Scot McKnight, Junia is not Alone: a review

Posted on December 7, 2011

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Last week Scot McKnight put out a little ebook, available from your national Amazon, under the title Junia is not Alone: Breaking our silence about women in the Bible and the church today. I downloaded and read it the day after it came out. It is short, cheap, passionate, and excellent.

McKnight opens his book with some anecdotal evidence about how the female leaders in the Bible are somehow overlooked in the contemporary church. Huldah is as important as Nathan in the story of Israel’s prophets, but put the two of them on a quiz paper, and I think we all know what the result would be…

Junia is then introduced as a way into the big picture of female leaders in the Bible. Why doesn’t Paul make more of Junia? Because Paul knows his Bible, and knows that God has been calling women to play major roles in the story of salvation from the first: ‘Junia was not alone. Paul knew that she fitted comfortably into the Bible’s storied history about women.’ (l.97). There is then a whistle-stop tour of this storied history: Rebekah; Ruth; Esther; Miriam; Deborah; Huldah; Mary; Priscilla; Phoebe.

The focus then returns to Junia, and the history of readings and editions of the NT. If you know your Greek, you’ll know that an accent is all the difference between Junia (a female name, very well attested in history, as I’ve commented before on this blog) and Junias (an otherwise-unknown male name). This happened late. All the ancient versions (Old Lt; Vulg.; Syr,; Copt.) have a female Junia in Rom, 16:7. (So, incidentally, do all – without exception, I think – the church fathers. You know? Those native Greek-speaking church leaders? McKnight does not mention this.) And the English versions? ‘from Tyndale to the last quarter of the 19th century in English translations, Junia was a woman.’ (l. 148).

Humanistic scholars in the C16th were examining the texts, however. Somewhere in there, the idea that Junia should have been Junias arose; Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples, in his 1512 edition of the Pauline corpus, offered Junias, and was followed by Luther in his German Bible. McKnight then traces the history of critical editions of the Greek, which was all new to me, and a fairly chilling tale. Erasmus had Junia as a woman; so, McKnight claims, did every Greek edition down to Nestle’s 12th edition. Then, in Nestle-13 (1927), Junias appeared in the main reading, with Junia as a footnote. McKnight does not investigate Nestle’s reasons for this change, but surely this was entirely an editorial decision? I cannot think of any textual discoveries or grammatical explorations that would have prompted it. In the 1979 edition of Nestle-Aland,  the alternative reading offering Junia was deleted. McKnight’s text implies that UBS maintained the variant, but rated the reading ‘Junias’ as A; this is exceedingly generous; the UBS3 I was given when I entered theological college offers Junias, rated A, but the alternative reading is not Junia, but ‘Julia’ (which is found in one or two texts, including the important P46); Junia has been written out of the story. McKnight’s conclusion is strong, but hardly excessively so:

Let me be clear once more: the editors of the Greek New Testaments killed Junia. They killed her by silencing her into non-existence. They murdered that innocent woman by erasing her from the footnotes.

Junia suddenly re-appeared in 1998 printings of UBS4/NA27, rated an A reading in UBS. No reason seems to have been given for the change.

(McKnight does not discuss the commentators, but a similarly reprehensible story can be told. Sanday & Headlam, in the old ICC volume, commented ‘Junias … is less usual as a man’s name,’ which is about as accurate as saying ‘Jennifer is less usual as a man’s name’ in English. Cranfield’s replacement ICC is much better; calling out the editors of the Greek, and then saying of the rest of the verse that whilst ‘ “outstanding in the eyes of the apostles” … must be judged grammatically possible, it is much more probable – we might well say, virtually certain – that the words mean “outstanding among the apostles” … which is the way it was understood by the patristic commentators [you know, those native Greek speakers…]’ Quite.)

McKnight then turns to church history, telling stories of unnamed women leaders in the church. The tactic is effective: the reader is left trying to guess, have I heard of this woman? Do I know her story? (I knew two of the three, but one was from Calvin’s Geneva, which is a period I really ought to know about…) It struck me that I could have added a dozen more stories of my own, and that we ought to be telling these stories, not just in academic books (which has been done to some extent), but in ways that my daughters, and other Christian girls, can hear before they first sense a call to ministry, if that is the vocation God is pleased to give them. I have once spoken from a big Christian conference platform. I made a point, of course, of telling Hannah More’s story alongside William Wilberforce’s; but I think of the stories I have never told, and those I have never troubled to discover…

McKnight’s final chapter is entitled ‘How to help the church find its Junia(s)’ (I assume the humorous double meaning is deliberate…). It begins like this:

First, if you’re a pastor, I want you to take to the pulpit someday and get folks to open their Bibles to Romans 16:7 … [and] ask them to strike out Junias from their Bibles. The man never existed, the name never existed, and it is an embarrassment to the church to have that name in a Bible.’

If anything, the chapter gets more pointed. As it should. (‘Balance? If we want real historical balance … we would be telling nothing but women’s stories for the next two millennia.’) It is a heartfelt and stirring call to action, ending – not inappropriately – with an (unconscious?) echo of Martin Luther King – ‘let freedom ring’.

Amen to that!

(Junia is not Alone is available from your local Amazon store for the price of a coffee. If you’re reading this, you’re in front of a web-enabled device, so you can – and should – buy it right now.)

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