The Jewish Palace Insider and Benefactor Junia (Romans 16:7)
Biblical scholars have puzzled over the years about Paul’s reference in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Who were these folks? Paul was clear that they were related to him, that they had shared prison time with him, they were prominent apostles, and they had become believers before he had. Who could fill that bill?
That points to someone who was Jewish, had known Jesus in his earthly ministry (the requirement for the title apostle), and had signed on as a Jesus-follower before Paul himself. Now they were in Rome.
In his book Gospel Women, noted biblical scholar Richard Bauckham untangles the knots in this mystery for us, starting with one of the women healed by Jesus, mentioned in Luke 8:3. She was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the business manager for king Herod Antipas. It turns out that the name Joanna is the Hebrew equivalent of the Roman name Junia. Could Joanna in the gospels be the same person as the apostle Junia? Look at some of the possible clues leading to that conclusion.
The name Chuza is not a Jewish name, and he is thought to have been Nabatean (King Herod Antipas had other connections to the Nabatean royal family). But as the king’s finance minister living in the new Roman-style palace in the royal city of Tiberias, he needed a Jewish wife connected to a wealthy Jewish family. Enter young Joanna (probably just entering puberty when she was married to the much older, mature man, Chuza). While king Herod Antipas had some Jewish blood, his kingship depended on Rome, so palace life in Tiberias followed Roman practices. Joanna would likely have been given a Roman name (Junia) and would have been formed in Roman ways of acting and thinking.
We first meet Joanna in the Bible, however, not as part of the royal household, but as a woman in need of healing. Luke tells us that after Jesus healed her, she became part of his traveling band of women caring for the physical needs of the Savior. In short, she became one of his benefactors, providing funds for the support of his group.
What the Bible does not tell us is whether or not Chuza had died and Joanna was widowed, but scholars surmise this likely was the case (given the probable disparity in their ages). Nor does the Bible tell us that in traveling with Jesus’ band, she might eventually have remarried, becoming the wife of Andrew, one of Jesus’s disciples. If, however, this was the case, it would answer to all of the clues given in Paul’s greeting to this couple in Romans 16:6. We know that Peter first carried the Gospel to Rome, and to bring along his brother and fellow disciple, Andrew, is logical. So as Paul’s letter to the Romans was read to the assembled Christians, he addressed this apostolic pair by their Roman names – Andronicus and Junia.
Paul doesn’t tell us that back in Palestine they had been Andrew and Joanna, but all of his clues fit that possibility.
Pinpointing the identity of Junia leads us through some fascinating detective work. It is unfortunate though that we often have to struggle to uncover the significant work of women throughout history. In all fields of human achievement, the contributions of women have often been either swept under the rug, or ascribed to males whom we see as more likely sources of innovation, intelligence, or heroism. Women still struggle to be acknowledged for their work. And yet, God has always seen the value of women workers. Throughout the New Testament God chose women as well as men to understand his message and to work for his purposes.