Story of Phoebe
At first glance, Phoebe hardly seems noticeable. Her story is literally only two verses long in the Bible.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.Romans 16:1-2
But on second glance, Phoebe begins to emerge as a most remarkable woman indeed. So, just as skilled archaeologists measure out a tell, then carefully sift, layer by layer, the packed dirt and stones to unearth the ancient secrets buried within, so you and I will need to do some careful sleuth work to reveal the woman the Apostle Paul spoke so highly of. For help, I turned to six scholars whose work is cited at the end of this presentation.
Let’s look at that passage again.
Paul introduced her as “our sister,” and later one of the saints. Phoebe was deacon of the church at Cenchreae, and she was to be warmly welcomed. Anything she required, the assemblies in Rome were to provide for her. Why? Because she was, in fact, a benefactor of many, including Paul himself.
I Carrier of the Epistle to Rome
II Cenchreaen Church Deacon
III Christian Benefactor of Many
Writing of Romans
Most scholars place the writing of the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to Rome somewhere in the vicinity of his third missionary journey, and most likely when he was in Corinth. I posit, in this video, that it was Phoebe who helped Paul commission the scribe Tertius to write down Paul’s narration. Because Phoebe was the one to carry this deep, rich treatise on theology and doctrine, she would have needed to be familiar with it, because she was the one who was going to read it, and teach on it.
I think Paul, Prisca, and Aquilla spent enough time in Cenchreae to get Romans written and rehearsed, and to make all the arrangements for Paul to get to Jerusalem for the festival. and Phoebe to Rome with Paul’s Epistle.
Beginning somewhere in the early 50’s AD:
- In Acts 18:1-11, Paul stayed with Prisca and Aquilla in Corinth for about a year and half. A few months in, Silas and Timothy joined them, after having stayed for a time with the Berean believers.
Towards the end of that time, Paul made a vow to the Lord—many think this was a Nazarite vow—in the Corinthian seaport of Cenchrea.
- Once he had shaven, Paul set sail for Syria with Prisca, and Aquilla, but, before he left he promised he would return to Cenchreae to spend more time there.
- When they arrived in Ephesus, it was understood Prisca and Aquilla would stay, and Paul would move on. He stayed for only about three months, as he preached in the synagogue to a warm and inviting audience, and promised to return
- From there, Paul journeyed to Caesarea where he disembarked for a brief time, possibly to visit where Philip the Evangelist lived, the man who had led the Ethiopian official to accept Christ. Like father, like daughter, all four of Philip’s daughters were known prophets.
- Soon, Paul was headed to Jerusalem for a brief visit to touch base with the apostles, James, and the churches there.
Acts 18:22 says Paul “went up and greeted the church.” Went up means he traveled up Mount Zion to the city of Jerusalem – wherever one was in Israel or the world, north or south, one always went up, literally up the mountain, to Jerusalem. Then, it says, Paul “went down” to Antioch. Even though Antioch was north of Jerusalem, one still went physically down from mount Zion and spiritually down from God’s holy city to the rest of the world.
- Paul then spent a month or so in Antioch
- From Antioch Paul headed points west, going through Galatia and Phrygia to encourage and strengthen the churches he had established there.
- Alexandria, on the north coast of Africa, the delta of Egypt, was Apollos’ birthplace, who had begun a preaching ministry, and was taken under the tutelage of Prisca and Aquilla.
In Acts 19 Paul went back to Ephesus, where he established a very solid church during the longest period of service in any place he visited. After about two years in Ephesus, Paul decided to head for Jerusalem but going through Macedonia and Achaia first.
57 AD, Three Months in Corinth
Paul spent about three months in Greece – Athens and Corinth – then decided to go back through Macedonia on his way to Jerusalem rather than risk going through Syria, since he caught wind of a secret plot to kill him.
I think it is possible that one of the significant ways Phoebe acted as benefactor was to finance the writing of Romans. Since Cenchreae was one of Corinth’s two port cities, it seems reasonable to me that Paul would have engaged with Phoebe on this joint project.
Meanwhile, Prisca and Aquilla, along with many other believers, were making their way back to Rome after Emperor Claudius’ edict expelling Jews (and therefore, Jewish believers) had expired. They were the perfect contacts for Phoebe, since she had already spent time with them when they had traveled with Paul.
It is, of course, all conjecture! But, I think, reasonable, considering the evidence.
Each video is designed to offer background scholarship on the topic, including setting, culture, original language, and archaeology, as well as a theological study.
The “Broken, Searching, Trusted, Powerful” series is a companion to the book, available on Amazon, and published by Wipf and Stock.