Junia: Distinguished Missionary Wife
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my associates and my fellow prisoners. They are distinguished among the missionaries and were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7: our translation)
In his letter to the Romans, Paul identifies Junia as a distinguished senior missionary wife. Her joint mention with Andronicus likely means they were a married couple, like Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3), assuming that Junia was female.
Was Junia Female or Male?
There is some debate as to whether Junia (or Junias) is a woman or a man. The accusative use of the name (Iounian) could derive from either the feminine Iounia or the masculine Iounias. The name is Latin translated into Greek. The female Latin name Junia occurs more than 250 times in Greek and Latin inscriptions found in Rome alone, whereas the male name Junias does not occur.
When Greek manuscripts started appearing with accents, scribes wrote the feminine Iounia. In 1977, Bernadette Brooten stated that “we do not have a shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed … all of the philological evidence points to the feminine Junia.” Since that time, no one has been able to refute these claims, and no further evidence has come to light. There is every reason to believe that the person in Rom 16:7 is a woman by the name of Junia.
What Do We Know about Andronicus and Junia?
Friends of Paul
Paul calls Andronicus and Junia his syngeneis, which could mean fellow-countrymen (i.e., Jews; cf. Rom 9:3). It is unclear, however, why Paul would be referring only to Herodion (v. 11), Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (v. 21) in this way but not to other Jewish individuals such as Aquila and Priscilla (v. 3), Mary (v. 6), or Rufus and his mother (v. 13).
It is therefore more likely that this phrase means more broadly “my friends,” or “my close associates” as indicating collaboration in ministry. Similarly, Paul uses the expression “my beloved” in Rom 16:5, 8-9. This would explain why Paul calls even Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, who most people think were not Jews, syngeneis.
Paul further calls Andronicus and Junia his “fellow prisoners.” Unfortunately, we know nothing about the specifics of this imprisonment. Most interpreters assume that Paul is referring to a literal imprisonment, which is probable, though a figurative use is possible. This was a couple committed to the cause of Christ, similar to Aquila and Priscilla, who, the apostle mentioned earlier, had “risked their necks” for Paul (Rom 16:4).
Finally, Paul identifies Andronicus and Junia as episēmoi en tois apostolois (“distinguished among the missionaries”). Again, there is some debate among scholars as to what this phrase means. The answer hinges on two issues, the meaning of episēmoi and the meaning of apostolos. In what follows, we will argue that episēmoi means “distinguished” or “outstanding” and that apostolos here means “missionary.” If so, Andronicus and Junia were a distinguished, outstanding missionary couple and Junia was a distinguished senior missionary wife.
Diversity of Translations
The following survey of major English translations reveals a remarkable diversity of interpretations:
- “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV)
- “of note among the apostles” (NKJV)
- “prominent among the apostles” (NRSV)
- “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles” (CSB)
- “well known to the apostles” (ESV; footnote: or messengers)
- “outstanding in the view of the apostles” (NASB)
- “highly respected among the apostles” (NLT)
Inclusive or Exclusive?
Most commentators (though not necessarily translations) see the reference as inclusive. This means that both Andronicus and Junia were among the circle of apostles or missionaries. We agree, but argue that they are among a broader group of missionaries rather than a narrow circle of apostles.
It is also possible, albeit unlikely, that the reference is exclusive, that is, the apostles regarded them as outstanding. (One major problem here is that the Greek preposition en is commonly translated as “in” or “among.” It is not typically instrumental, meaning “by.” So the renderings “in the view of” or “in the eyes of” does not reflect the common meaning of this Greek word. The ESV has “well known to,” but, again, “to” is not what en means, and one would expect a direct dative object.)
If inclusive, depending on the meaning of apostolos (on which see below), Junia would be one of the apostles. This would suggest that there are no restrictions on the ministry of women. Alternatively, as is more likely, Junia was one of the missionaries, as we will argue below. If exclusive, she and Andronicus were distinguished among the apostles or missionaries but not be apostles themselves.
The Meaning of Apostolos
Curiously, though perhaps understandably, it seems that all major English translations assume that apostolos means “apostle.” However, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, there is a range of meaning from “apostle” as a technical term referring to the Twelve to “missionary.” “Missionary” draws on the basic meaning of apostolos as “messenger” in general usage (from the verb apostello, “to send”)..
So, then, there are four types of uses of this term in the New Testament:
- the Twelve
- someone like Paul who had seen the Lord and was commissioned by him to a special ministry (e.g., 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:1)
- an emissary or messenger sent out to convey a message (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25)
- an itinerant missionary (cf. the reference to “apostles” in Eph 4:11; and see Acts 14:4, 14 of Barnabas).
To which of these does the context in Rom 16:7 point in the case of Andronicus and Junia?
Andronicus and Junia as Distinguished Missionaries
At the outset, it is highly unlikely that these otherwise unknown figures stand out among noted apostles such as the Twelve or even Peter, James, or Paul. This rules out meanings (1) and (2) above.
The sense “messenger, emissary” (3) seems more likely. However, the designation “outstanding among the messengers” seems a bit awkward, for the role of messenger tends to be rather inconspicuous.
The meaning “missionary” (4) is therefore most likely, especially in light of 1 Cor 9:5 (cf. Acts 14:4, 14; 1 Cor 12:28; 1 Thess 2:7; Eph 4:11).
There is less disagreement on what episēmoi means, though translations are varied: “outstanding” (NIV, NASB), “prominent” (NRSV), “of note” (NKJV), “well known” (ESV), “noteworthy” (CSB), or “highly respected” (NLT). In context, what seems to have distinguished this couple is that they were veteran missionaries who became believers even before the apostle.
Converted before Paul
Most likely, then, Andronicus and Junia were “distinguished [among the] missionaries.” As such, they would have occupied an important role in the early church. They may be called “distinguished” or “outstanding” here because they followed Christ before Paul (Rom 16:7) and thus joined the Christian mission in the very early days of the church. Since Paul’s conversion took place around AD 34 and he wrote Romans in ca. AD 55, they would have been Christ-followers for well over 20 years.
Junia was the distinguished senior missionary wife of Andronicus. The designation apostolos or “missionary” applied jointly to both of them. Like other husband-wife pairs in Romans 16 such as Priscilla and Aquila and (probably) Philologus and Julia (v. 15), they would have served as missionaries following the pattern in 1 Cor 9:5: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
The reference to Andronicus and Junia shows that Paul partnered not only with unmarried individuals such as Timothy and Luke (if in fact they were unmarried), but also with married couples such as them and Priscilla and Aquila. This shows that sacrificial and committed married couples had a vital part in the early Christian mission and contributed significantly to the growth of the early Christian movement.
Note: The present post adapts a portion of the essay “Women in the Pauline Mission,” originally published in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission. See also the posts on “Priscilla: Valued Partner in the Christian Mission and Hostess of House Churches” and “Phoebe: Prominent Woman in the Early Church.”