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.