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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mary of Rom 16:6

In Rom 16:3-15 Paul asks his audience to greet 26 individuals, which is far more people than he greets in any other letter. Paul's aim here is presumably to build up his relationship with the Christians of Rome by establishing that he and they have common friends. We should therefore expect the people to be named in descending order of the strength of their connection with both Paul and the church of Rome. This does seem to be the case. The first to be mentioned are Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5), who were well known to Paul and also important to the church of Rome (since a church met in their house). Next come Epaenetus, whose importance to Paul's work I have discussed here.  Next comes Mary, whom I discuss below. Then we have Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7), who were prominent apostles and had been in prison with Paul. The remaining 20 individuals are mentioned in just 8 verses.

While Junia has received a lot of attention, Mary (Rom 16:6) has gone almost unnoticed. She is mentioned ahead of Andronicus and Junia, which seems surprising since Paul gives no indication of personal links with her. If she had been an important co-worker of Paul or his close friend, he surely would have mentioned it. So it seems to me that her position in the list, ahead of Andronicus and Junia, is explicable only if she was very well known and respected by the Christians in Rome. Paul's audience would, of course, have known of her prominence in their church, so Paul would have had no need to mention it. He says only that she has worked hard in Rome, and I think he is saying here that she deserves the respect that accompanies her leadership role in the church (compare 1 Cor 16:16).

Tal Ilan (Lexican of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity part III p64) counts 23 Jews with the name Mary/Mariam/Marian in the western diaspora, out of 552 females. This amounts of 4.2%. In Palestine, on the other hand, (part I p55-56) 70 Jews had the name, out of 317 female Jews. This amounts to 22.1%. Therefore the name was about 5 times more popular in Palestine than in the western diaspora. This observation, which has been overlooked by the commentators, suggests that she had moved to Rome from Palestine. She may have introduced the Christian faith to Rome, and this would account for her prominence there. It matters little whether the Latin name Μαρίαν or the Hebrew Μαριάμ was the original. A Μαριάμ could easily have adopted the name Μαρίαν after moving to Rome.

In summary, the Mary was the most prominent member of the church of Rome known to Paul.

Commentators have differed greatly in their understanding of her. Origen patronized her:
Paul is teaching here that women too ought to work for the churches of God. They work when they teach childreen how to behave, when they love their husbands, when they feed their children, when they are modest and chaste, when they keep a good household, when they are kind, when they are submissive to their husbands, when they exercise hospitality, when they wash the feet of the saints, and when they do all the other things which are allotted to women in the Bible. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. CER 5:248
Chrysostom gave her a teaching role (Homilies on Romans NPNF 1 11:554), but in 1879 William Shedd denied her such a role. Olshausen (1849) and Dodd (1932) did not mention her at all! In 1994 MacArthur suggested that she was a founding member of the church of Rome. Osborne (2004) concludes that "she did play an important role in the life of the church" of Rome. Jewett (2007) writes, "Miriam functioned as an evangelist in Rome". It would seem, then, that commentators are beginning to recognize this Mary's importance.


  1. Thanks, Richard. Great post. Some speculation: if she's from Palestine and since she has no husband (contrast Junia and Prisca) and since she is mentioned ahead of A&J, could she be Mary Magdalene? The other Marys we know of were connected to men -- Mary of Clopas, Mary of James and Joses, etc.

  2. Thanks, Mark. Since women did not tend to travel without male relatives, the lack of mention of a male relative in Rom 16:6 may suggest that her husband (or other accompanying male relative) had died after they moved to Rome. I think this makes it more likely that she came to Rome early. This would fit with her prominence and with the suggestion that she founded the church of Rome.

    I had thought about Mary the Magdalene, but not in connection with the lack of husband. I think she was called "Magdalene" because she was a tower of strength. This kind of title was often given to benefactors in the early church, regardless of whether such a title was needed to distinguish the person from other people of the same name. Once she had been given the title "Magdalene", it would also function to distinguish her from other Marys, so no reference to a husband or other male relative would be needed. Therefore, the lack of mention of male relatives of Mary Magdalene in the gospels probably tells us nothing about whether she had any (I think).

    Do we have evidence that Mary Magdalene or other women apostles went to Egypt? This might make sense because Egypt was less misogynist than elsewhere.

    1. "Do we have evidence that Mary Magdalene or other women apostles went to Egypt? This might make sense because Egypt was less misogynist than elsewhere."

      In the Roman Martyrology, there is "In Cyprus, St. Mary, mother of John, surnamed Mark."

      Since Mary's name is followed by his son's name, we can assume her husband died?

      It is believed that the Cenacle, where Jesus broke bread during His Last Supper, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and other religious gathering happened in her house. This would make sense in the greetings of Paul " labored much for us", owing to her hospitality among the early Christians

  3. Thanks, Richard and Mark. Do you think that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person?



  4. Hi Xabier. I have also wondered whether MM was the same person as Mary of Bethany. One thing against this identification is that MM was active in Galilee (Luke 8:2 and Mark 15:40-41) and women rarely travelled far from home, I think. The name Mary was very common, of course.

  5. "Do we have evidence that Mary Magdalene or other women apostles went to Egypt? This might make sense because Egypt was less misogynist than elsewhere."

    Isn't there some tradition of the "three Marys" (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobae) going to Egypt with their slave, Sarah? I think this is one of the traditions of Southern France. I think the dominant tradition in the east is that she went to Ephesus with John. I don't think any of these traditions are especially early or reliable.

    What an interesting discussion, though. I've always thought it was odd that Mary Magdalane, a woman whose importance is essentially taken for granted in the Gospel accounts, seems more or less ignored in the canonical epistles and acts. I couldn't help but be tempted by the hypothesis that the mysterious "Mary" of Rome was in fact her. Another explanation would be that she went to Egypt or some other place off the radar of the Petrine/Pauline missionary track.

  6. I find this interesting because the Eastern Orthodox Church has alwys taught that Mary Magdalene went to Rome and that the Mary in this passage was Mary Magdalene. See this website:

    Its the official website of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America.

  7. I'm not sure though why the Orthodox Church has always believed this!

    The earliest mention of the claim that Mary Magdalene went to Rome is the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate) which was written in the Fourth century but contains earlier material. The fact that its in this demonstrates that there was a belief that Mary travelled to Rome long before the 300s. Why exactly a patriachial Church would give Mary the special role of travelling to Rome to confront Caesar, is also interesting - it perhaps makes it more possible that there is a historical nucleus, since if it were a purely fictional tradition then the logic would have been to choose a male disciple ie Thomas, no?

    Here's the reference I know of:

    "...Mary Magdalene said, weeping: Hear, O peoples, tribes, and tongues, and learn to what death the lawless Jews have delivered him who did them ten thousand good deeds. Hear, and be astonished. Who will let these things be heard by all the world? I shall go alone to Rome, to the Cæsar. I shall show him what evil Pilate has done..." (Acts of Pilate Ch 11)

  8. There might be earlier witnesses to this tradition. In fact there probably is but the Nicodemus reference is the earliest that I know of. You might want to contact the Antiochian Orthodox Church, to ask if they could provide you with some information on the provenance of their Sacred Traditions concerning Mary Magdalene's journey to and preaching in Rome? It could go back before the Fourth Century, but at least you know that it can't be any later!

  9. Paul uses "labour" words for leadership, evangelistic, and apostolic ministries (and occasionally for ordinary manual labour). Origen's understanding of possible expressions of Mary's hard labour, labour that she did for the Romans (not her husband or her children), is way off. Sheesh! Though being hospitable is a definite possibility.

    The fact that Mary is high up on the list of Roman Christians in Romans 16 does indicate she had a prominent ministry. But I don't understand why you say she was the most prominent member of the church of Rome known to Paul. Prisca and Aquila were members of the church and well-known to Paul. And I'd imagined that Epenetus was a member of the Roman church too, even if he was converted in Asia. No?

    I'd dismissed thoughts that Mary was Mary Magdalene because Mary (in it's various spellings) is such a popular Jewish name. Maybe it wasn't as common as I'd thought.

    Judging from papyrus letters written in the 3rd-5th centuries, it became very popular among early Christian women. Thecla is the second in popularity.
    The popular names in letters that refer to Jewish women are: Mary (Mariam), by far the most popular, then Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, Rachel, Hanna, and Ruth.
    (I'm relying on the research of Alanna Nobbs here.)

  10. Thanks, Marg. Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Andronicus and Junia were all founders of churches, in some sense. Church founding requires apostles and hosts, and all these people fulfilled one or both of these roles (for more on the role of Epaenetus, see my Tyn Bull article on name giving by Paul). I think you are right that the "labour" in Rom 16:6 could apply to either role. The name Mary was very common in Palestine, but rare in Rome, especially among gentiles there. While the others in Rom 16:3-7 were well known to Paul, Mary does not seem to have been, so her position high in the list of those greeted requires another explanation. She was therefore probably very prominent in the church of Rome. I think it is unlikely that she was an itinerant apostle, since such a role would be dangerous for a woman who was not accompanied by her husband, and no husband is mentioned. Her ability to travel from Palestine to Rome suggests that she was wealthy enough to travel with protection (compare Phoebe). So I see her as a wealthy Jewish follower of Jesus from Palestine who used her resources to found (or help found) the church of Rome. It seems that wealthy donors of the church often migrated (consider Phoebe, Sosthenes, Epaenetus, and Prisca and Aquila to some extent). Their motives may have been to plant new churches and/or to escape persecution, for they were often targeted by opponents (consider Jason, Crispus-Sosthenes and Lydia-Euodia if I have read Philippians correctly) and the aliases that they received seem to have had a protective role.

    Should we equate this Mary with Mary Magdalene, as Mark Goodacre suggested? Or could she be another Mary, such as Mary the mother of John Mark? Given the importance of name order, she was more important, in some sense, than Andronicus and Junia, who were prominent apostles. But in what sense? If she was more important for the movement as a whole, then she was probably Mary Magdalene, especially if Junia was Joanna, as Bauckham argues well. If she was more important only for the church of Rome, she was likely its main founding host/sponsor. I doubt that Paul would snub the main founding host/sponsor by not mentioning him/her, and I doubt that he would snub Andronicus and Junia by mentioning a minor figure before them. For more on the importance of name order, see my forthcoming CBQ article.