Last week Prof. James McGrath, PhD in New Testament studies and long-time member of the blog, provided us a humorous guest post “50 Ways to Forge A Gospel.”  And now he turns serious.  James has just published a book What Jesus Learned From Women, and one of the women he discusses is Junia, mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:7.  Paul calls her his “relative.”  And says she was one of the foremost apostles.

In this post James discusses an intriguing hypothesis that I had never heard before — mainly because he just came up with it while writing his book.  It’s not only highly provocative but also … well, possible!  Read and see what you think.  James will be happy to respond to comments.


Seeking the Historical Jesus Through Women’s Eyes

I’m delighted to have been invited by Bart Ehrman to offer a guest post on his blog. Bart and I share an array of interests in common, most if not all of them tied to Jesus in some way. Both of us care quite deeply both about trying to ascertain as accurately as possible what Jesus was like as a historical figure, and to do what we can to promote the understanding of historical research—its methods and its results—for a broad audience. All of that and more is at the heart of my recent book, What Jesus Learned from Women. Rather than talk about the project in general ways, let me throw you in at the deep end, as it were, into a chapter that I initially didn’t expect to be part of the book. I thought there wasn’t enough information to go on, and my investigation into the subject surprised me and led me in directions that I never would have anticipated.

Let me take you there by way of Paul, our earliest source of information about Jesus and the early Christian movement. He did not, as far as we know, ever meet the historical Jesus in person during his lifetime, or even catch a glimpse of him from a distance for that matter. He may have, there is nothing implausible about it, but he doesn’t tell us so and neither does any other relevant source from around his time.

We learn from his letter to the Romans, however, that he had relatives who were part of the movement that eventually became known as “the Christians” before he was. That might, I think, give us some indication as to why he opposed the movement, and I suggest this in the book. We may have dislike for a religion that we’ve heard about. But if we find out that a relative has joined it, that dislike may turn into active opposition.

Paul’s relatives, mentioned in the greetings he sends them in Romans 16:7, are there called Junia and Andronicus. Paul says they were in Christ before him and are prominent among the apostles. Whoever Junia was, she was not merely a fellow Jew but an actual relative in the narrower sense of that term. Paul greets many Jews in this passage, but only singles out some of them as “relatives.”

Paul’s switch from persecutor to adherent doesn’t take place long after the crucifixion is supposed to have occurred. There is a window of a few years in which these relatives could have joined the movement and yet not encountered the historical Jesus before his death. That’s possible but not probable.

If one or both of these individuals were involved in the movement that early and prominent among the apostles in the way Paul says, then we wouldn’t be surprised if they were mentioned elsewhere. Indeed, we might be surprised if they were not.

That is where a really interesting suggestion comes into the picture, one that I was initially inclined to dismiss.

Saul of Tarsus, like many Jews who moved in both Aramaic-speaking circles and beyond, had a second name he used, namely Paul. Individuals like him often chose a name that either sounded similar to or had the same meaning as their traditional Jewish name.

In the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel that is linked to a second volume that tells Paul’s story, we have mention of a woman called Joanna. It has been suggested that she could be the same person as Junia, like her relative using a Latin name that sounded like her traditional Jewish one. The way Joanna is described in Luke 8:1-3 is a close fit to what Paul says in his letter, “prominent among the apostles.”

My initial reticence was due to the seemingly speculative nature of the suggestion, as well as the propensity of Christian interpreters to blur women together. (Three Marys feature in my book and there have been attempts to identify some of them with one another, but that’s another story for another day). But as I looked more closely at the possibility, wanting to discuss it even if I ended up not embracing it, I found natural connections appearing, things that made sense of other details that otherwise remain puzzling.

Paul mentions being of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). That tribe historically lived in the region around Jericho. That is an area where Jews, Idumaeans, and Nabataeans coexisted. Joanna married a man named Chuza who served as part of Herod’s household as his property manager. Chuza is a Nabataean name. Herod had Nabataean and Idumaean connections through ancestry and/or marriage, as well as Jewish heritage.

The Nabataeans lived in what in that time was referred to as Arabia. Scholars have long wondered why Paul went to Arabia after he ceased persecuting the church. Was it because he had been persecuting a movement associated with his relatives who had not only his shared Jewish/Benjamite ancestry but also Nabataean connections? Is that why he went to Damascus, a city under the control of Nabataean king Aretas, and were Paul’s movements on that ruler’s radar because of his relatives and their connection with the household of Herod, since Herod had been involved in tensions with Aretas not least because of his divorce of his daughter (in order to marry his brother’s former wife, Herodias, a story you likely know).

There is so little said about either Junia or Joanna. But when we bring them together and bring Paul into the picture, some connections begin to emerge and some aspects of each of their stories begins to make sense. Who this Junia was that was prominent among the apostles. Who was Joanna who supported and funded Jesus’ activity. Why Paul went to Arabia. Why his persecution of Christians took him to Damascus from Jerusalem.

I haven’t even begun to talk about what I think Jesus may have learned from Joanna/Junia. I explore that in the book. Here I thought I’d focus on these preliminary matters which are also in the book, because they explain why I wrote the chapter about Joanna that I didn’t initially think I would. I didn’t expect to have enough to go on to write a chapter. It turned out I was wrong, and that was one of many moments of discovery for me as I worked on this project.

I also share these things here because I suspect that there are readers of this blog who share the interest that Bart Ehrman and I also have in the historical Jesus and the evidence for him. The attempt to deny he even existed fails to take seriously that we have as our earliest source Paul, someone who had met Jesus’ brother as well as the apostle Peter, but more than that and too often neglected, had relatives who were connected with the movement. Paul was in a position to know that Jesus was historical (and the attempt to deny that was what he meant in various things he wrote fails to convince time and time again).

Lastly, I share these things because they may sound speculative, daring to connect threads in ways that go beyond what the evidence clearly indicates. That’s necessary very often in investigating ancient history. But it is particularly necessary when we turn our attention to ancient women. Their stories were often neglected by ancient authors. If we allow their silence to impose silence on us as modern historians and scholars of antiquity, we participate in the silencing of women. That is why in the book I dare to connect dots, to fill in around the things we are specifically told things that we know to generally have been true, and things that seem plausible in connection with those.

I will leave it to readers of the book to decide how much of that effort is persuasive. But I think the effort was and is necessary. And I think the approach I adopt and the results of it will be of interest to readers of this blog, whether their focus is on the historical Jesus, Paul the apostle, or women in early Christianity. And if like me you find all of those interesting, this is the perfect book for you!