Junia the apostle has suffered at the hands of men who didn’t want to think she could exist. Scott McKnight wrote an excellent little ebook, Junia is not Alone, which tells something of this history. A fuller account can be found in Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Fortress Press, 2006), which summarises scholarly consensus of the past three decades or so. Junia’s memory still suffers today, however, from those unaware of recent Biblical scholarship, with two questions in particular raised:
1. Was she really a woman? Some argue that we should read ‘Junias’, a male name, not ‘Junia’ in Romans 16:7. The difference in the Greek is no more than an accent, and the earliest texts don’t have any accents, so there is some sort of plausibility to this argument, and you can still find it made – and even assumed in some English Bible translations – today.
When we look more carefully, however, the argument really does not hold up. As far as we know, the male name ‘Junias’ never existed – we don’t know of one single man called ‘Junias’ in the whole of Roman history. By contrast, ‘Junia’ is an extremely common woman’s name; CIL (a standard list of names found in Roman sources) shows 250+ examples. (The details can be conveniently found in Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians in Rome in the First Two Centuries (ET Continuum, 2003) pp. 168-9.) Thinking Junia was in fact a man named Junias would be a bit like discovering someone called Jennifer in an English book and assuming it was a man’s name.
The earliest manuscript of the New Testament to distinguish by accent – Minuscule 33 – has the female form (so Lampe, n.39, pp. 165-6) – this dates from the ninth century, so is hardly conclusive, but it is still the earliest evidence we have.
All the early readers knew this. I think it is true that the earliest writer to regard Junia as male was Aegidius of Rome, who lived 1245-1316 – twelve hundred years after Junia did (for the history, see B. Brooten, ‘Junia: Outstanding among the Apostles’, in L. Swidler & A. Swidler (ads) Women Priests (Paulist Press, 1977) (article online here). We can also look at the early translations of the NT out of Greek. All the ones I have checked have a female Junia (Old Latin; Vulgate; Syriac; Coptic). For a thousand years after her life, we have no evidence that anyone ever thought of Junia as a man.
So, yes, Junia was a woman.
2. Was she really an apostle? The other argument that is made is that the Greek translated ‘outstanding/prominent amongst the apostles’ in fact means ‘well-known to the apostles’: Junia is not an apostle, just friendly with them. C.E.B. Cranfield, in his ICC commentary on Romans, comments (in loc.) ‘“outstanding in the eyes of the apostles” … must be judged grammatically possible, it is much more probable – we might well say, virtually certain – that the words mean “outstanding among the apostles” … which is the way it was understood by the patristic commentators.’ Cranfield’s judgement on grammar is to be respected; his comment about the patristic commentators is extremely telling in my view; they were native Greek speakers who were not generally in favour of women in ministry, so if they assumed the text meant Junia was an apostle, it is at least difficult to argue that the Greek means something else.
3. So what? Lampe’s book, mentioned above, discusses Junia amongst the other people who Paul mentions as active workers in the church in Rom. 16. His conclusions are worth quoting:
The list indicates a proportion of 7 to 5 (perhaps even 6 to 3) of women to men. The active participation of women in the community life can be ascertained through three other observations. (a) kopiao [a technical NT term for mission work] is used four times exclusively of women and never of a man … (c) With Prisca and Aquila the wife is mentioned before the husband … Apparently, Prisca was more prominent in community activity than her husband. (pp. 166-7)
Lampe goes on to wonder whether this evidence is indicative that in the apostolic period women were more active in the Roman church than later, or whether it is merely that Paul happens to mention a number of women involved in mission work, preaching and leading.
Cranfield’s commentary (also mentioned above) is remarkably pointed in conclusion on Junia, given his very measured scholarly tones elsewhere:
That Paul should not only include a woman … among the apostles but actually describe her … as outstanding among them, is highly significant evidence (along with the importance he accords in this chapter to Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia and the sister of Nereus) of the falsity of the widespread and stubbornly persistent notion that Paul had a low view of women and something to which the Church as a whole has not yet paid sufficient attention. (in loc.)