Note to readers: When Paul wrote, in Romans 16:1, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the LORD in a manner worthy of the saints and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also,” he fueled on-going curiosity as to who this woman was, and what she might have done.
After studying a fascinating book about letter writing in the time of Paul and checking out the opinions of several commentators, I am leaning toward a couple of possibilities in this post: that Phoebe is the one who carried an important letter from Paul to the church in Rome (we now refer to it as the New Testament book of Romans), and that she went by ship.
The following scenario might be how things actually transpired, but the Bible doesn’t identify the letter carrier or the method or means of transportation. However, there is no disputing that Paul is complimentary of Phoebe’s service to him and to the church in Corinth.
English: Roman Ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Phoebe’s business in Rome would take her away from Corinth a month, maybe longer. If she could get passage on a merchantman sailing directly to Rome, and the weather was favorable, it would take ten days. If she went by some other means than ship, the time would be harder to estimate. Since she was uncertain how long she’d be away, Phoebe likely discussed her plans with Paul.
Paul and Phoebe were like family. She was his “sister” in Christ, dependable, competent, a worker in the faith. She served the congregation in Corinth tirelessly. She probably opened her home in Cenchrea to Paul and his associates when they came to Corinth.
Phoebe’s trip came at an opportune time. Paul had been unable to visit the church in Rome and wanted to get a letter to the members. She could deliver the letter and acquaint the church on Paul’s work in Corinth. With a note of introduction from Paul, the members would help her while she was in the city. Phoebe would be judicious in relating news from Corinth. When she returned to Cenchrea, Paul was undoubtedly confident she’d bring an accurate report on the brethren and their response to his letter.
A remarkable mail system
Roman Road (Photo credit: anfearglas)
At the time of Paul’s ministry, Rome operated a remarkable mail system. Augustus Caesar established relay stations equipped with riders, fresh horses, and light carts to carry the mail from one station to another. Men driving horse-drawn carts could carry regular mail a distance of 50 miles in a day. Relay riders with priority mail changed horses every six miles and could cover up to 170 miles in a day. Rome built 50,000 miles of paved highways throughout the Mediterranean region and 200,000 miles of secondary roads—initially to facilitate the movement of soldiers. The imperial mail system took advantage of the established routes for transporting letters pertaining to official Roman business.
Private citizens were unable to access the imperial mail system. Paul, like other citizens not officially employed by Rome, made his own informal arrangements for sending mail. The unofficial procedure for sending a letter depended on finding a family member or friend, a soldier or stranger—anyone who was willing to carry a letter to its destination. Author Randolph Richards calls the random messengers “happenstance letter carriers.”  If you happen to find someone going in the right direction, ask him to take your letter. It was a somewhat reliable way of sending and receiving mail, because it was the only option private citizens had at the time. Wealthy individuals hired slaves who were trained letter carriers or employed them as part of the household staff.
Richards states that Paul may have depended on happenstance carriers early in his ministry but later relied on fellow Christians. “From 1 Corinthians onward, Paul’s letters were carried by named, private letter carriers, who bore Paul’s endorsement and whom Paul said had authority to elaborate his meaning (Col 4:7-9).”
At the end of his letter, Paul recommends Phoebe to the church members in Rome. He states that she is a “sister,” a believer in Christ, and a servant of the church in Cenchrea. The members understood that her service would have included visiting the sick, helping women with family needs, teaching children, caring for elderly widows and extending hospitality. Paul states “she has been a helper of many and of myself also” (Rom.16:1-2).
Paul trusted the church to befriend Phoebe while she was in Rome “in whatever business she has need of you” (Rom.16:2). When Phoebe sailed from Corinth, she was confident of connecting with fellow Christians who would look after her.
Scripture doesn’t say anything about Phoebe’s voyage, the success of her business, her relationship to the congregation or how the church assisted her. All we know is that the letter arrived in Rome.
Helpful or significant?
The significance of delivering the letter relates to the value of it. If Paul had written a simple announcement of his intention to visit Rome, the carrier’s service would be remembered as helpful. I believe Phoebe carried the letter, and what elevates her service to significant is the extraordinary nature of the letter itself, which is underscored by the following sources:
- By common consent, Romans is the greatest of Paul’s letters. (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, p.3)
- The greatest of Paul’s epistles and considered by many as the greatest book in the NT…it is a book, in one sense, simple and clear, but in another sense so magnificent that it baffles complete comprehension. (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 1088)
- Romans is a masterful presentation of God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles. (NKJV Study Bible, p.1764)
- This letter has also loomed large in the history of Christianity. Countless men and women of faith have singled out Romans as the weapon God graciously used to bring about their surrender to Christ. (Same source, p.1763)
A very special delivery
If Phoebe was indeed the carrier, she had the privilege of delivering what is now commonly considered Paul’s most significant epistle. Did she hear the very first reading of the letter aloud in church? I imagine she was thankful to God for her small part in bringing such amazing good news to the church in Rome. —Mary Hendren
 Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, E. Randolph Richards, p. 199 (note on estimated time for a letter to reach Rome, via ship from Corinth)
 The Woman’s Study Bible notes that Cenchrea was a seaport for Corinth (p. 1890).
 Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, Richards, pp. 178-179