Junia: The First Woman Apostle

  • Eldon J. Epp
  • Jul 1, 2007
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005. $16.00. xvii + 138pp. Pap. ISBN 0-8006-3771-2.

Readers who peruse Eldon Epp�s brief work might get the impression that this seasoned exegete is exposing a centuries-old conspiracy theory. However, in fairness to Epp�s opponents, there is probably no conspiracy, and in fairness to Epp himself, the argument carefully laid out in Junia: The First Woman Apostle is no mere theory. The title clearly states Epp�s position within the debate regarding whether the Greek name Iounian in Romans 16:7 portrays male �Junias� or female �Junia� as �outstanding among the apostles.� As the author points out, this is no petty distinction: �Rom 16:7 has been chief among several passages prominent in the exploration of and debate over the appropriateness of full ordination for women in various Christian communions, for this text�depending on the linguistic, text-critical, and exegetical decisions made�offers the one place where Paul used the word �apostle� to describe a woman� (p. 21). It is evident throughout the book that Epp is passionate about his conclusion that Junia is indeed a woman apostle, seen in everything from his polite yet charged rhetoric when referring to his opponents (e.g. their �legerdemain� in arguing for the masculine reading [p. 24]) to the book�s bold dedication, which hopes that his grandsons may �live in a more egalitarian world� (p. v).

Former president of the Society of Biblical Literature and professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University, Epp has been actively producing books and articles in the field of New Testament textual criticism for over forty years. A work on Junia, then, is very much in the center of his expertise because the debate reaches its fulcrum in the discipline of textual criticism. What began as an essay in a 2002 Festschrift to Joël Delobel (University of Leuven) has quickly expanded into the most thorough and definitive work on the subject to date. The body of the text actually spans only eighty-one pages of the work with the following thirty-eight pages densely packed with endnotes and bibliographical material which betray Epp�s wide breadth of research throughout the conservative-liberal spectrum. The chapters are brief, averaging around six to eight pages, usually making one clear point. At times the book gets technical, but anyone with a basic knowledge of textual criticism should be able to wade through this important work.

Part I of the book places a finger on the pulse of New Testament textual criticism today. Chapter 1 succinctly puts forward what has always been that haunting caveat for young exegetes who first dive into the field of textual criticism�the discipline is just as much an art as it is a science. Epp traces how the history of New Testament textual criticism has swung through various emphases, foci, and purposes, such that at any given time the enterprise could look vastly different and even argue for opposite conclusions of the same passage. As modern exegetes look back on all of this, they realize that textual criticism is now experiencing, in Epp�s words, �a loss of innocence� (p. 12), which means that the �rules� and �principles� of textual criticism are now grayer and purely objective results are harder to find. This loss of innocence, however, is viewed optimistically by Epp because it may open up new horizons for biblical interpretation and exegesis. This moves into the main argument of Chapter 2, which is that there exists a symbiotic relationship between exegesis and textual criticism, such that each repeatedly causes the other to reexamine its conclusions. The implication for the book�s topic is that we have reason to rethink the conclusion of the overwhelming majority of the last century of exegetes�that Iounian is a male name.

Part II engages the debate first by untangling the web of issues surrounding the Greek name (Chapter 3). The crux of the problem is that Iounian could be a feminine (accusative of �Junia�) or masculine (accusative of �Junias�) name depending on the accents assigned to the letters. Epp boils it down to this reality: an accent over the second iota would indicate a feminine name, while a circumflex over the alpha would indicate a masculine one. The solution is not as simple as examining the diacritical markings of the earliest manuscripts, because those manuscripts are accent-less. At this point, Epp compiles the research of several scholars to make a case for the preference of the feminine name (pp. 23-24), with the most persuasive point being that the name Junia was a common Roman name while masculine forms of the name Junias have been found nowhere in Roman writings. Chapter 4 begins the walk through history, showing the virtual unanimity of the first millennium of the church with regards to Iounian being feminine and revealing what appears to be an arbitrary shift in the second millennium to viewing it as masculine. Epp argues that it was well into this latter period (around 1850) when the abbreviated-name theory arose as a defense for this defenseless position. The abbreviated-name theory, still reverberating in modern exegesis, recognizes that the name Junias is unattested and argues that Junias is a contraction of the well-attested Latin name Junianus. But Chapter 5 persuasively argues that the theory is hollow, ultimately because no evidence exists that Junianus has ever been contracted in such a way (contrary to A. T. Robertson�s classic Greek grammar, which on p. 172 actually has Junias listed among other contracted Greek names!). At this point, the reader begins to see that Epp is attempting to expose a bias among modern scholars which has tainted the objectivity of everything from grammars and lexicons to commentaries and critical editions of the Greek New Testament.

Chapters 6-8 tackle this last idea in detail, highlighting the evolution from Junias to Junia which occurred as the critical Greek texts of Nestle-Aland (N-A) and the United Bible Societies (UBS) passed through various revisions and editions. In summary, both texts have made a rather quiet �about-face in which the seven-decade reign of the masculine �Junias��has ended abruptly and almost without notice, to be replaced by the feminine �Junia�� (p. 48). To make matters worse, Epp shows that earlier editions of the UBS actually gave the unattested name Junias an A rating, claiming majuscule support for that ruling (when majuscules are unaccented!). Epp reveals (on p. 54) that, by Bruce Metzger�s own admission in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed), the UBS committee made their ruling based on the gender assumptions imposed by some members of the committee (Textual Commentary, p. 475). Also notable is the persistence of lexicons and other reference works in locating the name under the nominative masculine. An indictment is made: �In broad terms, it is fair to say that to a large extent our modern lexica, grammars, and many commentaries, especially during the past century, have carried forward�indeed, have aided and abetted�the tradition of �Junias,� masculine� (p. 58). Chapters 9 and 10 provide helpful charts (pp. 62, 63, 66) which offer appalling visual confirmation that an arbitrary shift away from seeing Junia as a woman took place in the histories of Greek texts and English translations. (Regrettably, Epp does not mention the TNIV's correction of the NIV's masculine mistake.) Chapter 11 defeats the proposition that perhaps �outstanding among the apostles� should be translated �well known to the apostles� (which would effectively take Junia [and women] off the apostolic hot seat), deconstructing a hard-hitting 2001 article by Michael Burer and Daniel Wallace. The concluding chapter reiterates Junia�s womanhood and apostleship and issues a resulting call for a re-evaluation of some of the typical Pauline �proof-texts� which have been used for so long to bar women from ordination and ecclesiastical office.

It is easy to say that Epp�s work is strong and convincing; this is because the evidence itself is. Epp has merely put forth the work in compiling all the data and argumentation into one source, filling the gaps with his own astute observations and expertise. He has exposed how gender bias has tainted the objectivity of scholarship in this instance. The book has offered a definitive blow to the complementarian argument in the Junia-debate, and perhaps it has even gouged a sizeable hole in the armor of the overall complementarian schema of reserving some or all ecclesiastical offices for males alone. The book gives us a simple argument from the greater to the lesser: If women were gifted and called as apostles, why not elders, deacons, pastors, etc.? If Epp has left any wiggle room for the complementarian, it is in the concerns of Chapter 11 that the semantic range of apostolos allows for a quite insignificant view of �apostle� here. But Epp�s argument against this (p. 70)�that Paul�s own view of the significance of the office testifies that he would not use it elsewhere in a diminished, ordinary sense�is persuasive enough. My only fear for this work is that it will not get a wide reading in conservative evangelical circles because of Epp�s more liberal views, which in my mind are only betrayed on the final page of the text (on p. 81 he mentions 1 Timothy as composed by a later Paulinist and Ephesians and Colossians as deutero-Pauline letters). I agree with Epp�s conclusion that the evidence must cause us to re-evaluate traditional interpretations of famous gender-debate passages such as 1 Tim 2:8-15, but I believe it is still possible to harmonize Junia with these passages without giving up their Pauline authorship and/or inerrancy. In the end, even if Epp�s conclusions are rejected, the book remains a wonderful synopsis of the benefits and cautions of New Testament textual criticism. I have the more ambitious hope, however, that its overall argument would reinstate Junia back where she belongs�into the apostolic leadership of the early church.

Zachary M. Hicks
July 2006

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