Saturday, September 26, 2009

McCabe on Phoebe

Over at the SBL forum, Elizabeth A. McCabe posts a paper entitled "A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations"
This is not the strongest argument about Phoebe I have ever seen. On her role as letter carrier of Romans she writes:

The alternate definition for diakonos, namely an “intermediary” or “courier,” is also appropriate here. Diakonos in this regard means “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction.”[3] In terms of Phoebe, this distinction would classify her as the letter carrier to the book of Romans. In light of the fact that many letters did not reach their designated locations in antiquity, the appointment of a woman as the carrier of the book of Romans is noteworthy, particularly since Romans is arguably the most significant book in the New Testament.

Note 3 is: [3] “diakonos,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago, 2000), 230.

There are several problems here. First, she has already argued that diakonos is some kind of role associated with the church at Cenchrea (fair enough); but you can't then piggy-back an additional meaning based on a further possibility found in the lexicon. Secondly, precisely because she was 'deacon of the church of Cenchrea', this was not a word that evokes the idea of mediation or letter carrying (since the letter does not come from Cenchrea!). Thirdly it is not a "fact" that many letters did not reach their destination in antiquity (although as a matter of "fact" we don't actually know if Phoebe succeeded in delivering this one to Rome). Fourthly, I do think the use of a female letter carrier is significant, but not because of a rather arbitrary and arguable view of the significance of Romans (this is a later projection).

So, I know it is meant to be 'be nice to women bloggers month', but this paragraph is unfortunately weak.


Richard Fellows said...

Peter, thanks for pointing out this article. I agree with your points.

I was not aware of Sophia, who had the epithet 'second Phoebe'. Fascinating. I think this does support McCabe's case that Phoebe should be seen as a benefactor/patron/protector. It was indeed common for benefactors to be given new names or epithets that reflect that role. McCabe mentioned a "second Homer". We also have a 'new Themistokles', a 'new Theophanes', a 'new Dionysios'. The latter epithet was applied to two emperors, Commodus and Gallienus. There is also a 'new Epaminondas', a 'new Plato', a 'new Lycurgus', and a 'new Penelope', a 'new Athamas', a 'new Erythros', a 'new Xenophon'. There may be others that I have missed. Also, Suetonius says that it was proposed to call Augustus "Romulus".

Among the Christians as well, it was the benefactors and leaders who most often received new names/epithets. The recently discovered floor at Megiddo includes a female benefactor called "AKEPOUS H FILOQEOS", and also another benefactor called "GAIANOS O KA[I] PORFURI o S". Porphyrios (purple) was an honor that was sometimes given to benefactors. Among the benefactors in the NT who seem to have received new names/epithets we have Joseph-Barnabas, Crispus-Sosthenes, Mary-Magdalene, Gaius-Titius-Justus-Stephanas, and perhaps others.

So I think there is every likelihood that Sophia was a church benefactor who had been honored with the title "new Phoebe", and that (in the 4th century) Phoebe was therefore considered to be a benefactor.

Peter M. Head said...

Hi Richard,
Hope you are well.
I agree that the inscription is very interesting, and also a mark of the history of the reception of Romans 16.
Even on this point unfortunately the scholarship is weak. Note 4 gives the wrong page (should b p. 239); Note 9 is also incorrect (but I can't find the correct reference); and rather unfortunately the whole inscription is not given, only a small excerpt (this should have been noted in my opinion).

Peter M. Head said...

Ah. Footnote 9 is a mess. This refers to a different volume of New Docs (vol. 2 for 1977, published in 1982), p. 194 (but with reference to doc. no. 109).

Richard Fellows said...

Hi Peter,

you have a very sharp eye, as always.

It occurs to me that the view that Phoebe was a benefactor of the church is further supported by the fact that so many church benefactors were women. The named benefactors in the NT are:

Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Susanna, Mary, Phoebe, and arguably Tabitha, Lydia, and Prisca.

Crispus-Sosthenes, Joseph-Barnabas, Jason, Titius-Justus, and perhaps Aquila and Epaenetus.

Thus we have 6-9 women, and only 4-6 men!

Also, it seems to me (and this may be unrelated to the statistics above) that the importance of benefaction has not been fully recognized by commentators. A recent discussion of Mary Magdalene overlooked her role as benefactor. Benefactors enabled churches to be planted, and they were often persecuted. Consider Jason, or the beating of Sosthenes, and the fact that Prisca and Aquila were forced out of Italy (and later probably from Corinth too). Commentators tend to be opinion formers, and perhaps this explains why they recognize the value of those in the NT who were opinion formers, but overlook the importance of the benefactors.