Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:5b-11
5b Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Asia in Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia [or Junias], my fellow-countrymen and fellow-prisoners, who are well-known [or outstanding or esteemed] to [or among] the apostles [or Apostles], and who were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-laborer in Christ, and Stachys, my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those of [the household of] Artistobulos. 11 Greet Herodian, my kinsman. Greet those from [the household of] Narcissus, those who are in the Lord.
We continued this week with Paul’s lengthy list of greetings. As we noted previously, these may well have been the only people in Rome Paul knew (or knew of), and his listing them here is possibly his way of connecting with the church. However, these are not merely “say hi and let’s do lunch sometime” kind of greetings. Even in a few words, Paul betrays a sincere appreciation for each of the names on this list. These are people that have meant something to him in some way, at least enough to warrant Paul singling them out for greeting.
Paul describes Epaenetus as “beloved,” but this doesn’t necessarily imply a special relationship (like the Beloved Disciple to Jesus in John’s Gospel). Indeed, Paul calls the whole Roman church “beloved” in 12:19. The Corinthian church is also “beloved” (1 Corinthians 10:14; 15:58), as is the Philippian church (Philippians 2:12). Yes, Epaenetus is dear to Paul, but not exclusively. It’s possible that he considers him special because he was “the firstfruits of Asia in Christ”–in other words, he was the first convert to Christ in Asia. I would venture to suggest that Paul is probably speaking in terms of his ministry, that is, Epaenetus was Paul’s first Asian convert; but we can’t rule out the possibility that the statement is literally true: he was the first convert to Christianity in Asia, period. In any case, he was clearly a great encouragement to Paul early on in his ministry, and so he has a special place in Paul’s heart.
The name “Mary” (or Mariam, or Maria) was a popular Jewish name, but it was also widely used in Gentile circles, so we can’t be 100% certain of her ethnicity from her name alone. Far more important than this, however, is the fact that she has “worked very hard for you.” In what capacity, we can’t be certain since Paul doesn’t elaborate. Maybe the “for you” is a hint that she has labored among the church in Rome trying to keep the peace between the Jewish and Gentile factions. Mary’s not the only person Paul notes who has “worked hard,” which brings up an interesting observation. The people Paul draws our attention to are not the most prominent, or the ones with spectacular gifts, or amazing testimonies. These are people who labor day-to-day for the gospel within the church. They may be performing menial, maybe unglamorous jobs, just to make sure the needs of the church are met. Nevertheless, Paul considers their work to be no less important than anyone else’s. It’s often the hard working Marys in the church that, by the grace of God, make it possible for the Pauls and Peters to minister.
Verse 7 is much-debated, as one might discern from the various translation possibilities I suggest above. Andronicus and Junia(s?) are “fellow countrymen,” suggesting that they are, like Paul, of Jewish descent. Since Andronicus is a Greek name, they are probably Hellenistic Jews. But is Junia(s?) male (Junias) or female (Junia)? One way to determine this is to look at the Greek accents (the masculine form of the name is accented differently from the feminine). But the earliest manuscripts don’t have accent marks, so we still can’t be certain. And even though later manuscripts would include accents, there is a split between pre-13th century commentators who take it to be feminine, and post-13th century commentators who take it as masculine. Interestingly, the masculine name Junias would be a contracted form of the name Junianos–but this contracted form doesn’t exist in any Greek literature outside of this passage. On the contrary, the feminine form, Junia, is quite popular. Also, if we understand the name to be Junia, this fits the pattern of greeting husband-wife couples (like Prisca and Aquila). For these reasons, I’m inclined to think that Andronicus and Junia are a husband-wife team.
As well as being “fellow countrymen,” Paul says that they are “fellow-prisoners.” Were they imprisoned with Paul at some time, or did they simply share Paul’s experience of having been incarcerated for the gospel? Again, there’s no way to know for certain. However, Paul clearly commends their willingness to sacrifice their freedom for Christ, just as he had done a number of times.
The next phrase could be taken in two different, yet equally legitimate ways. One way is to say that they are “esteemed among the apostles, ” and another is to say they are “esteemed by the apostles.” The importance of this passage lies in whether we understand Paul to be referring to the Apostles (i.e., The Twelve), or the apostles, as in those who are sent out as missionaries. The Apostles were a distinct group of people, set aside by Christ, with a very limited membership (see Acts 1:21ff. for the qualifications). On the other hand, there were many “apostles”–those sent by the church to plant churches and proclaim the gospel–who were not of The Twelve (e.g., 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:23). Some might want to translate the passage “esteemed among the Apostles,” and thus make Junia one of The Twelve, arguing both for female church leadership, and for the continuation of the Apostolate. I think both the qualifications for Apostle in Acts 1:21ff., and Paul’s comments on church officers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 would preclude Junia from being one of The Twelve. However, it wouldn’t preclude her from being an apostle in the sense of a messenger, or a missionary. Of course, if one translates the passage in the second sense (“esteemed by the apostles”), we could assume Paul is referring to The Twelve, and there would be no controversy, since he is simply saying that Andronicus and Junia were known and well-regarded by the The Twelve. Either way, I don’t think there’s anything here to suggest that Paul regards Junia as an Apostle, or that there are Apostles beyond The Twelve (and Paul).
The last tidbit of information Paul throws out about Andronicus and Junia is that they were “in Christ before me.” In other words, they because Christians before Paul’s conversion. This would suggest that they used to live in Jerusalem, and later moved. Were they part of the scattering in Acts 8, going to Samaria and then Rome? Is it possible that their imprisonment was also prior to Paul’s conversion–maybe even at Paul’s (or Saul’s, as he was then) own hand? All of these scenarios would fit the historical data that we have, however, this is all speculation.
From his name, we can assume that Ampliatus was a freedman. Slaves were often re-named by their slave-owners, who drew from a pool of names to identify their slaves. Like Epaenetus, he is “beloved,” but we don’t know why. It might be enough for us to recognize that Paul saw this freedman without much social standing as beloved, just like anyone else in the church.
Paul describes Urbanus as our co-laborer, not my co-laborer. It’s possible Paul wanted to acknowledge him, but hadn’t personally worked with him, and so he shares him with the church. Again, from the name we can tell he was probably a freedman, so now we have Paul calling someone of low social standing a “co-laborer.” Stachys is another “beloved” that we know nothing more about.
Apelles is a relatively rare name, and his designation as “approved” (Greek dokimos) is also notable. Is he “approved” in the 2 Timothy 2:15 sense (i.e., the faithful worker who rightly handles God’s word), or in the James 1:12 sense (i.e., proven through trial–persecution)? Either or both could be true. It’s possible there is some controversy around Apelles, and Paul is coming to his defense by saying that he is approved in the eyes of Christ. Maybe there’s a hint of Romans 14:18 here, where Paul said that the one who has the right attitude about his brethren is well-pleasing to God and approved by men? One could conjecture that Apelles had tried to be accepting of the Jewish brethren and been scorned by his fellow Gentiles as a result. Once more, we can’t know for sure, but we should pay attention to the way Paul commends these people. Clearly, being “approved” by Christ, whether through attitude, doctrine, or ordeal, is commendable to Paul, no matter who you are in the church.
Paul doesn’t greet Aristobulus, but those who are “of” him. I understand this to mean “of the household of Aristobulus,” or maybe the church that meets at Aristobulus’ house, or even the slaves that were a part of Aristobulus’ household. The name Aristobulus is also relatively rare, and could be a reference to the brother of King Herod Agrippa I who went with the King to Rome. Aristobulus never held public office, and died less than 10 years before this letter. If this is a reference to the slaves that were a part of Aristobulus’ household, that tells us something about the reach of the gospel.
“Herodian” was not a name in common use in Rome at this time, so it’s probably a reference to a slave who was in the service of Herod. Aside from this, we know he is of Jewish descent since Paul calls him a kinsman.
There was a Narcissus who was a well-known freedman under the emperor Claudius. He committed suicide not long before Paul wrote Romans, so “those from Narcissus who are in Christ” are possibly those who belonged to the now-deceased Narcissus’ household. Paul makes a point that he is directing his greeting to those of Narcissus’ household “who are in Christ,” suggesting there were those in that household who were unbelievers.
Just in this section we’ve encountered an interesting selection of people in the Roman church: freedmen, those connected with power and influence, those who are of little social standing, those who have served on the mission field and suffered for their faith, and those who are simply working hard serving the local church. Paul sends greetings to all of these people, regarding them as peers, and of equal worth. As we look around our own churches today, and see a similar cross-section of our societies, we need to be sure we have a similar attitude toward them as Paul did to all the Christians he met. This is, after all, the main point of the letter.
We’ll continue the greetings next time.