Romans 16 is a chapter that we usually skip in our Bible studies or devotional reading because it appears to be a “grocery list” of names that we think are unimportant. Several years ago, I was attending a Bible study that was going verse-by-verse, in detail, through the book of Romans. When we came to chapter 16, we spent one night on this chapter looking at a couple of names, and then the teacher said we were finished with the book! But in actuality, we were not finished because this chapter is packed with valuable insights. The chapter shows us the heart and focus of Paul’s missionary strategy as well as the practical outworking of the theological truths Paul had set forth in his earliest epistle, Galatians 3:26-28. In these verses, Paul states that the work of the Lord transcends all ethnic, social and gender barriers.
Bible students should take time to study the people mentioned by the apostle Paul in this chapter. It is a fascinating study of Paul’s missionary strategy as well as his heart for people and a unified church in Rome. Paul knows the words of the Lord Jesus from His “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their words; that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in you; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (17:20, 21). This is what Francis Schaffer in his book The Mark of a Christian called the “final apologetics”, the world will believe if they see believers unified.
The church in Rome was divided along ethnic, religious and social lines. They were marginalizing Jewish believers as well as women and slaves in the church. Paul’s desire in his final greetings was to bring these people together so they would become one in Christ.
Apparently, a few believers in the church were bringing pork roasts that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple to the Agape meal (love feast) in the local assemblies. They were arrogantly flaunting that, and causing offense and division at the Lord’s Supper (16:17). This action marginalized one segment of the church.
The Apostle James, the son of Zebedee, already addressed this issue in the second chapter of his epistle. He called it “showing partiality.” The example he used was partiality based on one economic status, whether rich or poor. Some in the church, meeting in the synagogue, were showing favoritism to a rich person over a poor person, but the lesson also applies to ethnicity, gender and social status.
The book of Romans was written in the city of Corinth during the Apostle Paul’s visit at the time of his third missionary journey in AD 57-58.1 In the epistle, he expresses his desire to visit the believers in Rome on his way to Spain (1: 7, 11-13; 15: 20-24). His “grocery list” of names in Romans 16 includes both Jewish believers as well as Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus, male and female, slaves and freedmen.
A brief overview of the beginning of Emperor Nero’s reign should be recounted in order to put the Book of Romans in its historical context. At the tender age of 15, Nero married his step sister, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. A year later, as a lad of 16, Nero had come to the throne when his uncle (and some say, father), the Emperor Claudius, died from being poisoned with mushrooms by Nero’s mother, Arippina the Younger. In February of AD 55, when Nero was 18 years old, he or his mother, poisoned his step brother Britannicus. Soon after, Nero expelled his mother from Rome. Now the throne was secure and Nero was the sole ruler. At the beginning of his reign, Nero had two good advisors in his court: Seneca, his tutor, and Burrus, the praetorian prefect, whose guidance led to a peaceful and productive government (Vagi 1999: I: 165, 166). During the first five years on his reign, called the “golden age” by some Roman writers (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4; LCL 443-447), the epistle to the Roman church arrived (AD 57-58).
The Apostle Paul Commends Sister Phoebe to the Saints in the Church in Rome. 16:1, 2
Paul begins this chapter by commending Phoebe, one of the sisters from the church in Cenchrea, to the love and care of the believers gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus in Rome (16:1).
Cenchrea was one of two harbors for the ancient city of Corinth and was located on the Soronic Gulf, east of Corinth. If Paul had taken a ship from Athens to Corinth during his second missionary journey, the ship would have docked in the harbor at Cenchrea. The walk from the harbor to the city of Corinth was about 7 or 8 miles. Paul, Silas and Timothy ministered in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:11) during this missionary journey (Acts 18:1-18). More than likely, Paul became acquainted with Phoebe during this stay in Corinth. When Paul departs for Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla, they left from this harbor (18:18).
Several years later, during Paul’s second visit to Corinth, Phoebe was journeying to Rome, possibly on business or to visit family and friends. Paul took advantage of this opportunity to send a letter to the saints who were in Rome expressing his desire to visit them on his way to Spain (Rom. 1:7; 15:23, 24).
Phoebe had in her possession an epistle in which Paul had laid out many important, foundational, doctrinal truths, making it one of the most important epistles he would ever write. These doctrinal truths should change the way the believers in Rome behaved toward each other. A brief outline of the book might be: Romans 1-3, he addresses the sinfulness of all humanity before a holy God. Paul states that “all (Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freedmen) have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). In Romans 4 and 5, he sets forth the doctrinal truth of justification by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Again he writes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we (Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freedmen) have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). In Romans 6-8, he presents the sanctification, or setting apart, of the believer to a holy life of service for the Lord. Notice the pronouns that Paul uses, “we” and “us”. He concludes this section by asking the question, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” (8:35). The logical question that readers should ask at this point is: “What about ethnic Israel?” In Romans 9-11, Paul addresses the issue when he presents the past, present and future of ethnic Israel. In Romans 12-15, Paul elaborates on the practical outworking of the Christian life. He begins this section by beseeching the brethren, in light of the mercies of God, to present their bodies to the Lord as living sacrifices (12:1, 2). He concludes in Romans 16 with an admonition to the believers to greet one another on his behalf and the believers in Corinth.
The opening lines of Chapter 16 are Phoebe’s “letter of commendation” to the church in Rome. While a few in the church knew Phoebe personally, most did not. Paul states that she is a sister (believer) and requests that the saints in Rome help her out with whatever business she has in that city because she is a worthy person.
A pattern surfaces in the New Testament that is followed when a believer goes from their home assembly to an assembly in another city. Believers took a letter of introduction as they went on their journey. In Acts 18:27, Apollos left Ephesus with a letter from the brethren in that city exhorting the disciples in Achaia, and Corinth in particular, to receive him. Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to receive Epaphroditus (the letter carrier) “in the Lord with all gladness” (Phil. 2:29). Paul did not need a letter of commendation when he returned to Corinth because the believers there were his letter (II Cor. 3:1-4).
The early church, at least into the 4th century AD, followed this practice. At least nine papyrus letters have been found in Egypt, dating from the late 3rd century AD to the early 4th Century AD that commended believers to a church in a different location (Llewelyn 1998: 169-172).
Letters of introduction were common in the Greek world. The teacher would give a letter to his student who was traveling to another city. A case in point is Eudoxus from Cnidos (ca. 407-357 BC). He was a student of Plato while he studied in Athens. Upon his return to Cnidos, he decided to study in Egypt. Diogenes Laertius, writing in Lives of Eminent Philosophers states: “He (Eudoxus) proceeded to Egypt with Chrysippus the physician, bearing with him letters of introduction from Agesilaus to Nectanabis, who recommended him to the priests” (8:87; LCL 2: 401-423).
In “Plymouth Brethren” circles, this practice is considered an “assembly distinctive” because it is still followed. I came into “Plymouth Breathren” fellowship while I was doing graduate studies in Jerusalem (1978-79). At the end of my studies I returned to the States and sought out an assembly near my home in New Jersey. Before I left Israel, I was given a “letter of commendation” by one of the elders. I was glad I had it when I attended Valley Bible Chapel for the first time. Some in the congregation were looking at me thinking, “Who is this strange bearded fellow sitting there?!” [In 1979 I had more hair on my chin then most men in this assembly had on the top of their head!]. At the beginning of the breaking of bread meeting, one of the elders, Mr. Les Campbell, got up to read my letter. He remarked, “It is not too often that a church receives a letter from the church in Jerusalem. Today we have such a letter,” and proceeded to read it.
The letter, dated September 9, 1979, said, “Greetings. May Grace, Mercy and Peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is to commend to your love and fellowship our dear young brother Gordon Franz who has been in happy fellowship with the Believers here in Jerusalem for the past months and is now leaving for his home. Receive the dear brother as becometh Saints, even as God has received us in Christ Jesus, His Son. The Believers gathered to our blessed Lord in Jerusalem send greetings and salute you all in Christ Jesus our Lord. Maranatha.” It was signed by Mr. George Wald, a long time missionary in the Middle East, now enjoying his rewards with the Lord in Glory. After the meeting, I was made very welcome, partly because the letter helped them know who I was and that I was “kosher”.
Phoebe was commended to them as a “sister.” This implies a family relationship. Every person in this world is in one of two families, either the Devil’s family or in God’s family. We all begin in Satan’s family, but “[God] has delivered us [believers in the Lord Jesus] from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13, 14). The Apostle John tells us: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).
Phoebe was also characterized as “a servant (diakonon) of the church.” She was apparently exercising her spiritual gift of ministry (diakonian), or service (Rom. 12:7). William McRae says of this gift: “The person with the gift of service has an unusual capacity to serve faithfully behind the scenes, in practical ways, to assist in the work of the Lord and encourage and strengthen others spiritually” (1976: 47). D. Edmond Hiebert notes: “Paul calls her not a servant ‘in the church’ but a servant ‘of the church.’ This would indicate that the ministries of Phoebe were no mere private effort but were carried on under the approval and authorization of the church” (Hiebert 1992: 195).
Paul instructs the church in Rome to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints” (16:2). The word “receive” has the idea of opening ones home and showing hospitality to a traveler. Phoebe would have known at least Pricilla, Aquila, and Epaenetus from Corinth and most likely she stayed with them at the beginning of her stay. Paul also instructs them to “assist her in whatever business she has need of you.” Some have even suggested that she was going to prepare the way for Paul’s visit to Rome (Jewett 1988). The reason Paul commends her to the believers in Rome is because she was a helper of many, including Paul, and was worthy of their support.
There are two reasons why Phoebe was an excellent choice to deliver the letter. First, she saw first hand the division in the church at Corinth along religious lines and between personalities. She would be an excellent witness to the church in Rome because she saw the church come together as one and could testify that unity was possible. The conflict in Corinth was apparently solved. When Paul entered Corinth, there were two groups: Jews and Gentiles. When he left, there was a distinctively third group: the Church of God made up of Jewish and Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus (I Cor. 1:2; 10:32; II Cor. 1:1).
Second, she could model the use of spiritual gifts to the believers in the church in Rome. Paul had already addressed this issue (Rom. 12:3-8), but she could add some practical lessons while she was in Rome.
The Apostle Paul Sends Instructions to Greet Various Saints in the Church in Rome. 16:3-16
Before we look at the names of the people in the church at Rome, we should look at the formation of the church in the “eternal city.” When did the gospel first arrive in Rome and what was the ethnic and religious makeup of the early church in the city? The gospel most likely came to Rome soon after Shavuot (Pentecost) of AD 30. There were “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10) that were in Jerusalem for the thrice annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Some may have heard Peter’s heart piercing sermon and placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. They would have returned to their family and friends in Rome and shared the good news of salvation by faith alone in the Lord Jesus.
According to church tradition, Peter, along with Silvanus and John Mark, visited Rome in the second year of Emperor Claudius in AD 42. The nucleus of believers in the earliest church meeting in Rome would have been Jewish. In AD 49, the Jews were expelled from Rome. It was at this time that Aquila and Priscilla departed the city, even though they were believers in the Lord Jesus (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4; LCL 2: 53; Slingerland 1989: 305-322). The church that was left in Rome was mostly Gentiles and probably of the lower class. After the death of Claudius in AD 54, Nero apparently reversed the decree and Jews returned to Rome, most likely Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus returned as well, including Aquila and Priscilla.
Peter Lampe published a monumental study on the early church in Rome entitled Die stadtromischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten: Studien zur Sozialgeschichte (1987; for an English summary, see Lampe 1991 and 2003). In his studies he “showed that two of the most likely areas for early Christian house churches were in Trastevere, [on the west bank of the Tiber River] and the section on the Appian Way around the Porta Capena inhabited by the immigrants” (Jewett 1993: 27). He also suggested two other areas, Marsfield and the Aventine Hill with “potentially higher social status” than the other two areas (cited in Jewett 1993: 28).
In verses 3-16, Paul commands an unnamed group in the Roman church to greet 28 people on his behalf. The verb “to greet” does not merely mean to greet, like “Hi, how are you?” and wave your hand. The verb has the idea of wrapping one’s arms around and embracing someone. Paul admonishes them to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16). Ben Witherington III points out: “[This] amounts to a command to treat those named as family, to welcome them into one’s own home and circle. Paul is going all out to create a new social situation in Rome, overcoming the obstacles to unity and concord dealt with in chapters 14-15. His arguments have intended to deconstruct the social stratification in the Roman church, creating a leveling effect by making all debtors to the grace and mercy of God, so the Gentile majority will treat the Jewish Christian minority as equals and with respect” (2004: 380). I would also add women and slaves to Witherington’s comments.
The hint from Romans 14 is that the church was divided over what was served at the love feast, or agape meal. This section (16:3-16) begins with a group of Jewish believers meeting in the home (probably a villa) of Aquila and Pricilla (16:3-5a), and ends with a church of Jewish believers who are slaves meeting in a tenement building, or apartment (16:15).
There is a Roman receipt book entitled Apicius which gives the receipts for standard Roman meals. They include such non-kosher items as shell fish (lobsters, mussels and crawfish), pork, blood sausage, ostrich, rabbit, octopus and squid and receipts that mix milk and meat (Grocock and Grainger 2006; Grainger 2006). Having a meal of pork sacrificed in a pagan shrine in Rome, or blood sausage, would be completely appalling to any Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul had never been to Rome, yet he already knew about 28 people in the church in that city. Some he knew from personal contact. He either worked with them or led them to the Lord. Others he knew only by reputation from what others had told him.
Greetings to Pricilla and Aquila - 16:3-5a
The first individuals that Paul encourages the church in Rome to greet is a Jewish couple named Priscilla and Aquila who had come to faith in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. Aquila was originally from Pontus on the south shore of the Black Sea, called the Euxine Sea during the Roman period (Acts 18:2). Where Priscilla is from, we are not told. She could have been from Rome and Aquila met and married her in the Eternal City.
There are at least four possibilities as to when and how they came to faith in the Lord Jesus. First, he could have heard the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem in AD 30 (Acts 2:9) and then returned to his home in Pontus (in the Diaspora). Second, he and his wife could have been in Rome in AD 30 and were part of the Jewish and proselyte delegation that visited Jerusalem for Pentecost in AD 30 (Acts 2:10). Third, he could have heard the preaching of Peter on his missionary trip through Pontus in AD 40-42 (cf. I Peter 1:1. Acts 12:17). Jerome, one of the early church fathers, states: “Simon Peter … after having been bishop of the church in Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion – the believers in circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia – pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius” (1994: 3: 361). Fourth, if they were in Rome in AD 42, they could have heard Peter preach then.
These possible scenarios raise some interesting questions. Did Peter go to Pontus at the request of Aquila as a follow-up visit? Does Peter take Aquila as a disciple to Rome with him when he ventures to the city after his missionary journey? The latter would account for how he got to Rome. Was Aquila one of the leaders in the “pro-Cephas” faction in the church at Corinth (cf. I Cor. 1:12; 3:22)? He was being loyal to the one who led him to the Lord and mentored him. These are questions that can be asked, but Scripture is silent on the answers.
Scripture does state that Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from Rome by a decree during the days of Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Most scholars date this decree to AD 49. After the expulsion, Aquila and Priscilla went to the Roman colony of Corinth. There they practiced their trade of tentmaking. In AD 52, Paul appears in Corinth to begin the work of evangelism. Silas and Timothy soon joined Paul in the work. One of the things that attracted these three was the Isthmian Games that were held near Corinth (Acts 18:2-5).
After 18 months of ministering in Corinth, Paul decided to move to Ephesus. He took Aquila and Priscilla with him to this major trading center on the west coast of Asia Minor (Acts 18:18, 19). Paul left them there as he journeyed on to Jerusalem. While in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla had the opportunity to teach Apollos, from Alexandria, the finer points of the Word of God and his salvation (Acts 18: 26). They were also able to establish a church that met in their house (I Cor. 16:19).
The next time we see Aquila and Priscilla in Scripture, they are in Rome when the epistle to the Romans arrives in AD 58 (Rom. 16:3-5). Rome, not Corinth or Ephesus, was home for them, so they returned sometime after the death of Claudius and the reversal of his decree of expulsion. Paul indicates that there is a church meeting in their home (Rom. 16:5a). Tradition has it that the house church was on the Aventine Hill, on Via Prisca (Platner 1929: 65-67). This site was excavated by the Augustinian monks of St. Prisca between 1934 and 1958. Underneath the church they found a Mithraeum with an altar dating to the 2nd century AD with statues of Oceanus Saturnus and Mithras killing the bull.
The church had been meeting in the home of Aquila and Priscilla for nearly 10 years when tragedy struck. The Great Fire of July 19, AD 64, probably started by Nero, destroyed the homes on the Aventine Hill leaving Aquila and Priscilla homeless, along with thousands of other Romans. Perhaps they saw the handwriting on the wall. There were rumors that Nero had started the fire so he could engage in some urban renewal. He quickly blamed the Christians for starting the fire and the persecution of the Christians soon followed. Aquila and Priscilla, being homeless and fearing the persecutions, escaped to Ephesus. The last mention of this couple is in II Tim. 4:19, written in AD 67.
When Paul instructs the church at Rome to greet Priscilla and Aquila on his behalf, he describes them as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also, all the churches of the Gentiles” (16:3b, 4). Paul had labored with them in Corinth and the beginning of the work at Ephesus. Paul mentions an event that is unrecorded in the book of Acts, but this couple put their life on the line for the Apostle Paul. What it was, we do not know, but it must have been heroic because the Gentile church gave thanks. Why does Paul mention this event? The majority of Gentile believers in the church in Rome apparently marginalized this couple and the house meeting in their home. Paul says to greet them (give them a big hug) and thank them for risking their lives for his sake. He says that even their fellow Gentiles in churches in the east have been thankful for their testimony. Paul is trying to unify the Church. (For a full discussion of this couple, see Hiebert 1992: 23-35).
Greetings to Epaenetus - 16:5b
The next person to be greeted is Epaenetus. Paul described him as “beloved” and the “first fruit of Achaia.”2 The city of Corinth was the capital of Achaia so we can assume that he was the first person Paul led to the Lord upon his arrival in Corinth during his second missionary journey in AD 52. Apparently he was a servant in the household of Stephanas, which Paul describes as the “first fruits of Achaia” (I Cor. 16:15). The Apostle Paul followed the pattern that he followed elsewhere by seeking out the Jewish community in Corinth first (Acts 18: 2, 4; Rom. 1:16). The household of Stephanas was most likely Jewish.
This was the only household that Paul baptized (I Cor. 1:16). It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul baptized only Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue who came to faith in Yeshua (Acts 18:8); Gaius, later to be Paul’s host and a patron of the church at Corinth (Rom. 16:23); and the household of Stephanus (I Cor. 1:14-16). Once the local church was established in Corinth, he moved out of the way and let the local leadership take over the ordinance of baptism, a function of the elders in the local church.
For the next eighteen months, Paul and Silas committed the Word of God to Ephaenetus as a “faithful man” so that he could teach others the Scriptures (II Tim. 2:2). Six years later we see Epaenetus in Rome. How did he get there? One possible conjecture as to how he got to Rome is that when Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome from Ephesus, they went via Corinth and invited Ephaenetus to join them in Rome. He had been a servant in the household of Stephanus, but apparently was freed by his master and went to Rome as a freedman and ministered in the assembly that met in the house of Aquila and Priscilla on the Aventine Hill.
It is very telling that, six years later, Paul was still in contact with his convert and disciple.
Greetings to Mary - 16:6
Paul instructs the church to greet Mary, or as she was known by her Semitic name Miriam (Mariam). Most likely she was of Jewish heritage and named after Aaron’s sister (Ex. 15:20, 21; Micah 6:4). Nineteen Jewish inscriptions have been found in Rome bearing the name of the famous Old Testament person (Lampe 1992e: 4: 582).
Peter Lampe, on the other hand, suggests that “Mary was a freedwoman of the gens Maria or a descendant of a freed slave of this gens. Either way, she probably had Roman citizenship: slave masters with famous gens names like ‘Marius/is’ possessed Roman citizenship and in most cases passed it on to their slaves on the occasion of their emancipation; the freed slave then bequeathed the citizenship and the gens name to their freeborn children. Mary was probably a Gentile Christian” (1992e: 4: 583). Personally, I would disagree with Lampe. I think she was of Jewish heritage.
Paul describes her as one who has “labored much for us.” The word “labored” (ekopiasen) means to work hard and is used of four people in this chapter, all women (Miriam, 16: 6; Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis, 16:12). Paul uses the word “labor” to describe his activities as well. He was a workaholic and worked on the philosophy, “I would rather burn out than rust out.”
“Golden Mouth” Chrysostom, writing in the second half of the 4th century AD says: “The women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the Apostles their labors for the Gospel’s sake. In this way, they were traveling with them and also performed all other ministries”.
A number of years ago, when we had a college and career group at Valley Bible Chapel called “Eklampo” (it means “to shine forth” from Matt. 13:43), we had a young lady named Ruth Hsu from the Brighton Ave. assembly in Orange, NJ attend our meetings. One afternoon the issue of the role of women in the assembly came up. Ruth said, “All my life I have been told what I can not do. Can somebody tell me what I can do?!” She was thankful when I gave her a copy of a chapter from the book, Life in His Body, by Gary Inrig. Even though Paul says a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man (I Tim. 2:12), there are plenty of other things women can do in the meeting and Inrig gave a very positive presentation of what women can do in the assembly. Women play a key roll in the Sunday School ministry, Vacation Bible School, Awana, and women’s outreach. I dare say that if women stopped doing what they are doing, most assemblies would have to close their doors! Like Mary in Rome, women have a vital function in the local assembly.
Greetings to Andronicus and Junia - 16:7
This is a problematic greeting because we do not know if the name Junia is masculine or feminine. The name is in the accusative case which means it is the same for the male and female. If the name is masculine, then he would be named Junias, which is the shortened form of the name Junianus. If that is the case, then the two were probably brothers. If it is feminine, then the name would be Junia as in the KJV and NKJV. That being the case, then Andronicus and Junia were probably husband and wife. The early church fathers took it as female, and I will follow their lead.
Paul identifies them as “my countrymen.” This could mean one of two things. First, is that they were of Jewish heritage. Paul uses the word in the same way earlier in this epistle (Rom. 9:3, 4). “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises.”
The word could also be used of close relative. Notice in this list that Paul does not call Aquila a “countryman” (16:10), even though he was of Jewish heritage. Apellas and Rufus were also Jewish (16:13), but they are not called “countrymen.” The context suggests that Paul is using the word for close relatives. If that is the case, we see the fruit of Paul’s labors while he was in Tarsus for 8-12 years reaching family and friends with the gospel (16:8-12).
Jerome, a prolific commentator in the 4th century AD, records that Paul was born in Gush Halav in Upper Galilee. His family later moved to Tarsus. As a teen-ager, he goes to Jerusalem to study under Rabbi Gamaliel. There is a hint in the book of Acts that Paul had relatives in Jerusalem. It was Paul’s sister’s son that alerted him to a conspiracy to kill him (Acts 23:16). The question arises, did the family live there or were they up in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Succoth? Be that as it may, we see that Paul was reaching his family and friends with the gospel and then discipling them.
Paul also identified this couple as “fellow prisoners.” When this occurred, we are not told. The Apostle Paul was, by his own admission, a jailbird with a rap sheet a mile long! He proclaims that he was beaten a number of times and frequently in prison (II Cor. 11:23). Paul points out to the believers in Rome that this couple had been in prison for the cause of Christ. He wanted them to know that they had paid the price for following the Lord Jesus.
Paul goes on to say that they were of “note among the apostles.” Two different interpretations have been given for this phrase. First, they were noted “in the eyes of the apostles.” Second, they were noted “among the apostles.” (Witherington 2004: 390). The early church Fathers favor the second, indicating that they were apostles and noteworthy among the apostles. The word apostle means one sent forth with a message (cf. Phil. 2:25; II Cor. 8:23), but it could also mean, those who had seen the Risen Lord Jesus and been sent forth by Him with the gospel. Paul gives a list of those who had seen the Risen Lord Jesus in I Cor. 15. The list included “the twelve” (vs. 5), which is distinct from “James [most likely Jesus’ half-brother], then by all the apostles” (vs. 7). What Andronicus and Junia did to deserve this commendation, we are not told. Their life and work for the Lord was such that it caught the attention of the other apostles in Jerusalem.
Paul goes on to say that they were “in Christ” before he was. The phrase “in Christ” is used of people who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus as Savior and have been places in the Body of Christ. In the case of Andronicus and Junia, this happened (chronologically) before Paul trusted the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. Most likely they were part of the Hellenist faction of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1). Their names are not Hebrew names, but rather, Greek and Latin names.
The fact that Paul has to tell the believers in Rome that this couple was related to him, spent time in prison for the cause of Christ, did noted things, seen the Risen Lord Jesus, and had been saved longer than himself, speaks volumes about their humility. It could be suggested that they were a humble couple that did not want to draw attention to their own lives and accomplishments. The focus of their ministry was to uplift and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by the manner in which they lived.
Greetings to Amplias - 16:8
This name was derived from the Latin name Ampliatus, a name which was common in the Roman imperial household. The name has been found at least eighty times on inscriptions in Rome. This cognomen was used by one of the branches of the gens Aurelia. One interesting inscription from this family was found in the Catacomb of Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina where the Jews and Christians from this family were buried. This inscription bears the name AMPLIAT and dates to the end of the 1st century AD. Is this the same person mentioned by Paul in this chapter? We have no way of knowing.
The normal burial practice in Rome was cremation. However, because of their concept of the resurrection of the body, the Jews and Christians buried their dead in catacombs.
Paul described Amplias as “my beloved in the Lord.” Paul apparently worked with Amplias somewhere in the East. Where? We are not told. His name indicates that he was a slave or a freedman and most likely of Jewish heritage. We are not told what brought him to Rome.
Greetings to Urbanus - 16:9a
The Latin name Urbanus means “belonging to the urbs, or city.” This seems to indicate that he was born and raised in Rome, thus a city slicker. Yet, Paul identified him as “our fellow worker in Christ.” How we are to understand the word “our” is a matter of debate. Some have taken the word in a figurative sense and suggested that Paul was already identifying with the believers in Rome and that Urbanus served the Lord in Rome while Paul served the Lord elsewhere. On the other hand, Urbanus could have labored for the Lord with Paul in the East in one of the Roman colonies, perhaps Corinth or Philippi. In this case, Urbanus would have been a Roman official, sent to one of the colonies as an administrator, and came to faith in the Lord Jesus and began working with Paul while in the city that he had been posted to. When he finished his “tour of duty” he returned to Rome. Now he was laboring among the believers in that city.
Greetings to Stachys - 16:9b
Stachys was another individual that Paul knew from his ministry in the Eastern Roman Empire because he identifies him as “my beloved.” His name means “ears (of grain).” Today his nickname might be Wheaties!
Most likely he immigrated to Rome for one reason or another. As Peter Lampe points out: “This … is confirmed by the inscriptions of the city of Rome; that only thirteen epigraphical matches of ‘Stachys’ exist shows that the Romans seldom used the name. Stachys was probably a gentile Christian. It has been proposed that Stachys was a (freed) slave, but the inscriptions do not reveal a significant occurrence of the name for slaves; only three out of eleven possible 1st century “Stachys” inscriptions refer to slaves of freedmen” (1992k: 6: 183).
Greetings to Apelles - 16:10a
The name Apelles was common among the Jewish people of Rome, so we can assume that he was a Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus. Paul characterizes him as “approved in Christ.” The word “approve” has the idea of tried by a test, or tests. The same word is used in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” Apelles apparently has been “through the mill” in his service for the Lord Jesus. What he experienced, we are not told. Paul mentions it, in hopes that the gentiles in the church in Rome would greet him and ask about his life story.
Greetings to the household of Aristobulus - 16:10b
Paul admonishes the church to greet those of the household of Aristobulus. This seems to indicate that Aristobulus was not a believer in the Lord Jesus. There are only two inscriptions that have been excavated in Rome with the name Aristobulus.
There was a man living in Rome during the First Century AD, that some have conjectured is the Aristobulus of this household. He was the grandson of Herod the Great and the brother of Herod Agrippa I (Josephus, Wars 2:221, 222; LCL 2: 209-211). His parents’ names were Aristobulus and Berenice “the younger.” Aristobulus received a Roman education in the city along with his two brothers and a fellow who would become Emperor Claudius! When he came from the east, most likely he brought his slaves / servants with him (Lampe 2003: 165).
Unfortunately he did not get along with one of his brothers, Agrippa I. In fact, he accused his brother of taking bribes, which did not sit too well with the Roman proconsul of Syria, Flaccus.
Aristobulus was one of the Jewish leaders that led a protest against the decision of Emperor Gaius Caligula to place a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. Fortunately, Caligula would die before he could carry out this abomination (Josephus, Antiquities 18:273-276; LCL 9:161-163; Wars 2:10; Tacitus, Histories 5:9).
Aristobulus had a wife named Jotapa, a princess from Emessa. This union produced only one daughter and her name was Jotapa as well. His brother, Agrippa I, died in AD 44. Aristobulus died sometime after that.
There is a church tradition that he was “the brother of Barnabas, one of the 70 disciples, ordained a bishop, and was eventually a missionary in Britian” (Carroll 1992: I: 383). If that is the case, most likely he came to faith after Paul wrote this epistle to the Romans. Perhaps he saw the changed lives of the believers within his household and their testimony left an impact on him, causing him to trust the Lord Jesus as his Savior.
Greetings to Herodion - 16:11a
Herodion might have been a prominent freedman in the household of Aristobulus. Usually when a slave is set free, the individual would take the name of his master, or the family name. It is quite possible that Herodion was somehow connected with the Herodian dynasty. Paul identifies him as “my countryman,” indicating that he was a relative of Paul and of Jewish heritage.
Greetings to the household of Narcissus - 16:11b
This is the second household Paul instructs the Gentile believers to greet. Narcissus, apparently was not a Christian, but there were believers in the household. We know of at least one individual in Rome, about this time, with the name Narcissus. His full name was Tiberius Claudius Narcissus (Lightfoot 1976: 175). He was a wealthy freedman of Emperor Tiberius (Juvenal, Satire 14:329-331; LCL 289), who came to prominence and was very influential during the reign of Claudius (Suetonius, Claudius 28: LCL 2: 59). Unfortunately for Nacissus, he crossed paths with Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who had him executed in AD 54 (Tacitus, Annals 12:57,65; LCL 4:399, 411; Annals 13:1; LCL 5:3; Dio Cassius, History 60:14-16,19; LCL 7:403-407, 415; CIL 15: 7500). “It was customary in such cases for the household to become the property of the Emperor while it retains the name of its old master” (Allworthy 1918: 2: 76). When this letter was written, three years had gone by since the household reverted to the property of Nero. Perhaps these are some of the believers that Paul is referring to when he wrote to the church at Philippi a few years later, “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household” (4:22).
The fact that there were different religions in Rome at the time and that sometimes masters and slaves did not worship the same God or gods, is reflected in an interesting statement by Cassius in AD 61. “But now that our households comprise nations – with customs the reverse of our own, with foreign cults or with none, you will never coerce such a medley of humanity except by terror” (Tacitus, Annals 14:44; LCL 5: 179).
Paul instructs the slaves to “obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye service, as men pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality” (Col. 3:22-25). He also gives similar instructions to the church at Ephesus (6: 5-8). Cf also I Peter 2:18-21.
There is another example of a household coming to faith. Cf. Acts 16:30-32. The Philippian jailer trusted the Lord Jesus as his Savior and each person of his household trusted Christ on an individual basis.
Greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa - 16:12a
The next two individuals that Paul instructs the church in Rome to greet, are apparently two sisters who might even be twins. The first is Tryphena, whose name means dainty. The mother of Polemon II, king of Pontus and Cilicia, had this name as well. The second is Tryphosa, whose name means delicate. Both names are found on Roman inscriptions that are connected with imperial households (Lampe 1992l: 6:669). Like Mary and Persis, they “labored in the Lord” (cf. 16:6). The fact that they had time to work for the Lord in the church at Rome seems to indicate that they were freedwomen and, if they were married, had very supportive husbands.
Greetings to Persis - 16:12b
The next person Paul instructs the church to greet is a woman named Persis. Her name means “Persian woman.” The name is used of a slave or free born person, but not the imperial household. Like the two woman before, she labored (much) for the Lord.
Greetings to Rufus - 16:13
If the Rufus Paul instructs the church in Rome to greet is the same Rufus mentioned in Mark 15:21, then he was of Jewish heritage. He would have been the son of Simon of Cyrene, from the Jewish colony in Cyrene, North Africa. Rufus’ brother’s name was Alexander. Simon was the person that carried the cross of the Lord Jesus to a hill called Golgotha where He was crucified. John Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name from Rome about AD 43. He would have mentioned Rufus because, most likely, he and his mother had moved to Rome and they were in fellowship with the saints in the city at the time.
Some have objected to Rufus being the son of Simon because Simon is not greeted in this passage, or his brother Alexander. Perhaps one, or both, had already died in the intervening 28 years. In 1941, during a systematic survey of burial caves in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem, an intact burial cave was discovered containing eleven ossuaries, or bone boxes. One of them, ossuary no. 9, had the name “Alexander (son of) Simon” on it twice. On the lid, it had a bilingual inscription with the name Alexander written in Greek and Hebrew. The Hebrew inscription added the word QRNYT, which has been taken by some to mean “from Cyrene” (Avigad 1962: 9-11). The epigrapher who published these ossuaries mused: “The perplexing similarity of these names with those on our ossuary may of course be a sheer coincidence, but it led Milik … to consider the possibility, without pressing the matter ‘that the tomb in question belongs to the family of him who helped Jesus to carry the cross’” (Avigad 1962: 12). The date of his death, unfortunately, was not recorded on the ossuary.
Paul also instructs the church to greet Rufus’ mother as well. He identifies her as “Rufus’ mother and mine.” More than likely Paul is speaking of her as his mother in a figurative sense. Most likely she cared for the physical needs of Paul when he was visiting Jerusalem on various occasions before she and Rufus moved to Rome.
Greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobus, Hermes, and the brethren - 16:14
This group of five names seems to be greetings to the leadership in one of the local assemblies within the city of Rome. Paul addresses these individuals as well as those that meet with them as “brethren”. Interestingly, the next group of names in verse 15 is called “saints.”
The first name is Asyncritus which means “incomparable” (Jewett 1993: 29). This name appears only two times in the corpus of inscriptions from Rome. As Lampe observed, “Since the name was not common there, it probably indicates that Asyncritus immigrated to Rome from the East of the Roman Empire” (1992a: 1: 508). According to Jewett, the name points to slave status (Jewett 1993: 29).
The second person to be greeted is Phlegon. In classical literature this is a Greek name for a dog! (Jewett 1993: 29). I want to know what parent would give his or her child a dog’s name and why. (But parents have done stranger things. One rock star named his kid Jezebel!) It would be like having somebody in the church with the name Bowser or Fido! I guess the closest one comes to that name today would be Mutt like in the Mutt and Jeff cartoon strip. I am tempted to go off on a sermonette about nicknames and making fun of people’s names, but I will refrain. In the corpus of inscriptions from Rome, this name occurs only nine times which probably indicates he immigrated from the East as well (Lampe 1992j: 5: 347). The name is used of both slaves and freedman, so his social status can not be determined with certainty.
The third individual Paul instructs the church to greet is Hermas. The name Hermas is probably the shortened form of the name Hermagoras, Hermodorus, or Hermogenes.This name appears only six times in the corpus of Roman inscriptions and may indicate that this individual immigrated from the Eastern Roman Empire as well. Lampe suggests that Hermas was a Gentile believer in the Lord Jesus (1992c: 3: 147).
The fourth person to be greeted is Patrobus. This is the Greek form of the Latin name Patrobius. The Greek form of the name has never been discovered in any inscriptions (Lampe 1992h: 5:186). However, the Latin name has appeared eight times. Of the eight times, three are of prominent freedmen connected with the imperial administration, one which was in Nero’s court (Suetonius, Galba 20).
The final person Paul instructs them to greet is Hermes. This name is the same as the Greek god of good luck, whom Paul was identified with at Lystra on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:12). In Rome, this was a name given to slaves. Perhaps the owner was hoping that this slave would bring them good fortune (Lampe 1992d: 3:156).
Jewett has observed that “the names of the participants in this group indicate immigrant status and ethos, with a mix of slaves, freedmen, and Greek-speaking immigrants evident. … Persons with Greek names in Rome reflect a social background that was almost exclusively slave or former slave. Since all five names are Greek, it is likely that this church consisted entirely of persons with a low social status associated with slavery. This status gives it a high likelihood of being located in one of the tenements of Trastevere or Porta Capena. Since none of the five names appears to be playing the role of patron for the group, the social structure probably differed from what we have assumed was a normal house church. The selection of the title ‘brothers’ for this group may indicate an egalitarian ethos, which would be appropriate for a group without a patron” (Jewett 1993: 30).
Paul instructs the believers in Rome to greet this meeting of believers made up mostly of slaves. This act would demonstrate the truth that Paul wrote about in Galatians 3.
Greetings to Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them - 16:15
This next group of Greek names appears to be the leaders or prominent people of another assembly in Rome. Philologus and Julia are mentioned together which may indicate that they are husband and wife. The name Philologus appears on 23 inscriptions in Rome. Eighteen of these names are from the 1st century AD. “Half of the references are explicitly to slaves or freedmen. Several persons with this name are mentioned as lower officials in the Roman bureaucracy” (Jewett 1993:30). The name was not common in Rome which may indicate that he was an immigrant (Lampe 1992i: 5:345).
His wife, Julia, on the other hand, has the most frequently used name of any of the individuals listed in Romans 16. This Latin name appears over 1,400 times in the corpus of names found in Rome. This was a name given to slaves, especially of the Julian household, whether Jewish or Gentile.
The third name, Nereus, was “coined for slaves, [and] named after the Roman god of the ocean” (Jewett 1993: 31; Lampe 1992f: 4:1074). There is a 4th century AD tradition that Nereus and his sister were associated with Flavia Domitilla, and could have been buried in her catacomb. This raises the possibility that they were related to Amplias (16:8). Paul does not give the name of Nereus’s sister, but she must have had a good reputation and been very active in the church for her to be mentioned.
The final person to be greeted is Olympas. This might be a shortened form of the name Olympiodorus, Olympianus, or Olympicus (Lampe 1992g: 5:15). Most likely he was of slave origin like the others in this group because the name only appears twice in the corpus of inscriptions in Rome and none from the 1st century AD. He may also have been an immigrant from the East.
The picture that seems to immerge from this greeting is another church gathering in a tenement building of people with slave origins. Yet Paul calls them “saints” which seems to indicate a Jewish origin for this meeting.
Paul’s Missionary Strategy
Was there a strategy by Paul that these people would meet him in Rome after he left Corinth for Jerusalem? We don’t know. This was the “ideal” time for Paul and his co-workers to go to Rome because it was the “Golden Age.” They would also be available as Paul makes preparation to push on to Spain.
He is also trying to bring about the “Oneness of Christ.” John 17, so the world will believe. You can have a garbage man, excuse me, a sanitation engineer, as an elder in a meeting and he should be shown the respect and honor due that position.
The Holy Kiss
Paul’s final admonition to the believers in Rome was to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16a). Paul had admonished other churches to do the same thing (I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12; I Thess. 5:26, cf. I Pet. 5:14). Justin Martyr (died ca. AD 165) wrote in his First Apology 65, “When we have ceased from our prayers, we greet one another with a kiss” (1994: 1:185). This apparently was a common practice in the early church.
How should this be practiced today? What is the cultural equivalent? There was an elderly gentleman in a class I taught at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He claimed to have had an “anointed kiss.” He said that if he kissed you, the Lord would bless you. Needless to say all the young ladies in the class were afraid of him!
I was talking with a Bible teacher who described the assembly that I attend as the “most kissingest assembly in NJ.” What a reputation to have! This created a problem at one time. A man who was not “playing with a full deck upstairs” visited the meeting for several Sundays because he saw all the kissing. He was thinking to himself, “Hey, I want to get in on the action!”
Perhaps the solution should be what a friend of mine, Bob Inot, once said, “Let’s greet one another with a holy handshake!”
The churches of Christ greet you - 16:16b
A number of people that Paul instructs the church in Rome to greet were originally from Greece or Asia Minor and had immigrated to the Eternal City (cf. Acts 20:4). The churches where they were originally from, in the east, sent their greetings as well. The churches in Christ in the east were concerned about those who had fellowshipped with them at one time and how they were treated by the believers in Rome. Paul is saying, “We are sending our greeting to you, and this is what we want you to do to each other in Rome. Please, do not show partiality among those believers who are different from you. Embrace one another!”
Peter in Rome?
It is interesting to note that there is no mention of Peter in this chapter. He was absent from Rome at this point in time. One would think if he was the first pope or even the bishop of Rome he would be mentioned. At an early point in Peter’s ministry (AD 42) he calls himself a “fellow elder” (I Peter 5:1). Peter and his wife were, most likely, off ministering somewhere else.
We have conjectured on the ethnicity and social status of some of these saints in the church in Rome. When we get to Heaven, we will be able to sit down and talk with them, hear their own testimonies as to how they came to faith in the Lord Jesus, when and where they met the Apostle Paul, and what they did in the Lord’s work in Rome and elsewhere.
The first thing we note in this chapter is that Paul calls Phoebe, “our sister.” One of the metaphors used for the Church is that of a family. A person is born into God’s family by being “born-again” (John 3:3). The Apostle John writes, “But as many as receive Him [the Lord Jesus Christ], to them He gave the right to become children of God [brothers and sisters], to those who believe [trust in] in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13). Have you trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and been born into God’s family?
We should also notice the role of women in the church in Rome. The description of their activities is impressive. Of Phoebe, it is written that she was a helper of many. Of Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis, it is written that they “labored much.” While the roles of women may be different than men in the church, the zeal in which it is carried out by these women was noted by Paul. Women were active participants in the work of the Lord in the church at Rome.
Phoebe also set an example of seeking out fellowship with the Lord’s people when she traveled to Rome. When we travel for vacation or business, do you seek out the saints? A “letter of commendation” is always helpful when traveling to places where other believers may not know you. It smooths the welcoming process.
The Apostle Paul highlights three married couples that are serving the Lord together, Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, and Philologus and Julia. Couples with strong marriages working together in the church are important for several reasons. First, to set an example of a godly marriage for others to follow, and second, to illustrate the love the Lord Jesus had for His Church and the Headship of Christ (Eph. 5:22-33).
This list of names gives us a hint at Paul’s missionary strategy. He would lead a person to the Lord and then disciple them. From this chapter we see that Paul kept in contact with those he had led to the Lord. Epaenetus was Paul’s first convert in Achaia and Paul knew where he was and what he was doing for the Lord. Paul also mentions his “kinsmen,” so he had as his priority, reaching his family and friends with the gospel.
Paul says just enough tantalizing facts about some individual so that it should whet the interest of those in the church in Rome to get to know these people better. For examples: What did Phoebe do to help others? What did Aquila and Pricilla do to risk their necks for Paul’s sake? Andronicus and Junia had seen and heard the Lord Jesus. What was that like? Apparently this humble couple did not draw attention to themselves, but pointed people to the Lord Jesus and talked about Him. Paul gives a subtle hint to the Christians in Rome to ask Andronicus and Junia what it was like to have walked (literally and figuratively) with the Lord for close to 30 years. The principle we can learn from this is that everyone has a story to tell. We should get to know the people in our assembly.
Paul mentions the Jewish believers that are living in Rome for two reasons. First, he is reinforcing the truths that he has set forth in Romans 9-11 that God has not given up on the Jewish people. He was still calling out a remnant for his Name, and one day the nation will return to the Lord Jesus (Rom. 11: 26, 27). Second, the Gentiles believers in the church at Rome should not marginalize the Jewish believers (or women or slaves, for that matter), but “greet” them, give them a big bear hug and a holy kiss, and welcome them back into the fellowship of the saints in Rome. Do not marginalize them (cf. Eph. 3).
The title of this paper asks a question. Is this chapter a “grocery list” of names or the focus of the Apostle Paul’s ministry? I think we can see that these names reflect the heart of the Apostle Paul and his missionary practices. His focus was on people: seeing that they come to faith in the Lord Jesus, and then go on to serve Him.
When we see lists of names in the Bible, we should not pass over them lightly. They are real people and the Spirit of God included the names for our benefit. It should be a challenge for the diligent student of the Bible to dig out the gems that are in these lists of names. This exercise would be profitable for our spiritual lives! The lists in the Bible are part of the “all Scripture” of II Tim. 3:16 that are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness! We ignore this chapter to our own spiritual peril.
1 There are some who have suggested that the list of names in Romans 16:3-16 are greetings to believers in Ephesus, not Rome. This idea has been refuted by Peter Lampe 2003: 153-164.
2 The Westcott and Hort text says “Asia.”
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