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.

Book Review: Sandra Glahn, Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

Glahn, Sandra, ed. Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2017, 303 pp. Hb; $22.99. Link to Kregel

There are quite a few books series and Bible studies on the so-called “bad girls” of the Bible. These are usually written for the layperson and emphasize grace and forgiveness as the main application of these kinds of stories. In the preface to this new collection of essays from Kregel Academic, editor Sandra Glahn indicates the motivation for this book is “to handle faithfully the biblical text” (13). This is in contrast to fanciful novels or popular Bible studies on female characters in the Bible, but it also is a challenge to popular preaching about these women. Glahn cites as examples blaming Eve for the guilt of the human race, or blaming Sarah for the political tensions in the modern Middle East. Popular preachers can make a great sermon by “maligning” Bathsheba as a “vixen” or the Samaritan women as an adulterer, or Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Other women are marginalized. Glahn notes the omission of Deborah and Huldah from charts of the prophets in some study Bibles, or (I would add) the translation of “servant” in the ESV instead of “deacon” (NRSV) in Romans 16:1 as well as the always controversial status of Junia in Romans 16:7.

The essays in this collection hopes to correct popular misconceptions about some women in the Bible by paying careful attention to the cultural and social context as well as the literary form of the biblical text. Other than a generally conservative view of Scripture, there is nothing controversial about this method. What might be surprising to some readers is how often the portrayal of these women in popular preaching and teaching is skewed or just plain wrong. In his short methodology introduction to the book, Henry Rouse points out the essays in this collection seek to explain what the text actually says in order to understand the point the original author made. Yet there are “timeless truths” with are relevant to a contemporary discussion of gender (25-6). In each of the essays, the authors devote space to understanding the social and cultural factors which bear on their exegesis of the text and attempt understand the text as it might have been by an ancient audience.

These methodological values are found in each chapter, but I will focus on Sarah Bowler’s article on Bathsheba. She begins by listing several of the popular assumptions about the story: Bathsheba was bathing naked and caused the king to stumble, and she willingly entered into an affair with the king. In contrast, Bowler argues the text does not portray Bathsheba as enticing the king at all, rather, David abused his power as the king to bring her to into the palace where he raped Bathsheba. By describing the incident as an “affair” makes both David and Bathsheba responsible, but a close reading of the biblical text indicates Bathsheba is silent throughout the story and is a victim of rape by David. For some Bible readers, it is disturbing to describe the incident as a rape, but this is what the text says. Bowler supports this reading of the text with a series of exegetical observations from the text of the Hebrew Bible. She then draws several implications for ministry, especially for helping victims of sexual predators in the church (98-100).

The first section of this book treats the so-called “bad girls” in the Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 4). These women are involved in a sexually compromising story, or at least that is the common reading of these stories. . Yet, as the authors of each of the essays makes clear, the woman are far more moral than the men. For example, in Carolyn Custis James essay on Tamar, she describes her as “the righteous prostitute.” Few pastors would dare preach the story in Genesis 38, but James argues Tamar is a strong exemplary model who is vindicated by God (46) and is a startling example of a hero (48). Eva Bleeker argues Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, is a “paragon of otherness” (50) who becomes the hero of the story when she confesses her faith in the Lord, the God of Israel (53). Marnie Legaspi discusses the potentially scandalous behavior of Ruth, a Moabite woman who seems to throw herself at the feet of the Boaz, a wealthy Bethlehemite. Legaspi rejects the overtly sexual interpretation of Ruth’s actions, suggesting Ruth is a model of “virtuous obedience” (73) as she “demonstrates astonishing courage in her obedience on the threshing floor” (79). Timothy Ralston’s essay on the Virgin Mary at least seems out of place in the volume since rarely would anyone dare to describe Mary as a “vixen.” But Ralston is interested in the marginalization of the biblical Mary by the overwhelming history of theological speculation about Mary. He has in mind the Immaculate Conception and bodily assumption of Mary as well as her role as co-redemptrix in Roman Catholic theology.

The second section of the book (ch. 6-11) surveys six women in the Old Testament. Glenn Kreider’s essay on Eve deals with non-biblical readings of Genesis 2-3 which paint Eve as the “mother of all seducers” and make Eve responsible for sin entering the human race. Although there are many examples of this in both Jewish and Christian history, Kreider cites popular preacher John Piper who described the “power of a sinful woman to control a sinful man” (133). Kreider rightly points out Eve is not blamed for sin in the New Testament, although he only touches on the very difficult problem text in 1 Tim 2:12-14. Eugene Merrill places the story of Sarah and Hagar in the proper ancient near eastern context in order to show her actions fit into that patriarchal culture. Tony Maalouf examines the other female character in Genesis 12-16, Hagar. Hagar is both a slave and a concubine, yet unlike Sarah she encounters God, receives a promise God that her son would also be a father of a great nation.  Ron Pierce discusses the only female judge, Deborah. As with most of the women discussed in this collection Deborah is a strong female character in contrast to weak male. Christa L. McKirland contributes an essay on the most obscure character in the book, Huldah the prophet. She is significant since she serves as a court prophet for King Josiah at a critical point in Judah’s history. Despite being one of the few female prophets in the Old Testament, she is rarely recognized as such by later church theologians. McKirland surveys a few major commentators in both Christian and Rabbinic history. Finally, Sharifa Stevens examines a minor character in Esther, Vashti. Vashti is a silent queen in the book of Esther who refuses the king’s command to “display her beauty” to the men at the royal banquet. Stevens surveys the suggestion Vashti is Amesteris in Herodotus and the rabbinic tradition she is Nebuchadnezzar’s granddaughter (although she does not clearly reject either view). Stevens sees Vashti as a courageous woman whose defiance of her husband is essential for God’s plan to save his people later in the book.

The final section of the book corrects some misconceptions about a few New Testament women. Lynn Cohick re-examines the evidence that the Samaritan woman in John 4 was an adulteress. This chapter appeared in Christianity Today and is quite brief compared to other chapters in the book. She observes the text does not tell us why she was at the well at noon, despite the well-worn claim that “proper women” went to the well in the morning rather than at noon, there is little evidence this was the case in the first century. It is also unlikely she was a serial divorcee, only a prominent and wealthy person could afford that many divorces! It is also unlikely she was sexually promiscuous since she has enough respect in her village to get them all to come out to hear Jesus. Cohick therefore suggests she is the victim of a series of unfortunate events: her husbands had died (although perhaps one of the marriages ended in divorce). There is less in the text implying she was a well-known adulterous woman in the Samaritan village. Similarly, Karla Zazueta deals with the popular portrayal of Mary Magdalene (some of the wildest suggests come from the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-laden fiction). Mary is introduced in Luke 8:2 as a woman healed of seven demons. Zazueta points out demon possession does not mean she was a prostitute. The distortion of Mary’s character seems to stem from Gregory the Great, the first to associate the woman in Luke 7:36-50 with Mary mentioned a few verses later. Zazueta argues there is nothing in the text of Luke which requires the unnamed woman in Luke 7 to be Mary. Rather than a former prostitute, Mary can be fairly described as a female follower of Jesus who is chosen to be the first witness of the resurrection. Finally in the New Testament section, Amy Peeler deals with the suggestion the Junia mentioned in Romans 16:7 is in fact a woman. Historically the name has been understood as a male since the verse implies Andronicus and Junia are apostles. If Junia was an apostle, many scholars assumed the name referred to a man (since only men could be apostles). Peeler also interacts with Richard Bauckham’s argument Junia refers to Joanna, one of the first witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 23:55-24:7.

Conclusion. This collection of essays aims to dispel popular misunderstandings of these “sexualized, vilified, and marginalized women of the Bible.” Each essay succeeds in dispelling bad but popular versions of these stories. This book is not driven by any feminist theological or political agenda nor is there any sustained argument for or against women in ministry in the modern church.

As is often the case, not every essay in this collection is of equal value. In every case, the authors attend to the details of the text and demonstrate the woman is not a “vixen.” However, I am not always convinced every character in the book is a misunderstood or marginalized woman. Is there really a sermon out there which marginalized Vashti? Are there that many popular preachers who sexualize Ruth’s actions? One other minor quibble: There is far more room in this volume for other New Testament women, Sapphira, Priscilla, and Lydia would have been worthy of a chapter and adding Phoebe to the chapter on Junia would have been welcome.

 

NB: Lynn Cohick’s chapter is excerpted on Kregel’s website and volume editor Sandra Glahn interviewed Carolyn James in December 2017 on the function of Tamar in the Joseph narrative.

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

 

 

 

 

Women in Ministry: 1 Tim 2:11-14

1 Timothy 2:11-14 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

This is an incredibly difficult passage to interpret for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sometimes incendiary rhetoric found in the literature discussing the topic of women in ministry.  And this passage has generated a massive literature.  An excellent introduction to the problems in this text is Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin; Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1995).  The last thing I want to do is step into this firestorm, but since we are moving through the Pauline letters, it is important to at least mention several factors in the debate.

This passage appears to prohibit women from teaching in church or “having authority” over men.  Since these functions are to be carried out by an elder, this passage can be read as a ban on women in the role of Pastor / elder.  On the other hand, if Fee is correct in his assessment of the intention of the Pastoral epistles, then what may be in view is a specific situation in which a woman is a leader of false teachers in the church at Ephesus.  In that case, this text is not a general ban on women in ministry.

In his Systematic Theology, Grudem responds that the context does not seem specific at all, there are no persons mentioned who are teaching, therefore this is a general statement about the problem of women teaching in the church, not a specific ban on a specific woman teaching false doctrine. Grudem also points out that the reason Paul gives is the Fall, and the reversal of gender roles as a result of the fall.  Since the prohibition is tied to such a pivotal text, it should be taken as a general statement.  This is analogous to the use of Genesis 2 in establishing a principle of marriage.  “Men as the leaders of the home” means “men as the leaders of the church.”

Sometimes writers will state that women were not well educated in the ancient world and therefore should be prohibited from teaching.  Once women are allowed to read and are formally trained, there is no reason to prohibit their ordination as pastors. Yet there are several examples of trained women or a command to train women  in the biblical texts (Acts 4:13, 18:26, Romans 16:1, 1 Tim 2:11, Titus 2:3-4).  There were opportunities for women to receive education in the Greco-Roman world.  This strategy is therefore based on an inadequate view of education in the ancient world.

The key word is normally translated “have authority.”  H. Scott Baldwin studeid this word in depth for is article in the Women in the Church volume (“A Difficult Word:  authentew in 1 Timothy 2:12.”)  After surveying the multitude of word studies on aujqentevw , Baldwin argues that the methodology of the studies have been flawed.  We ought to study the verb and the noun separately since there may be a difference in meaning (logos vs. logizomai, for example.) This reduces the database of occurrences to 82, all of which he includes in his article. He then sets up a semantic range for the word, and summarizes his findings in several broad categories.  These categories are then distributed chronologically, so we can see the development of the word from the earliest occurrence (first century through the fourteenth century A.D.)

Baldwin’s conclusions are that the root of the word involves the concept of authority and that the context of 2 Tim 2 makes the idea of “to rule” impossible.  But the ideas of “to dominate or to control” are quite likely.  “To play the tyrant” is possible if we argue Paul is making a hyperbole (which few people do, since it isn’t all that clear that he might be.)  Several possible translations are dismissed simply because the are not in evidence until the late medieval period.  He does note that the verb is intransitive, therefore a translation of “assume authority over” is possible.

Taken along with what Fee says about the purpose of the letter, it is entirely possible then that this difficult text refers to a female leader who has taken control of a congregation.  If she (and her group?) are also the false teachers of 1 Timothy, then it is possible that the order to silence ought to be read as a silencing of a false teacher.