Peter Head, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, takes issue with some of the claims Wright makes here. Peter is something of the ‘go to’ man on the question of letter carriers, and his critique arises from the paper he gave at the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference two weeks ago in Chicago. (Peter is also a very entertaining conference room-mate, but that is another story.)
Peter makes a number of important points in his paper, a copy of which he kindly sent me. Firstly, he points out that it is now assumed that the language of commendation means Phoebe was both carrier and lector (reader) of Romans, and therefore a key interpreter of it (he cites Wagner and Campbell)—but without real evidence to back this up. So, secondly, he looks at the role of letter-carriers in the ancient world, drawing on 836 letters of Cicero, around 400 letters from Oxyrhynchus, and a collection of around 90 Jewish letters. These collections are diverse, controlled (in that they have not been selected out for this purpose), and yield a consistent picture..
Around 10% of the letters name a letter carrier, and the language used parallels Paul’s language about Phoebe. It is also clear that the letter carrier has some sort of key role in communication of the letter contents, and this is often in a situation where there has been or is some danger of miscommunication. But there is no evidence that the carrier was the lector, which is surprising. Peter does, however, emphasise that the carrier did have an important role in communication, in that they had been in the presence of the writer, and understood the context, thought the exact details of this are not specified.
Peter also makes some other facscinating observations about Phoebe’s role. The language of Rom 16.1–2 has the ‘clearest cluster of recommendatory language in any of Paul’s letters.’ In turn, we can see that the ‘welcome’ and ‘reception’ of Phoebe resonates with a key theme in the body of the letter—the need for the Christians in Rome to welcome one another. So Phoebe, by her presence, in effect embodies the message of the letter. In addressing the Christians in Rome as one, Paul is by a speech act constituting them as church, and in their response to Phoebe giving them the chance to act out his invitation to live in unity in Christ.