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Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199 brill.


Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the

Application of Reciprocal Relationships to
New Testament Texts

Erlend D. MacGillivray

This article re-examines the meaning of the title προστάτις given to Phoebe in Rom 16:2—
commonly understood in contemporary scholarship as presenting Phoebe as Paul’s patron.
This position is challenged with reference to recent studies which argue for broadening our
understanding of ancient reciprocity beyond the definitions of a patron—client relation-
ship, and also by re-evaluating the semantic range of προστάτις/προστάτης. It argues that
we should see Phoebe and Paul’s relationship as working within a general reciprocity
dynamic of benefaction, rather than within the specific relationship of the patron-client

Patronage; Reciprocity; Benefaction; Phoebe

I. Overview
The translation of προστάτις used to describe Phoebe in Rom 16:2: “I ask
you to welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and provide
her with any help she may need from you, for she has been a προστάτις
to many people, including me,” has been the subject of much discussion
and debate. Until the 1950s/60s, Phoebe’s position was commonly held to
be servile, and so προστάτις was frequently translated as “helper.”1 Yet,
there has been a growing recognition that the full semantic weight and
prestige of προστάτις had been ignored, and many have sought to align its

For example F.J. Leenhardt, Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary (London: Lutter-
worth, 1961) 379.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.1163/156853610X521098
184 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

meaning with definitions more commonly attributed to the male form

In Attic Greek the term προστάτης was used to describe the legal repre-
sentatives of metics, or to designate the leaders of groups or popular
movements.2 By the time of the Roman Empire both προστάτις and
προστάτης came to be used to describe various civil and state offices and
functions, in particular denoting a presiding officer,3 and also used as an
appellation commemorating benefactors.4
At first, scholarly discussion fixed upon the applicability of assigning a
leadership role to Phoebe on the basis of προστάτις,5 yet, despite initial
confidence, this proposal has received retracting support. Though sugges-
tions of leadership are philologically possible, exegetically they are prob-
lematic. For instance, Phoebe is introduced as a προστάτις of Paul and
others. This is decidedly not the parlance of leadership as it is hard to
conceive of what possible meaning Paul could have intended by describ-
ing Phoebe as his presiding officer.6 Additionally, viewing προστάτις as
indicating a leadership role breaks down the connection that Paul makes
to help Phoebe “because (γάρ) she has been a προστάτις of many.” The
motivation is clearly reciprocal: to help Phoebe because she has helped
others in the early Christian movement—not because she holds a leader-
ship role.7
E.g. Lysias, Speeches 31.9, and Aristotle, Politics 1.1275a. While some have referred to
those in this role as “patrons,” e.g. Mogens H. Hansen, Athenian Democracy in the Age of
Demosthenes (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1998) 398, their role in fact was quite distinct
from the patronage system. Nicholas F. Jones, Rural Athens Under the Democracy (Phila-
delphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004) 73, has rightly commented that: “The [Attic]
prostates was involved with formal constitutional and legal matters, not with the sorts of
basically economic and social/political issues that are respectively the concerns of the
Roman client and patron Rural Athens”; while D.M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical
Athens: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life ( New York: Cornell University Press, 1986) 78,
refers to it as a “false analogy.”
E.g. B.M.I. IIIi, 420; SEG 537, SGDI 1334; LXX 1 Chron 27:3; 1 Esdra 2:12; Justin,
Apol 65.
E.g. I.Eph. III.691; I.Eph III.636.
R.R. Schultz, “A Case for ‘President’ Phoebe in Romans 16:2,” LIJ 24 (1990)124-127;
Elisabeth S. Fiorenza, “The Quilting of Women’s History: Phoebe of Cenchreae,” in
Embodied Love: Sensuality and Relationship as Feminist Values (ed. Paula M. Cooey et al.;
San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 35-48.
On this see Moo, Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 916;
and Wayne A. Meeks, “The Social Level of Pauline Christians,” in Social Scientific Approach
to New Testament Interpretation (ed. David G. Horrell; London: T & T Clark, 1999) 211.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998) 788.
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 185

Over the past two decades attention has shifted more successfully to
considering προστάτις as presenting Phoebe as a generous benefactor, and
to understanding the implicit hierarchical status and sociological impor-
tance that was attached to such ancient benefactors.8 Understanding
Phoebe within this framework has allowed the elevated status of προστάτις
to be revealed in the context of an interpersonal relationship. Yet, while
some scholars initially preferred the term “benefactor” to describe Phoe-
be’s relationship to Paul, there has been a move towards styling their rela-
tionship as one of a patron-client. This proposal has gained increasing
traction and now appears to hold the dominant position in contemporary
scholarship. Indeed, most commentators now present προστάτις as syn-
onymous with patronage—or as one of its key definitions.9

II. Understanding Classical Reciprocity

While I agree that an accurate rendering of προστάτις in Rom 16:2 will
ultimately lie in understanding ancient reciprocal dynamics, I will argue
that certain methodological weaknesses have falsely permitted, and demanded
by their presuppositions, the designation of patronage in this passage.

Key studies on socio-scientific studies and ancient reciprocal dynamics include J. Bois-
sevain and C.J. Mitchell, ed., Network Analysis: Studies in Human Interaction (The Hague:
Mouton, 1973); Earnest A. Gellner and John Waterbury, ed., Patrons and Clients in Medi-
terranean Societies (London: Duckworth, 1977); S.N. Eisenstadt and L. Roginer, ed.,
Patrons, Clients and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The New
Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2007).
The list of studies that presume προστάτις and προστάτης to be synonymous with
patronage is extensive. Those who are most assertive in presenting their synonymity
include James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC 38; Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1988) 888,
who bemoaned: “The unwillingness of commentators to give prostates its most natural and
obvious sense of ‘patron’; while R.S. Kraemer and M.R. D’Angelo, Women and Christian
Origins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 244, state that: “They (translators) do
better when they translate the term as ‘benefactor’ (NRSV) as long as one emphasizes
when reading this word the significance of the term within ancient systems of patronage.”
Peter Lampe, “Paul, Patrons, and Clients,” in Paul in His Greco-Roman World: A Handbook
(ed. J. Paul Sampley; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004) 499, meanwhile
has stated that “the technical term [προστάτες] patron was specifically used.” This has even
influenced recent Bible translations such as the ESV, The Holy Bible: English Standard
Version (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001), which refers to Phoebe as “a patron of many.”
186 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

Firstly, any sufficiently robust treatment on the meaning of προστάτις

in Rom 16:2 will have to interact with, and interpret, reciprocal dynamics
in the ancient Mediterranean world, and consider how to apply these
methodologically to the text. The terms προστάτις/προστάτης are held
especially vulnerable to being defined by such presuppositions precisely
because they had such varied, fluid use—their meaning often being
positively deictic.10 The presumptions that the interpreter brings on the
variety, form, length and possible asymmetrical hierarchy of reciprocal
relationships dynamics in antiquity will all inform a priori the possible
range of exegesis that they can choose to apply to this passage.
It should not be surprising therefore that almost all those who have
sought to apply the characteristics of ancient reciprocity to Phoebe and
Paul’s relationship have chosen to characterize their relationship as one of
a patron-client. Until relatively recently the seemingly axiomatic presup-
position has been that the patronage model offered the exegete the com-
posite schema by which to understand, and reduce, the complexities of
ancient reciprocity.11 It has been gradually realized, however, that depen-
dence upon the patronage model and confidence in its comprehensive
nature has issued a far too limiting, even misleading, view of ancient reci-
procity—ignoring and obscuring its polyvalent nature.12 James Harrison’s

Aryeh Kasher, The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: The Struggle for Equal Rights
(TSAJ; Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 1985) 114, has noted that “some scholars have tried
to identify the office [of προστάτες] with the political and representational leadership of
the communities (as political organizations) and even equate it with that of the gerou-
siarch; others tried to equate it with the ‘patronus’ [. . .] The terms prostasia and prostates
themselves have very general meanings, and their actual content can only be stipulated
in relation to specific cases. In evaluating the function it is necessary too (sic) take into
account the time and the local traditions.” Paul R. Treblico, Jewish Communities in Asia
Minor (SNTMS; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006) 109, has also noted that it is
frequently problematic to decide between translating προστάτις/προστάτες as “leader” or
For example, Efrain Agosto, “Commendation,” 126, makes a comment which exempli-
fies this practice when he states that upon receiving hospitality from Philemon (Philm 7,
22) and Gaius (Rom 16:23), Paul “accept[ed] hospitality and therefore patronage.” For a
critique of this phenomenon, see Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Re-Evaluating Patronage and
Reciprocity in Antiquity and New Testament Studies,” JGRChJ 6 (2009) 42-43.
Fredrick W. Danker, “Paul’s Debt to the Corona of Demosthenes: A Study of Rhetori-
cal Techniques in Second Corinthians,” in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament
Rhetoric in Honour of George A. Kennedy (ed. D.A. Watson; JSNTSup 50; Sheffield:
Sheffield Academic Press, 1991) 263, had warned that: “It is unfortunate that the narrow
term ‘patron-client’ relationship should have entered the discussion rather than the more
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 187

caution on the potential error this might cause in interpreting Paul’s letters
is worth quoting at length:

to be sure, the Roman republican and imperial patronal system has been extensively
studied[. . .] but the Greek ethos of reciprocity- which was the fundamental dynamic
of the benefaction system in the eastern empire Mediterranean basin—has only
recently been explored in depth by ancient and New Testament historians [. . .] As a
result, New Testament social historians, who are sympathetic to the (more Roman-
sounding) client-patron model espoused by the social-sciences are confronted by a
series of methodological problems.13

Failure to realize this has, I believe, led to the approbation of a relation-

ship which is foreign to the text of Rom 16:2—an issue which requires
immediate redressing.14 I will not seek to further evaluate or expand upon
recent discussions which seek to define and broaden our understanding of
classical reciprocity beyond the confines of the patron-client model. I will
accept, and work within, the growing recognition that patronage was just
one subset of a far wider, complex, reciprocal dynamic active in antiquity.

comprehensive term ‘reciprocity system’ of which patron-client more accurately describes

an ancient subset.” For additional critiques see Eilers, Roman Patrons of Greek Cities
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 1-18, 183-184, and James Harrison, Paul’s Lan-
guage of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context (WUNT 2.172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck,
2003) 8-24. On broadening our comprehension of ancient reciprocity beyond the patron-
age relationship see Stephan Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological
Reflection in Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2.124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 37-61;
Alicia Batten, “God in the Letter of James: Patron or Benefactor?,” NTS 50 (2004) 257-
272; Walter R. Connor, The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens (Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing, 1992) 18-19; and MacGillivray, “Re-Evaluating Patronage,” 37-54; Jonathan
Marshall, Jesus, Patrons, and Benefactors, Roman Palestine and the Gospel of Luke (WUNT
2.259; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009) 25-53, offers one of the most thorough and per-
suasive arguments for the separation of patronage from benefaction and general reciprocal
exchanges. Marshall also, 3-14, repeatedly scolds New Testament scholars for neglecting
to revise their conclusions on the character and extent of classical patronage by applying a
generic socio-scientific model which fails to interact with classical scholars’ work on patron-
age from the past two decades.
Harrison, Paul’s Language, 15.
Others have also questioned the designation of patronage in other New Testament
texts. Jon A. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (The College Press NIV Commentary; Joplin,
MO: College Press, 1996) 179, has argued similarly that: “We may well question whether
patronage was of much relevance to leadership in the church[. . .] it is not entirely clear
from 1 Cor 16:16-18 that Stephanus, the most widely cited example of a ‘patron’ in Paul’s
letters, in fact financially supported the Corinthian church.”
188 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

I will though note the importance of distinguishing between patronage, a

characteristically dyadic and Roman relationship; and euergetism, a char-
acteristically corporate and Greek system. While both patronage and
euergetism bestowed gifts and favours to utilize the same trenchant con-
cept of reciprocity which governed the ancient world’s mindset, doing so
to gain honour, support and recognition, it must be realized that they did
so differently.
While patronage proffered individuals with gifts and favours to estab-
lish and—more importantly—maintain an indebted client base; euerget-
ism, by contrast, sought more corporate forms of recognition. Euergestic
benefactors attentively supplied clubs, state funds, municipal buildings,
and even whole cities to gain communal appreciation and gratitude. By
seeking to impress communally euergetism obviated the need and expec-
tation for any sustained dyadic interaction between benefactor and recipi-
ent, and, significantly had no client base to establish and retain.15 Yet
these two systems are frequently conflated and euergestic benefactors mis-
labelled as “patrons” and the titles employed to describe them, such as
προστάτις, are frequently cast as appellations denoting patronage.
A second, but linked, phenomenon is the augmenting of the definition
of the classical patronage relationship with the characteristics and applica-
tions of the modern, English term “patronage.” While the modern word,
and its cognates, have a wide semantic field; being used to describe almost
any distribution of wealth or support to individuals or groups, the classi-
cal patronage relationship was an altogether narrower, formalized relation-
ship. Failing to realize this has resulted in a conflation that has swollen
and distorted the common understanding of classical patronage.16 It has
created a hybrid definition incorporating both modern and classical fea-
tures. Unfortunately, when “patronage” is introduced in many in New
Testament studies there is often no stated recognition, or apparent aware-

See MacGillivray, “Re-Evaluating Patronage,” 46-54, especially 47-48.
Peter Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk
and Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993) 58-59, offers a trenchant and suit-
ably broad critique on the common misallocation of patronage when he comments that:
“Patronage is a lasting relationship between individuals of unequal wealth or power involv-
ing the asymmetrical exchange of goods and services. . . . [A] purely economic relationship
between unequals is not patronage. Charity, a one-sided relationship between an active
benefactor and an essentially passive beneficiary, is not patronage. . . . [I]n a patronage rela-
tionship a patron must meet the client’s expectations of the treatment that is due to him if
the relationship is to continue and not degenerate into something else.”
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 189

ness, of differences between the modern and classical meaning.17 We must

constantly seek to remain cognizant of classical patronage’s separation from
the modern definition and refuse to insert our modern definitions and
applications into its meaning. In short, we must attempt to bring patron-
age back into classical focus.

III. Meaning and Use of προστάτις/προστάτης

The above weaknesses can be seen in the standard interpretation of
προστάτις/προστάτης in the epigraphical evidence—where almost all of
the cited evidence of their use equating with patronage finds their prove-
nance. For example, while Richard E. Oster has offered one of the most
thorough discussions on the distinguished nature of προστάτις, and while
the evidence he supplies on the prestige and application of προστάτις and
προστάτης is incontrovertible, any designation of classical patronage from
the presented examples is speculative.
Of the thirteen epigraphs Oster cites, to my analysis, six are likely
being used to denote an office or position;18 four are ambiguous,19 giving
little indication of the meaning of the title’s use—or are fragmentary; and
three are euergetistic, such as the following inscription given to a certain
M. Antonius Albus, which likely does indicate that some form of bene-
faction took place:

προστάτην γεγονότα τοῦ τε ἱεροῦ τῆς Ἀρτεμιδος | κὶα τῆς πλεως20

John Nicols, “The Civic Religion and Civic Patronage,” in The Impact of Imperial Rome
on Religions, Ritual and Religious Life in the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Fifth Work-
shop of the International Network Impact of Empire (ed. Lukas de Blois et al.; Leiden: Brill,
2006) 37, noted this and cautioned: “are we speaking of “patronage” as a universal con-
cept or of a particularly formal and Roman institution? It is easy, and often confusing, to
allow oneself to cross the line of this point. . . . [O]ne needs to be candid about which per-
spective is relevant at each step of the argument.” See also Eilers, “Roman Patrons,” 2-5,
on the dangers of conflating these two distinct social phenomena.
SEG 537 (Larisa I); O.Tebt.Pad. 67; I.Eph. III.691; SEG 969; I.Eph. VII.1.3055; I.Eph
I.Eph. V.1539; I.Eph. III.691; I.Eph. V.1879; I.Eph. VII.1.3054; O.Tebt.Pad. 67.
I.Eph. III.614c. The other two likely euergetistic texts are I.Berenike 17 (24 Oct., 24/5)
and I.Eph. V.1063.
190 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

Other scholars have offered similar examples to supplement Oster’s list.

For instance, some have suggested that two Jewish inscriptions demon-
strate the ability of προστάτης to describe “patronage”:21

ἐνθάδε κεῖτε | καίλις προστά|της Ἀγριππη–(hedera) | σίων‧ ἐν εἰρή|νη̣ κοιμάσθω22

Ἐνθάδε χεῖτ(αι) Γαΐς προστάτης ὅσιος ἔξησεν ἔτη οΒ́. Ἐν εἰρή[νη ἡ] χοἰμησις

The reason behind the inscriptions’ construction and their intended

meaning of προστάτες though are ambiguous; both though can be placed
firmly in a euergetistic setting.24
Bernatte Brooten has also cited an example of προστάτης, and its use to
honour a certain Iael/Yael in a Jewish donation inscription, which Broo-
ten believes is being used to describe either a patron or presiding officer.
By “patron” though it seems that she is referencing the modern sense of
the word, for she does not attribute any classical patronage characteristics
to Iael/Yael’s position. Brooten seems to conclude that Iael/Yael was a pre-
siding officer who arranged or negotiated the building of a soup kitchen
for this Jewish community.25

Benjamin Witherington III, Paul’s Letters to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commen-
tary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 384.
JIWE, vol. 2, no. 170.
JIWE, vol. 2, no. 373.
J.-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum vol. 1, Europe (Rome: Pontificio Istituto
diStudi Orientali, 1965) 71, 284, concluded that JIWE, vol. 2, no. 170. (CIJ, 100) was
honouring a προστάτης “de la communauté” and that the προστάτες recorded at JIWE,
vol. 2, no. 373 (CIJ 365), was one “avocat d’une communauté.” Furthermore, James M.
Scott, Geography in Early Judaism and Christianity: The Book of Jubilees (SNTS; Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University, 2005) 16, has noted the communal nature of the Agrippe-
sian inscription, whilst also maintaining that the reason behind the inscriptions installation
“is not clear.” Margaret H. Williams, “The Structure of Roman Jewry Re-considered—
Were the Synagogues of Ancient Rome Entirely Homogeneous?,” ZPE 104 (1994) 38,
also comments that: “Without strain, the prostates of the Agrippesians can be seen as the
leader/president of that community.” She has also, significantly, argued that there are no
examples of the term προστάτες being used in Jewish epigraphy to denote either a patron
or a legal representative. On the latter she notes that “when (Jewish) people wanted to talk
about legal advisers/assistants to the community other terms were employed, most notably
σύνδικος and συνήγοπος” (136, n. 71).
Bernadette J. Brooten, “Iael προστάτης in the Jewish Donative Inscription from
Aphrodisias,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. B.A.
Pearson; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) 149-162. For a recent examination of the
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 191

There is a larger issue though that must be addressed here of how schol-
ars interpret such benefaction epithets and apply reciprocal relationships
to them. It needs to be realized that honorary Graeco-Roman epigraphs
employed a distinctive encomium template; utilizing an almost ritualized
pattern of formulas and linguistic conventions to describe their respective
benefactors. This use of a near normative template means that despite the
wide geographical, chronological and cultural provenance of extant hon-
orary epigraphs, distinctions between various honoured recipients are
hard to find.26 There needs to be greater awareness of this use of an hon-
orary template, and a realization of the resulting fluid use of benefaction
Claude Eilers noted this phenomenon, and the potential for error it can
cause for classical scholars in trying to understanding ancient benefaction.

inscription and whether the προστάτης in question should be considered either female
(Iael) or male (Yael) see T. Ilan, “Once Again on Yael and the Aphrodisias Inscription,”
Zutot 4 (2007).
See Fredrick Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testa-
ment Semantic Field (St Louis: Clayton, 1982) for a study on benefaction language, see
especially 317 for a discussion on the phenomena of epigraphical resemblance. See also
D.W. Amundsen and G.B. Ferngren, “Philanthropy in Medicine: Some Historical Per-
spectives,” in Beneficence and Healthcare (ed. Earl E. Shelp; London: D. Reidel, 1982) 6,
on the indistinct nature of benefaction language.
On this topic we can echo John Marshall’s concerns (see n. 12 above), on New Testa-
ment scholars failing to interact with advances in classical studies. Classicist Kathryn
Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks 350 B.C.-A.D. 200 (London: Routledge) 169, for
example, has argued that “acts of patronage are only known from collective expressions of
gratitude, which leaves the exact nature of the benefaction in doubt.” Mary T. Boatwright,
Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire (New Jersey: University of Princeton Press,
1989) 29, has advised scholars to be cautious in approaching inscriptions hailing Hadri-
an’s benefactions as “in most cases no secure identification of Hadrian’s activity can be
made,” and has forcibly argued, 30, that “the specialized meanings these [benefaction]
words could intermittently assume should not mask the fact that such vocabulary was
used precisely because it was polyvalent.” Meanwhile G.G. Fagan, Bathing in Public in the
Roman World (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999) 130, has discussed the mis-
leading use of benefaction language in inscriptions issued to bath benefactors and, 130,
warned that: “Epigraphic language is often imprecise or misleading. . . . [T]his observation
throws some doubt on the reliability of epigraphy as a guide to ancient actions.” See also
G.G. Fagan, “The Reliability of Roman Rebuilding Inscriptions,” BSR 64 (1996) 81-94;
E.J. Owens, The City in the Greek and Roman World (London: Routledge, 1991) 20; and
E. Tomas and C. Witschel, “Constructing Reconstructing: Claim and Reality of Roman
Rebuilding Inscriptions from the Latin West,” BSR 60 (1992) 135-177.
192 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

In regards to the title patron (patronus) in honorary inscriptions, he has

commented that:

[the use of patronus] cannot prove that, any more than lists of benefactions performed
by priests, soldiers, or women, can prove that liberality was considered an integral
part of priestly, military, or female responsibility. Benefactors will appear among all
categories of ancient notables, simply because civic liberality was an important fea-
ture of ancient public life and is a regular focus in inscriptions. . . .[The question is]
whether someone who is attested as a patronus can be assumed to be a donor because
of this title.28

Returning to προστάτης and προστάτις, it must be realized that there is

actually little extant evidence that either προστάτης or προστάτις were
used synonymously with patronage. As Johannes Touloumakos has

Der römische Patron von Privatpersonen oder Städtern wird in der Urkunden
(Weihinschriften) . . . nicht prostates genannt; sein Verhältnis zu diesen wie jenen heiβe
‘patroneia’ . . . nicht ‘prostasia.’29

Plutarch though does appear to twice link προστάτης with patronus. In

the first example he does so in his description of the relationship between
the early senators and the Roman citizens; 30 stating that “the nobles were
separated from the multitude, calling them ‘patrons,’ that is to say
protectors.”31 Plutarch describes at length the senators’ fatherly care
towards the commonality of Rome; portraying them as providing protec-
tion, support and friendship to them, which resulted in creating astonish-
ing goodwill and devotion from the people towards the senatorial class.32
The second example occurs when Plutarch, in describing the court case of

Eilers, Roman Patrons, 99-100.
J. Touloumakos, “Zum römischen Gemeindepatronat im griechischen Osten,” Hermes
116 (1988) 316.
Plutarch, Romulus 13.2-5.
“πάτρωνας ὀνομάζων, ὅπερ ἐστὶ προστὰτα,” Romulus 13.5. It is though unclear if
Plutarch is creating an explicit link between these proto-patrons and the later establishment-
development of the patron-client relationship. For a relevant and detailed discussion
on this see A. Drummond, “Social Structures,” in The Cambridge Ancient History II: The
Rise of Rome to 220 B.C., ed. F.W. Walback et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University)
See especially Romulus 13.5-6.
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 193

Gaius Marius, diverts the narrative to inform his readers that the Roman
term patronus is the same as their term προστάτης, and proceeds to outline
the legal technicalities that such a relationship could bring.33
The only use of προστάτης, of which I am aware, from an Attic writer
which comes close to a outlining a relationship analogous to the patron-
age relationship comes from Xenophon’s Oecon. 2.5-6, 7-9, where Xeno-
phon portrays a hypothetically impoverished Critobulus appealing for
Socrates to “act the προστατεύειν towards him and save him from his
penury.” The link being that an impoverished individual seeks to be
dependent upon a rich benefactor, who is himself apparently under strain
from providing such help.34 Whether this would be an extended arrange-
ment though, and to what forms of reciprocal demand Critobulus would
have been held to are unclear, and makes firmly designating this as a
“patronage” relationship impossible.35
In reviewing these examples it must be realized that the semantic evi-
dence required to legitimize consistently presenting προστάτης and
προστάτις as synonymous with patronus is notably scarce. The confidence
that scholars have displayed in defining προστάτης and προστάτις as
“patron” cannot be sustained when we consider the limited frequency of
their use to refer to the patronage relationship in classical sources.36
Yet more exegetically and methodologically challenging to the prevail-
ing view of Phoebe acting as Paul’s patron are the problems to be found
in attempting to align the asymmetrical nature of patronage with the

πάτρωνας (οὕτως γὰρ οἱ ‘Ρωμαιοι τοὺς προστάτας καλοῦσι) (Gaius Marius 5.4).
On this see the argument of Paul Millet, “Patronage and Its Avoidance in Classical
Athens,” in Patronage in Ancient Society, ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (London: Routledge,
1989) 225.
See Garnsey’s cautions noted at n. 15.
An additional point to consider is the systematic transliteration of patronus to πάτρων,
which indicates that the Greeks believed that they had no equivalent terms to describe
patronage. MacGillivray, “Re-Evaluating Patronage,” 53, 54, notes that: “the systematic
transliteration of the Latin patronus into Greek πάτρων is highly indicative that Greeks
found themselves lacking a term sufficient enough to describe patronage. . . . [I]f Greek
culture had a corresponding reciprocal system identifiable with the patron-client relation-
ship, the Greek vocabulary for the semantic field should have had the flexibility to express
it.” See also the comment in Eilers, Romans Patrons, 17. Again, had προστάτις and
προστάτης the ability to include within their semantic fields, or be considered synony-
mous with, patronage—as modern scholarship increasingly has presumed—their lack of
use to describe patronage is curious and leaves their supposed synonymity with patronage
seemingly apparent largely only to modern minds.
194 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

generally more munificent meaning attached to προστάτις and προστάτης.

It is also here where we should note that categorizing Paul and Phoebe’s
relationship as “patronage” is not just an issue of semantics, but it brings
very significant exegetical implications to the text.37
Patronage was a definingly, and intrinsically, hierarchical relationship;
an inherently exploitative system which existed by operating a protracted
cycle of reciprocity between patron and client.38 Yet προστάτης and
προστάτις held contrasting connotations of altruism or beneficence. For
example, Lycurgus could use προστάτης to contrast with Lordship, stating

They [the Athenians] made themselves champions of the Greeks and Lords of the
Barbarians [τῶν μὲν Ἑλλήνων προστάτας τῶν δὲ βαρβάρων δεσπότας].39

Furthermore, we can see that the status of προστάτης could be removed if

corruption or self-seeking emerged:

After being trusted with absolute authority, and having assembled a large group of
mercenaries, he was no longer their προστάτης, but their tyrant [τύραννος].40

This is not to suggest that προστάτης or προστάτις could not have conno-
tations of hierarchy or asymmetry. They did, though, continue to hold
from their Attic use, to the time of the late Roman Empire, the meaning
of a protector/champion of groups/individuals against danger or menace.41
These are connotations which are not easily compatible with the patron-

Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, ed., Ordained Women in the Church: A Documen-
tary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2005) 13, have argued that Paul’s use
of προστάτις “places her [Phoebe] in the social system of patronage as a relatively high-
status person to whom Paul is indebted as client for financial support,” while Robert
Jewett, Roman: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006) 947,
assumes that Paul was in a “relatively subordinate social position as her client.”
See Juvenal, Sat. 9 for a scathing look from the client’s perspective at the patronagerela-
tionship, viewing it as a corrupt and inescapable venture. Joubert, Paul as Benefactor, 67,
has also commented that: “Once financial support had been given and received, then this
created a relationship which could be further exploited by the receiver.” See also Bruce W.
Winters, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1994) 60.
Lycurgus, Speeches I, 104.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 14.12.3.
E.g. Appian, Civil War 2.19.38; and 1 Clem. 1.36.
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 195

age relationship, and προστάτης and προστάτις were unlikely candidates to

translation the Latin patronus—as we have seen. It is not then surprising
that in one of the few examples we have of a classical author equating
προστάτης with patronage, Plutarch Romulus 13.5, it is used to aid pre-
senting patronage as a quixotic, selfless enterprise.42
In addition, προστάτης and προστάτις could also be used in a more
general sense to denote help and support. For example, Demosthenes
could explain that when a certain Neaera had wronged Phrynion “she
knew his violent and disrespectful manner, so she made Stephanus her
protector.”43 Xenophon can describe Pericles as being a προστάτης in his
role in mentoring and advising a young Alcibiades,44 and he also used
προσταταί to describe Persian elders who oversaw the development of
Two examples though are of particular interest and have a useful role,
I believe, in helping us understand the use of προστάτις in Rom 16:2. In
the first example, the verb προστατέω is used by a son to describe his role
in caring and supporting his father:

οὐ μὴν οὐθέν ἐμοί [ἔσται με] ἷζον ἤ σοῦ προστατῆσα[ι τόν] ἐ[π]ιλοιπον βιον, ἀξίως
[με]ν σοῦ, ἀξίως δ’ ἐμοῦ

The verbal form here provides an important glimpse of how προστάτης

and προστάτις could be utilized outside of their technical, or encomium
employment—used here to describe a relationship of help and aid
between family members. Its use in a more everyday setting is something
normally hidden to us from by the reservation of προστάτης/προστάτις,
and their cognates, for use in honorary/benefaction epigraphs; which are,
by the nature of their construction, normally limited to honour wealthy
or prominent benefactors.

Similarly Cynthia Damon, The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage
(Michigan: Michigan University, 1998) 2, notes that Dionysius’ Roman Antiquities 2.9.2-
3,10.4 offers an idealistic reconstruction of the origins of the patronage relationship, and
“is creating (or reproducing) an ideal past for a contemporary phenomenon is often noted,
but the positive light in which he bathes this piece of the ‘past’ is still perceptible in mod-
ern descriptions of the patron/client relationship.”
Demothenes, Against Neaera 37.
Xenophon, Mem. 40.
Xenophon, Cyr. 1.2.5.
196 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

The second example comes from an honorary inscription issued to a

certain Junia Theodora, whose position is often compared to that of
Phoebe’s,46 which relays that Junia distributed:

benefits for the federation and our city and, dwelling in the city of the Corinthians
(76) welcomes in her own house Lycian travelers and our citizens . . . supplying them
with everything . . . displaying her προστάτια of those who are present . . . of her own
love of fame and assiduousness . . ., it is decreed that our city in its turn testify to her
according to her deserts; (80) by good fortune, it pleases the demos of Telmessos to
give honour and praise for all the above reasons to the abovementioned Iunia Theo-
dora and to invite her, living with the same intentions, to always be the author of
some benefit towards us, well knowing that in return our city (84) recognizes and
will acknowledge the evidence of her goodwill.47

Most scholarly discussions on this inscription concentrate on considering

and explicating the influence that Graeco-Roman women could have in
society, and on their ability to manage and distribute their own wealth.
Yet, I can find no attempted exegetical foundation in these studies to sup-
port the conclusion that Junia Theodora was a patron. There are in fact
none of the requisite features of the patronage relationship present in the
inscription; such as indications that the recipients of Junia’s hospitality
were formed into a client base, or that they were expected to maintain a
reciprocal relationship with her—especially once most of them had
returned to Lycia. The inscription in fact conforms heavily to euergetistic
expression, framing its narrative corporately around the polis and the citi-
zen body.48 Importantly though, προστάτια is being utilized in this
inscription to describe the support and hospitality that Junia offered; and
is not used to describe the type of relationship that was in vogue, and in
this way is redolent of the example above.

Inscription found in D.I. Pallas et al.,“Inscriptions lyciennes trouvées à Solômos près
de Corinthe,” BCH 83 (1959) 496-508; and SEG 18 (1962) no. 143. Discussions linking
Junia Theodora to Phoebe include R.A. Kearsley, “Women in Public Life in the Roman
East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul,” TB 50.2
(1999) 98-121; and Andrew D. Clarke, “Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female:
Paul’s Theology of Ethnic, Social and Gender Inclusiveness in Romans 16,” in Rome in the
Bible and the Early Church (ed. P. Oakes; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002).
Translation adapted from Kearsley, “Women,” 209.
See Joubert, Paul as Benefactor, 55, for a discussion on the Junia Theodora decree and
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 197

IV. The Meaning of προστάτις in Rom 16:2

There are also certain exegetical considerations in Rom 16:2 which can
further our comprehension on the likely the meaning of προστάτις. As
noted at the start, it is important to note that Paul creates a correspon-
dence between the help that the church members are to provide to Phoebe
and the help that she has been to Paul and others.49 Paul’s request to help
Phoebe is “because (γὰρ) she has been a προστάτις to me and many oth-
ers.” The passage can then, for our purposes, comfortably read: “give her
help because she has helped me and others”; and this link is further high-
lighted by Paul’s use of παραστῆτε, “help,” in this verse, a possible word
play on προστάτις. We can rightly, I believe, infer from this equivalence
that the help which Phoebe would have received, most likely hospitality,
advice, access and introduction to social networks, and, possibly, some
financial/material assistance, was the sort of assistance which Paul would
have had received from her. In any case, we should not expect that either
Paul or Phoebe received the sort of financial/economic assistance envis-
aged and sustained by the patron-client relationship—or an acceptance of
its implicit asymmetrical demands.50 Understanding Phoebe’s help in this
way would also explain the need for Paul’s request to help for her, which,
had she been acting as a patron figure, she would surely not have required.
Furthermore, releasing Phoebe from the role of patron also resolves the
otherwise thorny issue of how a client (Paul) could recommend his patron
(Phoebe) without violating social convention.51

John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965)
2:227 n. 1.
It should also be noted that hospitality and support from female benefactors was
aprominent feature in the early Christian movement. Such examples include Joanna,
Susanna and many others (Luke 8:1-3); the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12); Lydia
(Acts 16:15, 40); Nympha (Col 4:15); Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3); the “chosen lady”
(2 John 10). Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their
Cultural Setting (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994) 150-151, has also noted that we can
single out as many as forty sponsors in the New Testament active in providing hospitality
and financial support for the larger Christian community.
For a client (here Paul) to recommend his patron (Phoebe) would be a clear subversion
of patron-client hierarchy and convention. Lampe, Paul, Patrons, and Clients, 499,
observes that “the roles of patron and client were reversed in this case, with Phoebe being
the ‘client,’ if one really wanted to apply the patron-client model to this support relation-
ship.” This is a question which Lampe leaves apparently unresolved. Similarly Justin J.
Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival (SNTW; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) 148, has
rightly noted this problem as well, and also provides a useful discussion on this problem
198 E.D. MacGillivray / Novum Testamentum 53 (2011) 183-199

So, if we are right to conclude that Phoebe was not Paul’s patron, how
then are we to approach Paul’s use of προστάτις to describe her?52 As most
contemporary commentators have rightly cautioned, translating προστάτις
as “helper” fails to convey the prestige of the title and would give unfor-
tunate connotations of subordination. Paul’s use of προστάτις to describe
Phoebe was to bestow a prestigious and flattering appellation upon her,
and it was a status that, as far as we know, Paul did not furnish upon any-
one else. So while προστάτις did not have the same necessary connota-
tions of wealth that “patron” would have had, it does imply that Phoebe’s
help was substantial—and that it was especially appreciated by Paul.
We still should expect that their relationship would have operated
within the reciprocal dynamic that so trenchantly governed the ancient
mindset. It might be difficult to imagine though how such a reciprocal
dynamic would have operated in this case, and it is perhaps even more
challenging to attempt to epitomize succinctly for the reader how this
might have worked.
One neglected source though, I believe, holds potential insight into
how reciprocity between friends could apply itself when no premeditated
benefit was sought by the benefactor and when no extended relationship
of dependency was created. Demosthenes relays a story about a certain
Aristogeiton who:

when he escaped from prison and ran away, . . . visited a certain woman named Zobia,
with whom he had probably once cohabited with. She kept him hidden during the

with reference to many classical sources on the inability of a client to recommend a

patron. Meggitt attempts to resolve this problem though by suggesting that in using
προστάτις Paul did not actually mean to “say anything about her social status; either
directly or indirectly. It is much more likely that in Rom 16:1-2 the apostle is engaged, as
he so often is elsewhere in his letters, in manipulating socially emotive language rather
than using words in a straightforward way.” Meggitt though, in my view, has targeted the
wrong side of the problem. The fault lies in the approbation of the relationship of patron-
client onto προστάτις—not in Paul’s use of rhetorical hyperbole.
The meaning of διάκονος used for Phoebe in Rom 16:1 will also prove useful indeter-
mining Phoebe’s precise role. The term though has caused as much debate as προστάτις
has, making any sufficiently rounded engagement on its likely meaning here a far too
lengthy enterprise to engage with here. For a recent discussion though on the meaning of
διάκονος see Andrew D. Clarke, A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership (LNTS; Lon-
don: T&T Clark, 2008) 60-71, who rightly notes that while the term “servant” in English
has menial or servile connotations the διακονία word group has numerous meanings,
including designating a go-between.
Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships 199

first few days when the police were looking and searching for him, and then she gave
him eight drachmas for his journey and a tunic and cloak and sent him off to Meg-
ara. . . . When this woman, who had been such a benefactor complained to him,
noticing that he was giving himself airs and making a great display of himself here
among you, and when she reminded him of her help and claimed some recompense,
on the first occasion he cuffed her. . . .53

The scenario that Demosthenes relays above offers several lines of com-
port to Phoebe and Paul’s relationship. This was a relationship between a
female benefactor and a male recipient, motivated out of friendship.54 The
help offered by Zobia to Aristogeiton was to provide safety, hospitality,
and some financial aid, issued with no apparent foresight on her part for
advantage. It was therefore only after a period time had passed and, more
importantly, when Aristogeiton was seen to be in a position where he was
more than able to repay and acknowledge his debt, before Zobia sought
recompense. The relationship of exchange formed was of a temporal nature
and was not an extended arrangement of dependency, and while a form of
reciprocity was still demanded, it was of an entirely different purpose, type,
and expected duration from that which would have been demanded from
a patron-client relationship.
This example offers, in my opinion, the exegete a far more likely, and
historically grounded, parallel to Paul and Phoebe’s relationship than any
dependence upon the patronage relationship model would have provided.
In conclusion then it would seem, to my mind at least, that the most
faithful translation of προστάτις in Rom 16:2 might be to return to ren-
dering it “benefactor.” Doing so would maintain the correct implications
that Phoebe’s help, or assistance, was significant, while also avoiding any
unhelpful connotations of servitude. “Benefactor” is also a suitably broad
and flexible term which should provide room for our continued under-
standing of ancient reciprocity to be applied to the text.

Demosthenes, Against Aristogeiton 1.56-57.
Sian Lewis, Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook (London: Routledge 2002)
298, has noted on this passage that Demosthenes “comments in passing that Zobia’s help
was given because she and Aristogeiton had been lovers, but his phrasing (τότε πρὸς
γυναῖκά τιν᾿ ἔρχεται Ζωβίαν ὄνομα, ᾗ ἐτύγχανεν, ὡς ἔοικε, κεχρημένος ποτε) . . . shows
that this is speculation—how else would a woman and man be connected? Might she have
acted through friendship?”