Junia: Mother of Apostles
“Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Romans 16:7)
The case of the disappearing apostle
Junia is often looked at as the case study for the phenomenon of historical silencing of women in Christianity. The first and only named female apostle in scripture, the controversy over her gender and Paul’s label for her as “apostle,” has been a topic of debate among biblical scholars for centuries. After years of disappearance from scripture, Junia has re-emerged in our newest translations, and older translations such as the original NIV, NEB, RSV, NRSV and many more, have corrected their mistakes.
Scholars no longer debate whether Junia was a male or female, or whether or not she was an apostle or just well known to the apostles. Comprehensive scholarly research that has surfaced over the last twenty years has established near unanimous agreement that Junia was a female apostle. But how did this happen? How did a prominent apostle that worked tirelessly and was imprisoned alongside Paul almost disappear completely from scripture? Why is it important for us to understand how and why this happened? In this article I will answer these questions by unpacking the history of Junia's disappearance and reappearance as well as shed light on Junia’s life and ministry; what it most likely looked like, and how she led as a woman that is not only given the title of “apostle,” but is a leader described as prominent among them.
What is an apostle?
The term apostolos in the Greek derives from the verb apostello, which means “to send”. This noun came to mean “one who is sent out as a messenger” or “one who is sent on a mission,” and although some have been taught that only the 12 disciples chosen by Jesus were apostles in the early church this is not true, as many more were given this title in the New Testament . Not only was Junia a woman on a mission who was out in the world spreading the Gospel, she was doing it so well, that Paul says she was the best of the best. John Chrystotom (CE 347-407), an early church father and bishop of Constantiople noted in one of his commentaries: “To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles--just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle.”
Junia the Apostle: Her life according to Paul
Thanks to Paul’s praise of Junia and Andronicus in Romans 16, we are given insight into Junia’s life and ministry. We know she was a fellow Jew that Paul thought of as family. She and Andronicus were imprisoned with Paul, maybe in Philippi (Acts 16:23), or in Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). Prison for a woman at this time would have been deeply shameful, dangerous and possibly deadly. Junia would have been confined in a small space with other prisoners, physical tourture was expected. She would have been chained, likely unable to see daylight, use the restroom, cleanse, or protect herself from the guards who were known to regularly rape the imprisoned women. 
Junia and Andronicus were among the earliest converts to Christianity, well before Paul became a Christ follower. They had already been spreading the gospel for over twenty years by the time Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. As an apostle, Junia would have engaged in expected apostolic activities such as: teaching (John 14:26; 16:13, Acts 2:37), working miracles (Matt. 10:8), distinguishing between spirits (1 Cor. 12:10), forgiving sins (John 20:23), punishing (Acts 5:1-11), ordaining elders (Acts 14:23), starting and leading churches (1 Cor. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 10:6, 8, 11; 1 Tim. 1:20), administering sacraments (Acts 6:1; 16:33; 20:11) and even having a say in making laws (Acts 15:29). As a woman, Junia would have had special access to spaces such as private homes, which were the domain of women, to minister and preach in, which the male apostles would have been excluded from.
Mary Magdalene, the other “Mother of the Apostles”
Junia is the first (and only) named female apostle in scripture, however it is important to note that she is not the first woman apostle. Mary Magdalene, whose story has been tragically twisted and confused in history, (more on that in another post), is the very first apostle. Referred to by early church writers as “the apostle to the apostles,” Mary receives the first revelation of the Resurrection and her influences as an apostle have shaped the history of the early church. 
Junia’s complex relationship with scripture
The nuances of the scholarly debate over Junia in the Bible has been written about extensively by scholars. I will attempt a recap, although I commend further study if you are interested in this fascinating journey of the alteration of biblical words to suit the beliefs of interpreters. A comprehensive resource for a deep dive and proof of the current standing of Junia as a woman apostle is Eldon Jay Epp’s, “Junia:The First Woman Apostle” or you can find additional resources in the notes section below.
Junia the apostle > Junius the apostle > Junia “Known to apostles” > Junia the apostle
Although Junia was a recognized female apostle in the early church, over time patriarchal bias took control claiming that it was illogical for Junia to be a female since Paul gives her the title of “apostle”. Read as Iounian in the Greek, Junia’s name (depending on accents) can refer to a male or female. Paul did not use accents in his letters and the oldest Greek NT manuscripts do not contain accents either. The preference of Iounian as a male name began only in the 13th century when Aegidius of Rome, (CE 1245-1316), referred to Andronicus and Junia as “those honorable men,'' in a commentary without any explanation.  Martin Luther then furthered this idea when he wrote: “Andronicus and Junias were famous apostles [and were]... men of note among apostles”. Luther’s influence was massive, and many trace the death of Junia back to his writing.  However, Junia remained a female in the official Greek New Testament and in the bible until Erwin Nestle’s updated edition of it in 1927. When Nestle developed the 13th edition of the composite Greek New Testament, Junia became a footnote, and “Junius” took center stage in the main text. In 1979 when Kurt Aland, the 20th century New Testament scholar became editor of the Greek New Testament, the footnote about Junia disappeared and with it her legacy… at least for a time. From 1927 up until the 1990’s Junia was dead. Thanks to the work of scholars, in 1998 Junia re-appeared back into the Greek New Testament and since that update, our modern biblical translations, such as the revised NIV, have been updated as well.
But as could be predicted, as soon as there was acceptance that Junia was indeed a female, the questioning and debate over her title of apostle began. The wrestling over the meaning of “prominent among the apostles” wasn't contested until complementarian scholars were finally convinced of Junia’s female gender. Even today, the current ESV translation of the bible allows for Junia as a woman in the text, but then demotes her role by saying that Andronicus and Junia were only ‘known to the apostles’ and not ‘among the apostles’. Why this sudden change of role for these two? While complementarian circles have now been convinced of Junia’s gender as a woman, not all have been able to fully support her role as an apostle. Perhaps this is because of the threat it provides to systems of gender hierarchy and what accepting her as an equal would mean for the claim that women can’t participate in the full ministry of the church. 
Junia’s journey is one of warning
Junia’s journey in scripture as the recorded Mother of Apostles is one of caution. We must be wise and stay informed about the interpretation of scripture and the developments in Christian history that have been largely, if not completely, controlled by men. How many more women have been submerged so deeply in history that we have lost a record of them completely?
This silencing of women continues to happen today as women’s leadership is often under recognized or gifted women are bypassed for men. Certainly this is the case in complementarian circles, but even more alarming is the preference of male leadership over female leadership in egalitarian churches that are quick to do lip service for women’s leadership but in actuality are slow to trust and empower women to lead. One look at a leadership staff listing on a church’s website will tell you this.
Despite the obstacles women still face in ministry and in the church, Junia’s recovery in scripture is an encouragement. In the face of all efforts to silence her, Junia still stands her ground as apostle and is once again known to us. We are invited to keep learning from her leadership and her perseverance in life and in history in all new ways.
Historians place Junia as likely living in Trastevere, Rome. A quaint and ivy covered neighborhood where Jews lived at the time of her life. The vines and flowers in Junia’s image represent the life that has flourished as a result of Junia’s ministry which are placed over the bars which symbolize her imprisonment. Although Junia would have likely worn a veil as was the custom of the time in Rome, I have chosen not to depict that here, since women did not wear them in the home. Icons historically are meant to be windows into heaven and as I imagine Junia in heaven, I see her in a reality that does not have the shame/honor traditions of the world and therefore there is no need for a veil. Her idenity is made perfect in her presence with God.
- Did you know that there was an apostle named Junia? If so, at what point in your Christian Journey did you discover her?
- What concerns or questions do you have about Junia’s alteration of gender in history?
- Did this bring up any concerns for you about the canon of scripture and how it is established and refined over time?
- Since we know that Junia was a woman and was indeed an apostle, how does this empower or concern you for issues regarding your (or a women’s) place in ministry in your church?
- Dennis J Preato, “Junia, a Female Apostle: An Examination of the Historical Record,” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2019): 8.
- Rena Penderson, The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass), 27-28.
- Additional apostles in the New Testament are: Mathias (Acts 1:21, 22, 24, 26); Paul (Rom. 11:13); Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14); Andronicus (Rom. 16:7); James (Gal. 1:19, Luke 10:1-1-20); Silvanus (1 Thess. 2:6), and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6), Titus and his unnamed companion (2 Cor 8:23), and Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25).
- Amy Peeler “Junia/Joanna:Herald of the Good News” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed.Sandra Glahn (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017). 277.
- Peeler and Glahn, Vindicating the Vixens, 279 & Penderson, The Lost Apostle, 33.
- Peeler and Glahn, Vindicating the Vixens, 280.
- Penderson, The Lost Apostle, 34-35.
- Ibid., 48-49.
- Scot McKnight, Junia is Not Alone (Englewood, Colorado: Patheos Press, 2011), Chap. 3, Kindle. loc 89.
- Preato, “Junia, a Female Apostle,” 9.
- McKnight, Junia is Not Alone, loc 99.
- Ibid., loc 120.
- Preato, “Junia, a Female Apostle,” 8-9.