Book Review: John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 278 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP Academic

Goldingay describes this book as a spin-off from his popular commentary series The Old Testament for Everyone (SPCK and WJKP). Like N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone these short commentaries targeted the average Bible reader looking for some guidance in personal Bible study. Old Testament Ethics has a similar goal. The book contains forty-three short reflections divided into five parts. Each chapter is a brief self-contained reflection on some aspect of Old Testament Ethics. Each contains key texts using Goldingay’s own First Testament translation (IVP Academic, 2018) and concludes with a few questions for reflection and discussion. The book is written a familiar style and lacks the sort of scholarly trappings which would make the book difficult for the non-specialist. This format makes the book ideal for personal devotional reading or in a small group Bible study setting.

The first section collects eight character traits a person needs to lead an ethical life. These include Godlikeness, compassion honor, anger trust, truthfulness, forthrightness and contentment. In the second section of the book, he examines nine aspects of life (mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work). The third part of the book deals with relationships with friends, neighbors, women, husband and wives, etc. In the fourth section of the book Goldingay comments on a series of texts: Genesis 1 and 2, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15 and 20, Ruth, Psalm 72 and the Song of Songs. Like part four, the fifth section of the book reflects on a series people in the Old Testament. Some are well known (Abraham, David, Nehemiah) others are obscure (the women in Moses’s life, Shiphrah and Puah, Yokebed and Miryam).

Since each chapter contains a large amount of Scripture, it might be fair to describe this book as a sort of topical Bible. For example, the chapter on truthfulness is about five pages with about three pages of texts drawn from Proverbs. The chapter “Good Husbands, Good Wives” is similar, reprinting all of Proverbs 5:15-20, 6:28-35 and 31:10-31. This immersion on the Scripture is an important part of Goldingay’s goals for the book, even if some readers would prefer more expert commentary from him as the author.

A book on Old Testament ethics needs to deal with a few difficult problems. For example, the Old Testament is sometimes vilified for its view on women. Dealing with the unusual procedure for determining an accused adulterous woman’s guilt in Numbers 5, Goldingay observes “it’s not very egalitarian,” but there are aspects of the Torah which handle men and women in similar ways (126). He deals the troubling issue of the Canaanite genocide in a postscript. He admits “To exaggerate somewhat, the Canaanites got annihilated; and to exaggerate somewhat, the Israelites got annihilated too” (271).

There are a few topics which will be controversial. In chapter 22, “Who You Can’t Have Sex With,” Goldingay deals with rules for marriage and observes many of these commands have little to do with genetics, but with what causes disorder, scandal and disruption of the family (137). In addition, he says some of the prohibitions are based on the “built-in order about which we should adhere.”  Men, for example, are designed to have sex with women. “In Western culture we may but like that one, but it’s worth our seeing its rationale” (138). The next chapter deals with same-sex marriage under the title “People Who Can’t Undertake a Regular Marriage.” Goldingay thinks same-sex marriage falls short of the biblical vision for marriage (in fact it is “miles away from the vision that emerges from Scripture.” But Goldingay points out “but so do lots of other forms of marriage” (143).

There are a few unexpected topics for a book on Old Testament ethics. Several seem to cross over into biblical theology, but it is a fine line between a “biblical theology of friendship” and social ethics. Goldingay includes an interesting discussion of cities (ch. 27) He offers six observations about urban culture drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, concluding “if Christians want to play a part in the shaping of urban policy, we need to nurture economists, lawyers, planners, and civil servants in our churches” (168). The fourth and fifth sections of the book are engaging meditations on biblical characters are an attempt to illustrate ethical principles from the text of the Bible.

Conclusion. This book does not treat Old Testament ethics using traditional categories, nor does it approach modern ethical issues through the lens of the Old Testament in a systematic way. Goldingay does deal with modern ethical issues like violence and war, animal rights, status of women and immigrants, and homosexuality, but only as they arise in the texts he has selected. Although the title of the book suggests some similarities with more systematic works like Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP Academic 2013) or John Barton’s Understanding Old Testament Ethics (WJKP 2003), Goldingay’s book is more of a meditation on the text of the Old Testament.

 

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: René Breuel, The Paradox of Happiness: Finding True Joy in a World of Counterfeits

Breuel, René. The Paradox of Happiness: Finding True Joy in a World of Counterfeits. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 95 pp.; Pb; $12.99.  Link to Lexham

This small book is about finding happiness by encouraging the reader to stop buying the consumerist model the world is selling. Instead, René Breuel suggests following the model of Jesus and focus on serving one another. He says “I wrote The Paradox of Happiness, ironically, because I felt unhappy about our current understandings of happiness.”

The book is divided into three parts. First, Breuel destroys the “Drama of Modern Happiness.” Humans hunger for happiness, but modern culture only provides a “plastic happiness” which does not ultimate satisfy. Most people either deny or redefine happiness, chase artificial ideas of what makes someone happy, or even pursue imaginary pleasures. The problem, Breuel suggest is that these are all centered inwardly. We are trying make ourselves happy.

Jesus’ “paradoxical alternative” to this mindless pursuit of happiness is the subject of part two of the book. Breuel examines Jesus’s “paradoxical call” to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus (Mark 8:24-37). The goal of happiness can only be obtained if it ceases to be the goal (45). This kind of selflessness opens us up to the “banquet flourishing all around us” (50). It rejoices in the happiness of others.

For Breuel, following Jesus’ call to self-denial opens us up to proper expression of self and even self-love. He calls this the “the Rhythm of the Liberated Life” in part 3 of the book. By “living Jesus’ happiness” we escape the plastic happiness of modern life and live a life of genuine satisfaction.

The book is rich with illustrations from Breuel’s life, church history, theology, and pop culture. Breuel presents his ideas in clear prose, but those ideas will challenge the consumerist mindset of most western Christians.

Breuel (MSt, Oxford; MDiv, Regent College) is the founding pastor of Hopera, a church in Rome, Italy. Many of his illustrations in this book are draw from his like and work pastoring in Italy. Breuel blogs at renebreuel.com, is a contributor for Evangelical Focus, and is the editor of Wonderingfair.com.

 

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

Book Review: Adrio König, Christ Above All: The Book of Hebrews

König, Adrio. Christ Above All: The Book of Hebrews (Transformative Word). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham, 2019. 100 pp.; Pb; $12.99.  Link to Lexham

This short book is the third in a new series of Bible study books from Lexham. The Transformative Word series is edited by Craig Bartholonew and David Beldman and intends “identify a key theme in each book of the Bible, and each volume provides careful Biblical exegesis centered on that gripping theme.” Lexham has published Carolyn Custis James, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth and Dru Johnson, The Universal Story: Genesis 1–11.

König begins with a short overview of the book of Hebrews and an outline of the main themes of the book (the magnificence of and humanity of Christ, chapters 2-4). This first chapter also briefly introduces a few problems for the reader of Hebrews, namely the use of the Old Testament (chapter 5), the six warning passages (chapter 6) and the unforgiveable sin (chapter 7).

He begins his three chapters on Christ with a close look at the first three verse of Hebrews, followed by a chapter on the humanity and sinlessness of Christ. The longest chapter in the book is devoted to the magnificence of Christ (ch. 4). Here König tracks how Hebrews describes Jesus as “greater than” a wide range of things from the Old Testament. He concludes this section by suggesting the recipients of this message were Jewish Christians in danger of returning to the synagogue as a result of persecution.

König then examines both the positive and negative uses of the Old Testament in Hebrews (ch. 5). Even a cursory reading of Hebrews will demonstrate the writer’s knowledge of the Old Testament. In many places his argument hinges on a particular detail, such as his allusion to Melchizedek. To illustrate the negative, he points to the several statements in the book in which “it is impossible” for a sacrifice to take away sin, etc.

One of the more difficult aspects of Hebrews are the warning passages. König deals with these in two separate chapters, the first asking if grace can be lost. After a short survey of the six warning passages, he offers evidence for both yes and no. He includes short lists of biblical support for both sides of this troubling issue and concludes “we have to accept this open situation” (80). He then focuses specifically on the warnings in 6:4-6, 10:26-27 and 12:14-17 as “The Unforgivable Sin.” He draws the analogy to Matthew 12 (where the language is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit) and suggests “we have more or less the same depiction of this sin” in Hebrews (88). I am not convinced the sin in Matthew 12 is what the writer of Hebrews has in mind. König does not take into account real possibility the readers of Hebrews are warned against recanting their faith in the face of persecution. In addition, there is more exegesis to be done in Hebrews 6 to decide whether this is “unforgiveable sin” is a real possibility. This is impossible given the limits on this brief book.

Within each chapter are short sidebars explaining some detail in the text (Marcion, the Historical Trustworthiness of the Gospel) or a list of Scripture on a theological point (Christ Called God; Jesus is Greater Than, etc.) Each chapter ends with a collection of parallel biblical texts for further study and a set of reflection questions. These questions are designed to facilitate a small group Bible study. In addition, König introduces a discussion without necessarily answering all the questions. This should lead to a lively discussion.

 

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

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: 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.

 

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.