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If Junia Wrote to Rome

Fictional Letters from a Real Christian Leader

Published on:
March 30, 2023
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12 min.
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Reading the Bible always piques my curiosity. When I read about Paul’s friends like Andronicus and Junia (probably husband and wife), I can’t help but wonder: how did Paul meet them? Did they ever know Jesus in his earthly ministry? How many women apostles were there? So many questions, but I am especially drawn to the brief statement that Andronicus and Junia were prisoners for the gospel, what was that like? My curiosity led me to an imaginative exercise. Just as Paul wrote letters from prison (like Philippians and Philemon), perhaps Junia did as well. Who would she write to? What would she want to say? Below you will find an imaginative exercise, where I try to imagine Junia in chains, exercising leadership as an apostle. Also, I try to showcase how many women are intimately involved in the life of the early church: not only Junia, but many others as well. Finally, I wanted to bring to the surface the risk-taking of public gospel ministry, the dangers and vulnerabilities of incarceration, and what someone like Junia might say if she was writing her last thoughts before falling asleep into death. 

Nijay K. Gupta recently released his book Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church after fifteen years of studying women leaders of the early churches.

I have spent the last fifteen years studying the women leaders of the early churches. Over and over, this has occurred to me: women were there, where the gospel needed to be preached, where believers needed to be taught, where leaders needed to be bailed out, where miracles took place, where worship needed a voice, where apostolic letters needed to be exchanged and, in the case of Junia, where Christian leaders were put in chains for the sake of Jesus Christ. As you read the following fictional letters, I hope you are inspired to notice women in Scripture and their amazing faith, gifting, and obedience. Junia was a hero to Paul and to others, she is a hero of mine as well. What I have written is fiction, but we can tell the stories of great biblical women right out of the pages of history as we read in Scripture.

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Romans 16:7)

Junia to Mary of Rome | Letter #1

Junia, apostle in chains for the sake of Christ Jesus; to Mary, my beloved friend in Rome.[1] Grace and peace and mercy[2] to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I pray you are in good health,[3] and I was overjoyed to receive your letter and the assistance of your messenger Markus.[4] I praise God when I think of you, because of our friendship in the Lord and the constancy of your love and the steadfastness of your fellowship. I know you are anxious to hear why I have been delayed in my plans to travel to you. The truth is, Andronicus[5] and I were taken into custody in Megara[6] and transferred to a prison in Corinth, where we are now. As you know, Andronicus and I were proclaiming the gospel and refreshing the faith of churches throughout Macedonia and Achaia. We were making our way from Athens down to Olympia; we stopped in Megara to rest and replenish our food and supplies. While we were there, we heard chatter from the local people that their chicken farms were suffering.[7] A disease had spread and killed off many of the livestock. Some Megarans believed it was divine wrath of the god Alectryon.[8] Others think it was the work of a sorcerer from a rival town who wanted to threaten Megara’s poultry industry to bolster that of his own town. Whatever the case, we felt compassion for the Megarans. Our inn-keeper learned that we had prophetic and healing powers and pleaded with us to intervene. 

Leaders from the community gathered in the city forum with Andronicus and me. Andronicus prayed a prayer for the town’s farms and livestock, which was received with thanks. Andronicus also warned the people not to use their chickens in customs where they would look for signs of the gods’ will or for good or bad omens.[9] He also told them they do not need to sacrifice chickens to keep peace with the gods; Jesus Christ, son of God, has made peace once for all with his death. He offers salvation and blessings if they turn now from idols to worship this God of righteousness, glory, and love.[10] 

As you know very well, this is not our first time in prison. But something extraordinary happened. Andronicus and I were not the only ones who were arrested.

The mood of the crowd quickly turned from hospitality to hostility. They accused us of blaspheming the gods and inviting a greater wrath. Mary, my dear friend, they pressed against us on all sides intending to hurt us, a worthy sacrifice to their idol Alectryon. I prayed fervently in that moment for God to save us. We were both thrown down by violence, and suffered a few injuries from their kicks. But immediately we heard many thunderous hoofbeats and a loud trumpet. At first I thought it was holy angels sent to rescue us, but it was a troop of Roman soldiers who were passing through and stopped to investigate the commotion. 

They pulled us out from the clutches of the turbulent mob and questioned us. We were fortunate that Rome doesn’t tolerate mob violence. We were spared death in that moment, but the centurion in charge—I believe his name was Julius—took us into custody and said he would deliver us in chains to a prison in Corinth. As you know very well, this is not our first time in prison. But something extraordinary happened. Andronicus and I were not the only ones who were arrested. Unbeknownst to us in the moment, there was one person among the crowd who believed in Jesus Christ that day for salvation. We didn’t hear it ourselves, but she prayed a prayer to Jesus out loud, a cry of confession and repentance when we were preaching, and the mob immediately assaulted her. In the commotion she fell and hit her head, and when the soldiers arrived, they picked up her unconscious body. Mary, she was arrested with us, as the angry crowd accused her of being a collaborator in our so-called blasphemy against the gods. 

We traveled in chains a two-day journey to Corinth, together with prisoners in transport from other cities as well. Andronicus and I were separated, but as a woman I was allowed to remain with the wounded girl. For those two days, as she slipped in and out of consciousness, I was able to convince the soldiers to provide water for her. But it wasn’t until we arrived at the prison in Corinth that she came to her full wits. Her name is Nympha,[11] she is a young merchant from Laodicea, and she was traveling for work when we crossed paths in Megara. We were put in the same prison room[12] so I could attend to her—she spent the first day here disoriented and weeping. Since then, now about a week, I have been able to comfort her, especially sharing more about the Lord Jesus and the care of God for her well-being. I have not seen Andronicus in my time here, but I have asked guards about him, and they can confirm based on the clothing description I gave them, that he is alive. That is all I know, and I pray that he is well.

I know, Mary my dear friend, that you will be concerned with my own well-being, and now the well-being of Nympha as you are learning about her. Our beloved brother Stephanas[13] here in Corinth is able to keep tabs on soldier activity in the city, and has colleagues in the military who inform him when “Christ-devotees”[14] are mentioned. Stephanas came himself, he was not able to secure our release, but he brought food and blankets for us.[15] He reached out to sister Phoebe[16] who came immediately from Cenchrea with oils and salves for Nympha. Phoebe is renting a room nearby to the prison so she can make daily visits. She has a lot of “friends” in high places, but the Corinthian magistrate over the prison does not favor Jews or Christ-devotees. 

It seems like ten life-times ago that Andronicus and I followed Jesus throughout Judea. But I still remember his face. I hope that is the last thing that passes through my mind as I drift into the deep sleep of death.

I don’t want you to be unaware that while my spirits are lifted high by the presence of the Spirit, the warm curiosity and fledgling faith in Nympha under duress, and the fervent prayers of all the believers in Corinth and nearby towns who have heard about us; I must confess to you: I have developed a fever and cough that has led to a decline in my health.[17] I am old now,[18] I have lived a rich life in Christ Jesus; it seems like ten life-times ago that Andronicus and I followed Jesus throughout Judea.[19] But I still remember his face. I hope that is the last thing that passes through my mind as I drift into the deep sleep of death.[20] The only hesitation I have is supporting my daughter in the faith, Nympha. But I am confident that Phoebe will look after her, and more importantly, God will protect her, just as he has chosen her from the beginning, so he will see her through to the end. 

I don’t know what will happen to Andronius or to me. I write to ask for your prayers, and prayers from all the saints in Rome, but I don’t want you or anyone else to be stuck in worry or fear like a foot in tar. I know that I am loved by the saints in Rome, but I also know there are many mature leaders still there—like you—and younger ones as well who will do far more for the kingdom than I did. 

You will notice that I sent two letters with Markus to give to you. The one you are reading right now is my personal letter to you. But the other letter is my address to all the saints in Rome; I know, Mary, that you will not want to think of it as my final testimony, so perhaps it is best to call it “words of wisdom and encouragement from an old saint!” Please honor my wish by reading it to all the believers. If I see you again in the future alive and well, that letter will still not have been for naught, your prayers were answered by our gracious God of love; if I depart to be with the Lord, only grieve for a little while, and know I am at home in the kingdom of Abba’s[21] glory. Pray that Andronicus is at peace, if not in life, then in the sleep of death and the presence of Jesus the Son.

Phoebe and Stephanas send their love and greetings. Nympha, your new sister in the Lord, longs to meet you and others in Rome. Will you take a collection[22] from among the saints to help her fully recover and make her way back to Laodicea? I have confidence and hope that she will step out of this prison alive and well, and her faith will become known throughout the Lycus Valley and all of Asia Minor. Your gifts will be blessed by God many times over. 

All glory to God now and forevermore.[23]

 Junia to the Romans | Letter #2

Junia, apostle of Jesus Christ in chains, to all God’s beloved saints in Rome, peace in the Spirit through the suffering and love of Christ our Hope.[24]

My dear friends, I know that when Mary and Markus update you on the circumstances of Andronicus and me, you will be deeply concerned and experience distress for me. Even from a great distance I can feel your compassion, as the saying goes, good friends form a sturdy shelter.[25] And I thank you, but I spend my heavy hours here in prayer giving thanks to our God as I remember your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the believers,[26] including Andronicus and me. I have told our new sister Nympha hundreds of stories about our faith family[27] in Rome; when Nympha and I break bread together we pray for you, that all of you may know the powerful provision of the heavenly Father, both in times of abundance and times of scarcity. As we eat bread, however little, and drink water, even if not pure and clear, we know the grace of God, as it is written, 

     “He makes grass grow for the cattle,
     And plants for people to cultivate—
     Bringing forth food from the earth:
     Wine that gladdens human hearts,
     Oil to make their faces shine
     And bread that sustains the heart.”[28]

While I take heart in the comforting words that “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous”[29] and “Blessed are all who take refuge in him,”[30] I know that my life may wither and vanish from the earth[31] as the Lord ordains. My hope is not in strength of body—those days are long past—or the riches of treasure chests or the praise of many and great mortals. The Lord alone is my comfort, my honor, and my hope. So, when I recline onto the cold and hard stone of this prison room at night, I repeat David’s song, “In peace, I will lie down and sleep” and the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Those who walk uprightly find rest as they lie in death.”[32] 

Anger dries out the heart like the hot sun and makes it weak and brittle; fear freezes the heart like solid ice; only love makes life sing like a melodious songbird.

As for you, dear friends, you have many good leaders to guide you in loving truth.[33] Heed their wisdom, accept their corrective instruction, so that you may grow up in the faith and become mature. Love the Lord your God with your life and love your neighbor with an honest heart, that is the most important commandment.[34] As you walk in the Spirit,[35] hate what is evil and love what is good.[36] Anger dries out the heart like the hot sun and makes it weak and brittle; fear freezes the heart like solid ice; only love makes life sing like a melodious songbird.

We are destined for difficulties, as you know well. Beloved, do not be afraid of hardships and sufferings. Battle tests the commitment of a soldier, scars prove the warrior’s devotion to king and country. So also sufferings prove the love of Christ. We students are no better than the teacher,[37] who gave his life up as an offering, accepting the will of the Father, pouring himself out unto death.[38] But he rose again, leader of the resurrection life,[39] securing our hope that darkness will be vanquished by light; as it is written, “As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”[40] “For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease.”[41]

So, do not lose heart, as we eagerly anticipate the Day of Christ; let both boldness and humility accompany you as guardians on your right and on your left, as the Lord Jesus would tell us, “seek to increase from that which is small, and from the greater to become less.”

So, do not lose heart, as we eagerly anticipate the Day of Christ; let both boldness and humility accompany you as guardians on your right and on your left, as the Lord Jesus would tell us, “seek to increase from that which is small, and from the greater to become less.”[42] The Lord is near.[43]

Finally, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, set aside your quarrels with one another, silence gossip, and be at peace with each other, as one body. The Lord prayed we all may be one just as God chose to be united with us and live in us.[44]

Pray for Andronicus and Nympha and me, that we reflect the image of Christ in the candle flickers of the dark prison room where we are in chains. Greet all the saints in Rome who we remember with joy. To God be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.[45] Marana-tha![46]


Below is some background information on how I wrote these fictional letters from Junia. 

Testamentary Literature
There was a recognizable genre in the first century we now call “testamentary literature,” where a respected figure acknowledges their imminent demise and passes on a deposit of their wisdom and issues exhortations to faith for those who remain. I wrote the second letter in that general framework. Scholars sometimes put 2 Timothy and 2 Peter in this category, as well as early Jewish texts like Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and Testament of Job.

Christians, even in the first century, were “networked” across different regions; they communicated with and supported each other. Outside of Christianity, it was rare to find this kind of global networking for people from different ethnic groups.

Faith (as allegiance) Has Consequences.
Junia, Adronicus, Nympha—each one had to live with the consequences and cost of following Jesus. 

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Scripture-Saturated Imagination
In the second text (the public letter), I wanted to weave in Old Testament Scripture both explicitly (“it is written”) and subtly to demonstrate how early Christians like Junia would have engaged deeply in the Word of God to process their lives. Psalms and the prophets were favored texts of the NT writers, so I leaned heavily on those.

Words of the Lord Jesus.
Paul, Peter, James, and John rarely—if ever—quote Jesus, but I wonder if other apostles did. Given that Junia and Andronicus were Christians before Paul, it is possible they knew Jesus and followed him as disciples; so I included Jesus sayings in the letter. 

Influences. We are used to reading Paul’s letters (and there are so many of them!), and I didn’t want Junia to sound exactly like Paul, so I tried to draw from a wide range of Jewish and Christian texts for inspiration; you will notice resonance with 1-2 Peter, the Johannine letters, and Jude, as well as the Jewish Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Sirach. I tried to give Junia her own writing personality, while still connecting her to a wider language culture.

If you want to read more about the amazing lives and contributions of early Christian women, check out my book, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church from InterVarsity Press Academic. 

Nijay K. Gupta
Nijay K. Gupta is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. His research explores Paul's theology and ethics, and he has published commentaries on 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Colossians. He is currently writing the Story of God Bible Commentary on Galatians and a book on Paul’s faith language.

[1] In his letter to the Romans, Paul greets a certain Mary who “worked very hard among you” (Rom 16:6), language that indicates leadership activity. This is not Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was a common Jewish name (i.e., “Mariam”).

[2] The three-fold “grace…peace…mercy” is not a typical greeting for Paul, but appears in 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; 2 John 3; Jude 2.

[3] Ancient letters often begin with a health-wish.

[4] Markus is a fictional character that serves as Mary’s letter carrier. It is possible he was one of her slaves (if she had slaves); although Christians like Paul preferred to send ministry colleagues as letter carriers (like Epaphroditus or Tychicus).

[5] Andronicus (a male name)  is mentioned alongside Junia in Romans 16:7; most theologians and scholars throughout the years have presumed they were husband and wife.

[6] Megara is a real ancient city, about 50km north of Corinth.

[7] Ancient Megara was known for its farms, including chicken farming.

[8] Alectryon was part of the Greek pantheon. According to his original story, Alectryon began life as a human soldier, but offended the god Ares and was turned into a rooster. He became a patron deity of chickens and roosters.

[9] Romans practiced “augury,” where they would attempt to look for divine omens through the behavior of birds and chickens. The Roman Senate often appealed to sacred chickens before they went to war. Poultry livestock were also used in sacrificial ceremonies. They were also used for food, but not as commonly as in the modern Western diet.

[10] 1 Thess 1:9-10.

[11] Nympha is a female Christian mentioned in Colossians 4:15; many scholars (including myself) believe she lived in Laodicea, in the Lycus Valley of Asia Minor, and exercised leadership over a house church. I try to supply a backstory to her conversion. 

[12] Roman prisoners did not have individual “cells.” Many prisoners would be put in one room together; there is no indication that women and men were not together. This made prison very unsafe for women.

[13] Stephanas is a male Christian leader in Corinth (1 Cor 1:16; 16:15, 17).

[14] The word “Christian” (Christianos) means “Christ-supporter” or “Christ-devotee.” 

[15] Ancient prisons did not supply food, clothing, or medication to prisoners. Prisoners had to rely on outside help for these things.

[16]  Paul commends Phoebe (of Cenchrea, near Corinth) in Romans 16:1. He lists her as a diakonos (Christian leader) and a “patron” to Paul and many others; this language indicates status and wealth. Clearly, she was a person of means.

[17] Because of the cramped living quarters of Roman prisons, poor lighting and ventilation, and lack of proper hygiene and sanitation, these places were notorious for spreading illnesses.

[18] Life expectancy in the Roman Empire was about 25 years of age on average; disease and war made it rare to live past 35; Paul refers to himself as “old” (Philemon 8), probably then in his 40s.

[19]  Paul mentions that Andronicus and Junia were Christians before him (Rom 16:7); that means it is very possible that Andronicus and Junia knew and followed Jesus during his earthly ministry.

[20]  Paul uses the euphemism of “sleep” to refer to death (1 Thess 4:13).

[21] Abba is the Aramaic word for “papa,” which early Christians retained as a title for God, even when they were writing in Greek

[22] Texts like 2 Corinthians 8-9 and Philippians 4:10-20 tell us that churches sometimes gave gifts of benevolence to help out a fellow Christian or another Christian community.

[23] 2 Peter 3:18.

[24] This salutation is similar to St. Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians, who greeted them in this way: “elect and worthy of God, at peace in flesh and spirit through the suffering of Jesus Christ, who is our hope when we rise to be with him” (Ign. Trall. 1.10).

[25] The saying “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter" is found in the ancient Jewish text, Sirach (6:14).

[26] This is similar to Paul’s expression about Philemon: “I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus” (Phm 4).

[27] For the phrase “faith family” see Gal 6:10.

[28] Ps 104:14-15.

[29] Ps 1:6.

[30] Ps 2:12.

[31] This euphemism for death comes from Isa 34:4.

[32] Ps 4:8; Isa 57:2.

[33] “Loving truth” is a phrase found in Zech 8:19.

[34] This is the “Jesus Creed” teaching from the OT that was affirmed by Jesus (see Matt 22:34-40); Also the wording is influenced by Jewish texts Testament of Issachar (5.2) and Testament of Dan (5.3).

[35] Rom 8:4.

[36] Amos 5:15.

[37] John 13:16.

[38] Isa 53:10-12.

[39] Col 1:18.

[40] Ps 17:15.

[41] Job 14:7.

[42] This is a saying that is attributed to Jesus in one Greek manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew (Codex Bezae; Matt 20:28); scholars are unsure where it came from, but it very well could be a piece of “floating tradition” of a real Jesus saying; scholars call these “agrapha” (i.e., possible real Jesus sayings that do not technically appear in the four gospels).

[43] Phil 4:5; James 5:8.

[44] John 17:20-26.

[45] 2 Peter 3:18.

[46] Aramaic: “Come, our Lord!”

[47] Cover image by Yi Jinghan.

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