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Joanna: Dedicated Disciple, Possible Apostle

The miracles and teachings of Jesus attracted large crowds of people (Lk 6:17; 19:37), some of whom chose to follow him as full-time students or disciples. Among them were his inner circle of twelve (Lk 6:12-16) and over seventy-two others (Lk 10:1).

Jesus’ followers included both men and women. Luke tells us that one of the leading female disciples was “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager” (Lk 8:3). She and other female disciples “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (v. 2) and supported the community of disciples financially.

The details in Luke 8:3 tell us more about Joanna than we might realize.

First, the name Joanna is a Jewish name. According to the data we have, her name was the fifth most popular for Jewish women in that era.(1) Chuza is a Nabatean name. He may have come to the court of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, when Herod married the Nabatean princess Phasaelis. Over time Chuza rose to the position of “household manager,” which gave him responsibility over Herod’s property and revenues. He would have become a wealthy man.

Joanna probably came from an upper-class family in Galilee and had her own means. When Chuza and Joanna married, Chuza would have converted to Judaism if he had not done so previously. They would have lived in Tiberias, Herod’s capital on the Sea of Galilee.

We have no record of Jesus going to Tiberias (there is only one passing reference to the city in the Gospels, in John 6:23). Still, the Herodian elite in Tiberias were well aware of Jesus’ activities and sometimes sought him out. In John 4:46-54, we see the example of an official who came to Capernaum to ask for the healing of his son, who was near death. That family became believers in Jesus, as did a friend of Herod’s named Manaen (Acts 13:1).

At some point, Joanna had her own healing encounter with Jesus, and she made a radical decision. Rather than merely be a patron of Jesus' movement, she decided to go “all in” and become one of his disciples.

This would have raised eyebrows in her social circle, especially considering the connection of Jesus with John the Baptist. (When Herod divorced Phasaelis and married his half-brother’s wife Herodias, John condemned this union and lost his life as a result—see Mk 6:14-29). Moreover, the common people of Galilee tended to resent Herodians, who were agents of their Roman overlords.

But Joanna was accepted by the followers of Jesus, a group that brought together people from all social classes and valued service rather than status (Lk 22:24-27).

Joanna traveled with Jesus and his disciples all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. With Mary Magdalene and others, she visited the empty tomb (Lk 23:55-24:10) and later witnessed her resurrected Lord (Lk 24:36-49). Then, following Jesus’ instructions to remain in Jerusalem (v. 49), she was empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost as

one of the original members of the Jerusalem church (Acts 1-2). Perhaps Chuza also joined the fellowship when he learned of the resurrection from Joanna.

That may be all that we know about Joanna. However, a tantalizing verse in Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests a further possibility. At the close of this letter, Paul sent greetings to some specific Christians in Rome. In Romans 16:7 he wrote, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”

This text raises two historical questions.

One concerns the status of the two people. Were they “well known to the apostles,” as in the ESV, or were they “prominent among the apostles,” as in the NRSV? Both interpretations are possible.(2) In support of the latter—that the two were apostles—is the fact that most commentators and translators over the centuries have preferred this reading.

A second question concerns the gender of the second person. Was this a woman (Junia) or a man (Junias)? Interpreters in the patristic period took the former view, seeing Andronicus and Junia as a married couple like Priscilla and Aquila in Rom 16:3. Then in medieval times, Junias became the favored translation. Today the majority prefer Junia, in large part because Junia was a common Roman women’s name, while we have no other examples of anyone named Junias.

Paul said that Andronicus and Junia were his “kinsmen,” that is, they were fellow Jews. They were also “fellow prisoners.” And like Paul, they had been persecuted for their faith. Furthermore, they had become followers of Jesus before him. These facts suggest that the two were among the original Jewish believers in Jerusalem but later had accepted a call as missionaries to Rome.

They were not among the twelve, but they could have been apostles in the wider way Paul used the word, for example, in 1 Cor 15:5-9. In this broader sense, apostles were people to whom the risen Christ appeared and whom he commissioned to be witnesses of his resurrection.

When Jews traveled outside Palestine, they often adopted names that fit their new setting. For example, Saul of Tarsus used the name Paul in Greco-Roman contexts, and among his companions were John, who used the name Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37) and Silas, who also was called Silvanus (Acts 18:5; 2 Cor 1:19).

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has proposed that Joanna became a missionary to Rome and took on the name Junia, with Chuza (or a second husband, if Chuza had died) becoming Andronicus. From their time in Herod’s court at Tiberias, Joanna and Chuza would have been familiar with Roman ways and would have been ideal candidates to present the Gospel in Rome.

Joanna certainly was a leading disciple, and she may have become a prominent apostle as well. We do not know if this is what happened, but it is an intriguing possibility. And it is in keeping with the saving character and activity of our God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (Messiah) and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

(1) See Richard Bauckham, "Joanna the Apostle," pp. 109-202 in Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, Eerdmans, 2002.

(2) See Bauckham, pp. 172-180, for discussion.


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