Book Review: Frank Thielman, Romans (ZECNT)

Thielman, Frank. Romans. ZECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2018. 812 pp. Hb. $59.99   Link to Zondervan  

Frank Thielman’s new contribution to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series enters an already crowded field of recent major Romans commentaries. Thielman serves as Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. His previous work includes From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (Brill, 1989), Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Inter-Varsity, 1994) and Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Zondervan, 2005).

Thielman, RomansThe thirty-one page introduction is quite different than the average exegetical commentary on Romans. Thielman begins with a brief synopsis of state of the Roman Empire in A.D. 57 followed by an account of how Christian first reached Rome. The purpose of both sections is to place the reader into the world of Rome in the mid-first century. He draws attention to the social problems of slavery, infanticide, and the despair of people living in abject poverty. Thielman paints a picture of “Rome’s Christians as relatively poor, hardworking people with roots in the East and speaking Greek as well as or better than Latin” (p. 32).

With respect to traditional introductory questions, the Letter to the Romans was written from Corinth about A.D. 57 and delivered by Phoebe to ethnically diverse but mostly Gentile churches in Rome. Phoebe may have been a woman of wealth and high social status based the word προστάτις in Romans 16:2, and Thielman thinks she holds the position of deacon. The role of deacon, however, “involved a lot of running around” as was considered lowly service by Greco-Roman standards (p. 712).

As for the purpose of the letter, Thielman observes there are several reasons Paul wrote to a congregation he did not yet know. Paul says his desire is to visit them in order to preach the Gospel (1:13). The rest of Romans describes Paul’s gospel and its implications for Christian living. Since the Roman churches were predominately Gentile, Thielman suggests Paul may have considered the Roman Christians part of his apostolic responsibility (p. 37). But Paul also needed the support of the Roman congregations if he was to continue his mission by preaching the Gospel in Spain (Rom 15:28-29).

Each chapter in the body of the commentary begins with the literary context of the section of Romans under examination. This is more than a summary of the pericope since Thielman connects the smaller unit with the larger aims of the letter. Following this is a snippet of the detailed outline of Romans in a faux computer window graphic. Thielman then offers a concise main idea for the section to be studied in the chapter.

Like other volumes in this series, the English translation of the pericope is presented in a graphical layout marked with interpretive labels for each clause. The series introduction indicates these labels are “informed by discourse analysis and narrative criticism, but the editors have also attempted to avoid technical jargon. In order to help the reader follow the flow of Paul’s argument, main clauses appear in bold print, subordinate clauses are indented.

Following this graphical display of the text, Thielman makes a series of observations on the structure of the pericope followed by an exegetical outline. Since these are slightly more detailed than the outline provided under the literary context, it makes little sense to me to include both; the faux window under literary context could be deleted without any loss in clarity. In fact, the structure section could easily be combined with the literary context since it is a slightly more detailed version of the same material. This is a problem for the commentary series and not the fault of Thielman.

After setting the context in several different ways, Thielman moves on to the commentary proper under the heading “Explanation of the Text.” Here the style of the commentary breaks up into two columns. The commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase, with the English text in bold followed by the Greek text in parenthesis. Since key Greek words are repeated in the commentary, printing the full Greek text may not be necessary. Thielman does not often comment on the syntax in the body of the commentary, but there are ample footnotes directing readers to Wallace, Zerwick, Moule and other advanced koine Greek grammars. The same is true for lexical issues. He often comments on the use of a word elsewhere in the LXX or Greek New Testament and uses the footnotes to point readers to lexicons and theological dictionaries. This makes the body of the commentary uncluttered and easy to read. Thielman interacts with secondary literature in the footnotes, pointing interested readers to a wide range of literature on Romans, both classic and modern.

The final unit in each chapter is labeled “Theology in Application.” Here Thielman offers two or three points of contact with Pauline theology or contemporary church issues which arise from his exegesis. For example, commenting on honor and shame in Romans 12:1-8, Thielman says “competition and seeking honor for one’s self are no less a part of modern human societies than they were of ancient Roman society. Paul’s call upon believers to be vigilant against allowing this spirit to infect the church is as relevant now as it was in his own time” (p. 581).

Thielman covers technical details excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These sidebars are labeled “In Depth” and are printed in a sans-serf font and a grey background. Like most excurses, the reader may skip over them thinking they are not very important. This is not the case, Thielman uses these sidebars to deal with a few important issues for the study of Romans. Several deal with textual criticism such as the doxology at the end of Roman 16 or the difficult problem of ἔχομεν or ἔχωμεν in Romans 5:1. Other sidebars focus on the background to special vocabulary, such as ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25 or “height” and “depth” in Romans 8:39 (are these astrological terms? Thielman says no). Sometimes the excursus covers a difficult problem in Romans studies such as the identity of “I” in 7:7-25 or the nature of the house church which met in the home of Prisca and Aquila in 16:3. I expected a sidebar on Junia (16:7), Thielman quickly covers the identity Junia in the commentary (she is an apostle, Thielman includes more than two pages on Paul’s understanding of Israel’s stumbling in Romans 9-11 and another two pages on his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8.

Conclusion. Frank Thielman’s contribution to the study of Romans is not a massive exegetical commentary like Richard Longenecker or Douglas Moo, but it is far more detailed than other light commentaries like Grant Osborne or Craig Keener. This commentary falls between those two extremes and should provide pastors and teachers with the exegetical details they need to present this important book to their students.

NB: The original publication of this commentary (ISBN: 9780310243687) contained errors in the footnotes. It was replaced in December 2018 with a new ISBN (9780310104032). Be sure to purchase the new edition by checking the ISBN. Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Adam Winn, Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology

Winn, Adam. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 187 pp. Pb. $24.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This volume is an update to his 2008 doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, published as The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT/2 245; Mohr Siebeck: 2008). As Winn explains in his acknowledgment page, that book was “strongly criticized.” After taking part in the SBL Mark Group for several years, Winn was motivated to move deeper into the world of Roman imperial ideology in order to “make sense of the disparate pieces of Mark’s Christology.” In the Gospel of Mark, Winn thinks Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” (p. 116).

Winn, Reading Mark's ChristologyThese “disparate pieces” include Mark’s use of titles, stories in which Jesus demonstrates power (miracles, healings, exorcisms, revelations by supernatural beings, popularity and proclamations by crowds), the suffering of Jesus, and the so-called messianic secret. Although these various parts may be accounted for through form and redaction criticism (the various bits come from different sources), Winn considers narrative criticism the only way present a compelling Christology from Mark’s Gospel. He initially followed the lead of Robert Gundry who suggest Mark is an apology for Jesus’s shameful crucifixion, but in this study he uses a historical-narratival method using the final form of Mark’s gospel. He wants to set Mark’s gospel into a particular sociocultural and historical setting (p. 24). That setting is the Roman world after A.D. 70.

Winn devotes about half of the first chapter arguing for this date and provenance and then argues the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 played a central role on Flavian propaganda. Vespasian needed a major military accomplishment to legitimize his and his son’s claim in the imperial throne. The destruction of Jerusalem was presented as a major victory and was celebrated through triumphal processions, coins and architecture. This was a “theology of victory,” the gods favored the Flavian dynasty and supported it through a series of miracles prophecies and other portents. In fact, Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius all report the tradition that Vespasian fulfilled prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures when he conquered the east (p. 45). The Gospel of Mark “strips Vespasian of is powerful victories and places the victory into the hands of Jesus” (p. 164).

Chapters two through five apply this historical setting of the book to the several common ways scholars have sought to develop Mark’s Christology. First, Winn examines Mark’s Christological titles (Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, and Lord). He concludes these titles can be understood apart from their imperial context and are not necessarily responses to Vespasian’s imperial propaganda (p. 68). Second, Winn surveys the presentation of Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, especially during the Galilean ministry (Mark 1-8). Mark presents Jesus as the true Christ and Son of God in contrast to the propagandistic claims of Vespasian (p. 88). Third, Winn turns his attention to the suffering of Jesus in Mark 8:22-10:52 (the rest of the passion narrative is covered in chapter 7). Winn argues that an imperial reading of Mark eliminates the perceived tension between Jesus as a powerful miracle worker and his suffering and death. The disciples do not fully understand the suffering of Jesus the Messiah, drawing a parallel to the Roman readers of Mark’s Gospel (p. 115). Fourth, Winn interacts with David Watson’s Honor among Christians (Fortress, 2010) as he re-examines the so-called secrecy motif in the light of his “Roman reading” of Mark (chap. 5). The Roman political strategy of recusatio meant Roman emperors often refused public honors. Winn illustrates this with data from Augustus and Tiberius. Winn concludes Mark is contextualizing Jesus in a way which would have resonated with his Roman readers (p.129). Like the emperor, Jesus refuses public honor as a result of his powerful healing ministry.

Winn devotes a short chapter to Jesus and the temple, including the temple action, Jesus’s teaching in the temple and apocalyptic discourse. The temple action is a symbolic destruction of the temple (p. 138); Jesus is establishing a new messianic community as a replacement for the temple itself (p. 140) and marginalizing the sacrificial system (p. 142). Since Mark wrote the apocalyptic discourse after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the “desolating sacrilege” may be a future eschatological sign (p. 145).

Finally, Winn examines the passion narrative through the lens of Roman imperial ideology. The so-called cry of dereliction, when Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross, is the unity between the powerful Jesus and the suffering Jesus. Although he is suffering, Psalm 22 looks forward to the glory and vindication after the resurrection. Regarding Roman imperial ideology, Winn sees the passion as a Roman triumph. He offers a series of observations to support this. For example, Simon carrying the cross parallel to a Roman official escorting a sacrificial bull and carrying a double-bladed axe; Jesus is the sacrificial animal and Simon carries the instrument of his death (p. 159). Since a Roman triumph ended at the temple of Jupiter, the Capitolium (caput is the Latin for “head), Winn sees a parallel with Golgotha, the place of the skull (p. 160). Winn sees this as a creative narrative which has a “clear and significant payoff for Mark’s Roman readers living in the shadow of Flavian propaganda” (p. 162). The suffering and death of Jesus is not a weakness, but a sign of strength and power. As with any literary allusion to culture, a reader sees what they want to see. Although it is possible to read the passion of Jesus as a parody of a Roman triumph, it is difficult to imagine the original readers fully appreciating the subtly of Mark’s allusions.

Conclusion. Winn argues Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as a powerful man but also as one who suffers tremendous shame. Both themes are present throughout the gospel of Mark and it is problematic to emphasize one over the other. Suffering and power are “Christological poles” which may seem to stand in tension, but they form a coherent unity when read in the light of Roman political ideology according to Winn’s reconstruction (p. 164).

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

“Everything N. T. Wright” Sale at Logos

During the last week of May. Logos is running a sale on N. T. Wright. Since Wright is so prolific, you might be wondering where to start. His Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope ($16.09 each) are basic presentations of Christian theology in the tradition of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I have used The Challenge of Jesus ($11.89) for many years as supplemental reading in my Jesus and the Gospels class.

His Tyndale Commentary on Colossians and Philemon on the list ($11.19). This is one of the most readable commentaries I have read; academic yet spiritually challenging. It is far more detailed than his For Everyone commentary series ($10.49 a volume). Wright comments briefly on every book of the New Testament. Not academic, but very well suited for a small group Bible Study or a supplement to one’ s personal Bible reading. Pick out individual volumes or get the twenty volume bundle.

One of Wright’s first works is available, the essays in Climax of the Covenant ($13.99) introduces some of the themes which he develops in his later more extensive works. HIs Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision is only $11.19. This was the book written in conversation with John Piper and sets out his view of justification.

If you are up to the challenge, the four volumes of the Christian Origins and the Question of God are excellent. The Resurrection of the Son of God is perhaps the most detailed survey of the idea of resurrection in the Second Temple period available; Paul and the Faithfulness of God is a massive 1500+ theology of Paul, and generated a large volume of appreciative responses God and the Faithfulness of Paul edited by Michael Bird and Christoph Helig and J. Thomas Hewitt (Fortress Press 2017).

  • The New Testament and the People of God
  • Jesus and the Victory of God
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God
  • Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Logos sells a bundle of all four volumes in the series ($104.99). The last of these is part of a Pauline trilogy, Wright’s Pauline Theology itself, a survey of Pauline studies and a collection of Wright’s essays on Paul gathered from various journals and edited volumes:

  • Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  • Paul and His Recent Interpreters
  • Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul 1978–2013

If all that is intimidating, start with his Paul: Fresh Perspectives. For many years before Paul and the Faithfulness of God was published this was Wright’s brief overview of Pauline theology; I have used it many times ans supplemental reading in a Pauline Lit class. Missing from the sale is his first book on Paul, the provocatively titled What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans 1997), but the book is not available in the Logos Library.

Two volumes in this sale are not by N. T. Wright, but the feature his ideas. Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright is a collection of essays on Wright’s claim Second Temple period Jews thought of themselves as still living in the Exile. The real steal on this sale is Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter (Baker Academic 2014) includes essays on justification, gospel and ethics in Galatians by Mark W. Elliott, John Barclay, Beverly Gaventa, Richard Hays, Bruce McCormack, Oliver O’Donovan, and many others. Wright’s article is “Messiahship in Galatians?”

There are many more books on the sale, these are only the highlights (or, things which interest me). You could get everything by Wright for your Logos library fr $482.99 (go big or go home). But the sale only runs through May 31, 2019, so visit the Logos N. T. Wright sale and load up on summer reading.

Logos recently released a major upgrade to their Bible Software. I did a “first look” review of Logos 8 here. There are plenty of new features to justify an upgrade and the software runs much more efficiently than the previous version. Everything seems to run faster than Logos 7 and the upgrade is well worth considering. Logos base packages are 20% off through May 31. As always, there are less expensive paths to upgrading and there are paths that will preserve your credit rating. Use the code READINGACTS8 to save 20%.

The Logos Free book of the Month for May 2019 is I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark, Hb. 1999, Pb. 2013). Be sure to get this book (along with the almost free C. K. Barrett volumes on Acts). See my comments on this excellent free resource here.

 

 

Book Review: Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians (TNTC)

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1 Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. xxxiv+337 pp. Pb. $25.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This new volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series replaces the 1958 commentary by Leon Morris, originally published by Eerdmans. This is the second replacement volume published since the New Testament Tyndale Commentary moved to IVP Academic a few years ago (Ian Paul, Revelation).

Schreiner is well known in evangelical circles. He is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In addition to numerous books and articles, Schreiner has contributed major commentaries on Romans (Baker, 1998, Second Edition, 2018) and Galatians (Zondervan, 2010) as well as New Testament Theology (Baker, 2008) and a Pauline theology, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (IVP Academic 2006).

The fifty-page introduction to the commentary introduces the city of Corinth and Paul’s initial ministry there according to the book of Acts. The authorship and date of the letter are not controversial and Schreiner assumes the traditional view Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus in the spring of AD 54, before the feast of Pentecost (1 Cor 16:8). There is only a brief paragraph dismissing any pre-history of the letter as irrelevant (p. 17). His discussion of the occasion of the letter likewise follows the traditional view the content of the letter is a response to reports from Paul’s associates and response to questions from the church itself. He briefly interacts with Margaret Mitchell’s study arguing the phrase “now about” (peri de) does not necessarily refer to a question from the church, but in the commentary he treats the phrase as introducing an answer to questions (p. 11).

About half of the introduction traces the major theological themes of 1 Corinthians. The first three of these themes are the members of the Trinity, although the section on the Holy Spirit naturally deals with the problem of spiritual gifts on 1 Corinthians, a topic so important it merits a larger discussion under a separate heading. His interest is the purpose of sign gifts (edification of the church), so he does not use this section to argue for or against the cessation of tongues (See his Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, B&H Academic, 2018) for his view on this issue). Schreiner divides his section on the church into divisions and discipline, both key themes in the letter, but the section ought to be read along with his section on “living a new life” and on “food sacrificed to idols.” In both these sections Schreiner discusses how the individual Christian lives out a life is out of step with the culture Roman world of Corinth. Although he does not make this point as strongly as I would like, this seems to be the source of much of the problems in Corinth. He follows Eckhard Schnabel’s suggestion the letter concerns conflicts within the church (divisions, lawsuits, etc.) and compromises with the word (sexual sin, marriage, food sacrificed to idols, etc.).

The body of the commentary divides the letter into two major sections: addressing the problems in the church, 1:10-6:20) and answers to contemporary issues in the church (7:1-16:4). Each subsection has a brief section setting the context of the pericope followed by a verse-by-verse commentary. Given the length of 1 Corinthians, sometimes the commentary covers several verses in a single paragraph. Schreiner’s comments are on the English text although he occasionally refers to Greek in transliteration.

Following the commentary there is a brief section labeled theology. Here Schreiner often draws on parallel material in the Pauline letters as he comments on how the pericope contributes to Christian theology and practice. For example, on 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, he observes I Corinthians 7:1-7 is similar to Paul’s description of self-sacrificial love in Ephesians 5:22-29, guarding against “militaristic and rigid understanding of submission” (p. 158).

Because of the controversial nature of Paul’s comments on headship (11:2-16), Schreiner writes a longer section of commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In his case Schreiner does interact with other commentaries (Garland, Ciampa and Rosner). He agrees there is a social and cultural dimension to Paul’s comments, but limiting this text to only the social and cultural dimensions may “blind us to the theological dimension of the text” (p. 223). Separating social and theological realties merge in remarkable ways, says Schreiner. He argues Paul has in mind women in general rather than just wives, although he later suggests a mediating position that Paul refers to both all woman and wives. The analogy to the Trinity is not an exact parallel, but it is a parallel (p. 227). In the theology section for this pericope, he concludes “the distinctions between the sexes must be preserved; thus there is no warrant for the notion that one’s gender is simply a social construct” (p. 238). With respect to the application to veiling women in a modern context, “each culture has to work out how the theological principle articulated works out in its particular circumstances” (p. 239)

Schreiner begins his discussion of the controversial passage in 14:34-35 by rejecting any attempt to dismiss the verses as secondary (contra Fee, 780-92). For Schreiner, some women in Corinth were asking disruptive or defiant questions; the shame is not that women were speaking but rather that they were disruptive (p. 298). He cites Plutarch as an example of what the ancient world expected from a woman in public.

There are only a few footnotes, often giving cross references or pointers to monographs focusing on some detail of the text. Unlike many contemporary commentaries, Schreiner does not cite other commentaries on 1 Corinthians, although he has certainly read them and benefited from a wide range of views. This is refreshing given the recent trend toward “commentaries on the commentaries.”

Conclusion. This new commentary on 1 Corinthians is a welcome update to the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series. Although the book is brief compared to other recent commentaries, Schreiner offers enough social and cultural background to illuminate some of the more difficult sections of the letter and draws conservative, evangelical applications to contemporary issues. This commentary will serve pastors, teachers, and students as they study this important Pauline letter to their congregations.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Israel / Jordan 2019

Pwetra Group Picture

In May 2019 I traveled with 27 students, parents and friends to Israel and Jordan. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader; without his help it would have been impossible to manage a group of this size. The students were remarkable – very attentive and inquisitive and (almost) always on time. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.

I have two tours planned with Tutku Tours in 2020, if you are interested in my “Missionary Journeys of Paul” tour in March 2020, check out the brochure on the Tutku website. If you have questions about the 2020 tour, contact me directly via email or a direct message on twitter @plong42

Day 1 – Grace Christian University Tour of Israel and Jordan 2019

Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem

Day 3 – Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum

Day 4 – Following Jesus from the Mount of Olives

Day 5 – Caesarea, Megiddo, and The Sea of Galilee

Day 6 – Jesus in Galilee

Day 7 – Jerash, Amman, Mount Nebo

Day 8 – Visiting Petra

Day 9 – From the Red Sea to En Gedi

Day 10 – Masada, Arad and the Dead Sea

Day 11 – En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Ben Witherington, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian

Witherington III, Ben. Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 194 pgs., Pb.; $20.00 Link to IVP

This new novel by Ben Witherington III is similar to both Paula Gooder’s Phoebe (IVP Academic, 2019) and the Week in the Life series also published by IVP Academic. Witherington is well known from his many commentaries and other scholarly work, but he has written several novels (A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP Academic 2012) and the five volumes of the Art West series (The Lazarus Effect, Wipf & Stock, 2008) written with his wife Ann Witherington.

Priscilla is similar in format to the Week in the Life series in that there are numerous illustrations throughout the text. Almost all of these photographs are from wikicommons. There are no sidebars like the Week in the Life series, making the text easier to read. Most chapters begin with a quote from Scripture or some contemporary Roman writer.

The novel introduces Prisca at the end of her life reflecting on her experiences in Rome and Corinth. At the insistence of her daughter Julia she dictates her memories beginning from Pentecost. Since there are no details in the New Testament of Prisca’s life, Witherington must create a likely story to draw the reading into the world of early Christianity and first-century Rome. Both Priscilla and Aquila were present at Pentecost, but their marriage was not arranged until they had returned to Rome. Witherington follows the common suggestion that Priscilla was from a higher social class than Aquila, in fact she was a citizen in this novel. They are active in Roman synagogues, resulting in public disputes over who Jesus was. Claudius banished them from Rome because of “riots over Chrestus” (Acts 18:1-2). After a time of ministry in Ephesus Prisca returns to Rome. She survives the Great Fire and Neronian persecution but the sub-plot of the book concerns a summons to appear before Domitian.

After writing several Socio-rhetorical commentaries on New Testament books, Witherington has enough background knowledge of the Roman world to fill out the details of Priscilla’s life. H acknowledges Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities (Europa, 2009). I read this entertaining primer on the Roman world several years ago. Angela covers many of the elements of daily life larger histories overlook. Witherington works many of these cultural elements into the novel to give the reader a glimpse into everyday life of a Roman woman.

There are a number of small side comments in the book which reflect some decision by a New Testament scholar. For example, in the novel, Paul recommended Priscilla set her slaves free (reflecting the hope of many New Testament scholars that Paul would have privately condemned slavery). He refers to Thecla as an itinerant prophetess (giving Witherington a chance to talk about prophets in the early church). Thecla is known from a second century apocryphal book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla and an intriguing fresco at Ephesus. At one point in the book Prisca and Julia discuss Nero as possibly the anti-chrestus, “the one called 666” (p. 123). opportunity for Witherington to explain gematria (even reflecting the textual variant of 616 for the mark of the beast).  After Paul arrives in Rome, he writes several letters (the prison epistles), and is released, following the traditional conservative view of the history of Paul after Acts.

Conclusion: As with novels of this kind, there is a tension between a desire to create a compelling plot and the need to slip in details from the New Testament and Roman history. The story is less “the life of Priscilla” than a series of vignettes illustrating the usual sub-plot of early Christianity in Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla is like Forrest Gump, witnessing cultural and historical events. There is no detail in the book I would seriously dispute and the book illustrates life in the Roman world. Readers who enjoy the Week in the Life series will also enjoy Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian even if the focus is not Priscilla’s life.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Paula Gooder, Phoebe

Gooder, Paula. Phoebe. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 308 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

Like IVP’s Week in the Life series, Paula Gooder’s Phoebe illuminates the world of first century Christianity by a story written by a serious academic scholar. Gooder is the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and has taught Ripon College Cuddesdon and The Queen’s Foundation. Her Ph.D. dissertation was published as Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and Heavenly Ascent (T & T Clark, 2006).

In the brief introduction to the notes on the novel, Gooder explains her book is an experiment in historical imagination and not a novel (p. 225). A novel, she says is a carefully crafted a story which goes wherever the imagination leads. Since her book is restrained by historical reality and aims to both inform and entertain, it is not really a novel. She wants to prod the reader’s imagination and invite them into the word of the first century.

Gooder selects the tantalizing reference in Romans 16:1 to “Phoebe the Deaconess of the church at Cenchreae” (or servant, depending on your translation) and develops a story around her. This is therefore an opportunity for her to address the often difficult problem of Paul’s attitude towards women found in 2 Timothy 2:9-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:33-36. Gooder encourages the readers to read the “tricky” passages in the light of the roles women played in Pauline churches (p. 228). Phoebe is one of several women who played key roles in early Christian communities. Although this book does not make an argument for the role of women in church leadership in a modern context, it “reflects the view I hold. If you disagree you are unlikely to enjoy what follows” (p. 229).

In the book, Gooder follows the common view that Phoebe was the courier for the Letter to the Romans, Prisca and Aquila led house churches and Junia was a woman prominent among the apostles. Phoebe was a deacon at Cenchrea and a “benefactor of many” (προστάτις, a patron rather than helper). Both are titles which ought to evoke respect from the Roman community as they received the letter from Paul delivered by Phoebe.

The story itself is just over 200 pages, the final 81 pages are notes on the story. I will not spoil the story, but like most of these sorts of scholarly novels, we meet many of the expected characters, Prisca and Aquila, Junia, Andronicus, and the apostles Peter and Paul make appearances as well. There are sections where it seems obvious wants to work in some Roman cultural issue where perhaps a novelist would not, but the story is well written and entertaining.

The notes are much more extensive than the Week in the Life series. In those books additional material is inserted into the flow of the novel through side-bars and illustrations. Phoebe saves all the notes to the final section of the book. There are no footnotes or references to distract from the novel itself, making the book easier to read as a novel. My strategy was to read all the notes before the novel since I was interested in Gooder’s views on Phoebe. One could read a chapter in the novel then read corresponding notes for the chapter.

The book will be a good introduction for readers interested in the background of the Roman world and early Christianity. Many will be attracted to the book for what it contributes to the role of women in the early church, either enjoying it or disliking it depending on one’s presuppositions. This is unfortunate, but Gooder’s book will certainly stimulate discussions of the role of woman in the ancient and modern church.

Other books in the Week in the Life series:

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.