Phoebe: A Story by Paula Gooder
‘An experiment in historical imagination’, part novel and part academic study, which both entertains and informs in the world of early Roman Christianity
Phoebe: A Story
By Paula Gooder
Hodder & Stoughton
Reviewer: Amanda Higgin
In her story, Paula Gooder succeeds in conveying her own professional expertise in Pauline theology, using a form which is accessible, engaging, and enjoyable. It is often only after reading the scenes and conversations which she has produced that you suddenly realise the deep theological truths contained within them. Since Paul is often so difficult to wrap one’s head around, a problem the church has faced at least since 2 Peter 3:16 was written, I strongly recommend the elucidating light shed by reading this book.
Phoebe is not a novel, much as it might look like one. Rather, in Gooder’s own words, ‘This book is an experiment in historical imagination’ (p.224). It invites the reader into the Rome of early Christianity and introduces them to the woman described in Romans 16:1 as ‘our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae’. She has recently arrived in Rome bearing Paul’s letter to the Romans, with instructions to prepare for Paul’s imminent arrival and his onwards mission to Spain. As we know from Acts, however, things do not go as planned, and as the wait stretches onwards Phoebe becomes more involved with the church in Rome, as well as facing up to her own history with the city.
Gooder’s research is thorough and convincing, laid out after the story has finished in 81 pages of notes. The notes are not obscure academic footnotes, but themselves an engaging explanation of the history and theology which lies behind the story. Throwaway comments made in the story are shown to be careful insertions from Gooder’s impressive experience in biblical studies.
To that end, one cannot approach Phoebe expecting a novel, nor an academic treatise. Rather, Gooder has brought the two together into a work of historical imagination which in its own way is neither. In this way she follows in the footsteps of Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean (2010) and Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum (2016), both of which she credits.
Phoebe: A Story is an invitation to imagine your way into the world of Pauline Christianity, and learn more than you expected along the way.
Amanda Higgin is a pastoral assistant at Wallingford Baptist Church, recent Theology graduate and prospective ministerial student