Saturday, July 11, 2009

Phoebe and the gender of deacon

I have noticed that when a discussion of Phoebe comes up, the Greek word diakonos comes in for some interesting analysis. Some report firmly that this word is masculine, arguing that her office was the same as the other "deacons;" and some report that it is feminine, and Phoebe was only a servant. Sometimes the argument is organized in the reverse. I am not sure how, but almost every permutation turns up.

However, one thing I can assure you of, and that is that in software, the Greek word diakonos is technically tagged as feminine in Romans 16:1.

Συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν, οὖσαν [καὶ] διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς,

Try this one out. Here are the results
    Case A
    Number S
    Gender F

    διάκονος,n {dee-ak'-on-os}
    1) one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant, attendant, minister 1a) the servant of a king 1b) a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use 1c) a waiter, one who serves food and drink
However, the reason why the word διάκονον (sing. acc.) is labeled feminine is because οὖσαν also feminine, agrees with it. The word refers to Phoebe, and if there were an article, it would be the feminine article. The word is in every way identical to the masculine word διάκονος. It is the same word and has the same singular form, and the same form in all cases.

When a word behaves in this way, it is said to have a "common gender." It is both masculine and feminine at the same time.

I have been reading this article on Phoebe from SBL. HT Ecce Homo (It was nice to see so many articles on gender and translation.) I enjoyed reading this but I am not sure whether it adds to previous treatments of diakonos and prostatis. I saw Bruce Waltke today and I remember well the rousing discussion we had on whether an analysis of the related verb can elucidate the meaning of prostatis.

About prostatis, it does appear in other Greek literature as "protectress" or "presiding" so I am doubtful as to whether it is a hapax legomenon, in the true sense of the word. Perhaps someone could comment on that.

Also the masculline form of the word is common enough, prostates is used for the temple leader in the Septuagint, and for Christ, our defender in 1 Clement. The meaning falls somewhere in the range of ruler, leader, benefactor, succourer, and so on.

However, from the Wycliff translation on, it has been translated as "help" or "great help." There is some wordplay going on in the Greek that should be mentioned in this regard. Its a little too detailed for this post. In any case, I really like Rotherham's translation of Romans 16:1-2,
    And I commend to you Phoebe our sister, - being a minister also of the assembly which is in Cenchreae;

    In order that ye may give her welcome in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and stand by her in any matter wherein she may have need of you; for, she also, hath proved to be a defender of many, and of my own self.
Update: I remember now that I had once translated Romans 15:30 - 16:2 in order to demonstrate the wordplay. Here it is,
    30 παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀδελφοί διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ διὰ τῆς ἀγάπης τοῦ πνεύματος συναγωνίσασθαί μοι ἐν ταῖς προσευχαῖς ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ πρὸς τὸν θεόν

    31 ἵνα ῥυσθῶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀπειθούντων ἐν τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ καὶ ἡ διακονία μου ἡ εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ εὐπρόσδεκτος τοῖς ἁγίοις γένηται

    32 ἵνα ἐν χαρᾷ ἐλθὼν πρὸς ὑμᾶς διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ συναναπαύσωμαι ὑμῖν 33 ὁ δὲ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης μετὰ πάντων ὑμῶν ἀμήν

    16:1 συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν οὖσαν καὶ διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς

    2 ἵνα αὐτὴν προσδέξησθε ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως τῶν ἁγίων καὶ παραστῆτε αὐτῇ ἐν ᾧ ἂν ὑμῶν χρῄζῃ πράγματι καὶ γὰρ αὐτὴ προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ

    30 I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to struggle together with me in prayers on my behalf to God.

    31 that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my ministry which is for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,

    so that I may come to you with joy by God's will and together with you be refreshed. 33 The God of peace be with you all. Amen.

    16:1 I stand Phoebe with you, being a minister of the church at Cenchrea, 2 that you accept her in the Lord, in a manner worthy of the saints, and stand beside her in whatever matter she may have need of you; because she also has stood before many, even me.
I am sure this is boring, but I think the wordplay shows that Paul was thinking of Phoebe's ministry in a way that was analogous to his own - in some way.


Carl W. Conrad said...

διάκονος is common gender (like ἄνθρωπος and not a few other 2nd-declension nouns; but οὖσαν is feminine not because of the gender of διάκονον but rather because of the gender of Φοίβην (διάκονον is predicate acc.).

J. L. Watts said...

Not boring, whatsoever, Suzanne.

I believe that it helps me in my understanding of 1st Tim 3.11

J. K. Gayle said...

I agree completely with J.L. Watts - nothing boring here and fantastic wordplay!

The discussion of διακον* somehow reminds me of a bit Plato's ideal state (Republic, 373c). Notice, after that mention of "servitors," there's a list of such servants (i.e., deacons) doing various jobs often mostly given to women to do! (Paul Shorey translating):

"For that healthy state is no longer sufficient, but we must proceed to swell out its bulk and fill it up with a multitude of things that exceed the requirements of necessity in states, as, for example, the entire class of huntsmen, and the imitators, many of them occupied with figures and colors and many with music—the poets and their assistants, rhapsodists, actors, chorus-dancers, contractors —and the manufacturers of all kinds of articles, especially those that have to do with women's adornment. And so we shall also want more servitors. [καὶ τῶν περὶ τὸν γυναικεῖον κόσμον. καὶ δὴ καὶ διακόνων πλειόνων δεησόμεθα] Don't you think that we shall need tutors, nurses wet and dry, beauty-shop ladies, barbers and yet again cooks and chefs [ἢ οὐ δοκεῖ δεήσειν παιδαγωγῶν, τιτθῶν, τροφῶν, κομμωτριῶν, κουρέων, καὶ αὖ ὀψοποιῶν τε καὶ μαγείρων]?

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I think I missed a step in my explanation. In the software, diakonos is tagged feminine because ousan is feminine, and ousan is feminine because Phoebe is feminine.

Do you think that the software should add a tag for common gender? I ask because I once found a blog post by a man who said that because diakonos was feminine in this case, it meant that women were not deacons in the same way that men are. Likely there is not much that can be done with an attitude like that.

But, back to the software sitution, is the F tag, feminine, for diakonos, in this case, misleading ? Should it be changed?

believer333 said...

"16:1 I stand Phoebe with you, being a minister of the church at Cenchrea, 2 that you accept her in the Lord, in a manner worthy of the saints, and stand beside her in whatever matter she may have need of you; because she also has stood before many, even me.
I am sure this is boring, but I think the wordplay shows that Paul was thinking of Phoebe's ministry in a way that was analogous to his own - in some way."

Not boring at all. In fact awesome insight. I wish that we could so accurately translate all things so that we could see the word play in action. It greatly adds to the understanding.

I say that if it is not actually feminine in the original , then the software shouldn't so tag it. Is that what is happening? A tag for common gender sounds more accurate. Would it actually be?

Carl W. Conrad said...

Yes, I do think that the F tag, feminine, for διάκονος, is misleading? Should it be changed? Probably. But tagged texts, like parsing guides, are utlized primarily by those whose Greek is probably not solid enough to grasp the significnce. Nouns of common gender are really just like 2-termination adjectives that have one form for m/f and another for n. -- one might even say that such nouns are substantivized adjectives.

The mor useful function of tagged texts is in research, but the validity of the research is dependent upon the validity of the tagging -- garbage in = garbage out.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

And now I realize that tis is tagged as masculine!