This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Junia, a female apostle, or a Hebrew man's name?

Suzanne McCarthy discusses a paper by Al Wolters, who argued that the name  in Rom 16:7 could be the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehunni, which would make it a man's name. (JBL 127, no. 2 (2008): 397-408, available online here).

On page 398 Wolters writes:
After all, it would not be surprising if a person whom Paul numbers among his kinfolk (συγγενείς) should turn out to have a specifically Jewish name, comparable to the Μαρία of the previous verse.
Not so fast! The problem here is that Μαρία is not a specifically Jewish name. As well as the Hebrew name, we have the Latin name, Maria, which is the feminine form of Marius. For this reason Tal Ilan writes,
of the 50 Mariams recorded, only 23 are indubitably Jewish. (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part III. p5)
While the Maria of Rom 16:6 was almost certainly Jewish, it is likely that she kept her original name only because it also worked as a Roman name. When Palestinian Christian Jews travelled to Gentile territories where Semitic names would not have been familiar, they took a Greek or Latin name that would be recognized there. Cephas-Peter, Simeon-Simon, Saul-Paul, Silas-Silvanus, and John-Mark are good examples. It is hard to think of exceptions to this rule. Barnabas is a special case because the name carried significant meaning (Acts 4:36), which would have been lost if he had been given a familiar Greek or Latin name. Apart from Barnabas, Paul refers to no-one in Gentile territories by a Semitic name (Jesus called Justus of Col 4:11 is no exception because he probably never existed, and his Latin name is given in any case). So Wolter's suggestion that Paul referred to the hypothetical Yehunni by his Hebrew name has no good parallels. A man called Yehunni, after moving to Rome, would likely have taken a Greek or Latin name, such as Junius, rather than transliterating his name as Wolters supposes.

The likely original name of Junia is Joanna, since it is so similar in sound. Indeed Bauckham has argued that Junia was the Joanna of Luke 8:3; 24:10 (Gospel Women p109-202). Joanna was a common name in Palestine. Tal Ilan lists 12 women of that name in Palestine out of a total of 402 women (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part 1 Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE). Thus about 3% of women had that name. Wolters, on the other hand, finds only 2 men called Yehunni, which represents just 0.08% of the 2505 men listed by Tal Ilan. This figure of 0.08% for Yehunni is much less than the 3% for Joanna.

We can therefore be very confident that Junia was a woman.


  1. Richard;

    With all due respect I found your arguments above not very convincing. While not agreeing with Wolters, your argument concerning "Jesus who is called Justus" in Col. 4.11 is based solely upon conjectures that are simply unprovable and, therefore, cannot be defended. To support your position you created a mythical writer who apparently created a Pauline like letter, who apparently made an error while working with the epistle of Philemon. Your apparent motive for this invention is that it gets in the way of your theory concerning Palestinian Jews taking on Latin and Greek names in place of their Semitic names. Although you could do nothing with Barnabas, you still attempt to do away the Jesus. Ironically, much of your argument is based upon what are common names, but you ignore the fact that "Jesus" was also a common name in first-century Palestine. Additionally, you assume that no Christians would have chosen to continue to use the name "Jesus" because it would be reserved for the "founder" of Christianity. So are we to assume that all those who were named "Jesus" at birth during the first quarter of the first-century Palestine would have felt compelled to take on another Semitic name? Many Christian parents today name their children Chris or Christine, and many Latin parents name their sons "Jesus." So why would first-century men feel compelled to change their Semitic names? You fault Walters for engaging in what you term as "hypothetical," even though you acknowledge existence of the masculine Hebrew name "Yehunni." My question, therefore, is if Wolters' theory is to be rejected because it is based upon what you label as "hypothetical," then what should your readers do with your even more speculative theory concerning "Jesus who is called Justus"?

    Sincerely, Monte Shanks

  2. Welcome to the blog, Monte. Even if Jesus-Justus was a real person, it would not weaken my argument much. Wolters would need to show that it was common for Palestinian Jews to retain their Semitic names. One or two examples are not sufficient, especially as his hypothesis is already weak from the rarity of the name Yehunni. Also, as I explained, even if Colossians was written by Paul, it would provide an example of a person whom Paul refers to by a Semitic-Latin double name. It would not provide a parallel to what Wolters requires, which is Paul referring to someone by a Semitic name alone.

    The pseudonymity of Colossians is widely held, and on other grounds. About 3% of Jews in Palestine were called Jesus. It is statistically significant that we have no other Jesus in the Gospels or Acts. This does suggest that the early Christians avoided the name. They would not have had to adopt a new name: they could simply have used their patronymic (e.g. Bartholomew). The active use of the name "Jesus" among Christians in Palestine was rare, but we do not know how rare. You might like to look at my recent post on Bar-Jesus, who I think was probably a Christian of sorts who was criticized by Paul for his presumptuous taking of the name "Bar-Jesus".

    I do not agree that I did "nothing with Barnabas". New names (Cephas, Barnabas etc) and the meanings they carried were of great significance to the early Christians and this might well explain why Paul does not give him a Latin/Greek name. This means that Wolters cannot reliably use Barnabas as a parallel.

    I did not reject Wolters' theory on the grounds that it is "hypothetical". I rejected it because it is statistically highly improbable.

  3. Richard;

    Thank you for your welcome. Just to be clear, I was not addressing the main thesis of your argument concerning the name "Junia." The issues surrounding this figure mentioned in the NT are intriguing, and that is why I came upon your blog. I was mainly addressing some of the points you made to support your position. With that in mind, I would only add even if the pseudonymity of Colossians is "widely held" by some, it is also "widely rejected" by others—at least in the academic circles with which I associate. Consequently, conjecturing about a possible author making a mistake about somebody's name is really an exercise in academic shadow boxing. Therefore, why should one defend an argument against a "hypothetical" or “improbable” with an equally "hypothetical" proposition? Lastly, I find arguments based on "statistical” probabilities very compelling. They are important part of verifying historical evidence. Nevertheless, they do not prove factuality—especially when it comes to names. As a educator I am often amazed by the diversity of my students names, as well as the spelling of those names. Additionally, having done my dissertation on Papias I discovered that his name was very rare to say the least. Using statistical probabilities should I have assumed that he was a mythical person? Of course not. The fact is, that occasionally parents chose to give their children non-common names—this seems more true today; nevertheless, it also occurred during the first century AD. I can understand rejecting ones position because in your view it is improbable. But I don’t understand defending a position with conjectures that are equally hypothetical and/or improbable.

  4. Papias was from Asia minor and his name was common there, especially in the second century.

  5. Richard;
    Let me be more specific, Papias was not a common Greek name. Phrygian forms of the name were common, but it was not a common Greek name since the word meant "servant" or "janitor" (See Liddell/Scott, 1948). Additionally, Papias was born in the latter mid first century AD. Consequently, that the name "became" common in the second century it very interesting since by the early second century Papias was a well recognized bishop (if not famous) in Hierapolis of Asia Minor. Ironically, this phenomenon supports my argument because it recognizes the reality that names fall in and out of favor, and sometimes parents give their children names for their originality rather than for their popularity. Consequently, names that are unusual and rare do exist. Rejecting, therefore, a possible name on statistical grounds may be safer position since it argues for what was more "probable;" nevertheless, such an argument does not “prove” its point simply because it fails to take into account other real possibilities concerning parental choices of names. And then attempting to support such an argument by providing another conjecture involving what a supposed mythical writer of the epistle of Colossians mistakenly wrote with respect to a different name is really not well defended. If you want to discuss the origins of such names as Maria and Junia, fine. Using statistics to support your position places you on solid academic ground since doing so is certainly reasonable, if not productive. But inventing stories that cannot be substantiated about what may have occurred (simply because they argue against your position) is not productive since such conjectures (because of their speculative nature) can neither be adequately defended or disproved.


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  7. Richard, you make very good arguments. I am trying to find examples of the feminine Greek Ἰουνία in extrabiblical literature, and I am coming up short. Do you have some examples I can cite? Even if they are inscriptions? Everything I have found is in Latin, but I find it 100% certain that the correlation is Ἰούνιος/Ἰουνία just as it is in Latin Iūnius/Iūnia. I have found sufficient examples of the parallel Ἰούλιος/Ἰούλια vs. Iulius/Iūlia

  8. Seth, the name Junia was rare in the east. I discuss this in my recent CBQ article, a version of which you can find here: Let me know what you think. Also, elsewhere on this blog I have offered some arguments in support of Bauckham's view that Junia was Joanna.