Romans 1:1 & 11:13
In light of the possible reference to Junia as an apostle in Rom 16:7 (cf. Part 4 of the series “Women in the Church”), it is worth considering the use of the word a)po/stolo$ (apóstolos) elsewhere in the New Testament. I will be looking, in particular, at the other two occurrences in Romans as being representative of Paul’s understanding and use of the term. However, a brief overview here will also be useful.
The word itself is derived from the verb a)poste/llw, to set someone or something away from [a)po/] a person, i.e. to send away, to send forth. As such, it is a relatively common verb, largely synonymous with pe/mpw (“send”). Within the Gospels, the noun is used exclusively in reference to the twelve closest companions of Jesus (“the Twelve”), those whom he selected from his followers to have a special role and position (Mk 3:14; Matt 10:2; Lk 6:13). It is not certain if Jesus used this word specifically (note the variant in Mk 3:14), but its rarity in the Gospels suggests that it is a subsequent identification made by early Christians. Certainly it should be associated with Jesus’ practice of sending his disciples out as his representatives, to preach and perform healing miracles in his name (Mk 6:7-13 par; Lk 10:1-12, 17ff; 22:35-36). The theme is emphasized in several sayings of Jesus (in the “Q” tradition, cf. Matt 9:38; 10:16, 40 par; also Lk 10:16), and, especially, in the tradition of Jesus’ commissioning his disciples after the resurrection (Matt 28:19-20; [Mk 16:15ff]; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). The motif has special theological significance in the Gospel of John (cf. 17:3-25, etc).
The basic restriction of meaning to the circle of Twelve continues in the book of Acts (1:2, 26; 2:37, 42-43; 4:33ff, etc), but with several key points of emphasis that can be discerned:
- They are personal companions of Jesus during his earthly ministry (1:2ff) who were also witnesses of the resurrection, i.e. those who saw and heard the resurrected Jesus (1:21-22)
- They are specifically located and centered in Jerusalem and Judea (8:1, 14; 9:27; 11:1); this distinction becomes increasingly significant as the narrative moves to the mission in the Gentile world (outside of Judea). It also means that the apostles, like nearly all of the earliest believers, were Jewish Christians (cf. 15:2ff, 22-23; 16:4).
- They had the specific role and duty of teaching and preaching—that is, proclaiming the Gospel message, and, perhaps more importantly, serving as the source for transmitting the sayings and teachings of Jesus.
Given these three main aspects of the apostolic identity, it is understandable why there might be some conflict regarding Paul’s own identification as an apostle, which he makes repeatedly in his letters, and often in the very opening, as we see in Romans:
“Paulus, slave of (the) Anointed Yeshua, called (to be) an apostle, having been set apart unto the good message [i.e. Gospel] of God…” (Rom 1:1)
The sense of conflict is most acute in Galatians, which centers on the controversy between Paul and other Jewish Christian leaders (including some prominent representatives from Jerusalem), as he describes vividly in Gal 2:1-14ff. This helps us to discern better his own understanding of what it means to be an apostle:
“Paulus, an apostle—not from men, and not through (any) man, but (rather) through Yeshua (the) Anointed and God (the) Father, the (one who) raised him from the dead…” (Gal 1:1)
Paul was commissioned as an apostle through the direct revelation (and personal appearance) of Jesus to him (Acts 9:1-19 par; Gal 1:11ff). His apostolic position was not based on his Jewish background or connection to the other apostles in Jerusalem (Gal 1:13-24). This particular point of emphasis for Paul, however, does make clear that most (if not all) the other apostles were early (Jewish) believers from Jerusalem and Judea, as indicated above. This would apply to Barnabas, who is referred to as an apostle (Acts 14:14, cf. also 1 Cor 9:6); even though he was not one of the Twelve, he was among the earliest believers, and may have been one of those who witnessed the risen Jesus.
In Romans 11:13 we see a special aspect of Paul’s apostleship—it is defined by his missionary work among the “nations” (that is, non-Jews or “Gentiles”):
“But to you I give account [i.e. speak], to the nations, in as much as I am an apostle of [i.e. to] the nations, (and) I give honor/esteem to my service…”
This statement is tied in with Paul’s distinctive teaching in Rom 9-11, that the missionary work among the Gentiles was, in part, intended (by God) to provoke Jews to jealousy (11:11, etc). This is also a large part of why Paul gives special honor to his ministry “…if (some)how I might create excitement alongside my flesh [i.e. with my fellow Jews] and would (thus be able to) save some of them”. What is most important to note here is that Paul very much identifies being an apostle with the particular work of ministry to which he has been called. In Romans 1:1, he uses the verb a)fori/zw, which means to mark out (or mark off, vb. o(ri/zw) from (a)po/) others, that is, to separate out, creating a division or boundary. The apostle is a minister called by God from among all other persons (all other believers) for a special purpose—the pioneering missionary work of proclaiming the Gospel and establishing churches in a region.
When we turn again to the reference in Romans 16:7, if Andronicus and Junia are, in fact, identified as apostles, it may simply mean that they, like Barnabas, are among the earliest believers (i.e. the first generation), and may have come from Judea or participated in the first rush of the Spirit’s activity. If they are among those mentioned in Acts 2:10b, then it is possible that they were also among the very first Christians (and missionaries) in Rome. One aspect of the apostolic role of preaching the Gospel and teaching the early Gospel/Christian traditions involved the founding and establishment of churches (congregations) in a region. Perhaps Paul is referring to this ministry role. In any event, his emphasis in Romans 16, as well as throughout his letters, when referring to his fellow missionaries (whether as apostles, or simply as “servants, co-workers”, etc), is on their sharing with him the same mission work and labor to which he has been called.