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.