Rome divided its empire into provinces, which were led by governors who reported to the senate and emperor. One of these provinces was named “Asia,” and its territory consisted of much of modern-day Turkey. Ephesus was Asia’s cultural center, and we know that Prisca and Aquila enjoyed a fruitful ministry there (Acts 18). Paul greets Prisca and Aquila in Romans 16:3–5a, which probably explains why he greets Epaenetus in verse 5b. Thinking of Ephesus, Paul was reminded of Asia and Epaenetus, of whom we know nothing except that he was “the first convert to Christ in Asia,” most likely under Prisca and Aquila’s ministry. Since that time, he had gone to Rome, and so Paul sends his greeting.
The Apostle next greets Mary, who had “worked hard” for the Roman church (v. 6). This woman was well known to the Romans, but she has since passed into obscurity. John Murray, a significant twentieth-century Reformed theologian, speculates that she may have helped organize the Christian community in Rome, but we cannot be certain about that.
Andronicus and Junia are the last two people Paul greets in today’s passage. This greeting is controversial because commentators throughout history have not agreed on whether the Greek name for Andronicus’ partner should be translated “Junia” (female) or “Junias” (male). If “Junia” is correct and the individual was a woman, she was likely Andronicus’ wife.
What has made this controversial is the possibility of translating “well known to the apostles” as “among the apostles,” indicating that Junia or Junias might have been one of the Apostles. If Junia, a woman, was an Apostle, that would affect our theology of women’s ordination. However, even if “Junia” and “among the apostles” are the correct translations, we read too much into the text to see her as an Apostle in the same way that Paul and Peter were. The word apostle simply means “messenger,” and it can be used to refer to any messenger, even those who do not hold Apostolic office. Paul uses the term that way in Philippians 2:25 for Epaphroditus, who was not an Apostle. We read nowhere else of female Apostles and the early church knows nothing of female Apostles, so we conclude that Paul is saying nothing about an ordained Apostolic office even if he refers to a woman named Junia.
Furthermore, it would be a mistake to believe Junia could not have a significant ministry if she were not an ordained Apostle. Paul did not think so, stating that both Andronicus and Junia were so renowned for their faith that they suffered in prison as he did (Rom. 16:7).