Did Jesus Have Female Apostles?

Paul’s final greetings to the Roman Church seem typical. We might just skim over the list of names without a second thought. But one name within that list has become the focus of controversy and heated debate:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Rom 16:7)

Junia is most likely the name of a woman. When you read the phrase “among the apostles,” you understand how a simple salutation has become a prooftext in the debate over the role of women in ministry.

The evidence that Junia is a woman is compelling. Its Greek spelling (Iounian) could point to either a man or a woman. However, the addition of an accent mark would specify gender—depending on what mark was chosen (Greek has several) and on which syllable the accent mark was placed.

The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were written in an uppercase Greek script (uncial) that did not include accents. But copies of the Greek New Testament from later periods in a cursive script (minuscule) accent the name as female.

In ancient Greek literature, outside the New Testament, the masculine form of the name has only surfaced once. Ancient Latin texts have also been searched, with some theorizing that Junia might be a shortened form of the male Junianus. Of the 250 or more citations of the name Junia, where a shortening of the name is possible, all have referred to women.

The phrase “among the apostles” can also be translated as “to the apostles,” placing Junia within or outside this ministry category. Either translation is possible within the scope of Greek grammar. External examples, though, statistically favor the first option.

However, there are other issues that are rarely raised in this debate. New Testament apostles, for instance, are not all described on equal terms. The original 12 disciples, along with Paul, were a special group. They were first-hand pupils of Christ, some of whom God endowed with supernatural spiritual gifts (Acts 5:12) and divine revelation in the form of the New Testament.

Not all apostles had such gifts, however. Aside from the 12 disciples and Paul, it is not clear that the term “apostle” spoke of high authority or even expectations of the role. The Greek word apostolos simply means “messenger” or “sent one”—someone sent out for a specific task, akin to our concept of a missionary. Although the apostle Barnabas did preach and teach (Acts 15:35), Epaphroditus is not described in such terms. “Apostles” were also sent out to represent churches, but we are not told in what capacity (2 Cor 8:23). Paul did not appoint apostles for local church leadership. As a result, the precise relationship of “apostle” to modern church leadership ministry is evasive.

Although there are all these uncertainties, the issue of Junia as a female apostle teaches us that paying attention to the details in the Bible matters. Things can get complicated, but they’re certainly interesting. And we also learn from this example that women played a strategic role in the early Church.


why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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  • Dr. Heiser should preface his comments with, “In my opinion…” His references do not say Jesus had female apostles. Just because one can see there were women deacons and in leadership roles in the New Testament church, that is a long way from saying Jesus had female apostles. If the Bible does not specifically say so, do not state something .as though it is a, “thus saith,” just because it fits something currently cultural. That is what Andy Stanley is doing, along with others who hold a low view of Scripture. I am not saying Dr. Heiser has a low view; however, desiring to make something biblical does not mean it is.

    • Dear Bill, I do not see where Dr. Heiser is giving any opinion. He leaving the conclusion completely open. That is why a “to my opinion” is not necessary at all. Reading the facts / references he gives does not change my opinion, but even gives a warning what we should not read into the text. I woul be interested get his opinion, but I think he is open minded on purpose and my not share it for good reasons.

    • The very fact that the Bible even mentions women in the context of apostles and close followers of Jesus speaks volumes enough for me.

      Funny, I read Dr. Heiser’s article as making excuses for having women around. I suspect that you will think that I hold a “low” view of scripture because I regard scripture as demonstrating that Jesus highly valued and honored those women who participated in his ministry. As with many other societal issues in his day, my reading of the gospels tells me that Jesus was telling us that the patronistric dominance of society was misguided.

    • Bill
      In my reading of what Dr. Heisler wrote, I am not convinced he is saying that Junia *was* a female apostle or that there were female apostles. He simply wrote “Although there are all these uncertainties, the issue of Julia as a female apostle teaches us that paying attention to the details in the Bible matters”. The way I read that is him simply pointing out that this “issue of Julia as a female apostle” is something that is currently under debate. It’s not necessary to think that he is agreeing with the intention of some, but just that it is important to look at things (lists of names, gender possibilities, etc.) closely rather than pass them over, which is easy to do.
      And his statement is true that women were important players in the New Testament which you note.

      But again I don’t think it is *necessary* to concur that he is saying that Junia was an apostle. He’s just raising the issue that is under debate and *definitely* saying, “let’s pay careful attention to the details of the text”.
      Just my take anyway.

    • Not sure why you say this, however, Dr. Heiser specifically states this in the article, and in his book: Although there are all these uncertainties, the issue of Junia as a female apostle teaches us that paying attention to the details in the Bible matters. NOTE: Although there are all these uncertainties. In this article he also states that the name Junia is only mentioned as a male in only one Greek manuscript, the other manuscripts indicates the name is female. This is a study and often in studies there is no clear yes or no we can only go by what we currently have to study with and make our conclusions based on what we have. Heiser never said conclusively that Junia was a female and that Jesus had female apostles. This isn’t even Heiser’s opinion he is simply stating the facts based on what he has studied concerning this topic.

  • Good Morning Dr Heiser,
    I always appreciate dialog along these lines. It stirs the gray matter and keeps the creative juices flowing. I had been reading and studying Genesis for decades before I finally paid close enough attention to “and it was evening, and it was morning, the first day” rather than the other way around as I had always been reading it. For me, it was then that light went on that I realized the reason the children of Israel start their sabbath at sundown, and not sun up. It was a real flat forehead moment. Duh!
    Ever since my days in seminary, “prooftexting” has had an especially negative connotation for me. Therefore, I’m not sure I am comfortable with your choice of the term “prooftext” with regard to this text and those of us who fully support women in ministry. For those of us who are cut from this cloth, we find ample evidence in the corpus of the New Testament to support our position. I don’t believe we need to turn to something as spurious as “The Gospel of Mary” (or of “Mary Magdalene”) to shoehorn women into ministry. Nor, do we need to resort of “prooftexting” to support our position. I, and those of my ilk, believe our New Testament canon does that well enough on its own. From a personal standpoint, I know women who have been ordained out of Southern Baptist congregations, even though the majority of my Southern Baptists colleagues assert it has never happened, and can’t happen in a Southern Baptist church. Ah, but It has! So, someone else, others elsewhere, must have also read and found something in the New Testament in addition to just finding the name Junia in the sixteenth chapter of Romans.
    I know the list of “the twelve” is at some point a list of “disciples” and at another a list of “apostles.” While I believe the Bible’s authors certainly knew the difference between mathétés and apóstolos, regrettably (or perhaps intentionally) the authors were not always precise in using one word over the other. In my readings and study, I have often found there is an overlap in use and understanding of the role to which those identified as “The 12” were called and the two terms seem to have been used interchangeably and even synonymously. Yet, there is a vast and distinct difference between the two words – one between being a follower; a learner; and/or an adherent to a teaching; and/or teacher, and the other being one who was specifically sent. I would think that to be the latter, one should already be one of the first (but I’m not certain that is always necessary).
    Jesus certainly had his “inner circle” of three, and then there was “the twelve.” I think that’s a given among most students of the New Testament. However, the NT clearly shows that Jesus had more than just 12 disciples (c.f. John 6:66-67 “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’“). Obviously there were many disciples, adherents, followers, etc. Some of his “disciples” walked away, and quit being an adherent, or follower. Yet “the 12” were distinct and even unique among those followers. And while I believe the 70 or 72 he “sent out” in Luke 12 were certainly already disciples, one could make an argument that they were also apostles (in the purest definition of the term), because Jesus did “send” them “And after these things, the Lord also appointed seventy-two others and sent them out two by two before him into every town and place where he was about to go.” By the very definition and use of the word Apostle (if we don’t get too parochial in our use of the word by limiting it to “the 12”) as one who is sent, I think they qualify. The meaning of the word Apostle (regardless of how it has come to be used, or even understood) The Lexham Bible Dictionary is in agreement with the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, and the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, so the EDNT, and TDNT to wit: “Someone, or something, sent. Derived from the verb ‘to send out.’”
    While I have never called myself an apostle, lest I be labeled a heretic in some circles, God called me into the ministry in 1985, and Jesus “sent” me forth with a specific task: to carry the message. Even though the good Lord and I had numerous, and vocal, arguments about my calling, I believe I was truly being “sent” into the world to preach and teach (which is what we are all commanded to be about according to the great commission in Matt 28:19 “Therefore, go”). I was “sent” to take the message of the Good News to a hurting and broken world, and to “make disciples” (for the salvation of the world) — does that make me an apostle? Again, perhaps so, in the strictest and purest of definitions.
    In both Romans, and 1 Corinthians, Paul notes the varied ministries which are bestowed as gifts. And, in Ephesians, he specifically notes that “Christ himself” or “He himself” or “He personally” set some people apart for these various roles in ministry, but it was always “to equip” others for the work of the ministry.
    Whether Junia was known among or known to the apostles splits a fine hair. It could have been either and still not affect the issue of whether she was “sent” or was but a follower, or adherent of the teachings of Jesus.
    To which of these roles: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teacher, was Junia personally called by Christ? I don’t know (we’ll never know for sure, since we were not there). Certainly, since she was “in Christ” before Paul, then by definition, she had been a “disciple” long before Saul’s Damascus road experience. Was she subsequently called by Christ to some other role in the life of the ecclesia besides just being part of the koinonia? Did Paul recognize this in her?
    In Acts 1, the surviving 11 apostles set about to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot, and they chose Matthias over “Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus)”. But a few chapters later, we see Jesus out there calling Saul to his role, which Paul himself claimed was to be one of the apostles (to the Gentiles). So, now there are 13 apostles? 11 survivors chosen by Jesus, 1 chosen by those survivors, and another chosen by Jesus. Umm, what happened to 12? Is that number sacrosanct?
    In view of John 21:25, who’s to say that Jesus calling Junia, as an apostle (or to some other set apart ministry) is not numbered among those “many other things as well” of which John speaks. And, since by John’s own testimony “even the whole world would not have room for the books” it would take to relate all Jesus did, and to name all the people Jesus called into a particular ministry.
    Paul mentions several women in Romans 16. In 16:1-2, he names Phoebe, but clearly identifies her role as a Deacon. However, I think it is as telling that Paul mentions Junia (known “among” or “to” “the apostles”) in 16:7 as the fact that in 16:3, he mentions “Pricilla and Aquila” (where the woman is clearly named first) as “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” They don’t seem to have been deacons (as was Phoebe, in the previous verse) or even just “hard workers” as was Mary in 16:6. But then, neither is Junia in 16:7. What is there about these women who were fellow workers?
    The role of women in the church has been debated and argued for nearly 2 millennia, although a re-reading of Acts, and the epistles, seems to indicate (at least, it does to me) that any “issue” of the role of women in the church did not really come about until sometime after the 1st c.
    Thanks for the opportunity to stir the gray matter, and engage in the conversation.

  • In my opinion, I think it is funny how men are challenged by women in leadership. Is it because of the fall in the Garden of Eden. My bible says that Eve brought the Apple to Adam and they ate it. God had spoken directly to Adam and he knew better. Just like many men today just goes alone and says, “Yes Dear,” As a man I take offense at this.

    Women just like anyone can make mistakes but God uses us all. He loves his creation and when we get between God and a female he wants to minister are we in a dangerous place. True, women should prepaared themselves for leadship responsibilites just like men.

    If God calls you, what right do we have to get in the way.

    • Hi Will — in addition to Eve taking the apple to Adam, my translations include an oft overlooked, or simply ignored, statement “who was with her, and he ate it.” The dude was standing right there, he watched her do the deed, and he doesn’t try to talk her out of it, or stop her, or knock the darn thing out of her hand, no — he chows down and then ultimately blames God for all his troubles.
      Unfortunately, we have not moved beyond that problem in the 21st c. We’re still looking for someone else to blame for our failures. Deep sigh

  • A great article. Reliably evaluating the material under study. Most importantly, Dr. Heiser is open to what the Bible says, not what we want it to say. Congratulations!

    • Exactly. I appreciate his study on the matter. We are too often conflated by our own preconceived determinations.

  • What then is the role of man and women in Christ as the new creation (2Cor. 5:17)? If having a “low view” of the Bible results in a “low view” of women, I think that would not reflect the Saviour’s heart for women, bearing in mind what most of the “men” apostles did at the cross, especially the ones that desired leadership. The early church does not care how we in this age desire to read Greek grammar to show our masculinity. They did what was right in the eyes of God guided by the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to live not under the age of the law but to live under the age of grace. I would have agreed with Dr Heiser even if he did say “in my opinion” women were apostles in the early church.

  • To be well known among the Apostles is not to be an Apostle; a disciple can be well-known among them without being an Apostle.

    This speculation is based on an unsound premise – that being well-know connotes being the same in type/class — and is really lacking in critical reasoning rules. Really grasping at straws.

    Pax Christi

  • To all,
    The role of women in the established Church at large has been determined by the patriarchy. The gospels are in clear contradiction to the exclusion of women in leadership. Since everyone reads the same Bible, I can only see this as a deliberate blindness. Actually, it is called sin. Nevertheless, some will continue to storm these worn out cliches and serve the Lord in whatever capacity He calls them. Eve was deceived but Adam chose to follow his wife rather than God. This act alone ,determines that both male and female are culpable. I fail to see the relationship between mutual sin in the Garden and exclusion of women in ministry. A major leap into illogical reason.

  • I recently read a book supporting women in ministry leadership. I felt let down by the lack of good arguments supporting the practice, and I was especially disappointed by what seemed like a giant leap regarding the inclusion of Junia. Just the mention of the name seemed to be proof positive to the author, and it seems to be presented in the same way here.

  • God charged Adam with sin not Eve. Adam was created first to lead, but he didn’t. He followed and when he followed God declared it as sin. Not because he followed but because he knew it was sin and still followed. He knew because God spoke with him and told him what not to do as recorded in Genesis 2:12. God did not even speak to Eve until after the fall into sin.
    Is female leadership then now a sin or a preference?
    Is sitting under female leadership a sin or a preference?
    Either may even be a bad preference but if it is not sin it is still only a preference and God will still somehow, someway get the glory.
    Are we not called to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of our weaker brother? Do we not have the right to attend the church of our choice depending upon who is leading or preaching?
    If the Bible is ambiguous about anything why do we make it a contention that fights against another’s conscience? Are we not instead called to love one another (1 John 3:11) or do we always have to be right, or in charge?
    Michael Heiser argues for a proof text, that was written in a different script from the earliest proof text, which is not even the earliest proof text, if that means anything, as “compelling” evidence. So which text is right, and does it make a whole lot of difference based upon our calling as Christians in regard to the preaching of Christ? See his comments about “compelling” evidence.
    Just what is “compelling” evidence? It’s the same evidence, or lack of evidence that caused many to say that archeology disproves the Bible, until more artifacts were unearthed that disproved what they avowed to be true. It’s the same evidence that makes people believe in evolution because of what they want to believe, and because it sets them apart and makes them more intellectual, and of course makes them “right”.
    We want to be “right” don’t we, but in whose eyes, God’s or man’s?
    What is our commission according to Jesus? Is it not to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do we not strain out a gnat but swallow a camel when we prevent anyone from preaching Jesus? According to Paul, who does not address the sex issue here, we do.
    “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Php 1:15–18 ESV).
    I, myself, do not like sitting under a female pastor but that is my preference. When conclusive evidence has been discovered and revealed that female Pastorship is Biblical then, even then, who I choose to have as my pastor is still just my preference.

Written by Michael S. Heiser