Romans 16:1–2 – Phoebe, Deacon and Benefactor


Romans 16:1–2


Romans 16:1–2 designates Phoebe as a significant Christian leader, both within and beyond Paul’s ministry.


The two verses that begin Romans 16 give important information about Phoebe, an early Christian leader. Paul’s commendation of Phoebe to the Roman Christians (Romans 16:1) and request that they welcome her (16:2) imply that Paul is sending her to deliver this letter to them. To carry out this task, Paul would likely have instructed Phoebe in the content of the letter so that she could read it aloud to the Roman Christians and be prepared to answer questions about it. If so, Phoebe would be one of the earliest interpreters of the Letter to the Romans.

In Romans 16:1, Paul identifies Phoebe not only as “our sister,” indicating that she is part of the broader Christian community, but also as a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, a port of Corinth. The Greek word that the NRSV translates as “deacon” is diakonos. It can also be translated as “minister” or “servant” and connote various types of service, both within Christian communities and secular governments (e.g., Romans 13:4). It is the same word that Paul uses of himself and his apostolic, evangelistic ministry (e.g., Romans 11:13b; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 3:5, which also names Apollos as a diakonos), as well as of Christ as a servant (e.g., Romans 15:8). Although Romans 16:1 does not clarify what Phoebe’s role as a deacon entails, given Paul’s usage of the term elsewhere and his commissioning of Phoebe to bring the letter to the Romans, one should not simply assume—as some interpreters have done—that Phoebe’s ministry was limited to support roles that do include spreading the gospel. Instead, she may have been a leader of the Christian community at Cenchreae who taught the gospel and possibly hosted the church in her home. Phoebe’s ministry qualifications and apparent proximity to Paul when he wrote Romans from Corinth may, in fact, explain his choice of her to deliver the letter.

Romans 16:2 further describes Phoebe as a “benefactor of many,” including Paul. The meaning of the Greek word prostatis that the NRSV translates as “benefactor” has also been disputed as applied to Phoebe. Some English translations render this word generically as “helper” (e.g., New American Standard Bible (NASB). The context, however, of the letter within the first-century Roman world suggests that Phoebe was a woman of considerable resources who acted as a “benefactor” or “patroness” by providing financial support to the ministry of Paul and others. Phoebe’s support may have extended to Paul’s proposed mission to Spain, so that he requests that the Roman Christians help her with whatever she requires (Romans 16:2) to establish Rome as a base for his mission to the West.