome in the later 4th/early 5th century, Hatto of Vercelli (10th century) and Peter Abelard (11th century). All of this affirmed by biblical scholar, Bernadette Brooten, who, just so happened, to teach a course on the New Testament that I took when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.
Professor Brooten found that the switch from Junia to Junias happened somewhere around the 13th or 14th century. Then, after the Reformation, the switch became authoritative, with a much more general assumption that Junia was actually Junias.
The correction to return Junia to “Junia” and no longer Junias took awhile. For some translations, the change did not happen until the late 20th century. And, for still others, like the New International Version, the change didn’t happen until the 21st century—2011.
So, we have here a fairly complex problem and a thorny one in dealing with this woman, Junia. She may only be mentioned once in the entire New Testament, but the mention is a powerhouse of a verse. Paul declares: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7)
Junia—an apostle—a prominent apostle—and once imprisoned with Paul at some point, and a follower of Christ before even Paul became a follower. Junia may appear in only one verse, but that verse is full of information and packed full of potential.
This is yet another passage that is not a part of the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s another place where a prominent leader among the early followers is left to oblivion, and, depending on which translation you read, she may appear to be a man.
So, what do we do with this bit of new information, a new awareness of this woman, a prominent apostle with whom Paul worked?
Well, first let’s absorb that Junia was a prominent leader in the early church, prominent among the apostles and a co-worker with Paul. Why is that important?
One reason is that, while this verse may not be read in churches that follow the lectionary, there are plenty of other churches, many of them among the larger and the growing churches, that do read this passage and, if YouTube videos are any indication, these churches and their male leaders, seem not so impressed with Junia and very much not convinced that she’s anything to be concerned about. While I didn’t watch a lot of videos (there’s only so much I can take), I did watch a few and it was remarkable to hear things like Junia really was Junias, or another male name, or that the translation that she was prominent among the apostles really ought to be understood as prominent to the apostles, so that she herself was not one.
Watching YouTube videos put me in a rather sour mood. It’s troubling to see and to hear those who are so quick to dismiss Junia and other women like her, to argue essentially that “there’s nothing to see here,” while they engage in some rather astonishing translational and interpretative gymnastics to try to stuff Junia back into oblivion.
As those of us in mainline Protestant churches continue to experience the decline and sidelining of the mainline, we may very well be in the process of losing the churches that understand the significance of Junia and the other women like her, that women belong in pastoral leadership.
Junia has inspired a group, called the Junia Project, that advocates for the equality of women in the Church. The work they do is very much in line with the work that I’ve been doing in worship at Old South and through my blog and podcast over the last few months, in lifting up the women in the New Testament and learning more about them, that we may be better informed about the story of God and God’s faithful people. Engaging with these women encourages us to explore and encourage God given gifts for God’s church and for the common good, regardless of gender.
Along with the long list of women that has already been assembled, we now add Junia, recognizing her role as leader, apostle, co-worker of Paul, in the efforts to share God’s love with others and to help people see and understand the Divine in a new way. May we not only remember her, but appreciate her witness to share God’s love offered through Christ and the Spirit in a bold and courageous way.
May we too feel the movement of the Spirit in our midst, that we may share in hope and in trust, through bold service and ministry.