March 8, 2009 - Phoebe of Cenchrea

The book title, In the Footsteps of Phoebe, has generated some interesting responses:

"You wrote a book about Phoebe from Friends?"

"Has this got something to do with the actress Phoebe?"

"Does your book follow the flight pattern of the Phoebe bird in North America?"

"Wow! You managed to trace the footsteps of (the outermost satellite) Phoebe around Saturn?"

"So who exactly IS Phoebe and where did she walk?"

After a little chuckle, I answer, "This Phoebe was a contemporary of the apostle Paul, and mentioned by him in Romans 16:1-2."  The eyebrows raise in embarrassment or wonderment, and I proceed to quote the verses.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (some translations say "deaconess") of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.

"So who exactly IS Phoebe and where did she walk?"

We can state the obvious from the first two verses of Romans. First, St. Paul speaks of Phoebe as our sister, a fellow believer in Jesus Christ. Second, he calls her a servant (or deaconess) of the church in Cenchrea - indicating that she is an active worker in the Christian congregation at Cenchrea, Greece. Third, Phoebe has been a great help to many people, including St. Paul himself. This exact nature of this help to Paul is unknown, though it has been speculated that Phoebe may have been a well-to-do patron of Paul's missionary journeys.

Whatever the specifics of her servant role in the congregation at Cenchrea, it is obvious that St. Paul trusts Phoebe. He urges the church at Rome at receive her in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need.

But why does St. Paul begin the book of Romans with this introduction and commendation of Deaconess Phoebe? The answer that most scholars (including Martin Luther) agree upon is that Phoebe carried the New Testament letter to the Romans from Paul in Corinth to the congregation in Rome. This conclusion seems plausible, since 1) Phoebe is the only person commended at the beginning of Romans and there is no indication that she is arriving in Rome after the letter arrives; 2) Phoebe is from Cenchrea, the eastern port of Corinth, where Paul was believed to be staying for the winter of 55-56 AD; and 3) Phoebe appears to be a woman of means who would be able to travel from seaport to seaport to carry out her own personal business.

The ancient city-state of Corinth had two active seaports. The first was about six miles east of Corinth at the harbor of Cenchrea (on the Saronic Gulf) and serviced the eastern trade routes to the Asiatic shores of the Mediterranean. The second seaport was one and a half miles west of Corinth at the harbor of Lechaeum (on the Corinthian Gulf) and connected Corinth with the trade routes heading west to Magna Graecia, Italy, and the rest of Europe.

Phoebe would have traveled first by ship from the port of Lechaeum (point "A" on the above map) to Italy and then overland to Rome (point "B" on the map), a journey of more than 800 miles! It is possible that she quite literally walked long distances in the service of her Lord and His Church. As she endured what was a difficult, perhaps even dangerous journey, she carried a letter - indeed the very Word of God - that St. Paul was sending to the saints in Rome. This is the same letter that Martin Luther acclaimed as the means used by the Holy Spirit to open his eyes to the true meaning of the Gospel. And of course it is the same Word of God that brings comfort to us today, especially when we read, "The righteous shall live by faith alone."(Romans 1:17)

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