In Acts 1:24 when a successor to Judas is being mooted, Peter talks about those who accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry. We know that included among those were many women from what Luke tells us, and that some of these women actually provided the funds to enable Jesus and his followers to live while ministering. That tells us something about the relationship and the role played by women. In that sense they fulfilled one of the requirements to be an Apostle – that is they had been part of the ministry. But they did not, and could not, fulfil the requirement to be a replacement for Judas. The “twelve” represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and only men were allowed to do that, indeed, only Jewish men were allowed to do that. While, in the early Church, the requirement to be Jewish would be gradually abandoned, the requirement to be male was not.
Did that mean that women were not “Apostles” or does it mean that there is more than one sense in which that word could be defined? If we take Luke’s stricter sense, that is being eligible to succeed Judas, the answer is clear enough. But that is not the only sense in which the word is used, not least by the man who often gets a bad rap from feminists, Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he claims the title for himself, he defines the role as one who spreads the Gospel of Christ, and we know from Luke, and from Paul himself that women did this. Indeed, rather more than that in some cases, as we know that the very first witness of the risen Lord was one of the women Luke mentions as helping support Jesus and his ministry. It is often asssumed that the seventy two who get sent out were all men, but there is no actual warant for that except the (male) assumption that they must have been men. Yes, the Greek word leads us to that conclusion, but the Greek language has an adrocentric bias, and there is no reason not to read “men” as in some English phrases where “men includes women.”
Paul clearly regards being an Apostle as important, he stresses it often enough for us to be clear that it cannot be read loosely. It involves encountering the risen Christ and receiving the commission to spread the gospel, with all the sufferings that involved. It was certified, so to speak, by signs and mighty works. Junia, as an Apostle, must be said to fit this description, and given what Luke and Paul says about the role women play in the early church, the only occasion for surprise is that this has been ignored and, yes, suppressed for so long.
That last may seem harsh, but how else to characterise an historic position which, when the name was “Junias” and therefore male, accepted that “he” was an apostle, but when it was established that the name was female, argued that she was just “known to the Apostles”? There is, for those who want the detail, an extensive discussion of this in Epps’ book on Junia cited by C451, and also in Richard Bauckham’s excellent and scholarly (i.e. too deep for me in many parts) “Gospel Women” (2002) which goes into an extensive discussion of the koine Greek by experts in the use of the language.
In short, with Junia we are back to church tradition – ironically. It is later commentators, not the Church Fathers usually cited by those defending tradition, on which those defending “Junias” rest; they might ask whether there is any other case in which they’d prefer a twenth century source to a Church Father, and if not, why they feel the need to do so here. Chrysostom wrote:
To be an apostle is something great, but to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was worthy of the title of apostle.
There is, of course, a possible reason why some modern fathers prefer, for once, to ignore the Church Fathers, and that seems to be to do with the arguments for the ordination of women. For me, and for many others, that argument does not depend upon Junia, but on what one means by “tradition” and whether one thinks of it as static or whether one believes that the Holy Spirit is at work still guiding the Church. If the former is the case, then there’s no argument, although one might well ask how and why the requirement for the twelve to be Jewish was dropped, but the requirement to be men was retained; tradition either develops or it doesn’t. But these are arguments to which I shall hope to return.
In the meantime, we might consider imitating Chrysostom and marvelling at what Junia must have done to have been considered an apostle – and ponder in humility how it could be that she has been almost forgotten and often denied.